Del Rion's website - Can't Break Me (1/2)
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Can't Break Me (1/2)






Story Info



Title: Can’t Break Me

Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)

Fandom: The Avengers (MCU)

Genre: Drama

Rating: T / FRT

Characters: Bruce Banner (Hulk), Steve Rogers (Captain America), Tony Stark (Iron Man), Thor.
Smaller appearances: J.A.R.V.I.S., Pepper Potts, Tony’s bots (DUM-E & U)

Pairing: Bruce/Tony, Pepper/Tony (past)

Summary: Life didn’t get easier or simpler after the battle of Manhattan. The world changed, and they kept fighting, struggling, and finding ways to get around to another day. Coping mechanisms include but are not limited to: broken mirrors, dancing, alcohol, kisses and friendship.
Complete.

Written for: bigbang_mixup, round 2
Mixer: hippydeath (LJ) [mix link]
Artist: viviantanner (LJ) [art links: LJ / dA]

Warnings: Language, canonical violence, near-death situations, mentions of PTSD and suicidal thoughts, some gruesome descriptions. A few vague allusions to/influences from Iron Man 3, but no real spoilers.

Disclaimer: Iron Man, Avengers and Marvel Cinematic Universe, including characters and everything else, belong to Marvel, Marvel Studios, Joss Whedon, Jon Favreau, Shane Black, Louis Leterrier, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston, Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Universal Pictures… In short: I own nothing; this is pure fiction, created to entertain likeminded fans, for no profit whatsoever.

Beta: Mythra

Feedback: Very much appreciated in every shape and form.


About Can’t Break Me: This is the first time I’ve written anything based on a mix. I definitely didn’t think it would be as difficult as it was, yet it was a refreshing challenge (writing from songs is so much harder than, say, writing something inspired by an image; a song can be “heard” in so many different ways, and as you dig into the lyrics, looking for inner meanings that might unlock a scene in a story, it’s definitely a new experience if you haven’t done it before). I wouldn’t be averse to doing this again.

The story in general has a day-in-a-life feel to it.

It would also seem that some small references in this story borrowed themselves from Iron Man 3; no spoilers, don’t worry, and I’m not sure if this story follows the events set by The Avengers, or those seen in Iron Man 3, so let’s call this a happy middle in which IM3 may or may have not happened.

Fic title is borrowed/copied (with permission) from the title of the mix.


The mix:
01: When the World Was Young by John Cafferty
02: Devil in the Midnight Mass by Billy Talent
03: Burn (alleged remix) by Alkaline Trio
04: Red Flag by Billy Talent
05: Let It Rock by Kevin Rudolf feat. Lil Wayne
06: Ready to Run by Dixy Chicks
07: Tik Tok by Ke$ha
08: Steal My Romance by Ghosts On the Radio
09: Excess by Tricky
10: Stripping Cane by Jeffrey Foucault
11: O Death by Jen Titus
12: I’m Still Here by Johnny Rzeznik


Story and status: Below you see the writing process of the story. If there is no text after the title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.

Can’t Break Me








Written for bigbang_mixup’s round 2; inspired by a mix put together by hippydeath (LJ); including art by viviantanner (LJ).





Can’t Break Me



From Steve’s days to the 21st century, the world had changed as much as it had stayed the same. Similarities were harder to come by, but if given time, they would slowly surface.

Of course, even more prominent was the new era Steve had witnessed being born with his own eyes – and which his own blood and sweat had partially wrought into existence: the age of superheroes. After the Chitauri had attacked Manhattan and the Avengers had first joined forces to repel the invasion and save the world from falling under Loki’s dominion, humanity was rolling around on training wheels once more, dealing with the fact that there were actual superheroes in existence. Of course Iron Man had been there prior to the Avengers, but Tony’s armor was something a human mind could conceive of – at least Tony Stark’s mind – instead of super-soldiers, Norse gods of thunder and a green beast of untold power and rage.

The world had struggled for a time, to come to terms with the poorly concealed fact that the Avengers were very real, and still popping up, together and separately, from time to time. The virtual world was filling with pages, news clips and videos from around the globe, putting together a world-wide puzzle of what was going on beneath the surface.

There were many who still regarded superheroes as a big government hoax, although the believers would easily poke holes into their outlandish claims of deception. There were also those who were rather indifferent – until they got thrown into the middle of a superhero showdown against the villain of the month. After any such occasion, voices of thanks would mix with cries of outrage, because some people were never happy to barely escape certain death with their lives, instead choosing to complain to anyone who cared to listen about how ‘the Hulk crashed through our house!’ or ‘the lightning destroyed the grid and we’ve been without electricity for three days now’ – not to mention blaming bruises and broken bones on ‘manhandling and blind disregard for public safety’ whenever the heroes fought to save innocent lives from the midst of destruction.

