Bruce Banner licks his lips as he sees the transport land through the glass of his laboratory. A misleadingly gentle-looking agent with thinning hair—the esteemed Coulson-steps out of the copter, followed closely by Steve Rogers and an unfamiliar blonde who looked like something out of a Viking painting, pulling a handcuffed dark-haired man that looks quite… unhinged, despite his polished hair and attire. Finally comes a man with a dark hair and beard, complimented by equally dark sunglasses that obscure Bruce's view of his eyes.
He doesn't need to see them to know what they look like, though—he knows they would be the shade of bitter, sharp coffee, so dark as to be almost black. He's seen enough news reports on Tony Stark to recognize him when he sees him, and even without that experience he has the advantage of having a folder on the man, complete with a small candid photo, laying on his desk… somewhere.
He glances at the pile of papers that constitutes his personal desk, a literal disaster zone as compared to the rest of his lab. He is rather less interested in matters that are larger than atomic in size.
He'd make an exception for Tony Stark, however. The man's pioneering in the field of engineering is awe-inspiring, even to someone who only dabbles in the field himself. When Bruce had heard that Fury was bringing Stark on board for the new Avengers Initiative, Bruce had been ecstatic. He'd actually scribbled a list of questions that he'd wanted to ask the man when he got the chance on the first surface available—a crisp white napkin from his dinner with Betty and Leonard. The waiter had not been impressed, but Leonard had left a huge tip to cover the damages and Betty had found it adorable, teasing him about being a Stark fanboy.
There might have been some truth to that.
"Looks like your boyfriend has arrived." A low feminine voice intones from behind him with little inflection. Bruce yelps, swinging around.
Natasha's lips quirk.
"Why do you always do that?" Bruce squeaks, holding a hand over his racing heart. The assassin's pseudo-smile widens.
"I will continue to test your reflexes until such a time as you are deemed adequate." Natasha Romanov is, Bruce once again affirms, an extremely frightening woman. And also a cruel one.
"He's not… It's not… I've never even met him, Natasha." Bruce mumbles, flushing.
"That just makes it even cuter. Puppy love, yes?" She asks, purposefully allowing a little more of her Russian accent to slip into her words in order to make her jibe appear innocent.
"It's not 'puppy love'. If anything it's like, um… intellectual infatuation? I just really admire the work that he's done on the frontier of—"
"Of course. My mistake doc." She quips, smiling beneficently. Bruce sticks his tongue out and she breathes a short laugh, reaching out to ruffle his hair.
"Oh you are a darling." She drawls. Bruce flushes but doesn't bother correcting the endearment. Natasha might be scary as hell, but she is also a member of his surrogate family and, as such, open to certain privileges.
"So that's Loki?" He mutters instead, watching as the bound man is escorted out of sight. "And Thor too. For once reality seems to live up to the stories."
"And more, believe me. The infamous Loki is quite a unique bundle of crazy, worse than the legends would have you believe." Bruce shoots her a wry look at her flippant take on what basically is a god. She shrugs.
"Worse than a male pregnancy resulting in an octohorse? I can't wait." Bruce intones. "You didn't have to come see me, Natasha. I'm sure they'll want you in briefing room once they've, um, seen to Loki's lodgings." The strange, suspended box seems a little inhumane, but then again, all reports of Loki seem to indicate that the man himself is a little ethically sketchy.
The woman's smile turns a little muted. "It is nice to see a familiar face." She says softly. Bruce winces. Right, Clint. He bites his lip, reaching out hesitantly. He is hesitant to initiate any contact after his history with his father, but there really isn't anything else he could offer. He knows he wasn't good with words, and any attempt at verbal comfort would likely lead to failure.
The Widow is also a virtual stranger to physical affection, but she seems quicker on the uptake than Bruce. She reaches forward and yanks him to her with her usual brutal efficiency. She does not cry, but Bruce swears he can feel her shaking against him as he rubs her back awkwardly, nothing else coming to mind as something he could do with his restless hands.
"I hate it, Bruce. I can't… no one should have that power over someone."
Bruce agrees wholeheartedly. It was the reason he had refused the gamma bomb contract so long ago. No man should have that omnipotent power over another man's life, no matter what the avenue. No one should control and hurt without reason. No one.
"Hey, we'll fix it, yeah? We've got a god too, remember?" He whispers. Natasha snorted weakly.
"I don't believe in the wills of gods."
"Then it's a good thing you've got me on your side too." He pauses. "And a living legend in the Captain."
"And your boyfriend, nyet?" Natasha, apparently having reached her vulnerable quota for the year, straightens and steps away. Bruce clears his throat and fiddles with his glasses, willing his blood vessels not to bring any telltale blood to the surface. They willfully rebel.
"Once again, not—"
"All Avengers convene on the bridge at 1800 hours. I repeat: All Avengers convene on the bridge at 1800 hours. That means you, Stark. That is all." The PA clicks off, halting Fury's short tones.
Natasha snaps instantly into work mode, swiveling with a natural grace towards the door. As she steps through, however, she glances back, her cool poise thawing enough for a quirked brow.
"I always knew you'd go for the bad boy, Banner."
The meeting is only the beginning. An hour later, there is another. Then Stark gets a special 'debriefing', rumored to actually be an upbraiding for attempting to hack SHIELD. Then another full-Avengers thing. Bruce is getting a few flashbacks to when the neighborhood kids had built a clubhouse with the explicit purpose of being able to tell him he wasn't invited into it. He ignores it as best he can, and instead of splicing his cactus with his neighbor's hedges in order to engineer it to grow roses as an outlet for his anger, Bruce now focuses all his attention on finding the Tessaract and figuring out the glowy staff thing that Loki brought.
Gamma radiation makes everything better, after all.
Despite his tendency to, as Natasha and Betty put it, "fanboy", Bruce also makes no attempts over the half a day or so to corner Tony Stark. After all, the man is busy with secret club meetings and saving the world; Bruce has no place monopolizing his time with a nobody like himself. Stark is… is… just Stark. Way out of Bruce's league—in an academic sense, of course. Not in… any other sense. Because Bruce hasn't thought of any other sense, because he hasn't even met the man for heaven's sake, and what is he thinking? Stupid.
Apparently he is rather rare in this opinion of the mogul, however. No less than ten disgruntled people, including Natasha and Steve, have stopped by during brief breaks to complain to Bruce about the billionaire. Stark seems to be an acquired taste, treating most people with 'a sort of blasé bitchiness that only money can buy', or so Natasha had put it. This only firms Bruce's resolve to stay away from the man; he'd probably crush what little self-esteem Bruce retains.
This line of logic does not stop Bruce from visiting the other contender for least popular shipmate. The staff really does give off gamma radiation like the Tessaract, and Asgardian anatomy isn't drastically different than Midgardian; there might be something more going on here than anyone else is assuming.
"Another one. Joy." Loki does not, in fact, look very joyful. Bruce can tell he is trying to look aloof and disdainful, but instead he just looks rather ill to Bruce's trained eye. There are dark circles under his eyes and his skin shines pale and sweat-damp. His sneer looks pretty healthy though. "Come to poke the caged beast?"
"Not really much of a pet guy, actually. Don't have the discipline." He shrugs sheepishly. "The goldfish I kept in college actually committed suicide by jumping out of the bowl."
