by elfin

Their goodbye was a strangely poignant one. For all his jokes and teasing, Tony really liked the guy, felt a connection to him he hadn't felt with anyone for a long time, not since Rhodey had irrevocably damaged their friendship by stealing his stuff.

He hung on to Bruce's hand longer than was strictly necessary at the airbase, committed the shy but genuine smile to memory and watched as SHIELD's plane swallowed him in its great maul; jaws closing, engine roaring, Hawkeye returning him to India and his old life.

"Don't be lonely," Tony had said. Bruce's sad smile had told him that was inevitable.

The building in New York was still being repaired, so Tony went back to his home in Malibu, tracked the plane's flight and moved one of his satellites in position to keep an eye on the area where Banner had been dropped.

He spent days wandering aimlessly around his lab until finally an idea struck and he lent his not inconsiderable genius to the problem of creating pants that not only expanded but also contracted. For some reason the idea of Bruce waking up nude in a strange place after �Hulking out�, or whatever they were calling it, didn�t sit well with him. It had something to do with vulnerability but he didn�t want to think about it too hard.

Fury dropped in on him, presumably to make sure he wasn't causing trouble or relapsing into his old self-destructive ways. When Tony told him what he was working on, he smiled an annoyingly smug smile and left without a backwards glance.

Rhodey bought pizza and beers one night and while they ate Tony told him about Loki, about Thor and the frozen guy his dad had talked about incessantly for years. He described the terrifying Natasha and how he thought there was some history between her and Clint Barton, even if the guy did come over as possibly having an interest in anything wearing skin-tight leather pants.

"I saw it all over the news," Rhodey said, "was the big green troll you had on your side really the Hulk? I mean, there are stories...."

"His name's Dr Bruce Banner," Tony replied, iron-control in his voice. Rhodey didn't ask about him again.

He had Jarvis tell Steve Rogers that he'd gone back to New York, which was mean given the guy had to fly everywhere using conventional travel.

He was moping, even he knew that, and he didn't want to think about why because the obvious answer was frankly ridiculous. He attended a couple of board meetings at Stark Industries HQ dressed in jeans and the same Black Sabbath t-shirt he'd been wearing aboard SHIELD's aircraft carrier and felt like it meant something.

Pepper came over after the second meeting bringing a dressing down and a thousand papers to sign. Tony opened a bottle of wine and signed everywhere she told him to without a single complaint.

"I'm worried about you," she said for the first time in a while, and he responded by telling her that he really did have to find a replacement CEO. But they both knew he wouldn't ever hand over the company to a stranger and anyway that wasn't the reason for his recent lack of interest. In the company or in her.

Sitting on the big couch in the living room of his hundred million dollar home, a glass of Chateau Lafite Rothschild hanging from his fingers and his head on Pepper's shoulder, he told her about meeting someone he'd always wanted to meet, about finding a kind of soul mate, a man who understood his past and his knowledge, who spoke the same language as he did, a man with a self-effacing sense of humour and a smile that was worth fighting for. And then losing him because he didn�t know how to make him stay.

For a moment or two he thought Pepper might be crying, and he stayed where he was, head down, leaning into her side, because he knew now, irrevocably, there was nothing he could do to put it right. He felt her head turn, and a kiss in his hair.

"I think, Tony," she said with warmth in her voice and a touch of sadness, "you might have fallen in love."


Jarvis woke him at two a.m. "Sir, Shairabad is under attack."

He was suited up and in the air in under ten minutes, patched through to SHEILD before he went sub-orbital. Clint and Natasha were also en-route in someone�s very special plane, but the line was bad and he only caught the words �blue ass genius� which didn�t make much sense but he didn�t care.

"We protect our own, Tony," was all Fury had said when he'd failed to express his surprise at the speed of the deployment. It might have given him the warm and fuzzies had he not been worried into a state of low-level nausea over what might be happening to Bruce Banner right about then.

Flight time was too long and staying at that height put extra stress on the suit and so on him. He snapped at Jarvis for not knowing the guy's exact location when the attack had started. But when he was finally over the area where various sources had assured him Bruce was based, he just felt like having a little weep, there in the suit where no one could see him. Jarvis wouldn�t call him on it.

The town had been levelled, houses were ablaze. As he got closer he could hear the wails of agony from the people on the ground. He circled. Whatever had attacked was long gone. The only question was, had it found what it came for?

"30 degrees east," Jarvis informed him, "half a kilometre."

Tony landed on the wreckage of several wooden homes blown to pieces by a high tech weapon these people hadn't stood a chance against. Someone was after Banner, someone whose approach was more cowardly than Tony could comprehend. Someone had come for his friend and had levelled a town to find him.