Most people sang the heroes’ praises, but the complaints were the loudest and most persistent.

Steve knew, however, that they were fighting a good fight. That was why the Avengers kept coming together, regardless of their failures, mistakes and downfalls. They had made promises to each other and the world over the years, and risen above many challenges that would have knocked each of them down if they had stood alone.

United, they had a chance against those who would seek to destroy them.

As Steve took in the buzzing atmosphere of an afternoon in New York City, it was easy to see a world that had grown up – perhaps too quickly, like a precocious child, but in the shadow of the Avengers Tower that loomed over the city, what other choice did it have? At the same time, the people still went about their business as before, unfazed and unchanged. The tourists still milled around, gawking and snapping pictures.

Life went on.

In the distance, out over Central Park, lightning flashed, and the clouds began to gather in the sky, pressed together into a thick, swirling pillar. Steve threw the wrappers of his hot dog into a nearby trash can and slid onto his bike, starting the engine: an event like that heralded either trouble or the arrival of Thor. Like always, Steve hoped it was the latter.

- - -

The nightmare still roiled in his chest as Bruce woke up, the room dark around him. His inner clock informed him that it was the wrong time for sleeping, but he and Tony had been up for almost two days straight and rest had become essential for even the most basic functionality.

It didn’t mean resting would be easy.

Exhaustion didn’t keep the nightmares at bay indefinitely, because if that were the case, Bruce would have utilized that fact to full effectiveness earlier in his life.

His entire body was coated in a sheen of sweat, clinging to his clothes and skin, making him feel uncomfortable and disgusting. His mind knew the darkness around him was unnatural; he didn’t know what time it was, exactly, but it was supposed to be light outside and he shouldn’t be in bed, trying to sleep but instead gnawing his way through another private showing of a horror movie…

If only his dreams were surreal. He could have deal with that, shrug it off and rearrange his thoughts for another bout of rest. Well, his nightmares were surreal, in many ways, but he also knew them to be flashes from the other guy’s mind, and the feelings bubbling up through his skin, seeping into the sheets, burned like acid on his self-control.

“Lights,” he groused.

The room slowly lit up, and Bruce remained lying on the bed, debating whether he should ask for the time, or see for himself. Around him, the room was quiet. The clock on the nightstand wasn’t making a sound, the walls sound-proofed to block out the noises coming from the outside, which meant he was left with only the sounds of his own body, and the imagined shuffling of large green feet.

He eventually grew too anxious to remain tangled in the sheets, skin too cold now that the sweat was cooling him down. Bruce pushed himself up and made his way to the bathroom, each movement focused and in control of his body, not leaving openings for any surprises.

The lights in the bathroom lit up as he entered, and Bruce went to place his hand on the settings on the wall, to dim the lights to a minimum because he really didn’t need to look at himself right now – then hesitated and met his own gaze in the large mirror above the sink. Bags beneath his eyes; a dark, scowling expression he couldn’t really feel but didn’t doubt, either; his hair a sweaty mess. He supposed he might as well shower, and envisioned the process of stripping his clothes, getting in the shower and allowing the hot water to pull out the last painful hooks of the dream from his mind.

It would have been pleasant, had it actually been that easy, but Bruce found himself still standing near the doorway, absently staring at the mirror and his own reflection in it. The shower was right there, but the water wouldn’t wash away a single blood-smeared smudge on his mind. It was too late for that; no soap or holy water could purify the tainted parts of his being.

A devil lurked in his peripheral vision… a distorted image behind stained glass.

He shook his head. For years he had fought to overcome the darkness inside him, then to understand it. The hard part wasn’t the other guy, but the fact that all that anger, evil and violence was buried so much deeper than the beast could reach. Bruce remembered a tortured boy, clamped down tight on himself in the face of things a child should not have to witness. In the end, that boy had to die. How convenient it would have been if all that darkness had just bled out with him, but instead of purification, Bruce felt poisoned to the core.

The boy had been replaced by something else – something the world often got glimpses of, but not when they expected it; the manifestation of all of Bruce’s repressed rage wasn’t the Hulk, even though the beast often wrung him dry. No: it was the silent, stewing, dangerous undertone that set some of his teammates on edge, and each time, Bruce expected them to draw a line, to cast him out.

To make Bruce the villain.

He met his eyes again. Not green, but dark brown, seething and angry, tired of clinging to threads and making emergency knots to build a web that would hopefully hold itself together long enough for… what? Absolution?