Loki's eyes narrow and his jaw twitches, which either means that he is very pissed off or else…
Test the hypothesis.
"Of course, I was poor as dirt, so I put his sacrifice to good use. Goldfish sushi is actually as remarkably awful as it sounds."
Another twitch. He's seen Natasha do the same when she is holding in a grin.
"Your idiotic rambling will not loosen my lips, fool." Loki spits. Again, Bruce shrugs, pulling up the rogue chair close to the glass.
"I'm not going to try to make you tell me your plans. You're on isolated airship manned entirely by spies and soldiers with a grudge against you. I'm a pacifistic physicist with compartmentalization issues. Who do you think is more likely to crack that particular nut?"
Another—impressive—sneer. "So then, Midgardian, what do you have to gain from pestering me?"
"I figure neither of us have anything better to do. I'm locked out of the Avengers clubhouse, which seems to be in a perpetual meeting, and you're locked in a jail cell with nothing but a bench for company."
"Better company than you by far."
"One of my greatest inadequacies in life is my lack of mahogany veneer." Bruce deadpans. Another twitch, and then Loki is collapsing on said bench like a total drama queen. "Ouch. Didn't that hurt?"
Loki scoffs. "I am immune from such mortal concepts as sickness and pain."
"Really? Because you're looking a little ill. A lot ill, actually." Loki glares. Bruce decides to take a gamble based on the footage he'd been reviewing and the readouts from the staff. "You're looking better than when you were toting that staff around, though. That sort of radiation can't be good for your health."
A flicker of surprise. Enough. If Loki is not immune to the Tessaract, then there has to be something else in play here. Loki's smart; he'd have taken the time to figure out a way around this misstep on his own timeline. "I have to say, this doesn't seem your style. Letting someone else take the reins? Being bossed around like a pointer dog? I don't get it."
Nothing this time except a set jaw, but Bruce is prepared for that. This is a wild card, but something about it felt right. "And you know the Chitauri are going to kill Thor. He's the official Asgardian embassy for Earth. It sends a message."
Bingo. In a moment, Loki is across the room, literally spitting with rage. He does that a lot. Bruce has to fight every instinct in his body that warned him to run. He is safe, he is safe, he is safe. There is glass between them now, and he will never put himself in a position to be hurt ever again.
"What makes you think I care? I'd applaud it; I'd do it myself with pleasure. I've gotten close, you know. It would be so easy, so satisfying." A grin like a wound gapes across his face. Bruce shivers.
He's seen the footage; he's watched them walk in here together. This isn't right. The tapes hadn't lied; evidence, data—they don't lie.
Trickster gods do. He swallows.
"See, that's the thing: 'easy'. So, your options are that either you're not as powerful as you think you are—" Loki scoffs. "—Or you haven't been playing to win."
"You know nothing."
"He turned down Jane Foster. Said what they had wasn't what he was looking for."
"Stop talking, you pathetic, mewling little—"
"And he's not your brother, you know. No one could fault you."
"How long have you been in love with Thor, Loki?"
It is as if someone has flipped off a switch inside him, Loki's whole body going still, tight and coiled like a spring. And his eyes… "The cameras are off, Loki. No tricks—on my side."
Loki jerks, hand snapping up, and Bruce flinches instinctively. But the pale fingers just press against the green of his eyes (and hadn't they been blue a minute ago?), blocking them from sight.
Silence for what feels like forever, and what if he was incanting a spell? Bruce shouldn't have looped the camera footage, he was going to die and he hadn't even met Tony Stark.
"He's so stupid!" The god explodes suddenly, hand whipping away and bloodshot eyes wild. "He's the most brutish, arrogant, simple-minded oaf that I've ever met! He's not worth it. I should freeze him from the inside out, shatter his heart until he can't feel anything anymore. It's fair, right? An eye for an eye."
Bruce blinks at this new candidness cum creepiness "…Right. So, to be clear, despite your interesting way of displaying affection, you're anti-Thor-murder , yes?" The glare is a good answer, although really it's not like it was an obvious leap. "Okay. So, I'm guessing there are some extenuating circumstances here, and I'm guessing they have to do with the staff. Care to share?"
And for a moment, Bruce thinks it's going to work. Loki opens his mouth, and Bruce thinks that he'll be able to tell Natasha that Clint is safe all without anyone else getting hurt.
"Therapy's over, Doc Phil. Back away from the crazy."
"I think Doctor Phil might qualify as the crazy, in the scientific community at least." Bruce replies automatically, before his mouth catches up with his eyes and he recognizes the intruder.
…And this would be how Bruce Banner meets Tony Stark, wouldn't it?
"Um." He quips with alacrity and grace. Tony smirks. Yeah, okay, he's seeing Natasha's point now. "What's the problem exactly?" Other than his traitorous brain, which has chosen to die on him. Loki, arms crossed, watches bemused from the side.
"The problem, doc, is that you're screwing with the security. Only I'm allowed to do that. And a feedback loop? God, that's so medieval. It's like you were trying to get caught." Bruce ducks his head, embarrassed.
"Well, I, uh, was sort of counting on the proximity scrambler to jam any new surveillance data acquisition to replace the loop—you know, innocent until proven guilty without the proving option?" He admits, tucking an errant curl behind his ear to give his hands something to do.
Tony Stark's face goes blank for a brief moment, and then he starts laughing at Bruce.
He wishes that the floor could swallow him—no. He wishes that he could switch places with Loki and take a baseball bat to the glass. More effective.
"Scrambler! I like you." Stark finally chuckles, and Bruce blinks. Um. "How did you sneak one of those on board without Big Bad Fury blowing the whistle?"
And Stark is one to talk, considering he brought a hacking device disguised as a screw onboard, if the grapevine is to be believed. Still, Bruce answers politely.
"I built it after I got here, actually. I don't, ah, like being watched too much." Too much control lost, control Bruce needed.
Stark hums thoughtfully, abruptly sticking out a hand. Bruce goes to shake it and Stark snorts, slapping his hand away.
"Dude, handshakes are for posers and politicians—sometimes both for twice the fun! Fist bumps are the bro code." When his hand remains outstretched, Bruce raises an eyebrow. "Scrambler, duh."
"Oh." Bruce reaches in his pocket and retrieves the makeshift device, carefully depositing it in Stark's hand. The man promptly ignores him and spends the next few minutes turning the thing over, poking it here and there and nodding/shaking his head at odd intervals. Loki has, at this point, returned to his uncomfortable bench and is lounging on it, unabashedly staring.
Bruce crosses his eyes to be contrary and Loki purses his lips and raises a brow challengingly. Loki is kind of fun, as long as there's a wall of glass between the rest of the world and his homicidal megalomania.
Stark is oblivious, finally handing back the scrambler to the nervous Bruce.
"Entirely rudimentary, utterly lacking in any finesse, and completely butt-ugly." Ouch. "But for someone who isn't me, not too shabby, so don't look at me with those Bambi eyes like I shot your mama deer."
"…Bambi?" Bruce chokes out. It could not get any worse. It just could not.
"Indeed, and I am your Prince Charming, here to rescue you from a life of mediocre technology!" Stark grins winningly.
"I think you're mixing Disney films…"
"Oh please, have you seen Bambi? Gayer than a rainbow-shitting unicorn. Totally waiting for a hot slice of stag to sweep him off his feet—hooves, whatever."
