Summary: Dr Stark and Dr Banner had known one another prior to the meeting on the helicarrier. And not just biblically. Neither of them is a good man, but that's a part of the attraction.
Disclaimer: I don't own anything the Marvel owns. And I still don't get paid for writing fanfiction.
Warnings: slash, sexual situations (for not being straight up porn they get kind of explicit), a bit of dominance games, violence, infidelity, past abusive relationship (physically and mentally abusive, not sexually), mentions of torture, referenced murder, alcohol abuse, addiction, depression, arguably sociopathic Tony, implied brainwashing, unreliable narrator
There is no noncon or dubcon in this story; however, there are moments that look like dubcon. The consent is not clearly negotiated, but the people have known one another for years and trust each other. No one is hurt. It's just not exactly safe or sane. (Don't do this at home.)
A/N: Please read the warnings. This is not an easy story about happy, healthy people.
Tony will seem unjustly overcritical and unforgiving (and blatantly hypocritical), but having known people who had been badly betrayed and hurt, I know for a fact that this is a realistic portrayal. If anything, Tony's willing to give more chances than could be expected of him. He doesn't much resemble the movie-canon Tony, but I think he is reasonably authentic in his own way.
Now that I think of it, the same goes for the other characters. Except Steve. Steve is MCU all the way.
I built the story mostly around the 2012 Avengers movie, so you may recognise bits of dialogue, but I wasn't interested in rewriting the script, so it's generally abridged and occasionally tweaked.
Chapter One: Long Time No See
Romanov was actually perceptive enough to notice that Tony took Rogers' obnoxiousness as a challenge, so she herded Captain Permafrost away before either of them could get really competitive.
Tony congratulated himself on that, because while Rogers was thick enough to remain oblivious to everything that wasn't the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Romanov had been on the verge of noticing.
It took one compliment, one teasing one-liner and one handshake, and the conference room on Fury's flying contraption of doom as good as buzzed with tension.
"Dr Banner," Coulson said, too tense himself to be as observant as usual, "I'll take you to the lab we have cleared for you."
Whatever Barton was to Coulson, it made Coulson stupid. It was disappointing to watch. Tony had thought that the Agent was like Pepper – but no, the world once again confirmed that Pepper was one of a kind.
"I'm not attracted to you anymore," Tony told the man with all sincerity – and didn't even get an eyeroll in response.
Coulson just straight up ignored him. "I am in charge of coordinating this mission, so provide me with a list of what you need. The TSS weren't quite certain what sort of monitoring equipment you would require, but they have prepared a-"
"Dr Stark," Banner said quietly, more under Coulson's monologue than over it, and yet stopping the avalanche of words more effectively than if he had shouted, "may I have a moment of your time? Could we have a conversation in private? I'll understand if you'd rather not-"
"C'mon, Dr Banner." Tony spun on his heel and walked down the corridor with the confidence of a man that had memorized the blueprints of the aircraft he was on, and who knew he would be followed. He was a little surprised that Banner managed to somehow shake off Coulson in the process – and impressed, too. Coulson was like a pit bull when he wanted something.
Apparently, his jaws were too busy holding onto the idea of rescuing Barton to properly bite down onto anything else.
Tony found an unoccupied room, disconnected the security camera and smirked as soon as the door was closed behind Banner. "I don't remember you being this self-effacing, Robert."
"Tony- Dr Stark-"
"Tony," he confirmed. Without asking permission from his brain, his smirk grew into a grin.
"Tony," Banner repeated, shoulders hunched and eyes trained onto his – frankly appalling – footwear, "I just wanted to say how terribly sorry I am. I know I don't have a right to ask you to forgive me, but I truly regret how I treated you when- back then. It was unconscionable, and I am so asham-"
"Alright, stop before I break out in hives." Tony raised his hands, palms out, and waited until Banner did him the courtesy of meeting his eye.
Tony didn't usually spend a lot of time looking people in the eye, too busy searching for other cues (were they scared? were they lying? were they trying to get into his bed? did they want to kill him?), but Banner's peepers were some of his most favorite to this day. To be fair, he probably hadn't had so much eye-contact during sex with anybody else, ever… on the other hand, that might have been a side-effect of all the – cough – chemical experiments they used to engage in. It was hard to tell after such a long time.
"I've…" Banner rubbed his fists against his upper arms in a weird, probably painful self-hug. "It sounds trite, but I have changed. This entire – situation – made it pretty much a necessity. And I know it's too little, too late-"
Tony laughed into his face. "C'mon, Doc. You're acting like I was some fragile little girl you beat on."
"I was a bastard," Tony assured him. "I could defend myself. I took out my own pound of flesh. And, frankly, you were only one in my long string of abusive relationships. Before I gave up on the idea of relationships altogether."