His eyes narrowed. Fingers curled into fists.

The memory of a dream flashed across his mind. Broken bodies beneath his feet, covered in dust and rubble, like abandoned dummies with clothes and broken faces, blood smeared about them in the uncertain strokes of a flowering artist. There was blood on his hands.

Bruce growled and punched the mirror, hard. It fractured and three chunks fell down, two of them shattering into smaller pieces all over the sink and the table. He stared at the shards. There was blood on a few of them, and the hot stab of pain from his hand made him cast a look at the limb, finding long wounds across his knuckles and the bottom of his palm.

Blood on his hands…

He sighed and gingerly turned on the water, washing most of the blood down the drain but more kept welling up. Turning off the water, he stared at his hand, wondering if this was what the Hulk had nightmares about.

- - -

The ground was still trembling when Thor straightened and looked around. Here and there around him, people had stopped to stare – and as was customary on Midgard, many were already reaching for those small technical devices they called cellphones. None of them approached him directly, so Thor allowed the dust to settle in the wake of the Bifrost and looked around again: it was often that one of the Avengers, or someone from S.H.I.E.L.D., would arrive to greet him when he arrived in Midgard.

Sure enough, after a little while had passed and most of the people had carried on with their activities, leaving Thor in peace, a familiar motorcycle curved around a bend in the road, the sound of the engine partially absorbed by the surrounding trees.

Thor greeted his fellow Avenger and leader with a smile and a nod of his head while Steve Rogers brought the vehicle to a halt and proceeded to park it safely. He took his time, so unlike the world around him which always seemed to be in a hurry. Various people had attempted to explain this to Thor, speaking quickly, trying to make him comprehend that the world moved faster these days and if you didn’t move with it, you would be left behind, coughing in the dust.

While Thor had never been one to fall behind on anything, in all his many years, he wondered how well he was doing in this modern age – as well as Steve. They both came from different worlds, and although they had adapted fairly well, they would often seek a quiet place to reminisce of times and places much different than today’s Midgard.

Truly, just a handful of decades had brought with them a great change, and for Thor that was astonishing. In his world, things did not change that fast. Not so… drastically, anyway. That was why he always felt so tense when leaving Midgard behind, to return home to his duties on Asgard – wondering how much things would have changed in his absence before he returned to the Middle Realm once more.

Just like Steve feared that if he went to sleep, he might not awaken again for another lifetime…

“Hi,” Steve greeted him finally, walking over. “Is there trouble?” he asked next, because too often their meetings were foreshadowed by a need to assemble. Much as Thor enjoyed a good battle, he knew how much was at stake each time; he was older, not so foolish anymore, feeling the responsibilities of the protection of all Nine Realms, but especially Midgard.

His friends in Asgard often asked him why Midgard was special. Thor wished he knew how to explain it, to his father more than most. In the beginning, he had thought the humans a weaker race, but he had also witnessed the greatness in them; a tenacity. However, they also had the power to destroy themselves and those around them, and like unruly, stubborn children, they refused to listen to reason.

Much as Thor wanted to shelter them, some lessons needed to be learned through trial by fire.

“Nay,” Thor replied to Steve. “At least, there is no trouble in Asgard.”

Steve nodded firmly. “Nothing here, either. So… good news all around,” he decided.

Thor could tell a part of Steve was a little disappointed. They both shared a desire to do something, to be useful. Waiting made them restless, like the sky ripe for a storm, gathering pressure before unleashing its power.

During his life and travels, Thor had seen many a place and many a storm. On Midgard, nature was often violent, humans not standing a chance against its unpredictable might. For Thor, it was a bitter lesson, for Midgard’s might was of little consequence to him, yet it was not he who struggled against a tidal wave or escaped from the fire lit by a flash of lightning.

“You hungry?” Steve casually asked.

Seeing as both of them had healthy appetites, Thor grinned. “Certainly.”

The other nodded. “Maybe we should get you changed first.”

“Your place or the Tower?” Thor asked in return; he knew how much his Asgardian clothing attracted attention, and sometimes, it was better to fit in – especially if they wanted to focus on eating.

“Mine,” Steve shrugged and turned back towards his motorcycle. “I’m not sure if there’s anyone at the Tower at this time.” They all had the right to use the Avengers Tower as they saw fit, but Thor had noticed Steve’s reluctance to go there whenever Tony Stark was not present. The name ‘Stark’ was no longer decorating the exterior of the building, instead replaced by a single ‘A’ that stood for ‘Avengers’, yet it had first and foremost been Tony’s building – still was – so perhaps Steve did not feel invited whenever Tony was not there to host them.