Bruce smothers a smile.
"Well that's effectively, irrevocably and irreparably tainted a childhood classic."
Stark grins. "Oh, so you're a vocab vixen, hmm? Sexy." Well, that's score one for the tabloid rumors that swear that Tony Stark is bisexual. "And all psycho-babbly. You actually a psychiatrist-unlike Doc P-then? With a kink for tech, 'cause I can work with that." He leers. He actually goddamn leers, and this is not how Bruce wanted this to go.
"Uh, no. No. Well, I am a medical doctor, but that's not really—"
"Ooh, wanna play nurse?"
Bruce actually squeaks.
"Do you need me to defend your honor then?" Loki finally rejoins the conversation at the worst possible time. Stark seems equally displeased.
"Cool your jets, reindeer games. Not much defending's going to go down with you stuck as a lab rat." He turns his gaze to Bruce. "And cuteness is a pass for many things, but having an unauthorized gal pal chat with a unstable war criminal is not one of them. You're with me, Bambi."
Ignoring all rules of personal etiquette and space, Stark snatches Bruce's wrist (the shudder that accompanies touch is not as harsh as normal, but he might just be in shock) and tows him to the door. "Say goodbye to the nice psychopath."
Just to spite him, because even with the hero worship Bruce can totally acknowledge the dickness that is Stark, Bruce does turn back. "I'll bring you some pillows and a blanket next time for your bench friend!"
"A key would be lovely as well." Loki lilts back, not rising from his supine position but waving a lazy hand. Bruce smiles and Stark snorts, and then the door is hissing shut.
"Right." Stark whips around. "ASL?" At Bruce's blank look, he clarifies: "Age. Sex. Location."
"Um, 35, no thank you, and two feet away from you?" He tries, a little lost.
Well, he's made Tony Stark laugh twice already. Both times at him. Great.
"Are you for real?" Stark asks, eyes twinkling.
"Reality is only an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." Bruce quips, because how many times in his life is he going to have an opening for that one? And Stark beams at him like he's Santa Claus, so he's not the only one who appreciates the opportunity to pay homage to Dr. Einstein.
And then Stark takes a step closer so that he is very much less than two feet away now. Bruce swallows.
"You…" Stark begins, but he doesn't get a chance to finish that terrifying thought because:
"Stark, stop harassing innocent people and get back on the bridge. Have you no sense of decency—oh, hi Doc." Steve gives that all-American smile that is impossible to dislike but that can get a little irritating at times, and Bruce smiles weakly back.
Stark has not stepped away.
"Now who's mixing Disney? And the good doctor doesn't seem to be complaining." Stark purrs, and Bruce thinks back. Huh. No clear complaining, it's true. Most normal people can read between the lines enough that Bruce doesn't have to assert himself so much—but then Stark isn't anywhere near normal, is he?
"Have you given him a chance, or have you just been cornering him and forcing yourself—"
"Hey, I don't need to force myself on anyone, Captain Dramerica. Some of us have natural charisma."
Bruce is suddenly glad that he's not an Avenger if this is what he's been missing.
"Um, if you two are done with your alpha male posturing, is there something you needed Mr. Stark for?"
"Ha! So you've heard of me." Stark preens.
"Actually Steve said your name." Bruce points out although yes, of course he knows Tony Stark. Stark doesn't seem to buy it, still smirking.
"Are you sure he's not bothering you, Dr. B—"
* beep * beep* beep*
Bruce looks down at his watch, which is going haywire. The alarm for the gamma staff's radiation activity has been tripped.
"Fantastic!" He exclaims.
This is a huge leap forward. If the staff is linked to the Tesseract, then staff activity might mean a rise in Tesseract productivity as well. Which isn't fantastic except that, well, it is.
The Tesseract will also be infinitely easier to locate if it's giving off that much heat. Maybe he should recalibrate the sensors he's sweeping with to allow for the power difference?
He's muttering calculations to himself when he reaches and presses the fingerprint scanner and… nothing happens. Frowning, he tries again. With a sinking feeling and a failed third attempt, Bruce keys in the override code. Denied, the red light taunts.
Oh hell no.
"Would someone mind telling me why I can't get into my own laboratory?" Bruce snaps, once the bridge door cheerfully admits his entrance.
Perhaps a bit too loudly. His voice echoes oddly and the entire (large) population of the room turns to stare at him. Thor is the only Avenger (save Clint) missing. He flushes, waving awkwardly at the masses before turning his burning anger on Fury.
"Bambi, you ditched me!" Stark whines, and Bruce bares his teeth at him in a way that would make anyone but Tony Stark flinch, before Bruce whirls away. Not mad at Stark, not mad at Stark. Right.
"Bruce, what's wrong?" Natasha murmurs from behind him. Bruce growls, trying to keep his voice level. But he's just so angry…
"What's wrong is that I've been locked out of the one place that I was told I'd get free reign, with the staff locked inside."
Fury doesn't even flinch. "Dr. Banner, the level of radiation in that room is too high—"
"So I'll wear a hazmat suit!" Bruce barks, because a little gamma radiation is not going to slow him down. "The staff could be invaluable to stopping the Chitauri, as well as releasing those that Loki is controlling without harming them. I need to get a closer look."
"That's not why we brought you on board, Dr. Banner." Fury reminds him coolly. "Your only directive is to locate the Tesseract."
And that is just so wrong. Bruce feels his hands fisting at his side and his heart is beating so loud and fast that he's sure everyone can hear it and he just wants to run scream rip out Fury's heart and show it to him and yell how can he pretend this doesn't matter and—
"There's an app for that."
"Stark." Fury warns. Stark being Stark ignores him, going to stand shoulder to shoulder with Bruce. It doesn't mean anything, but the warmth soaking from Stark into the flesh of his shoulder is so absurdly nice that Bruce finds himself magnanimously omitting killing Fury from his to-do list.
"Well, more like a robot with an app, but you get the idea. No problemo, senor." Stark snarks cheerfully. Fury looks like he's just swallowed a lemon.
"That is not what is in question here. Dr. Banner, you can't go around picking and choosing personal projects while you're on company time." Fury sighs. Bruce snorts.
"How is the staff a personal project? I'd throw it into Mt. Doom if I got half a chance." After dissecting it and being able to replicate it for further study if necessary. "It's obviously connected to the Tesseract."
"Do you have any evidence of that, Dr. Banner?" Steve asked optimistically, obviously unwilling to openly challenge Fury without a reason.
"Other than the fact that they're both blue, ba-boo-dee ba-boo-dye?" Stark injects, obviously totally willing to openly challenge Fury without a reason. Bruce relaxes further at the light humor. Great song.
"They do give off similar frequencies, and they both are connected to Loki's plans." Bruce adds carefully. "The blue thing is also a helpful hint." He admits, nodding to a beaming Stark. "Look, I'll use a robot to avoid contamination and work remotely from another lab, okay? I just think that locking up and ignoring the staff now that it's finally doing something that might be useful to our goals is counterproductive." He's calmer now that he sees Fury hesitating. He's winning.
"Sir, Mr. Stark did check in some technology that would suit this purpose well." Phil Coulson is a godsend in a tasteful suit. "Also, telling Mr. Stark that he can't do something will almost certainly guarantee that he will, in fact, do it."