"So you've said." Now Tony was bored of this line of conversation. Could they go back to the physics behind Selvig's machine post haste? He waved his hand; poked at Banner's shoulder; moved around the room to shake off the claustrophobia of this discussion. "And I'm telling you, it's fine. You say you're a different person now – fine by me. I'll have to get to know the new guy. Clean slate."
"That's too magnanimous," Banner protested, but the effort was lackluster at best. Clearly, he genuinely wanted to be forgiven.
That was novel. The Banner whom Tony remembered mostly just wanted to be punished. Forgiveness had never really factored into it.
"But?" Tony inquired, quirking his eyebrows.
"Thank you, Tony," Banner replied earnestly. An unfamiliar expression formed in between the lines of his mouth and the tightening in the corners of his eyes. It almost looked like – holy shit! – a smile. An actual smile.
Banner wasn't kidding when he said he was a different person, was he.
Tony nodded and clapped, mentally closing the topic. He was ready to get to the next salient point. "Great. Wanna have sex?"
He was rewarded with a bout of shocked laughter. "God, you haven't changed a whole lot, have you?"
Tony shrugged. If where he was, what he was doing and how he had gotten to this place weren't sufficient evidence of change, he'd just wait for Banner to meet the Iron Man. That usually gave people enough of a pause to rethink taking Tony at face value.
"More than is readily apparent," he said. "But I did mean the question." He raised his eyebrows.
"You don't," Banner mumbled, hanging his head and hunching his shoulders again. "The other guy-"
"Oh, now that sounds like a challenge." Tony frankly thought it sounded like a load of bullshit – but, as opposed to the past Tony whom Banner had known, he occasionally cared enough to censor himself. "In the meantime, let's go show these catsuited losers how to save the world."
A handful of hours into his coding spree, Tony was brought out of the zone by the angry growl of a stomach. Bemused, he looked down at his belly.
No, that wasn't it. He reached out for his coffee cup – paper, of all things – and discovered that it was empty.
When he looked over, Banner was making a sheepish expression at him. Tony rubbed his eyes and looked again. Nope, Banner's face was still doing the weird thing.
"So," he said, tracking that odd expression as Banner moved around the room, "this band of incompetents need us to do their work for them, but they don't even bother to provide any catering."
Banner's face finally reconfigured itself into something more familiar, and thus far less disconcerting – impotent rage. "Kidnappers usually don't bother with catering."
Tony relaxed. "A great point to raise with my army of lawyers, Shaun the Sheep. In the meantime, you're hungry and I've got a craving for Italian. Jarvis-"
"With respect, sir," Jay's voice said from Tony's laptop, since they were still pretending that the A.I. hadn't completely infiltrated SHIELD's servers, "even if I found a restaurant that delivers this far, the Helicarrier's security protocols-"
"Way to be a downer, Jay," Tony grumbled. A glance at Banner confirmed that the man was pretending not to be in the room while making middling progress on the tracking program. "I'd pop out in the armour, but…"
"I know, sir," JARVIS agreed with mocking sympathy.
"Work, work, work…" Tony pushed himself away from the desk. "Save our progress, buddy, and lock out all these nosy parkers. Intellectual property and all that jazz. Banner, you're mine-"
This finally made Banner turn to Tony, but he was too slow to protest.
"-by which I mean, you're working for me, so your work is my work and not SHIELD's work. Everybody clear on that?" Tony looked toward the corner of the room, where one of the security cameras was mounted. "Spiffy. Jay, have Pep send me a contract for Banner to sign, so we can make it all legal. Hop to it."
"Hopping, sir," confirmed the A.I. "My condolences, Dr Banner."
Tony tsk-ed at his virtual butler, and then pulled Banner from the room by his sleeve, which was always a risk. Banner seemed to have meant it seriously about him having changed, because Tony wasn't immediately a recipient of a pointy elbow to a soft part or a hand tightening around his throat.
He wasn't yet sure if he liked this change, but that wasn't important at the moment. Finding the lunchroom took precedent.
By the time they arrived at the mess, Banner had somehow acquired a bunch of folders stamped 'CONFIDENTIAL' on the outside. Tony hadn't seen him do it, and they hadn't met a whole lot of people along the way – he was torn between feeling disconcerted and deeply impressed.
They stood side by side in front of the counter and surveyed their dietary options. It wasn't quite slops – except the honest to god oatmeal that apparently was one of the breakfast options – but by Tony's standards none of it even neared palatability. And this was coming from a man that had once survived a couple of months on green goop smoothies.
He wasn't touching on the cave in the desert thing, but, hey, even those Ten Rings fuckers knew that if you wanted good work out of somebody, you had to feed them.
Banner's experience with the depths of culinary failure was, naturally, far broader, so he ended up leading the charge (spurred by his grumbling gut). Who even knew when the guy had eaten last before SHIELD grabbed him in India?
He picked a couple of sad excuses for a sandwich and one of those teas made of poly(vinyl chloride) and emulsions. With the files wedged between his upper arm and his ribs he looked like a scoliotic penguin as he carried his tray to a free table. The agents milling and sitting around noticed, and a few found it profoundly amusing. One young man nearly busted a gut.
