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Everything is Wonderful Now

Chapter Text

Bruce parked the Cadillac in their spot on the street and stared up at the pretty brown brick building with the red door that was his home now. It still hadn’t really worn off on Bruce. His home. Really, their home. It was beyond his wildest dreams. It was his wildest dream. 

There was something to be said for having dreams that were attainable. Every time he got out of the car he practically floated to the door. For a while, it seemed so far away that it might as well have been impossible. But they’d made it. And Bruce could hear 'Clair de Lune' on the piano through the door when he walked up and as he opened it he was hit with the savory combination of butter and garlic and onion and tomatoes.

It was like walking into a dream every time. 

The foyer was a straight shot to the far end of the house, honey wood floors drenched in sunlight. The kitchen was to his immediate right and then following that, the staircase to the second floor, and beyond that, tucked behind the staircase where you couldn’t see it, the living area. Across from the long wall of windows buffeting the staircase was Tony’s upright piano and he sat at it now, fingers running nimbly across the keys, leaning into each gorgeous spiral of notes, feeling it, begging out the most emotion he could from stiff keys. 

Bruce loved watching Tony play and he stood there now, the slowly setting sun filling the house with gold, backlighting him, giving extra drama to a man who needed none of it. He had been so pissed when they showed up at that estate sale with a thousand dollars to pick out some much needed furniture and Tony talked the old woman who owned the place into selling him the piano for everything they had. Though she had originally wanted much more, she had no children of her own, and once she saw Tony play, she knew he would love it just as much as she had. Bruce grumped about it at the time, hated shelling out even more cash to have it transported over and then professionally tuned. But now? Watching Tony play? It clearly filled him with such joy that Bruce couldn’t have denied him it if he tried. What was a coffee table, a dresser, a bookshelf? The piano was worth it all. 

“Aw shit,” Tony cursed, chuckling as he tripped over the waterfall of notes at the end, repeating it a little too pointedly, breaking Bruce from his reverie. 

Bruce set his keys in the little dish on the counter by the door, flipped through the bills laying there. The oven beeped that it was done preheating and Bruce stepped around the counter to peek into the foil wrapped glass dish. Whatever it was was covered in sauce and cheese and already smelled amazing. But Tony had proven to be a quick study when it came to cooking, reading countless cook books and blogs and advice columns, somehow parsing all that information into an efficient grocery budget as well as delicious meals. Bruce had no idea how he did it. He was truly lucky to have him.

He knew the song was coming to an end and he walked over to the piano, sitting down beside Tony, breathing in his shampoo, watching Tony’s eyelashes flutter, listening in reverence to the final few notes. Tony's hands stilled on the keys and he turned to Bruce, opening his eyes just a little, kissing him softly. 

“How was work?” he asked as Bruce put his hand on the keys, hitting one for each of his fingers, clunky and ridiculous sounding compared to what Tony did with them. 

“Okay,” he answered truthfully. “They’re all giving me shit about leaving, that I won’t see the results of my cultures. Think Helen is just pissed she’s going to get my workload and it’s beneath her. Actually, I am a little disappointed I won’t see those cultures...”

Tony laughed. “You know what I’m not disappointed to see? Joe’s fat fucking face tomorrow morning.” 

Bruce laughed with him as he banged out a quick little circus riff. Truthfully, Tony loved his job. He didn’t even make half of what Bruce made but working at the autobody shop afforded him a certain amount of freedom he’d never had before. He only had to do the work they put in front of him and when he walked out the door it was over. And Tony worked a six am shift, Tuesday through Saturday, and though he had to leave before Bruce even got up in the morning he got home a full two hours earlier than Bruce did, and usually he’d work out then shower and read or cook or practice piano or work on the motorcycle he built practically from scratch and Craigslist ads or any of his other various engineering projects littering their informal study upstairs. 

“I made lasagna rolls. They need to go in the oven.”

“They smell awesome already,” Bruce replied honestly as Tony got up to put them in. 

“They’re vegetarian!” he grinned. “I didn’t follow the recipe exactly, it called for frozen spinach and you know how I hate that. So instead I sauteed some up with those mushrooms from the farmer’s market and some garlic and onion and I wanted to use up the rest of that sauce I made this week so –”

Bruce listened to Tony’s explanation of how he put together the dish with interest. Tony’s inherent understanding of taste and food knowledge was so far beyond anything Bruce had experience with it would have taken him years to learn what it only took Tony a matter of months. Of course he still had his failures – at least in his eyes – but Bruce would have struggled to come up with a meal Tony ever made that was actually inedible. 

“They’re going to take a good half hour,” Tony said, cocking an eyebrow in his direction. “Do you wanna –”

“Pack?” Bruce filled in with a laugh and Tony laughed too. 

“I have a feeling your idea of packing is a lot more pedestrian than mine.” 

Bruce rolled his eyes and stood from the piano, closing the case over the keys gently and pushing in the bench. He started towards the stairs but Tony bounded over and wrapped his arms around his waist, his chin on his shoulder, grinning over at him mischievously. 

“This will be our first vacation since Miami.” 

Bruce tried not to grimace. “I’m not sure I would call it a vacation.”

“I’m doing what Doctor Janis calls ‘focusing on the positives.'” 

Bruce leaned in and kissed him. “Maybe I need some of whatever it is she gives you.”

“Probably,” Tony teased, kissing him again until they were tumbling up the stairs and into their room with the big king sized bed they bought first thing upon arriving in Philly with Bruce’s signing bonus.

It sat in a beautiful ornate frame Tony found second hand for free that was just too big for where the owner was going but though it wasn’t Bruce’s taste at all, it somehow fit in perfectly with the house and looked surprisingly nice. Bruce learned quickly that Tony was much better at interior decorating than he was, too.

That was the furthest thing from Bruce’s mind though as Tony threw him down on the bed, ripping out his belt with a wide smile. 

Maybe there was something to Tony’s 'focusing on the positives.' While he had tried not to think about their upcoming trip too much, his nerves were shot. The idea of not only meeting Tony’s parents for the first time but having Tony meet his mom and ask his mom to come back with them to Philly? It was a lot. And then they were going straight from Dayton down to Atlanta for Natasha and Clint’s wedding, which he was in ... Vacation seemed like too kind a word for the whirlwind they were about to launch themselves into. 

But Tony was still smiling at him as he pulled down his pants and pulled up his shirt, kissing his mouth and his chest and his abs, lubing and fingering him, fucking him slowly off the side of the bed until the only thing he could think about was Tony balls deep in his ass, jerking him off just how he liked, fucking him six ways til Sunday every day of the week if he wanted because Bruce was his – all his. And that’s all that really mattered. 

Tony flopped down on the bed next to him, sweaty and smiling and he kissed him gently, no heat, just a little affirmative thing that still made Bruce’s stomach flop. 

“See? Wasn’t that better?” he asked self-indulgently, knowing Bruce was going to agree. 

“I guess ,” Bruce teased back, gently running his fingers across Tony’s face. “But now I’ve got to do it later.” 

Tony chuckled. “I already started laying stuff out in the closet and packing our toiletries.” 

“Lifesaver,” Bruce breathed appreciatively as Tony stood and made his way to the bathroom. 

Bruce wiped himself down too, redressing in a pair of jersey knit shorts and that Stranger Things shirt Tony bought their first day in Miami, worn and faded and soft now. And he stared out at their little slice of Philadelphia from their third story window, content at how far they’d come in a year and a half. It was almost perfect – and all he had to do was make it through next week. And as soon as he dealt with the shit in his past, he could look into the future unreservedly. 

He heard Tony calling him from downstairs and he was greeted by a plate and a salad and Tony bitching more candidly about the guys at work and their constant prolifery of unnecessary drama and Bruce laughed along with him, always glad to listen to Tony talk. 

When dinner was over Bruce did the dishes, as he always did for Tony, making sure to collect any stray glasses and plates around the house since they were leaving for a week, and Tony went upstairs to start packing in earnest. 

And as he went up to help, Bruce opened his phone to reply to the last text Nat sent, asking if he was excited to go to New York even though she knew full well he wasn’t. Despite the distance between them, they had become close over the past year and a half, talking daily since Bruce texted her that Tony came back to Boston even after everything that had happened. 

I’d rather take my chances bungee jumping with a broken cable. 

Well I’m jealous!, she replied instantly and he scoffed as he went upstairs to join Tony. You’ll have to take lots of pictures.

You know me so well.

Okay ask your boy toy then, you know what I mean.

Bruce chuckled as he threw his phone down on the bed, moving over to the closet with Tony and watching him pull out a few pairs of pants. 

“Nat wants you to take lots of pictures of New York.”

Tony hummed his consent and then moved to the bed to organize what he’d pulled down. 

“If things go well with my parents, we could even invite them to stay up there sometime.” 

Bruce paused, knowing Tony was walking him straight into unsteady ground. Tony vacillated wildly where his parents were concerned. Sometimes he was super positive and upbeat, waxing at length about how his father wasn’t that bad, he just didn’t know how to express himself. Then other times he could spiral into a pit of uncertainty and despair, blaming Howard for every one of his fucked up neurosis. Bruce felt the truth was somewhere in the middle... though he hoped Tony really was taking Doctor Janis to heart. 

“They have plenty of extra space, it’s not like we’d be in the way.”

“One thing at a time, maybe,” Bruce cautioned and Tony nodded his head though he clearly wanted to maintain his unbridled optimism. 

All Bruce could think about was last Christmas when their six month lease at the apartment was nearly up and Tony called asking for thirty thousand dollars out of some trust fund for a down payment on their house and how his dad lost his entire mind, saying that if he wanted to live in Philadelphia like a beggar he could do it on his own dime and not steal it from his future self. A future self, Bruce supposed, that would one day come to his senses and realize that this was not the life he wanted and who would break up with him and move back to Manhattan and become some kind of shareholder to Starktech Pharmaceuticals. 

Bruce had already had reservations about asking for money from them – he knew Tony’s dad was less than thrilled about his son being so openly gay and somehow even less thrilled than that about him moving so far away to such a ‘sub par’ city – but it just about killed Tony. He hadn’t called and asked for a single thing from them up until that point, even after they cut his allowance at graduation, and to be so flatly rejected over what was, to him, not a very large sum of money but one which would let them start their lives together so easily and one which he felt wholly entitled to? He actually cried about it and it was the first time Bruce had seen him cry since they arrived in Philly. Bruce had never been so angry at them. He didn’t even care about the money, he just didn’t want Tony to hurt like that. 

But then a few days later Tony’s mom called and smoothed it all over, wiring him the money without argument. Bruce never really knew what happened but he knew it was Tony’s money, his parents had no claim to the house, their names were nowhere on the mortgage, and Tony was happy again – and that was all that mattered to him.

Still – Bruce had some serious misgivings about going up to visit them. At least it was only one day – he could handle one day. Or... he hoped he could handle one day.

Out of the corner of his eye Bruce saw Tony throw down whatever article of clothing he was trying to fold in frustration and he knew that despite what he said, the trip was weighing on him too. Bruce took what he’d collected and set it down, walking over to Tony and slowly pressing him out of the way. 

“Let me,” he said gently as he picked up the offending shirt and Tony gave up and sat down on the bed, running his hand down his face. 

“It’s going to be fine, you know,” he said, though it sounded more like he was trying to convince himself than Bruce. “My dad can be a dick but surely he’ll be on his best behavior for company.”

Bruce looked at him with a healthy dose of skepticism as he placed meticulously folded shirts in Tony’s suitcase. 

“Are you sure I count as company?” 

Tony frowned. “Hopefully?” 

Bruce huffed out a laugh. “It will be fine, it’s only a day. And it will definitely go better than if you had to meet my dad.” 

Although he thought that was funny, Tony’s frown only deepened. They had planned the whole trip specifically to avoid seeing him and Bruce felt no particular guilt about that. Tony clearly felt something – though he was loath to express whatever it was. 

“Still, it would be nice though,” Bruce said thoughtfully as he folded Tony’s slacks, “if we could go up there on the weekends sometimes. Seeing as they’re only two hours away.” 

Tony had been staring out the window, chewing on his bottom lip, but he turned cautiously towards Bruce then, careful not to smile. He always struggled not to get his hopes up whereas Bruce tried to take a more measured approach, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to be the determining factor in whether Tony had a relationship with his parents or not.

That was enough to put Tony in better spirits though because he suddenly felt like he could tackle packing again and he pulled out the outfit he wanted for the wedding, slipping it carefully into a garment bag, and Bruce moved back to his own bag to let Tony finish. 

“You wanna go get some ice cream after this?” Bruce suggested casually, knowing that he would, and Tony looked up with a grin. 

“You know the way to this boy’s heart.”

It really didn’t take too long to finish as Tony had done most of their toiletries – and most of those were Tony’s to begin with. And they walked hand in hand down the street and as the night was nice with a light breeze coming in from the ocean they bypassed their normal ice cream place only a block away and walked down along the trail by the river to the nerdy one that projected arcade games on the wall with the Mexican ice cream Tony loved. 

Bruce had never had any particular feelings about Philadelphia before – the first time he’d ever been there was when he flew in for his final interview. But over the past year he’d completely fallen in love with it. He truly felt at home here, and not just because of Tony or the fact that he finally had the physical home he’d always wanted. In some ways it was a lot like Boston – it was a beautiful city with tons of history and interesting old buildings and cool local shops and in general they rarely got dirty looks or too much harassment for their PDA. But it also felt so much more lowkey than Boston, like he could really let his guard down and just be here, that there were no expectations on him either. He could bike along the river on the weekends and kiss his boyfriend over pizza and pick up tomatoes at the farmer’s market on the street corner and stop in at the used bookstore and chat with the girl behind the counter about their rare finds and come home and look out over the city skyline and just feel like he belonged. 

There was only one thing missing. 

But he forced it from his mind. Unlike Tony, he just didn’t let himself think about the bad things at all, boxed it all up and compartmentalized it, choosing to live in the moment as much as possible. 

And right now was a good moment. Despite his reservations, they were going on their first trip as a real couple. They were going to his best friend’s wedding. The night was nice and they were happy. There were so many times he doubted they were going to make it during their last semester at MIT that he never wanted to take what they had now for granted. 

The little shop was packed on the first warm Friday night of the year and while they would usually hang out for a while and do a little PvP on whatever arcade game the shop had running, instead they got their ice cream in cones and headed back slowly, Tony regaling him with plans for some robot he was designing and his multitude of failures so far, and they laughed as they went.

When they got home the sun had set but it was a little earlier than they usually went to bed. Tony said he was going to head up and read instead of watching a few episodes of their latest Netflix binge as they often did. Bruce nodded and told him he’d be up in a minute, wanting to take a moment to walk through the house and make sure it was secured to his satisfaction for a week long trip. 

Bruce closed the blinds and picked up the few books laying around, shredding bills and folding throw blankets, organizing the pillows neatly on the built in bench seat in the bay window. He’d unload the dishes tomorrow when they were dry. 

When he was finished with the main floor he took a deep breath and opened the door to the ground level. They didn’t come down here much. Truthfully, they didn’t need the space. They were still furnishing the rest of the house and since they started with nothing and were very dedicated to working within their budget, they were careful about what they brought in. But this space wasn’t for them. 

The bathroom door was open at the end of the hall, the pretty white cloth shower curtain and white throw rug he’d put down there visible. There was a little room off to the side he’d left unfurnished, the door open just a crack, a small chair with an afghan from his aunt folded across it beneath the staircase, and a large room down the hall between the bathroom and the second room that he stepped into, appraising it carefully. 

Tony had found the bed frame, just like he had theirs – wrought iron scroll work, delicate and feminine. A perfect choice – Tony had been so happy when he found it that it made Bruce’s heart melt into a puddle at his feet. They purchased a queen sized bed right after and Bruce bought and washed new white and navy bedding for it, one of the few splurges he justified without a second thought. 

They got a little table and Tony found a pretty teal lamp for it. On one of their many thrifting trips Bruce found a large and unremarkable framed picture of two blue birds in a dogwood tree, some attempt at modern impressionism, but immediately he envisioned it in that room and they hung it over the bed. Then Tony surprised him with a chest of drawers he had purchased and painted white and replaced all the handles on to iron and crystal drawer pulls and Bruce kissed him until they were breathless like they were back on Miami Beach and he would never be able to get enough of him. 

It wasn’t much, Bruce could admit that. But because they were on a hill there was a private door to the street through the side room and it was clean and it was safe. And he put it together for her and he knew she’d understand. He didn’t want to do too much, decorate it too heavily to the point where it didn’t feel like it was hers, but he wanted her to be comfortable, to have something . He wanted... 

He wanted his mom to say yes. 

Silently he said something a little like a prayer, hoping it would be enough, hoping that one day this room would be filled and his life here would be complete, everything he’d gone through at MIT to get here would be worth it. He didn’t expect her to say yes right away, knew there was a snowball’s chance in hell she’d agree that easily after twenty-five years with him, but... Maybe. One day. He just had to extend the offer. 

With one last glance he went upstairs, closing the door behind him, then joined Tony in their bedroom on the top floor. He had just finished brushing his teeth and was pulling back the sheets when Bruce stopped him and wrapped him up in his arms, holding him tightly for a long minute where Tony just held him back, knowing that was all he needed. 

“You know we’re going to get through this, right?” Bruce asked softly, pretty sure it was his chance to try to convince himself under the guise of trying to convince Tony. “I love you and no matter what happens with our parents, nothing is going to change what we have here.”

Tony buried his face deeper into Bruce’s neck, squeezed him even tighter. 

“Of course, baby,” he answered faithfully, muffled against Bruce’s skin. “It’s only a week and then we’ll be home.” 

Bruce’s heart felt so full then he didn’t think he was capable of saying anything else. It was just that – he wasn’t over it yet. Him and Tony and... home. It was still like a dream but it wasn't and it would be right there where he left it, waiting for him to wake up again.

Home.

Chapter Text

Bruce woke up to the sound of the shower, Tony’s running leggings thrown over the hamper. He pulled his phone from the charger and saw that it wasn’t much after eight. He knew Tony had a hard time sleeping in now, but to get up and go on a run first thing in the morning before leaving on vacation was insane to him. And that was why he gained about fifteen pounds of fat since they moved to Philadelphia and Tony was still mostly muscle. But Bruce didn’t really care; he was too thin before anyway.

He checked his email before rolling out of bed and joining Tony in the bathroom. Tony seemed pretty upbeat, pulling back the shower curtain and grinning at him, then going back to singing as he washed the shampoo out of his hair. Bruce just laughed to himself, brushing his teeth and then trading with him. 

“I’m going to load the car and then make breakfast,” Tony said, peeking in on him unnecessarily, watching him with poorly concealed lust, and Bruce laughed and pushed his face away with one wet hand. 

Bruce wasn’t much of a morning person, but Tony’s good mood was still infectious, and right now he was in a great mood. Even the idea of meeting his parents tonight wasn’t enough to bring Bruce down. They had decided to spend most of the day in the city, since Bruce had never been, and limit the amount of time they had to spend under potentially awkward circumstances, and he was truly looking forward to that part. Tony was always a great partner to explore with.   

True to his word when Bruce finally made his way downstairs Tony was just battering bread in the last of their eggs for french toast. Prior to living with Tony, it didn’t even occur to Bruce that french toast could come from anything other than a box in the freezer section. He loved his mother dearly, but Tony was practically a Michelin star chef by comparison.

“I am getting pretty good at using up what we’ve got on hand,” Tony commented with a self-satisfied grin as he lay the drenched bread in hot butter. “We had just enough eggs and this white bread from the other day will be great.”

“I know,” Bruce said, really quite proud of Tony. 

Tony had grown up with the ability to buy whatever he wanted without thought and Bruce was beyond impressed that he took to the mental shift of working within a budget so well, like a personal challenge. Bruce knew there were times when it made him feel antsy and restrained, especially when it came to clothes, because Tony enjoyed looking nice and he had expensive tastes. But because they truly made a comfortable amount of money for two people with little debt beside their mortgage, Bruce made sure to budget enough for him to splurge just a little every couple months. He was the breadwinner now and while he would never have the kind of money Tony grew up with, he still wanted Tony to have everything that was within his power to give him.

“I used to watch our chef at home,” Tony was saying absently as he peeked at the underside of the toast. “My dad hated it, didn’t want me to grow up to be a chef – that was something you paid other people for.”

“Well luckily I don’t have to pay you,” Bruce said with a laugh, appraising his handsome boyfriend as Tony smiled at him for a moment before turning his eyes back to the stove. 

“I kind of want to cook for them though, you know?” he continued thoughtfully. “Maybe that chicken roulade I made a couple weeks ago...”

“With the garlic mashed potatoes?” Bruce replied, remembering it well. They’d had a bottle of wine and fantastic sex afterwards too. 

“You liked that, huh?” Tony asked with a pleased look as he flipped the bread. 

“I like everything you make,” Bruce answered honestly, “...but yeah. That was especially good.”

They were quiet a moment, Bruce having nothing to add about whether or not his parents would or wouldn’t appreciate him cooking, but it was only another minute before Tony was plating him two thick slices of french toast and setting it in front of him with a kiss. 

“Thank you,” Bruce said as he reached for the expensive pure maple syrup Tony had turned him on to and Tony went back to the stove to flip his own toast. Bruce always made sure to thank him for everything he did, never wanting him to feel taken for granted. 

After breakfast Bruce unloaded the dishes and hand washed the few they’d used, making sure everything was wiped down and neat before they left while Tony put the last few things in the car – sunglasses, snacks. Despite the fact that Bruce still thought of it as Tony’s car, Tony rarely drove it any more, always calling it ‘their’ car even though Bruce would never have purchased a Cadillac Escalade for himself. He wanted to sell it and buy something more practical but he never brought it up with Tony, knowing that while Tony might not have been the one driving it, he’d taken immaculate care of that car, even when they were in college, and Bruce wasn’t going to take it from him. 

For a moment Bruce stood in the foyer, feeling hesitant to leave, like if he did he would never be able to come back. But he knew that was ridiculous, in his head anyway, knew that everything would be just as he left it – but it was still hard. He was so happy here, he’d never known happiness like this – why would he ever willingly leave? Even for a week?

“Ready, big guy?” Tony asked as he walked back in, clearly unsure why Bruce hadn’t joined him in the car. 

Bruce turned to look at him, looking as apprehensive as he felt, and Tony slipped his arms around him, the way he always did, just letting him know he was there. 

“The quicker we leave, the sooner we can get back,” he said quietly and although Bruce knew it didn’t exactly work like that, hearing it was just what he'd needed and he leaned into Tony a minute, closing his eyes, using that moment to fortify himself before heading out the door. 

The drive to New York was pretty straight forward, 95 the whole way. It was the same way they took moving down from Boston, the same way they took heading down to Miami. Tony was driving, which Bruce was grateful for, and singing along with a playlist he’d made as Bruce watched Philly fade into suburbia and then countryside. 

“Oh, I forgot to tell you, I got us tickets for a boat cruise through the harbor,” Tony said, punting down the music a little. “It goes under Brooklyn Bridge and to Ellis Island. You can’t like, get off the boat, it’s not that kind of tour, but I didn’t really think you wanted to spend all day at the Statue of Liberty.” 

“No,” Bruce agreed, looking over at Tony. “That sounds perfect. Plus, you must’ve been hundreds of times.” 

Tony laughed. “Is that your idea of New Yorkers?”

Bruce kinda shrugged. “Maybe.” 

“No, I’ve never been, actually. I mean I’ve seen it, of course, but I’ve never, you know, been . We were supposed to go on a field trip with the school once, but that was like the week after I... well, you know. And they sent me home for a few weeks until I was ‘more stable’ so I missed it.” 

Bruce frowned. It wasn’t something they talked about. Tony alluded to his suicide attempt occasionally as a matter of fact, but after Tony told him about it in Miami it was taken off the table for discussion. Bruce didn’t really care, he didn’t need the gory details, he just wanted to know enough to prevent Tony from ever getting that low again. But still, it pained him when it came up, and today was no exception. 

“At least now I’ll be able to have happy memories of New York.”

He looked over at Tony, appraising him. He didn’t want to call bullshit – lord knew happy memories of his own childhood were few and far between – but Tony didn’t have any ?

“Surely you have one happy memory of New York,” Bruce said at last, feeling like Tony could take it, and he laughed in response. 

“No.”

Bruce pinned him with a look and Tony stared back at the road. It was true they almost never talked about New York. And it wasn’t that Tony was particularly secretive with his past, either. He talked at length about Miami, about trips he'd taken to Montreal or LA. Bruce practically knew everything there was to know about his nanny and their butler. But when it came to actual memories of his day to day life – school, dinner, the city, parks he played at or places they would go, things that leave an impression on a young kid – Tony was uncharacteristically silent. 

“Okay,” he said at last. “I thought of one .” 

“See?” Bruce teased, punching him in the shoulder lightly and Tony chuckled. 

“You know Nanny Tea was basically, well, for lack of a better phrase, fresh off the boat,” he started and Bruce made sure to give him his full attention. “My mom wanted a nanny that could speak fluent Italian with me so she taught me Italian and I taught her English. Tutto fa brodo , you know?” 

Bruce didn’t know, but he nodded anyway. 

“Her brother was already here, in the city, so she came over and lived with him for a few weeks before happening into interviewing with my mom. He owned a pizza place a few blocks away from the south side of Central Park. Sometimes Nanny Tea would take me to the park, but not really take me to the park. I’m sure it was just because she was lonely – our house was just... very lonely, especially when I was in elementary school – but she would take me to his pizza place instead.”

“Your mom never found out?” Bruce asked, shocked, and Tony laughed. 

“Central Park is huge – I don’t think you can really appreciate how big it is. It’s easily something you could make a day of, I’m sure my mom never suspected. Mom probably wouldn’t even have been mad, except that Tea lied. I’m sure she was scared of my parents, though. I was scared of them. So I never really questioned it and it was easy to keep her secret.”

“Wow.” 

“She was like, the only person I had, really,” Tony mused. “Obviously my mom and I are on better terms now, but... Anyway. Tea’s brother had this pizza shop called Michelangelo's – which is like, the stupidest name. His name wasn’t even Michelangelo, it was Giovanni. I guess it was his idea of what Americans think of when they think of Italy. And it was buried down in this street where you had to walk down into the storefront. The awning was red and white and basically it looked as Italian as it could be. There were even pots of tomatoes in the tiny enclave, barely getting a shred of sunlight, but by God, Giovanni was going to try.

“As a kid I didn’t really get it but they must have done mostly deliveries for lunch because there was never anyone in the tiny dining area but they were always slammed in the kitchen. Nanny Tea would get me a soda and sit me in a bench and go back and yell at the men in Italian, ordering us a pizza. And they would yell back, all kinds of Italian words I didn’t know, probably curse words honestly, but she would laugh and they would call me back into the kitchen and make me roll up my sleeves and wash my hands. Then they’d let me top our pizza with whatever I wanted. Like you, Nanny Tea would eat literally anything I made, she didn’t care –”

“Well?” Bruce interjected, not feeling like that was a fair accusation when everything Tony made was fantastic. 

“– but man, that was the best. I thought it was so cool as a kid. No adults ever gave me that kind of freedom. I mean, sure, I could hide out in my room with my books or my toys and be left alone for hours sometimes, but that was different. The guys there would call me little nicknames in Italian – passerotto , farfallone – and laugh with me when I fucked up and dropped something, but it was never, ever mean."

Bruce opened his hand on the center console and Tony let his fingers fall easily between them. 

“And Giovanni was this huge bear of a man. The young guys in the kitchen were all pranksters and even I knew they were constantly yelling shit at him and laughing and he just wouldn’t say a damn thing. At first I was really scared of him, that he was just going to snap like my dad did, and fire all of them, and I wished they’d just shut up. But then sometimes you’d see him crack this smile and he would tell them all they could go to hell and they would all laugh like crazy that they finally got a rise out of him.”

“I wish you could take me there,” Bruce said softly as he trailed off and Tony frowned. 

“Yeah, me too,” he replied, squeezing Bruce’s hand. “Right before I went to boarding school Giovanni's wife died suddenly of a stroke and he closed the restaurant and moved back to Italy.”

“Shit,” Bruce muttered and Tony nodded. 

“Yeah, I know Tea was really devastated. She lost her sister-in-law and her brother in one go of it, then I was off to boarding school and she was essentially out of a job. I know my mom tried to help her find another one, but can you imagine?

“Anyway. Happy memory. There you go.”

Bruce laughed, running his thumb against Tony’s. “Thank you. It was a good one.”

“It was,” Tony agreed. 

“We’ll have to get some pizza though, even if it isn’t Michelangelo’s. New York pizza is supposed to be kind of a thing.”

Tony grinned over at him. “It is definitely kind of a thing.”

Bruce grinned back, glad to see remembering it hadn’t upset Tony’s mood too much.

They reached Manhattan a little before noon and Tony took him straight to the Empire State Building. Bruce had thought with his experience living in Boston and now Philadelphia, he had some experience with big cities, but New York was like nothing he could have imagined. Just the sheer quantity of buildings was beyond reason. It seemed like chaos. He was glad Tony was driving because he wasn’t sure he could’ve handled it.

“I’ve been here once,” Tony was saying as they locked the car and walked through the parking garage, “but I was really little then. I remember thinking when we got to the top that the whole world must look like that. Then I got on a plane and realized there was a lot more farmland in the world than I thought.” 

“Funny – I didn’t think there could be this many buildings in one place at one time,” Bruce murmured, feeling stupid, and Tony stepped deliberately closer to him, bumping him in the shoulder with his own. 

“Just wait.” 

The line to get to the top wasn’t terribly long and Tony had a litany of facts about the Empire State Building to rattle through – especially given his inherited love of art deco – which wasn’t uncommon for him. He seemed to know something about everything and Bruce, a generally more reserved person, loved that. But something about it seemed strained now, just slightly, and it piqued Bruce’s interest. He slipped his hand around his waist as they waited, hoping to ease his tension, remind him that he was here, they were together, but the tension didn’t abate the way it normally did with his touch. 

Tony was still smiling though and Bruce let it go as they rode up to the 86th floor observatory. He was better at reading Tony’s false bravado now, but he rarely called him on it. Everyone needed a mask sometimes – especially Tony. 

But when they stepped out Tony grabbed his hand, smiling a big, genuine smile again, and drug him forward to the grating, heedless of how unexpectedly cold it was all the way up there. But then once Bruce got a look at the view, he wasn’t thinking about the cold either.

“Holy shit,” Bruce breathed as he stared out through the grates, Tony practically vibrating with barely restrained energy beside him. 

The view was beyond anything he could have imagined. New York City spread out before him for what seemed like forever, the sun glinting off the river, so bright everything seemed hazy and surreal. It was truly dizzying to stare straight down into the street from some thousand feet straight up and Bruce couldn’t get enough of it. 

“You thought the whole world looked like this ?” Bruce asked as he stepped around a cluster of people, wanting to see it from every angle he could. 

“Right?” Tony laughed, following him. “Dumb.” 

“No – I...” he trailed off, staring out into the horizon, trying to find the furthest point he could. “Can you believe people have done this ? And you just accepted we could do it everywhere ?” 

“Aren’t you the environmentalist?” Tony teased, looking over at him, so close their shoulders were touching. 

“Yeah, I mean, this is a pretty damning testament to the blight we are on the planet, but still...”

It was breathtaking. There was no denying what industrious little fuckers the human race was. All Bruce could think about was how this building was built nearly a hundred years ago and here it stood, now, staring down at a whole empire of buildings, millions of people, and everything they were dealing with in their own lives seemed wholly insignificant, but then... The very people who bled to build this building had the same insignificant problems and they came together to build something so much greater than the whole. It made Bruce feel very small in a way he couldn’t even describe – like he was part of something so much bigger than himself – and that maybe he could understand when Tony talked about crying on the steps of the Pantheon what he had been feeling then. 

And despite his reservation earlier Tony moved in a little closer and murmured – 

“I want to kiss you on top of the world.” 

And Bruce’s heart leap in his chest and he wondered how many people had kissed over the past hundred years at that very spot and he moved effortlessly into Tony’s space, feeling his arm wrap around him and pull him closer as their lips met and it was like... like their connection was a tangible thing that spread across the city and connected them to everything else – all of humanity – and when Tony finally drew away Bruce was breathless and trembling and Tony’s face was bright and flushed and he hugged him, a little embarrassed of how shaken he was. 

Tony ran his hands through his hair as he stared out through the window and finally Bruce could think well enough to laugh a little.

“Nat will want a picture of this.”

So Tony indulged him, posting a picture of them leaning back against the grating and smiling and then a better panorama through the grate for Nat while Bruce finished walking along the observatory. Tony pointed out buildings in the skyline, showing him the direction in which his parent’s house stood. 

When their time was up and they left they found a pizza place across the street and Bruce told Tony to order whatever he’d like with a wink and a reference to his story earlier. And he ordered sopressata and caramelized onions and arugula and it truly was a fantastic pizza. They had time to kill before their boat tour and Tony told him Times Square was only a fifteen minute walk so they headed in that direction just to see it.

“You know New Yorkers don’t actually go to Times Square,” Tony was saying, his hands conspicuously shoved in his pockets. “It’s sort of like, the tourist trap to end all tourist traps.”

“Good thing you are a tourist now,” Bruce reminded him and it took a moment but slowly a smile spread over Tony’s face. 

“You’re right. I am.”

He loosened up a little, staying close to Bruce and talking at length about the architecture, where you could go to see what late night show, the fights that occurred between costumed characters over tips, how the city redid the whole square to make it more pedestrian friendly so many years back. If Bruce thought he was overwhelmed by staring down at New York from the Empire State Building, being in the thick of it was a whole different beast. The sheer quantity of people was overwhelming, and it wasn’t like he’d never been to a city before. He did tend to avoid places like this but still – thinking of Tony thinking the whole world looked like this at seven made him laugh. At seven he would never have believed anywhere in the world was like this. 

Tony took a picture of them flanked by electronic billboards and skyscrapers and then elbowed him in the side. “Come on, there’s a picture I want for Nat.”

Bruce followed gamely, taking in the sights and sounds and even though he wasn’t hungry the street food smelled incredible and Bruce heard the twang of the strings before he saw Tony zoned in on a rather attractive man playing guitar... naked. Or well, Bruce assumed he was wearing something , which he confirmed when he turned to the side, but still ...

“Oh my God you are not,” Bruce whined loud enough he was sure everyone in the vicinity heard him but Tony pretended that he didn’t and Bruce was forced to follow along, already feeling his blood get hot with embarrassment.

The man, The Naked Cowboy – or so his guitar stickers proclaimed, could see Tony wanted to talk to him and Bruce saw him hand him cash, laughing, but he blanked whatever they were saying, so thoroughly embarrassed by this entire set up that he'd rather believe it wasn’t happening at all.

Nat would think it was hilarious though. 

Tony pushed him forward into the picture and Bruce stood next to this buff, practically naked guy, and mumbled something like an apology to him for Tony putting him in this position but frankly he wasn’t even sure what he said would be considered English. To his credit the guy was amused and he slung his guitar over to the side, throwing one well muscled arm over Bruce’s shoulder and flexing the other gratuitously with a blinding smile, all of his... everything on display. Bruce was pretty sure he was beat red by this point as Tony laughed and took several shots and the guy smacked him on the back good naturedly when Tony put down his phone. If Bruce could have melted into the pavement beneath his feet and down a storm drain he would have gladly taken that route. 

Tony had to physically collect him because his brain had completely stopped, and they shook hands, Tony thanking him before throwing his own arm over Bruce’s shoulder and dragging him off. Bruce wanted to bury his head in Tony’s chest and laugh until he felt better but as soon as he regained his ability to put one foot in front of the other with some level of confidence Tony let his arm drop, maintaining his distance again, flipping through his phone and laughing.

“When I finally meet your mom I am going to get her number,” Tony threatened, laughing. “She doesn’t realize how badly she needs my texts in her life.”

Bruce was still pretty embarrassed but he couldn’t help but feel warmth towards Tony’s honest good nature. He was pretty sure most guys – or, hell, most anyone – would balk if he’d said that his mother always had a space wherever he lived unconditionally and that it was his goal to move her in. But Tony was so ready to have a great relationship with her, so optimistic about it, constantly considering what it would be like when she was there, how it will affect their budget and what he could do to make her comfortable. It was really still pretty unbelievable to him that Tony – rich, gorgeous, fun, loving, could-have-anyone-and-anything-he-wanted Tony – would continually choose him and his shit over and over and over again.

Still, Bruce worried about them meeting, unsure that she would understand Tony. It was clear she had reservations about him dating a man – not out of any homophobic tendency, but because her worst fear was that he would end up in an abusive relationship like she had. And maybe he’d made it worse by never letting them talk. They’d been together over a year now and sometimes he wondered if he shouldn’t have let them talk on the phone but... he wanted to do it in person. He wanted his mom to see Tony for herself, see how Tony looked at him, see how loving he could be. 

They walked back to the car, driving over to the port where the boat tour left from, and though they were a little early, it just afforded them a better seat on the boat. Bruce knew something was up when Tony sat there next to him with a polite half foot of space between them. He’d grown used to the physical affection Tony doled out eagerly at every turn, throwing his arm over his shoulder or a hand on his thigh or even just sitting so close they were pressed against one another. He wasn’t going to call him on it, but he was curious as to why he was being so distant.

The first point of interest was the Brooklyn Bridge and the tour guide rambled about the history of it. Their seats were outside and the breeze was nice, though it made Bruce miss Tony’s arm around him even more. But he let it go and he smiled for a picture as they went under the bridge, Tony taking his photographer duties to heart, and then he got up and got them sodas from the concessions as the boat floated down the East River towards the Statue of Liberty. 

“You okay?” he asked carefully when Tony rejoined him, staring at his can a little melodramatically. 

“Yeah, of course,” Tony replied with a smile that Bruce could now immediately pinpoint was fake.

But again, he let it go. If Tony felt so uncomfortable as to lie right there then he would wait until he felt more comfortable. Instead, he focused on what he could do – keeping things light so as not to cause Tony any more stress. 

The speakers were playing a pop-rock track as they glided down the coast, the New York City skyline in full view, and Bruce stared over the side at the water, smiling back at Tony. 

“Just like Miami,” he teased and Tony snorted. 

“Nothing like Miami.”

“I still can’t believe you got me into that tiny boat,” Bruce reminisced, undaunted by Tony’s negativity. “And now I actually want to do it again.”

“Yeah?” Tony asked carefully, like he was afraid Bruce was lying, and it had been awhile since he’d seen Tony so unnerved. 

“Remember how Nat and Clint were saying we should meet them in the Outer Banks? We should plan that, maybe in the fall,” Bruce said, watching Tony warm up to the idea, leaning into his space ever so slightly. “See how much it costs to rent a boat and sail down from Philly.”

“I don’t know,” Tony hesitated after a moment of thought, moving back, looking away. 

“We’ll talk about it, okay?” 

Tony hummed a non-committal note and Bruce tried to let it go again, tried not to push him... but it was hard. Thankfully the tour announcer came back over the speaker saying you could get your first glimpse of Lady Liberty and Tony managed to plaster back on his false good mood for the rest of the tour. 

Bruce tried not to let it worry him, focused on what Tony and the announcer were saying, asking innocuous, impersonal questions. And the Statue really was beautiful – he could see why it had awed people for generations. He knew his own family had come through Ellis Island, though not much more than that, but it harkened back to the feeling of connectedness he had with humanity on top of the Empire State Building and made his sudden disconnect from Tony all the more poignant. 