"Aw, no faith Agent." Stark pouts, but does nothing to deny the accusation.
Fury, seeing that he's being ganged up on, sighs.
"Be careful, Dr. Banner, and report back anything you find. You know how dangerous gamma radiation alone can be—combined with the Tesseract, who knows what could happen."
"Aye aye, Captain Eyepatch." Stark salutes with one hand, slinging the other around a startled Bruce Banner. "Me and the good doctor will just be getting started on that ASAP. If anyone needs us, we'll be in my lab, cool? Cool. Later."
Natasha gifts him with a sympathetic look as he is dragged out by Stark, and Bruce sort of twitches at her in a failed attempt to look reassuring because there's really nothing he can reassure her about in good faith.
He tries to ask why Stark hasn't released his shoulders, but the billionaire silences him with a "Shush, you'll ruin the dramatic atmosphere" and Bruce remains obediently silent because he doesn't want to screw up his chances of visiting Tony Stark's lab.
He knows immediately that this is the right choice when he sees the room. The shorter man gasps, ducking out from under Stark's arm and making a beeline for a shiny-looking machine in one corner.
"A three-dimensional printer! Fantastic! I've only ever tinkered with the Shapeway model…"
Stark chuckles and sidles up to stand next to him. "Mmhm, but they've got nothing on me. Mine prints on at least 50 different mediums at a time—cartridges being interchangeable, of course—including hypoallergenic latex. Very, ah, long-lasting." He looks meaningfully at Bruce, who is completely oblivious and nodding eagerly.
"That's amazing. Did you include a function for recycling used compatible materials for reprinting instead of being limited to their base state? I hate wasting paper."
The leer dissolves into a real, excited smile. Bruce can tell; it makes his light shine like stars.
"Through a melting process? But the amount of heat—" He pauses, and Bruce jumps in.
"You must spend a fortune on cooling tech. If you could funnel at least a portion, you could definitely implement the procedure without the costs getting out of control—at least on printers at Stark Industries grounds."
"I don't like to share my toys anyway." Stark quips. Bruce grins at him shyly before remembering why he's here. Hint: It's not to be the sounding board to a genius that could buy and sell him.
"Right, so, staff. You said that you had a robot to do the job, Mr. Stark?" Mr. Stark makes a completely childish and only slightly adorable face.
"Ugh, okay, on two conditions. One, never ever call me Mr. Stark again; it's Tony. And two…" Bruce waits with only a slight amount of apprehension. "Tell me why you didn't you tell me that you were Bruce Banner when I was hitting on you by the cuckoo bird's cage."
Bruce blinks. "Would you have not hit on me if I had told you?" He's not sure if he would have said it, had that been the case. He's a terrible person.
"Hell yes I still would have hit on you. I also would have stolen two locks of your gorgeous chocolate mane—one for Nerd EBay and one to put under my pillow at night."
"I'm pretty sure the Tooth Fairy knows the difference between keratin and dentin. And aren't you a little old for that practice anyway?" Bruce intones dryly.
"What? Conning saps out of money on EBay or having a brain boner for a brilliant and boinkable scientist? In either case, the answer is: never."
Bruce blushes wildly, even though he knows that Sta—Tony is just teasing him and he doesn't mean it. Bruce has never caught the eye of, well, anyone; there's no way that the exception to that rule is Tony Stark. Still, the way he's saying it makes it seem like…
"You… you've read my theories?" Tony smiles at him almost kindly, and Bruce feels like that kid who has just showed his mother their finger-painting for the first time—so desperate to be acknowledged but so terrified of failure in the eyes of someone they admire.
"Dr. Banner, your work on anti-electron collisions is unparalleled." Bruce's lips curve into a smile, "and I have to say I'm a big fan of the face behind the facts." He tilts his head. "You know, if you'd put your picture in with the papers, you'd probably be published in E=MC Esquire. Which we all read for the articles, of course."
Bruce goes from flushing with pride to flushing with mortification. "Does that really exist?" He chokes out disbelievingly.
"You're looking at their #1 Bachelor five years running. Charles Xavier gave me a good run for my money, of course, but he's getting up in the years and he's basically shackled to that boarding school of his, so he's hardly up for commitment at the moment."
Bruce finds himself snorting despite his lingering embarrassment. "Oh and you're chomping at the bit to go down the aisle."
"Going down? Totally. Chomping? So long as it's consensual. Aisles? Only if you're talking the Mile-High Club. Speaking of…" He glances casually out the window where wispy clouds are floating by. Bruce steadfastly ignores this, along with everything else that just came out of Tony's mouth. It's becoming a honed skill.
"There's actually something else I wanted to check on regarding the staff and its effects." He begins carefully. Tony hums.
"That why you were talking to the longhorn?" Bruce shoots him a reproving glance.
"I was hoping that Loki would be able to shed some light on the subject, yes. I'm sure you saw how ill he looked; I'm relatively sure that handling the staff was harming him, and I know that he wouldn't want to kill Thor—maim, most definitely, but on his own time." Tony considers him.
"How do you know that he doesn't want to kill the golden boy? He seemed pretty onboard when I last saw him. Unless you know something that I don't know…" Seeing Bruce's edgy look, he crows. "Oh my God, you do! That is so sexy! Share!"
"Um… brotherly love?" He tries weakly, unsure of how much he should be sharing with the loudmouthed and far too sharp man. Tony snorts.
"There ain't nothing brotherly about that—oh!" His eyes light up and Bruce suppresses a groan. "Well, unless you're into incest. Really? Thor and Loki? Talk about a screwed up family tree." Bruce shrugs helplessly.
"It's something that anchors Loki to us, if it's true. Other than power, Thor's the only thing he cares about, even if it's this twisted love/hate thing." He looks hard at Tony. "You can't tell anyone. Loki would kill me." Tony raises an eyebrow.
"Loki wouldn't already kill you? It seems to be his MO."
"I think… that he is a very unbalanced individual, but then most gods are, according to legend. Perhaps Loki more than others, since he is the god of trickery and chaos. However, I do not believe that he would act in a way that was disadvantageous to himself unless he was backed into a corner. He wants to see the world burn, but he doesn't want to choke on the smoke."
"And hurting you is disadvantageous to him?" Tony still sounds skeptical and Bruce glares, bristling like a cat.
"I'm dangerous!" When Tony's expression changes not one iota, he slumps. "I'm also the only one on this ship that doesn't want to either shiv him or resew his mouth shut. And his best chance of getting out of that cage."
Tony considers him with those dark eyes and Bruce fidgets, smoothing down his lab coat nervously because he doesn't know what he wants Tony to find.
"Not anymore. Now we're his best chance. You 'n' me are a team, Bambi." Bruce stares at him, because he wasn't really expecting Tony to find this, no matter what he was hoping.
"You're already on a team, and it doesn't seem like they're accepting new members. Well, unless they're superhuman."
"You could go douse yourself in gamma rays and reapply." Tony offers, and Bruce rolls his eyes at the humor. "Ooooor we could start our own, cooler team within a team: the Supremely Smart and Sexy Science Super Squad! What do you say, science bro?" Bruce wants to roll his eyes again, so he does, but he's grinning like an idiot so he feels that it's not as sharp and reprimanding as it could have been.