Tony didn't bother with a tray. He grabbed two sandwiches of his own – going by the logic that a guy as experienced with scavenging as Banner had to be would have good instincts regarding what was eatable – and an energy drink. He slipped a chocolate bar into his pocket, and hoped that his animal heat wouldn't melt it completely.
He dropped into an aluminum-and-bakelite chair next to Banner. "Fury should fire his interior designer."
"I don't know," Banner quipped, one corner of mouth raised in an almost familiar smirk-grin. "I like the juxtaposition of the Art Deco against the futurism. Very existentialist."
"Exactly what you want to convey on a secret flying aircraft carrier full of spies and assassins." Putting aside the incongruently cheap feel of his current surroundings, Tony felt that futurism automatically created a juxtaposition against the environment of the present – that was the point.
Banner was just winding him up. Maybe he didn't want Tony to focus on his bounty.
"Interesting reading?" Tony inquired, taking a bite of his sandwich. It wasn't half as disgusting as he feared it would be.
Banner finished eviscerating his own food. Four floppy pink not-quite-circles of something that wasn't ham, no matter how hard it pretended, gathered at the edge of his tray. "Eat."
Tony moved to pinch Banner's thigh before he realized what he was doing. He used to do that, back then. A lot. Every time Banner would grab him too hard, press on bruises, try to order him or say something especially cutting, Tony reacted by pretending complacency and getting his revenge unnoticed under the cover of the tabletop or just their bodies. The thigh was easiest, but not always his preferred target.
On one memorable occasion Tony had managed to pinch the skin of Banner's balls without anyone watching being any wiser. He had paid for that one later with a sprained wrist, but in hindsight it had been worth it.
Here, however, in the middle of SHIELD's mess hall, surrounded by a bunch of sneaky, government-sanctioned stalkers, Tony had only gone for the thigh, and even then Banner dodged. And scowled, fiercely enough that there was some commotion behind Tony's back that sounded a lot like several jumpy G-men going for their guns.
"Eat," Banner ordered.
Tony's fingers spasmed with the need to administer a retaliatory pinch, but he managed to tamp down the urge. He ate.
So did Banner. They made it through their pathetic facsimile of a meal in relative silence.
Afterwards Banner made some sounds about cleaning their table, like he'd forgotten that Tony was Tony Stark, and he didn't bus. He stood there and radiated impatience while Banner went to dispose of his tray and then came back, winding among the chairs and the people with ease that betrayed his skill at navigating a crowd.
Coupled with his exceptional situational awareness it couldn't have been a coincidence when an agent stood up from his seat and unwittingly backed directly into Banner. Banner let his folders scatter over the floor – on purpose, Tony didn't doubt.
The agent (the one with the braying laugh and the nearly-busted gut) and his two buddies leapt to help gather the papers, in a flurry of apologies from both sides. Tony only saw what happened because he had been watching closely, and because he knew Banner.
"It's okay," Banner was reassuring the wary SHIELD toadies, who seemed to expect him to hulk out for being bumped into, "I should have been paying attention. Thank you. I'll just be…" He gestured toward Tony, looking supremely awkward. "Right. So, uh… bye."
Tony remained silent about the performance until they were safely out of sight and earshot. The staircase hatch fell shut behind them with a clang.
"What did you put into his glass?" Tony asked.
Banner blinked at him, looking the very picture of innocence, which was just alarming. "What…?"
Tony grabbed him by his free hand, spun him around and pushed him up against the wall. He held Banner's wrist in his fingers, pressed to the cool metal plate at shoulder level. He could do all this because Banner was barely taller – that had always been one of the things Tony appreciated about him – and damn near skeletal.
"What," Tony repeated into the man's face, "did you put into that kid's glass?"
In this position he was hiding Banner's face from the security cameras and at the same time close enough to hear the whispered answer: "Magnesium citrate."
"That will teach him to watch where he's going."
"More likely he'll just go wherever he is," Tony pointed out. Busted gut. That was hilarious. His free arm came around Banner's waist and pushed them together at the groin. He pressed his lips to Banner's throat. "I fucking missed you."
Banner didn't exactly relax into the hold, but the underlying current of barely restricted violence switched off. He sighed. "We really need to get back to work."
Working with Banner became oddly painful. And not in any of the obvious, expected ways.
Once Banner stopped pussyfooting about his input and they re-discovered their communications frequency, it was like an out-of-body experience. They were locked in the lab, figuring out alien power sources and guzzling terrible Company ersatz coffee, and Tony spent the time in a state of mild arousal – and aware that there was a deadline on this feeling rapidly approaching.