Thor gripped Mjolnir in his hand and looked up to the sky as Steve started the engine of his motorcycle. They would meet at Steve’s small, simple home, choose a change of clothes for Thor and then go out and feast like good friends. In the midst of all the chaos, desperation, stubbornness and hectic life that made up Midgard, Thor liked nothing better than sitting down with Steve Rogers in some restaurant, and be free of the concerns of the Nine Realms for a moment.

- - -

Tony was on a roll, or at least he liked to think he was: he had been awake for a little over two days now and felt wide awake. He wasn’t drunk but pleasantly buzzed, the new upgrades to the armor weren’t giving him any trouble, and the bots hadn’t managed to spill or break anything recently. Dummy had done a little corner-time earlier, after running over Tony’s foot and making him cut a wire in the most inappropriate place possible, but Tony was in a forgiving mood so the robot was now arranging his tools at one of the work stations.

His latest project neatly wrapped up, Tony sat back to consider what to do next. He glanced at the time and wondered if Bruce would be up soon: the two of them were alone in the house, if you didn’t count two bots, multiple armors and one AI. Tony supposed he shouldn’t count the armors as ‘inhabitants’, but he was the one doing the counting so it didn’t matter whether he did or didn’t.

He took another sip of his drink and listened as the music track changed in the background. Now that he wasn’t absorbed in fine-tuning the armor’s interior to better follow the commands from his body, he stopped to listen and nodded along, fishing an ice cube from his glass and passing it from side to side in his mouth with his tongue. Billy Talent had a valid point: the future didn’t really need today when it had to swim around in the sins of the past. Luckily, Tony was a master of redeeming questionable, sin-infested pasts and making way for a better, brighter tomorrow.

Finishing his drink, he got up and went to refill the glass. He may have been forced to take a few abrupt side-steps to not run into You and maintain his balance, but he wasn’t drunk, and he didn’t need a crutch…

As he poured himself more of the amber liquid, he looked up and along the far wall of his workshop. Who was he kidding? He was the biggest employer of the most high-tech crutches in the world. Most people didn’t even realize what the suits were to Tony, on most days, after the events in New York. Sure, that battle was years into the past and the Avengers had battled worse things than space aliens since 2012, but some things stuck harder than the others. Tony had gotten rid of the nightmares and panic attacks, the paralyzing fear and nagging doubt, but there were still times when he needed to only open his eyes and see that he was still using the suits as a crutch – not for the pain, perhaps, but to keep him going.

Tony rolled his eyes at himself, downing most of his drink in one go.

“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up, lowering the volume of the music. “Dr. Banner is awake.”

“Yeah?” Tony asked, glass half-way back to his mouth. His AI didn’t announce such things unless he was asked to, which led Tony to expect something else was coming.

“It would seem he may require some medical assistance.”

Tony frowned and put the glass down before drinking the rest of what was left in it. “Medical assistance, as in…?”

“Dr. Banner broke a mirror in his bathroom and continues to bleed. There seems to be no immediate danger.”

“Did he ask for help?”

“No, sir.”

There may have been a puzzle in there somewhere, but Tony knew the answer would be too simple for him to bother with unfolding the riddle. So, he just turned and walked up from the workshop, turning a corner and heading out to the rooms that had become Bruce’s whenever he stayed in Malibu with Tony. “Doc,” Tony called out as he rapped his knuckles against the door, then opened it and stepped inside. He gave the room a quick once-over: twisted sheets, but nothing alarming; light coming from the bathroom, but no running water or sounds of distress.

“You’re up,” Bruce commented, not even bothering to make a statement about Tony entering before being invited inside.

“I was working,” he shrugged, then finally caught a glimpse of the other man, Bruce’s right hand partially covered by a towel he had wrapped around it. Tony could spot bright red splotches of blood on the white cotton. “Need a hand with that?” he asked, pointing.

Bruce looked down, as if he were surprised by the injury. “I would prefer if you didn’t help.”

“But if I insist?” Tony pressed.

The look on Bruce’s features was exasperated, but also worn out and defeated. “Your house.”

“My rules,” Tony finished, gave him a quick smile and then turned on his heels and motioned for Bruce to follow in case he didn’t get the drift. Tony led them down to the workshop, Bruce still wearing the clothes he had worn to bed and clutching the towel around his hand. Tony could sense the question forming on the other man’s lips, not quite making it into words, and he motioned for Bruce to sit down instead; he really shouldn’t have to explain to Bruce why his workshop had the most well-stocked medicine cabinet in the house. “J, lights,” he ordered and dug into said medicine cabinet. “You, come here and give me a hand,” he ordered one of the bots. “Dummy, fetch the waste basket.”

