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Title: How Many Scientists Does it Take to Screw in the Stark Tower?
Fandom: Avengers
Pairing: Tony Stark/Bruce Banner
Rating: G, this part.
Word Count: 2,974
Status: Chapter 7 of 9
Summary: Honestly, Bruce hadn't gone into this looking to form any lasting attachments - if he was honest with himself, he knew better.

In the aftermath, Tony is dangerously silent and he drives home quickly without letting his hand leave the gear shift. The ride is uncontrolled enough, unheedingly fast enough that Bruce wishes he had taken Peppers offer to ride with her and Happy. Except, seeing how stern and ill-humored Tony's expression had been, Bruce felt he shouldn't really be alone.

It's the sort of inward driven anger, that skin-crawling teeth clenched desire to do something absolutely as destructive as humanly possible that Bruce recognizes. And it's a danger to expose himself to that - Bruce is naturally empathetic, and that is something familiar anyway.

He grips the armrest as Tony dares the world to chase them, in the rising evening. The centrifugal force makes Bruce aware of every slide and turn by individual degrees, and the wind pushes his new suit and shirt collars into a ruffling disarray. Tony had torn his tie off just blocks from the cemetery, and flung it out the back of the convertible as if he could shed all the silent misery of the funeral with six hundred dollars of silk fabric. The rush of wind and powerful growl of the engine make silence the only option other than shouting - screaming, really. So they don't say anything. Bruce just feels his heart rate climb the way Tony's must be - and then he just closes his eyes and does his best to disconnect, trusting his life to Tony's driving because worrying about a wreck is going to cause one, if Bruce suddenly quadruples his weight and turns into something that could throw the car easily as fast and as far as it was going.

He's under control by the time they've parked, even if it takes some time for him to register that they've stopped moving. The car idles roughly, likely unused to being put through it's paces in so inconsiderate a manner. Tony jams it into park and yanks the keys out of the ignition, his motions speaking in angry economies that don't spare the car. They were machine like in precision as he worked the handle and go tout, like the way his mind was probably working in agitated but efficient bursts. Even when he's upset, he can't be entirely unreasonable. He retains efficiency - and relies on alcohol to rob him of that when he needs even it to be gone.

Bruce thinks it's about to be one of those situations, and he lingers in the car, torn as to what he can do - if he really even has a right to interfere at this point in their - whatever it is. Relationship. Friendship.

"Tony," he tries, deciding he really has to at least try to distract him from this destructive emotion. It was likely to turn inward.

"Don't," is all Tony says, turning half over his shoulder, but he's not looking at Bruce, instead staring straight ahead still, and even this way Bruce sees how heavily Tony's relying on his sunglasses to mask his expression. "You can't save me from this."

The sharply tailored line from Tony's shoulder to his waist, heavily drawn in unusual black (where most of Tony's suits are grey or light colored as Bruce has learned), suggests that he doesn't want to be saved. He wants to drag himself through this as penance. Like he could scour the injury off, if only hew as rough enough with himself. Perhaps he could, or at least distract himself long enough with the new hurts that the other injury could heal.

Bruce feels lost enough in the face of so familiar and intense an emotion that he has to sit down again quickly, stripping his glasses off and pressing his knuckles against his eyelids in circles until the intense feelings of inadequacy - dangerous feelings that leave his thoughts tainted green and tasting raw and flesh like in his mouth - fade. As helpless as Bruce is in this situation, the other guy would be a downright disaster. Tony could probably find enough ways to batter himself in the lab without the Hulk providing a convenient target. Crushing Tony into sitting still would only solve the problem by eliminating all future possibilities.

By the time Bruce has calmed his breathing in counts of half ten - five in, five out - Tony's gone. But Tony's here, he's home, and Pepper - if anyone knows what to do it'll be Pepper. She'll be along any minute.

Jarvis has kept his section of the garage lit, helpfully.

"Jarvis, where's the normal elevator?" Bruce asks, looking at the private elevator control panel and supposing his handprint won't open it.

"You may access the private elevator as per my instructions if you so desire, Master Bruce," Jarvis replies. "Please place your hand palm-first on the indicated pad and we won't have to rely on voice identification in the future."

"Yeah," Bruce agrees dryly, more to himself as he places his palm on the lit rectangle. "Wouldn't want me roaring my way in."

"With all due respect, as my security features are mostly designed to work against invaders of less magnitude, I would simply open my doors if it came to that, sir."

Bruce steps into the elevator as it opens for him, and even if it is totally surreal to be speaking with the tower itself in a way, it's also oddly comforting. "Smart. That's one thing about the other guy; the path of least resistance is straight through whatever's in front of him."

If Jarvis has any further instructions on what to do if Bruce loses control, he doesn't volunteer them.

"Which floor shall I take you to, Master Bruce?"

"You don't have to call me that - did Tony tell you to call me that?" Bruce thinks it sounds a little like Tony' s idea of a joke.

"Mister Stark did add it to my directives," the synthesized voice admits dryly - remarkably so for an artificial construct. "However, he's given you the ability to override it with a password, if it displeases you."

"Oh god," Bruce groans, "It's not 'I am Batman', is it?"