He was thankful when they finally made it back to the car where he felt they could finally talk, watching how Tony ran his hands back through his hair, blowing out a long, frustrated sigh. 

“Where to next?” Bruce asked carefully and Tony lay his head down on the steering wheel. 

“Can we just go back to my parent's place?” 

It was the last thing Bruce expected him to say, especially since they had talked extensively about spending the night in a hotel and not even going to see his parents until tomorrow. But all he wanted was for Tony to feel better so he wasn't about to argue.

“Of course,” he agreed easily, hesitant to reach out to him, unsure how to comfort him. “Of course we can. We can go back there, rent a room, skip straight off to Ohio, whatever you want.”

“No – I want to stay, I just – I’m sorry I just – fuck .” Tony pressed his palms into his eyes, frustrated with himself. 

“Hey,” Bruce said, reaching over and stroking his hair over his ear gently, just a little thing, but the tension began to ease in his shoulders instantly. “Tell me.”

“This is going to sound so stupid,” Tony sighed, “but when I was just old enough to start realizing what was going on, my dad had a series of really high profile affairs.” 

Bruce didn’t know why he was surprised exactly, but he was. That seemed like the kind of thing a rich debutant would divorce over, even if other abuses weren’t enough. 

“Usually the CEO of a major pharmaceutical company manages to stay out of the tabloids, but no, not my dad,” Tony bit back with a sarcastic laugh. “It would have been one thing if it was just him, but my mom and I were constantly being harassed by the paparazzi. The jilted wife, the young son, you know. It was constant . They knew where our cars exited from the private garage and every day on the way to school they would be there. We couldn’t go out to eat, we couldn’t even walk out the front door. And he never thought about that. He was never home! He probably didn’t even know.”

“Tony,” Bruce said softly and he could feel Tony’s anger mounting. 

“And now when I’m here, I feel like I’m always being watched. I thought it would be different, that so much time had passed, that it wouldn’t be the same, but it’s all fucked up. It fucked me up.” 

“That’s why you went to Miami so much,” Bruce said, putting the pieces together, thinking about his age, when he started going to Miami, and Tony nodded. 

“Yeah, just to escape and be normal for a little while,” he admitted. “I didn’t realize as a kid that being followed like that wasn’t normal except that my mom was so angry about it, she constantly said she felt trapped here, and I guess I internalized it. Miami seemed like... such an escape. Then he took that from us, too.”

“I’m sorry,” Bruce said, reaching out to stroke his neck. “You should have told me. We could have just gone straight to your parent's. You know that right?” 

Tony frowned and took a deep, stuttering breath, eyes cast away, unable to meet his. “I just wanted it to be better. I just wanted to be normal.” 

Tony’s face looked stricken and it made Bruce’s heart hurt to see it. If there was one thing Bruce understood it was wishing away his personal demons only to have them rear their ugly heads at the worst moments. But he tried to laugh, tried to help Tony feel a little better. 

“It’s a good thing you’re not normal – or you’d hardly be able to put up with me.” 

Tony rolled his eyes but when he looked back over at Bruce he was smiling a little. 

“I know this feels shitty but in a couple of days it’s going to be my turn to feel shitty,” he continued, Tony’s smile waning, though Bruce held his steady, wanting Tony to know it was okay, they’d be okay. “And I’m going to need you. A lot. So it’s okay if you need me now. I want to help.”

For a minute that felt a lot longer than it was, Tony said nothing, but he clenched his teeth like he wanted to talk, and at last when he did get it out Bruce felt it like a punch to the gut but he forced himself to keep his expression neutral, not to let Tony see it. 

“Just know it’s not you,” he said at last, “if I’m distant. What I want... It doesn’t matter here.”

Chapter Text

Tony seemed to be feeling a little better as they drove away and he passed them by the front of the house – an ornate marble entrance way that looked like every other ornate marble entrance way on the street. Bruce struggled to imagine what it looked like on the inside. Honestly he wouldn’t even have assumed it was a house had he just passed by. It never occurred to him these five story tall stonework structures were houses – though he supposed that’s the only thing they could be. He had never really thought about it that much though. 

There was a back entrance down the street where Tony buzzed them in and pulled around to a valet area, waiting. When an older man in a suit came out to meet them Tony practically jumped out of the car, obviously wanting to hug him but then thinking better of it and taking a step back, his smile uncontainable. Bruce got out of the car too, walking around to stand behind Tony, watching the fond smile with which the other man regarded him. 

“Your mother said you were bringing a friend,” he said kindly with a faint English accent.

Tony straight up blushed and it was hard for Bruce to hide his amusement. 

“My boyfriend ,” Tony stammered as Bruce stepped forward to shake his hand. “Bruce Banner.” 

“It’s nice to meet you Mister Banner,” he said quite formally, returning the handshake politely. “I’m Jarvis, the Stark’s butler. I’ve known Anthony his entire life.”

Bruce knew based on the stories Tony told that he often felt closer to ‘the help’ than he did his own parents, but Bruce hadn't really understood what that meant until seeing him now.

“Is my – I mean – are my parents home?” Tony asked awkwardly, having messaged his mom that they were coming in tonight instead of tomorrow before they left the dock and getting an okay. 

“Your mother is still home but Mister Stark left only moments ago, advising that he wouldn’t be in until late tonight,” Jarvis informed him and there was a measured amount of relief in Tony’s face but Bruce thought that was a pretty dick move given he must have known Tony was coming in and he hadn’t seen him since graduation almost a year ago.

But Bruce set it aside. Maybe Tony’s mom hadn’t told him. Maybe he had a prior obligation he had no choice but to meet. 

“Let me pull your car in and bring up your bags,” Jarvis was saying but Tony popped the trunk before handing him the keys. 

“No, let me take the bags, I’d feel better about it,” he said graciously. “I’m not used to –” he made a motion with his hand that indicated everything around him “– all this, anymore.”

For just a brief second there was some kind of paternal look of pride on Jarvis’ face but he schooled it into warm indifference quickly and Bruce sure that he had years of practice at that. But he also knew first hand how difficult it was not to feel something for Tony. 

They grabbed their bags and Tony said he hoped they would get the chance to catch up later before leading him through a back lot of well maintained gardens and up a marble staircase to what Bruce assumed was a back landing. He entered a passcode and the door unlocked and they stepped into nothing Bruce could have ever prepared himself for. 

The whole floor was open, cavernous, white, and sparsely decorated but extremely tasteful. They landing opened into what Bruce could only describe as a formal room and he could see straight into what he guessed was the living room, replete with ivory couches with delicate floral details and a steel and bronze statement spiral staircase between the two. Beyond that there was an enclave with a grand piano and what looked like a kitchen to the side of that, beyond his ability to see. 

“Hey, mom?” Tony called. “You down here? I’m home.” 

Then he turned to Bruce and said she might be upstairs but she appeared on the second floor landing, right at the stairs, and smiled down at him, wide and genuine and Bruce knew instantly where Tony got his smile from.

She was dressed more formally than Bruce had anticipated as she came down the stairs, a pale blue chiffon dress, her dark grey hair pulled into a classy bun. And she paused before she embraced him, her hands on his shoulders, taking in the very vision of him before allowing herself to hug him. His own arms wrapped around her too and Tony melted into her for just a moment, closing his eyes and smiling this really sweet little smile that made Bruce’s heart skip a beat and he understood, then, how easy it was for Tony to accept that he needed his mother too. 

“And you must be Bruce,” she said carefully as she looked over to him, letting Tony go, and there was obvious hesitation so Bruce made it easier for her, holding out his hand. 

“Mrs. Stark,” he said, taking her soft hand in his. “It’s good to finally meet you.”

“Maria,” she replied, her smile strained but not unkind. “It’s good to meet you, too.”

“I guess dad went out,” Tony said and his mother nodded. 

“Yes, you know – the boy’s club,” she said dismissively and Tony nodded as if he did know. “But I’m having Dante make your favorite – that egg yolk raviolo with the ricotta?” 

“Oh! Awesome!” Tony replied enthusiastically. “Is Dante new?” 

“Ah, yes – since you’ve last been home. He’s been with us for about two years now? Joseph moved to California. Dante is young but he’s very good.” She looked at them a moment. “You should have let Jarvis bring in your bags.” 

Tony huffed. “I wasn’t going to make Jarvis bring in our bags. He’s got to be what, sixty-five? He should retire.” It was clear his mom disagreed but she didn’t say it. “We can carry our bags up. I thought we’d take one of the guest rooms on the third floor.” 

There was a brief look of distress on her face as she glanced from Tony, quickly over to Bruce, and then back. “I really think your father would prefer if you took separate rooms.”

And in that moment, as Tony’s face completely crumpled in on itself, Bruce realized several things all at once. 

First, and it was obvious but he'd never considered the implication, Maria had never left Tony’s father, no matter how much shit he had done. He had a series of public affairs when they had a young child and she was still with him. She was likely just as afraid of him as his own mother was afraid of his dad. He knew that she knew about Tony being bisexual and his previous boyfriend way back in high school and that she never had a problem with it. So her distress had nothing to do with their relationship and everything to do with her fear of her husband.

Second, when Tony said what he wanted didn’t matter, he wasn’t just referring to himself and the expectations that were placed upon him. He meant that there was a systemic disregard for his feelings and needs that was still very prevalent in his relationship with his parents today. And this, this way of treating him like a child, like he wasn’t capable of making his own decisions, wasn’t capable of having an adult relationship, was just the tip of the iceberg. 

Third, he was the only person here who wasn’t afraid of Howard Stark. What could the man really do? Take away money Tony wasn’t even using? And that made him the only one in any position to stand up to him for Tony’s sake. And so, though he wasn’t a confrontational person by nature, it made it very easy to say what he said then. 

“With all due respect,” Bruce said, trying to be gentle, “Tony and I don’t have separate rooms in the house we own together.”

They both turned and stared at him, Maria looking faintly ill and Tony looking at him like he had just slain a dragon for him and was brandishing it’s head. And Tony picked up his bag before his mother could recover enough to say anything else and motioned Bruce to follow him upstairs. 

He wasn’t sure just how many floors the house had, but he knew the stairs continued beyond floor three, and they all appeared to have the same white, cavernous, and meticulous feel to them. Tony lead him into a beautifully decorated room with an expensive four-poster bed and damask sheets, a gorgeous fireplace of black marble and warm wood accents and an expensive looking painting above it. A matching enclave carried up from where the grand piano was two floors down and was fashioned into a sitting area with a few books on a coffee table between two plush wingback chairs. 

As soon as Bruce shut the door behind him Tony threw his bag down on the floor and turned to him, grabbing his face between his hands and kissing him hard on the mouth. Bruce was still gripping his bag but he was grinning, basking in Tony’s unbridled attention, feeling instantly like he had him back.

“I love you so much,” he said against his lips, reconnecting them immediately, and it was impossible not to start feeling it when Tony was kissing him like that .

Bruce set down his bag, putting his hands on Tony’s waist and pulling his hips into his as he pulled away from the kiss. 

“You’re going to make it real hard for me to talk to your mom,” he teased and Tony gave him a wolfish grin, kissing him again, but only for a moment before he let him go. 

“Fine,” he muttered out petulantly but he was still smiling like he couldn’t stop himself as he set their bags on the bench at the end of the bed and flopped down on the damask coverlet. Then he turned to Bruce and pat the area next to him. “Come here.”

Curious, Bruce lay down beside him and they stared up at the ceiling for a few minutes, Tony clasping his hand in his and holding it tight. He wasn’t sure exactly what Tony wanted but he didn’t argue, just lay there with him, and honestly? It was nice, just laying there, in the quiet. 

Finally Tony sighed. 

“I guess we should go back down.”

“Probably,” Bruce agreed. “But we can always lay here longer, too.”

Tony’s grip on his hand increased but he only lay there another moment before sitting up.

“We should go down.”

Bruce didn’t try to argue, he just sat up and followed Tony back down, looking around, vaguely curious if he could find his way back to this room on his own. 

Wait until I tell you about Tony’s house , he texted Nat quickly as they made their way down two flights of stairs. 

Tony’s mother was sitting on the couch, playing nervously with her fingers until they reappeared. 

“I told Dante seven-thirty, if that’s okay?” she opened and Tony fell into the couch across from her, seeming out of place in such a casual pose. Bruce sat down carefully next to him, very stiff by comparison, very deliberately not touching him.

“Are we going to break out the wine early?” Tony asked, his leg bouncing a little nervously, and she pinned him with a look. “I guess that’s a 'no' then...”

“Tell me about Philadelphia,” she said instead, smoothing her skirt over her leg. “You are happy with your house?”

“Yes,” Bruce replied quickly. “Thank you – for helping us work out the down payment. I know I can speak for both of us when I say we really appreciated that.” 

Her lips tightened at the mention of it and Tony stared off to the side like he said something embarrassing and Bruce wasn’t exactly sure why. 

“Well, Howard would have rather you continued renting a place. Twenty-three seems young for house ownership in a city you might not stay in. But you know Tony, when he gets his mind on something...” 

Bruce looked between them, unsure any of that was even remotely close to the truth. It sure wasn’t the way he understood it, but he wasn’t going to pick a fight. 

“And where are you working again, Bruce? I’m sure Tony told me but it escapes me right now.”

“Ah, GlaxoSmithKline. I work in R&D. Oncology.”

“Hmm, GSK,” she said thoughtfully, looking away for a moment then straight at him. “Surely Starktech offered you a job as well?”

“Well, yes, actually...” Bruce considered, thinking back to the many job offers he got before graduation.

“And surely they offered to pay you more than you are making at GSK?” 

He felt like her eyes were boring straight into his soul and Tony was checked out, looking out the window, leaving him to deal with this interrogation on his own. 

“Um, yeah, they did, but...” 

But it was an outrageous amount of money, way more than he could have ever accepted as a simple bachelor’s graduate, and besides that, neither he nor Tony wanted to live in New York City. Even though there were many times he doubted moving anywhere with Tony was a good idea at that point, he still discarded it out of hand and focused on more realistic offers. 

“...it was really way too much money and I didn’t feel qualified for the position.”

“Modest, hmm?” she said and Bruce picked up a hint of disdain as she looked over at Tony and he knew he had told Tony he could rely on him but he really wanted some help. 

“People can be modest, mom,” Tony said without looking at them, sounding bored. “Even if they don’t need to be.”

There was a terse moment of silence where Bruce struggled to find something to say, anything to say to ease the tension, and then Tony stopped, turning and giving his mother his full attention. 

You offered him the job, didn’t you?” 

I had nothing to do with any such thing,” she defended but Tony was already standing and storming across the room. 

“You let him do that? Fuck! You just can’t stop yourself from trying to engineer my whole goddamn life!”

“Well you’re clearly impossible, working for a – a mechanic!” She threw her hand up in disbelief more than anger but Tony was clearly still angry. 

“Did it ever occur to you that maybe that’s what I wanted ?” 

“Of course it did, my love,” she said, softening ever so slightly, “but isn’t it a parent’s duty to try to do the best for their son?” 

Tony frowned but he stopped pacing. 

“I believe you believe that, mom,” he said at last, falling back into the seat, deflated, and Bruce was afraid to move. 

“Good,” she said with a bright smile. “Let’s not fight.”

Bruce blinked in disbelief. He felt like he had whiplash and he had no idea what was coming next. Frankly, he didn’t really care that they offered him a job. Even if he had taken it, even if they had moved to New York instead of Philly, it wouldn’t have changed anything in Bruce’s mind. It wouldn’t have meant Tony suddenly had to work at Starktech too or that they had to live near his parents. He understood how Tony felt, but realistically it was also a pretty poor attempt at ‘engineering’ his life. More like a last ditch effort to keep him close.

“How is your job at the – um...?” 

“Harley’s,” Tony filled in bitterly. 

“Harley’s?” Maria repeated with a pleasant smile. 

“Fine,” he muttered and Bruce stepped in. 

“He’s great at it,” Bruce said fondly, looking over at Tony even though he had gone back to staring out the window morosely. “But Tony is great at everything. He built himself a motorcycle practically from scratch.” 

“A motorcycle?” she questioned with one arched brow, a look Bruce was quite familiar with. 

“Ah,” Bruce shifted uncomfortably with a sheepish grin. 

“Nevermind,” she said, waving it away with a hand. “He is quite something, no?” 

Tony scoffed and shook his head but Bruce knew his extreme weakness for superfluous flattery from his loved ones. Apparently his mother was aware of this as well and decided this was something they could both agree on. 

“I think he could probably do anything he put his mind to,” Bruce said honestly. “He’s an amazing cook now.” 

“Really?” 

“Umhmm,” Bruce agreed, encouraged by her interest. “I’m sure Dante is great but, you should let him cook for you tomorrow. He makes this chicken roulade stuffed with cheese and drizzled with this mustard sauce – really, very good. He has great taste.” 

Carefully Tony looked over at him, assessing him, almost smiling. 

“Cooking?” she asked, delighted. “Tony was such a precocious child, always following around the chef. And he had such an advanced palette, even at a young age.” 

“I’ll admit it’s hard for me to imagine him eating frozen chicken nuggets.”

Maria laughed and the tension started to ease up. “Oh no, never. His favorite sandwich as a kid was a toasted green apple and brie with prosciutto.” 

Bruce laughed too and Tony straightened up a little. “I was happy to get a box of Kraft mac n’ cheese.”

“Oh no ,” she feigned horror. “I think I’ve only had it a couple of times when I was young. That powdered cheese... I suppose it did seem like a treat as a child.”

“He also turned me on to real maple syrup.” 

Tony rolled his eyes. “You were going to die continuing to eat the way you had been,” he muttered under his breath and Bruce grinned. 

“I might have died of malnutrition before but now it’ll be cholesterol,” he answered, catching Tony’s affectionate smile briefly.

“I really would like to cook for you and dad,” Tony offered, obviously afraid of being flatly rejected, but his mother just smiled. 

“Text me a grocery list,” she said easily. “I’ll have everything picked up tomorrow. Usually Dante has the weekends off anyway. It will be nice.” Maria paused, considering them. “You are staying until Monday, yes?” 

Bruce looked over at Tony and Tony nodded. “That’s the plan.” 

“And then you are going to...?” 

“Ohio,” Tony said and she tilted her head slightly. 

“Ohio? I thought the wedding was in Atlanta.” 

“The wedding is in Atlanta, but we’re going to see Bruce’s mom first.” 

Bruce bit the inside of his cheek as she considered this and finally Tony slipped his hand under Bruce’s, rubbing his thumb over the top of it gently. 

“Ohio is very far?” 

Bruce knew Tony’s mother had immigrated as a young teen and grew up in a bubble of her other wealthy relations, going to school with her cousins and only meeting his dad at a party by chance. But he didn’t realize just how insulated she had been all of her life until that moment. 

“Yeah, about a ten hour drive.” 

She frowned. “It must have been a while since you’ve seen her, then? Was she at graduation?” 

Bruce was sure Tony could feel how his hand tightened reflexively. It was a huge point of contention between them since he'd purchased her an airline ticket and a hotel room as well with his limited income. 

“No.” 

Maria nodded at this information, but it seemed to puzzle her, like she couldn’t figure out exactly why that would be. And Bruce wasn’t going to volunteer the reason, though he had a feeling that on some level she would understand. 

“We’re going to ask her to move in with us,” Tony said suddenly and Bruce snapped around to look at him, pulling his hand away, feeling vulnerable and betrayed. 

Tony just looked confused, unsure of what he’d said. As if it was commonplace to tell your rich boyfriend’s mother the story of his poor and abusive past the very first time they met.

“Does she need money?” Maria asked, so innocently, like it was a mild inconvenience, like she would just whip out her checkbook and fix it all in an instant.

“No,” Bruce repeated. “It’s not – it’s nothing.”

Maria turned from him to Tony and Tony looked back to Bruce, trying to figure out what to say now, but Bruce just glared back. 

“We just think it would be better for her,” Tony said at last, as if that explained everything. 

For a moment it seemed as if Maria was going to press the issue but then Jarvis came in to let them know their first course was being served. 

Bruce was extremely grateful that she let it drop in favor of ushering them into the dining room. To him it felt an awful lot like being in a restaurant. His wine was poured for him and a plate with a large, perfect ravioli drizzled in a warm buttery sauce was set in front of him. A lot more became clear to him in that instant, especially Tony’s penchant for plating and setting the mood when it came time to eat. It was a fundamental part of his dining experience. 

He had never had an egg yolk raviolo before and he watched subtly the way they split into it from the center and he repeated what they did, the whole thing oozing out like a runny egg, and he was surprised and amused. Tony clearly was enjoying it, claiming he would try making it himself when they got back. The flavors melded beautifully, herbed ricotta and paper thin pasta and rich egg yolk and creamy butter – but he was sure Tony could do just as fine a job in their little kitchen in Philly. 

Then they were served a second course of pork tenderloin with an herb oil mimicking the herbs in the ravioli and roasted beet salad and Bruce was suitably impressed with that too. And at least now they were pouring their own wine as they ate and Tony had relaxed immeasurably with two glasses of wine and they were reminiscing about Miami and Tony laughed. 

“Remember when I told dad I wanted to build sand castles professionally?” he laughed. “I’m pretty sure that was the exact moment he decided to sell the condo.” 

Maria chuckled too, leaning back in the chair with the glass in her longer fingers. 

“I think it was before that,” she admitted, “and had very little to do with you.”

“That’s what he thinks I do now, isn’t it?” Tony asked into his plate after a moment and Bruce hated that Tony was so far away he couldn’t even touch his knee. 

“Ah, cucciolo ,” Maria murmured in Italian and when Tony looked up at her hopefully Bruce silently held his breath, praying nothing she was about to say would shatter that hope. “When I was twenty-three I was – what’s the word? Airhead? Your father – business, business, business, always . Since he was a little boy he only thought about business. You do not take after your father.”

Bruce tried to hide a smile because in just the hour or two they’d been there all he thought about was how similar they were, right down to the expressions she made. He hadn't even met Howard but it was clear who Tony took after.

“I wanted to party and have fun, to fall in love ,” she said, looking pointedly at Bruce with a hand on her chest, making an exaggerated kissy face and he couldn’t help but laugh, quickly covering it with his hand. “You have so many years of your life left, my love. You have fun now, enjoy your easy job, your boyfriend. You think about business, business later.”

She took a sip of her wine and Bruce couldn’t help smiling as he watched Tony’s heart soar at that reply. 

“Maybe I’ll marry rich too,” Tony teased and Bruce practically choked on his wine, sputtering as his plate was taken away and Tony laughed. 

“I guess you’re not marrying me,” Bruce replied and Tony shook his head as he finished his glass. 

“Don’t listen to him – he takes very good care of me,” Tony assured his mother and she looked thoughtfully into her own glass, swirling it a moment. 

“Money is good, very helpful,” Maria said slowly, not an indictment as much as an inward commentary, “but there is somewhat more to life than money. This I wish I had learned when I was twenty-three.”

A slice of rich dark chocolate torte was set in front of each of them, a dollop of cream and raspberries topping it, and Bruce was glad it was a very thin slice. 

“Were you happy, mom?” Tony asked quietly and Bruce didn’t move, afraid to even exist as Tony asked the question. “Ever?” 

“The day you were born was the happiest day of my life, cucciolo ,” she replied effortlessly but Bruce could see it wasn’t what Tony wanted to hear. 

Tony excused himself from the table for the bathroom, leaving Bruce to eat his cake in silence, though he seemed to be the only one interested in it as Maria poured herself more wine. 

“Your mother,” she said, looking at him, seeming clearer than she had a moment ago, “things are bad for her?” 

Bruce sighed and set down his fork, nodding, instantly regretting eating most of the cake as he suddenly felt sick to his stomach.

“How bad? She’s been... hurt? Physically?” 

Bruce looked up at the ceiling, not wanting to cry right in front of Tony’s mother, but her perceptiveness overwhelmed him, hit him hard in a way he wasn’t expecting. 

“Yeah,” Bruce replied, forcing himself to laugh. “My dad is a real class act.” 

“And you have the space for this?

She could have been snarky and it would probably have been warranted but Maria didn’t seem it at all, she seemed genuinely concerned. 

“I mean, our place is small, but... yeah. We’ve got a basement level with street access. I think the previous owners were renting it out, actually. I – well,” Bruce paused, reassessing what he was saying, because it wasn’t just him , just his decision, “we think it will work.” 

For a moment she didn’t say anything, sipping her wine, but then she looked back up at him, seeming more open than she had been the whole time. 

“You seem like a very sweet boy,” she said and Bruce looked at his plate, feeling funny, not used to being complimented like that, not even by his own mother, “but my Tony –” 

Maria stopped as they both heard the piano at the same time and her smile was instant and blinding, a smile that punched through his chest, so much like her son’s, reminding him of Tony as they left Boston behind for good, Tony as they opened the door to their house with their keys for the first time, Tony as he threw him down on the bed and crawled over him like he owned him, Tony the first time Bruce told him he loved him. 

“He still plays?” 

Bruce nodded, trying to place the piece, knowing he’d heard it before. Chopin, he thought. 

“A piano was one of the first things we bought,” he confessed and Maria looked incredibly pleased. “He plays all the time – he’s wonderful. I think he missed it a lot while we were in college.” 

For a moment they simply listened, Maria closing her eyes reverently, that soft smile on her face that belied her pleasure. But then her eyes opened slowly, and she pinned him with a look. 

“You must be very gentle with Tony, you understand?” 

She waited, her eyes hard, trying to impress upon him just how serious she was, but Bruce didn’t understand – he was always gentle with Tony, nothing like his father, and how would she know about that anyway? 

But then she said, “he has told you about his depression?” and then Bruce really did understand. 

He nodded, knowing that Maria was the only other person that really knew, knowing that Tony had confided it all in her after trying to take his own life – how hard it was to be at the boarding school, how he had no friends, how he was coming to terms with being bisexual and the other boy he was dating wouldn’t even look at him when they came back from winter break – likely shamed into avoiding him by his parents, how much pressure was on him and how miserable he was, how it seemed like the only way out. Tony felt like he had nothing. Bruce couldn’t imagine that kind of fear, the fear a mother would have knowing she’d almost lost her son that way.

“I say this with kindness, as a mother myself – you are not responsible for your mother’s happiness,” she said, a thing Bruce knew in his head but not in his heart, a thing it hurt to hear out loud. “But if you are going to be with him, you are obligated to Tony’s.”

“All I want is for Tony to be happy and my mom to be safe ,” he answered honestly, his chest tight with the weight of her words, and she seemed to consider that, rolling it over in her mind. 

She couldn’t truly expect him to pick between them. His love for Tony was deep and cavernous, all consuming, a thing he couldn’t have stopped if he’d wanted to, a thing he never wanted to stop – but his mom was his mom and his love for her was endless.

“Just know that I would do anything, pay anything, for him,” she said at last. “So you don’t let it get like that again – you call me. Howard doesn’t even have to know. I will take care of everything.” 

“Absolutely,” Bruce agreed, trying to reassure her, actually grateful for her bluntness and the offer itself. “I hope it would never come to that, but...”

She hummed and lifted her glass to her lips. “Me too.” 

“Hey, mom!” Tony called from the other room as he neared the end of the concerto movement and the look on her face to be called like that by him was sublime.

Maria stood then, sweeping back a loose lock of hair behind one ear, carrying her wineglass into the other room with her, and Bruce followed her out. Tony looked as natural and effortless as he always did behind the keys, but seeing him behind a grand piano was very different than watching him at their little upright at home. The sun had set and the soft lights of the room gleamed off the shiny black body of it and he was wearing a big grin, his dark eyes shining too. 

“You remember the words?” he asked as he played four notes and repeated them and she smiled back, setting her glass on top of the piano and waiting a moment, composing herself, as he gave her a chance to come in. 

“Moon river,” she sang softly, “wider than a mile. I’m crossing you in style some day...”

Her voice was a little hesitant but it was warm, and she stared lovingly at Tony as he played, focusing on the keys in a way Bruce knew meant he was trying to remember the notes.

“Oh dream maker, you heart breaker, wherever you’re going, I’m going – your way...” 

Bruce sat heavily down in the seat conveniently located to the side, feeling strongly that this was not the first time they had entertained this way, though usually for a different kind of audience. Yet still, it seemed so painfully intimate now, the way she sang to him, especially after the conversation they’d just had. 

He sipped his wine, holding his glass a little too tight, feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. This day had been too much – too much city, too much people, too much emotional baggage from Tony. Then his mom, so brazen and bold, so like him – picking at the little pieces and poking him where it hurt. And now this? It was a lot. He was really looking forward to curling up in bed with his Tony, feel his arms around him again, unashamed, and remember that it was only a week and then they’d be home. 

Then Tony looked up at her, confident about the notes now, joining her in signing the lines repeated, his voice more baritone when he sang than when he spoke and Bruce found it appallingly attractive. He instantly felt his heart beat faster. 

“Two drifters, off to see the world – there's such a lot of world to see,” he crooned and they smiled at one another.

“We're after that same rainbow's end – waiting, round the bend...” 

Each note seemed to hang at the end, their duet holding it there, capturing the feeling, amplifying it until Bruce could barely breathe.

“My huckleberry friend... moon river... and me.”

But as the last note faded out they paused and then started laughing loudly, jarring Bruce after the quiet moment. 

“I am so glad you still play,” Maria said as she took a seat on the far side of Tony and his hands fell to his thighs. 

“Bruce bought me a piano,” he said proudly, and while Bruce didn’t exactly see that as the truth – more or less he was pushed into allowing the purchase of a piano – he was also more than okay with Tony’s mom seeing the version of him that Tony did. 

“He told me,” she smiled, pressing her own fingers into the keys, the melody jaunty and familiar though not one Bruce immediately recognized. 

Tony looked over at him though, almost blushing, and then Bruce realized what it was and his heart leap foolishly. That look on Tony’s face, that romantic tune... and Tony took over from his mother after a moment, leaning into her space to replace her fingers as she sang. 

“So this is love,” she murmured, humming into the next few notes. “So this is love . So this is what makes life divine...”

It was like being in a movie from the fifties. This wasn’t something he knew people actually did . And he didn’t know how he was supposed to sit there and watch it unfold in such an emotionally vulnerable position without being completely wrecked. Tony was so painfully handsome and so crazy talented – a sharp reminder of how inferior he was, a reminder that was worlds away when they were home in Philadelphia, where they were equals, a reminder he hadn’t had in almost a year. And his mother was beautiful too, and they were so easy together, so natural, and Bruce knew that Tony belonged here – whether Tony wanted to belong or not.

“My heart has wings and I can fly,” Tony joined her, reaching a crescendo with the next line. “I'll touch every star in the sky.”

Bruce buried his face in the wine glass, wishing he was burying it in Tony’s skin. He was trying to keep his shit together but it was difficult when he was so weak for Tony and Tony was so sincerely and unintentionally pulling out nearly every card in the book to unravel him completely. 

“So this is the miracle that I’ve been dreaming of...”

They finished the song, voices fading off with the last note, but they didn’t laugh this time, just shared an intimate smile that made Bruce look away, feeling like a voyeur. 

Maria elbowed him out of the way and he chuckled, scooting down to the end of the bench as she took over. Her fingers danced over the keys quickly, mellowing out again after a moment and easing into another romantic tune. 

“Stars shining bright above you, night breezes seem to whisper 'I love you,'” Tony sang quietly, but he seemed tired now, likely as worn down as Bruce was after today, and as Bruce watched him he wished he was closer, wished that he could hold his hand. “Birds singing in the sycamore tree, dream a little dream of me.” 

Then Tony stopped singing and he stood, crossing the distance between them, holding out his hand to Bruce. Under normal circumstances, he probably would have put up more of a fight. Bruce still didn’t enjoy dancing and he especially didn’t enjoy doing things which embarrassed him in front of people whose favor he was trying to curry, but he also just really, really needed Tony’s affection right then. 

So he set his glass down next to his seat and took Tony’s hand, standing. Tony pulled him forward and into his arms, grinning at how easily Bruce capitulated to him, but the relief he felt in Tony’s arms was completely worth it. He held Bruce’s hand out to the side, his other arm wrapped tightly around Bruce’s waist, swaying slowly as he murmured to the accompaniment.

“Stars fading but I linger on, dear, still craving your kiss...” 

And he kissed him softly, making Bruce blush like it was new, like they hadn’t kissed a thousand times before. And when they separated Bruce lay his head against Tony’s, closing his eyes, focusing on Tony’s breathing, the warmth of his body, the feeling of him in his arms, here with him, happy and safe and his , singing softly in his ear, everything else fading away but the melody and them. 

“But in your dreams, whatever they be, dream a little dream of me...” 

Tony nuzzled his ear as the song ended and he let him go, but Bruce felt remarkably better afterwards, reconnected again. He didn’t realize how much he needed it, how much he missed Tony’s touch when it wasn’t there, and he instantly felt guilty about it, truly wanting to be there for Tony through this, to have no expectations of him – but it was hard when Tony didn’t even want to touch him. 

“I managed to lose my wine glass,” Tony laughed, leaving them for a moment as Maria picked up her own, taking a sip. 

Bruce felt the silence between them was awkward but Tony returned quickly with a glass and a whole bottle of wine. 

“It’s a nice night, I thought I might take Bruce up to the terrace,” Tony said with a genuine smile, finally himself again, his Tony. “Will you come up with us, mom?” 

She looked between them and seemed to hesitate, not wanting to intrude on them, but now that Tony had relaxed, Bruce didn’t mind. 

“Just for a while?” Bruce added and with his blessing she agreed. 

They headed up several flights of stairs, past different living areas, and still weren’t even at the top when they moved through a recreation room with a pool table and a felt backed card table and a well stocked wet bar to the terrace. The night was nice, the air cool but not cold enough to require a jacket, and the view was incredible, lit up by a thousand buildings across the Hudson River at night.

Tony was pouring them wine as Bruce settled into the large sectional that was about ten times more comfortable than he thought patio furniture could be. And Tony sat down next to him, close this time, his arm around his shoulder like it always was, and Bruce smiled over at him, encouraging him. Maria sat past the corner on Tony’s other side, staring off in the distance. 

“Your house is beautiful,” Bruce said at last, breaking the silence, hoping that Maria was as influenced by flattery as Tony was given how similar she was in just about every other way.

Maria snapped out of her reverie and looked over at him, smiling wanely. 

“We used to take Tony to that park, across the street,” she said, nodding in it’s direction, “when he was very little, just a baby. We bought this house because of that park.”

For a moment there was silence and then she laughed. 

“I have this picture of him all bundled up in a snowsuit, with a scarf and everything because Howard was so afraid of him getting hurt or sick, and he was stuffed into one of those little swings like a sausage, and his fat little cheeks!” she laughed and Tony drank, his fingers pulling through the back of Bruce’s hair. 

“I would love to see that,” Bruce teased as Tony rolled his eyes but Maria latched on to the suggestion.

“Would you?” 

Bruce looked over at her, imaging some large, gilded book full of baby Tony, and grinned. “Yeah! Of course!” 

“Oh jeez,” Tony groaned, his fingers tightening in Bruce’s hair.

“Tony was a very beautiful, very fat little baby,” Maria said as he sunk further into the seat in mock indignation and they both laughed at him. “So, so cute! Strangers couldn’t help themselves when they saw him. He got his dark eyes from me, of course.”

She put her fingers under her chin, batting her eyes, and Bruce laughed and it was easy. Maria was just as good a conversationalist as her son and she was clearly happy he was home. And even despite their awkward conversation over dessert, Bruce got the feeling she did like him, at least enough to let her guard down – as Bruce began to notice when she felt relaxed her English slipped and her Italian accent was stronger, the way it was over dinner. 

As the night wore on and the bottle was emptied, she put her hand on Tony’s knee, telling him she was going down to wait for Howard but they needn't see him until tomorrow. Then she kissed his cheek and told Bruce a polite goodnight and left the terrace. 

They were both a little tipsy by this point and Tony leaned into him, grabbing his arm and putting it around him, locking their fingers together and resting his head against his, sighing as they stared out at the river together. And all Bruce could think about was how remarkable he was, how amazing, how he was going to show up at their shitty little ranch in Ohio the day after tomorrow and it would be just as much a shock to Tony as this multilevel mansion in the heart of New York City was to Bruce. 

It amazed him even more now that Tony willingly gave all this up to be with him. He understood it as best he could, heard all Tony’s stories about how trapped he was here, knew Tony was so much happier where he could hold his hand, kiss him in the street, work whatever job he wanted, and have to answer to no one beside himself, but still... He also saw how easily Tony fit here now and Bruce didn’t know if he could have given it up so easily. 

But instead of putting that on him he just kissed Tony’s temple, squeezed his hand. 

“I love you.”

He didn’t know how he could but he could feel Tony smiling.

“I love you, too.”

Chapter Text

When Bruce woke up Tony was already awake, stroking his hair absently as he scrolled through his phone. He couldn’t help but smile up at him, rarely getting to wake up to him in bed any more. 

“Hey sleepyhead,” he murmured, looking down at him, his hand stilling in his hair. 

“What time is it?”

“Eight.”

Bruce groaned. “Early.”

“Sure,” Tony laughed. “Early.” 

Bruce reached for his phone, clearing notifications until he got to Nat’s message. 

Did you survive????

Bruce huffed, knowing what she meant. 

Ha – check on me tonight.

Then he added, His dad was out last night. Think his mom likes me okay though.

But he didn’t wait for a response before he put down his phone and slid closer to Tony, throwing his arm around his waist and staring up at him. He smelled like soap and Bruce was kind of surprised he didn’t get dressed, but he was glad. Tony’s chest was soft and warm and he planted a kiss on it, looking up again. Tony was smiling down at him, calm, relaxed – so unlike yesterday, so normal. And Tony slid his hand into his hair, fisting it as he leaned down to kiss him. 

It was an awkward angle and they laughed a little as they separated but instead of moving away Bruce kissed his chest again. And again. And again – sliding his mouth over to his nipple, hearing Tony hiss as he whispered his lips across it. 

Bruce didn’t know exactly how Tony would respond to the idea of screwing around in his parent’s house. He knew sex was something Tony fell back on when he was stressed, having experienced it first hand in Miami after he broke up with Pepper, and Bruce wanted to offer him something . But although he could tell Tony was responding to his kisses – could feel the way his breath deepened, the way his hand held his head near, followed him as he trailed down his abs – Tony didn’t let him get much further than that before stopping him. 

“We shouldn’t,” he said quietly, mournfully, and Bruce stopped, feeling sorry for him. 

Tony was definitely not the kind of guy who under normal circumstances was going to turn down an unrequested morning blowjob. Even if he didn’t seem anxious, Bruce knew something was going on. But he didn’t hassle him, wanted him to know he’d do whatever he needed him to do. 

And so he sat up instead, kissing him on the lips again, a gentle affirmation, reaching for his hand and holding it tight for a minute.

“I’ll take a shower and we can go downstairs together,” he offered, leaning back against the headboard, just far enough apart to look him in the eyes and see how he was feeling and Tony leaned in and kissed him again.

Tony was uncharacteristically quiet but Bruce didn’t force him to talk, he just got out of bed and went to the bathroom, an elegant, understated thing with a clawfoot tub and a standing shower and a beautifully engraved mirror. He showered quickly, not wanting to make Tony wait on him. It would be better to just suck it up, get it over with, get through this day, and move on. 