Poking at Banner only got Tony a patronizing brush-off and nearly sparked one of their patented lovers' spats; good thing Rogers insinuated himself into that situation with his aspersions on Tony's sanity, or else there would have been property damage in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"Threatening the safety of everyone on this ship isn't funny!" Rogers blustered. Then he noticed that on his mission to take Tony down a peg he had actually insulted the very person whose tender feelings he was trying to protect.
It kind of was, though, Tony thought. It was funny. And Rogers was funny, too, with his blue-spandexed ass – more like a displaced video game character than an actual World War II veteran.
And maybe Tony shouldn't have underestimated him, but after that Wizard of Oz moment on the Bridge nobody could be expected to take this guy seriously.
Still, saying anything about breaking into all of SHIELD's secure files straight to Rogers' face wasn't one of Tony's better moments.
Captain Bewildered gaped at him. "Did you just say…?"
Banner sighed and appropriated Tony's packet of blueberries, like he was protecting them from becoming collateral in the ensuing throwdown.
"Jarvis has been running it since I hit the Bridge," Tony replied defiantly. "In a few hours we'll know every dirty secret SHIELD's been hiding-"
"I see why they don't want you around," Rogers concluded, all offended dignity.
Tony snorted. "On the way from the mess hall to here I counted eleven breeches of patent law. This carrier is stuffed with my proprietary tech, and this time I actually know for certain S.I. didn't sell it to SHIELD."
Banner gave him a look that an untrained observed would have interpreted as 'really, Tony?' when in fact what it was conveying came closer to 'so you haven't actually drunk away too many brain cells, huh?'.
"You're on a boat full of liars and thieves and murderers, Cap, and this one for all, all for one mentality you've got is cute in a movie, but in real life just makes you look like an idiot."
Rogers didn't quite flinch, but it was plain to see that Tony had hit him where it hurt.
It didn't come as much of a surprise: the guy had been trying to soak up seventy years of stuff happening as fast as possible, while his only access to information was SHIELD itself. Of course he would be constantly feeling stupid and ignorant and unsure of what to believe.
Too bad he was already this indoctrinated.
"Steve," Banner implored, "doesn't any of this smell funky to you?" He didn't even resemble himself. Just like he had turned into a strange, timid guy in the mess, he had now become the same brand of reluctantly sympathetic as Romanov's working persona.
Tony could have listed half a dozen cues Banner had copied from the woman's act. It was beautiful.
"Just find the cube," Rogers ground out, and took his leave.
Tony and Banner stood side by side, watching the spandex-encased ass until the door fell shut behind it. Then Banner wrested the prod from Tony's hand in one deft movement, jabbed him in the ribs-
-and flung it into the wall hard enough to shatter it.
He turned away, planted his palms on the countertop and focused on breathing.
Tony didn't talk. He wasn't sure how he managed, but he just waited, absently counting the dried blueberries spilt on the floor under their feet.
"Your observational skill hasn't really diminished," Banner said softly.
Tony stepped up to him, chest almost touching Banner's back, and tried to gauge the sheer explosive potential of the power coiled inside the man's body. It was heady. "I'm more sober than I've been in a while-"
"And hypervigilant," Banner cut him off, turning and pushing Tony away from himself. "I know a little bit about that these days. Come on."
"Come on where?" Tony inquired, all the more nervous for the certainty that right at this moment, he was ready to follow Banner nearly anywhere.
"You wanted to see what Fury's hiding?" Banner stuck his hand into his back pocket and pulled out an access card. There was a photo on it, so Tony knew the owner wouldn't need it for a few hours yet, due to diarrhea.
"You can't be actually surprised, Stark. I taught this to you-"
"Are you kidding me?" Tony blurted. "I'm just basking in the hotness. I need you to fuck me now." He hadn't meant to say that, but he absolutely meant what he said. The low-key arousal he had been battling for hours peaked all of sudden, and Tony was ready to pull off his clothes and climb Banner. Literally.
"Serious, Banner," Tony babbled, reaching out with hands first and then his mouth, pressing insistent kisses to the man's jaw and biting at his lips, "I'm serious; I seriously need you to fuck me, right here, right now-"
-aaand he was sitting on the edge of the counter, bare-assed since his pants had mysteriously disappeared while he was otherwise preoccupied and glad that every single set of his clothes came to him pre-loaded with indispensable paraphernalia, so he could now magick up a condom and pass it to Banner.
"Don't we need to have like, tantric sex or something? I've heard this rumor about how you've got to watch your pulse rate, and let's be honest, I may be a bit of a size queen, but there are limits-"
"Now you worry about that?" Banner asked ironically. That little smirk did things to Tony's insides.
Come to think of it, Banner's fingers were also doing things to Tony's insides. Tony's breath caught, and he clenched his teeth to keep any embarrassing noises unvoiced.
Banner knew him too well, though. He still remembered the right twist, could read the tendons in Tony's throat, knew exactly what he was doing when he let out that little superior chuckle.
"Oh, fuck, Robert-"
A growl and a harsh push down onto the counter made Tony open his eyes. Banner was leaning over him, smirk replaced with a sneer. The hand on Tony's stomach was damn sure going to leave a bruise.