"It's very, ah, sibilant." He offers. Tony mock swoons.
"You and your vocabulary—have you no sense of public decency?" Bruce offers a sheepish smile.
"I have one, I just tend to ignore it. Kind of like you, I imagine." He wrenches himself back on topic. "Right. So, robot?"
Tony nods, not seeming put out by the subject change. Then again, he seems to adore technology, so maybe robotics and romance (no matter how jesting) aren't really different subjects?
He slings his arm over Bruce's shoulder—again—and turns him from the mouthwateringly advanced printer.
"Finally, someone who can actually appreciate my genius. You'll love it. JARVIS was so jealous when I was working on this baby…"
"JARVIS?" Bruce makes the mistake of asking.
And Tony smiles.
Tony is just showing Bruce the differences in the AI interface between the gammabot and JARVIS (whom Bruce can see is Tony's pride and joy form the affection that oozes into his voice when he talks about it, even when he's complaining) in regards to commands when a soldier Bruce does not recognize bursts in.
Or at least he tries to. There is the beep of a scanner and then a dull thunk as something walks into the still hermetically sealed door. Tony sniggers.
"Knock knock. Come on in." Obediently the door slides open with nary a hiss, and a disgruntled-looking soldier nursing a burgeoning bruise on his forehead enters. The man shoots Tony a look that could kill—which the man blissfully ignores—and then nods sharply to Bruce. The physicist smiles apologetically back, not sure if apologizing for Tony is going to become a common occurrence.
"Dr. Banner, sir. The prisoner is requesting you. He says that he has vital information but that he won't share with anyone but you personally." Bruce nods at this, not entirely surprised when Tony follows him to the door without asking for permission. The guard seems less accepting.
"He only requested Dr. Banner… sir." The title is tacked on with a certain bitterness that leaves Bruce no doubt that this man has just joined the "Stark Sucks" club onboard. Tony sneers.
"Tough, jarhead. We're a package deal, right Bruce?" Bruce really doesn't want to alienate anyone, especially anyone with a gun, but Tony is looking at him so expectantly and Bruce caves like a house of cards.
"I'm afraid that's true."
And, he realizes, somehow it is.
Fury is there when they arrive. He shoots Stark an unimpressed look.
"I didn't realize that your name was also Dr. Banner, Stark. What an oversight on our part."
"Please, Bruce would take my name if we got hitched. Or we'd be some awesome hybrid. Stanner, maybe. Or Bark."
"Starkers." Bruce offers mildly, earning an appreciative snort from Tony and a withering glance from Fury.
"Don't encourage him, Doctor." Bruce ducks his head, chastised, while Tony scoffs. "In any event, Mr. Stark, you are not invited to these proceedings."
"What, are we preteen girls snubbing that chick who's cuter than us by not inviting her to our slumber party? Besides, Bruce did invite me." This earns Bruce another cold look from Fury. "And I know lots of fun things about Br'er Rabbit that you don't."
"Hopefully this endeavor will bear little resemblance to a briar patch." Bruce muses.
Fury is watching them with a sort of dawning horror.
"Oh God there's two of you. Is it contagious?"
Bruce flushes because he doesn't mean to be insubordinate but it's just so easy to talk to Tony and get caught up in the game. Tony sneers at him.
"You wish. Now beat it; my evil twin and I have things to discuss with the houseguest from hell." Bruce wants to blurt out an apology to Fury, opens his mouth to do so, and… the man just sighs and walks away, as though what Tony has just said is trying but still perfectly compelling and reasonable. Bruce blinks, turns to stare.
"How do you do that?" He asks in awe. Tony grins.
"Stark magic. Sorry, it's in the genes." He shrugs. "I'm missing the gene that lets me converse with criminals like they're childhood friends over for tea and crumpets though, so… After you, Dr. Banner." He bows mockingly and Bruce, falling easily back into their pattern, faux-curtsies with his lab coat.
Tony is still chuckling when they reach Loki and the god looks up.
"I see you've acquired a tumor since we last spoke." He comments dryly, making Tony stick his tongue out childishly and Bruce shrug.
"He seems benign." He retorts, stepping close to the glass. "So, I hear that I've been paged… which is odd considering you don't know my name." Loki just smirks, and Bruce swears very colorfully and deliberately in his head. Loki's smirk widens. "Seriously? You're telepathic?" Loki cocks his head to the side mockingly.
"Hardly. Even minds of Thor's caliber are veiled from my eyes. Mortal minds, however, are like rice paper—easy to see through and easy to burn."
"Charming." Bruce replies to that cheerful image. "Okay, oh wise one, if you're so clever, why did you call me here? I'm assuming there's a point to this visit."
"Your mind is of slightly better quality than the rest of this scrap heap—like steel next to tin." Loki pauses, and Tony jumps in.
"Hey! Genius millionaire playboy philanthropist here! How about my mind?" Loki ignores him pointedly.
"You also appear to be… the most receptive to reason, and the least hostile to my presence."
"Got me there." Bruce hears Tony mumble with a distinct venom, and he can see Loki's point here.
"Okay, so I'm the least likely to tap on the glass if I don't like what you're sharing. I feel like there should be some sharing going on, then." He watches expectantly as Loki paces the length of his cage once, twice, thrice like a caged jaguar.
Finally he says, "You're not wrong. The Chitauri aren't interested in a lasting partnership. It was beneficial for me to cater to their whims in order to gain passage to Midgard, and the things that they promised… like tinsel to a magpie. Pretty words, but worthless garbage."
"The magpie doesn't think so." Bruce says softly. "And it is not wrong." Loki looked at him, eyes hard and judging, before he turned away with a scornful smile.
"You know more than most the sins of man, and yet you would see them free." Missing Tony's sharp look at this, Bruce smiles sadly.
"Men are cruel, but Man is kind." He murmurs. "I have to believe that." Or else there is no point.
"It matters not whether it is I or the Chitauri who leash you; either way you will kneel."
"And either way, so will you by the end." Bruce states calmly, his certainty of this fact made palpable by the miniscule hunching of Loki's shoulders. "I cannot give you a crown, Loki, but is it really worth it when it comes weighted with chains?"
This is so dramatic, and he feels a little like a Shakespearean actor adlibbing (badly), but this seems to be the way that Asgardians speak and he wants to be as effective as possible. He doubts that Loki would appreciate bald statements, no matter how sincere.
The god snorts delicately.
"And you are sincere, aren't you? Like an eager puppy trying to please its master—"
"Whoa there, the only one I see in a kennel here is you, Loco." Tony cuts in bitingly, and Bruce has to stomp down a grateful smile because he is not that pathetic and even if he was, he certainly wouldn't let Loki see it.
The god leers at him and Bruce thinks hard of leaning forward and placing just the gentlest, most delicate tap on the pane of glass that entraps Loki. The trickster's lips thin slightly in his grin.
"A problem that I'm hoping to remedy with all haste, I assure you."
"And how are you planning that little magic act?" Tony snips.
"I was planning to ask my delightful hosts to unlock my… room." Seeing Bruce's skeptical look that Tony no doubt mirrors, Loki sighs, put-upon. "Well of course I'd be offering you information in return. What is that quaint little phrase? Quid pro quo?"
"And we would trust you why?" Bruce is inclined to agree.