He pulled things out of the cabinet and then carried them over to one of the more sterile tables, beside which Bruce was sitting, looking pale and haggard in the bright lights J.A.R.V.I.S. had turned towards them. Tony unloaded the medical equipment on the table and slid over a chair of his own, shifting closer. “Show,” he demanded, gesturing with his hand, then moved to tug off the bloodied towel.

Bruce jerked back, his wounded hand pressed tight against his chest, as if he were protecting it from Tony.

“Stop being a baby,” Tony gave him a look.

“Stop being an idiot,” Bruce said back. “Do you have gloves?”

Tony snapped his fingers and You dutifully brought him a fresh pair of heavy-duty surgical gloves. “Satisfied, worrywart?”

Bruce slowly extended his arm and allowed Tony to tug away the towel and throw it into a trash can Dummy had brought over. He spread out a protective sheath on the table and placed Bruce’s hand on top of it, tilting his head, waiting for instructions, because one of them might actually qualify as a doctor in some third-world country, and the other had once used hot glue to close a gash on his thigh. Neither of them needed to be a genius to figure out which was which.

“You know my blood is dangerous, right?” Bruce murmured after a bit.

“Yes,” Tony told him, guessing the situation would benefit from him actually showing that he knew. “Guide me through this, will you?”

Bruce nodded slowly. “Clean it up. I don’t think it needs stitches…”

“I can make stitches,” Tony informed him. “They might not be pretty, but they get the job done.” Bruce gave him a look, as if wondering whether Tony were joking, or revealing another past trauma of some kind. Tony shrugged, working to clean away the excess blood and see what exactly they were dealing with. “So, care to tell me why I have to replace your bathroom mirror?”

Bruce didn’t tell him, so Tony looked at the other man’s face. Sometimes, it was as if they had just met, with Bruce trying to keep him at arm’s length and pretending that no one could possibly understand what went on in his head.

“I… didn’t like the guy that was looking back at me,” Bruce finally admitted.

“Do you ever?”

A smile – small, clearly displeased, but a smile nonetheless – appeared as a reaction to his words. “I’ve had better days.” Bruce looked down at their hands. “I think the palm might need stitches.”

Tony cleaned the area, put some butterfly-bandages to keep the nasty palm wound shut while he dealt with the knuckle wounds, then returned to the palm and pulled out stitching supplies.

“So, you’ve done this before?” Bruce returned to Tony’s earlier comment.

“To myself, only,” Tony told him. “I don’t like hospitals – or the staff. Nothing personal. Just… not since Afghanistan. If I can handle it on my own, then I do just that.”

“I always thought you had private doctors at your beck-and-call.”

“They’re still strangers, no matter how much of their payroll comes from my pocket,” Tony pursed his lips, looking at the wound. “Do you want a drink?”

“For the pain?” Bruce actually chuckled. “I think I’ll be fine. It’s the… least I can do, for breaking your mirror. Sorry.”

“You really should talk to someone about your anger-management issues,” Tony suggested as he sank the needle into Bruce’s flesh for the first time. The other man grimaced, slightly, eyes following the proceedings. He didn’t tell Tony he was doing it all wrong, which was probably good. Then again, the first time Tony did stitch himself up, he’d had J.A.R.V.I.S. pull some legitimate training videos, so he guessed his technique was the only thing that needed sharpening.

“I don’t like head-doctors,” Bruce noted. “They agitate me and that defeats the purpose of talking to them, at least for me.”

“Well, I’m all ears,” Tony suggested airily, leaning a bit closer to the hand he was working on.

“I think with your history, dealing with my problems will only make things worse for you.”

“I’m having a good spell.”

“Yeah, haven’t seen you breathing into a bag for a while.”

Tony jabbed the needle a bit deeper into Bruce’s skin than he should have, and their eyes met over the injured hand. “Smooth, Banner.”

“Am I making you uncomfortable?”

“Seeing as I’m trying to sew shut a wound on your hand, you’d do well to keep me happy – or, at the very least to not cause an attack.”

Bruce looked appropriately contrite and Tony went back to fixing him up.

Years may have rolled by since their first battle in New York City, and there may have been dozens of other disasters between then and now, but it didn’t mean Tony didn’t feel a shortness of breath every now and then.

It just made him try to outrun it faster, and that normally worked just fine.

- - -

His hand still ached, but Tony had done a passable job with the bandages and stitches, seeing as Bruce couldn’t really have patched himself up with just one hand.