"Don't," Banner snarled, "call me that."
"Your eyes are green," Tony pointed out, and came.
They stared at one another for a while; the green leaked away from Banner's irises. Then his eyebrows rose. "Did you seriously just-"
"Yes, yes, fine, I went off like a fucking teenager, sorry not sorry – have you seen yourself?"
Banner correctly interpreted this as a compliment, but it didn't seem to have won Tony any brownie points.
"You begged me to fuck you," he said, and with a judo move or something flipped Tony over onto his front, without apparent care that the edge of the arc reactor clanged against the counter and it smarted like a bitch.
It did give him unrestrained access to Tony's ass, of which he took full advantage.
In the wake of the stellar rogering he received, Tony took a short nap, then drank another cup of SHIELD's crime against coffee, and felt more than ready to get back to work.
He loved how they didn't need to talk about it, aside from Banner's "Better now?" delivered with a quick grin, and Tony's heartfelt yet over the top "Mi pare di rivivere," which Banner predictably laughed off.
Rogers didn't come back and, apparently, he hadn't tattled either, because no SHIELD flunkies turned up to take Tony in for questioning.
"Say when, boysenberry," Tony said once the program was polished to his satisfaction.
"I think I've got it isolated," Banner replied, and slid over a tablet.
JARVIS helpfully rendered the functions graphically. Tony, whose expertise was still only about thirty hours old, found nothing to argue with.
"We ready, Jay?" Tony inquired.
"Set," replied the A.I.
"Go," concluded Banner, exhibiting yet another of the little facets Tony used to adore about him – the ability to take Tony's life as his, to integrate himself so seamlessly that Tony was never left adrift with the nebulous notion of having fucked up but no concrete idea about how.
"Locked," JARVIS confirmed.
"We have a few hours," Banner concluded. "I'm ready to crash-"
"Are you?" inquired Tony. He didn't think so. He knew they should try to sleep, that most likely something big was coming that they would need to be battle-ready for, but right at this moment he didn't want to close his eyes and fall unconscious.
Maybe it was that awareness of the deadline approaching, but he wanted to enjoy his allotment of Banner-time to the fullest. Also, there was the matter of the access card in Banner's pocket and the phantom menace of SHIELD fucking around with Hydra tech.
Besides, in a place where the hosts didn't bother with catering, he didn't expect there would be accommodations provided.
"I've got something for you," Tony said, surprising himself. Yet another of those spur of the moment decisions, but Banner had crashed back into his life like a fucking wrecking ball of a green rage monster, and Tony was only now beginning to remember that he used to have walls built around himself. He didn't even care – although that was probably down to the postcoital brain chemistry.
He tasked JARVIS with keeping watch (it wouldn't do to have Rogers come back in the middle of the presentation) and out of the inner pocket of his jacket pulled out a small cassette. There were lines of tiny cylinders inside, numbered 33 to 64, and a remote control. He proudly presented it to Banner.
"I call them fuse-blowers," Tony explained. "I mean, they usually just give enough of a jolt to fry some electronics, but pick your device well and you can turn off a block, right?"
"Maybe not on a flying chunk of metal," Banner pointed out dryly.
"Ah, but that's the challenge of it. The engineering of the carrier is – and this is me saying it – pretty fucking solid, so you won't accidentally blow us out of the sky. But you could, say, black-out somebody's office."
"Didn't I hear Fury cursing the techs a while ago?" Banner inquired rhetorically. He put on his glasses and examined one of the FBs up close and personal.
Tony knew he already had him. "I thought it'd be unfair if I kept all the fun to myself. Look at me, sharing. Like a grown up, almost." He didn't say 'I probably won't see you again for years, if ever'. He didn't say 'this is all I have on me aside from my phone and my credit card, and neither of those will do you any good when you go on a run again'.
Banner huffed, like he was smothering a snort. He replaced the FB in the case and slipped the whole set into the pocket of his jacket. "Let's find a place to snooze for a couple of hours."
Tony reached out to pinch his side, got his fingers smacked, and complied.
They never had the chance to use the pinched access card; things went to shit faster than Tony expected.
It was ironic. When Tony was giving Banner the FBs, he had honestly expected not to see the man again because Banner would go ghost.
Not because Tony would blow himself up in space with a SHIELD-issued nuke.
He hoped Banner would get away.
The Hulk roared.
Tony, unexpectedly, woke up. There was a huge green face looking down at him, although, to be fair, Tony wouldn't really describe that mug as a 'rage-monster'. Annoyed? Absolutely. Monster? Maybe if they were talking about the big guy's dick. Honestly, the most terrifying aspect of this situation was that Tony's temporarily suspended self-preservation instinct sort of came flooding back all at once, and he was suddenly retroactively terrified.
"D-did you kiss me?" he inquired hoarsely. And coughed. And trembled inside the armor like a virgin bride on her wedding night.