He brushed his teeth and got dressed and Tony had dressed and done his hair. And he was so worked up he started to the door before Bruce even had a chance to say anything to him so he grabbed his arm, stopping him. 

“Hey, wait a minute,” he said, pulling him back a little. “Come here, talk to me. What’s wrong?”

Tony stammered a moment, staring at his feet, acting remarkably childish, like he’d been thrown back in time fifteen years. 

“I just want this to go well,” he finally admitted and Bruce pulled him closer, hugging his arm, resting his head against his. 

“It will.”

Bruce said it so confidently it clearly surprised Tony, especially given how many times Bruce had stated his own reservations about meeting Tony’s parents. But they were here now, it was going to happen, and the truth was the same as it was yesterday – he wasn’t scared of Howard Stark.

“How do you know?” And Tony clearly was scared, his voice small and uncertain.

“Because... I know your dad can be kind of a dick, okay? I know that,” Bruce replied, bringing his other hand up to his neck and massaging it gently. “I promise nothing he says to me is going to hurt my feelings or make me feel differently about you. Okay? Nothing. I love you .”

He felt Tony swallow hard and shifted their positions, Tony turning into him, burying his face in his neck. 

“I’ve got you, okay?” Bruce murmured softly, knowing Tony needed to hear it, trying to bolster him before their descent. “Whatever you need.”

They stood there for a long time, longer than Bruce anticipated, and when Tony finally pulled away, he did seem stronger and he kind of gave him a half hearted smile. 

“Let’s do it.”

Together they went down to the dining room. Light classical music floated through the air from indeterminate speakers and there was a spread of pastries across the table and a pot of coffee in the center and Maria sat on one side with a cup and a kindle on the table while Howard sat at the far end, buried in a newspaper. 

“Good morning!” Maria greeted brightly. 

Bruce took the seat across from her with a friendly smile and Tony walked over to kiss her cheek. He was a little off put by the fact that Howard didn’t even look up, but Bruce figured that added to his air of self-importance and he focused on watching Tony deliberately avoid walking behind his father, moving the far way back around the table to get them mugs from the buffet.

“I’ll make us some eggs,” he offered as he poured Bruce a cup of coffee with a hand on his shoulder, acting as natural as Bruce could have expected. “Would you like some, mom?” 

“No thank you, sweetheart,” she replied easily and Tony’s hand gripped his shoulder a little tighter before he removed it and headed to the kitchen. 

Bruce sipped at his coffee, grateful that they’d taken a moment to themselves before coming down. Howard definitely added an oppressive air to the room – even Maria seemed subjected to it, her happy manner from yesterday significantly muted. 

“I hope you slept well,” she offered gamely and Bruce wasn’t going to let her down. 

“Yes, thank you,” he answered. “Unfortunately for me, Tony’s become something of a morning person, since he has to get up so early for work.”

Maria couldn’t help but smile. She looked like she was going to say something but then Howard snapped his paper, folding it neatly before looking at Bruce with piercing blue eyes. 

“Maria tells me you work for GSK,” he stated, voice cold and neutral and Bruce just nodded over the rim of his mug, not allowing himself to be intimidated. 

“R&D,” he confirmed. “Oncology.”

Howard seemed to consider this a moment before saying, “We just updated all of our R&D labs. Our statistical modeling lab is state of the art. It’s unfortunate you aren't staying another day – I would take you down to the main office.”

It wasn’t what Bruce was expecting, but he took it in stride, smirking instead of showing his surprise. “That’s not fraternization?” 

Howard sniffed, as if that was beneath him. “Recruitment. I’m sure our facilities are far beyond anything GSK has to offer.”

Bruce didn’t let on how shocked he was by the idea that Howard might have legitimately tried recruiting him. Surely he didn’t deserve the ridiculous offer he’d received at graduation, there had to be some element of bribery like Tony suspected. But Bruce wasn’t ignorant of how intelligent he was and he supposed it was possible Starktech actually wanted him on the payroll as much as Howard wanted to show off his facilities.

“GSK knows how to keep us pretty happy.” 

Bruce offered an elusive grin with his double entendre, knowing that while he didn’t have years of practice as a smarmy bastard, he had been through the ringer at MIT and his own dad had taught him a thing or two. Plus, it wasn’t like he was working for a government funded research organization. GlaxoSmithKline had a thirty billion dollar revenue stream. Howard barely had a leg to stand on.

He frowned and glanced at the paper again, making some off-handed comment about stock prices that Bruce didn’t get and Maria nodded before Tony returned with two plates. 

Bruce smiled up at him warmly as he set his plate in front of him, thanking him as he always did. He must have found some of the pork tenderloin from last night because it was sliced thin and fried quickly and plated with the eggs instead of the traditional bacon and Bruce, as usual, admired his resourcefulness. 

Tony took the seat right next to him, placing Bruce between his father and himself, and Bruce made a mental note to continue putting himself in that position. 

“Your mother told me you cook now,” Howard said with mild disdain. “I figured –” he made a motion that clearly indicated Bruce “– would do that.”

Bruce managed to keep his face neutral through his confusion but Tony rolled his eyes, clearly understanding better than him. 

“I’ve always wanted to learn,” he said instead. “Bruce encouraged me.”

Bruce let his knee move closer to Tony’s, pressing them together supportively and saying nothing. It was enough for him to know he supported Tony where his parents didn’t. 

“Does he encourage you to do the dishes and other menial labor too?” Howard asked pointedly, not even looking at Bruce now, and then Bruce couldn’t keep his mouth shut, stepping in before Tony had to.

“The division of labor in our relationship isn’t up for discussion,” he said coldly, not even bothering to look up at Howard as he took another bite of his breakfast. 

“I was just trying to ascertain if you were the woman,” Howard said with a sharp look in Tony's direction.  

“Howard!” Maria gasped and Bruce was left in shock as he felt Tony completely crumple beside him. 

Admittedly, living in Boston and then in Philly, they really didn’t face too much homophobia in their daily lives. Tony was always very out and even his manly-man coworkers rarely said anything to him about it, even if some of them avoided him like the plague. Bruce worked primarily with women and intellectuals at that and while he didn’t talk much about his home life, they all knew about his boyfriend who came to eat lunch with him sometimes on Mondays. Occasionally they’d get snide comments on the street or in a bar but it rarely affected either of them in any meaningful way. Sure, his own father had been an asshole about it, but with Tony’s help he’d managed to wall off his voice in the back of his mind where it couldn’t hurt him as badly. To hear Tony’s dad say something like that without a single shred of embarrassment or hesitation was beyond Bruce’s ability to even believe. He thought at the very least that Howard had more class than that. 

Bruce swallowed thickly and looked over at him. 

“If I had wanted to be with a woman, I wouldn’t be dating your son.”

For a minute Howard met his gaze, studying him, but Bruce refused to back down. If they were going to have any kind of relationship with Tony’s parents, he wasn’t going to roll over and show his belly at the first sign of a fight. Not to Howard fucking Stark.

He was satisfied when Howard looked away and picked up his own coffee, gritting his teeth against what he imagined he’d say – not my son , a fag, a pussy, just a little bitch – all the things his dad would say but... Howard was not his dad. This wasn’t his dad.

Bruce’s heart was pounding but he was glad to look back at his plate and take another bite, though he couldn’t taste it and he wasn’t sure he even chewed. Maria was saying something off topic and appeasing, about a violin soloist from France coming to Carnegie Hall and how as members they had tickets. Somehow Tony managed to respond but the blood was rushing in Bruce’s ears and it was all he could do to focus on his plate and not look up at Howard again, not give in to his intimidation tactics. 

“Bruce?”

He had finished his plate at least ten minutes ago and was deep into his second cup of coffee, every ounce of his focus on Howard speaking another awful word, that he had totally tuned out Maria and Tony’s conversation and he was fairly sure she’d said his name at least twice before he responded. 

“I’m sorry,” he apologized, looking up from his mug. 

“Would you join me upstairs?” 

Bruce felt no small amount of reservation at that request. He looked over at Tony then and Tony gave him a wane but encouraging smile. For a moment he reached out and touched his hand, slipping it under Tony’s, squeezing it – and Tony squeezed back, letting him know silently that he would be okay. So despite his uncertainty, Bruce agreed, following her upstairs and back to the floor they were staying on. 

“I apologize for my husband,” she said as they entered a study with an opulent couch and wall to wall books interrupted only by windows. “Clearly he didn’t get enough sleep last night.”

Bruce couldn’t help the way he choked on a sarcastic laugh. As if sleep was Howard’s problem. But he was sure she bore the brunt of it, had to cope with it however she could, made excuses constantly all her life for his poor behavior, and it did no good to laugh at her.

“They need to talk, just the two of them.”

He didn’t like that at all, but maybe it was true. Bruce still felt a distinct pang of guilt for leaving Tony down there by himself though.

For a moment he thought Maria might say something else about it, but then she decided against it, turning back to the books and pulling out a large, oversized album, bringing it over to the couch and patting the space beside herself. Bruce joined her on the couch and she smiled and it touched her eyes and he was glad, at least, that he could share something with her.

The album was black and thick and she opened it reverently, letting the cover fall on Bruce’s knee. Right there in the front was an article clipping of Tony’s birth announcement and next to it a card specially printed of them standing together outside of their home, Tony just a bundle in young Maria’s arms, her dressed in a patterned suit, Howard beside her, beaming. Bruce could easily have spent five minutes on that picture alone, but she turned the page quickly to a spread of just infant pictures of Tony taped in at the corners. The focus was a little soft in most of them but he looked much like other newborn babies looked to Bruce, calm and peaceful and asleep. 

“I am a terrible photographer but I tried, for him,” she laughed. “He was such a cute baby, it was easy to take pictures of him. Howard bought me an expensive digital camera. It didn’t help much.”

She flipped the page again and Tony was a little bigger, sitting up, and Bruce couldn’t help but laugh as he really was a chunky baby. But Maria was laughing too and she pointed to a picture that fell in Bruce’s lap.

“Look at those cheeks!” 

Tony’s dark eyes were round and wide and he was all rolls in a little pair of overalls with his toes curled, surrounded by toys with a plastic car in one hand. It was strange to think of Tony that way, cute and small and helpless. Strange to see Howard leaning into frame with a smile on his face, holding him on his lap, grinning for all the world like there was nothing he loved more than his son. 

“Here it is,” Maria said as she flipped the page again, pointing to the picture of Tony in the snow jacket, stuffed into a swing. But Howard was the photographer this time, Maria’s hands on the swing, her huge wedding ring in frame. 

“Oh, his gat-gat,” Maria laughed, pointing to a picture of him in a crib hugging a stuffed animal with its ear in his mouth. “ Gatto is cat in Italian and he couldn’t say it, obviously – but it also sounded like 'cat.' It was so cute. He loved that thing to pieces.”

She flipped the page again and Tony got a little bit older. As he aged Bruce noticed how much he smiled, grinning with little lips, that same fun-loving grin just in a smaller package. Maria photographed him in a go kart, in the tub, behind the piano, with a too big baseball glove on his hand – Howard in the background with a ball. 

But as she went his smile faded and all the pictures became formals. By the Christmas tree. By the piano. In a classroom line up. Tony in a little suit, in front of the piano, standing next to Howard, both of them looking miserable. It was difficult to see such a young child looking so unhappy. It was difficult to see his Tony as a young child looking so unhappy. Bruce had been an unhappy child, but Tony deserved better. Tony should have had better. 

Maria seemed to gloss over it though, talking about this party or that holiday. She had to see it though, right? Bruce was sure she knew. She lived it.

At least the pictures stopped before boarding school, when he was sent away for his grades slipping at home. 

“He is so special to me,” she murmured, her fingers on the last picture, a graduation picture, his hair styled with too much gel, clean shaven – but at least he had the vestiges of his smile back. “When we bought this house, we thought we would fill it with five or six children... but it didn’t happen that way. Instead, we got Tony.”

He wondered when she had stopped trying, when the miscarriages became too much. He wondered if that was when Howard started sleeping around. 

“Tony seems like he’d have the energy of at least three babies,” Bruce said, unsure of what to say, not willing to offer that his mother had a miscarriage too... at twenty-two weeks, thanks to his dad.

Maria laughed. “He did. He was a blessing to me. But it wasn’t enough for...” 

She trailed off but Bruce knew. It wasn’t enough for Howard. One child was too much to focus on, too much to be disappointed in. 

“I should check on them,” she said abruptly, setting the book down on the table in front of them as she stood. 

“I –”

Maria shook her head. “Give me a moment.” 

Bruce didn’t like it, but he let her leave, deciding to give it only a few minutes before he would go down to rescue Tony himself. And he flipped back to the pictures of Tony as a baby, of him smiling – not wanting to think of the years between then and now. He hadn’t lied to her last night – he only wanted Tony to be happy. 

But it was still hard to look at, still hard to think about, so he stood and walked over to the bookcase, standing before the empty space where she had taken it from. There was a little album printed from a place like Target or Shutterfly tucked up against the book next to it, nearly about to slide out and fall where it had been displaced when the much larger album was moved. 

He pulled it out, immediately grinning at the silly cover. It read “Mom and Me in Italy” and had a picture of Tony and Maria in front of the coliseum, bundled in scarves and wool coats, one of Tony’s arms around her shoulder and the other spread out, a grin on his face that clearly read ‘look at this shit!

Bruce sat back down as he flipped through it, pictures of Tony’s best Christmas memory laid out for him to see – landmarks and scenery but selfies of him, too, pictures of his mom, both of them smiling and laughing, eating gelato and trying on hats, drinking coffee from tiny cups and just having a good time together. It made him think of Miami, the pictures Tony took of them together too. It made him think that Tony deserved a real vacation, not one where they were both stressed out and upset about something and just trying to have a good time with one another despite it.

“Hey, baby,” Tony said from the door and Bruce slammed the book shut in surprise, then laughed at himself. 

“I wasn’t expecting you,” he admitted, setting the book down and standing. “Your mother told me to give her a minute. Are you okay?”

Tony seemed more at ease as he met him in the center of the room – but Bruce was still concerned.

“Yeah,” he shrugged a little, grabbing Bruce’s hand and staring down at it, embarrassed. “I told you my dad was an asshole.”

“He said he’d take me down to the main office to show off his labs,” Bruce whispered with a smirk and Tony laughed loudly, biting it back down. “Even though he thinks I ought to wear the dress in this relationship.”

“Oh my god,” Tony groaned. “I can’t believe he said that.”

“I told you that nothing he said would hurt my feelings.”

Still.”

“What did he say to you? After I left?” 

Tony played with his fingers a moment. 

“Not much, mostly work, if I planned to look for a ‘real job.’” He rolled his eyes but still refused to meet Bruce’s.  

“What did you say?” 

“That I’d think about it.”

Bruce frowned, hoping that Tony couldn’t possibly think Bruce felt that was necessary, that he must have said it just to appease his dad. Frankly Bruce didn’t care if Tony had a job at all, except that he seemed to feel better when he had something to do.

“Do you want to take a walk? I just need some air.”

“Sure,” Bruce agreed easily, agreeing that getting some air wasn’t a bad idea. 

They got ready and Tony took him across the street to walk in the park where that picture in the swing was taken. It was long, spanning quite a few miles of the Hudson, all the way up to Columbia. Tony was still cautious, wouldn’t hold his hand, but he walked close, shoulders nearly touching, hands pointedly brushing, and he smiled at him as he talked, like it was okay, like he was okay. 

“I got into Columbia too,” Tony was saying as they reached the school, “which should show you how rigged the education system is. We talked a lot about me going there. I almost did, actually. It was close, my mom was worried about my mental health, and honestly so was I – but I’m glad I went MIT. I needed to get away. Really far away.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Bruce answered and Tony grimaced. 

“The worst part is just watching my mom pretend it isn’t even happening, you know?”

Now it was Bruce’s turn to make a face. “Trust me – I know.”

“Obviously, it’s not as bad as –”

“Don’t,” Bruce cut him off, watching a woman walk after two kids running down the pathway so he didn’t have to look at Tony. “It’s still bad. It’s always bad.”

“I guess you’re right...” 

“I’m glad you went to MIT though,” Bruce admitted with a shy grin to change the subject, feeling strangely vulnerable though they’d been together long enough now that there was no reason to be, and Tony’s fingers slipped loosely between his. 

“Me too.”

And he was barely holding his hand but it felt more special in that moment than any of the hundreds of times they’d held hands before and Bruce didn’t push it, he just smiled as they walked along, thankful for every smile Tony gave him back. 

When they returned to Tony’s house he was sure Tony felt better and Bruce brought down his Kindle and read on the couch while Tony and his mother played leisurely games of Écarté while talking, Tony running through things that happened at work or places they’d been, concerts they’d seen, their friends, plans for the wedding. 

“And these are the friends you met in Miami?” Maria asked as she played a card and Bruce looked up from his book. 

“Yeah,” Tony confirmed as he set down his own, taking the trick. “We haven’t seen them since, though Bruce talks to Nat almost daily. We keep trying to make plans, but with the wedding, they didn’t have a lot of time for traveling.”

“I hope they’ll be able to meet us in the fall,” Bruce said, surprising them by speaking, but he felt the need to say it, make it a tangible thing. “We’d like to rent a boat and sail down the coast.”

“Oh!” Maria said, clearly pleased. “That would be so much fun!” 

Tony hesitated though, as he had on the boat on the way to the Statue of Liberty. He took another trick. 

“Before Tony was born we owned a boat and had it chartered up and down the coast many times,” she said as she turned back to the game. “It’s so fun, seeing new places every night, meeting new people as you go... You would love it.” She looked at Tony and he nodded, not looking up. 

“Probably.”

Probably? Bruce wasn’t going to ask him right there where he felt most vulnerable but as he turned back to his book he made a mental note to ask Tony about it later.

Tony picked up with some commentary about the wedding colors and what he intended to wear and went on like Bruce had said nothing so he didn’t pipe up again until they ordered some sandwiches for lunch.

They didn’t see Howard through lunch and Maria made some excuse about him taking a work call but afterwards Tony opted for a change in venue, heading up to another terrace with a bottle of wine. 

“I feel like this house is endless,” Bruce laughed as he sat down, Tony pouring him a glass. 

“It’s pretty over the top, I guess,” Tony answered, sitting back with him and handing him his glass. He clinked it with Bruce’s before taking a sip. “You can see how it would get pretty lonely.”

“You don’t have any hard feelings about giving up an entire floor of our house to my mom, do you?” Bruce asked carefully, having never really realized before just how much Tony had before him.

“Of course not,” Tony replied easily, trying to reassure him as he threw his arm over the back of the seat. “I would have told you before now if I did.”

“Just... do. Please. Tell me,” Bruce said haltingly, staring into his drink, hating to talk about things like this but forcing himself through it. “Your mom said – well. I just – I want you to be happy. You know that, right?” 

“What the hell did my mom say to you?” Tony asked, Bruce watching his defenses rise and he hated when Tony looked at him like that, like he was preparing for a fight. 

“It’s nothing, she didn’t mean anything by it,” Bruce assured him, putting his hand on his thigh. “I just...” 

Tony searched his eyes and he looked away, embarrassed. He’d gotten so much better at it but it was still so hard for him to be vulnerable, to say what he needed to say, to help Tony understand how he felt, the depth of his love. His brain was shouting suggestions at him but it was like he couldn’t speak, he couldn’t get the words out, until finally, finally he managed –  

“I want you to know how important it is to me to give you more than this.” 

And it wasn’t monetary, Tony had to know that. That wasn’t something he could ever realistically achieve. But he could make him happy, happier than he ever was here. Maybe. He hoped he could do that.

“Bruce,” Tony said softly, setting down his wine glass and put his hand on his cheek, cradling his face, forcing their eyes to meet. “You know you’re my superman, right? You saved me from this.”

Bruce couldn’t help but blush at that cheesy line but his heart still soared as Tony leaned in and kissed him. It was soft and gentle and warm and it sparked that feeling in the pit of his stomach like falling and he set his own wine glass down to move into it, wrapping his arms around him and kissing him back. 

Tony shifted, pulling him with him, laying on his back, laughing quietly as Bruce adjusted to lie on top of him. And he stroked at Bruce’s hair as they kissed, the weight of his hips pressed into Tony’s pleasant, not urgent, and it felt good to close his eyes and pretend they were a hundred miles away, at home, where he didn’t doubt how Tony felt about him or how they lived and things were easier. 

“I love you so much,” Tony whispered against his lips. 

“I love you too,” Bruce mumbled back, wrapping his arms around Tony’s neck and kissing him until he couldn’t anymore.

Chapter Text

“Excuse me, sirs.” 

A kind voice brought Bruce back to abruptly, unfamiliar, his eyes snapping open. 

“Mister Stark?”

He was disoriented for a moment but he felt Tony under him and he looked around and realized he was on Tony’s parent's terrace in Manhattan. They’d fallen asleep together, relaxed, his head tucked up under Tony’s chin, listening to his heart beat, feeling his hand move lazily through his hair. 

Bruce sat up quickly, realizing it was Tony’s butler that was talking and feeling a keen sense of embarrassment at having been caught in such a vulnerable position. But Tony seemed to feel no such embarrassment and he laughed, taking his time sitting up, stretching and running a hand down his face. 

“Sorry,” he apologized for no apparent reason. “How are you Jarvis?”

“Well, sir. I trust you feel better after your nap? He has fallen asleep on every surface of this house, I’m afraid.” 

Jarvis winked at Bruce in a friendly way and Bruce kind of laughed, chagrined. 

“Your father is requesting your presence downstairs, sir.”

Tony made a distressed sound. “What time is it?” 

“A quarter until six, sir.”

“Fuck, I need to start cooking. Dad’s not – you know?” Tony made a face that made Bruce want to throw him in the car and leave without even saying goodbye. 

“Ah, no sir – he seems to be in a pleasant mood.”

“I’m sure I can change that,” Tony joked, running his knuckles under his chin.

“Would you like me to take in your wine, sir?” he asked, ignoring Tony’s self-deprecating commentary. 

“Um,” Tony wavered a moment. “Can you take it down to our room?” 

“Of course, sir.”

“And Jarvis?” 

“Yes, sir?” 

“Thanks,” Tony said, uncharacteristically timid. “For... you know. Being cool.”

Jarvis chuckled as he picked up the bottle of wine and both glasses. 

“I’m not sure I’ve ever been called ‘cool’ before, sir,” Jarvis dead-panned. “That must make you phenomenally un -cool.”

Bruce laughed as he walked away, Tony smirking after him. “I love that old man.”

“I think he feels the same way about you,” Bruce offered honestly, as every time Jarvis looked at Tony his face was full of familial affection. 

“I should be so lucky.” 

They descended down to talk to Howard, Bruce feeling better after their nap but not so much so as to feel better about their prospects for tonight. If breakfast was any indication, dinner was going to be rife with unpleasantries. 

“Hey,” Tony greeted as he walked into the living area where Howard sat on the couch with a tablet, Maria across from him where she’d sat while they were playing cards earlier.

She was dressed remarkably formally, Bruce thought, much more so than earlier, and Howard had a blazer slung over the couch next to him. Bruce couldn’t exactly explain why that bothered him, but it did, and his mind turned it over as Tony continued talking.

“I’m sorry to leave you waiting – it shouldn’t take me more than an hour to prepare dinner. I’ll just have to –”

“Oh, we’re going to Sistina.”

Howard said it as an absolute, no room for questioning, and it all made sense then. The silence in the room was deafening as Howard didn’t even look up from his tablet, Maria looked anywhere but at Tony, and Tony practically quivered with anger. Bruce wanted to say something, anything in Tony’s defense but he didn’t know what he could say that wouldn’t only make things worse. 

“You’ll have to change,” Howard added after a moment and Bruce watched Tony’s jaw working over everything he managed to repress.

Bruce wasn’t sure what was worse – watching Tony’s father completely shut down the very simple request to cook a meal for him without a second of thought or compassion or seeing his normally boundless and unrestrained Tony fight down every angry word that came to him out of reverence for a man who cared so little about him that he would deny Tony such a simple request. All he could do was glare in Howard’s direction as Tony stomped off up the stairs and follow him, unsure if Bruce was even going to let them go to dinner at this point. 

Tony stormed through the room, ripping open his bag and throwing the contents across the bed. Bruce shirked such violence and Tony rarely gave in to a fit of rage, so now he watched from the door, unsure what to do, paralyzed by latent fear his own father built into him. 

“I can’t fucking believe him,” Tony growled, digging through the clothes for the shirt he wanted. 

Tony's chest was heaving and any sense of calm they’d felt only moments before on the rooftop was obliterated. Bruce’s heart was in his throat. It seemed like an overreaction, but he still wasn’t sure exactly what just happened. Howard had literally said two sentences and now they were up here and Tony was pouring himself wine from the bottle left by Jarvis and throwing it back in one long swallow. 

“Hey,” Bruce interjected as Tony slammed the glass down and Bruce fully expected it to break, though it didn't. “You knew he wasn’t into the idea of you cooking anyway.”

Whatever he’d said, Tony stopped pouring himself more wine, setting the bottle down with a dark, sad little laugh. 

“Oh no, baby,” he muttered. “This isn’t about that at all.” 

Bruce clearly didn’t understand but at least Tony wasn't yelling anymore – though he did down the second glass quickly before turning around to meet him. 

“He needs to get me out of the house, out in public, where I won't cause a scene.’”

It was hard to imagine why. Normally, wherever they were, even if that place was woefully public, ‘causing a scene’ was the furthest thing from Tony’s mind if he had a strong opinion about something. It seemed to Bruce he relished in ‘causing a scene.’ But here, even within the confines of this house it seemed impossible for Tony to stand up for himself. Obviously Bruce had seen first hand that he was very anxious about being seen out in public in New York but still, even if Howard was right about how to temper him, Bruce couldn’t figure out the point. 

“Why?”

Tony made a face that horrified him as he threw up his arms and shrugged his shoulders. It was like some kind carnival mask – distorted amusement. 

“That’s the million dollar question!” Tony was sinking quickly from hot anger to cold disappointment. “No one knows. We’ll sit there on fucking pins and needles all through dinner until he spits it out!” 

Bruce swallowed. “Surely –”

“This is what he does,” Tony interjected, peeling off his shirt and grabbing a white undershirt from the bed. “This is how he fucks you up, just like this. He can’t just fucking say anything, it has to be some kind of game, where everyone fucking loses but him .”

“But... what can he say?” Bruce asked, sincerely trying to figure it out as he opened his own bag.

“Who knows! It doesn’t matter, you won’t be able to figure it out, but it will be bad.”

“But, what I mean is, we leave here tomorrow. Hell, we can walk out of here right now if we want,” Bruce reminded him as Tony stepped out of his pants. “What can he do to us? Except for ridicule you for being gay?” 

Tony paused with his pants in his hand, thinking it over. 

“I don’t know,” he said at last, taking a deep, wavering breath. “But I know it will be bad.”

“The worst that happens is he asks for his downpayment back, right? And that would suck – pretty bad. But we could do it. We could set up a payment plan. It would be okay.”

Tony was trying not to look too hopeful but really – what could Howard do? 

Bruce picked up his pants from the floor and folded them, setting them on the bed. 

“Come on, it’ll be okay,” Bruce said, grabbing his hand and holding it tight. “It’s only a few more hours, right? And then tomorrow we’ll be on our way to Ohio and then after that Atlanta and we’ll definitely have a good time there and then we’ll be home .”

Bruce kissed him, just a chaste little thing, just enough to remind him. And though he didn’t kiss him back, Tony finally seemed to relax a little, though his uncertainty was palpable. 

“I think you’re underestimating him,” Tony said carefully but he grabbed Bruce’s arms, put them around his waist, and Bruce easily drew Tony towards him. 

“Maybe,” Bruce admitted, not having years of experience being under his thumb, but it was just hard to see any way Howard still had control of their lives. “But we can always just leave. Just take your car keys and leave. We don’t even have to come back in or get our stuff, we’ll just go back home first, or buy new things.” 

Tony laughed, a little more real this time, a little shy. “Really? That’s such a waste of money.” 

“Really,” Bruce promised. “Who cares about the money?” 

Tony hugged him then, burying his nose in his neck, and Bruce kissed his temple, his ear, stroking his back. He felt Tony’s arms tighten around him, felt his breathing hitch, his fingers tighten in his shirt. 

“Babe?” he mumbled out, voice thick. 

“Yeah?” 

“Can you... bite me?” 

Bruce was a little taken aback by the request but he tried not to laugh. Tony was rarely that hesitant – he was clearly serious.

“Like...?” Bruce asked as he scraped his teeth against Tony’s jaw and felt him shiver in his arms as he bit lightly into the sensitive skin beneath it. 

“Yeah,” Tony breathed as Bruce moved lower, trailing his teeth in gentle nips down Tony’s neck. “ Harder .”

Bruce paused a moment, uncertain, but he bit down hard, just a moment, and Tony trembled. Tony was clinging to him and Bruce held him back, grounded him. It had been a long time since Tony had needed something like this, asked him for it – not since they’d graduated. 

“Please,” Tony asked, his voice a little whine that Bruce tried to ignore. 

“I don’t want to leave a mark –”

“Do it,” he asked again, “ please .”

And Bruce did as he asked, biting into his neck and sucking at it, hard. The way Tony moaned turned him on but he forced it back down. It wasn’t really appropriate. Whatever Tony needed, it wasn’t sexual. He wasn’t going to make it sexual. It was trust. He trusted Bruce more than he trusted himself. The scars on his thighs proved it. If it were up to Tony, he would make it bleed.

He knew it had to hurt but Bruce pushed it further because he didn’t want to be asked again, because he hated to see Tony like this, hated to hurt him. So he dug his teeth in and lathed his tongue over Tony’s skin, feeling him breathing, and it was just a moment but it felt like forever until finally Tony grew still and uttered a little “ah!” and Bruce eased up. He didn’t say anything, just nuzzled himself into Bruce’s neck again for a minute, then pulled away to get dressed. 

Bruce hadn’t really packed anything as formal as Tony had since he had a tux rental waiting for him in Atlanta, so he borrowed one of the jackets Tony brought even though it was much more narrow than he would typically wear and it made him feel uncomfortable and even more like a fake than he already did. Then he caught Tony in the bathroom mirror, staring at himself and fingering the bright red mark affectionately, but he didn’t say anything. He hoped Howard wouldn’t either. 

Howard and Maria both stood when they made it back downstairs to join them and Tony already seemed jumpy again, his walls slamming down hard. 

“You look handsome,” Maria said affectionately, her eyes on Tony soft, apologetic. “That’s such a nice top.”

And it was. White with pin stripes and floral details that was completely something Bruce felt only Tony could pull off but he looked quite handsome in it and so she wasn’t wrong. 

“I know he is,” Tony snarked, his grin more of a snarl, showing just a hint of teeth, wrapping his hand around Bruce’s elbow in a particularly demure and effeminate way. “Unfortunately I didn’t pack a dress. I guess I should have though – since I cook and do laundry and I like to get fucked.”

While Bruce was fairly shocked by this outburst, he didn’t show it, having perfected that ability at MIT where literally everything anyone said was shocking to him. Maria though, her face was bright red as she looked away. Howard just rolled his eyes like he was perpetually tired of Tony’s antics and though Bruce agreed it was pretty childish, he also knew Howard had pushed him there. 

“If you’re quite done,” Howard replied calmly, walking out the back way they had come in yesterday, Tony sauntering along behind his mother and father, the perfect picture of the wealthy petulant brat.

Howard’s Cadillac was brought around and they sat in the back. Tony was back to how he was when they’d first arrived, arms crossed over his chest, refusing to look at anyone or anything. Maria attempted to make small talk with Bruce as they passed different buildings. It was still strange, how similar they were. Bruce wished he had a day to himself with just her. There was nothing he could do but indulge her. Tony wouldn't even look at him.

Sistina was set into an unassuming brick front, like all the buildings in New York seemed to be. But inside it was lofty and white and definitively Italian. Bruce got the impression they had some kind of standing reservation due to Howard’s familiarity with the hostess. 

As they were seated Bruce became immediately aware that this was clearly the nicest restaurant they had been to since Christmas, for their anniversary. Probably nicer than that. Howard forced them apart at the table, sitting Bruce to his left and Tony to his right and Tony shot Bruce a not very subtle look of panic as he sat down. How could Howard see that look and continue to treat him this way?

Bruce looked at the menu instead to hide his anger as Maria made some off-handed comment about what she got last time they were here. The menu was set up in a way Bruce had never seen before and with Tony all the way across the table, he couldn’t even ask discreetly. 

“Do you remember,” Tony spoke up suddenly, looking at his mom, “how in Italy at every restaurant they expect you to order three courses?” 

Bruce stared at him then back down at the menu, seeing it in a new light as Maria laughed. 

“Of course! So much food,” she mused. “Italian hospitality.”

Neither of them seemed the wiser to Tony’s hint as Maria talked about Italy but Bruce had no idea how he was going to pick three different things off this menu and actually eat them with his nerves wound so tight. He was the one who told Tony nothing bad could happen but he wasn’t somehow immune to Tony’s fear, Howard’s domineering presence.

Still, Bruce felt thankful that despite how shitty he knew Tony felt, he was still looking out for him, wasn’t going to let him flounder completely. And he watched Tony’s fingers rub his neck absently as he stared at the menu himself, listening with half an ear to Maria, and it wasn’t any kind of message, just a faint tell that only he could read because only he knew why he put that mark there – they were together in this. 

Despite his reservations and Tony's freak out, dinner actually went pretty well – as far as Bruce could tell. Howard talked mostly about himself and the business, which Bruce figured was pretty typical, but Howard wasn’t actually a poor conversationalist either and Bruce had gotten pretty adept at asking the right questions. Plus, it was his field, which made it even easier. Tony mostly kept quiet, still waiting for the fall, Bruce supposed, looking to his mother for conversation. Maria added some commentary here or there about this person or that, obviously used to functioning as much needed comic relief to Howard’s technical diatribes. 

And then, after ordering a dessert Bruce didn’t really want, everything went straight to hell. 

“So, do you plan to get married?”

Tony tried not to drop his glass at Howard's blunt question and as Bruce had been the one more socially engaged for once he offered up, “I think that’s a little premature.”

“You live together, right? We gave you some money for a place in Philadelphia, right?” Howard asked, as if there was no reason not to and Bruce didn’t even know how to respond to everything in that statement. 

Maybe he was going to ask for the money back.

“I mean, we haven’t really talked about it,” Bruce tried again, not sure what answer Howard wanted. 

Of course Bruce loved Tony but... he was hesitant to jump down the throat of another engagement after coming to terms with how problematic his desire for the last one was. But he also he didn’t exactly want to go through a dramatic retelling of all his emotional drama about his impoverished childhood and ex-girlfriend in front of Tony to Tony’s parents.

“Well, I will,” Howard said with an unassuming smile that immediately set Bruce on edge. He found himself unable to look at Tony at all. “In the event that you do decide to get married, I will expect you, Bruce, to sign a prenup.”

“Christ,” Tony muttered, slamming his drink down and Bruce looked over at him then, confused as to why the sudden and violent reaction from Tony. 

He looked over at Maria. Her face was tight as she stared at her hands where they rested on the table, her thumb playing with her wedding ring. 

Of all the possible things Bruce thought could go wrong, this... didn’t seem that bad?

“I –” Bruce started, but Tony immediately cut him off. 

“You never asked this of Pepper,” Tony accused, his voice a low hiss, and Bruce could hear the threat of his shout in it. If Howard had wanted to tame him, he’d succeeded. 

“Pepper knew what was expected of her.”

“I really don’t mind –” Bruce tried to say, wanting to speak for himself on this, but Tony glared at him and cut him off again.

“No,” Tony growled, his anger palpable enough that Bruce choked on it. “You don’t know what you’re agreeing to.”

Shamed into his place, Bruce sat back, hurt. He glanced at Maria and she tried to smile at him but he was pretty sure she felt just as badly as he did. He just... he really didn’t understand. 

“See?” Howard continued, laughing, like he didn’t even notice the thick, physical tension. “Even you know he’s... well. Ignorant. Why do you think I insist on it?”

Tony muttered out a ‘fuck you’ under his breath as their desserts were delivered. Bruce stared at it like they’d offered him a dead rat on a plate. He couldn’t fathom actually eating it. Not when they were openly discussing how poor and unfit he was across the table.

“I won’t do it,” Tony said as the waiter left, spearing his fork in his tiramisu and ripping at it without picking up a piece. “In this hypothetical world where we get married – we’ll elope.”

“Then I’ll cut you out of your own inheritance,” Howard said matter-of-factly, the only one who seemed to actually be able to put a fork in his mouth. 

“Howard,” Maria said softly, pointedly. 

“Fine!” Tony answered, like that was a laugh, but Bruce didn’t really want him cut out of his inheritance any more than Maria did. “Go ahead!”

“And when you need a convenient thirty thousand dollars, then where will you go?” 

Bruce watched as Tony’s teeth ground together. He knew Tony had felt entitled to that money, knew that he wanted to say it was his – but it wasn’t. At least, not if he had no inheritance. 

“We can pay the money back,” Bruce said at last, hating this more than anything. Telling his mom he was going to pay her mortgage that month was bad enough – this was essentially like being roasted alive over hot coals.

“That money is Tony’s,” Maria defended quickly, daring Howard to contradict her with a sharp look. “It would never need repaid.”

“We’d figure it out, I’d get a better job,” Tony said and Howard laughed. It wasn’t a nice thing. 

“So you’re saying I should cut you out now , then?” 

“Yes, dad,” Tony rolled his eyes, the one thing he seemed to have gotten from his father, “that’s exactly what I’m saying.”

“So then we agree?” Howard asked with a quick quirk of his lips and Bruce felt the rage he carefully kept tamped down flare within him.

“I can take care of Tony too,” Bruce spoke up suddenly, voice hard, betraying his anger, and they all turned to him – Maria in surprise, Howard in disbelief, and Tony in what Bruce could only describe as glorious, beautiful hope. And he would say or do anything for Tony to look at him like that. 

Howard laughed in a way that was singularly infantilizing. “How?” 

While what was on the tip of his tongue was along the lines of Tony’s earlier commentary on getting fucked, he swallowed it back. That wasn’t going to help. 

“I’ve found it’s easy enough to take care of him when I’m not afraid to show him how much I love him,” Bruce said simply, finally slicing a fork through his cake, trying to act blasé when what he actually was was terrified of looking up at Howard as he spoke after an insult like that. “But I could get a better job too. And it’s not like I don’t know what an IRA is or have one in his name.”

Really, it was a decision they made together, and it was Tony’s money that went into it since he didn’t get a 401k at work, but if Howard wanted to go toe to toe with him over Tony’s wellbeing, he wasn’t going to get into the nitty gritty of their financial situation. Taking care of Tony was about a lot more than money. 

Howard made a disgruntled sound next to him. “No number of IRAs you could ever compile would come close to touching what I could give him.”

Bruce just shrugged as he put a forkful of cake in his mouth, swallowing it without even tasting it.

“You’re probably right.”

In Bruce’s experience, it was rarely worth arguing with someone who missed the entire point. But when he glanced up across the table at Tony, he saw that it wasn’t lost on him. And that was what really mattered. 