"But it was so easy for you to capture me last time! Surely you could manage it again if something went wrong."
There is an incredulous silence as both men stare at the benignly smiling Loki. Finally Tony breaks with a sharp bark of laughter.
"Right. Okay, info first, then if it's worth the pain of letting you traipse around on deck, we let you out." Loki laughs, a bitter sound that rings tinny on the ears.
"You forget that I can see your mind as well, son of Stark." Tony grits his teeth and Bruce wonders what he was thinking that was worth that harsh rebuke. Trying to keep his own thoughts civil, he ventures,
"He's got a point though. Tricking his jailors into giving him the key to his cell for nothing is exactly the sort of thing that the god of mischief would pull."
Loki watches him for an indeterminate amount of time with dark green eyes that are rimmed with red (so he does get tired like any mortal man). Tony shifts next to him, probably uncomfortable with being out of the limelight for longer than a minute, but Bruce reaches without breaking Loki's gaze and flicks him in the shoulder when he hears the telltale inhale that signals a Stark Speech.
Finally Loki says, with slow deliberate words, "If you let me out of this place, I will bring your Hawkeye home."
Smiling grimly, Bruce turns to the control panel.
Clint arrives in a suspiciously well-armed transport, but Loki is mum on the matter and Bruce isn't about to ask the archer what sort of misdeeds he was about to perform against his will.
It's not too hard to piece together anyway.
Selvig isn't with him, but Clint says tersely that he's helping the other scientists get home. The good doctor is also apparently in possession of the Tesseract, which could be good or bad thing considering Loki is still in possession of a mind-control wand. From what Clint has reluctantly recounted, Bruce deduces that the staff needs to actually make contact with flesh—flesh directly above the heart, it seems—and that, assuming he really has relinquished his power over his zombies, he would need to actually touch them again.
Clint, seemingly on the same page through intellect or instinct, is staying as far away from Loki as he can while still being able to glare daggers at him. The other crew members seem to be onboard with this. Personally Bruce is just glad that the staff is safe enough to handle again., although Loki has yet to relinquish it and no one has been brave (re: stupid) enough to try and take it.
Bruce turns away from where Natasha and Clint are bent together in hushed conference, amazing neither sobbing nor clinging to one another, and looks towards where Loki loiters in a corner, leaning carefully in the shadows and seemingly trying to disappear.
Bruce ignores his efforts and heads over.
"You should really be wearing protection." He starts kindly, gesturing at the staff. Loki sneers.
"Thank you for the impromptu sexual education. I do hope that this is not an awkward attempt to proposition me; you're not really my type."
It is meant to be cruel, judging from the way that Loki's eyes trail over his humble form with clear disdain, but Bruce just laughs.
Well, when your type is 200lbs of raw muscle and flowing golden locks, I imagine not many would measure up. He thinks it because Thor is caught in conversation and planning with Fury (though his eyes have strayed to this corner more times in the last minute than Bruce's have in the past hour) and Bruce isn't willing to test the limits of Asgardian hearing. He'd worry about Thor reading his mind, but he has a sneaking suspicion that Thor's talents lie more to the physical of Loki's mental.
The god he's thinking at snorts.
You picked him, so that must be part of your type.
Loki glares, but the taut line of his shoulders softens at the banter. Bruce smiles.
"So, you're heading back to Asgard?" He says out loud. Loki nods sharply. "It should be nice. Fresh start and all that." Now Loki's glare sharpens to something more real and infinitely more dangerous.
"In case you've forgotten—although I know you haven't-on Asgard I'm still a wanted war criminal."
Bruce gestures around them, raising an eyebrow. "You're one here too, and you don't see anyone trying to stab you in the back. At least on Asgard you won't be able to hear them all thinking about it." Loki huffs a laugh.
"I think you overestimate Asgardian discretion—and intelligence. They tend to think out loud there to help along the slow process."
"But you won't be alone." It could mean anything as innocent as Loki being once again among god-like beings, but they both know it does not. Almost against his will Loki's eyes snap to Thor for the briefest skip of a heartbeat, and then they are back on Bruce's face.
The god makes a noncommittal sound.
Bruce is about to say something else, but then he hears the whirring on the engines going into overdrive to begin the descent, and he hears the heavy footfalls of Thor approaching.
The blond is normally sunny, but Bruce doesn't think that he's ever seen the god of thunder glow like this. He also looks strangely more brittle than he's ever seen Thor before though; his eyes are softer and there is something tentative in his smile when he looks at Loki, something fragile. Bruce is slightly envious that Loki's love life just falls into place like this, but he is also glad because he's not THAT bitter yet.
The god of trickery looks like he might be sick with nerves, although his eyes don't leave Thor's once they've met, unwavering and certain of his path—for the moment.
Feeling like he is intruding, Bruce slips away to pack.
They touch down in California in an old abandoned cornfield, and Selvig is there to meet them, a glowing blue glass canister by his side. Thor bounds to meet him, but Loki hangs back, looking distinctly uncomfortable. Considering that he had both attempted to kill and enslave the mind of the man, Bruce can understand his hesitance.
The other Avengers have all exited the carrier and are loitering around the periphery, seeming to want to see this to the end. The rest of the crew has been confined to the ship, possibly for Loki's safety and possibly for their own. Bruce isn't quite sure why he was allowed to exit the craft except for the fact that he seems to have been declared the Loki-whisperer, which seems to be a gift supernatural enough to have gained him a temporary membership card.
Natasha and Clint are whispering and smirking to each other by their car, and Bruce remembers Clint's helpful suggestion that a muzzle might suit Loki well. Bruce had put a stop to that, of course, because honestly, it wasn't like the man was hankering for the perfect accompaniment to fava beans and a nice Chianti.
"That's a Midgardian reference, I assume." Loki comments and Bruce jumps. Making an effort to regain his composure, he says,
"A book and a movie. You'd like it. Lots of mind games and murder." Loki hums, actually looking like that sounds pleasant, and Bruce is vaguely horrified and not nearly surprised enough. The god slants a look at him through sly narrowed eyes.
"I suppose that I should offer a farewell, since you've afforded me the vocal ability to do so." Bruce smiles at him, surprised to find that he means it.
"I think that saving Ea—Midgard is enough of a reward, but thank you for the sentiment. I can't say it's been a pleasure, but…"
"Agreed. Of the inferiority that is your race, you do retain a infinitesimal amount of distinction."
"Gee, thanks. Of all the gods I've met, it's been the most fun talking to you." He offers. Loki gives him a flat look, but before he can offer a cutting retort, Fury interrupts.
"Let's get this show on the road. I have a lot of faithful crewmen who are going to be requiring enough overtime pay as is."
Thor takes the Tesseract from Selvig (Bruce is abruptly glad that he doesn't have it because to let a scientific wonder like that go…) and steps towards Loki. There are two handles, and each 'brother' grasps one like they're holding a party cracker. Bruce privately thinks it already looks a little ridiculous, and that adding a muzzle would bring it over the top.
Or not so privately, judging by the way that Loki looks at him out of his eye. He grins sheepishly.
"Friends and comrades! You will be toasted in Asgard tonight, and the saga of your noble deeds will be told across the stars. I look forward to battling beside you once again." Thor beams and everyone smiles back in a mixture of politeness and genuine fondness. Bruce smiles back a little awkwardly, because he didn't fight alongside Thor at all—not that there was much actual fighting compared with what would have come with an intergalactic war. When Thor looks expectantly at his brother, smile so ridiculously full of hope and love that it makes Bruce's heart ache, Loki sighs theatrically and addresses them.