The Hulk roared again. Then he shrunk into Banner – just like that, in the middle of the street. The rags of his pants fell victim to hysteresis and flopped down to the rubble covering the pavement.
Tony blinked. And stared. Ogled, actually. Good thing that neither he nor Banner had much shame left. "Oh, wow. Maybe I am actually dead. I could dig this paradise thing. Fig leaves strictly prohibited."
Rogers – somewhere off to the side, but who cared, really? – let out a pained sound.
Banner laughed, in that mean way that he sometimes laughed just before he hauled off and put his fist through somebody's face. Tony hoped it wouldn't be him, because ow – and also Hulk, so much ow.
"Up," Bruce ordered. "Unless… Turtle?"
"Excuse you!" Tony huffed, and lifted himself up to a sitting position. "Ow. I'd totally take this off and go streaking with you, Robert, but I've got this piece of tech in my chest that I don't want people to see. Or, you know, photograph." He ignored the hand Captain Stick-up-the-ass was offering him and laboriously clambered to his feet. "Jay, can we disassemble and reassemble, or do I need to extradimensional-portal-proof my armors better?"
"You are a credit to your species, sir," JARVIS replied with a weary sigh. "Reassembly not recommended, but barring undetected problems possible. Please come directly back to the Tower – Mark Seven was not ready-"
"Running, baby," Tony cut in. "Full tilt. Help me take this off."
JARVIS did, keeping his protests unvoiced, because he and Tony both knew what he would have said, and Jay was wily enough to figure out that the less he gave Tony to protest against, the less Tony protested.
Tony took off his jeans and handed them to Banner. Captain Repressed gaped at him like Tony had spontaneously grown another head, and then turned red, as if Tony in boxer-briefs was somehow a more scandalous sight than Banner in the buff – which almost, owing to the pretty obvious bite marks on Tony's thighs, but also no. Fortunately the guy stopped blushing and spared himself the coronary after Tony reassembled his armor.
Banner had put on Tony's jeans, and was now holding them up with one hand. Not that Tony was anything even approaching stocky, but he had been relatively healthy lately, and Banner was thin as a damn rake. Or, Tony thought it was rake. Were rakes thin?
You could cut yourself on Banner's hipbones, was his point. He gave it another couple of thoughts. It sounded like a plan for the evening.
"Sir," JARVIS interrupted his daydream, "Agents Romanov and Barton are guarding Loki in the penthouse of the Tower and expecting extraction. Perhaps Captain Rogers would like to join them?"
"You got a lift, Cap?" Tony asked and, because he was actually a genius – concussed genius, but details – he didn't wait for an answer. "Toddle along. You can get back to your minders with the rest of SHIELD's… flying monkeys."
"He understood that reference," Tony stage whispered to Banner.
"Chop, chop," Tony cut the Cap off. "Unless you need medevac? Say the word, gramps, and Jarvis will get you an ambulance of your own. I'll spring for a stripper nurse, costume and all. Wait, do ambulances have stripper poles-?"
"I'd blame it on the concussion," Banner remarked, moving alongside Tony at a slow enough pace to accommodate the ambling Captain, "but that's honestly just how his brain works."
"How can you…" Rogers rubbed his face, smearing concrete-dust mixed with sweat all over it. "No offense-"
Which in itself was offensive, Tony thought.
"-but Mr Stark has no business compromising national security. I am grateful for what you have done here – I honestly did not expect you to be that kind of a man – but we won because we worked as a team. It was not solely your credit. Can't you ever acknowledge other people's efforts?"
Huh, sounded like the Captain had a bee in his be-winged cowl. And a chip on his massive, well-formed shoulder to rival Tony's own.
"I guess that's the best I can expect," Tony said to Banner, mock-confidentially.
Banner shrugged. "It's better than what I can expect. How long do you think it'll take them to replace the Cage?"
"Knowing Fury?" Tony would have shrugged, but the armor was in the way. "A couple days."
"Too bad Loki got out," Banner lamented. "I had an FB in the controller."
Tony blinked. "Me too."
Whatever opinion Rogers might have voiced was lost in the background as Tony met Banner's eye and their gazes locked.
Fury had said (and the schematics had confirmed) that if power went out for whatever reason, the whole Cage would have been automatically ejected. Tony really had been amused by the idea of randomly dropping Robin Goodfellow from thirty thousand feet height by flicking a switch.
Then he thought about who else might be locked in that fishbowl of doom, and promptly created a method of sabotaging it at a moment's notice.
Knowing that Banner had gone down the same path – it was uncomfortable. Somehow Tony had managed to forget why he had been so fucked in the head over this man, but it was all coming back. Celine knew what the hell she was singing about.
"…swear to you I'll call you the very second he-"
"Hi, Happy," Tony said over the familiar, harangued voice.