Very little was said after that but thankfully Howard paid the check promptly and the drive back to their house wasn’t very long. Bruce desperately wanted to reach out to Tony, hold his hand, kiss him, something , but Tony was clearly on the verge of exploding and he wrapped his arms around himself in the car, pressed up against the window, refusing to look at anyone. 

As soon as they got back Tony stamped back upstairs, Bruce following along with a frown and a sympathetic look for Maria. But as soon as he closed the door to the room, Tony pounced. 

Tony was on him like a shot, his mouth hard and heavy against Bruce’s as he ripped off his jacket, grabbed at his belt. Bruce could hardly think as he was overwhelmed by the very weight of him, pressing into him hard, desperate in a way they hadn’t been since college. Tony’s whole body was trembling as he got Bruce’s belt buckle undone, his fingers working ineffectively at the buttons of his shirt, and Bruce grabbed one of his hands, trying to get him to stop, to think.

“Fuck, baby,” Tony begged, trying but not very hard to get his hand free and pressing teeth-filled kisses to Bruce's lips instead. “ Fuck me. I need – I need it. Please?”

“Like this?” Bruce asked back, a quiet little threat as he slipped his hand around Tony's throat, pressing on it, slamming him back into the wall to the left of them, away from the door. 

Tony whimpered and his hips jerked helplessly against Bruce’s and he hated that he knew just what Tony liked. It hadn’t been like this in so long – this angry, this desperate. Not since they moved to Philly. Bruce much preferred the hour long slow slide to nirvana. But sometimes, he knew – Tony just needed it rough. 

Please , baby,” he moaned weakly, hands pulling Bruce’s shirt from his pants, trying to slip themselves inside the waistband to his briefs. “Fuck – fuck me hard , make it hurt .”

Bruce swallowed and he pressed a searing kiss against Tony’s lips. The kindling in his gut was ignited and he hated the way it turned him on to hear Tony beg but he couldn’t help it either. He could never say no to Tony. He never wanted to. Anything he asked, anything Bruce could give him, was his.

He grabbed Tony by the belt, dragging him across the room where he threw him on the bed – the bed still covered in all his clothes – and he ripped out Tony’s belt one handed.  

“Get undressed,” he commanded before he walked away to get their bag, and Tony eagerly did as he was told. 

Bruce grabbed lube and a condom, wiping at the sweat already starting on his forehead with the back of his wrist. His heart was pounding in his chest and he felt unhinged but he took a deep breath, centered himself. He would never hurt Tony. Tony might want it rough, but he would never hurt him – whatever he might have asked for. 

He was on his stomach when Bruce came back and he told Tony to turn over instead as he pulled off his shirt, let his pants fall to the floor. While on his knees was certainly a more punishing position, Bruce was already so worked up, he didn’t want it to be that impersonal. Not right now. 

Tony did as he was asked again and Bruce moved between his legs, reestablishing his hand around his throat, but lower, at his collar bone, where he could put more pressure with his palm without truly hurting him. With his other hand he squeezed lube unceremoniously down Tony’s dick and over his balls, slicking his hand in it as he pulled him hard, feeling him jump at the unexpected contact, listening to him curse. But it was just a couple tugs and then – chest heaving, watching the way Tony’s eyes rolled back in his head – he speared him with his fingers.

“Christ!” he barely ground out, hard to talk with the weight on his throat.

Tony’s whole body clamped down in surprise initially but he warmed up quickly, hips rocking into his hand, fucking himself on it. Bruce didn’t wait long before he added another finger to the sound of Tony pleading for more and Bruce tried to keep his composure, tried to focus on him, leaning into his chest and scraping his teeth against it, biting at a nipple, making him jump again.

Please ,” Tony asked, his voice thick and his eyes dark and blown out and he grabbed at Bruce’s arm on his throat with both hands. “I need you.”

It was nothing Bruce could deny him, to be looked at that way, needed that way. His face over dinner was the same as it was now and Bruce realized it wasn’t hope, like he’d thought before, and hope would have been good enough – but it wasn’t hope. It was trust. Absolute fucking trust. Unshakeable trust because he knew Bruce could take care of him, would take care of him. He knew Bruce would give him everything he could to make him happy. Whether that was bite his neck or fuck him raw or stand up to his asshole dad – Bruce would do anything .

Bruce slid his fingers from him and leaned down and kissed him, sloppy and hard, before he leaned back on his heels, ripping open the condom wrapper and slipping it on. Tony’s legs were spread wide and he was breathing hard and his dick was slick with lube and Bruce ran his palm up it, played with it idly a minute, listened to him curse at being teased so casually when what he wanted was to be fucked fast and hard. 

But Bruce didn’t make him suffer long, lifting his hips and sliding into him as quickly as he could without hurting him. He still took a moment, letting Tony adjust, his hands locked around Bruce’s wrists, a clear indication for him to wait. But as they fell away Bruce gripped his hips harder than he normally would, using force to reconnect them with each thrust. 

Tony’s head was thrown back in the pillow, his beautiful neck exposed, his hands kneading the sheets for purchase and Bruce stopped suddenly. It wasn’t right. Tony actually cried out at the loss of friction, looking up at him from across his own chest, confused. 

“Sit up,” Bruce asked, holding out his hand for Tony’s and he helped him up into a sitting position on his lap, pressed straight up against him, his arms around Bruce’s neck, Bruce’s face in Tony's neck, sucking at the bruise he’d left there earlier.

Bruce ran his palms up the striated scars on Tony’s thighs from months of cutting into them at boarding school, knowing if not understanding that pain was the only way he could cope, and he spent the last year worshiping Tony’s legs, kissing at them like he could kiss away all Tony’s pain. But then, at that moment, he knew he couldn’t – that it would always be there, just beneath the surface. And he thought of Howard and he thought of that shitty question – how? – and he thought he understood why Tony trusted him so much. Because he cared enough to really, genuinely try .

His hand came down hard on the side of Tony’s ass. The sound Tony made was incomparable, some kind of ragged mix between a sob and a moan and his fingers felt like claws in Bruce’s back but Bruce hardly noticed as he did it again. 

Tony was babbling barely coherent nonsense straight into his flesh and his hips would slip up, trying to give Bruce more purchase, and then back down after every hit, giving Bruce a clear signal for when he wanted more until Bruce couldn’t do it anymore. Bruce knew there had to be a limit and he wasn’t sure Tony knew where it was and so he stopped and kissed him on the mouth, wiping at the tears on Tony’s face, kissing them away, shifting their position closer to the headboard and leaning him back into it. 

Tony breathed out this breathy laugh of elation that was so, so much better than his tears as he reached up and grabbed the top of the headboard, the well defined muscles in his arms straining as Bruce sat up on his knees a little, fucking him straight into the headboard. It took more effort than Bruce normally expended to hold the position, one hand gripping Tony’s thigh, the other on his dick, and he was slamming into him as hard as he could until Tony was moaning out one singular note. And Bruce was jerking him off as fast as he could until Tony came, shooting cum up his chest, crying out in abject, physical relief, and Bruce was so overstimulated and emotionally overwrought even as Tony came crashing down around him he couldn’t get there and he didn’t even care. 

He pulled out and let Tony sink into bed, grabbing one of Tony’s clean undershirts from where it lay on the bed still and quickly swiping at his cum so Tony could curl up, spent, on the bed. Tony cried quietly and Bruce left him just a moment, throwing away the condom in the bathroom and washing his hands, returning quickly to gather the clothes that hadn't been directly under them so he could sit down next to Tony and gently stroke his hair. 

“I love you,” he murmured, not sure what to say, hoping it wasn’t too much, though Tony was already winding down. He didn’t like to see him cry, not like this, but he also knew that sometimes it helped to cry. 

Tony looked up at him, grabbing his wrist and stilling his hand, and Bruce thought he was going to say something but he didn’t. Instead he sat up and curled himself up against Bruce, under his arm, his head tucked up against his chin, and Bruce held him, stroking his cheek, nuzzling into the top of his head until the tremors in Tony's body subsided. 

“I want you to be taken care of too,” he said after a while, so soft Bruce strained to hear him, though his voice grew stronger as he went. “I know you don’t understand but... it’s not fair, what he asked. If my dad drafts a prenup, you’ll get nothing.”

“But I don’t want anything,” Bruce answered earnestly and it was difficult for him to understand because he never had anything and the most he ever wanted was right there, right in his arms. “I want you.”

Tony swallowed and reached across his body, hugging him. “I know, but I want you to have everything I’m entitled to, too. If we were married and something happened to me, I'd want to know that I left you with something. This is what we fought for. This is what marriage means .”

Bruce frowned as Tony sat up, running his hand across his face and sighing. 

“You’re just so good at this, you know?” he laughed, blushing faintly in the dim light from the bathroom. “I want to take care of you too.”

“But you do ,” Bruce answered, looking him in the eye, hoping he believed it, not sure what he could say that would convince Tony that was true. 

Tony sighed as he stood and made his way to the bathroom, leaving Bruce in the dark. When he returned he picked up the pajama pants he brought and grabbed a clean t-shirt and Bruce watched him in confusion. 

“I’m going to go talk to my mom,” he explained as he dressed and Bruce thought that was insane, but he didn’t say anything. 

Bruce was starting to understand that this was the pattern of all family discussion in Tony’s world. Howard would make a unilateral decision considering no one and announce it in the worst way, Tony would get somewhat justifiably upset, they’d get into a huge fight, and then Tony would go to his mother and she would smooth it all over on the back end. It was horribly dysfunctional but then who was he to judge?

“Even if we don’t get married, I probably will get married someday, and I don’t want him to think he can bully me like this,” Tony was saying but Bruce stared at the expensive bedspread, feeling Tony’s absence hard even though he was standing right there.

While he kind of understood Tony’s point, the truth was that Bruce didn’t care about that. He didn’t care about the money or about Howard. He just wanted Tony to let it go, come back to bed with him, hold him, kiss him, remember that none of this mattered and it wouldn’t be long until they were home.

But he didn’t say that. Instead he just looked up, tried to smile. “Good luck.”

When Tony left he sat there for a minute, feeling anxious and depressed, but he gathered up the clean clothes and made a bag of clean ones out of his and dirty ones out of Tony’s and a mental note to have them laundered when they got to Ohio. Then he forced himself into the bathroom and the shower, noting in the mirror the red lines in his back from Tony’s nails. The hot water felt good though and he focused on the only thing that mattered – they were leaving tomorrow. 

He dried off and put on a clean pair of boxers and climbed into bed feeling pretty miserable as he tried to force himself to go to sleep. He didn’t know how long he lay there on the verge of sleep when Tony finally came up and slid into bed behind him, wrapping him in his arms and holding him close, kissing the back of his neck. 

“I wish you knew how much I love you,” Tony whispered so quietly Bruce was sure he wasn’t meant to hear it, so he just closed his eyes again and said nothing. But he thought... 

I wish you knew, too.

Chapter Text

Since they had a ten hour drive ahead of them Tony set an alarm but he let Bruce lay in bed as he showered, listening to the water and feeling worn out. He was glad they were going straight to the hotel and wouldn’t see his own mother until tomorrow. He needed a day. Maybe more than a day but he wasn’t going to get that.

He forced himself up and out of bed as Tony got out of the shower, brushing his teeth as Tony played with his hair. 

“It went well, last night, with my mom,” Tony said, seeming a little uncomfortable with saying it, likely knowing Bruce didn’t really want to talk about it, didn't want to hear anything about a completely hypothetical prenup discussion.

But he also didn’t want Tony to be uncomfortable, didn’t want him not to be able to talk about what was on his mind, so he tried to smile at least a little as he rinsed his toothbrush. 

“Good.”

Tony rewarded his effort with a handsome smile. “It was good.” 

He slid closer to Bruce, almost touching but pausing just before, uncertain. Bruce reached for his hand, fingers lacing together, relief in Tony’s eyes as he moved in, pressing his face to the side of Bruce’s, his nose on his cheek.  

“Thank you. For being with me. For... everything.”

“Just wait,” Bruce muttered out, looking ahead with a distinct lack of optimism. 

Tony squeezed his hand, kissing the side of his mouth gently. 

“What was it you said? ‘You know we’re going to get through this, right?’”

Then Bruce did chuckle a little, turning to kiss him for real – just a little, lingering kiss. “I guess I did.”

They got dressed and brought their bags down where Maria was waiting for them in the living room. Bruce supposed Howard was already at the office. Seven was earlier than Bruce wanted to be up, but it wasn’t particularly early.

“Are you sure you don’t want to eat something before you go?” she was asking, grabbing Tony’s hand and holding it in both of hers. 

“We have a long drive,” Tony explained. “We’ll just get something on the road.” 

“I miss you,” she was saying, clearly trying not to guilt trip him but unable to stop herself, “and you live so close now...”

“We’ll figure something out,” Tony promised. “I want to see you more than once a year, too. It’s just... hard.”

Maria leaned in and kissed his cheek as she hugged him. 

“I know, cucciolo , and you know I love you. Don’t feel badly. You take care of yourself and your – ah – top ,” she teased, a clearly self-satisfied smirk on her face for the joke as Tony laughed and even Bruce had to crack a smile at that. 

Then she came over to him to embrace him as well, though without the kiss but still, there was none of the hesitation she had when he arrived. 

“You don’t forget to call me if you need anything,” she murmured softly in his ear. “I am trusting you.”

“Of course,” he agreed easily as she released him, feeling it for the honor he was sure it was.

“You will send me pictures of the wedding?” she asked and Tony agreed easily. 

“We will talk soon?” she asked then and Tony nodded, giving her another hug. 

“I love you, mom.”

Bruce knew it was hard for Tony to leave despite his family’s myriad of issues and he understood. He hadn’t seen his own mother in over four years and he knew that when he left her he was going to fall apart.

She followed them to the door as they walked out where Jarvis was waiting with their car. They packed in the bags and Bruce sat down in the passenger seat, letting Tony have a moment to say goodbye to Jarvis as well and when he sat down in the car, he was clearly upset. But he put on an upbeat playlist and pulled up the hotel’s address in Dayton and hit the road.

Bruce slipped his hand through Tony’s as he navigated to the highway one handed. It was an easy drive along I-80 at least. 

His phone vibrated and he looked down at it, trying not to laugh. 

Sooo you never responded last night. Do I need to call the cops or????

He unlocked his phone. 

No, no, I’m still alive by some small miracle.
It wasn’t actually that bad. I mean it was bad but my standards might be a little skewed.

Oh boy , she answered with a sad face. Then, I can’t wait to hear the stories.

Yeah, we definitely have some stories. Never thought I’d get asked point blank who's got the dick in our relationship. 

OMFG!!! she replied with a string of laughing faces. 
They did not!!! 
This is 20-fucking-18!!!!!

Yeah, Tony was not impressed.
His mom really seemed to like me, though. I think his dad just can’t help being a dick. He didn’t actually seem to dislike me.

Wait, so who asked that then?

Bruce chuckled and Tony looked over at him from the corner of his eye. 

“Nat?” he asked.

“Umhmm.”

“Oh yeah, I’m sure she’s laughing too.”

“Don’t worry,” Bruce said with a playful smirk, “I’ll save some of the stories for you.”

“Actually, all things considered, I think that went well.”

Bruce bust out laughing then and Tony couldn’t help but laugh too. 

“I was just saying, I don’t actually think it was that bad, but that my perspective might be skewed.”

Tony removed his hand from Bruce's, wiping his palm across his eyes, and Bruce wasn’t sure if they were wet from laughing or not. 

“I really like your mom,” Bruce said, knowing that would cheer him up. “And honestly? I think your dad likes me too. Or at least, respects me – as much as he can.”

“... yeah?” Tony asked, glancing over at him uncertainly. 

“I don’t think that job offer was complete bullshit,” he said. “He offered to take me down and show me their R&D labs. Said it would be ‘recruitment.’ And it didn’t feel like bullshit.”

Tony chewed on his lower lip, processing that. 

“Plus he doesn’t scare me as much as Betty’s dad did,” Bruce offered, forcing a laugh. “So it was easier to stand up to him.”

“And here I thought you just loved me,” Tony teased and Bruce smacked his shoulder lightly. 

“That helps.”

Tony was quiet a moment so he replied to Natasha. 

His dad.
Apparently encouraging Tony to pursue his interest in cooking is akin to forcing him into slave labor. 
But Tony doesn’t want me to tell you everything before he gets a chance to.

She sent back a series of eye rolling emojis then and optimistic, Can’t wait!

“You’re right, you know,” Tony said at last and Bruce looked over at him. “I think he does like you – as much as he likes anyone.”

Bruce tried not to think of the pictures of them as a family, when Tony was just a baby. How Howard held him, smiling. How thrilled he seemed with his little family. Bruce knew, somewhere, deep down and buried in years of anger and frustration and stress, Howard did love Tony. He knew because there were no pictures like that of his own father. He’d hated Bruce since the moment he was born. 

Bruce’s phone vibrated again. He looked down at it. 

Good luck with your family.

He swallowed.  Good luck indeed. 

**

The drive through Pennsylvania was long and uneventful. Picturesque little farms set on rolling hills. Cities set alongside rivers. They hit hard rain right before the Ohio border and decided to stop in Youngstown for a late lunch because Bruce was well aware of just how little there was in Ohio. Tony was clearly worn down and miserable and running through the rain into a Bob Evans was probably not going to be a high point on the trip. Though, compared to some other things, it probably wasn’t going to be the lowest either.

Bruce drove the rest of the way to Dayton as Tony stared out the window, dozing off or lost in thought. 

It was hard to be on a trip like this together with no space. What Bruce wanted was to reach out, hold him, make him feel better but... he knew what Tony needed was time and clarity. 

They drug themselves into the hotel, just your run of the mill Fairfield Inn. It was newer and right on the Miami River so it almost made Dayton seem nice. Not like New York, of course, but nice. 

Bruce approached the desk to check in with Tony dragging himself behind him and it was like some kind of deja vu in reverse. He gave the young woman behind the desk his name and she looked at the reservation, then back up at them, then back to the computer. 

“I’m sorry,” she said, seeming embarrassed. “It seems like you were booked for a king room. We have doubles available so let me fix that...”

Tony started laughing behind him and Bruce took a deep breath. 

“No, that was right,” Bruce said, leaning over the desk a little, hoping she would stop clicking buttons. “He’s my boyfriend. We’re a couple.”

She looked up again, at both of them, and then she really was embarrassed. Her face turned bright red and she stammered out her apology, looking back down at the keyboard. 

“I – I’m sorry. We just – I mean – we don’t get a lot of – well, you know –”

“Gays?” Tony suggested through his laughter and Bruce could have kicked him. 

“It’s okay,” Bruce said as kindly as possible as she fixed the reservation and got their key cards together, unable to meet his eyes as she slid their paperwork across the desk. 

Tony made sure to wrap his arm around Bruce’s waist as they walked away just to mess with her and Bruce forced himself to let it go, choosing not to give Tony a hard time about being an unnecessary dick. At least he was closer to his normal, flamboyant self. At least he wasn’t afraid to throw his arm around his waist. 

They went up to the second floor and found their room, very clean and sparse but spacious enough just nothing at all like the last hotel they'd stayed at. He dropped his bag and picked up the area info sheet sitting beneath the television, scanning it for restaurant options for later. Tony fell on the bed, flipping on the TV, ready to zone out – and Bruce didn’t blame him. 

“Do you just want to order a pizza in a little bit?” Bruce asked as he toed out of his shoes. “Our options will be like... Dominos.”

Tony glanced up at him. “Yeah. Let’s do it. I just don’t want to think right now.”

The TV was on some dumb movie from ten years ago Bruce didn’t recognize and he lay down next to Tony, not touching him, just watching his face as he laughed at the stupid jokes. He wasn’t sure he would ever really get over being able to lay there next to him in bed, gaze at his handsome face, and know that he was the only one who got to see Tony like that. 

“Remember in Miami?” Bruce said quietly. “When the gay guy at the front desk thought we were a couple?” 

Tony paused, a grin spreading slowly across his face and he laughed. “Yeah. I was so mad.”

“I know you were – but I thought it was hilarious. That anyone would think someone like you would be with someone like me .”

Tony looked over at him then and Bruce looked away, reaching for his hand instead. 

“Sometimes I still don’t believe it.”

Why ?” Tony asked, clearly beside himself with that admission and just that – that complete and utter inability to see how Bruce was nowhere near his equal – made him feel better. It made him feel silly, actually, for saying anything at all. 

“You’re just so handsome and so smart and so talented...” he trailed off, trying not to blush.

But Tony just chuckled and removed his hand, pushing Bruce’s shoulder. “ You’re so handsome and so smart and so talented.” 

Bruce laughed and Tony scooted down on the bed so that they were nose to nose and he kissed him just a moment before pulling away, smiling. 

“I’m glad it was you,” Tony said, putting his hand on Bruce's cheek, rubbing his thumb along it. “You know – the first guy I brought home, or whatever.”

Bruce huffed but he was smiling. “Am I supposed to be glad?”

“Yes,” Tony teased, jabbing him in the hip and making him laugh and he grabbed Tony’s hand to stop being tickled and held it instead.

“I know. I’m honored.” 

There was a hint of a smile on his face still though and Tony mock-glared, then turned serious.  

“He didn’t like Pepper at all really,” Tony sighed. “It was... worse.”

Bruce thought back to the few times Tony had taken Pepper back home but he never remembered Pepper saying anything about it. Maybe she was just too polite. They weren’t really that close, anyway. He supposed Pepper wouldn’t say anything. But he couldn’t imagine how it was worse .

“He didn’t respect her at all, it made me so fucking mad –”

“That was respect?” Bruce asked lightly and Tony looked over at him with a weird, uncomfortable grin. 

“Yeah, actually, like...” Tony sighed and rolled over onto his back, staring up at the ceiling. “He was super blunt with you. And it was, well... not great, obviously. But – with Pepper he always dumbed down everything he said. Like at dinner? He actually talked about business with you. He would mostly ignore her then out of nowhere ask her really patronizing shit he clearly had no interest in, like what she planned to wear to some event or... I don’t know. Once he asked he if he thought my mom should really wear that lip color to lunch. It was gross.” 

Bruce chewed that over for a minute and finally said, “so he’s not homophobic then, just sexist?” 

Tony laughed out loud and Bruce threw his arm across his chest, moving in to press his nose against his temple and laugh with him. It felt good, it felt right, laughing with him like this. This was how they were supposed to be. Happy.

For a while they lay there, listening to the TV but not really watching it, relishing in just lying there with no one to see, no one to impress – just them. Tomorrow was going to suck – Bruce knew that. But right here he could listen to Tony breathing, feel Tony’s heart beating, and remind himself that it was only a day, a couple of hours – they’d get through it. They’d be okay. 

“I don’t suppose you want Hawaiian?”

Tony snorted at his joke, turning over and kissing him. 

“Dominos? No. Pepperoni is the only thing you can order from Dominos.”

Bruce kissed him back. 

“Pepperoni then.” 

But he didn’t get up, not then, not for a while. Instead he just lay there, kissing his boyfriend, appreciating him, being with him. He wasn’t hungry anyway.

Chapter Text

Tony was singing as he walked in, yanking his headphones out, and Bruce watched from the bed as Tony pulled up his sweaty shirt to wipe his forehead, exposing his toned stomach. His abs weren’t as well defined as they were in college but he still looked good – really good. It was hard for Bruce not to stare. 

“I know you think I’m crazy but I really needed that run.” 

Bruce rubbed at his eyes and sat up on his elbow. Tony had told him he was leaving, in a whisper against his ear, so he'd had time to wake up, but he still wasn’t really ready. 

“I’m glad.” 

“It was nice, there’s a trail all along the river. I mean it’s not Philly but you made Ohio seem like a post-apocalyptic barren wasteland.”

It’s not Philly.

Bruce grinned to hear him say that. He could have picked anywhere – New York, Boston, Miami – but he said Philly. Philly. Their home. 

“Well, this is Dayton. Wait until you get out to the country.”

“This isn’t the country?” 

Bruce laughed as Tony walked over to the bed and gave him a gratuitous kiss and Bruce hated the way Tony all tired and sweaty turned him on. It wasn’t fair. He was instantly rock hard and he didn’t feel like there was anything he could do that would so efficiently and effectively turn Tony on. And he was pretty sure Tony didn’t even know... which somehow made it worse.

“I’m going to get a shower,” he said, all genuine innocence, and Bruce watched as he walked away, watched the broad lines of his back as he pulled off his shirt.

Bruce waited, heard the shower turn on and tried to ignore his erection, but Tony was so happy and still singing and he couldn’t help himself – Bruce rolled out of bed naked and grabbed the lube out of his bag on the way to the shower.

Tony startled when he pulled back the shower curtain on him and then laughed. 

“Jeez, big guy,” he teased, “you didn’t have to come at me all Psycho.” 

Then his eyes caught sight of his dick and the lube and he laughed again – but Bruce didn’t let him say anything else. 

He stepped into the shower, kissing his wet lips, his body feeling slick and smooth against his own. Tony responded easily, wrapping his arms around him, cradling his neck. And Bruce was glad because it was nothing like last time – Tony was smiling and Bruce was smiling back, almost laughing. Tony was happy again, it was easy again, and Bruce didn’t mind giving Tony what he needed when he needed it but what he wanted was this. He wanted Tony to be happy. 

“We could do this in bed,” Tony suggested as Bruce turned the shower head to the side so it wasn’t directly hitting them and snapped open the lube. 

“I’ve got you here now,” Bruce replied with a smirk, leaning in to nip at his lower lip as he put lube in his hand then immediately stroked up Tony’s dick. 

“Okay,” he breathed out, shaken by the sudden contact, leaning into Bruce and holding out his own hand. “Okay you have a point.”

Bruce doled him out some lube too before setting the bottle on the edge of the tub and kissing him again. Tony’s hand around his dick always felt good, always felt better than he expected, but especially now – he didn’t even realize how much he really just wanted to be touched by him.

But eventually kissing became too difficult and his face was just pressed into Tony’s, lips trembling against his as Tony’s moan reverberated in the tiled space and Bruce panted back. It was hard, this way, it took longer, every time Tony managed to pick up speed it unraveled him and every time he started falling apart Tony couldn’t help but weaken – wanting it, needing to see it, and Bruce would get the upper hand. And he had to pause and, arm shaking, desperately wanting it, pour more lube over them as it got tacky, but the feeling of that slick, easy slide made it harder to hold out and even Bruce was moaning, trying to bite it down but he couldn’t stop. He didn’t want to stop. It was exquisite. 

“Fuck, baby,” Tony groaned, resting his chin on his shoulder, tightening his arm around Bruce's waist as he sped up again, and Tony's voice low like that, straight in his ear, was like an electric charge to Bruce’s gut and it twisted, lit him on fire, and he couldn’t – 

“You’re so fucking hot. I want you to come, baby – oh fuck – I need you to come.”

Bruce’s free hand twisted in Tony’s hair as he came, any pretense of jerking Tony off completely gone as he stood there, knees weak, eyes closed, groaning and sinking in the feeling of his orgasm rolling over him and Tony right there, right there with him. And Tony gently slid his hand under Bruce’s, pulling on himself just a couple times before he was coming too, his face buried in Bruce’s neck, barely holding each other up, a tangle of tired, satiated limbs. 

Tony was chuckling as he held him and Bruce started laughing back and he didn’t even really know why they were laughing but it felt so good, holding him, nerves twitching with seratonin and oxyctonin and whatever the fuck else. 

“Fuck, I love you,” Tony said as he started to calm down, but saying that just made him laugh harder. 

“Do you though?” Bruce teased as he pulled on his hair, laughing too. “I guess I love you too.”

“You guess?” 

“I guess,” Bruce repeated, kissing him, breathless and happy and he’d needed it just about as badly as Tony needed his run and it was good and he couldn’t have asked for any more.

He shifted the shower head back over and Tony sang him one of those dumb upbeat pop songs he loved to run to at the top of his lungs, laughing, and they kissed and it was silly and they never showered like this together at home but now it reminded him of Miami and it felt good and he could pretend this was it, they weren’t going anywhere today, they would just be lying around the hotel and laughing like this. 

But they were.

Still, it was easy to forget, as Tony talked about getting brunch, putting on something casual and picking up his phone to check out their restaurant options. 

“Aw shit,” he muttered, looking at it with a frown, and Bruce pulled his head through his shirt to look at him in concern. “My dad called.”

Bruce frowned too. Though his experience was limited, Bruce knew it was usually Maria who called to smooth things over after they fought. The few times Tony had spoken to his dad on the phone were limited to a fight or a few mild pleasantries before it was passed to his mom.

“I should call back. It’s been ten minutes though, he might be in a meeting...”

Bruce watched as he wrestled with the decision a moment before ultimately placing the call, sitting down heavily on the bed. And Bruce sat down on the other side, watching him as he answered. 

“Hey dad – I’m sorry I missed your call. I was in the shower.” There was a moment where he didn’t say anything, Howard must have been asking something, and then Tony replied, “yeah, we’re going over there later today.” 

Bruce had no idea what Howard was saying but Tony’s face when from hard and anxious to soft as Howard spoke and finally he said “yeah, I mean – that would be great. We don’t really know what’s going to happen, you know, but I appreciate that. A lot. I’m sure Bruce will too.” 

He cocked his head curiously, extremely intrigued by what Howard was saying to get that kind of reaction and then Tony kind of... laughed?

“Yeah, he’s... you know. I really like him.” Tony looked over at him, blushing a little, and Bruce knew he never talked to his father that way, about his actual feelings. “He – he's good for me. He won't let me get away with any of my shit. And he certainly won’t let you push him around.”

Then Tony went silent again and Bruce watched as he bit down on his lower lip, as his eyes began to water, as he swallowed hard before replying, clearly trying not to let his voice crack. 

“That’s all I want, you know. Something. Not everything, I get it, I know why, but... right. I just – yeah. I appreciate that. Really, dad. I know we don’t always – exactly.” He swallowed again, wiping at his eyes. “Thank you. That means a lot to me.”

He didn't say ‘I love you’ as he said goodbye – Bruce figured that was probably a little much for where their relationship was at – but whatever Howard said had a profound effect on Tony and Bruce crawled across the bed to him as he sat with his phone in his lap, staring at it in disbelief. Bruce lay his head against Tony's back, putting his hand in the crook of his arm.

“Is everything okay?” he asked carefully and Tony forced a weird laugh, something akin to disbelief.

“He agreed that when the time came he would set up a prenup that included the provisions I want for my spouse.”

It sounded super sterile to Bruce but Tony was so clearly pleased that he didn't care, putting aside his feelings about prenups in general and allowing himself to be happy for Tony and this turning point in his relationship with his father.

“I mean, my mom and I talked about it, I figured she would call me eventually and let me know what he decided, because he never... I don't know. He just never talks to me like that.”

Bruce ran his hand up his arm in a comforting motion.

“I'm glad he called.”

“Me too... Which might be the first time I've ever said that.”

Tony laughed again, loosening up, and Bruce kissed his shoulder blade.

“He also said that if we needed it he could put us in touch with a lawyer here and he'd pay for it.”

Bruce went stiff and Tony reached for his hand, covering it with his own.

“Obviously that’s nothing we have to talk about now.”

“Obviously,” Bruce mumbled out, but his good mood was wrecked. 

It wasn’t that it wasn’t a nice gesture – actually, it was beyond nice, it was something that, if things went according to Bruce’s plan, they would very much need. Which Howard clearly knew. It was just that – he couldn’t ignore it now. It was imminent. And thinking about things like lawyers just made it all the more tangible. 

Tony picked a place for lunch and Bruce didn’t argue, following him down the street to a little bistro on the river. It was pretty and they sat on the patio overlooking the river and ordered soup and sandwiches but Bruce felt numb. Tony tried to talk to him but he couldn’t really respond, his stomach twisted up on itself, like there was a rock in his gut. 

But as he ate a few spoons of lobster bisque he felt a little better and he looked at Tony, worry written across his brow, and he couldn’t smile but at least he could talk a little. 

“She might not come, you know,” he said at last and the relief on Tony’s face that he was expressing himself now was evident. “It’s... It’s a really abusive relationship. And she’s twenty five years in. She’s going to fight the idea that she should leave. Just... so you know. Temper your expectations.”

Tony stretched his leg out under the table and pressed it against Bruce’s. 

“It’s gonna be hard.” 

“Yeah,” Bruce agreed. “It’s gonna suck.”

He was quiet for a minute, trying to prepare himself for what that was going to feel like. He knew it, he understood. He remembered sitting in a campus therapist’s office as a freshman, reading pamphlets on the cycle of abuse, talking about it once a week for a semester with a kind woman with a soft voice and blonde hair. Talking about how hard it was to leave. Talking about the guilt it could cause to get out, to leave someone you loved behind, but that sometimes you had no choice. 

He wasn’t responsible for his mother’s happiness and he knew that. Maria was right. But... maybe he did feel guilty. Maybe there was nothing he could really do. Maybe this was stupid. Maybe he was going to call up Dr. Janis when they got back and work through it again when he was inevitably crushed. But he’d set himself on this trajectory now and whatever happened, good or bad, he was going to follow through. 

“Did you bring concealer?” Bruce asked suddenly, making Tony laugh a little, clearly uncomfortable with the fact that he did, in fact, wear concealer often enough to bring it. “Because you should cover your neck.” 

“Oh,” he said as he rubbed his hand across the bruise Bruce left and Bruce knew he liked it but...

“It’s just – I wouldn’t want her to get the wrong impression.”

Tony tried a lopsided grin but it didn’t really work right, for him or for Bruce. 

“I’m sorry,” he apologized, running his spoon through his soup as he stared at it, embarrassed and not sure what to say. “It didn’t really think – or I guess I thought – it’s just –”

“Don’t,” Bruce interrupted to save him from himself. “It’s fine. I’m glad it... helped.” 

Tony sighed out a long breath and chuckled and looked away and Bruce could swear he was blushing. “It really did – you have no idea.”

Bruce couldn’t help but feel a sharp sense of pride at that that cut through everything else. Being able to take care of Tony really was his main priority. 

“But I’m ready, you know,” Tony said as he turned back, a loving look in his eyes, “to return the favor. Whatever you need. Just tell me.”

“Just...” Bruce kinda laughed, his turn to blush, “be your normal, charming self. Look at me... like that.” 

That seemed to please Tony immensely as he beamed at him across the table, picking up his sandwich and taking a big bite of it. 

“I want my mom to see what I see when I look at you,” Bruce continued, forcing himself through it, always finding it difficult to be that forward with his emotions. “How kind and loving you are.”

It was easy to let Tony’s ego get out of control but Bruce didn’t usually mind and he certainly didn’t now as Tony leaned across the table with a giant smirk. 

“Oh I see, it was all ‘I guess I love you’ this morning but now...?” 

Bruce kicked him under the table and Tony leaned back, laughing. But actually Bruce was glad, feeling a lot better than he had when they’d arrived. He could only imagine doing this with Tony. No matter how shitty he felt, Tony was inevitably able to turn it around. All he had to do was look at him and smile and it was hard not to feel at least a little bit better. 

“I didn’t say I loved you, I said you were loving,” Bruce teased and Tony mock-glared at him before he added, more gently, “but I do love you.”

“I love you too,” Tony replied fondly. “And I’ll be on my best behavior.”

“I know you will.”

It was hard to imagine anyone wouldn’t love Tony. He was just so outgoing and friendly and caring and he was sincere about it. He’d always made friends easily, even when it was hard, and Bruce watched as he managed to win over most of the old guys he worked with who resented this talented young kid and the stuffy old money types at MIT that didn’t understand him and basically every stranger they met. Surely his own mother wouldn’t be the exception.  

They finished their early lunch at a leisurely pace and walked back along the trail hand in hand. Bruce was glad Tony seemed to have completely melted back into his normal, physically affectionate self – and not just because Bruce really needed it right then. It was a prominent reminder that whatever happened today, they would still be okay. Tony was still okay. Bruce was sure he’d hear about it for the next few months in bits and pieces but right now? Tony was okay. And he would be okay too. 

When they got back to the room Tony went to the bathroom to cover his neck and Bruce definitely wouldn’t have been able to tell it was there if he hadn’t known. Tony joined him on the bed, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and pulling him in tight as he flipped through channels while they killed time before they drove out to meet her. Bruce was glad for the distraction but it was difficult to focus on anything besides what Tony was going to think when they pulled up to his house. Even house shopping with their modest budget in Philly – mostly they saw nicer places than the neglected ranch he grew up in. 

Opening yourself up like that, exposing yourself... What was it that therapist had said? Something about how it might feel like you were protecting yourself by not talking about your feelings, but ‘the less you allowed yourself to be vulnerable, the more isolated you really were.’ Right then, though, he didn’t care – the desire to run away was so strong. He trusted Tony, he knew – or at least, he fucking hoped – Tony wouldn’t say or do anything to make him feel worse, but... 

He could feel the panic rising in his chest with every digit the clock turned over until he wasn’t even paying attention to the TV or Tony or anything anymore – just the way he was breathing and how hard it was to keep it even, to keep it normal. 

“Hey baby,” Tony said softly, giving him a gentle squeeze, clearly aware that he was struggling to fight off an impending panic attack, “do you just wanna... drive out there? And if we’re early we can just drive through town? Or whatever?”

Bruce bit back a hard no. Even though that seemed like the stupidest idea he'd ever heard, he paused to spare Tony’s feelings. But then, the more he thought about, the better it seemed just to get out of that room. At least if they were out there he could kind of... talk about it. Show Tony what it was like before they pulled up to his house. Give him some kind of idea of what to expect. 

“Yeah,” he said at last. “Okay.”

It wasn’t more than a half hour drive out from Dayton so they were definitely early. And while it wasn’t exactly easy driving through town, it was better than sitting around the hotel. Tony approached what little there was with undeserved interest but he didn’t say anything, which Bruce appreciated. 

“I guess they put in a Starbucks now,” Bruce observed as they drove down the main strip of town, conspicuous as all hell in their expensive Cadillac amongst a mix of older sedans and pick-ups. 

Actually there were quite a few new chains put in since the last time he’d been there. It was a little disorienting to see. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to invest in his hometown. It was pretty much all old people and drunks and a couple of kids that weren’t as lucky as him and got stuck. 

“And a hotel?” Tony observed carefully at the light, looking over. “We could have stayed here and walked down to the Starbucks and the... Burger King.”

He laughed but Bruce knew it was only an attempt to keep things light. 

“That Burger King used to be really good,” Bruce commented slyly as the light changed and they drove by the new hotel he couldn’t imagine did any real business. “I did think about it...”

“You didn’t have to stay in Dayton for me.”

Bruce huffed, grinding his foot into the floorboard, feeling a little bad that Tony would think that – that Bruce thought he had some kind of expectation he had to fulfill, that he couldn’t handle how Bruce grew up, that he had to stay in a city of a certain size with access to boutique gastropubs and brunch. But it wasn’t that. Even though Tony really had no idea what Bruce's life was like prior to MIT, he still thought the best of him, and he was very open-minded and willing to go with the flow. Bruce knew that. He knew Tony could have handled staying here, it was just that... he couldn’t have.

“I know. I just – I guess it’s my turn to sound stupid,” he admitted, pressing his forehead to the window and watching the businesses pass by – the Dairy Queen he used to bike down to by himself when he was far too young with a dollar in spare change he’d collected for a dilly bar, the Ace Hardware his dad got fired from for his temper, the laundromat they did their clothes in every week because dad was always going to fix the washer ‘one day’...