"Jarvis! Where?!"

A flashing red dot appeared on the HUD and zooming in he saw, to his heartfelt, almost sickening relief, the body of a man lying naked in the wreckage, heart rate and BP all over the place but alive, definitely alive and definitely Dr Bruce Banner.

Finally reaching him, he dropped one knee next to Bruce's shoulder. He'd taken a battering, but the Hulk had taken the worst and had presumably shrugged it off the way he had done in New York after Loki's invasion. He was bruised, bloodied but still breathing and that was the important detail; the rest would heal given time. He groaned, waking up and what Tony needed to do now was touch; the bad guys were gone, Bruce didn't need Iron Man, he needed Tony Stark.

"Jarvis, get rid of the suit."


"You heard me."

The constant tinkering and upgrading almost always paid off, but this was a huge step forward. The suit unfastened, unzipped and unscrewed, folding back in on itself until it was once again the large capsule it started out as, leaving just the two anchoring bracelets on his wrists and the tiny earpiece through which he heard Jarvis say that the removal was complete.

Banner was awake now, blinking dust from his eyes, trying to sit up in the wreckage. Tony dropped to his knees, helping him with hands on his shoulders, holding on when Bruce fought before realising who was with him.

"Tony? What...?" his voice was raw.

"Someone attacked, we don't know who."

"I...? I did this?"

Tony shook his head but the truth was he didn't know how much damage had been caused by the bad guys and how much had been caused by the inevitable reaction of a man whose alter ego was capable of levelling a city all by himself. He watched tears � exhaustion, terror and shock - fill Bruce's reddened eyes, cutting tracks in the dust and dirt covering his face. Then, miraculously, a little girl in a torn dress was there with a blanket, and he forced a �thank you� out through a closed throat before wrapping Bruce in it and sitting with him in the dirt, gathering him up close, holding him tight while sobs shook him and the tension took its time to leave him.


Something big and loud landed a few hours later.

People from neighbouring areas had arrived and were helping to find survivors under the wreckage and tending to the wounded. Tony had been leading the search with Jarvis� assistance, having stashed Bruce in an undamaged doorway to nervously keep an eye on him every couple of minutes. He wasn�t safe here and Tony wanted nothing more than to evacuate him at the first opportunity.

Natasha took over from him as soon as she hit the ground, telling him SHEILD had sent a second � more conventional - plane with medics and experts aboard. It wasn�t expected for hours.

She stayed while Clint flew Tony and Bruce the 8000 miles back to base.

Clint was tight-tipped about the stunning Blackbird-like plane, he said it belonged to a guy named Xavier but that was all he�d say. Tony should have immediately wanted to know all about him, probably would do once the adrenaline and terror had worn off.

Bruce slept for much of the journey, wiped out and all Tony could do was sit on the floor of the plane next to the cot, holding tightly to one battered hand as much for his own reassurance as for any that Bruce might have needed.

He�d wanted the guy back, but this wasn�t the reunion he�d had in mind.


They took Banner to Medical when the plane landed, Tony flatly refusing to leave his side. He got in the way as they patched him up, tangled himself in the IV line, sat in the darkness at his side and waited for him to wake up again.

Fury dropped by, told Tony that he needed to make Banner stay this time, and when Tony asked him how he was supposed to do that, he just smiled that same smug smile he had done at the house in Malibu and told him he�d think of something.

He thought back to what Pepper had said that night, about him falling in love. He�d only ever once watched another man sleep; Yinsen in Afghanistan, trying to work out how he did it when constant fear had kept Tony awake night after night. But he shifted in the chair so he could see Bruce�s face, and tried to imagine having the guy around permanently, lovers and lab-partners.

There was always the possibility that the idea wasn�t as appealing to Bruce as it felt to him, but he didn�t give that much head space; everyone secretly wanted him. It was why most people hated him, because he confused them. �The best looking asshole I�ve ever known,� was how one guy had referred to him when Tony had thrown him out of a five star hotel room in Vegas at four one Saturday morning. Of course, he might have been talking literally....

Bruce opened his eyes, hints of green around the edges, and that got Tony�s attention very quickly.

�Hey,� he squeezed Bruce�s hand, already hot from the tight grip he�d had on it for hours, �it�s okay, big guy. Everyone�s safe, you can go back to sleep.� For a couple of seconds, the Hulk stared out at him, as if weighing up whether or not Tony could be trusted, deciding he could be and backing off. Bruce blinked and his eyes were his own again, brown irises blown against a bloodshot background. He groaned, then tried to lift his right arm and finding he couldn�t, panicked.

Tony saw the green stain flash through his face, down his neck, across his shoulders, realised his mistake, stood up and dropped his hand like a red hot poker.