They had dressed back up, leaving the workshop in favor of the kitchen and living room, and although neither of them was fully invested in making breakfast, they raided the fridge and found several things to eat that didn’t require extended preparation. Once sustenance was acquired, they settled down in the living room, on the couches, food piled up on the table, and ate in something that had to be companionable silence interrupted only by occasional musings of a scientific nature.

The beauty of floating around in Tony Stark’s orbit was the vast expanse of things one got to experience, whether it was limits-defying tests, scientific pursuits, a new theory that required discouragement before things went boom – or simpler things, such as Tony recalling something from his youth, followed by a joyous order to J.A.R.V.I.S., which would eventually lead to a song coming from the speakers hidden around the room, Tony singing along and dancing to it, forcing Bruce to smile despite himself.

Tony put up a front between himself and the rest of the world. Over the years, Bruce had more than once found himself locked within it rather than shut outside, and despite their jibes at each other and a shorthand communication, Tony trusted Bruce to see the raw side of himself, full of claw-marks – most of which had probably been left there by Tony himself.

It was obvious, as the sun rose and hours went by without either of them wanting to do anything more constructive than hanging out in the living room, that Tony lit up Bruce’s world in the most amazing ways – and Bruce let him, perhaps against his better judgment.

What was the worst that could happen?

Well, this was the man who designed many of the Hulkbusters’ most effective gear, which were then used in attempts to capture the Hulk – and that tech still surfaced, occasionally, when General Ross felt like the Hulk had stomped on too many toes in between saving the world. There was no doubt that if there were such a man who was capable of finding a way to cause Bruce bodily harm, it was Tony – but he also welcomed that knowledge, because they had seen that not even Thor could match the other guy on a bad day, and Bruce needed someone in his corner with the ability to neutralize him.

Tony would be that man, one day. He had no doubts about that.

“Thinking of something nice?” Tony asked from across the room where he was standing by the glass-wall, minutely gyrating to the song coming from the speakers and hand hovering over a touch-screen that had appeared on the transparent surface. His eyes were alive, even with dark bags beneath them signaling that he was in need of rest.

“It’s not… something you would enjoy,” Bruce mused.

“But you just might?” Tony guessed, recalling his line, quick as a whip, after all these years, and raised an eyebrow as he looked over his shoulder at Bruce.

Bruce replied with an indulgent smile but didn’t elaborate. At the back of his mind, the beast shifted, but never dangerously close to the surface. It was there, though, waiting, and Bruce wondered if it would, in time, be something he got used to; as much as he tried, he couldn’t just accept the manifestation of all his buried rage and inadequacy. No matter how much good they could do, together and separately, the past would remain firmly on his mind, covered in blood and destruction.

That was a thread that tied Tony and himself together: Tony also had much to atone for, even though his crimes had often been less harmful. Drunken misbehavior, recklessness, countless broken hearts and promises – and a body count that never led back to Tony, personally, but which he still took to bed with him every night, counting bodies like sheep as he waited for sleep.

Not so different from Bruce…

Tony pulled back from the windows, the screen disappearing from the glass. He danced across the living room, weaving past furniture, caught up in the current song, movements so sensual that it didn’t seem as awkward as it would have doubtlessly been if he’d made Bruce try and copy him. Which he often tried to achieve, anyway – just like now: ‘Come on,’ Tony mouthed at him, reaching out for Bruce, fingers waggling in an invitation.

Bruce shook his head, giving him another good-natured smile.

“Come on,” Tony said out loud, taking a step towards him. Bruce couldn’t recoil from him without leaving the couch he was sitting on, and when Tony’s hand tugged on his, it was like a new gravity had been born, pulling him closer to the brilliant sun that was Tony Stark.

Against his better judgment, Bruce got to his feet, and Tony’s smile could have blinded a person – or made a blind man see.

‘Make you come alive’, the male singer sang to a steady beat of music.

Tony’s body was close to his, but for once, he wasn’t flirting. Bruce knew the difference by now; this was something else. It was also addictive, and Bruce tried to match his movements with Tony’s – small sways of his hips, shifting shoulders – and accepted Tony’s arms sliding over his shoulders, not holding, not drawing him into an embrace, but welcoming Bruce’s arms to settle around the other man’s body, at his waist.

Their foreheads touched and Tony’s grin was turning infectious. It was stupid, whatever they were doing, but no one else was there and… the music drew to a close, their bodies pausing, still close, hanging onto the last threads of the moment:

‘I wish I could be,
As cruel as you,
And I wish I could say,
The things you do,
But I can’t and I won’t live a lie,
No, not this time.’

Tony closed his eyes, letting out a soft breath of air that caressed Bruce’s cheek. “Alright,” the genius engineer declared, “time for us to get truly, utterly and spectacularly hammered, Dr. Banner.”