“I didn’t want it to be that easy for my dad to find me.” Bruce forced a laugh. “Like he would even care.”

“Oh.” Tony clearly felt remorseful for making it about him and he didn’t know what to say then – but Bruce didn’t need him to say anything at all. 

They drove by the park he spent a lot of his time at, lots of little hiding places and serendipitous waterfalls in the crick to explore, private and secluded and his. It was hard, though, driving by. It wasn’t always bad, of course. He was a private and sensitive kid – no matter how he grew up he was going to enjoy spending a lot of time alone, reading his library books in the brush and hunting up toads and crayfish. But it was also where he ran to lick his wounds after he got hit, when he couldn’t watch it any more, couldn’t stand listening to his mom defend him and forgive him again. The only place he could disappear, the only place he could escape. 

“Is this the point where I make you tell me one good childhood memory?” Tony asked and Bruce sighed.

“I don’t know...” Bruce said, trying to think of anything that could constitute happy. He loved the park, but happy it wasn’t. Not really. 

“Hang a left here, then at the next big intersection take another left and we can come back around through town.”

Tony nodded. It was going to be several minutes and they passed by farmland and the distinct smell of cow fields as he turned over memories in his mind. But so many of them started or ended badly. He didn’t have anything as elaborate as Tony’s. He just... didn’t.

“Most of my good memories are like... little fragments,” he started slowly, not able to look over at Tony as he said it. “Like... sometimes in the summer my mom would take me with her to the laundromat. She would always go really late so I was supposed to be in bed. But she would buy me a coke from the vending machine and race me to put the quarters in and start the machines and push me around the long tables in the big wire baskets that were meant for moving clothes.” 

He smiled a little fondly, thinking about it, even though that was the poorest, most pathetic memory and he was sure Tony couldn't relate to it at all. 

“Once when I was like in first grade there was a carnival set up outside the school,” he mused, his smile widening a little. “For a week I watched it set up. They had all those rides and a pony corral, you know. I’d seen horses before but not like that, not up close, not where I could ride one. And the ponies were cute but there was one that was just – I don’t know. This sounds dumb – but it was huge, way bigger than the other ponies, and to me it looked like a full blown horse. And I just really wanted to ride that horse.”

Bruce laughed at himself but Tony just flashed him this sweet, encouraging smile. 

“Somehow my mom agreed that we could go – maybe the school gave us so many tickets for good behavior? I don’t remember but that was the very first thing I wanted to do. I didn’t realize I didn’t get to pick the pony and they just put me on one of the little ponies and – you know – I certainly wasn’t going to complain, that had been pretty well beaten out of me even by first grade but – I was disappointed. We did a bunch of the other rides but when my mom asked what I wanted the last one to be, I told her I wanted to do the ponies again. She laughed and asked me why and eventually I admitted to her I really wanted to ride the big one.

“So she took me back and we tried again. I’m pretty sure she must have subtly asked them to put me on it but as a kid, I had no idea, I just remember the feeling of being so damn excited as they walked me up to that big brown horse. I really thought, this was it, this was as good as it was going to get. It felt like I could see for miles, like I could conquer anything for those two minutes walking in a damn circle. That might really be my happiest memory...”

Tony chuckled with him as he drove past the turn back into the main part of town but Bruce didn’t correct him as he let himself reminisce. He was pretty sure it was intentional anyway. It was easy to take any other series of turns to get back. 

“It was hard when we had no money but she really tried to be a cool mom,” Bruce added sadly. “In high school she let me borrow her car whenever I wanted, unless she was working. Always made sure it had gas, even though dad took all her money. I’m sure she knew I needed the freedom – but she probably needed it too...” 

Bruce laughed then, more genuinely. “She was the mom who would always give out condoms and cigarettes to all my druggie friends.” 

Tony sputtered out a little “what?!” in surprise. They never really talked about high school. It was a topic that might have been covered early in their friendship except they’d both had such bad experiences neither one ever offered. Now it seemed like so long ago it was nothing they ever really thought about.

“My graduating class was like seventy-five people and while most of us didn’t have it great some of us had it worse than others,” Bruce explained. “I hung out with those kids, the ones who always had access to drugs and alcohol and whatever thanks to their parents totally checking out and I don’t know why I hung out with them, really, except they never said anything to me about the bruises I always took pains to hide. But I mean, I was an outsider even with them because I never did any of it myself. I probably would have but I had been contacted by MIT recruiters pretty early on and I wasn’t willing to jeopardize that getting high.”

“You’re a better man than me,” Tony confessed and Bruce laughed. 

“Maybe more desperate,” he replied, looking over at Tony with a sly, self-deprecating smirk. “Most of those kids still live here. I wasn’t really interested in being king of an empire of cow shit.” He spread his hand across the front windshield, gesturing to all of... everything.

Tony kind of frowned but he clearly understood. It would have been hard not to. He knew people liked to wax poetic about it being beautiful out here but it wasn’t. Not really. Not to him. And there weren’t really jobs and there wasn’t really anything for him here. He certainly would have never met Betty or Tony or anyone like them. 

“Then you know, the stints dad did in jail were always good for us. Kind of like your Miami, I guess,” Bruce laughed, looking back out the window. “We had some freedom to just... exist. Money was tighter, we didn’t always eat dinner, but it was still better.”

He felt Tony’s hand on his thigh then and he put his own over it, squeezing it, trying to comfort him. Bruce knew Tony would hate it that he saw it that way because Tony was trying to be sweet, to comfort him. But Bruce didn’t need to be comforted about the realities of a life he’d accepted and made peace with. It was a big part of why he didn’t like to talk about it with Tony. Bruce always felt like he ended up trying to make Tony feel like it was okay, because it was, and even if it wasn’t, it was okay with him at this point in his life – Tony would just never be able to see it that way. 

“Take a left here and we’ll head back, huh?” 

Bruce directed him down to the ‘rough’ part of town. There were a surprising number of newer model houses, those kind of cookie-cutter prefab constructions that you saw in the suburbs outside Philly. But that wasn’t where his parents lived. They lived back in the old part of town where even the well maintained ranches were shabby and rough – and his parent’s was no exception. He was sure it had been pretty in 1950-whatever but now it had really outworn it’s lifespan. 

It was a brick construction made of pale colors, yellow and tan. Bruce remembered it once had pretty blue shutters but they were gone now, the white carport paint dirty and peeling from years of sun bleaching and neglect. The lawn was mostly weeds and the pavement of the driveway cracked. There had been no effort to maintain it as long as Bruce had lived there – his dad didn’t give a shit and his mom was always too burnt out and they had no money to outsource it. The bushes along the front were overgrown and there looked like there had been a shoddy patch-job on the roof. Pulling the Cadillac in next to his mom’s old Ford Taurus was jarring and he took a deep breath, feeling the dread in the pit of his stomach like a physical thing.

This was going to be an absolute fucking nightmare. She would never agree. She would take one look at Tony and think he was too much. She wouldn’t like him. She wouldn’t like Tony or their life in Philly or their little brick three story or any of it. She wouldn’t even like him any more. God, this was a mistake. It was such a fucking mistake and he should just tell Tony to back out and leave and – 

“Hey, baby,” Tony said softly, grabbing his hand, breaking him out of his upward panic. “Let’s do it, okay? Let’s just go in there and you can say what you need to say and then we can leave. Okay?”

Bruce knew he was gripping Tony’s hand too tight but he was right – they could just go in there and say it and leave but if he didn’t at least try after coming all this way he would never be able to live with himself. 

Tony offered him an encouraging smile as he pulled the door handle. It was stupid but it made him feel better. Tony was with him. Tony wanted this to work out as much as he did. Tony would help.

He stepped out of the car and up to the house with Tony behind him, knocking on the wooden door with no small amount of trepidation. It had been over four years since he’d been back, since he’d seen his mother. What was he supposed to say after that much time?

But when she pulled open the door and greeted him with her classic, broad smile, it felt like no time had passed at all. She was thinner and it made her seem smaller than ever, her unrepentant mass of curly hair much grayer, but it was still her . And she practically launched herself on him, wrapping him in a tight and genuine hug, rocking him back and forth as she did. She smelled like her cigarettes and cheap perfume, just the way she always did, and it hit him with an insurmountable wave of nostalgia he couldn’t have fought back if he’d tried. 

The panic he had felt in the car was suddenly a light year away and instead he was fighting back tears. 

“I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve seen you.” 

Her voice had always been thin and raspy and years of smoking didn’t help but even then he could hear it crack.

“I know,” he replied, holding her tightly. “Way too long.” 

He knew how hard it was for her to let him go – because it was just as hard for him. And when she did she put both her hands on his face, beaming up at him like there was nothing in this world that could ever make her more happy or more proud. Bruce couldn’t help but blush. 

“Mom,” Bruce said quietly, continuing to blush, “I want you to meet my boyfriend Tony.”

His mom was clearly a little hesitant but Tony flashed her that charming smile of his and held out his hand in the most non-threatening way possible, taking hers gently. 

“It’s good to finally meet you,” he said in a warm, calm voice. “I’ve heard so much about you – but don’t worry, only good things.”

She kind of laughed, not used to that kind of flattery or kindness from a man, and Bruce should have warned Tony it would take a while for her to warm up to that, to see that he was being sincere. 

“Don’t lie,” she replied, but she played it off as a joke with that quirky smile of hers that Bruce loved. “I’m sure every son complains about his mother.”

“Well, I might be a better cook,” Tony admitted, a very gentle jab, reading her body language expertly and knowing exactly what to say so she didn’t think he was totally full of shit, and for his effort she responded with a real laugh. 

“Don’t let it go to your head – that wouldn’t be hard,” she teased back, inviting them in. 

Everything was just as he remembered it – the run down circular table in the eat-in kitchen off the foyer, covered in a large white doily tablecloth that was then covered in plastic with a glass ashtray and an ever-present coffee cup with some faded print that carried everything from tea to red wine but never actual coffee sitting on it. The gingham curtains on the kitchen windows, the little collection of figures from her Red Rose tea across the windowsill over the sink, the FM radio tuned to an oldies station playing ‘Runaway Train.’ There was a weird collection of magnets on the ugly tan fridge and the handle was still mostly taped on. The linoleum floor was clean but worn, like essentially everything in the house, but Tony pulled out a chair across from his mom at the table like he hadn’t been raised in a literal mansion and Bruce tried to let his fear about them being diametric opposites go. 

“I can’t believe you guys came all this way out of your way to see me for a few hours,” his mom was saying as Bruce pulled a pitcher of sun brewed tea out of the fridge and set it on the table, going back for some faded plastic glasses that once had bright floral patterns on them but were now more or less just white blobs. 

“This isn’t your ideal vacation?” Tony asked and she laughed again and Bruce bit his cheek with how happy it made him to hear the two of them like that. It was way, way too early to get excited about any potential relationship they might have but... it was also extremely hard not to. 

“I know you can do better – he did tell me about South Beach,” she leaned across the table and whispered it like a secret with a wicked grin, flipping open her pack of cigarettes. 

Then Tony laughed as Bruce poured him a glass of tea. 

“Before we left Bruce told me this wasn’t much of a vacation either,” he confessed and Bruce glared at him affectionately as he sat down. 

“Shit,” she muttered as she blew smoke across the table. “Do you mind? Habit.”

Tony assured her that he didn’t and Bruce took a sip of his unsweet tea and didn’t offer anything.

“So,” she said, looking back at Bruce, a big smile still on her face, and it looked like she was kind of trying to tamp it down but failing miserably. “My little boy grew up and moved to Philadelphia. You like it there? Tell me about it, I’ve never been.”

Bruce knew she hadn’t really been much of anywhere. Vacations weren’t something they could afford even if his dad had been willing to indulge them. His parents had gotten together in high school then married so young – the furthest she’d ever really been was to visit her sister in Kentucky or their one singular trip to Lake Erie. Their short honeymoon had been at a hotel in Chicago – which could not have been that glamorous.

“I really love it,” Bruce admitted all in one breath. 

It was hard when he was sure it felt like a damning accusation against the childhood she’d tried to give him, but he couldn’t help it. It was the truth. Anything less and she’d see right through it. She had always been able to see right through him. 

“It just... it feels like home,” he continued and Tony took a sip of his drink, watching Bruce's body language carefully, putting his wrist over the back of his chair in a subtle show of support. “Our place is right on the river and there’s a trail along it and you can just walk down to any number of restaurants or convenience stores or – or my favorite used book store. And there's farmers markets and beautiful old architecture and everyone is really nice, for the most part, not like some cities, and I... I would have taken pretty much any job that paid me as much as this one does, but I’m really glad it was there. I’m – I’m really happy there.” 

He finished his anxious spiel with a drink and she reached out and patted his hand with her own. 

“I’m happy for you,” she said, but this time, instead of trying not to smile, her smile faltered because she was trying to maintain it, and it hurt like hell to see as she buried her face in her cigarette. “If there’s anyone in the world who deserves to be happy, it’s you.”

Bruce felt weak and light headed and he tried to get his shit together and just say it, just say it instead of being shut out by her inevitable wall of self-disappointment and years of abuse at the hands of a man she loved. He felt Tony’s hand shift to his shoulder and then down his arm to his hand, locking it in a strong grip, heedless of what she might think, and Bruce squeezed back.

“So do you,” Bruce said, his voice thick as he forced the words out, saying it even knowing that without a doubt that she would laugh and turn him down, “which is why we want you to move back to Philly with us.”

He was pretty sure he’d never seen her that shocked – which was saying something, because a lot of their life together had been pretty damn shocking.

“We have a private basement level with it’s own street access,” Tony added softly, carefully, like she was a rabbit caught in a snare and he was trying to convince her they were on the same side. “It would be like your own apartment. It wouldn’t be like... charity.”

It was a tough call, that. How could Tony even conceptualize what that felt like, to be offered a place for free by your own child, when life had handed him so much? Let alone say that it wasn’t charity when that’s pretty much exactly what it was? Did he have any idea what charity even was? But despite that Bruce felt it was probably the right thing to say. She would balk at the idea of accepting a handout from her son – even a son that knew exactly what she was going through, that had lived it with her, that understood. 

“I promise you wouldn’t want me hanging around,” she laughed, her shock replaced by a charming facade that betrayed nothing. “I’m sure nothing kills a sex life faster than knowing your mom is right downstairs.”

Bruce frowned but it wasn’t like he didn’t expect it. At least it wasn’t an outright ‘no.’ She made it so there was really no way to reply without being lewd and so they were left to share a quick look and Tony let Bruce's hand go, motioning to his mom instead for a cigarette. 

Tony was one of the only people Bruce knew who could smoke cigarettes socially, though he did wonder just how easy it would be for Tony to stop if there were another smoker in the house.

“It is pretty nice though,” Tony told her after a moment, running his thumb against his lower lip. “You get a great view of the skyline from the top floor. You’ll have to visit at least.” 

Bruce shared a look with his mom then that Tony probably couldn’t read. They never talked much about her not coming to graduation – Tony was pretty absorbed in his own shit with his own parents, trying to get his grades to square so he could graduate at all when he was forcing himself through every day, fighting with Bruce over nothing because he was so miserable. At the time Tony just didn’t have it in him to be that emotionally involved in Bruce’s problems. Frankly, Bruce didn’t have it in him to be that involved in Tony’s either.  

But Bruce knew – he wouldn’t let her leave. She wouldn’t have phrased it that way, would never have said anything like that, there would always be some reason, some excuse as to why she couldn’t come. But it would always boil down to the same thing – his dad just wouldn’t let her leave. 

“I would like to,” she said at last, and Bruce knew it wasn’t a lie, but it still stung. She would like to – and that was the truth. But under that truth was another truth – she would never be able to.

“We’re thinking of getting a cat,” Bruce said, trying to steer the conversation away and his mom laughed, clearly grateful for this opening. 

“Cats love Bruce,” she said to Tony before looking back over at him. “Remember that mangy stray that found you here and decided he’d never leave?” 

Bruce smiled, reminiscing about his one little pet that he only got to ‘keep’ because it was a stray that was smart enough to hide from his dad. 

“Stupid Dorito,” he said, laughing. “Could’ve found a house with better food than the WalMart special.”

They talked for a while over cigarettes and tea and it was really, really easy. Hearing Tony and his mom laughing, laughing with them – it just felt really good, really right. And even though she hadn’t agreed to come, at least she knew she could. She saw how friendly and kind Tony was, how easy he was to talk to, how fun. She saw the gentle way Tony touched his hand, his shoulder, the back of his neck. The way Tony looked at him when he smiled – soft, affectionate... loving.

And Bruce was just about to suggest they get ready and go to dinner when the front door opened.

Instantly the friendly, harmonious atmosphere they’d created was stripped away and all that was left was an oppressive feeling of dread. Bruce couldn’t help but glare at his mother in horror and betrayal and all she could do was shrug, this hapless little smile on her face. What can I do? it said. I had to tell him, it said.

His father appraised them both coolly. He was smaller than Bruce remembered, thinner – truthfully, he didn’t look well. Bruce was pretty sure he could knock him over with a single well placed punch – and he wasn’t that strong – but it didn’t matter. That was the nature of abuse. No matter what his rational mind told him – that this man wasn’t a threat, that they could walk out right now, that this wasn’t his home or his life any more – the terrified little boy inside him wanted to shrink back to his room and sit in the closet with his flash light and a book and hope his mom could take it long enough that he didn’t have to.

“I always told you he was a fag.” 

Bruce flinched. Bruce hadn’t even been looking up at him, he had been very carefully studying the table, but the venom in his words – he might as well have reached out and smacked him across the face. 

Tony managed to bite his tongue as his father moved to the fridge, taking out a beer and slamming the door shut before cracking it open to stand beside his mother like some kind of wraith, possessing her. Bruce tried to look up at him, tried to meet his eye squarely, tried not to be intimidated – but man it was fucking hard. He didn’t want Tony to see him like this, though. He wanted Tony to know that he had a spine. 

“You have some nerve to come back here after so many years, upsetting your mother like this,” he griped and Bruce tried not to shrink from the accusation, knowing it wasn't true but still feeling like it was. “You think you can just send money, like that makes up for an actual relationship? You're just like your fucking aunt. Well, we don’t need your rich, pansy-ass –”

“Watch it,” Tony growled.

“– boyfriend’s hand outs.” 

But Bruce just stared, shocked. It was barely there, nothing Tony would have noticed, probably not his mother either, but it was definitely there. Just the faintest little waver in his voice, a tiny tell that he was... nervous. That he was talking himself up. That he was scared. And not only was he scared, but he was scared of Bruce.

And it was like the whole tangible aura of oppression and anger cracked and suddenly Bruce was staring at the crack, staring at it and he knew – he knew where he had to go to get out.

“My money,” Bruce said, his hands balling into fists on the table. “It’s my money.”

His father made a long and exaggerated sound of disbelief and Bruce felt it then, his anger, washing over him in hot waves and his stomach lurched and it came over him so quickly he thought for a brief moment he might be sick but he was too damn angry to throw up and he swallowed it all back, swallowed all the bile back down. And instead he felt his anger like a physical thing and he embraced it, held it close, let it become him. This fear ended here. He was done.

“Yeah and you bought that Cadillac too.” 

The degrading sarcasm that normally paralyzed Bruce oozed from his voice but Bruce had had it. He was so fucking done.

“It doesn’t matter!” 

Bruce stood suddenly, slamming his fists down on the table, the cups on it falling over and rolling off the edge and his mom jumped in surprise and under normal circumstances that would have upset him but at that moment she was just collateral damage to his very direct, very pointed anger. He heard Tony say his name but it was just on the edge of his periphery, nothing he could focus on, just sensory input he didn’t need. 

His father laughing, though? It was deafening and all he wanted to do was take a swing, beat his face in, smash it into the linoleum until it was his blood pooled on the floor and then leave him to clean it up later.

“You think you’re a man now? Because you can break a table and scare your mother?”

The hypocrisy of that statement was maddening . The sheer fucking – the audacity! Bruce wanted to scream. He wanted to tear that fucking table apart and not just the table – the whole entire goddamn house until every bloody hole was exposed and laid bare and they could all fucking see it for what it was. He’d enraged Bruce right over any semblance of line he’d managed to maintain and he stepped forward with no forethought, not a shred of cognitive processing on what exactly he intended to do but – 

He only made it one step.

“Get in the car.”

Tony’s hand was on his arm, strong and firm, and his voice was a solid sense of reasoning Bruce absolutely did not want to hear right then. Every shred of his self, every cell, every molecule positively vibrated with the desire to sink his fist into that face which always looked so alarmingly like his and rearrange it so that they were nothing alike. Because they were nothing alike.

They were nothing alike.

... right?

“Listen to your mattress muncher boyfriend,” his father said with a sneer and it was like every word came at him in slow motion. 

There was Tony again, his hand tightening around his arm, every point of pressure coming at him one ounce at a time as the seconds ticked by in slow motion minutes and his mother covered her face with both hands, shrunk up between them, and he could feel his teeth flexing in his mouth under the strain he was putting on them, clamped together so hard his jaw ached, and there was another voice he didn’t recognize at first, screaming at him, screaming so loud he couldn’t ignore it and he realized as he searched it out and tried to find it that it was him – just a little boy, trapped deep inside himself, screaming and crying at him to stop, stop stopsstop don’t hurt her and –  

And everything suddenly came screeching back into focus and he let Tony direct him out the door. He heard Tony saying something – “you fucking piece of shit” – but Bruce was storming to the car, throwing open the door, watching as Tony escorted his mother out with his arm wrapped tight around her shoulders. Bruce couldn’t hear what they were saying but he watched as Tony hugged her, wishing he could do the same but feeling further than he had felt from her for the past four and a half years, his mind replaying how she jumped, how she tried to hide... from him. 

Tony joined him after a moment that felt more like an eternity and Bruce watched her start to cry as they pulled away, wrapping her cardigan around herself, covering her mouth with her hand, and in that moment all Bruce wanted was to just fucking die. 

They didn’t get far before he demanded Tony pull the car over – which he did without argument. Bruce stumbled out of the car, falling to his knees in the shallow ditch, and all he could think about was Tony, holding her, whispering something to her, and how it didn’t matter, it didn’t fucking matter, whatever Tony said, because it was over now, it was over and he’d fucked up, he’d fucked up and she would never, ever trust him again, never, because they were exactly the same, exactly the fucking same and – 

And he wanted to scream, he wanted to cry, he wanted to rip himself apart and let that scared little boy crawl out of whatever monster he had become – but he could only throw up on his hands and knees in the dirt and sniffle like the pathetic piece of shit he actually was.

“Fuck, baby, fuck –” Tony was muttering in obvious distress as he approached, unsure what to do, but Bruce couldn’t help him navigate it right then. He couldn’t help anyone. He couldn’t help himself.

Tony put his firm grip squarely under Bruce’s arm, lifting his weak and feeble self off the ground and maneuvering him somehow back into the car. He couldn’t even bother to spit the taste of bile from his mouth, he just sat there, dumb and despondent as Tony’s worried face hovered beyond the point where his eyes were focused, mumbling something he couldn’t hear over the ringing in his ears, his touch against his face and forehead nothing Bruce even felt. 

Bruce didn’t know how long he sat there before Tony shoved a bottle of water in his hand and made him sit right in the seat, fastening the seatbelt across his lap and wasting no time in getting them back to the hotel – but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. He just sat there, watching the scenery change on the short ride back into Dayton. 

When they finally made it to the room Bruce stripped out of his gross clothes on autopilot and brushed his teeth so hard for so long his gums started to bleed and he spit blood and toothpaste into the sink and brushed them again until his arm was too weak and his whole body was shaking and he just dropped his toothbrush on the counter, ignoring Tony and making his way to the bed, where he lay down and pulled the sheets over his shoulders, up under his chin, and closed his eyes, ignoring everything but the gaping maw of self-loathing in his gut that was swallowing everything, everything. 

At a distance he could feel Tony’s fingers in his hair, Tony whispering to him – “talk to me, big guy, just... just talk to me, okay?” – but it didn’t matter. There was nothing to say. No boyfriend, no home, no lawyer, no amount of money, no apology, nothing was ever going to be able to fix what Bruce had broken. Nothing. He'd spent nearly six years, no – his whole life was spent building this up only to have swung his own fist in and destroyed it. 

When he thought of that look on her face... 

He took in a shuddering breath and let out a sob and that was all he could do. All he could do was cry.

Chapter Text

Bruce didn’t remember much about last night. He knew Tony DoorDashed something to the hotel but he had no recollection what it was and he didn’t eat it. He listened to the TV and drifted in and out of a restless, depressed sleep. When he woke up the next morning he still felt like shit and he was not in the mood to do anything but roll himself into the car and put five hundred miles between him and this shit show. 

But unfortunately, Tony had other plans. 

“Hey baby,” he said, soft but firm as he pulled down the sheets from his shoulder a little. “Come on. Get up. We’re going on a run.”

Bruce looked at him like he was fucking crazy – because he was. It was also the first time he had really looked at him since they left his house yesterday.

“I had an extra pair of Bluetooth headphones in the car so come on – no excuses.”

Bruce didn’t run. He biked, sure, and a few times a week he’d join some of the other ladies from the office for yoga at the gym there during lunch, but he didn’t run. He just... wasn’t that coordinated. He didn’t know how to do it right. He’d seen Tony run – he looked like a fucking gazelle. All good posture, light feet. By comparison, Bruce was a wildebeest, slogging himself along by sheer force of will. And he didn’t have any of that to go around right now. 

But Tony was looking at him with this annoyingly expectant look and it was easier to just get it over with than to fight him on it. So he put on some jersey knit shorts and a t-shirt, having none of Tony’s fancy running clothes, and reluctantly laced his tennis shoes. Why Tony was doing this to him he had no idea. It was beyond unnecessary. At this hour with the way he felt? It was practically torture.

Tony grabbed them both a banana as they passed by the lobby breakfast buffet and made him eat it with him. He never thought he’d wish to be plied with alcohol first thing in the morning like Tony did to him on South Beach but he’d much rather have been handed a gin and tonic. Even as he put Tony’s extra pair of wireless headphones in he wasn’t sure he was really going to go for a fucking run – but he did. 

And he was pissed off pretty much the entire time. He didn’t give a shit about Nick Jonas’ elevator or whether or not anyone would remember fucking Fall Out Boy over the next century or any of the other shit on Tony’s upbeat running playlist. And he didn’t give a shit about the scenery or the river or anything they passed. He frankly didn’t give a shit about anything , not even Tony running along next to him, matching his pitiful pace in his skin-tight compression leggings and rather short running shorts. But frankly, being pissed and not giving a shit was somehow better than the numbing apathy of last night and even though his legs were twitchy and he felt exhausted when they got back to the room, he also, admittedly, felt a lot better.

Tony let him take a shower first as he picked up the room and though Bruce wanted to linger because he was fucking tired, he also wanted to just get on the road – so he didn’t take long. But he did give Tony a little hug before Tony got in the shower. He wasn’t going to and he didn’t even look him in the eye, he just turned from the sink and wrapped his arms around his waist, lay his head on his back for a moment, but... He wanted him to know he was right, the run was a good idea. He wanted him to know he might be distant but there was nothing for Tony to do, nothing he expected, he just...

Fuck, he felt like shit .

Bruce got dressed and finished packing up his things, their laundry order that had been returned this morning, his cell phone charger. He picked up his phone. There was a string of messages from Nat he didn’t want to open because he was sure Tony had told her about what happened yesterday. There were even a few from Clint. But there was only one he wanted to see. One from his mom. 

Love you. Always.

He stared at it for a long time and finally concluded that it had to be a lie. Right? After what he’d done?

“Hey,” Tony said carefully, pulling his shirt over his head. “We can stay another day, you know that right? We’d miss the party but you know they’d understand.”

Bruce took a deep breath. He appreciated what Tony was trying to do but he just didn’t really want to think about it that hard. He just wanted to leave this all behind him.

“Yeah, I just – I want to go.” 

Tony didn’t push him to say anything else, only helped him gather up their bags to leave. Even when they got in the car, Tony didn’t say anything, but he found a Starbucks before they hit the highway and ordered Bruce his regular order. He couldn’t help the small burst of affection he felt for Tony then. He knew Tony wanted to talk about it, and he knew Tony wanted him to talk about it, but he bit his tongue, shoved it down, waited until Bruce was ready.  

Bruce sipped at his chai latte as they hit 75. It was almost too warm for a chai latte now but he didn’t complain. He just stared at his phone, trying to think of what to say to anyone and coming back with nothing. What was he supposed to say? There was nothing he could say. He couldn’t even tell his mom he loved her. He didn’t think she would believe him. 

“What am I supposed to do?” he finally asked after an eternity of trying to get it out, thankful that the radio was off so he didn’t have to say it very loud. “She’ll never forgive me.” 

Tony set down his coffee and looked over at him. “Wait – what are we talking about?” 

Bruce stared out the window, gutted that Tony didn’t understand, that he was going to make him spell it out. He just didn’t think he had the strength. He was watching it all fall away from him as they flew down the highway in the opposite direction and he didn’t know how to say why it hurt so much. 

“Your mom?” Tony asked. “Why would she be mad at you ? Because... you hit the table?” 

Bruce pressed his face into the window, wishing he could just fall out of the car at 80 mph and scrape all his features off on the pavement below.

“Bruce, Jesus Christ, baby, you can’t –” 

Bruce could tell Tony was having a hard time not being physical, the distance between them in the car too much, but Bruce for once was thankful. He just wanted to be left alone. Well, he wanted Tony to make him feel better, which is why he said anything at all, but still – he didn’t think he deserved it. 

“He fucking baited you!” 

Bruce swallowed, his throat so tight it was a whisper. “Your dad baits you and you never – never hit anything.”

Tony laughed, but it wasn’t a very pleasant laugh. “And my dad never hit me, either. Nor would he call me a – a fag like that! I mean trust me, my dad definitely knows how to get under your skin, you’ve seen it first hand, and there’s plenty to hate him for but – but fucking A, Bruce – even I wanted to punch him.”

But that was Tony. It was different for Tony. Tony wasn’t – Tony had options, choices. Bruce... didn’t. 

“Come on – talk to me,” Tony practically begged, sounding helpless. “Tell me I’m wrong at least! Tell me something.” 

But what was Bruce supposed to say? I fucked everything up? It’ll never be the same?

“She was scared of me.” 

“Your mom?” Tony asked again, as if there was anyone else he could have meant. “She wasn’t scared of you.”

“I made her cry ,” Bruce argued back, not wanting any kind of false platitudes. 

“God Bruce – fuck, listen to me – it wasn’t like that.” 

Bruce snorted and rolled his eyes but Tony persisted. 

“I know you’re going to feel like it was because of whatever fucked up shit happened to you as a kid, but please, listen to me – it wasn’t like that. She was upset that he did that to you, that after four years your visit was cut short and you had to leave like that. You must know that’s true. You don’t have to be a fucking engineer to know she loves you and she misses you. It’s obvious.”

Bruce’s mouth was tight as he thought about that. It just felt so... extreme. It had been so long since he’d seen his father, since he’d been in the thick of it like that. He forgot what it was like, how... normal, it was for her. Hitting a table like that – the transgression seemed huge to him, unsurmountable, a total betrayal of trust. He would never do that in an argument with Tony.

But then, if he thought about it... She probably told his dad he was coming because the consequences were worse if he found out later. Bruce hitting a table after years and years of pent up anger was nothing compared to casually hitting a person... right?

It didn’t make it right though and he still felt sick thinking about it.

“I called her last night,” Tony finally confessed, getting Bruce to look over at him for the first time since they’d started this conversation. 

“You what ?” 

Tony’s knuckles were white on the steering wheel he was so nervous. 

“I know you’re always so cautious about when you call, to make sure he won’t be around, so I texted her first just to make sure.” 

“But how did you get her number?” 

“I... took it from your phone.”

Bruce took a deep breath and closed his eyes, pressing his face back up against the glass, letting it out slowly. That was not exactly what he wanted to hear. 

“I just wanted to make sure she was okay. And we talked a little about, you know – you and just. Trust me on this, okay baby? Please? She loves you and she was worried about you, too. She’s not mad at you or scared of you or anything like that. Okay?”

There was a moment of dead silence in which Bruce turned that statement over in his mind, looking for holes. And though he wanted to find them, more than anything he really just wanted to believe Tony. Believe that his mother understood, that she wasn’t scared of him, that she still loved him and she would still think of Philly as a safe place if she needed it and just – he wanted to see himself through Tony’s eyes.

He looked back over at Tony and Tony’s deep brown eyes looked back at him a moment, sincere and worried and, even buried under layers of that other shit, just... tender. Loving.  He wished he could look at himself the way Tony did, like he was somehow worthy of all that. Sometimes, maybe, sometimes he could feel it – when they were at home, when things were easy – but right then? All he felt like was a badly worn-out piece of gum on the heel of someone else’s shoe. 

“Please don’t take a number out of my phone like that again,” Bruce said at last and for a moment Tony looked devastated. 

“I wouldn’t have but –”

“I – I know,” he interrupted, “I know you were worried and I’m not mad I just...”

Bruce trailed off and when it became obvious he wasn’t going to finish that sentence because he didn’t know how – he just felt violated by everyone and everything – and Tony apologized instead. 

“I’m really sorry. You’re right – I should have asked. I won’t do it again, okay?” 

Bruce nodded and picked his drink back up, feeling like he needed about two weeks to decompress and think through all of this. But at least now he could pick up his phone, open the text from his mom, and answer it easily. 

Love you too. Always.

**

When Bruce woke up it was to the car coming to a quick slow down on an off-ramp and Tony giving him an apologetic grimace. 

“Sorry to wake you – I really have to piss.”

Bruce shook it off, rubbing his face. He felt groggy but then despite the amount of sleep he technically got the day before, he slept deeper for the past few hours in the car than he did at any point yesterday.

“Where are we?” Bruce asked, looking around at a whole hell of a lot of nothing, not able to place it as anywhere distinct. They could honestly still be in Ohio from his experience, but he knew that couldn’t be true.

“About halfway through Kentucky,” Tony admitted as they pulled into some rural gas station. “I kept waiting for a real stop with like... a McDonald’s, at least. But it wasn’t happening.”

“It’s okay.” 

Bruce got out and started pumping gas as Tony ran in. Then they traded and Bruce picked himself up some Red Bull and some chips and some candy, prepared to ask Tony if he could drive for a while.

Tony was leaning against the hood of the car and when Bruce came out he made to wrap his arms around him and Bruce froze up. 

“Do you know where we are?” he hissed, bypassing Tony to throw his stuff in the car. “We could get killed.”

Tony followed him over, laughing. 

“There is literally no one here.” 

He motioned to the empty parking lot and literally nothing else and Bruce glanced around too, forced to admit that he was right. He just really did not want to be touched or – or anything right then. Bruce knew he had no defenses against Tony, not really, he never had, but he really didn’t want to be emotionally vulnerable right then. It was too hard. He just wanted to box up everything that had happened with his parents and shove it away deep where he didn’t have to think about it, didn’t have to face it, put somewhere he could pretend nothing had even happened and everything was fine.

“I’m going to hug you,” Tony warned him as he pulled him into his arms. 

At first Bruce managed to fight it. At least, he tried. He stood there stock still as Tony buried his face in the crook of his neck, holding him tightly. 

“I love you so much, baby,” Tony whispered into his skin and Bruce immediately took a shuddering breath, swallowing hard, knowing it would only take a few choice words before he fell apart in Tony’s arms and it was just – it was just so exhausting to cry. 

“I – I had no idea how strong you were.”

“Shut up,” Bruce groaned, hearing his voice crack over just those two words alone and he knew it was over.

“I’m here for you,” Tony murmured, stroking his hair as Bruce started to cry. “I love you. Anything you need, please ask me.”

“I just –” 

There were so many things he could have said then but none of them were anything Tony could actually do. He wanted to go back in time and just drive straight on to Atlanta. He wanted to call up Howard’s lawyer and see if he could get his dad thrown in jail for any myriad of offenses real or fabricated. He wanted to drive back home and pick his mom up and force her to come home with them. He wanted to be in Atlanta with a drink in his hand and a whole bottle on the table to chase it with. He wanted... 

He wanted to be home where he could lay in bed with Tony, lay in his arms and feel safe again. 

All of it only made him cry harder and he knew it would take time – time to regain his confidence, time to forget the feeling of wanting to beat his father's face to a bloody pulp, time to remember that he was worthy of his mother’s forgiveness, worthy of Tony and this kind of love, time to feel normal again.

There was nothing Tony could do if he couldn't change time. 

“I want to drive a little while if that’s okay,” he asked at last as the tears stopped and Tony laughed gently, looking at him, wiping tears from his cheeks with his thumbs. 

“Of course, that one’s easy.” He kissed him tenderly for just a moment, handing him the keys. “I can do some hard stuff, too.” 

Bruce sighed, leaning into him one more moment, squeezing him tightly to let him know he appreciated it. “The hard stuff is impossible.” 

“Maybe we can talk about it, later?” Tony suggested carefully. “When you’re ready?” 

Bruce swallowed and licked his lips as he pulled away and Tony let him go. 

“Maybe. I just really want to be in Atlanta right now, you know?” 

Tony gave him a tight smile before walking back to the other side of the car, getting into the passenger seat. Bruce set up his phone to take over the radio and input the address into the GPS and set up his playlist as Tony organized their drinks and snacks. 

“Is it okay if I nap? You can wake me up if you need anything.” 

“I know,” Bruce sighed as he pulled out onto the road, hating when Tony treated him so carefully but knowing he only meant well. “You should sleep if you can.”

He was just settling in after about a half-hour on the road, Tony drifting off fitfully, when his phone rang and it was Natasha and he realized with belated regret that he had never texted her back. 

“Hey, you’re on speaker,” Bruce said, barely getting the words out before Nat launched into him. 

“What the fuck Bruce I’ve been so worried about you!” 

Bruce groaned as Tony’s eyes cracked open to look at the dash, then over at him.

“You can’t just – Tony messaged me last night and I’ve been freaking out ever since!”

“God Nat – I’m sorry,” he apologized but she wasn’t done. 

“I know you have a lot on your plate I just – I just wanted to know that you were okay, you know? I can’t be there and I just want to do something and –”

“There’s nothing you can do,” Bruce assured her, “except show me a good time in Atlanta and help me forget about it.”

She laughed and even Tony cracked a grin, moving his hand across the center console, his fingers barely touching Bruce’s thigh. 

“Yeah, Tony said it went pretty well.” 

He had confided bits and pieces with her over the past year they’d been friends so she had a pretty decent picture of what his family was like but still, he wondered what Tony had told her.

“Frankly, it could have gone worse,” Bruce admitted. “Tony really helped me keep my shit together.” 

Tony seemed surprised by that, tilting his head curiously, but Bruce shot him a small, affectionate smile. It was the truth. He had no idea what he would have done if Tony hadn’t been there to redirect him. 

“Probably a first for him.” 

“Hey!” Tony defended as Bruce laughed, feeling better to hear her voice, her banter. 

Tony was great – really, truly, so supportive, more than Bruce deserved most of the time – but there was something about having a good friend that was just... different. He felt insurmountably lucky to have them both. 

“Heeey Tony,” Nat said, clearly amused. “How are you?” 