Happy Hogan spun on his heel in the middle of the surprisingly intact lobby of the Stark Tower and gaped at the trio consisting of Tony and his busted up armor, Banner who wore nothing but Tony's jeans that he had to manually help stay on, and Captain America in his Fullspandex Glory.
"He's alive," Happy said into his phone. "No, no, I mean, I'm actually looking at him right now. He's definitely alive." He flinched. "Yes, Miss Potts." He extended his hand with the phone to Tony, wearing an expression that clearly said 'better you than me'.
"Finally alone!" Tony exclaimed, and flopped onto a couch. "Now that the kids are gone, however shall we entertain ourselves?"
It wasn't his preferred couch, but the penthouse was kind of drafty thanks to Loki's penchant for defenestration, and Tony didn't feel entirely comfortable with the reminder of how many times he had nearly died today.
That wasn't even mentioning Banner's creepy, creepy reaction when he saw the hole in the floor.
Tony hadn't ever before seen Banner go completely, sociopathically blank – like full 'lights on, nobody home' – not even when he had been hopped up and the switch went flick. Tony used to call that weird in-episode version the 'Bizarro Banner', which Banner had hated, even if not enough to actually have it trigger an episode by itself. Still, Robert Banner with his inhibitions turned off might have looked like he was stoned (until he started swinging his fists) but he hadn't gone full-on fugue state.
The blankness was a facet of this new not-Robert guy, and it gave Tony the willies. He had promptly relocated them both a floor down.
"Sleep?" Banner suggested wearily.
Tony could get with that. "Food, though. And booze. All the booze-"
"No," Banner snapped.
"I'm not okay with this," Tony protested almost calmly. He knew himself well enough to expect screaming nightmares tonight, but to even get to that stage he was going to need some serious chemical aid.
He was going to make himself literally sick with stress if he didn't take the edge off. That used to be bad enough on its own – now that the arc reactor worsened every discomfort his body threw at him, the mere idea of vomiting made his chest ache.
"I can't drink," Banner stated definitively.
Okay, Tony had been mostly joking with the bag of weed allusion, but in hindsight it sounded stupid. No mind-altering substances for the man who was keeping his Id tightly locked down to prevent staggering property damage. Cool.
"I can't not drink," he pointed out. It was specious, but not untruthful. Also, he saw a simple solution to the conundrum. "So, I'll drink and you won't and everyone will be happy?"
Except not, because Robert didn't like it when Tony got drunk. Bad memories. A few of the bruises Tony had acquired (and one broken rib) had been Robert waking up from a nightmare and reflexively fighting against his father, because his nose had confused Tony for that shitbucket.
"If you do, I'm not sleeping with you," Banner concluded. "I can't. If I change…"
Tony nodded. "Separate beds. Or, a couch and a bed. Out of the danger zone." Then, uncomfortable with how desperately earnest he sounded, he added: "Don't leave."
Thought about it.
Then he crossed the room and unmistakably picked the door to Tony's private kitchen – not that there was a lot of still edible food there. "No promises."
Screaming nightmares. Good times. Tony sweated through the bedding and ended up dozing in the bath.
Banner, curled up on the couch, slept through it all like a fucking baby.
Pepper found Tony on the next day, while Banner was being debriefed by SHIELD. She was, predictably, pissed – at him for being Iron Man and doing Iron Man things, at herself for not picking up her phone when he was potentially dying. Just as predictably, it turned into the kind of clusterfuck that Tony knew from experience would only get exacerbated by seductive efforts.
His usual modus operandi for apologies got derailed by New York being mostly evacuated – i.e. no five star restaurants served, and no shoes emporia were open.
Their desultory dinner consisted of fast food.
Banner actually picked it up on his way and brought it in, startling Pepper in the middle of her long and frankly boring recounting of her trip up from D.C.
"Delivery," Banner said dryly, stepping out of the elevator, carrying bags of kebab and falafel.
"I thought you didn't like people in here," Pepper hissed in Tony's ear, and then turned to Banner with a professional smile. "Thank you, but-"
"Pop a squat," Tony said as she reached for her wallet to tip the presumed delivery boy. Better defuse the situation before Pep's misunderstanding became too obvious and she got embarrassed and viciously vengeful for being 'set up'.
Banner had noticed, of course, but he pretended he didn't. He put on that bashful face he used to make SHIELD agents dismiss him as a potential threat. "I don't want to intrude."
Tony suppressed a snort. "Pep, Dr Banner, infamous biophysicist and a member of the group of weirdos that saved the world yesterday. Banner, Pepper Potts, CEO of Stark Industries."
"Pleased to meet you," the man said with a sort of aggressively non-interesting civility practically screaming 'forget you ever saw me'.
"Likewise," lied Pepper.
They shook hands, all plastic politeness, as if Tony didn't see that just beneath their respective masks they were both secretly glaring at him. That was – let's face it – also predictable.
"I'll get the forks," Banner announced.