"That would be correct, sir."

"Jarvis, what floor is Tony on?" Bruce brushes by the lingering evidence of Tony Stark in good spirits, because it's almost painful to deal with the sort of things that Tony will come up with when he's just up to his normal sort of trouble when it's obviously just left behind and forgotten in his wake. Bruce moves on to more important things.

"He's on R and D four, sir, but I've been given strict orders to maintain his privacy."

So Tony was - working out some of his frustrations in the lab. That was probably okay. Still, Bruce can't help but worry. Mourning and heavy duty machinery didn't seem like the best idea for a combination.

"I don't suppose I could convince you to tell me if - I mean, if he's doing anything really dangerous?" Bruce asks, without much hope. "Without that being considered an intrusion?"

"Sir, Mister Stark does something remarkably dangerous on average of twice a day. However, should anything outside the usual happen, you are on the list of-"

The elevator doors open, revealing the interior the parking garage. Pepper is moving through them so fast and distractedly that she startles herself when she runs into Bruce's chest. Pepper jerks back and Bruce steadies her.

"Sorry!" he says, his hands gently on her elbows until she gets her balance. She's not used to having another person with so much access inside the building, so her surprise is understandable - even if it leaves Bruce wondering again if he's really in the way here.

"It's okay. Are you just - standing in the elevator?" Pepper's question is somewhere between perplexed and amused.

"No. Well," Bruce isn't sure 'having a conversation with Jarvis' is really any less crazy than just standing in the elevator. "Tony took off upstairs without me, and I wasn't really sure-"

Pepper takes immediate pity on him. Maybe it's been a very long time for her since she was new in Tony's life, but she still remembers how it was to not be sure just where you belonged. Her mind slows down more easily than Tony's, and she smiles at Bruce, taking a deep breath and re-centering herself from Tony's hectic pace to a more normal one. She squeezes into the elevator next to Bruce, and curls her hand through the crook of his arm. Maybe as much for both for them. As crazy as it seems, even with how recently he'd felt like he was on the very edge of control,, maybe she liked the feeling of someone steady here.

"He's like that, isn't he?" Pepper asks, and Bruce can't tell if her tone is fond or sad. "He just - makes it so easy to go along with him until it seems like that's what you've always done. Easy. Natural. Jarvis, take us up to the living level, please."

"My pleasure, Miss Potts." Jarvis answers through the elevator speakers, before it surges into motion, smoothly but quickly.

"Is he going to be alright?"

Pepper makes a face that says she'd like to have an answer to that question, and that she'd like it to be ' yes'. "If he's working and he lets himself make a breakthrough on something important, yes. If he's too upset, probably also yes, but life will get a little hellish around here for a few days. Are-"

She stops herself like she's not sure if what she's about to say will be polite. Not because afraid of him or what might happen if she hurts his feelings, but because she's considerate. Bruce understands the end of it almost the same.

"Will I be okay? Uh, I hope so," Bruce guesses. "Probably. I guess it depends on the exact definition of 'hellish'."

With Tony it could be almost anything. Explosions were not off the agenda, and that would be too much for certain. "Is there anything we can do for him?"

Pepper looks up at him, tilting her head. Like he's reaffirming her opinions. It's - flattering, but Bruce isn't sure how he deserves it. The elevator stops and they step out. Pepper kicks her shoes off without taking her hand off Bruce's arm.

"We wait. He'll come back to us when he's ready - he sees this as protecting us. Probably with how sharp he gets around the edges, the isolation isn't such a bad idea." Pepper sighs. She heads for the couch, leading Bruce. He surrenders to her momentum, uncertain what else there is to do. "It might not be pretty, but it's just part of Tony. He's home at least, not out making bad decisions. So when he's done, we'll go downstairs and pick him up. It's actually not as bad as it seems. It's the only time he'll let me fuss over him. Maybe it's part of his self-punishment."

Bruce laughs in spite of his worry. Pepper half smiles and pulls him down onto the couch, sitting comfortably against his side and half curled into him. "This okay?" she asks, looking up at him. "It's actually pretty nice to have someone to worry with me."

"I'm..." Bruce starts, and then he swallows. "Well is it okay?"

This is all new, the very idea of it was something Bruce had never concerned himself with until he'd found himself right in the middle of it somehow. Could this really function? Obviously Tony and Pepper were not only involved but ideally suited to each other in most ways. With Pepper there and seeing the way the pair of them could move in perfect synch, he has very little idea how he even enters Tony's mind.

Pepper looks up at him and makes an exaggerated expression of consideration, before she reaches up and runs her hand under his unshaved chin. "You could use a shave."

It seems to be all the answer she thinks she needs to give on the subject. With her pressed so close, he can almost believe that even though she obviously can take living with Tony all on her own, maybe she likes the feeling of having a little backup. Especially when Tony can't give her that himself. And Bruce is okay with that, he thinks. Even if there was a possibility that everything could go really wrong at some point, there was also the chance that it wouldn't.

Pepper's hands are narrow and delicate where they press on Bruce's ribs, but they don't lack strength. He curls an arm around her shoulders and can't help noticing how blunt and dark his fingers seem over her skin. They sit together for a while, conscious of their closeness and the absence between them.