“Ready for a drink,” he muttered and she laughed. 

“Well get down here, we got you covered.”

“Trying.”

“I can’t wait to see you guys, you know that right?” she asked. “It’s been way too long.”

“Yeah,” Bruce agreed. “I’m pretty damn excited to see you guys too.” 

And I’m glad to hear your voice,” she continued. “You really scared me, you know.”

“I’m sorry,” he apologized again, going to try to explain himself but she just tch’ed it away. 

“You get back to driving so I can hand you a drink in a couple hours.” 

“Five hours,” Tony said. 

“And some dinner,” she added and Bruce smiled. 

“That sounds great .” 

“See you soon, okay?”

“Yeah and – thanks Nat,” Bruce said fondly. 

“Of course.” 

They disconnected and the music picked back up and Tony’s fingers were still on his thigh, and he looked over at Bruce. 

“You didn’t text her back?” 

Bruce grimaced. “No.”

Why ?” Tony asked in complete surprise. “I messaged her specifically because I thought she might be able to reach you since... Well, since I was doing such a sucky job at it.”

Bruce’s grip on the steering wheel increased as he swallowed a little, embarrassed. But Tony had to know, had to understand. When you were raised the way he was, it was just... 

“Sometimes it’s hard to remember people actually care about me.” 

He could tell Tony wanted to refute that statement but Bruce was glad he didn’t. Whether it was rational or not, it was how he felt. Especially after dealing with his dad and suffering the backlog of emotional bullshit that just being in that house forced upon him. 

“And you weren’t doing a sucky job. I just... I don’t know. It’s not easy for me like it is for you. To talk about... stuff.”

“I know.”

Again he could tell there was a lot Tony wanted to say, probably a lot of personal shit like how upset he was and how worried and how helpless he felt, but he kept it inside, didn’t put it back on him. He was sure they’d talk about it eventually, later, but he was really, really glad Tony was self-aware enough not to do it right now. 

He couldn’t stop himself from asking after another minute though, cautious and optimistic, “... I really helped?” 

Bruce laughed, glancing over at him and the pleased flush on his face. “Absolutely.” 

“It’s just – you were so good with my dad and I feel like, I don’t know...”

“Tony,” Bruce said seriously, staring out the window and focusing on the horizon so he didn’t have to focus too hard on what he was about to say, “if you hadn’t been there to stop me, I think I would have killed him.” 

Tony didn’t say anything then, a fact for which Bruce was immensely grateful, but he reached over and put his hand on his shoulder, squeezing it in a show of support and Bruce bit his lower lip, reaching back just a moment to cover Tony's hand and squeeze it back. 

“I love you,” Tony said softly and it was difficult to accept such kindness in the face of that kind of admission so he tried not to get fucking weepy about it. 

“I love you, too.”

**

By the time they pulled up to the little suburban split-level ranch Nat and Clint rented, Bruce was more than ready to be out of the car. The drive hadn’t even gone badly he was just tired of Tony’s concerned looks and careful conversation and he just wanted things to be normal again. Tony liked to talk and process things until he felt better again – Bruce preferred to just ignore it. Normally it was pretty easy to distract Tony into leaving him alone until Bruce got over it, but this was nothing like a bad day at work or any of the relatively mundane shit that happened to them in Philly. 

Still – Bruce knew he wouldn’t really feel better until Tony was back to his playful self and he could remember what the life he’d built for himself was really like. And Bruce had a pretty good feeling hanging out with Nat and Clint would help a lot. 

They parked next to Clint’s beat-up Jeep and Tony grabbed his hand for a moment, squeezing it before climbing out of the car. Their place was pretty typical of the other houses on the street – a mix of brick front and white siding with azalea bushes out front and a lawn that was a little overgrown. Bruce let Tony grab their bags from the back and, with only a hint of trepidation, walked up to the white storm door and rang the doorbell. 

He heard a dog bark once and a vague admonishment from Clint as the inner door opened and Nat’s smiling face met him through the window. She threw open the storm door and wrapped her arms around him, hugging him tightly, and he couldn’t help but smile, overwhelmed by how good it was to see her after all this time.

“Hey guys,” Tony was laughing when the dogs ran out before Clint could get there and he moved around Bruce and Nat, punching Bruce in the shoulder with a friendly ‘hey man!’ as he went to wrangle their dogs. 

“Glad you guys made it,” he was saying as he and Tony shook and pulled each other into a friendly hug. “They shouldn’t jump on you – right assholes?” 

Nat and Bruce shared a smile as she let him go at last. Despite being egged on by their owners’ excitement, the dogs were good about not jumping, and even though Bruce didn’t really care for dogs, it was hard not to smile at the dumb assortment they had clearly wanting to jump but knowing better. 

“Come on in, you’ve got to be exhausted,” she said as he opened the door for them. “We got beer or I can make you a drink and Clint’s already got the grill going.” 

They followed her inside, their place as eclectic a mishmash as their dogs. Their living room was a strange assortment of seating – a minimalistic IKEA couch flanked by floral wingback chairs and a glass coffee table with a large TV mounted on the wall. The kitchen was off to the side with a dining area in front of a sliding glass door open to the fenced-in backyard. 

“Since we’re only renting we’ve not really put a lot of work into it,” Nat said apologetically as she led them back to a short set of stairs that led to the bedrooms, the hallway covered in pictures of them and their friends hung by clothespins on string. 

“We don’t really let the dogs into the guest room though, so they shouldn’t bother you,” she continued as she opened the door to it. 

The room itself was rather sparse but there was a bookcase stuffed with books and a miss-matched chest of drawers and a couch bed pulled out and made up just for them with a whole heap of pillows and a brightly colored comforter. Despite being pretty bare it felt super homey to Bruce. 

“The bathroom there just connects to the office,” she explained as Tony dropped their bags. 

“But we’re across the hall, so no hanky-panky!” Clint called up, making Tony laugh and Nat blush. 

“I think we can behave for one night,” Tony teased, bumping Bruce’s shoulder with his own, getting a chuckle from him as she rolled her eyes. 

“Oh my god we’re all adults here – I thought!” 

Bruce was grinning though, already feeling better thanks to the mood they'd created with their positivity and teasing. 

“What do you want to drink? I’ll go make you something and give you guys a minute.”

“Beer is fine,” Tony said and Bruce nodded and she shut the door as she left. 

They used the restroom and freshened up a bit before rejoining them downstairs. Nat put a beer in both their hands as Clint introduced them to the dogs. 

“This is Rat,” he said, pointing to the littlest one, some kind of weird looking long-legged chihuahua mix, “Tiny,” he continued, pointing to a big, gray, box headed pit with a ripped-off ear who’s tail started smacking against his legs gratuitously at the sound of his name, “and Queen Evangeline of the Quarter Acre.” While the others were bouncing around them, Queen Evangeline was sitting on a big pillow in front of the door, a regal-looking German Shepherd who seemed to think showing any more excitement than she already had was beneath her. 

“You named the big one Tiny?” Tony asked as the pit came over to him, nosing his leg in search of pats, which Tony doled out easily. 

“That’s because he thinks he’s tiny,” Nat said from the kitchen as she threw something in the oven. “God forbid Rat looks at him the wrong way, he’s scampering to a corner.”

Clint picked up the little one and rubbed his head so he wouldn’t feel jealous of the attention Tony was giving Tiny. Bruce sat down at the table, watching Nat in the kitchen. 

“What’re you making?” he asked, taking a sip of his beer and trying to relax. 

“We’ve got a classic southern menu for you tonight,” she said with a smile. “Ribs and mac n cheese and broccoli and I’ve got some of that Firefly. Do you have that? Sweet tea vodka?” 

Bruce shook his head. “Maybe, but I’ve never had it. Sounds great – though. All of it.” 

“How do you make the ribs?” Tony asked, his curiosity piqued and Bruce chuckled at him. 

“Oh, Clint got me this sous vide for Christmas,” she said, motioning Tony in to explain her process. 

Bruce stared out the window, listening absent-mindedly to their discussion, watching as Clint went out to fiddle with the grill. Evangeline came over from the window and positioned herself under his chair, laying her nose on his foot, and Bruce was a little surprised. He leaned over and ran his hand through the longer fur on her back a moment, feeling a weird sense of companionship with her. 

“I’m not surprised Queenie likes you,” Nat said with a soft smile that quickly turned mischievous. “She’s always got to suss out the biggest pain in the ass in the room.”

Tony bust out laughing from the kitchen and Bruce mock-glared back. 

“So I guess she’s your dog then?” Tony asked and Nat grinned. 

“You know it.”

Bruce just listened to their back and forth as Tony helped her in the kitchen, bringing the ribs out to Clint to throw on the grill. She brought out a big pitcher of lemonade and set it on the table outside with a bottle of liquor from the freezer and Tony carried out plates, setting the table with her. Bruce took a deep breath as he finished his beer. This was better. 

He joined them on the patio, the temperature of the Georgia spring almost too hot for their Northern blood. But Nat poured him a drink with ice, half lemonade, half of that sweet tea vodka, and they all clinked their glasses and the drink was sweet and cold and it felt good going down. 

“Okay so I’m ready for stories,” she said as she brought out the baked mac n cheese she had made to cool a moment as well as a bowl of roasted broccoli while Clint slathered more barbeque sauce on the ribs. 

“Oh god,” Tony moaned as they shared a look. 

“Okay but you guys are going to have to go through three days of our families, you realize that right?” she laughed. “I think my mom is about to go full bridezilla and she’s not even the one getting married.”

“Should have eloped,” Clint said over his shoulder and she rolled her eyes. 

“Don’t let him fool you – he talked me into this. But I literally texted the band this morning not to take requests from anyone, especially her. She sent me a whole list of ‘vetoed’ songs last night.”

Tony and Bruce both laughed. After what they’d been through, that seemed so... quaint.

“I’m pretty sure Tony’s dad was about to fight me over who was going to be able to leave him more money when they died,” Bruce said quietly with a small, empathetic smile, pressing his knee up against Tony’s under the table.

Tony made a withering face. “He’s so extra.”

“Did he really ask who was the man in your relationship?” Nat asked and Clint laughed in the background while Tony covered his face with one hand. 

“YES,” he admitted, grabbing for his drink.

“It’s okay though,” Bruce joked, reaching his arm around the back of Tony’s seat. “We decided it wasn’t homophobic, it was just sexist.” 

They all managed to laugh at that as Clint brought over a pile of ribs and set it in the center of the table. 

“Unlike my dad,” he added grimly, “who called me a fag straight to my face.”

“Whoa,” Clint said, pausing as he plated himself mac n cheese. “What the fuck ?” 

Tony made a face, squeezing Bruce’s hand. “You have to give him points for creativity though – I don’t think I’ve ever been called a ‘mattress muncher’ before, which is saying something, considering how often I’ve been face down in a mattress.”

Nat grimaced. “No wonder you were upset...”

Bruce shrugged a little, moving his arm from around Tony’s shoulders so he could serve himself. “I knew it would be bad – which is why I didn’t want to see him.”

“He just... showed up?” Nat asked and Bruce frowned. 

“It’s unlikely. I’m sure my mom told him I’d be there,” he admitted and though he was sure she was shooting him a sympathetic glance, he deliberately didn’t look up from what he was doing. 

“Fuck. That sucks,” she muttered and he made a noise of agreement. 

“Yeah I mean – I get it, but...” 

God only knew how badly she’d have been beaten if she hadn’t told him and he found out later.

“Your mom was awesome though,” Tony said optimistically, ripping off a rib. “I really liked her. She has a really understated but wicked sense of humor. Now I know where you get it from.”

Bruce looked over at Tony then and they shared a smile. He really was thankful for Tony’s undaunted positivity when it came to his mom. 

“And I know where you get your everything from,” Bruce laughed back, feeling a little better with the change in conversation. 

“My mom? You think?” he asked, faking innocence.

“Yeah, everything except your penchant for saying whatever the fuck you want no matter who’s around,” he teased, thinking of Tony talking about getting fucked right in front of his parents.

“We are definitely expecting the not-so-modest run-down of Tony’s childhood house, just so you know,” Clint said as Nat blushed faintly, clearly embarrassed by her voyeuristic interest. 

“You should just come up sometime,” Tony offered sincerely. “There is plenty of space.” 

“That is not a lie,” Bruce added, regaling them for a while with the largess of Tony’s parent's mansion as Clint and Nat swapped stories about wedding drama with them. 

It was the first real meal he’d eaten since brunch yesterday and the ribs were really good and the alcohol was way stronger than it tasted and he was rapidly relaxing and letting all the bullshit of the past few days fall away. As Nat brought out a store-bought apple pie and vanilla ice cream, Bruce realized he was way more drunk than he had been in a long time. He was letting the dogs lick barbeque sauce off one of his bones while Clint admonished him and Tony laughed, amused to see him do an apparent 180 on his opinion of dogs. 

“They’ve been so good,” Bruce coddled in a baby voice that made Tony laugh even harder. “They had to sit there and watch us eat these the whole time.” 

“Well if they get sick at least they’ll be at the kennel tomorrow,” Clint muttered but it was obvious he wasn’t really mad.

Tony plated Bruce a way too big piece of pie with a gratuitous scoop of ice cream and Bruce looked over at him. 

“Are you expecting me to share this with you or the dogs?” he asked and Tony leaned over and gave him a quick kiss as Nat refilled his glass. 

“It’s all for you,” he answered with a stupid grin, clearly pretty drunk himself. 

“Now if you really want to do this Southern, you would put a slice of cheese on it,” Nat said and Tony practically spit his drink. 

“And you guys thought I was so awful for ordering snails,” he laughed but Bruce was shaking his head. 

“No, I think it’s Midwestern,” he corrected. “My aunt would always serve it that way.” 

Tony looked over at him like he’d never seen him before in his life. “No!” 

“You voluntarily order pineapple on pizza,” he argued, grinning. “That’s the same thing.” 

“It is not .”

“Fruit and cheese?” 

Tony glared and took a drink and Bruce kicked him playfully under the table. Then he picked off a piece of the pie crust and let Tiny have it. 

“Oh my god you are the fucking worst,” Clint muttered as Nat laughed. “He’s never allowed to have a dog.”

“I’m pretty sure only drunk Bruce likes dogs,” Tony teased as he spooned up a big scoop of ice cream for his own slice of pie. “So unless we go to a shelter wasted...”

Bruce was laughing as Tiny's big thick tongue licked his fingers and it just looked so stupid to him, that big square head and those squinty closed eyes and Rat was in the background looking petulant. 

They both darted off across the lawn though as a loud thunk reverberated through the yard and Bruce’s heart stopped for a moment of unbridled terror before he looked over and realized Clint had thrown a tennis ball straight into the wooden fence. He started laughing at how stupidly startled he had been and then it was just too much, he was overcome, and he couldn’t stop, and even Tony and Clint and Natasha were all laughing with him too.

“What?” Clint asked, truly confused as he wrangled the ball from Tiny’s slobbery mouth and thunked it back into the fence. “I have to get them away from you .”

Bruce wiped at his face and shook his head and tried to eat a piece of pie although he still couldn’t help the little tremors of laughter that threatened to overtake him as he did. 

Tony moved his chair closer then, throwing his arm over the back of Bruce’s, pulling on the back of his hair in that way he liked that always felt so damn good and he closed his eyes and leaned into it, shivering. He was so worn out and hypersensitive that anything Tony did was going to feel good. But this really did. And combined with the cool sugariness of the ice cream and the pie and the sated feeling of having a really big, good meal and laughing ? Being with friends? Friends who knew what they were going through and weren’t judgemental about it and just... Bruce had honestly wanted to just go home but this felt good, too. It felt really good. Really fucking good.  

“So tomorrow we’re going to check-in at the hotel,” Nat said, stroking Queenie’s head where it lay in her lap, “and then there’s a day spa there the girls and I are going to while the guys go pick up their tuxes. Do you want to go with them, Tony?” 

Tony snorted. “No, I don’t want to go to a shitty tux fitting – sorry Bruce.”

But Bruce just waved it away. He didn’t really want to go to a tux fitting either, though that was typically more up Tony’s alley.

“I want to go to the spa with the ladies.”

“Never trust a bisexual,” Bruce muttered with a ridiculous grin that he buried in his plate as Tony laughed and pulled his hair a little too hard. 

“That doesn’t even make sense – I’m going to a spa, not a club. By that logic, I should trust you just as much at the tux shop.”

Bruce gave him a quick kiss. “You can always trust me.”  

“I know,” Tony said fondly, but then looked back up at Nat. “But anyway – if that’s okay.”

“Of course,” Nat agreed easily, making a note of it in her phone. 

“You’re going to get your nails done?” Bruce asked with a silly grin and Tony grinned back, leaning in just a bit. 

“Absolutely.” He spread his hand out in front of him. “Gonna get these working man’s hands pampered.” 

Bruce dissolved into giggles as Tony spooned a piece of pie into his mouth. 

“And you guys are cool with going to the strip club after dinner?” Clint asked, breaking their moment.

“Because my sisters are not coming,” Nat said emphatically. “So you can bow out.” 

“Oh – we’ll be there. I cannot believe you are having a joint bachelor and bachelorette party at a strip club,” Tony laughed as he drank. “That has to be the most genius thing I’ve ever heard.”

“If he’s going to get a lap dance then I’m going to pick who’s giving it to him,” Nat grinned, tipping her glass in his direction

“And I’m going to make sure you get one too,” Tony said with a gleam in his eye, tipping his glass back. 

Bruce listened as they talked about who would be there, where they were going for dinner, but mostly he watched the fireflies float over the fence and zoned out in a drunken haze, feeling good, feeling okay at last. And Tony’s hand was over his shoulder and he would smile when they laughed and there was a part of him that was still hollow, he knew it. He couldn’t ignore it completely. It was always there – always. Even in Philly. But at least it was smaller now, no longer the gaping maw threatening to swallow him whole. 

And when Tony leaned in and nosed his ear, asking if he was ready to go up, he smiled – a real, genuine smile – under the influence of alcohol or not, and nodded his head. 

They said good night, Tony warning them on pain of death or embarrassing stripper incident not to wake them up early and he walked Bruce up, holding his hand. 

Finally, when they were in bed together at last, all of Bruce’s limbs felt heavy but he curled into Tony, tangling their legs together, wrapping his arms around him, sunk into a bevy of pillows and a fluffy comforter, surrounded by only good things. And Tony kissed him softly, again and again, and whispered “I love you” against his lips, again and again, until they were both giggling in the dark. And even though Bruce knew there was shit he still had to deal with, feelings to unpack, consequences to face – it was good again. He was with Tony and it was good.

Chapter Text

Bruce’s eyelashes fluttered against the light, Tony sighing and nuzzling into the side of his face. He was so blessedly comfortable with Tony’s arm thrown over him and Tony's leg locked around his and the pillows surrounding him in the soft mattress that he didn’t want to move a single muscle, he just wanted to lay there in a blissful half-sleep state forever. He had gotten up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom so he didn’t even have to get up and he wasn’t eager to do so. Tony so rarely stayed in bed with him this long... He wanted to relish it. 

Tony’s lips brushed his jaw and Bruce sighed, closing his eyes again, listening to his boyfriend breathing, feeling his lips against the stubble on his face. For a while, they lay just like that but eventually Tony couldn’t help himself and he trailed his lips across Bruce’s jaw to his ear, his warm breath and the touch of his tongue against it making Bruce shiver. Tony whispered soft nothings in his ear as he nosed it, the heavy weight of his limbs on Bruce’s making him feel safe and secure and his stomach felt all tied up in knots like it was when this was new and he wasn’t used to being with Tony day after day after day. 

He was hard but he didn’t mind, pinned in by Tony. It was just how he liked it – torturous and sweet, painful and exquisite – and he was breathing hard, shaky breaths, trying not to moan. Feeling like this, like every single molecule in his body was poised and primed and ready to be consumed by Tony, was by far the best feeling he could imagine. Even if he didn’t come, he just wanted this agonizing delectation to continue until he was dripping and quivering and crying in Tony’s arms. 

Tony’s fingers trailed back over his chest, the barest touch under the comforter, grazing a nipple – and he felt his thighs clench. Tony’s lips slipped down his neck, whisper-light and seeking out every little sensitive spot on his chest – and he bit his tongue. Tony’s leg slipped up along his own, slowly, his knee spreading Bruce’s legs as it traveled up, up, just barely stopping before it reached his dick – and his eyes watered as he pressed his face into the pillows. 

His whole body was strung out and taunt and it felt so fucking good to be so wanton and needy. What Tony wanted when he was hurting was pain and the permission to feel it – but what Bruce wanted? Bruce wanted to feel wanted. Bruce wanted to feel good . Bruce wanted to feel everything

Tony grinned at him as he slipped under the covers and Bruce felt his chest collapse as Tony kissed down it with the most gentle kisses, his tongue edging around his nipples slowly, causing his stomach muscles to tremble as moved down to his hips. Every single breath Tony huffed against his oversensitive skin was almost too much and he didn’t think he could take another second of this without crying out, without touching himself, without something but then he didn’t want it to end. In his mind, he begged Tony not to stop. 

But Tony knew that and he took his time, gently spreading his knees with his hands, pressing tender kisses to the insides of his thighs over and over and over again until they were shaking. Running his mouth softly up to where his nose just brushed his balls and Bruce whimpered as he felt Tony’s mouth kissing soft kisses so close beneath them, all the most sensitive places on his body. He could feel tears of physical frustration and need leaking down his cheeks as he pressed a pillow to his face, gripping it so hard his fingers hurt, knowing he was going to lose it completely as soon as Tony touched him there

“Ohhhhhhhhh fuck ,” Bruce moaned appreciatively into the pillow as his eyes rolled back in his head and one wet finger slid inside his body, stroking hard up against his prostate and making his whole body shake in a singularly embarrassing way but then – it was Tony. And he had nothing to hide from him when Tony had him worked up like this. 

He heard Tony’s little chuckle of satisfaction as his lips ghosted up his dick and he knew he was going to come as soon as Tony put his mouth around him and he was just there, just hesitating as Tony toyed with him, his hot breath on his head, his tongue just barely tapping the tip of it before he lavishly swallowed him whole. 

Bruce had no idea what came out of his mouth as he was incoherent, watching sparks alight on the back of his eyelids, he just hoped the pillow caught it all and it wasn’t too loud. Between Tony’s hot mouth sucking hard on his dick and his finger in his ass grinding against his prostate he came in all of about thirty seconds, a shaking, blithering mess of over-stimulated nerves and raw edges. And when Tony came back up from beneath the sheets he held Bruce in his arms and let him cry into his chest with unequivocal relief. 

“Better?” Tony asked quietly as he stroked his hair and Bruce’s heavy tears flagged to soft, shaky breaths and he nodded against Tony’s chest, feeling silly and exposed and just... 

Loved. And safe. And happy.

They lay there a while longer before Tony got up to take a shower and Bruce dozed off, completely sated. Bruce traded off with him though when he was done, shaving and showering and putting some mousse Tony bought him in his hair to help it curl a little more tightly – a thing he still didn’t feel particularly confident about and only did for what he considered ‘special occasions.’

When he met them downstairs Clint had a stack of pancakes going and there was bacon and they all greeted him with friendly smiles as he sat down across from Tony. Tony hadn’t done his hair or anything at all, wearing a worn t-shirt and cargo shorts, and Bruce always thought it made him look so soft and young and cute. 

“You sleep okay?” she asked as Bruce forked two pancakes onto his plate and Tony added bacon. 

“Yeah – great. Thanks.” 

They shared a smile that was maybe too affectionate but Bruce didn’t care. It was nice to be here, with her, in her house. They were making friends in Philly, slowly, but Nat was different. Nat was his best friend, and this was the first time he’d seen her since they met. Frankly, he was a little jealous Tony was the one going to the spa with her, but he wasn't about to say anything.

“Clint was just saying he’s going to go drop the dogs off after breakfast and then we’ve got a little time to kill before we can go to the hotel and drop off the wedding stuff,” Tony filled him in and Bruce nodded as Clint joined them with the last of the pancakes to add to the top of the stack. 

“Unfortunately we’re in the suburbs of Atlanta – not Manhattan,” she teased, “though I’m sure we could scrounge up some naked cowboys somewhere.”

Bruce blushed at the reference as Tony cackled gleefully through a mouthful of pancakes.

“I think the other guys – Bucky and Matt and Scott, maybe Sam – we’re going to do lunch after getting fitted,” Clint offered as he made himself a plate.

“Oh, Sam is going?” Nat asked with a sly grin. 

It was hard for Bruce to follow because he wasn’t sure who any of those guys were, but he was pretty sure Sam wasn’t a groomsman. Bruce had been included in some group texts when they were setting up the rental – but since he was standing on Natasha’s side, he didn’t make a lot of effort to get to know them. Still, Sam was not a name Bruce recognized.

Nat turned to Bruce with a sly smile as Clint rolled his eyes. “You’ll have to tell me what you think about Bucky and Sam.” 

Tony laughed. “What do you mean by that?”

“She thinks she’s the gay matchmaker over here,” Clint muttered and Nat kicked him under the table – hard enough that he made a sound as she laughed. 

“I’m just saying – why does Sam need to be there?” 

“He doesn’t need to be there –

“Exactly.”

“– but maybe he just wants to hang out. His last contract ended yesterday and he’s ‘working from home’ until Monday.”

“Umhmm, a convenient excuse.”

“To what? Hang out ?” 

“With Bucky.”

“And me .”

“Ohhh, so you’re jealous,” she teased as Clint stopped engaging her, looking over at Tony and Bruce for help. 

“I don’t think it’s really fair of me to give her shit about that,” Bruce admitted with a sorry expression as she grinned quite confidently and snapped a piece of bacon, remembering all the times he had texted her at the beginning of his relationship with Tony for advice or just to vent.

“Tony?” Clint asked and Tony just laughed. 

“Happy wife, happy life, man,” he replied, giving Bruce an affectionate glance. “I’d work on learning that sooner rather than later.”

“Bucky hasn’t dated anyone since he came back from Afghanistan –” Clint started.

“Four years ago,” Nat reminded him. 

“– and if he’s not ready, he’s not ready.”

“Well, that’s fair,” Nat agreed. “But don’t tell me they don’t have chemistry. Besides you and Matt, Sam is literally the only person I’ve ever seen Bucky joke around with.”

“So wait – how do you know him?” Tony asked, trying to steer the conversation towards something more productive, and Clint gave them a rundown of how he met the other groomsmen.

He explained that he, Bucky, and Matt all went to high school together and that they befriended him when he moved down from Pennsylvania. That he and Scott met while working at Best Buy and they kept in touch after he’d quit. That he actually hadn’t known Sam that long and that he was an EPA contractor he’d met at a work event of Nat’s, but they hit it off instantly, the same sense of humor. Bruce definitely felt like he was going to be the odd guy out of that group – but it wouldn’t have been the first time. 

Tony cleaned up the kitchen for Nat after breakfast as Clint rounded up the dogs to take to the kennel and Nat asked Bruce for his help packing up wedding stuff. 

A lot of it was in the office and so they went up there together and Bruce was surrounded by favors and programs and those little colorful polaroid cameras and stacks of photographs. And the office itself was interesting enough, whole rows of paintings leaned against the wall and an easel and a set up for a computer – for references, Bruce guessed. He knew Nat painted but not to this degree, though it felt somehow private so he tried not to stare as he joined her on the floor to start putting together favors. 

“I’m really glad you were able to come,” she said, folding a delicate floral-patterned, laser-cut paper box and sliding it into a stack she had already started. “But... are you really okay?”

Bruce sighed and rubbed at his eyes a moment, having forgotten just how piercing that knowing look of hers could be when aimed in his direction, before picking up a piece of flat cardboard himself.

“Maybe it was dumb to try to go before we came down here,” he admitted, staring at the box as he folded it more slowly than was really necessary, “but it was getting ridiculous. Tony’s parents only live two hours away, he couldn’t avoid them forever, and my mom...”

“No, you had to go,” Nat agreed as he trailed off and he looked over at her, thankful for her support in that decision. “It’s just – I don’t think Tony has ever called me. He was really upset. And then you show up here, smiling like nothing happened?”

Bruce looked back down again. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” she said, touching his wrist and squeezing for just a moment. “You just don’t have to bullshit me, that’s all.”

“It’s just... easier not to think about it,” he admitted. “I mean, I can’t fix it. I can’t change how things are. There’s nothing I can do. And thinking about it just makes me feel worse.”

Nat frowned. “I’m sorry.” 

He just shrugged and added his box to the stack as he picked up another one. "You don't have to be sorry either."

“But you asked her to move in with you?”

Bruce sighed and nodded. “Yeah. She blew it off but I mean, I expected that.”

“I know – but still.”

They were quiet a moment, folding boxes, and then they heard the title screen of Mario Kart come on downstairs and Bruce chuckled.

“Tony actually handled it really well though,” he mused, staring at the little flowers cut into the paper box. “He doesn’t think he did but... he did.”

“Well, it sounds like he's got some experience with assholes,” Nat laughed and Bruce laughed too. 

“Yeah,” Bruce agreed. “It's not quite the same but yeah. Yeah, he does...”

Bruce trailed off and paused for a minute. He knew all that shit about being vulnerable, and he wanted to be, to be close to other people, the people he considered his friends – but it was still hard. He was always fighting his natural instinct to hide. He wondered if he’d ever be anything other than a little boy hiding in a closet, running away to the woods when he could. 

“If Tony hadn’t been there I – I don’t know what I would have done.”

When he finally managed to say it Nat turned and assessed him. He couldn’t meet her eyes – but he knew he didn’t have to. She had to have been able to tell how serious he was from the tone of his voice. 

“I haven’t been that angry in a long time and I – I was ready to hit him,” he said softly, skirting around the truth – which was that if he hit him he never would have stopped. “But Tony – he somehow saw it and completely redirected me. I was so angry and it would have felt so fucking good but... I would have really regretted it if I’d done that. If Tony hadn’t been there, well. I don't know...” 

“No one could blame you,” she said, her voice quiet and kind, and he shrugged and blinked back the misty feeling in his eyes as he focused on the paper in his hands, so delicate and pretty and nothing like the weight of his fists.

“But I could,” he replied. “I don’t want to – to become that .”

Nat set down the box she was working on before moving over to join him on his side of the floor, crossing her legs as she sat next to him and laying her head on his shoulder. Bruce kept working, thankful for having his hands busy so he didn’t have to think that hard about what he was saying, but he leaned into her, appreciating the camaraderie and the complete lack of fear. She hadn’t seen it but... he always felt it. Always kept people at a distance. Didn’t want to open up and show them how fucked up he was on the inside. It was part of what ruined his relationship with Betty. But Tony and Nat? They made him feel okay. They made him feel like maybe he wasn’t as fucked up as he thought he was. 

“You won’t become like that,” she said at last, sitting up a little straighter and leaning over to reclaim her box. 

Bruce made a sound of disbelief but she just elbowed him with a little grin. 

“You won’t because you don’t want to,” she continued confidently, though the smile fell from her face. “My mom... You’ll see when you meet her. She’s gotten a lot better through the years but when she was with my dad? And stressed all the time? God, she was mean.”

Bruce knew that and so he stayed quiet. It wasn’t something she talked about much but he knew they had a rough relationship. She clearly loved her mom and wanted to be close to her but struggled with it constantly as she also tried to protect herself from the memories of her past.

“She never hit me or anything – I mean, she spanked us but like, you know. But she used to yell and shout and punish us for no reason. She used to tell us we were fat and shame us for eating cake at birthday parties and we were never allowed to have candy or anything like that because of how unhappy she was with her own body. It was fucked up, you know? We were kids.” 

“Yeah,” Bruce said, leaning his shoulder into hers a little, not wanting her to feel exposed but wanting her to know he sympathized. “I know.” 

“Now when I get stressed, I do the same shit,” she admitted, clearly embarrassed, hunching her shoulders a little protectively. “All of this mean shit comes so easily to me and sometimes I just have to walk away before it comes out. Especially at work. But it’s worse... with Clint.”

Bruce had finished the box he was working on and he moved his arm behind her, sliding it across the carpet behind her back, not quite a hug but he didn’t want to make her feel trapped. He could only imagine. Tony – even when he got mad at Tony, it wasn’t like he was really mad . Their relationship was still pretty new and they didn’t really fight, not since moving out of Boston. And before, when they were in Boston, it all felt so temporary anyway, Bruce was more depressed when they argued than he was angry. But to be angry at Tony? To feel the desire to hurt him and not be able to stop it? He couldn’t imagine how guilty he’d feel, how painful it would be after the fact.

“This whole wedding thing has been so stressful and my mom has been so involved I’ve been on edge for what feels like months. And I know Clint was just trying to be sweet when he convinced me to do this but – fuck,” she sighed, throwing the box she had accidentally bent off to the side and leaning into him as he brought his arm up to cradle her better. “I’ve had to walk away from him so many times to cool down and I’ve thought so many bad thoughts about him by this point I wonder what the fuck we’re even doing.”

“Hey,” he said softly but she just rubbed her temple in frustration. “You don’t have to do this, you know?” 

“No I – it’s not that I think we should call it off I mean – he’s put up with me this whole year and still claims to love me so I’m probably not going to do any better than that,” she teased and Bruce chuckled to help her feel better even though it was kind of a depressing thought. 

“It’s just – it fucking sucks.” Then she laughed. “Wait – what was my point? I’m sure it wasn’t that.”

Bruce laughed too and dropped his arm as she sat up again, picking up another box from the quickly diminishing stack.

“Oh – my point was, despite all that, I work really hard at it, and even if I feel shitty about it, I feel a lot less shitty than if I were actually saying and doing those things, you know?” 

Bruce thought about that for a moment as he picked up one of the last pieces of cardboard. 

“I guess that’s true.”

“I mean you’re right, you can’t change it,” she admitted. “But you don’t have to become it either.”

And he knew that but... it also felt really validating to have her say it out loud like that. To know that she struggled too. He knew he could talk to Tony, and he did, often, but somehow, having someone else say it, confirm it, explain it to him out loud – it made it feel more real, more true, more possible. And it he found himself breathing a little easier about what had gone down Tuesday knowing that she saw it that way.

When they were done folding boxes Nat opened a big cardboard shipping box and pulled out a cream-colored candle in glass with a tin top and a sticker with their names and the date on it. She opened it and offered it to him to smell, a pleasant combination of citrus and vanilla.

“This is cute, right?” she asked, showing him how the boxes would envelop it. “I guess it’s too late now though so if it’s not, you better lie.”

“It’s very cute,” he laughed honestly, handing her back the candle. 

“Good, because we have to make three hundred and fifty of these.”

“Christ!” Bruce laughed and she smiled back and he was glad they were back to joking again as they got to work.

**

Bruce stood in the tux shop feeling awkward as hell with Clint and his buddies cracking jokes at each other that he could barely follow. He looked good, he supposed – but he really wished Tony were there to have an opinion. Though maybe not, as this was the kind of thing where Tony’s opinion would probably be something outrageous like that he should just buy a tux and have it custom tailored. 

“You happy?” Sam asked as he moved over to his bank of mirrors, taking the pocket square he was holding helplessly as he appraised himself, folding it neatly and putting it in the pocket for him. 

“I guess?” Bruce was younger than all these guys by a good three or four years at least and this was the first tux he’d ever rented. 

Sam smiled at him and adjusted the bowtie, unbuttoned the second button on the coat. Bruce felt like a damn child but he was grateful for the help.

“You can go like that,” he explained. “It’s a little more loose.”

Bruce huffed. “The whole thing feels tight.” 

The suit itself did look good though. Whatever Nat picked was not like what he usually saw in wedding photos. It seemed somehow classier – but then, she was very classy. There wasn’t a vest, it was just a flat white shirt with black buttons. And the tux was black and slimline and straight forward. He figured the fact that he felt uncomfortable in it meant that it was probably right. 

“It’s supposed to,” Sam laughed, clapping him on the back. “I’d say you’d get used to it – but you won’t.”

“Don’t let him harass you,” Bucky said, leaning across the divide between them, looking remarkably attractive with the ridiculous juxtaposition of his scruffy beard and lanky hair against the impeccable suit. “If you need a bigger size they will get you one.”

Bruce didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know if he needed a bigger size.

“I don’t know,” he admitted at last.

“Here.” 

Bucky came around to stand on the other side of him from Sam and even without Nat’s earlier commentary Bruce had already ascertained that their constant sniping at each other was both vicious and weird and he was very sure he did not want to be stuck in the middle of that. So his current position was more than uncomfortable. 

Sam crossed his arms over his chest, side-eyeing Bucky as he moved his hand around the suit jacket, pulling on it for the fit. 

“You even know what you are doing?” 

Bucky glared over at him. “Yes. Lift your arms a little, huh?”

Bruce did as he was told and Bucky watched the way the fabric puckered. 

“You sell suits on Etsy too?” 

“No, but go to enough military funerals and you acquire some experience.” 

Bucky said it with an air of impassivity but it put Sam in his place quick and he looked down, rubbing his neck and clearly feeling like an ass. 

“I think it’s good though. It’s just a slim suit and you’re wider, like me. Tuxes are tight anyway. It’s going to feel tight.” 

Bruce swallowed, trying hard not to look at him. He definitely wasn’t as stocky as Bucky or as built and he definitely did not have Bucky’s ass. The way his thighs filled out those pants was sinful. He really had no idea if Sam was gay or whatever, but Bruce certainly wouldn’t blame him for wanting that if he was. 

An eruption of laughter came from Clint, Matt, and Scott across the way from them and Bucky rolled his eyes. 

“They need a nanny,” he muttered and Sam laughed. 

“I’m falling down on my duties,” Sam replied with a contrite grin by way of apology for his insensitive comment earlier and headed over. 

Maybe Bucky’s eyes followed him a second too long, but Bruce wasn’t invested in that. He shook his head and headed back to his room to get changed. But when he looked in the changing room mirror he paused and took one dumb selfie, for Tony, in case he asked, feeling silly about it and nearly deleting it after the fact. 

He hoped Tony was having a good time. It was a ridiculous thought – of course Tony was having a good time. When they met the other girls he was already flattering his way into their good graces. Really what Bruce wanted was a text from him. It was pathetic, they’d been apart maybe an hour, but he missed him. Maybe he was just feeling sensitive after dealing with his parents.

They paid and signed waivers and whatever, stashing the suits in the car and walking to a burger bar up the street that had some kind of reputation, according to the other guys, but it seemed like any other dimly lit bar with provocative art and a longer than normal local beer list that he’d been to before.

“You gonna get the usual?” Scott asked as they put in their beer order and Bruce perused the overdone menu. Who would order a burger with peanut butter, bacon, and plantains on it?

“And that is...?” Sam asked, clearly the only one of them besides Bruce who hadn’t been there with Clint in the past. 

“Classic Bypass,” Clint answered with a smirk. “Three slices of cheese, bacon, an egg –”

“Because you want to have a heart attack on the altar?” Sam asked again as they laughed. 

“He’ll probably have one of those regardless,” Matt joked and Clint kind of shrugged in agreement. 

“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered for Matt’s benefit. 

“Can’t believe our Clint is settling down so young,” Bucky said with an alarmingly affectionate grin over the rim of his glass considering how rough and dour he seemed. But then Bruce thought maybe he was biasing him unfairly based on the prosthetic arm and the scarring up the side of his neck.