Pepper was about to jump in; she might not have been familiar with this particular set of rooms yet, since all her time in the Tower was spent in the penthouse, but she knew that Tony tended to implement his own systems, and she had learnt to navigate them in Malibu. So she was understandably shocked when Banner didn't have to look around but went directly for the cutlery and the dishes – and the napkins.
He knew exactly where everything was.
And Tony would have liked to blame that on last night's dinner and today's breakfast, but the truth was that Banner didn't have a problem last night either. He knew where everything was before he entered.
When Tony looked away from the doorway, he found Pepper scowling at him, mouth pursed and knuckles white with the convulsive grip on her phone. "You slept with him."
She took the incomplete observation, made a faulty assumption, and came to exactly the right conclusion.
"Yes, I did," Tony admitted. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Banner's shadow approach the threshold and then withdraw again.
"Damn me," Pepper muttered, shaking her head, "but I didn't expect this. I really thought you wouldn't cheat. Why did I think that?!"
"Honestly, Pepper, I forgot I wasn't supposed to have sex with anybody."
"Forgot," she deadpanned.
Tony bit the inside of his cheek and took a deep breath, concentrating on not rolling his eyes. "You've got a lot of rules." He briefly clenched his jaw, reminding himself that he would regret it later if he shrugged now. "It's hard to keep all of them in my mind all the time. Sometime stuff slips."
Pepper stood up and bodily removed herself from the situation. She stopped halfway to the door and returned for the handbag she forgot on the couch cushion. Clearly she yearned to hit Tony with it, but was too self-contained to give in to the impulse. "You cheated on me, and now you're trying to make it sound like it's my fault?!"
"I didn't cheat on you." Tony knew before he said it that his statement wouldn't be accepted. It never was. His view of cheating never really coincided with anybody else's; he could repeat himself ad nauseam. "I didn't lie to you, or pretend I didn't have sex with my ex."
"Oh my god." Pepper's face gained that pinkish hue that signified an approaching explosion. "I actually can't tell if you're bullshitting right now, or if you're really that much of an alien."
And this was why Pepper was Tony's favorite. And why he was so attracted to her.
"I'm not an alien, Potts; Thor is an alien."
"I'll just take that as a permission-"
"Sure," she agreed. "And take it as me dumping you, too." She righted her jacket, hung her handbag over her shoulder and stood ramrod straight, chin up. "Will that be all, Mr Stark?"
"Have I told you today that you're brilliant?" Tony inquired, standing up too, because this was a conversation they should have face to face.
"At this point, flattery will get your ass kicked," she warned, and walked away.
"That's a given," Tony admitted. "Potts, give yourself a raise."
On her way out of the room – of the floor – and possibly of Tony's personal life, although he wouldn't have bet on it – Pepper snapped: "That's a given, too. You owe me shoes for this, Stark. Lots and lots of shoes…"
The elevator door slid shut.
Tony clapped his hands. "That's it, I guess."
Banner trudged over from the kitchen, set his load onto the table next to the bags of food and sat down. He let his hands fall into his lap and gaped at Tony as if he hadn't ever seen anything as absurd in his life (which was just facetious of a guy who had known Tony when Tony was nineteen). "Did you just roll twenty on conflict resolution?"
"That-" Banner waved his hand in the direction of the door that had swallowed Potts. "-never happens in real life! You cheated on your girlfriend, who is the CEO of your company, and she's just fine with it?"
"She's not fine." Of course she wasn't. Pepper always took it personally when Tony disappointed her. "She's probably crying right now. But she knows what she wants, and she won't let her infatuation with me get in the way of her ambitions. It's why I trust her. And why I dated her."
Banner pulled his feet up onto the couch and settled his forearms on his knees. He watched the paraphernalia on the table as if he expected the forks to bite him.
Tony attempted to gauge whether he would lose a hand if he tried to touch him. It didn't seem as if the SHIELD interrogation had gone especially badly. Tony had half-expected that he would need to break the Hulk out of some creepy medical facility.
Instead Banner had come back on his own, out of his own will, un-coerced, and had the wherewithal to pick up Tony's and Pepper's order on the way.
"Um?" Tony inquired. At Banner's patronizing look he added: "Dinner?"
"Look," Banner sighed, "I know I am a bad person, but I am trying not to be."
"Why?" Tony asked, honestly stumped. What did 'bad' actually mean? People were different, based on some weird settings in their brains that no one had mapped yet – they could change, sure, but only if those settings changed first. It was a matter of motivation. Paradigms. That sort of thing.
This was too philosophical for him.
"So I'd hate myself less?" Banner suggested pragmatically.
That Tony could understand. "Hating yourself isn't really useful for anything. And it feels bad."
"Right." Banner let his feet back down onto the floor and reached for the food. "No self-hatred if we can help it. You and I cheated on your girlfriend but, hey, neither of us meant to hurt her. We just really didn't remember that she existed."
It took Tony a minute to figure out why Banner sounded so sarcastic.