"What do you usually do?" He asks her - meaning, when she was helpless like this. When Tony shut her out with the rest of the world. She arches her brows a little in embarrassment and Pepper smiles a little knowing she's a little foolish to expect judgment from Bruce of all people. Like she should already know him better.

"You really want to know?" She asks, as if she wants to makes ure he knows what he's in for. "It's a little ridiculous."

Bruce doesn't want to pressure her, but now he's curious. "Well you don't have to tell me, but it was a question in earnest, yes."

"I go into the sauna and I sing AC/DC at the top of my lungs," she admits, with a grin that says she knows it's weird but she's not ashamed of it. Maybe there's something else in her smile too - mischief. She continues on somewhat more quietly for the next part, confessing a 'cross your heart and hope to die' sort of secret. "...And Tori Amos."

"That's what I do too," Bruce tells her, in his best attempt at seriousness. She stares at him for a moment, wavering between falling for the joke and landing squarely on her feet. She's surprised that he made it, but she laughs and shoves him in the side.

"You do not."

"I don't," Bruce admits, caught but not worried about it. "But it sounds like a good idea."

Pepper looks grateful even if she probably thinks he's just humoring her, then promptly calls him out on the spot without a second's hesitation. "I probably wouldn't mind some company."

Bruce digests t he information with only faint shock, again not sure how he's earned the attention of not one but two amazing people. People who already had each other. His puzzled look seems to wake her sense of compassion, and she shakes her head.

"Tony talks a lot about you. You know, in his way. And he really only did call twice a day while I was gone - granted they were at least an hour long each call, but it's still kind of a miracle," she starts to explain. "And even if you didn't know it, I really needed that. Phil and I - we had more than a passing acquaintance. Tony's incredible and I love him, but he's also this strange - genius, fragile, creative and destructive thing. It's not that I'm not enough for him, or him for me. It's that we're both too much for each other, some times. "

She sighs. "I don't know if that makes any sense, but what I see of you reflected in Tony - I like it. And it's much better to be in this together than try to make someone be the loser in this situation, don't you think?"

Bruce does think, but he's not sure he has the adequate words to agree with her. "You're an angel," Bruce tells her instead, with equal parts conviction and disbelief. "And I'm not sure I deserve either one of you."

Pepper laughs at his tone, and shakes her head. She's somewhere near tears, perhaps, but leaving them at bay because this is easier. This is better, too. "I like sex too much for sainthood."

Bruce blushes at the unexpected confidence, and Pepper's expression becomes distinctly familiar as she takes on one identical to Tony Stark counting coup. She makes it easy to forget how much his equal she is, and she knows it and uses it to her advantage when she wants.

"Tony's said a few things about you too, Saint Potts," he tells her, but she brushes it off for the moment, tucking herself deeper against him and telling Jarvis to turn the TV on.

It becomes comfortable and natural, and Bruce enjoys the quiet contact. There's no pressure in it, and as the news gives way to evening programming, something endless and sitcom and nature, the quiet is filled with comforting and meaningless noise. Neither cares what's on, they just want the distraction until they both can sleep. Bruce really does sleep, his breaths cycling comfortably opposite to Pepper's.

Something rouses Bruce much later, the full dark of night pressing down on him as he relocates himself in time and space. He's not sure what it was, and sits awake watching the T.V. blear early morning infomercials at his half blind eyes and remembers only distantly that Pepper had set his glasses aside. She's still asleep, immune to whatever premonition woke Bruce, and he's trying not to move too much when the sound repeats. It's a low, distant, ominous boom that makes Bruce look out the window for signs of a storm, and Pepper stirs against his side, waking up.

His eyes only process the clear skies around the tower when abruptly, the power cuts out.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 4th, 2012 11:44 pm (UTC)
I really loved this quiet connection between Pepper and Bruce. I can't wait for the next part!
Jun. 5th, 2012 10:27 am (UTC)
I love Pepper almost an inappropriate amount, and the way she's kind of unfairly treated at times by the fandom just to get her out of the way makes me sad. I was a little worried this chapter would be kind of badly received because it focuses on Pepper, so I'm glad someone else at least liked it!
Jun. 15th, 2012 02:19 am (UTC)
Great chapter! I thought Bruce talking to Jarvis was cute, and of course the password was perfect!

Love that you gave Pepper and Bruce a chance to bond. And its in a good place, too, in the story. Very well done with all the quiet talking and emotion. And ending on a cliffhanger of sorts - yay! I'm racing to the next part.
Jun. 19th, 2012 05:47 pm (UTC)
This whole series is fantastic, but I had to log in to comment on this part. It's just about perfect.

I love Pepper, but her and Tony together really rubbed me the wrong way in IM2. In The Avengers I was happier with it...and I love Bruce with Tony... I think, though, that the three of them ideal.

I like what you said about being too much for each other, although I see it applying at least as much to Tony and Bruce. And it reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut talking about the strain on marriages when you only have each other and "You are not enough people."

I love your dialogue and the way you show things being awkward and uncertain rather that instinctive and comfortable, but still good.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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