�Whoa, hey, just me. You�re not restrained.� Bruce took a deep breath and Tony did too. �It�s just me.� Crisis averted, he sat back down and watched Bruce lift his hands � the good one with an IV stuck in the back of it and the bandaged one with two broken fingers - to his face and rub his eyes.

�Where are we?�

His voice sounded no better than it had out there in the chaos. �SHEILD�s flying death trap. Let me fetch you some water.� By which he meant, let me shout at people until they fetch you some water.

�What happened?�

�I think everyone�s hoping you can remember that bit.�

One of the medics bought in a glass with a straw and Tony took it off him before he got near the bed, scowling until he went away. He tried on his bedside manner to see if it fitted, offering the straw, but Bruce took the glass then struggled to sit his battered body up while batting Tony away when he tried to assist. �Would it kill you to let me help?�

�Possibly.� But he gave up, let Tony have the glass and just put the end of the straw into his mouth. Tony watched him, wondering at how much macho bullshit they could pull when Bruce was obviously in pain and Tony honestly wanted to help because he was still aching from what he�d witnessed, still raw from holding a sobbing man wrapped in a blanket sitting in the middle of so much destruction and death.


�Something... blew up my house.�

Bruce was sitting up now Tony had worked out the bed controls, wearing a SHEILD sweatshirt and sweatpants that someone had scared up, presumably from the merchandising stand that was around somewhere. He looked pale and exhausted, like he needed a good meal and a twenty-four hour nap. Tony was just waiting for the right moment to suggest he went back to Malibu with him for both.

�I don�t know what it was and I don�t remember much of what happened afterwards. Were many people hurt?�

Tony nodded. �Yeah. Sorry.�

�It�s my fault.�

�No, it isn�t.�

�If I hadn�t been there....�

Perfect moment dead ahead. �That�s why you need to stay now.�

Predictably, Bruce shook his head. �It doesn�t matter where I hide, they�ll find me, whoever the hell they are.�

�Then stop hiding. And when they come for you we�ll send a message that you�re not an easy target.�


�You have all the resources of a secret organisation and a billionaire genius at your disposal. Start using them.� Bruce stared at him as if he�d gone insane. More insane. �I am not going to let anyone take you. Got that? To get to you they�re going to have to come through me, us. You�re not an experiment, you�re a fucking human being and you have as much right to be here as the rest of us.� Where the hell had that all come from? �I�m just saying....�

Finally, Bruce smiled. �You think I can just rent an apartment and live like a regular guy?�

�Did I mention the words �regular� and �apartment�? Give me some credit here! I have a huge house in Malibu with rooms I�ve never even seen, and an eighty-storey building in New York with floors to spare. You can pick one, or you can stick with me, be my lab-partner.�

�Is that what they�re calling it now?�

�Hey! Trying to be a friend here!� Laying my heart out on the line. He took a deep breath and said, quietly, �Trying to... tell you something.�

Bruce looked confused and Tony knew he hadn�t got his actual point across, but he�d managed to at least make his offer of accommodation sound genuine, and after another round of pointing out the pros of staying where SHEILD could back them up without having to borrow some reclusive rich guy�s jet and fly several hours around the world to get to them, Bruce finally accepted.


They got the hell out of dodge the next day, hitching a lift to the nearest city and getting Happy to drop his new Acura off so he could drive them the eight hundred miles back to California. Bruce looked like he might finally be relaxing.

Once back in Malibu Tony found a room almost as big as his own and not too far from it and told Bruce it was his now. He gave him access codes to the locked-down parts of the house and a credit card he assured him was connected to a bank account set up by SHEILD in his name. They were on retainer for Fury�s Top Secret organisation and Tony had made damn sure they were being paid. Not that he needed the money, but Bruce did. For a start he needed a new wardrobe, and not just pants made out of the material Tony had basically invented during the months he�d been alone and pining.

He introduced him to Jarvis, told Jarvis that Bruce was to treated as an extension of Tony; he was to be looked after and looked out for with the same level of paranoia and over-protectiveness Jarvis had always reserved for Tony himself.

He introduced him to Rhodey when he dropped by one afternoon, and maybe he wasn�t what Rhodey had imagined he would be, because he looked faintly disappointed as he shook Bruce�s hand. Tony got rid of him quicker than he might otherwise have done. Bruce had noticed, of course, carrying on and pretending like it didn�t hurt every time someone dismissed him as a no one, or a failed scientist, or a mindless beast. He carried on working, focused on the formulas and calculations he had up on the screens around Tony�s desk, while Tony fiddled with the engine in his Dad�s car, trying to improve it, to make it go faster when in reality it never left the garage.