“Pretty sure we all thought you’d be the last of us to get married – not the first,” Matt agreed and Clint looked over at him with a smirk. 

“Just ‘cause no one can put up with you assholes,” Clint shot back and they both chuckled in agreement and Bruce eased up a little. He wasn’t about to watch Natasha get thrown under the bus by her soon-to-be husband. 

“Somehow we both ended up punching above our weight,” Scott said and Clint admitted it was true as the waiter came back for their order. 

Bruce was pretty quiet through lunch, listening to their reminiscing and ragging as they all had years of history with each other. Clint was on some story in which he and Bucky were way out in rural Georgia in someone’s car whose name he didn’t even remember and – 

“– and at some point, his girl, who you know, was objectively pretty hot and definitely could do better than him, is digging through the glove box for some gum and she pulls out a plastic baggie of fucking molly or cocaine or something. Remember?”

Bucky hit the table as he laughed, causing Bruce to jump as Clint shook his head. 

“And she’s like ‘well this is illegal’ and I’m seventeen, remember," Clint continued, "and I’ve never seen any of this shit before, and she just rolls down the window and throws it out and he’s pissed because they could have sold it and I’m looking at you like that gif of Julia Louis-Dreyfus like ha-ha-ha what the fuck?” 

“This is when they decided to go cow tipping right?” Matt asked and Clint shook his head as he took a sip of his beer. 

“No, not yet, we still had a good half hour of following the other car around looking for this fucking so-called haunted abandoned school before they gave up and pulled over on the side of the road by a cow field and decided to go tip them.”

“That guy might have been a drug dealer but at least he wasn’t dumb enough to get shot by running through some hick’s property,” Bucky added with a frown.

“So you didn’t actually go cow tipping?” Sam asked and Bucky shook his head. 

“Hell no. We were obviously good kids who just went back home.”

Clint rolled his eyes with a grimace. “Yeah except that fucking idiot –”

“Buck just said he wasn’t an idiot,” Sam interrupted and Clint glared. 

“That fucking idiot ,” he reiterated. “We got lost trying to get back to the highway in a two road town and spent a good ten minutes circling rural roads until we saw police lights up ahead and this dumbass decides let’s go ask the cops for directions.”

"It's the other car!" Bucky exclaimed, laughing again. “They've got our buddies pulled over questioning them! I remember looking over at Ian in the driver’s seat of the other car as this guy’s girl is asking this cop for directions out of town and he’s looking back at me terror-stricken and I’m thinking like holy fuck, keep your goddamn mouth shut.” 

“The last thing either of us needed was a damn curfew violation or whatever,” Clint groaned. “They already threatened our graduation after they caught us smoking those shitty cigarillos you always got beneath the bleachers at the pep rally.” 

Matt made a defensive gesture at being called out for his part in it. “They were objectively terrible, you should have said no.”

“Okay, but did the other guy say anything?” Scott butted in to get them back on track and both Clint and Bucky shook their heads. 

“No! Miraculously not because Ian had a mouth on him,” Clint said and Bucky agreed and there was a moment where they both just kind of laughed at the memory. 

But then Clint’s eyes were on him across the table and Bruce tried not to swallow.

“What about you, Bruce? What stupid high school escapades did you get into?”

“Oh, I don’t know...” he said modestly, trying not to think about all the shit his friends did in high school. They certainly wouldn’t have thrown any drug out the window of a car.

“You seem like a goody-two-shoes but I have a feeling you could get talked into shit,” Clint continued with a smirk and Bruce sighed, turning his glass on the table. 

“I guess Nat isn’t the only perceptive one,” he said and Clint laughed triumphantly.

“So what is it?” Scott asked as they all looked at him expectantly. “Get caught having sex in a park or...?”

Bruce laughed a little – the best story he had was nothing like that. 

“I really tried not to get in trouble,” Bruce admitted lamely. “MIT was looking at me and I really needed the scholarship and I wasn’t keen on jeopardizing that.” 

Not to mention his dad would have beat him senseless if he got brought home by the cops.

“But most of my friends were not your straight-A students and yeah, senior year they convinced me to go to a house party.” 

“See?” Clint joked but Sam was sitting beside him and he and gave him an encouraging look.

Bruce wasn’t even sure he had told Tony this story, honestly, and it felt weird to say it out loud. He hadn’t thought about it in a long time but he could still viscerally feel the night on his skin, the muffled sound coming from inside the house as he showed up on his bike, the loud argument that was going on between a couple in the driveway. She’d backed her car into the stone mailbox and she was crying about it and he was telling her to calm down which only resulted in her screaming at him and that should have been a clear indication to leave but his friend Charity was pressing him on so he capitulated. 

“I mean, this isn’t a very interesting story – it was pretty much what you’d expect. This guy’s parents were out of town and it was easy to find older kids to buy you cheap beer or whatever – that’s kind of how small towns work. But it got pretty raucous pretty fast as more and more people showed up.”

Really, that was also how small towns worked. Everyone learns everything and everyone shows up because there was shit all to do otherwise. Even the more popular kids would come and be let in with no problem because hey – ultimately they were all in this kind of purgatory together, right? Bruce remembered throwing back shots with the pretty girl he liked who never looked twice at him otherwise, trying to impress her with his ability not to wince at the burn of cheap tequila. 

“I don’t remember a lot because I was trying pretty hard to impress this girl but there were girls in their underwear in the hot tub and a messy game of beer pong across the kitchen table and someone broke a lamp but I don’t know – I followed this girl into the basement,” Bruce laughed, remembering how he was hoping to get kissed, at least, but was also glad to just get away from all those people. 

“Oh, so I was kinda right?” Scott asked and ruefully Bruce shook his head. 

“I told you this story wasn’t that interesting,” he said with a grin. “I was definitely that kid who was permanently in the quote ‘friend zone.’ She just wanted to talk. But I listened. Honestly, that was further than I got with most girls.” 

“Man, this story is a bummer,” Bucky muttered and Clint laughed as Bruce shrugged. 

“I told you,” he repeated with no small amount of amusement. “Maybe I could have made a move but we were only down there a few minutes when we heard everyone upstairs start shouting and running and it was pretty clear the cops had come to bust it up. This was one of those houses where the basement wasn’t fully underground? So there was this narrow little window in the room we were in to keep it to code and I was fucked if I got caught so I opened it and ripped the screen out of it and luckily I was a skinny kid so I barely wiggled through.”

“And the girl?” Matt asked, alarmed, and Bruce sighed and ran his knuckles under his chin, a little embarrassed. 

“I helped her out too though she was wearing heels and I was not willing to wait for her to get her shit together so I left her. I’m not sure if she ever talked to me again after that,” he admitted with a pathetic kind of laugh. “I made it a couple blocks over by running my ass off and then started walking so as not to draw suspicion.

“But, you know, they just broke up a house party with practically every high school kid in the county – they’d never believe I wasn’t there just because I was a few blocks away – and they were canvassing the area for runners.”

“Shit,” Sam cursed under his breath and Bruce turned to look at him. 

“Yeah, I definitely got caught.”

Bruce took a sip of his beer, remembering the feeling of his stomach dropping out when he heard the blip of the cop car behind him and saw the lights reflecting off the windows of nearby houses. He was so totally and utterly fucked. Even if MIT forgave the transgression, which he doubted they would, his father was going to go fucking ballistic. The one time he let his guard down and did the wrong thing would, of course, be the one time the cops were called. 

They all looked at him expectantly and he set his glass back down, looking at the table. 

“I was like a hundred and twenty pounds soaking wet and who knows how many shots I did, I could barely see straight, and I blew a point two six.”

“You’re fucked,” Bucky offered as Sam whistled and Bruce nodded. 

“I was fucked,” he agreed, rolling his glass with his fingers. “But thankfully, my mom knew the cop, and he knew my situation, and he told me to get my ass home and sleep it off.”

What he neglected to tell them was that his mom knew the cop because of all the domestic violence calls and he knew if he brought Bruce home he was going to get beat too. It wasn’t funny. This story was meant to be light-hearted, he knew that, but it wasn’t. And he hated that he got so good at it – holding back just enough, editing his life for other people so they wouldn’t feel uncomfortable. He hadn’t felt this way since MIT. But it worked, and the guys were all pretty impressed by that, murmuring how lucky he was and Sam and Scott clinked their glasses with his and they kind of laughed. 

“I’m sure the hangover the next day was punishment enough,” Clint joked and Bruce groaned, remembering it well.

“It was bad. I’ve not been that hung over again in my life,” Bruce admitted candidly, thumbing the condensation on the table. “I didn’t have another drink until I was well into college, though.”

“So you’re not going to have to spend tonight babysitting Nat’s sisters then,” Scott teased and Bruce huffed. 

“Hardly.” 

“And your boyfriend?” Matt asked with his eyebrows lifted over his dark glasses like he was being interrogated. 

Bruce laughed, the idea of there being nearly anything Tony wouldn’t do preposterous. “Tony? Nah.” 

“He should have come,” Sam said but Bruce just shrugged. 

“Tony does what he wants.” 

“Happy wife, happy life?” Clint asked with an amused little smirk as the waiter delivered their checks. 

“Something like that,” he agreed, swallowing back the last of his beer as he pulled out his wallet. “But trust me – we could both use a night of debauchery.” 

“Good, good,” Sam said, clapping him on the back with a wide grin. “Because that’s exactly what we’re going to have.”

**

When they got back to the hotel Tony was still at lunch with the ladies, drinking some fancy cocktail and eating shrimp over salad and practically glowing. The smile Tony gave him when he caught sight of him walking up... It made all of the awkwardness of the afternoon with the guys melt away and Bruce couldn’t help but smile back, a big and unnatural feeling thing on his face. 

He put his hand on his shoulder but Tony tugged at his shirt, asking for a kiss. So he chuckled and leaned down and gave him a quick peck on the lips, much to Tony’s aggravation, and Tony narrowed his eyes in a teasing little glare. 

“I think we’re going to the pool after this,” he said, glancing around the table to the agreement of the other girls, “if you want to come – or take a nap?” 

“I’ll think about it and let you know when you come up?” 

“Sounds good.” 

It was clear the other guys were going to stay down with them until they were finished but Bruce was socially exhausted and needed the time to recoup before tonight. He was grateful to be back in the room and he hung his tux over the bathroom door before falling into the sterile white bedding. It was a pretty nice hotel all things considered but very corporate feeling. Still, it didn’t take him long to doze off when he closed his eyes. 

When he woke up again it was to Tony’s thumb stroking his cheek, smiling down at him softly, and he took a deep breath in, reaching for his hand. 

“Do you want to come up with us?” 

Bruce nodded and rubbed at his face with his other hand. “Give me a minute?” 

“Of course,” Tony agreed easily, squeezing his hand before letting it go to get changed. 

He rolled over and watched as Tony stripped down, letting the simple act of watching his boyfriend pull his shirt over his head and letting his pants fall to his feet turn him on a little. It was nice, though. It filled him with warmth and it was easier to focus on how Tony made him feel good than it was to think about how awkward he felt with the other guys, telling them personal stories but leaving out all the details, thinking of his mother and how many times the cops had come to their house just to have her turn them away without helping. 

“What?” Tony asked as he dug his swimsuit out of his bag, turning and looking at him, clearly a little self-conscious, and Bruce realized he was smiling and he just laughed and shook his head. 

“Nothing, I – I love you,” Bruce mumbled stupidly and then it was Tony’s turn to laugh. 

“Oh my God are you drunk already?” 

“No!” Bruce defended as he sat up and Tony pulled on his suit – a brightly colored floral number that Bruce found ridiculous but also ridiculously attractive on Tony. “Just... appreciating you.”

“You are drunk,” Tony teased, walking over to him and stepping in between his knees, folding his arms across the back of his neck, staring down at him. “Can’t leave you alone for two hours...”

Bruce eagerly accepted the kiss, kissing back hungrily as Tony chuckled. He was far from drunk and he didn’t really expect anything he just... really did appreciate Tony right then. A lot. And not just because of the way he made him feel. But he went there with him, stood next to him as he faced down the shittiest part of his life, then babied him through a complete meltdown, and he was still there, still wrapping him up in his arms, still kissing him. It felt too big. It felt unreal.

“You smell nice,” Bruce said as he let him go, Tony’s arms falling so that his hands framed his neck, thumbs massaging it gently. 

“This is why I need to be a house husband,” he joked, pulling one of his hands away to inspect it. 

“Yeah, you’d love that,” Bruce replied with a sarcastic lilt but up close he noticed the pearlescent pink nail polish on his carefully shaped nails. 

Like so much that Tony did it was jarring and unbelievably hot. The idea of Tony fingering him with those polished hands was obscene and he nipped at Tony’s ring finger, slipping it into his mouth and making Tony shiver. 

Bruce let him go easily though, knowing Tony wasn’t really in the mood – and neither was he, not really, it was just that everything Tony did was sexy. But he got up to get changed instead, then followed Tony out and up to the pool deck. Tony waved at their friends but they went up to the bar and ordered drinks first as Tony gave him little factoids about the ladies he spent the afternoon with. 

“That’s Carol,” he said as they waited, “the blonde. She went to school with Nat. She’s a mechanical engineer, actually – her girlfriend is meeting us after work. And the one with the dark hair and that sixties fringe? That’s Kate, Clint’s sister – they absolutely have the same sense of humor. Alexis and Taylor are the other two, Nat’s sisters – don’t they all look alike? Taylor is the one with the buzzed off hair.” 

“Yeah, I’ve at least seen pictures of them before,” Bruce murmured. Actually, being closer to Nat, he knew more about her sisters and friends than he did any of Clint’s, though he reciprocated by telling Tony the names of Clint’s friends and little details about them as they walked back with their drinks to claim two seats. 

Bruce didn’t have much interest in swimming and some of the other guys didn’t even have suits with them. Even though he did, Bruce didn’t mind sitting out, listening to Matt and Bucky bitch and watching Natasha and Carol try to take each other down in a ridiculous game of chicken on the back of Clint and Tony’s shoulders. 

It wasn’t long before what Bruce guessed was Carol’s girlfriend showed up because she walked in just in time to see Carol takedown Nat in an epic fashion and she hollered a triumphant cheer across the pool deck. Carol slid off Tony’s shoulders and they high fived before she turned and fist-bumped her girlfriend and they talked for a minute. She was wearing purple scrubs and she went to the bar before heading back over to where they were sitting, greeting both Matt with his name and Bucky with a punch to the shoulder, right above his prosthetic arm, clearly not even remotely intimidated by it. 

She sat down on the edge of Bruce’s seat facing Bucky and Matt but she held out her hand to him. 

“I’m Val,” she said as he took her hand. 

“Bruce,” he said, then added, pointing to the pool. “And that’s my boyfriend, Tony.”

“Ah, the infamous Bruce,” she mused and Bruce felt his face scrunch up in confusion but he didn’t get to ask because Bucky asked instead – 

“You just get off work?” 

“Yeah – and by some small miracle, I got the next two days off too, so it’s almost like a vacation,” she laughed. 

“What is it you do?” Bruce asked, knowing that it couldn't be past four, so she must have a shift schedule like Tony’s, guessing that she was probably a nurse. 

“I’m a physical therapist,” she answered. “I work primarily with kids with severe birth defects and disabilities. That’s how I met Buck.”

They shared a look and then Bruce was confused. He was pretty sure that Bucky lost his arm in Afghanistan, not as a kid, and even then they had to be about the same age, there was no way she would have been his physical therapist. 

“I’m sorry – what do you do?” he asked Bucky, realizing Bucky was the only one of Clint’s friends that Bruce really had no idea what his profession was. 

Bucky kind of laughed, like he was embarrassed. “What don’t I do? Primarily I 3D print cosplay props and sell them on Etsy.”

Bruce blinked, completely shocked by that response. It put Sam’s Etsy comment in perspective though. 

Val was rolling her eyes though. “He’s so modest – he also makes custom prosthesis for kids, a lot of my clients actually, and charges them almost nothing.”

Really ?” Bruce asked, even more surprised, and Bucky shrugged a little. 

“There aren’t too many jobs out there for young vets missing an arm with complex PTSD and no leadership experience,” he muttered, obviously sensitive about it. “But when I was getting fitted for my first prosthesis, I learned about how expensive and difficult it was for kids because they are always growing out of them and how 3d printing was revolutionizing that industry and I thought, you know – I could do that.”

“And he’s really good at it,” Val added with an affection smirk. “Something about that personal experience I guess.”

“And you just, what? Went to hospitals asking if this was something they needed?” Bruce asked, really intrigued by this story.

“Oh no, we met in a Facebook group, actually,” Val laughed.

“I was trying to ascertain the need and how to reach people so I joined a lot of groups and asked around.” 

“There are several big, well-financed hospital groups in Atlanta – Northside, Wellstar, Children’s, plus we’ve got Emory. I work for Children’s,” she explained. “So it really wasn’t unlikely that we met. I talk to parents every day who are struggling constantly financially to get their kids the care they need. Bucky is really changing the physical reality of a lot of people.”

Bucky didn’t say anything, he just looked away to the pool where they had given up their game and were talking with Sam who had his legs over the edge, dangling them in the pool. 

“I honestly never thought about this before,” Bruce said, turning his glass in his hand, trying not to further embarrass Bucky with his enthusiasm for that idea. “That’s really cool. And you met Carol through Bucky...?” 

Val laughed. “Kinda, yeah – Nat hooked us up.”

Bruce laughed then, an honest thing he quickly tried to stifle. Clint hadn’t been lying about her being the gay match-maker. But his laughter got Tony’s attention from the pool and he waved him over and Bruce set down his glass with a sigh, excusing himself. 

“Hey,” Tony said, smiling up at him as he came over and stood next to Sam by the edge of the pool. “You coming in?” 

“I wasn’t planning on it,” Bruce admitted, but he couldn’t help the little smile that curled on his lips looking down at Tony. “Might get another drink though.”

“Help me out?” Tony asked, holding up his hand, and in retrospect, Bruce would realize this was a dumb mistake, but at the time, he didn’t think much of it – he held his hand out and leaned over, reaching for Tony. 

Next thing he knew he was choking on water and fighting his way to the surface, completely shocked and breathless and mad

“What the fuck?” he sputtered out and as his senses came back to him he realized everyone was laughing. But all he could see was Tony’s smiling face and with everyone laughing he couldn’t really be angry but he was still pissed. 

In one quick motion that took Tony completely by surprise, he grabbed him by the back of the head and quickly shoved him under. He might have held him there a moment, feeling like Tony deserved it, but just as Bruce was going to release him Tony grabbed his swimsuit by the waistband and yanked it down. 

“Shit!” he cursed, releasing him instantly and throwing himself backward as Tony came up for a breath, nowhere near as disoriented as Bruce had been despite being surprised by his attack. 

Tony lunged towards him and splashed down hard, reaching for his legs and trying to pull them out from under him beneath the water and though he didn’t succeed, he tripped Bruce anyway, and he fell back, trying not to laugh as he went back under. Tony reached for him, ostensibly to help him out, but when Bruce’s hand hit his, he grabbed Tony’s arm and full body climbed up it, hand over hand, reaching his shoulder and dragging him back under the surface.

When they finally disengaged they were both out of breath and laughing too and though Tony tried to approach, Bruce backed away and splashed him in the face, not willing to get drug back down when he was trying to catch his breath.

“I’m not going to get you again,” Tony laughed, wiping his face with one hand but Bruce was still on the defensive. 

“Promise?” he asked foolishly and Tony lifted his hands in the universal sign of surrender. 

“Promise.” 

Bruce eyed him just a moment more before taking a hesitant step towards him and Tony met him in the middle, giving him a hug, and Bruce couldn’t deny the power of that hug and he gave him a quick kiss, too. 

“You having fun?” Tony asked quietly and Bruce breathed out an affirmative, his chin on Tony’s shoulder before they let each other go. 

“I don’t want to be in here though,” he laughed, making his way to the edge, and Tony followed him out, followed him to the bar where they got another drink, and then followed him back to his seat.

He introduced Tony to Val and settled in, listening to them talk a moment before Carol came over to steal what was left of Val’s drink and he reached for Tony’s hand and Tony reached back and they shared a little smile, knowing that this was good. They were good, they fit good together, they fit here, and when they got home again things would be just like they were again. It would be okay. Everything that had happened at the beginning of the week? That wasn’t their real life. This was much closer.

Chapter Text

Everyone was a little buzzed by the time they decided to go down and get ready for dinner but it felt good and Bruce felt good. They showered together to get the chlorine off and Tony did his hair for him, running his fingers through it with mousse, the contact feeling delicious against his relaxed nerves. And they stood there naked in that big white bathroom and Tony used his hand like a diffuser as he blow-dried it softly, twisting curls around his fingers as he went to get them to hold. 

Tony didn’t often do his hair like this because frankly, Bruce never cared. But being the sole focus of Tony’s attention that way always felt special and different. It wasn’t like anything else – not like sharing a meal or kissing or making love. It was more like he could see himself as the best version of himself, the person Tony saw. 

“Thank you,” he said gently as Tony switched off the hairdryer and played with his hair another moment, smiling at him with that easy, soft smile of his that still made Bruce’s stomach a little floaty and funny feeling. 

They kissed and Bruce stepped out to get dressed and let Tony do his own hair, putting on the outfit Tony had picked out for him before they left. A light purple shirt and heather grey pants with a black and white checkered tied of Tony’s and a heavy silver clip that he thought was a little much for him personally but sometimes he did like to dress for Tony. And he indulged him this time.

Bruce sat down on the bed, sipping at water as he channel surfed a little, expecting it would take Tony some time to do his own hair and get ready. But when Tony did eventually leave the bathroom, Bruce was floored. 

He was wearing that same white pinstripe and floral shirt he wore to dinner with his parents, with a pair of tight black slacks and a skinny black tie. His hair was swept to the side in a perfect high coif, his beard trimmed impeccably, but his eyes? His eyes were lined along the top and smoked out with black kohl, making them look even bigger, and his lips were stained a bit deeper red, standing out on his face, and he exuded this androgynous masculinity that was inherently captivating and painfully attractive and Bruce stared at him in such a way that made even Tony blush. 

“Is it okay?” he asked uncertainly and Bruce laughed, standing and wanting to ravish him, stopping just short and holding his hands out, uncertain because he didn’t want to wreck it.  

“You look –” he said, awed, and Tony chuckled, still blushing. 

“Bad?” 

“No,” Bruce breathed. “ Amazing .” 

He kind of wrapped his arms around Tony’s waist gently, pulling him into his body, kissing his neck as he melted against him, his arms around Bruce’s shoulders, holding him close. They had been through so much and he knew Tony needed this – the ability to express himself so openly, to play with how he looked and who he was and be accepted for it. Though Bruce knew this and would never turn him away, he was also truly, honestly into this look. And Tony had to know that. 

“You take better selfies than me,” Bruce murmured in his ear, nipping at it with his teeth. “Take one of us?” 

That was probably the most flattering thing he could have said and Bruce could practically feel Tony’s pleasure at having been asked. He made them stand in the bathroom where the light was better and snapped a few shots of them, Bruce with his arm tight around Tony's waist, maybe a little too possessive but he didn’t care. 

Sometimes being Tony’s boyfriend was like sticking his finger in a light socket and so often he found himself completely overwhelmed by the charge of his own emotions. It wasn’t even Tony’s fault – he never gave him any reason to feel jealous or selfish or... anything like that. His eye never strayed, he only ever built Bruce up but... Just looking at him? Tony was way out of his league and he knew it. And not only was Tony crazy attractive, he was also wealthy and smart and talented and Bruce? Just looking at them in the camera – what did he have to offer? 

He knew Tony hated that he thought that way and in Philly, it was easier not to – when he was the breadwinner and he was making technical strides at work and he felt in control. But after the beginning of the week, after being beaten down by Howard and seeing his own father it was like he’d been reset and he felt small beside his boyfriend, felt like he didn’t really deserve him, that if he loosened his hold for just a second Tony would slip through his fingers forever. 

But he tried to shove it aside, tried to remember that Tony was with him , that the faint bruise on Tony’s neck was his , that they owned a house together and were building a life together and that Tony had no doubts about him whatsoever. That Tony trusted him completely. 

“You wanna see if anyone is already in the lobby?” he asked and Bruce agreed, feeling both like he didn’t really deserve to stand next to Tony let alone hold his hand and afraid to let anyone else see him looking so fantastically hot without Bruce's hand firmly staking its claim in Tony’s own.

Tony just smiled over at him as they took the elevator down, clearly unaware of how conflicted Bruce was feeling because to him Bruce had nothing to worry about. And he leaned in and gave Bruce a quick kiss, the kind of sweet little thing that made his heart beat faster like a damn middle schooler with a crush. He wondered if Tony would always make him feel like this. The masochistic part of him never wanted it to stop. 

Carol and Val were just settling into seats in the lobby when they stopped and waved across the way. Val looked amazing in a slinky silver number that emphasized her hips and Carol wore tight-fitting black leather pants and a white shirt with an open black vest and a black homburg hat over her blonde hair.

“Straight women take so painfully long to get ready,” Val opened as Tony offered Bruce the accent chair next to her and he took it. 

“Straight men are probably worse,” Tony said with a laugh, sitting down on the arm of Bruce’s chair and reaching for his hand, lacing their fingers together. 

“Oh my god, right ?” Val replied, her eyes growing wider with disbelief. “I dated a straight guy once – what are they doing though? I don’t usually wear a full face of make-up but I could do a full beat and he’d still be dicking around with a tie.”

“A mistake I'm sure you won’t make again,” Carol added with a smirk and Val glared up at her affectionately. 

“Had you dated other women before?” Bruce asked a bit self-consciously but curious despite himself and she laughed. 

“Oh yeah, I’ve always preferred women to men – I just had a momentary lapse of judgment a couple years ago.”

Tony laughed and then cupped a hand around his mouth, leaning in conspiratorially.

“I’m his first,” he whispered loudly and both ladies cracked amused smiles as Val pat him on the knee. 

“Aww a gayby,” she teased and Bruce blushed, embarrassed to admit Tony was only the second person he ever dated at all so really his ratio was one to one.

Thankfully Bucky, Matt, and Sam all showed up together, laughing through the lobby and joining them to wait on the others and rescue Bruce from his embarrassment. And then it wasn’t long before Clint and Nat showed up with their sisters and Scott and his girlfriend Hope who must have joined him after they left the pool. 

Nat asked if they were ready in a flattering black and white two-piece dress with a square-necked top and pencil skirt and lead them out to where a party bus was waiting. Even at prom no one rented anything like that where he was from and he couldn’t help but laugh. 

It was all black and red inside with one long circular cushioned bench seat that stretched along every edge and a sound system that was set up for streaming with dim mood lighting and he slid in next to Bucky and Tony sat next to him and then there was Clint and Nat. She was setting up her phone to stream some playlist and a Pointer Sisters dance remix started and Tony threw a casual arm over his shoulder and Bruce rested his hand on his thigh affectionately.

After a minute Clint pulled out a couple of vape pens from his jacket pocket and elbowed Tony in the arm to get his attention. 

“You ever use one of these?” 

Tony lifted a brow and laughed at him. 

“You’re one of those guys ? What flavor is it? Pina colada?” 

“It’s weed,” he laughed back and Bruce could feel Tony’s body language change immediately at that and he leaned over and snatched one out of Clint’s hand. 

“So how do you work this thing then?” 

“Press the button when you draw in,” Nat was saying as Clint handed one across the way to Val and to Scott, keeping one for himself. 

“Georgia legalized weed?” Bruce asked in surprise as Tony took a drag of it and Nat laughed. 

“Oh no, Georgia would never,” she said, accepting Clint’s from him. “But it’s decriminalized in Atlanta so they can’t really do anything about it.”

He could smell a faint hint of pot as Tony blew out vapor but that was it and Bruce took the pen from him with some skepticism. 

“You can’t really get that high on these anyway,” Clint offered. “Not like, you know, edibles when suddenly you’re like fuck .”

“I can tell that’s never happened to you,” Tony teased as Bruce took a drag, surprised by how smooth it was but not feeling much.

“Oh yeah, because I'm definitely the most responsible guy,” Clint laughed as Bruce offered the pen to Bucky. “I’ve definitely never stood there crying at two pieces of bread for not being a sandwich.”

“That wasn’t last week?” Bucky asked as he leaned across Bruce with a laugh, handing him back the pen as Sam turned it down, claiming he got drug tested too frequently at work.

“Oh, you’re one to talk,” Clint rolled his eyes and Bruce watched him level a steely glare at his friend as he sucked on the pen. 

“I lost a fucking arm you bastard,” he growled and for a moment he and Tony were silent, watching Clint’s reaction when they were sitting between the two of them, afraid of a real fight.

But Clint burst into laughter and even Tony started giggling, clearly unsure whether that was even appropriate given Bucky really did lose an arm but unable to stop himself. It was only a beat though before Bucky was laughing too and Bruce felt himself relax again. 

“I do smoke a lot,” Bucky admitted to Bruce, obviously a little chagrined. “But it’s the only thing that really helps the pain.”

It was just one small comment but Bruce was so surprised by the blunt honesty he didn’t even have a response. Tony was talking in his ear, saying “remember that time we got Steve high,” and he couldn’t focus on either one of them. 

But luckily no one held it against him as he took back the pen. Really, the atmosphere was up in the bus, and the restaurant wasn’t far, and it was fun to listen to Tony tell his stories to Clint and Nat and Scott and Hope and listen to Sam and Matt rag on Bucky and watch Val and Carol tease each other. Bruce still wasn’t the kind of person who required being involved to feel it – sitting on the sidelines was just as enjoyable and Tony rubbed his knee and smiled at him and it was more than enough to feel involved.

And he was also feeling pretty good physically by the time they got to the restaurant. Tony pocketed the pen as they headed into the fun looking Latin tapas bar, strung with lights and hip signage, with a dance area that was quiet given it was a Thursday and an enclosed patio where they were seated at a long table. Nat made the decision that couples should sit across from each other so Bruce found himself between Nat and Val and across from Tony but it was kind of nice to sit across from him and get to look at him looking so beautiful and handsome.

They ordered drinks and Nat’s friends Frank and Karen joined them right before the waitress left, quickly putting in their drink order as they sat down. To Bruce, they seemed an odd pair – her flighty and birdlike with a kind smile and him with his serious face and solemn eyes. But then Tony kicked him under the table for staring and he turned back to his boyfriend giggling.

Everyone decided to order a couple of things each and share them but honestly, everything on the menu looked good to Bruce right then. It was late and he was buzzed and he made Nat help him pick his options so they wouldn’t order the same stuff. Tony had seemed to hit it off great with Carol and they were laughing over their drinks after placing their order and Bruce smiled at him from inside his drink. It was so good to feel better. He loved him so much. He loved to see him happy, like this. 

“So where are you guys from again – Boston?” Val asked and Bruce turned towards her. 

“We met in Boston, at school,” he replied. “But we live in Philly now.”

“Oh, that’s right, you went to MIT,” she said and Bruce nodded. “There’s a lot of gay nerds at MIT?”

Bruce laughed. “I don’t know.”

“That’s right – gayby,” she teased. “Well, then how did you meet Tony? He went to MIT?” 

He looked back over at his boyfriend then back to her. “Don’t let his good looks fool you, he has a degree in aerospace engineering.”

“Shit,” she said as she sipped her drink, truly seeming surprised by that. “You won the lottery, huh?” 

“I like to think so,” Bruce admitted with a blush, feeling way too forward with his emotions but also feeling like he didn’t really care. “Plus he can cook.”

“Hey Car, you hear that?” Val asked across the table, pointing at Tony next to her. “That one’s an engineer and he can cook. What’s up with that?” 

Carol just shrugged and leaned back in her chair, cocky as hell, and Bruce could see why Tony had instantly hit it off with her. “You go on down to Georgia Tech and see if you can wrangle up a boy who can give you as many back to back orgasms in one night as I can. I’ll wait.”

Tony immediately burst out laughing as Bruce followed a moment later, watching Val – who didn’t seem that difficult to embarrass – hide her face for a moment in her hand as she laughed too and Bucky looked over at them. 

“Excuse me what now? How many orgasms?” Bucky asked as Val looked at the ceiling. 

“Oh lord here we go!” she exclaimed, making prayer hands and shaking her head as Carol leaned across the table at them conspiratorially. 

“Twelve times,” Carol said, looking at each of them in turn. “Twelve. That’s the record so far, anyway, but I’ll keep working to beat it.”

“Not fucking fair,” Tony muttered as Val was quick to point out –

“It’s not like that every time!” 

“Yeah, but what’s your average? Four? Five?” Carol teased, clearly enjoying watching her girlfriend squirm. 

“Oh my god, I regret saying anything.”

“Just remember that next time we’re microwaving hot dogs.”

Tony snorted and Bruce giggled and Nat turned towards them with a tired expression. 

“Is Carol bragging about her sexual prowess again ?” 

“Don’t be like that,” Carol teased as she poured herself more beer. “You could have had it at any time. Everyone thought we were banging anyway.”

“Yeah, it wouldn’t have been hard,” Nat laughed, looking over at Bruce with a bored expression. “She was absolutely terrible in college. All the guys hated her. I think it was a game for her to screw as many supposedly straight women as she could.”

“Sounds familiar,” Bruce laughed, glancing over at Tony and he made an offended expression. 

“Hey!” 

“I distinctly remember you having an argument with Steve where you said something to the effect of 'given enough time you could get any guy to sleep with you.'” 

Tony shrugged a little as Carol and Val laughed at him. “But if it’s true...”

“How long did it take him to get to you?” Val asked, nudging him, and Bruce felt himself flush. 

“Three and a half years,” Bruce admitted with a laugh. “That wasn’t his fault though – I was just dumb.”

He gave Tony a fond look and Tony rolled his eyes. 

“You weren’t dumb ,” Tony argued but Bruce shook his head. 

“He invited me to a gay club when we met but I turned him down without even realizing he'd asked me out,” he confessed to Val as she snickered. 

“Naive, maybe,” Tony conceded as they laughed. “But I thought it was cute.”

Tony reached his hand across the table and Bruce took it shyly, feeling really exposed but really happy and he knew he was smiling in a super dumb way but he was a little high and a little drunk and he didn’t care too much. It was nice like this. When they were with their friends. When they were safe. When they were happy. 

“Look at these kids,” Val laughed as she motioned to the waiter for another martini for both herself and Nat. “How long have you guys been together?” 

“A year and a half?” Bruce replied as he dropped Tony’s hand and reclaimed his glass. 

Val and Carol shared a look that Bruce couldn’t read and he looked between them curiously. 

“What?” 

“Nothing,” Val replied with a teasing smile and Bruce’s grin widened a little, self-consciously. 

“What?” he asked again and she laughed. 

“Nothing!”

He let it drop as their food arrived and they ate and drank and talked and poor Clint got razzed quite a bit by Carol regarding his ability to keep Nat satisfied – which Tony began to join in on given his position between them, much to Bruce’s amusement. But thankfully Bruce found himself in an interesting conversation about the potential viability of stem cell research with Val and Bucky until Sam rolled his eyes and told them they were all nerds.

“Don’t you work for the EPA?” Val asked and Sam laughed. 

“Yeah but I don’t do the boring stuff – I get to tell stuffy old white guys they’re wrong all day.”

“Okay, valid,” Val replied with a smirk. “I would love to get to tell off old white guys all day.”

“Still a nerd though,” Bucky said and he thumbed the stubble on his chin as he smiled over at Sam. “Got your little book of EPA rules, handing out citations like a middle school hall monitor on a power trip.” 

Even Sam laughed at that and it was impossible to miss the affectionate little glare he aimed at Bucky. Nat was right, Bruce realized. Sam totally had a crush on Bucky. And despite their constant running argument, he wasn’t entirely sure Bucky didn’t have one back.

“You look like the type,” Carol added as Sam grinned and leaned back, shaking his head.

“I am far from a boy scout.” 

“ROTC,” Carol said and his eyes slid over to hers, obviously a little surprised by that call-out. 

“Clint told you.”

“Nope. Me too. National Guard,” she said, flashing him a genuine smile and he held his hand out for a fist-bump. 

“Hey – me too!”

They had a moment discussing their reserve status or whatever – Bruce wasn’t as interested in following along as he was interested in polishing off the plate of spicy shrimp sitting near him. Though he was interested in Bucky’s suspicious absence of opinion despite having been military himself. In fact, Bruce realized Bucky had excused himself from the table entirely. 

But by the time he came back they had moved on to another topic and the momentary tension Bruce felt eased as they finished dinner amicably. And he was nice and drunk by the time they were headed out, standing under Tony’s arm as he sucked on that vape pen, staring up at the stars, weak in the city with light pollution but still feeling vast and dark and warm and wonderful and from a distance he realized Tony was laughing at him. 

“What?” Tony asked and Bruce just shook his head a little, still staring up. “What’s that face for?” 

When Bruce finally looked over at him his feelings were all so close to the surface he laughed and he kissed him, wrapping his arm around his waist and his hand on his neck, like they were in a cheesy romance but – weren’t they? Tony was so dashing and handsome and sweet and he swept him off his feet, gave him everything he had ever wanted, bought him a house, sat with his hand in his as he asked his mother to move in, stood beside him through everything and – and – 

“Are you guys coming?” Nat called laughing and Tony pulled away as they realized everyone had pretty much gotten on the bus as Nat’s sisters’ Lyft had arrived and Bruce flushed but he didn’t really want Tony to move away from him. 

“Come on,” he murmured, leaning in close. “We can finish this later.” 

Bruce shivered, loving when Tony talked to him like that, all dark and confident, and so Bruce let him lead him by the hand, sitting at the door near Nat and Clint and Scott and Hope.

“We’re going to try to find a hot light,” Nat said and Bruce blinked, feeling like he missed something. 

“Donuts,” Hope clarified to the two out-of-touch Northerners. 

“Donuts?” Bruce asked as Nat blew a thin stream of vapor from her bright red lips. 

“I’ve got a craving.”

“But to be fair,” Hope added, “if you’ve never had a Krispy Kreme straight off the conveyor belt, you are truly missing out.”

“It’s a donut,” Tony giggled but Scott was shaking his head. 

“No, it like – it melts in your mouth and it’s just,” he made a face then where he rolled his eyes back in his head and Tony lost it. Bruce knew what he was imagining and laughed beside him as Hope made a particularly hopeless look with her eyes.

“Luckily he has other good qualities.”

It took a little while to find a place that was actively making donuts but when they finally found one Bruce and Nat left the bus to get two boxes. Bruce definitely thought that seemed like overkill given how much they ate at dinner but Nat assured him it was not. 

“I’m pretty sure this is like some kind of Northern sacrilege,” Bruce joked as she took the first box and opened it, handing him one basically straight from the belt. 

“Have one.”

He did as instructed, the sticky glaze still warm and instantly adhering to his fingers. As soon as he bit into it the whole thing was exactly like Scott had said, it melted in his mouth like cotton candy and it was such an overwhelmingly pleasant and unexpected sensation for a donut he knew he made just as strange a face as Scott did and Nat was laughing. 

“Worth it?” she asked and he agreed, shoving the rest of the soft, malleable dough into his mouth and licking his fingers.

Nat took her own as they headed back to the vehicle, passing them out amongst her friends, and Bruce took another and Tony took one too and Bruce watched, giggling, as he took a bite and admitted they were pretty damn good, asking Val to pass their box back his way.