"I think," He drawls, "that we will meet again despite my best efforts. I find that I am not quite as repelled by the idea as I might be." He says, looking directly at Bruce.
"Aw, I'm blushing." That's not Bruce talking however. He wonders when Tony Stark managed to get so close to him to silently, but valiantly doesn't jump.
The man flashes him a smile and Bruce returns it. Loki smirks at Tony, staff tapping deliberately at his temple and looking back and forth between them. Tony's smile transforms into a sneer and Bruce wonders why these men can't ever seem to get along.
Thor, seeming to sense the deteriorating mood, intercedes.
"Are you ready to return home, Loki?" Loki nods slowly, eyes drifting inevitably back to Thor. He does not return the beaming grin of his companion, but the corner of his mouth twitches in the most sincere smile Bruce has ever seen from him, regardless of size.
There is a twist, a flash of blinding light, and then Bruce is blinking vision back into his eyes and the gods are gone.
Things happen rather rapidly after that. Natasha and Clint are hugging him goodbye and heading off in their rented S.H.I.E.L.D. car to one of their safe houses, probably for life-affirming… things that Bruce does not really want to think about two of his friends doing, thank you very much.
Selvig has made his way onto the airship, hitching a ride to his home, and Steve Rogers has ridden into the sunset on his motorcycle after writing down his phone number and address for Bruce and giving that shy smile that reminds Bruce that he wasn't always the sculpted, golden Adonis that he is now, and he knows what it's like to be awkward.
Phil shakes Bruce's hand and floats back onto the airship, clutching at the scrap of paper that also has Steve's details scrawled on it as though it is made of gold.
Fury catches Bruce's eye and nods back at the ship.
He turns to look at the last Avenger remaining.
"It was a pleasure to work with you, Mr. Stark." He says, politely, instead of Can you please leave me your number and address too? Tony looks horrified.
"What did we just talk about? No 'Mr. Stark'—Tony. T.O.N.Y. Except sometimes with an I dotted with a heart instead of a Y because it's fun to screw with people." Bruce tries to follow the logic of that and fails. "And why are you acting all polite and somber and like you're saying goodbye?"
Bruce blinks. "Um, because I am saying goodbye?"
"Whoa, where did you get that from? I finally got my hands on you and you think I'm going to let you crawl off into your science den, wherever that may be?"
"…Yes?" Bruce is a little unsure about what is happening here. There's really no reason for Tony Stark to still be associating with him. "There's not any real reason for me to remain on the grid now that the Tesseract has been located."
"But—where were you planning to go?"
"I AM thinking of going to Calcutta. There's a lot of good that I could do there, a lot of sick people—children-that need my help." Tony looks like he's just told him that he's planning on eating the children of Calcutta instead of providing them with affordable medical care.
"Great, philanthropy, always fun—hell, I am THE philanthropist. I give more money to charity than Oprah. But Bruce, baby, you could do so much MORE."
…Baby…? Bruce decides that 'Bambi' is probably the lesser of the two evils. Tony seems to be given to using pet names.
"More than helping the poor and disadvantaged live a better life?"
The billionaire nods eagerly. "Exactly! You could help the rich and advantaged live a better life! And by rich and advantaged I mean myself, of course." Now Bruce is completely lost.
"I'm not sure… are you scouting me for a job?" It all seems a little surreal. Tony snorts.
"Hardly. I'm adopting you!" Not exactly the way that Bruce had fantasized joining the Stark family. "We're soul brothers! You can come chill with my at headquarters and we can make sweet science together!"
"Do you use profuse innuendo with all of your current relatives?" He asks dryly, deflecting. Tony shrugs.
"Don't really have any family, so it's hard to say." Oh. Bruce feels abruptly awful. Tony notices this and jumps on it like Hobbes on Calvin. "See? You'll still be aiding poor wittle orphans! You'll just be doing the helping on the balmy beaches of Malibu while surrounded by the best facilities the world can offer."
"I…. you… We don't even know each other!"
"So we'll play ice-breakers on the ride home. I am a beast at Two Truths—it's the poker face, you know." He schools his face into a frankly horrible approximation of a neutral countenance, because his eyes are sparkling and he's bouncing on his feet.
"Tony, I can't…" Even as he says it, he knows it's a lie. The only thing that he has to go home to is a doomed houseplant that he hasn't watered since he was brought in on the Tesseract project. There's nothing tying him down, but the idea of just packing his bags and running off with a stranger—especially one as mercurial as Tony Stark—is terrifying. "Calcutta…"
"I'll send five—no, ten doctors in your place." It is a ridiculous thought, and with anyone else it would be a lie. With Tony—Bruce decides that perhaps his poker face is better than Bruce assumed.
"I… that is…" None of his doctorates are helping him here. He hasn't trained for this. There is no training for Tony Stark looking at him, for once not a hint of humor in his face.
"Bruce. Come with me."
That is not what he means to say. He thinks about taking it back, but Tony's smile is slow and staggering in its sincerity.
"Yes." Is what he says, reiterates, instead.
They actually do play Two Truths in Tony's chauffeured car and on Tony's private jet. They also play 20 Questions, Would You Rather, and oddly enough Risk. "You can tell a lot about a man by which continents he conquers." Tony says sagely. Bruce wonders how much this comes up, and what his own monopoly on Europe and Asia says about him. Good things, he hopes.
By the time they land in Malibu on Tony's private landing strip and begin the short ride in Tony's other chauffeured limousine, Bruce knows more about Tony Stark than the majority of gossip rags—not saying much—and Tony knows more about Bruce than everyone but Betty and Leonard—saying quite a lot.
One of things that Bruce has learned is that Tony Stark is perhaps overly fond of inebriating agents.
"She was my bestest friend but now she likes Rhodey better 'n me. So now you're my bestest friend instead, and that'll show Ms. Bossypants Potts!" Bruce sighs, once again failing to extricate himself from the octopus-like appendages of Tony as the man wraps around him.
He was quite frightened at first, and he's grateful that the alcohol will probably wipe Tony's memory of the way that Bruce flinched violently when the billionaire first launched himself at him. By now he just feels resigned, vaguely uncomfortable, and overly warm. Tony is like a furnace, and the Malibu heat isn't helping.
"So I'm the rebound friend?" He asks dryly. He mentally plans to look at hotels in the area in case Tony makes up with Ms. Potts and wants some alone time. He really doesn't need to know any more on that score than what Tony has been sharing for the last hour.
As it is he doesn't think he'll be able to maintain eye-contact with the woman for more than a second.
"No, no, you're like… like… my super bestest friend, because you can talk science. Pepper is all pretty and nice, but she just nags nags nags and gets all pissy when I flirt with other women."
"Ah, I can imagine why that might be a problem." Bruce offers. Tony pouts, looking up at him with bleary brown eyes.
"I don't cheat though. You need to—hic—need to know that. 'S important." Bruce smiles at him, more fondly than is safe after knowing him for less than 48 hours.
"Of course. I know that." And he does, sort of. Tony seems to be a natural flirt, but he also seems like a good person who knows when to stop—at least with sexual matters.