“Alright,” Bruce replied – once again against his better judgment, but that was how most things with Tony went, and so far… no one had died.

- - -

Pepper pulled up at the house, looking around. Everything was quiet, and the entire area looked… un-demolished.

Ever since Tony became Iron Man, any party he attended had the potential to turn into a destruction zone or worse. To be fair, things had been calmer for years, but there had been phases, depending on certain other factors in Tony’s life. Pepper kept an eye out from an old habit that hadn’t been removed before she and Tony got together, when they were together, or after they split up as a couple.

Once upon a time Tony had agreed that J.A.R.V.I.S. would let her know if things got ‘crazy’ at the house – crazy by Pepper’s standards, because Tony’s standards for crazy went above and beyond visiting Norse gods, explosions and death-matches between two armored suits. She had half-expected Tony to draw some kind of line between Pepper and his personal life after they were no longer an item, but J.A.R.V.I.S. had continued to remain faithful to Pepper, in a sense, which was a relief; Pepper was still Tony’s boss, and his friend, which meant she needed to know when Tony was potentially on the verge of another downward spiral – or having too much of a good time.

She leaned back against her seat, steeling herself against whatever she might find inside the house. From naked underwear models to destroyed furnishings, she had seen it all. It never got any easier, and with Tony, you never knew what to expect.

A Dixie Chicks song was playing on her car stereo and Pepper briefly reflected how well it matched her life – or one particular time in her life. She hadn’t actually thought of the correlation before, but then, she tried not to actively think of the reasons why she and Tony were no longer together.

It wasn’t as if anyone had expected their relationship to implode for the reasons it had, although it was better than most other options – which included a horrible, painful death, or one of them cheating on the other.

No: it was much simpler and less complicated than some outside influence – of which there had been many, thanks to Tony’s super-heroing around the globe. There had been times when Pepper had been ready to walk out the door for any one of those other reasons – valid, reasonable reasons – but the one that finally sealed the deal was that she simply wasn’t ready.

For years, Pepper had thought she had been, but when it began to feel like Tony was gearing towards the big commitment, which may have included him on one knee in some ridiculously cheesy and romantic setting, she sensed it wasn’t, surprisingly, what she wanted from her life. Not at this point. Not with him.

It hadn’t made sense to Pepper for the longest time. She had tried to analyze it, to take it apart. Did the fault lie with her, or with Tony – their past, or their present? But when she finally got past the blame, self-loathing and guilt, the relief was unmistakable. She could have spent all her life doing what she thought she should do and wondering if she had made the right choice, but she chose to sit Tony down for that one, meaningful talk, and as painful as it had been for them both, for a long time, they had chosen to ease out of it instead of wrenching each other apart, roots and all.

For almost a year, it had felt they were still together, but things weren’t strained or uncomfortable. The two of them had actually enjoyed each other’s company, without trying too hard, just… hanging out. They’d had fun, and sometimes they still had sex, but it was casual and Pepper wanted to believe Tony wasn’t hiding some resentment from her – or harboring a one-sided longing. She wanted to maintain familiarity between them and not lose the closeness, but she would if Tony couldn’t handle their arrangement.

So far, it had worked well, and Pepper wanted to believe she knew Tony well enough to be able to tell if he wasn’t being honest.

With one, final breath, she turned the key in the ignition and cut off the power, then slid out of the car and walked to the front door. J.A.R.V.I.S. opened it for her, and once inside, she looked around to assess the damage. There were bottles stacked at the bar, but no naked limbs or broken movables. “J.A.R.V.I.S.,” she called out, “how many guests did Tony have last night?”

“One, Ms. Potts,” the AI replied promptly.

“Is that guest still around?”

“Yes: Dr. Banner is currently asleep in the workshop, with Mr. Stark.”

“Bruce?” she looked around again, at the bottles and empty bowls of… whatever had been there. “Nothing looks… Did the Hulk…?” Pepper wasn’t certain how to finish that question. She knew they had a term for it, but she always felt clumsy using it.

“There was no hulk-out related incident. Just some… heavy drinking and partying.”

She wondered why J.A.R.V.I.S. had notified her, because Bruce Banner wasn’t usually someone you could lure into mischief and reckless behavior. Then again, if Tony had managed to make the scientist let loose, the repercussions might be far worse than anything else she had ever witnessed after a night – or weekend – of partying.

Pepper was, once again, glad that this wasn’t her life and responsibility around the clock anymore. She took the stairs down to the workshop, keyed in her code to let herself in, and found the lights on low. The workshop appeared to be in order, save for some bottles, snack wrappers and several in-progress projects.