Finally he picked up a rag and wiped the oil from his hands, approaching the desk, walking as nonchalantly as he could as if his heart wasn�t running a race.

�You�re brilliant,� he said, �you do know that, don�t you?� Bruce�s expression remained locked into that same serene smile Tony had very quickly learnt was his default position, hiding everything behind its mask. He tried something else. �I missed you, when you left. I know we weren�t together long, but....�

The smile changed slightly, like Bruce was recognising a joke. �We weren�t �together� at all.�

Tony leaned on the desk, brushing the virtual screens to one side, getting in his face. �We could have been.�

His smile slipped entirely, but rather than amusement, repulsion, arousal, outright disbelief, rather than any of the reactions Tony might have expected, he just looked completely surprised, as if the idea had never crossed even the darkest recesses of his mind.

�You... you want to... with me?�

�You don�t want to with me?�

�You�re... you. And I�m me.�

�Good observations so far.�

�You can have anyone, and probably have had everyone you�ve ever wanted.�

He leaned closer, close enough that he could see green specks in the brown eyes and could feel Bruce�s breath against his face. �Sounds promising....�

�You want me?�

Tony ducked his head and tried his luck, touching to Bruce�s lips what was possibly the most chaste kiss he�d ever given anyone. �I want you,� he murmured.


�Because you�re so intelligent it makes me hard just talking to you. You�re so gorgeous I�ve been getting off just thinking about you watching me. And I�m fucking crazy about you.�

He kissed him again, licking his lips, and to his abject relief and flaring arousal, Bruce opened his mouth and met him half-way, melting into him. Jesus, it was perfect; fingers in his hair, fingernails raking over his scalp, hot palm at the back of his neck.

Bruce broke away, with Tony trying to follow over the desk. �Hey, remember the other guy?�

�Ummm.� Tony thought Pepper might be right, he might be in love, because in the past kissing had been nothing but foreplay, a prelude to sex. That afternoon it became something else, something more, something Tony decided he wanted to do a lot more of. �We�ll take it slow.� Then he was up on the desk, swinging his legs over, hands settling on Bruce�s shoulders, drawing him closer.

�How much frustration do you think you can deal with?� he murmured, but with his mouth working its way down Tony�s throat it didn�t have the sting it might otherwise have held. He licked the neckline of Tony�s Rock Anthems T-shirt, and Tony was only half-sure he wasn�t about to come just from that.

�I don�t care.� He wrapped one arm around Bruce�s shoulders and spread his fingers up through his hair. �You�re worth it. Christ, you�re worth it all.� Bruce pulled back slightly, looking at him as if trying to find the lie in his eyes. �Pepper thinks I�m in love with you,� he told him. �Fury thinks that too. I think.� Bruce didn�t ask if he was or not, maybe he didn�t want to know in the same way that Tony didn�t. It was enough that maybe he was. �Can we get naked? I really want to be naked with you.�

Bruce smiled and wrapped a reciprocal arm around Tony�s waist. �What was that about taking it slow?�


If he hadn�t been feeling like the luckiest guy alive, Fury�s smug expression would have been a good enough excuse to punch him, or at least to try. But by the time they got back to New York any possibility of keeping the thing between them a secret was long gone.

�You�re grinning like a couple of prom queens,� Fury pointed out from the couch in the newly redecorated living room at the top of the newly remodelled Stark Towers. Tony handed him a scotch and flipped him the bird.

�The sugar rush is setting my teeth on edge,� Clint added, but one glance from Bruce � one pointed and definitely suggestive glance from Bruce that could have been interpreted as �don�t pretend you wouldn�t join us if we asked you to� and made Tony indescribably proud � shut him up.

Steve didn�t say a word, and Tony left interpreting that for later when he wasn�t high on this new thing in his life.

Instead he dropped into the loveseat, hooked one leg across Bruce�s thighs and asked, �So what now?�

One eye settled on him. �I think that�s for the two of you to sort out in private.� Tony wished he had something at hand to throw until Bruce�s hands started to rub his leg through his jeans, then he didn�t care. He just wriggled closer until he could drop his head against his lover�s shoulder and stare Fury into backing down, which he did eventually, surprisingly. �Fine. We have work to do, if you two can prise yourselves apart long enough.�

�I doubt it,� Tony shot back. �No solo missions, Elle Driver.�


�Look at it this way, there�s something to be said for having the most unstable of us in a stable relationship. It might keep bad things from happening; keep the destruction levels down and the tantrums at a minimum.� Clint was nodding, off to one side, while Tony smiled what he hoped was his dopiest smile at the man who knew him best, who was already gazing at him with adoration in his eyes. �And it might be good for the Hulk too.