"Pepper didn't know that, and she's known me longer than you."
"Most people have." Bruce reminds him gently, making another half-hearted attempt to escape Tony's grip. It tightens.
"Yeah but… but… you—hic—get me. You know? Like Pepper likes me—used to love me—but she doesn't GET me. She thinks I'm too, too immature."
"I know. I mean, I'm a super hero and I run my own company."
That's a good point. Bruce still thinks he's immature. "You know what it's like, to be talking to—hic—somebody and they're talking to you and it's like you're, you're, speaking different languages?"
"Yes, actually, I do. I get that feeling a lot." Bruce is honestly surprised by how coherent and thoughtful Tony is when he's drunk. He's also a little worried that this means the man has developed a tolerance for this level of alcohol.
"Exactly! But you 'n' me, we speak the same language." He beams up drunkenly at Bruce, and the genius smiles helplessly back. Tony won't remember this anyway.
"Sir, we've arrived at your estate." The chauffer says with admirable neutrality, considering his boss is currently completely pissed and wrapped around another man like ivy. Bruce ducks his head to avoid looking in the man's eyes.
"Home sweet home!" Tony crows, partially releasing Bruce in order to fling open the door before the chauffer has the chance. He practically drags Bruce from the car, his customary position of having one arm looped around Bruce making a reappearance. Bruce excuses him in this case because he's relatively sure that the man couldn't be standing if he didn't have that arm looped around Bruce.
Bruce nods hurriedly at the chauffer, who still looks remarkable impartial but whose lip is twitching incriminatingly. Bruce really hopes that he never needs to go anywhere and that he will never need meet this man again. He couldn't live it down.
"You'll—hic—love it. Candyland." He mumbles somewhat incoherently. Bruce nods anyway.
"Okay, sure. Do you want to let us in?" Because this is Tony Stark, Bruce is willing to bet that attempting to break and enter will have much harsher repercussions than the norm.
"Oooooh, you'll like this." Tony's head flops back so that he is looking up at his home from an awkward angle. "Lucy! I'm home!"
The door swings open immediately. Bruce, bemused, helps Tony through the doorway.
"Welcome back, sir. Might I remind you that my name is not, in fact, any derivation of 'Lucy'?" Tony smiles dopily.
"Silly. Say hi to Brucey! He's new."
"Hello, Master Brucey." Bruce's jaw drops in horror.
"I'm not 'Master' anything, but most certainly not Brucey. Bruce. Bruce. " He tries to pinpoint the voice, and, failing, settles for looking at the ceiling. "You must be JARVIS."
"Indeed. It is a pleasure to meet you, Master Bruce." It might just be Bruce's imagination, but he thinks that the dry British voice might have softened a bit at the recognition. It figures that anything built by Tony Stark would share his ego.
"JARVIS, JARVIS! Bruce is my new bestest friend!"
"I see sir. I shall prepare lodgings for Master Bruce's stay. Is there anything else, sir?"
Tony giggles, and Bruce knows he's about to do something else inappropriate, so he interjects desperately, "Water! He'll need lots and lots of water if he's going to survive his hangover tomorrow."
"Understood, Master Bruce. Will you also be requiring Aspirin or other pain relief, for either your own or sir's inevitable headache?" Bruce blinks.
"For Tony, yeah, but I'm not drunk." He's a little miffed that the AI thinks he is.
"I realize, Master Bruce." The AI's voice could rival the Sahara. If he were capable, Bruce supposes he would be giving a meaningful look. Bruce pauses, realizes, and then chuckles, shaking his head.
"No, this is fine. I'll just take him up to bed… Ah, that is, if you don't mind showing me the way?"
"I can show you!" Tony chirps, and Bruce rolls his eyes.
"I don't think you could find the back of your own hand in your current state. "
"Indeed." JARVIS agrees, and a door slides open to Bruce's left, revealing an elevator. "This way, Master Bruce."
Tony docilely allows himself to be manhandled into the elevator, which closes behind them and starts to move without any input or direction from Bruce. He is a little unnerved, but mostly fascinated by the miracle that is JARVIS.
"Where we going?" Tony mumbles, leaning into Bruce's neck. The man shifts uncomfortably but does not move him, knowing the futility of the action.
"I'm taking you to bed."
He really should have anticipated the resulting leer. Luckily it loses some of its potency when Tony's eyes can't go more than five seconds without unfocusing. In fact, he falls asleep after ten. Bruce is unsure whether to be insulted.
The elevator dings open. "Sir's room is the first door on the left, Master Bruce. With your permission, I will assign your quarters as the first door on the right."
Tony had been bragging about how Bruce would have an entire floor—no, two—all to himself at the mansion. He'd sort of been looking forward to the privacy after spending so much time in close quarters with close to a thousand people. Still, he really has no right to complain, and if he's here, he can keep an eye on Tony.
It strikes him that JARVIS might have taken this into account too, when placing Bruce. He grins.
"Great minds think alike. I'll just settle Tony in and then I can get my bags—"
"Your possessions are already in transit, Master Bruce." As though sensing Bruce's discomfort, the AI offers, "Great minds think alike indeed."
Right. He hefts the snoring—snoring! The paparazzi would have a fit—man more sturdily over a shoulder and opens the door—a simple turn-handle, but Bruce has no illusions that if JARVIS didn't want him entering here, he would still be in the hallway.
Tony's room does not feel like Tony's room. This is not to say that Bruce Banner claims to be the authority on what does and does not feel like Tony Stark—um. Anyway, the room seems bare. Bruce had been expecting pinups and band posters, clothes strewn over the floor, and the bed messy and, uh, well broken-in. Sort of like the stereotypical randy teenage boy's room.
Instead the bed is immaculate, there isn't a mislaid piece of clothing in sight, and the walls are bare. On a desk in the corner, a few pieces of gold and red scraps and some tools litter the gleaming surface, but otherwise there is nothing. The only personal touch to the place is the dark red hue of the walls, barely visible in the dim light of the hallway. The color is reminiscent of the shade used on the Iron Man suit, Bruce thinks. It suits Tony.
"Alright, upsy-daisy." He maneuvers over to the bed and pulls back the covers, tipping Tony with little grace under them. He thinks about undressing Tony, rather swiftly decides against this course of action, and settles for slipping off his no doubt obscenely expensive shoes before pulling the lightest sheet up. The weather is warm, and the alcohol will warm him further; no cover at all is really needed, but for Tony's misplaced modesty and Bruce's tenuous sanity, the sheet stays.
He locates the adjoining bathroom with little trouble and returns with a glass of water and two Aspirin from the suspiciously well-stocked medicine cabinet, leaving them on the bedside table.
He hesitates for a moment, then slips out into the hall, whispering "Goodnight Tony" even though he knows there will be no answer. His own door is open, and stepping inside shows that his bags have already arrived.
Feeling as though he is in a dream, he takes a quick (blissful) shower, brushes his teeth and dons his a pair of his dorky pajamas (a "Revolve in Peace, Pluto" shirt and soft checkered pants) and collapses into his own cloud-like bed.
He is exhausted and slipping swiftly into unconsciousness, but before he shuts down completely he calls softly, "Goodnight JARVIS."
There is a brief pause, and then, "Goodnight, Master Bruce. Welcome home."