On the couch against the far wall, Pepper could make out Bruce’s unruly curls, then saw movements and saw one of the bots, probably Dummy, gently maneuvering a blanket that was threatening to slide to the floor from where Tony was curled up on one of the work benches, just as fast asleep as Bruce. Dummy continued to struggle, and Pepper had to smile at the strangely domestic vision.

That was when Dummy pulled a little too hard, managing to drag up the blanket but also smacking Tony in the face with his mechanical hand, which made the man wake up with a small shout and a jolt that almost sent him rolling off the bench entirely, one hand reaching out to steady himself on Dummy’s arm.

Bruce jerked up on the couch, looking around in startled alarm, but he didn’t start to turn green or expand, whichever usually came first.

Pepper cleared her throat softly. “Morning, gentlemen,” she called out.

Tony’s head whipped around so fast it had to hurt, and a somewhat painful smile appeared on his face. “Oh, hey, Pepper! Fancy seeing you here… isn’t it?” he asked, and looked at Bruce.

The scientist just shrugged a bit and scratched his head.

J.A.R.V.I.S. turned the lights slightly brighter and turned the wide windows from opaque to translucent, letting in the morning sunshine. Both men groaned and covered their eyes, which in Tony’s case meant shifting the blanket, which slid off him and onto the floor. Dummy looked at his creator, then at the blanket and let out a frustrated sound.

Pepper understood, wondering why on earth Tony would choose to sleep on the workbench to begin with – naked.

“Wild night?” she ventured to ask.

“Very,” Bruce admitted, still shielding his eyes. Whether it was from the sun or Tony’s naked front, she wasn’t sure, but for a man who spent most of his post-missions naked in the midst of destruction, she made an educated guess it might be the former.

“Hardly,” Tony argued, sitting up, feet dangling off the bench. “Maybe a few drinks too many, but not wild by any definition.”

“I don’t recall you getting naked,” Bruce commented, slowly uncovering his eyes and getting an eyeful of Tony.

“It was hot!” Tony claimed, “and J.A.R.V.I.S. refused to crank up the AC.”

“I simply suggested you turn off the blowtorch first, sir.”

Tony let out a dismissive sound, then leaned forward and cradled his head.

“I also have a message to deliver from Captain Rogers, now that you are awake, sir,” the AI went on. “Thor arrived in New York City yesterday. The Captain thought you would like to know.”

“Is there trouble brewing?” Tony asked.

“He did not mention any such thing, and there is nothing in the news. Captain Rogers stated they were going to ‘hang out’.”

“Good for them,” Tony groused and slid onto his feet, padding over to the workshop’s bathroom and closing the door firmly.

“Well,” Pepper mused uncertainly, meeting Bruce’s eyes, “I’ll go upstairs and maybe start on some breakfast unless you cleaned out the entire kitchen during your drunk science escapade.”

“There wasn’t that much science involved. I think,” Bruce replied. “I think I recall J.A.R.V.I.S. shutting down certain equipment and Tony trying to hack him to let us use them anyway.”

Pepper gave him a wry smile. “Another day in the life of Tony Stark.”

They both could hear a faint groan from the bathroom and the muffled sound of Tony beating his head against the wall, probably to alleviate the headache he was suffering from while he browsed the medicine cabinet for something to ease the way into a new day.

Pepper pointed at the stairs and exited, not feeling at all guilty to leave the two men to deal with their hangovers.

It was twenty minutes later when the two of them finally emerged from the workshop. Tony was clothed this time, looking much more chipper. Bruce still looked like someone was kicking his skull from the inside, but he gave Pepper a smile as she offered him some freshly squeezed juice and light toast.

Tony grabbed himself some coffee and gave Pepper’s cheek a kiss as he passed her. “We’re flying out to the Big Apple today if you have nothing else,” he said, looking at her. At the same time, he reached out to steal one of the pieces of toast Pepper had made for Bruce. After all, tending to a man who could turn into a giant rage monster was more important than nursing Tony.

“I can think of nothing important,” Pepper replied. “But I’ll let you know if something comes up.”

Tony nodded, obviously in an agreeable mood. Clearly whatever he and Bruce had done last night had been for the greater good.

Pepper’s phone rang at that moment, and she moved to fish it from her purse. Seeing that it was work-related, she shouldered the purse and prepared to leave, knowing she had things to do at the office now that she had made sure the situation at Tony’s house wasn’t something that required her attention.

Tony straightened a little, meeting her eyes before she could move away, and pursed his lips just a little. Pepper smiled, recognizing the signal, and leaned forward to give Tony a light kiss before answering her phone and leaving the two men to sort themselves out before the cross-country flight.

- - -





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