“The Clermont Lounge is like an Atlanta institution,” Scott was explaining to them as they polished off the box of donuts eagerly. “It’s been around since the 60’s. It’s not like any other strip club you’ve been to.”

Tony gave him a look. “Meaning?” 

“The strippers are old ,” Clint laughed and they turned to look at him, Bruce unsure if he heard him correctly. 

“Not all of them, obviously, but they have some old standbys,” Scott continued as they looked back to him, “and frankly, it’s fucking impressive.” 

“And way more chill,” Nat added. “It doesn’t attract the same kind of pissy boys other places can.”

Clint was nodding. “It’s a way better experience.”

“Plus they just finished refurbishing the entire hotel above it ,” Hope said, clearly excited. “There are supposed to be a bunch of cool bars in there and retro art...”

Bruce chuckled and elbowed Tony, knowing his love of art deco.

“It’s definitely supposed to be a serious upgrade from the last time we went,” Nat agreed. “It was pretty seedy.”

“Yeah but it was supposed to be seedy,” Clint argued, obviously unsure about these upgrades.

“The club wasn’t that bad,” Hope interjected, “but the area around it?”

“That’s how Atlanta is though,” Clint added with a frown. “Ponce used to be swanky but I guess it’s on the up and up again now that they decided to gentrify it.”

Nat started to laugh and then Clint couldn’t help laughing too. 

“You can be such a bastard.”

“But it’s true ,” Clint argued as Scott said,  “That’s what we love about him.” 

Bruce leaned into Tony a little more as he laughed at them and Tony turned and kissed him on the forehead and Bruce squeezed his hand a little tighter. 

Even though the club was open they stopped by one of the bars in the newly renovated hotel at Hope’s insistence that really was gorgeous and very retro. It was done in shades of blue with plush, crushed velvet bar stools and blue and cream arced wallpaper behind the bar and the drinks were all inspired by different bourbons and to Bruce it all had a distinctly “southern” feel. 

Tony was clearly feeling pretty good and he moved away from him and between conversations in a way that Bruce had gotten used but he was still feeling needy and he was glad when they moved downstairs to the club. 

The club was definitely something – part strip club, part dive bar, part dance club – and it wasn’t as busy as Bruce assumed it would be on a Friday or Saturday night. But it was still pretty active, they were just able to get seats near the bar more easily than Bruce would have anticipated they could.

There was a bar at both ends of the long stage where there was a middle-aged woman covered in tattoos and not much else performing a series of pole stunts and Tony slid into his lap, tucking his face up into Bruce’s neck and laughing. 

“This is terrible,” Tony gasped through his laughter. 

He knew Tony had been to gay clubs that were pretty risque but neither of them had ever been to a strip club before and even then, drunk and high, it was a pretty ridiculous experience. Bruce laughed with him, wrapping his arm around his waist, feeling good that Tony was back in his arms again. 

They ordered a couple rounds of shots and drinks though Bruce honestly didn’t know how much more he could take. The room was smokey and it made him feel light-headed and the whole atmosphere was different than he expected even despite what Clint and Scott had said – more alternative and trashy than classy with a much higher female to male ratio than Bruce would have expected in terms of patronage – but their group turned out to be a popular draw for the strippers as they were a large rowdy party who were already drunk and in a good mood.

While Bruce definitely appreciated a good looking man – especially the one sitting in his lap – he still found himself more attracted to women and the whole idea of going to a strip club intimidated him because he had no idea how he would respond. But their friends had been right – most of the strippers were older, more confident women, heavier than what he’d imagined, not trying to be sexy as much as they were trying to be fun. Plus there was Tony sitting in his lap with his arm around his neck and his nose in his ear between sips of his drink with his fingers clandestinely sweeping across his nipple over his shirt and it was difficult to think too far beyond that.

Frank, who looked like such an asshole, the kind of guy who would have pushed him around in the locker room in high school, turned out to be far more forward and friendly than Bruce would ever have imagined in this environment. And his girlfriend sat next to him, laughing into her hand as he bought Matt a lapdance with a lot more cash than was probably necessary. 

“What’s with the dark glasses baby?” she asked with a laugh, wrapping her hands around his neck. “You blind?”

“Yes ma’am,” he replied with a shit-eating grin. “Tell me, are you a ten?”

They all laughed gratuitously at that – she was definitely not a ten but she was a solid six and she was fun and happy to be there and none of them cared. Her friend squished herself in between Bucky and Sam, the only other two obviously single guys there, as Frank was explaining to another stripper that Nat and Clint were getting married and handing over even more cash. 

Tony grabbed them both a shot from the table and handed Bruce one and they taped the little plastic cups together as was their ritual and downed them quickly. Whatever they’d ordered burned on the way down and Bruce winced but Tony quickly slipped their cups together, setting them back on the table and then covering Bruce's mouth with his own. 

Bruce was already hard and having Tony in his lap like that, hot and sweaty, kissing him with a hand on either side of his face like he was trying to merge them together into one thing, was a real lot more than he was capable of resisting right then. He was kissing him back just as hard, his hands on Tony’s back, feeling the way his shirt was already sticking to him. If Bruce had been sober, he would have been embarrassed – but he wasn’t. He wasn’t at all. He needed that. He needed Tony like this. 

“Let’s go get a room upstairs,” Tony whispered in his ear and he could feel his own hips rock just a little against Tony’s ass at the suggestion, wanting it more than anything but shaking his head no as Tony kissed him. 

His hands kneaded at Tony’s shirt and Tony just kissed him another minute before his lips made his way back to his ear again. 

“Let’s go to the bathroom.” 

Bruce laughed out loud and he pulled him back down by the neck into another kiss. He debated it – really considering it. He was so hard and fuck – he was sure they wouldn’t be the first people to fuck in the bathroom here. They were far from the only gay guys making out here right now. But he wanted more than that. He wanted... sinking into bed and rolling around together naked and falling asleep in each other's arms and all that cheesy shit. He wanted to feel loved. Really, really loved. Not like a quick fuck in a bathroom. 

Tony whined when he realized Bruce wasn’t going to give in and punched him weakly in the shoulder. Bruce was chuckling at his petulant little scowl though, somehow cuter with the black eyeliner that was slowly becoming smokier and more faded as the night wore on. His hair was wilting across his forehead and he looked like something out of a slutty fashion magazine. Bruce kissed him again, but it wasn’t quite as intense, and Tony deflated a little now that he knew it wasn’t going anywhere right then. 

Bruce was vaguely aware that Clint and Bucky were doing shots placed between strippers’ breasts and that Nat and Carol and Val and Hope were headed to the dance floor where a local band was playing classic covers. But he was pretty drunk and it took a minute before he realized his hand was between Tony’s legs, on his thigh, rubbing it slowly and Tony was leaning back into him with his arm around his neck again, breathing shallowly into his shoulder. 

He watched as Sam folded dollar bills to slip them into the g-string of the stripper who was now firmly seated on Bucky’s lap. He watched as Clint and Scott joked with the stripper between them, her pouring PBR slowly into their mouths and laughing as they choked and sputtered after as she moved the can, teasing them. He watched as Karen slid into Frank's lap and made a pretty decent impression of him and Tony making out. He watched as Nat danced with Hope, closer than he would have expected, Hope’s arms around her body as they grinded to the beat... 

And then he realized Tony was trying to nudge his hand closer to his dick and Bruce looked at him, tapping his nose with his to get his attention, and Tony’s big eyes opened to look at him, tired and hazy and full of lust. Bruce kissed him a little as he ran his hand up hard against his dick, palming it through his pants, and Tony gasped, pleasantly surprised by the indulgence, and then laughed at himself and Bruce laughed back against his lips and he didn’t care. He didn’t care. 

There was a general cheer from the bar and they looked over to the walk and there was an older dark-skinned woman with a bright blonde wig – Bruce was sure it had to be a wig – crushing proffered empty cans between her large breasts to the delight of the crowd at the bar.  

“Oh my god,” Tony mused as they watched her smile down and talk to the young guys handing her up cans with dollar bills and it was really an experience. 

“Do you want to dance?” Bruce asked after a moment but Tony completely ignored the question, bringing his other arm up to wrap both arms around Bruce’s neck, holding him close. 

“I love you so much,” he said, so earnestly in his drunken state that Bruce started laughing. 

He couldn’t help it. It just came out like that but Tony glared at him in offense.

“Shut up! I do .”

“I know you do baby it’s just – you’re drunk.” 

“So?” 

“So.” 

“I love you so much ,” he repeated but Bruce was still giggling and he squeezed Tony tighter. 

“I love you so much,” Bruce replied and Tony pulled his hair. 

“Don’t mock me.”

“I’m not mocking you.” 

“You called me baby and you never call me baby and now you’re mocking me.”

“You are my baby. Look.” Bruce moved his arm from Tony’s side to beneath his knees and Tony started laughing. 

Bruce made like he was going to pick him up just like that and he gasped out a wild “no!” and clung harder to Bruce’s shoulders but Bruce knew he was too drunk to pull it off so he fell the few inches he managed to stand back into his seat, laughing and kissing him again. 

The woman in the wig was performing a series of splits that were impressive for a woman even half her age and they watched, laughing, and Bruce was enjoying it but then Nat and Carol were coming over, trying to drag them onto the dance floor with them. 

Bruce felt everything moving in skips and beats as he followed Tony out there. He remembered Tony up against him, rolling his hips, kissing his neck. He remembered holding Nat by the waist, her head thrown back against his shoulder, grinning up at him. He remembered watching Tony dance with Carol and Nat, sandwiched between them, moving so naturally as Val brought her arms around his waist, laughing in his ear. He remembered doing shots at the bar with Frank and Clint and Bucky. He remembered Tony laughing at him as he began to hand out cash to every stripper he passed, tucking bills into panty straps and laughing with pure, unfiltered amusement every time. But it felt like it was all in a dream and he was disconnected from it but it was a wonderful dream and he didn't care. 

He wasn’t even sure when they got back into the bus but he was shoved between Bucky and Sam and he felt an acute sense of panic until he realized that Tony was across the way braiding Val’s hair as she repeatedly tried to smack his hands away, amused. 

Feeling suddenly sad and lonely without Tony there, he pulled out his phone against his better judgment and messaged his mom how sorry he was and how much he missed her and how he hoped to see her again soon. Since it was so late he knew better than to wait for a reply and he blinked away tears as he put his phone back up, not wanting to be That Guy and start crying about the things he couldn’t change just because he was drunk and feeling vulnerable. He wished Tony were closer and he looked back up for him, wanted to see if he could squeeze in next to him and hold his hand, but Karen must have noticed his failed attempts to get Val to agree to let him be her hairdresser because she switched seats with Matt to let Tony play with her hair. 

Bucky obviously saw his distress though because he threw his arm over his shoulder in a move that surprised Bruce.

“Your boyfriend is a man of many talents,” he teased and Bruce looked over at him slyly. 

“You have no idea.” 

They both cracked up at that and Bruce tried to turn off his brain and just enjoy the music and the camaraderie. By the time they arrived back at the hotel, Karen had her hair done in an elaborate fishtail that Bruce had no idea how Tony pulled off as drunk as he was  and he was more than ready to get back to the privacy of their room. 

The group’s attempt to be quiet as they wandered through the lobby was pitiful at best and Bruce was trying to stifle his laughter at everyone else trying to stifle their laughter and he was glad Tony seemed to remember their room number and even more glad when they broke off from the others on their floor and made it back to the room. 

Bruce let his pants fall to the floor carelessly as he took what had to be the best piss of his life and then began unbuttoning his shirt as he left the bathroom. The room was cool on his bare skin and it felt amazing and Tony was already out of his shirt by the time he crossed the room and he stopped what he was doing to wrap his arms around his neck and pull him into a drunken kiss. 

“We've got to get this off of you,” Tony teased as he helped unbutton his shirt, sliding it off his shoulders so that he was naked and Bruce smiled against his lips, tugging on his pants. 

He wasn’t as horny as he’d been at the bar and he was pretty sure Tony wasn’t either but he was beyond ready to be in bed with Tony and feel his body pressed up tight against his own. But then Tony unbuckled his own belt and unbuttoned his pants and let them fall to the floor and Bruce’s stomach lurched. 

Tony’s half-hard dick was tucked up tight in a pair of black lacey women’s panties and Bruce swallowed as he touched his hip with trembling fingers, suddenly wanting nothing more than to mouth across that lace. 

“Do you like it?” Tony asked softly as he put his hands on his shoulders, leaning in and Bruce nodded quickly.

“Oh yeah,” he breathed as he leaned in and kissed him, his hand running around to the back of Tony’s ass as he pulled him in close, running his fingers across where the lace met his skin, kneading his cheeks with his fingers, feeling his own dick get hard against the lace. 

“Will you spank me again?” Tony asked after a moment and Bruce pulled away to look him in the eyes. 

He expected to see some kind of hurt there, was scared Tony was in a dark place, that he was hurting and Bruce missed it behind his cheeky facade. But there was nothing on Tony’s face but a mischievous grin and his eyes were shining and Bruce laughed. 

“Okay,” he agreed, his palm on Tony’s cheek, thumbing at his bleary eyeshadow and kissing at his smirk. 

Bruce could feel Tony kiss him harder a moment, running his hands down Bruce’s body, to his hips and up between them, leaving Bruce gasping as Tony laughed and darted to the bed. 

He stalked over to him with a grin and climbed over to him, grabbing him around the waist and kissing his shoulder, kissing down his back. Then he leaned back on his heels, running his hands along Tony’s perfect ass, loving how he looked in those panties, loving the way he could see his balls tucked up in them, such a beautiful juxtaposition. And he couldn’t help running a finger up under the edge again, feeling his heart rate climb. 

But he pulled his hand away then and brought it down flat on Tony’s ass, watching the way the flesh jumped back and listening to Tony moan. He couldn’t help but giggle as he did it again and Tony started laughing then too as he caught his breath. 

“You have no idea how good that feels,” he said and Bruce hit him again and he groaned between their laughter. 

Bruce watched as his head fell between his arms on the bed and he grabbed a fistful of his own hair. He spanked him again and again and it was so surreal, laughing and moaning and everything felt far away and painfully close all at the same time and he rolled Tony onto his back, planting a fist on either side of his chest and staring down at him. Tony’s face was flushed and he was smiling so wide Bruce thought for a minute that his heart might burst.

“You’re the best,” Tony said and Bruce felt it all the way through his body and he kissed him senseless before dragging his mouth all down Tony's body. 

He reached those panties and he sucked at Tony’s dick through them just like he wanted and he wasn’t sure whether he or Tony was moaning louder. Bruce reached a finger beneath the lace, fingering him a little, teasing him, and the panties were soaking wet with spit by the time he sat and leaned over Tony. 

“Is it okay if I fuck you?” 

Tony laughed and then Bruce laughed at him laughing and Tony agreed easily and Bruce found the lube and condoms in their bag and Tony had shed himself of the panties by the time he returned. 

He wanted it but they were both so drunk they were laughing through Bruce prepping him and when he finally got in he just collapsed on Tony for a minute, kissing him and laughing with him and it felt so good emotionally but he was so numbed out by the alcohol he couldn’t feel much of anything physically at all. Even his lips were numb. 

Bruce fucked him hard and fast but he was struggling to get off and Tony was trying to be sexy, trying to moan. But when he opened his eyes and looked up at him and promptly burst into laughter, Bruce stopped, sweaty and sore and defeated but still smiling. 

“Come here,” Tony asked, grabbing Bruce's hands from off of his own hips and pulling him down into a kiss and Bruce slid out and flopped down next to him. 

“This is the worst sex we’ve ever had,” he sighed and Tony looked at him and laughed and it was throaty and real and Bruce couldn’t help but laugh back, easing his frustration. 

He turned over and put a hand on Bruce’s cheek and kissed him again, rolling his hips against his but there was no urgency anymore and Bruce concentrated on kissing him until they both just stopped, breathing hard. 

They lay there a moment before Bruce groaned, realizing he had to get up and throw away the condom and probably get some water or something but he didn’t feel like moving. Still, whatever responsible part of him was still sober enough to be heard forced him up and Tony whined. 

“Where are you going?” 

Bruce grabbed a bottle of water from the counter and threw it at the bed – hearing Tony curse – as he dropped the condom in the trashcan below and brought his own back. He could hardly walk a straight line and he was beyond grateful to be back horizontal as he slid closer to Tony who was still playing with himself half-heartedly. But when Bruce joined him back in bed he stopped and grabbed Bruce’s hand, putting it on his hip. 

“Drink your water,” Bruce admonished but he ran his hand across Tony's hip affectionately anyway and Tony listened, though Bruce doubted it was going to do that much to prevent their hangover tomorrow. 

“I love you,” Tony murmured, curling his face into Bruce’s neck as he giggled. “And, you know, just so you know – I’d have bad sex with you for the rest of my life.”

Bruce laughed and reached for his hand, squeezing it tight and kissing his forehead. “Good.”

Chapter Text

Bruce got up to stumble to the bathroom at some ungodly hour and found himself throwing up. And as he brushed his teeth, bracing against the sink as he still felt drunk, he swore off shots for the rest of his life. He hated throwing up. Twice in just about as many days was too fucking much.

He crawled back into bed, feeling pitiful but hoping that maybe at least he hadn’t woken Tony. However, as soon as he stopped moving Tony reached over and stroked back his hair.

“You okay?” he asked softly and Bruce groaned.

“I’m never doing shots again.”

Tony chuckled. “Yeah, I’m surprised I didn’t wake you up half an hour ago. But I left you some aspirin and some water.” 

“Lifesaver,” Bruce murmured as he turned over, sitting up enough to take it and glancing at the clock which read 7:30 am. But considering it was probably three by the time they got back to the hotel, Bruce was glad for the heavy hotel curtains that kept the room dark. 

“Oh shit,” Tony said as Bruce lay back down and he couldn’t understand why Tony was getting out of bed. 

“Are you okay?” he asked, worried Tony was going to be sick again but Tony just dug around in his clothes for a minute and came back with the vape pen. 

“Maybe I’ll be able to fall back asleep now,” Tony said as he climbed back into bed and they shared it for a minute. 

He felt better just laying there, very still, listening to Tony breathe, and after a few minutes as the pot kicked in he still felt like shit but at least he didn’t feel so nauseous. 

They eventually fell back asleep and the next time Bruce looked at the clock it was just past noon but at least he felt human. Bruce stared over at Tony, sleeping so gently, and he slid over into him, pressing his face into his ribs and wrapping his arm around his waist and sighing.

“Hey,” Tony said after a minute, running his fingers through Bruce’s hair and pulling and Bruce shivered. “I feel a little better.”

“Me too,” Bruce murmured, squeezing him a little, enjoying the warmth and feeling him breathe. 

“Wanna get some lunch?” Tony asked and Bruce nodded. 

“In a minute.” 

Tony scrapped his nails across his scalp and pulled his hair for a minute and it felt so good he didn't want to move. But he kissed his side and up his chest to his mouth, smiling up at him. 

“Will you wash my hair?” he asked and Tony grinned at him, tangling his fingers in his hair and kissing him. 

“Sure baby.” 

Tony took another few hits off the pen before they took a leisurely shower together. Tony really took his time with his hair and massaged his neck and shoulders and Bruce preened under the attention. He was sure Tony’s hands on him really was the best thing in the world. He didn't know how Tony could make him feel so loved so easily, he just... He did. 

And Bruce really was hungry by the time they dressed and he was sure Tony was too and so he picked up his phone to look at restaurants in the area and winced when he remembered the drunk texts he sent his mom last night. 

“You wanna go see the biggest fish tank in the world?” Tony asked as he flopped down on the bed half-dressed, scrolling through his phone – but Bruce was staring at the series of texts he’d received from his mom over the course of the morning.

Are you okay?

Please call me if you need to. You know I’ll always answer for you. I love you.

I hope ur okay. 

I love you. Please let me know ur okay when you get a chance. 

Bruce?

He sighed and sat down, unsure of what to say. It was embarrassing for him to admit how drunk he was to his mom ... he felt like she expected him to have more control than that. Especially after, well. Especially after seeing his dad again. It really didn’t look great. 

“Hey – have you heard anything I said?” Tony asked but he was obviously amused and Bruce just sighed. 

“No, give me a minute,” he replied honestly as he opened up a text. 

Hey – I’m sorry.

Yeah, that was obvious he figured as he hit send. This was going to require some elaboration. 

I’m okay. We went out to a party last night and I got too drunk and I was just thinking about how much I missed you.

I love you and I miss you all the time and I wish it hadn’t been years since the last time I saw you.

But it’s okay. I’m okay. I know that’s how things have to be.

Love you.

He set his phone down then, not really wanting to wait for a reply to all that, and instead crawled across the bed to give Tony his full attention. 

“Now – what were you saying?” 

As it wasn’t far and there were a lot of restaurants in the area they decided to Lyft down to one since they were both starving and walk back after. Though before they left he asked Tony to send his mom a selfie of them on the balcony, overlooking what was as good a view of the so-called Atlanta skyline as they were going to get and Tony was thrilled to indulge him and be given permission to text his mom after their fight about it.

Tony brought the vape pen and they definitely indulged in that, with nowhere to be and no responsibilities until the rehearsal at seven. And they ate bison burgers at Ted’s – laughing as they turned the proffered cocktail list upside down – and then walked over to the aquarium. 

“It’s supposed to have the biggest tank in the world,” Tony said, clearly excited and repeating what he'd said earlier, but Bruce really had no expectations whatsoever and found Tony's excitement endearing. 

“I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever been to an aquarium,” he mused and Tony balked as he handed over the tickets to the attendant. 

But instead of saying anything snarky, Tony just grabbed his hand and pulled him in close, laughing. 

“I love that I get to be your first.”

“Shut up,” Bruce laughed, pushing him as he grinned and they were pressed into one of those green screen photo ops.

They stood there patiently for it and Tony took the ticket slip but Bruce couldn’t even imagine what that picture would look like, buzzed as they were.

“No, but seriously,” Tony continued, reclaiming his hand as they stepped up to a jellyfish tank and Bruce studied the wispy appendages of the ethereal creatures with interest beyond just being high. “I really like getting to do things for the first time with you.”

“Good,” Bruce smiled as he looked up at him and squeezed his hand, “because it’s a long list.” 

Truthfully, he liked that Tony had done so much. It might have been frustrating to someone else that Tony was so much more worldly, but not Bruce. New experiences that might have caused him anxiety never really did because Tony always knew what to do or say or, at the very least, what to expect. Tony always had his back. It was just one of the multitudes of things he loved about him. 

They emerged from that short hallway into a cavernous open area with different themed corridors that Bruce found instantly overwhelming. He really had no idea just how huge it would be inside. Thankfully, being the middle of the day on a Friday, it wasn’t terribly crowded, but still. The impression the long but intimate entrance had given was nothing like what it was like inside. 

But Tony just took one look at his dazed face and laughed and lead him into the area called “Ocean Voyager.” The theming was pretty intense but as they stepped onto one of those slow-moving conveyor belts Bruce was completely stunned. 

Tony was staring up at the large blue tunnel above them, intently searching for something, but there was just so much of... everything. Every fish Bruce could imagine. Manta rays as big as he was and equally huge sea turtles and coral and reef of every description and sawfish with long, spiny noses and angelfish of all colors but then Tony gasped and jerked Bruce's hand and pointed. 

“Look!” 

Bruce looked up where he was pointing to this giant, hulking, speckled behemoth floating towards them. 

“It’s a whale shark,” Tony was saying, which Bruce knew, somewhere in the back of his mind. “This is the only aquarium in the United States with one. They’re my favorite.” 

They watched as it swam right over them, Tony’s grin unstoppable, and Bruce was honestly more enamored of him than he was the fish but still – it was pretty impressive none-the-less.

“So that was your first time then?” Bruce giggled as they watched it move away and Tony jabbed him in the side, laughing with him. 

Bruce was actually honestly surprised by just how much Tony knew about ocean life, supposing he must have had an interest in the ocean beyond just sailing. After reaching the end of the conveyor they walked down a hallway and into a huge viewing tank and sat there for a good half hour as Tony talked at length about whale sharks and sea turtles, sneaking hits together off the vape in the dark blue room. Tony was always good at rambling on topics that interested him, and Bruce was always more than happy to listen, but he leaned into his shoulder and held his hand and even though he was normally a very good listener he found all he could think about was how handsome Tony was and how smart he was and how much he loved him.

“Don’t fall asleep on me, babe,” Tony teased and Bruce chuckled. 

“I would never fall asleep listening to you,” he said and Tony rolled his eyes, tugging his hand and standing. 

“I know you’ve fallen asleep on me before,” Tony accused as they walked out and Bruce laughed. 

When ?”

“When I was trying to practice that thesis presentation!” 

“I did not ‘fall asleep,’” Bruce argued, grinning at the way Tony was grinning at him about a time in their relationship they rarely ever discussed because of how difficult it was.

“Yeah, that’s what you said,” Tony chuckled and Bruce elbowed him. 

“It was one in the morning, I was resting my eyes,” he joked and Tony hip-checked him and Bruce stumbled, dragging him with him and they both felt ridiculous, getting curious and concerned eyes from passersby but laughing anyway. 

“Yeah yeah, resting your eyes,” Tony teased back as they regained their composure and moved on to the tropical area of the aquarium. 

Bruce appreciated that section even more than the giant whale shark. It was so bright and colorful and it felt really good and warm and sunny. And Tony dropped his hand but wandered excitedly from exhibit to exhibit, reading the informational panels to him as if Bruce couldn’t read himself, amusing Bruce to no end. He took a picture of the viewing tank for his mom after reading her messages about how she was glad to hear he was okay and that she loved him too. 

Then Tony took him to see the otters and the penguins and the beluga whales and they sat and watched them for a while as Tony waxed poetic about how fucked up it was that they were so smart but they were trapped in there and that people were taking up so much space but that people were more of an invasive species, not the only so-called intelligent one on the planet.

Bruce nodded mournfully until he trailed off and then Bruce said softly, “I guess I’m not the only environmentalist.”

Tony looked over at him and they were both so serious about it that it was kind of hilarious and they laughed at how serious they were being and Tony kissed him and it went all up his spine. And he kissed him back, standing in front of that glass tank of hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, until they were asked to move on by a bored and frustrated employee and they both walked out, embarrassed but giggling to each other. 

They wandered around a little longer, joking about stuff in the gift shop and sharing little kisses and laughing each time, teasing each other about getting caught before finally wandering out into the muggy Georgia afternoon. It looked like rain and they didn’t feel like walking anymore so Tony got them a Lyft back. But it was hard for Bruce to keep his hands off him, feeling good and high, and he was glad for the privacy of the hotel room where he wrapped his arms around him and kissed him just as much as he wanted to. 

And Tony was just as receptive, making out like love-drunk idiots, stumbling back into the bed for a minute and laughing and Bruce didn’t even care he just wanted to lay tucked up tight against Tony, with his legs between his, kissing him, kissing him, kissing him... 

“We should set an alarm,” Tony said as he pulled away for a moment, his palm on Bruce’s face, his breathing heavy. 

“So you can fall asleep while I’m literally making out with you?” Bruce asked back, flushed and irritated and wanting Tony back on top of him. 

“No – but I might fall asleep after you suck me off,” he teased and Bruce shoved him, laughing as he rolled over to grab his phone and set an alarm. 

But when he rolled back over Bruce eagerly brought him back into his arms, unbuttoning his pants and sliding them down his hips. He heard and felt Tony’s sudden intake of breath as moved down to suck him off and Bruce grinned. It didn’t matter how many times they did this, Tony still wanted it, always wanted it from him. 

“Oh yeah, baby,” Tony purred and he ran his hand through his hair as Bruce sucked at his dick. “You’re so fucking good to me.”

He loved the way Tony’s hips pressed slowly into his mouth, the way he pulled at his hair, the way he groaned out curses when he came and the way his body twitched with the aftershock of a really good orgasm. And Tony always loved to kiss him afterward, loved to take his face in both hands and taste himself on Bruce’s tongue and run his lips over his, swollen and wet.

Tony was such an attentive partner, even when he might have wanted to just zone out in post-orgasmic high, he made sure to take care of Bruce too, sucking him off until Bruce’s fingers curled in the pillow beneath his head and he was panting and whining and rocking his hips. Bruce always felt like he came just when Tony wanted him too, like Tony had more control over his body than he did, but he couldn’t be bothered to care – he trusted Tony completely. 

Bruce came sputtering into his mouth, moaning out his name like a prayer, reaching desperately for Tony with clawing hands. And Tony obliged, laying against him and kissing him soundly until they fell asleep against one another, tangled up in each other’s arms. 

**

When the alarm went off Bruce was not thrilled to have to get up. Of course – that was the inherent risk with naps. Tony was warm and pliable beneath him and he just wasn’t ready to give that up. 

Thankfully the ballroom was just across the street so they waited until the last possible moment to get ready before heading over, meeting Carol and Val in the lobby on the same nearly-late trajectory that they were on.

Carol and Val were treated to a retelling of all Tony's favorite moments at the aquarium as they walked across the street, feeling drops of rain start to fall as they hurried into the ballroom. 

Even though the space wasn’t done up as the wedding wasn’t until tomorrow, it was still impressive. ‘Wow,’ Bruce mouthed to Tony and he nodded as they walked through the lobby and into another waiting area before they were even in the event ballroom. 

When they finally made it into the ballroom though Bruce was suitably impressed. The chairs were set up for the ceremony, although they weren’t decorated yet, and they formed two long rows down to the altar. There were tall Greecian columns on either side of the room and a huge chandelier in the middle and the ceiling was coffered and beautiful and truly, it was a grand and gorgeous space. 

He knew Natasha’s mom went a little overboard but this was beyond Bruce’s ability to believe. Despite having been prepared to ask Betty to marry him, he hadn’t really imagined much beyond that. But certainly, if he had he wouldn't have imagined this . It was overwhelming.

The wedding planner was explaining that they would have flower petals all down the aisle and tall flower vases of white roses with a flower-covered arch at the altar and Nat was nodding dutifully but she looked exhausted. He figured the woman standing next to her had to be her mother, an overbearing presence with a frown on her face. Clint’s parents, on the other hand, stood towards the back, just watching what was happening from the background. 

Although he hadn’t really talked to Carol much, Bruce shared a look with her that they both immediately understood and he touched Tony’s arm to get his attention. 

“Hey, you’re fine here, right?” he asked and Tony chuckled. 

“Yeah babe, I’m fine everywhere ,” he teased back and Bruce rolled his eyes and left with Carol to stand by Nat’s side.

She shot them a grateful look of relief just for being there. Bruce had stood down enough parents this week that there was pretty much nothing Nat’s mom could throw at him that would intimidate him and Carol didn’t seem like she was intimidated by much of anything either. But from this vantage point, it seemed more like she was brutalizing the poor wedding planner with questions and that was clearly upsetting and embarrassing Nat – though at least her mother's negative energy wasn’t aimed directly at her.

To her credit, the wedding planner took it in stride, likely used to such treatment, and after a moment asked if the bridal party was here to practice the walk. Nat confirmed they were after glancing around the room and doing a quick headcount, and that at least got Nat out of her mother’s vicinity.

“I’m going to fucking kill her,” she muttered under her breath as they headed towards where their friends were talking amongst themselves. Carol threw her arm around Nat’s shoulders and squeezed for a moment.

Tony and Val sat in the audience together with Hope as they practiced. Bruce walked with Kate at the end, after Matt and Alexis, and they spent some time figuring out how to make sure Matt got where he needed to go as Nat’s mother rolled her eyes over and over again, clearly irritated by it, imaging Matt’s disability ‘ruining the ceremony’ or something. He was thankful Matt didn’t know but at the same time, Bruce was getting pissed just watching her. He couldn’t imagine how Nat felt.

But thankfully the wedding planner had enough experience that the rehearsal otherwise went smoothly and they were shown to where they would be getting ready and explained the overall timeline and then sent on their way. Which in this case meant going to dinner down the street. 

Thankfully it had mostly stopped raining during the rehearsal so they walked down to The Melting Pot without getting too wet – though Nat’s and Clint’s parents took their kids and their cars down – and they were seated in a private party room set up explicitly for them. Bruce pointedly tried to get a seat further from the center where, presumably, the parents were sitting, and Tony didn’t care as he wanted to continue a conversation he had been having with Bucky about military aircraft anyway. 

Bruce looked to Carol who was clearly trying to position herself in such a way that she could be beside Nat but it was awkward because her parents were divorced and obviously not on great terms so they wanted to use Nat and her sisters as a buffer between them. The best Carol and Val ended up doing was sitting across from her and her mom, a position Bruce did not at all envy and was thankful they took up. It was going to be difficult enough not to stare down the table at them the whole time but he hoped maybe Bucky and Tony would prove enough of a distraction. 

He was sitting across from Clint’s sister Kate at the end of the table and as they had just spent the past twenty minutes together walking down the aisle they had developed a little bit of a rapport and he was grateful for that. Bruce really knew nothing about Clint’s parents seated next to her but he figured he could make it through an hour and a half. Kate smiled over at him as Tony was growing more animated in his conversation with Bucky, dragging Clint’s dad into it. 

“Have you ever been here before?” she asked and Bruce rolled the handle of the fondue fork on the table a little. 

“Ah, no,” he admitted. “But my ex? She had a fondue pot she liked to use. But she only ever made chocolate in it.” 

For whatever reason, Betty thought it was super romantic, and although Bruce never really understood why, he had to admit the way she laughed overfeeding him strawberries and marshmallows dipped in melted chocolate was pretty cute. 

“We came here when I graduated high school,” she said. “The cheese is my favorite.”

Thankfully their waiter came to take their drink orders, though Bruce decided sticking with water for one day probably wouldn’t kill him, and apparently so did Tony. Looking over at his boyfriend, he kind of wished Tony had worn those panties tonight instead when he would be sober enough to really enjoy them. Not that he hadn’t but – 

Tony must have felt his stare because he took a breath from the conversation that had morphed into something about Howitzers and looked over at him curiously and squeezed his knee, asking silently if he was okay. Bruce just smiled and nodded and tried to pay attention, though military machinery was only a topic that interested him briefly as a kid. 

By the time they got to eat Bruce was actually hungry and he had to admit the warm, gooey melted cheese on bread was really good, and he looked over at Kate who gave him a knowing grin. 

“I told you,” she said as she popped a piece into her mouth. 

“I wonder why Betty never put cheese in hers,” Bruce mused as he speared another piece of bread on the long but tiny fork.

Tony overheard him, laughing. “Because she always had those elaborate cheese and meat boards at her wine parties instead.”

Bruce supposed that was true. It had been a while since he thought about those parties. Part of him thought he should message Betty and see how she was doing. Last he heard she had taken a job at CalTech. 

He looked down the table at Nat and the way she was clearly trying to ignore whatever her mom was saying and he tried to imagine doing this with Betty’s parents and his mom. If his mom would even be able to come. His chest felt tight just thinking about it. He looked over at Tony. God – would Tony’s parents be better or worse?

Luckily Kate was saying something to distract him and he tried to lean into the conversations around him so as not to get lost in his own thoughts. Marriage wasn’t something he had thought a lot about after breaking up with Betty. His relationship with Tony was still pretty new and he was just enjoying what they had. Their house, their jobs, their life together. They were young and he was trying to appreciate that. Everything had seemed more desperate with Betty – he was just trying to hold on to what little he had with her. With Tony he had everything and it just didn’t feel that pressing or necessary. 

But between being here now and Howard asking about it, it seemed like his mind kept spinning back to it and he looked at Tony again as he laughed at a joke he had made, happy and smiling and so handsome and – sure, Bruce couldn’t imagine anything better at that moment than spending the rest of his life with him. But didn’t they have the rest of their life to make a decision like marriage ?

Thankfully though, the conversation around him remained pretty light and though the dinner was longer than he would have liked, it ended amicably with Clint standing to thank all of them for being there to help them celebrate the beginning of their life together and Bruce was happy to see Nat smiling up at him with a look of soft admiration, especially in light of her admission yesterday about how angry she’d been at him. But Bruce knew how it could be to be so caught up extraneous shit that even loving someone you loved seemed impossible. 

Then, to Bruce’s surprise, Tony was standing and grinning over at Clint. He had that open, confident look about him that Bruce found so irresistibly attractive. But he had no idea what Tony was about to say and he knew Tony could be something of a loose cannon – though at least he hadn’t been drinking. 

“I know Bruce and I are kind of like the new kids on the block around here,” he started, giving Bruce a quick smile before turning back to Nat and Clint, “but I just wanted to say – ever since meeting Clint and Nat over Christmas Break last year, they have been nothing but the kindest and most supportive friends to Bruce and I. And I know I speak for both of us when I say how much that means to us personally.”

Tony’s hand fell to his shoulder and squeezed it a little and Bruce turned his eyes from Tony to Clint and then Nat, nodding his head in agreement.  

“We had the distinct honor of being there when Clint proposed and honestly – it was gorgeous. It was New Years and the clock had just struck midnight and we’re at this club on top of the W South Beach and fireworks are going off all up and down the beach and there’s confetti raining down on us and Clint says the most romantic thing I can imagine saying at midnight on New Year's Day – that he doesn’t want to spend another year without her.” 

Bruce watched the way Nat and Clint looked at each other then, blushing and happy recalling that memory. Even Nat’s difficult mother had her hand on her mouth, eyes shining at how sweet that was. And Bruce put his hand over Tony’s on his shoulder, remembering how much he had wanted that too – a ridiculous thought when they had only been sleeping together for a week but then here they were now, over a year later. So maybe not so ridiculous after all. 

“So I guess I really just wanted to say – I can only imagine how difficult marriage can be at times, but I hope that the light at the end of every tunnel can be like fireworks on South Beach. And knowing that despite anything else, you don’t want to spend a single day without the other in it.”

“Aww,” Val mused as Carol called out “hear, hear!” and held up her glass. Tony sat and picked up his water as did Bruce and they clinked glasses with everyone near them and Bruce was sure he was giving Tony the same adoring face Nat had given Clint only a few minutes before but honestly – he couldn’t stop himself. Tony was just so... Tony. So noble and genuine and he could just stand up and say something so sweet and endearing on the fly and Bruce loved and admired him so much. More than he could ever hope to express. 

Still – Bruce wasn’t disappointed when dinner was over and they were walking back to the hotel. Nat told him they were going to hang out for a little while on the patio out back but she was going to get changed into something more comfortable first and Bruce agreed to meet them out there.  

They changed too since even with the sundown it was still humid because of the rain and then went down to join their friends. Though Bruce was pretty tired after the stress of the rehearsal and looking forward to curling up in bed with Tony, Tony was practically humming with excitement and Bruce sucked it up. They hadn’t made a whole lot of friends in Philly yet and this was the most socialization they’d had since moving out of Boston. It was clear Tony was reveling in it. Tony had never made him feel bad for his introverted nature, he could get through a weekend of socialization in return.

When they got out to the lobby Nat was already relaxing with a beer and Clint and Bucky were discussing the contents of a wooden box. It was clear Tony immediately knew what it was as he went over to join them while Bruce went to take a seat next to Nat. 

“My dad gave Clint a box of cigars,” she explained with an amused smirk in Clint’s direction and Bruce looked over to where he was showing it to Tony. 

“Do you know what to do with these?” he asked and Tony laughed, taking the box from Clint and fingering its contents carefully. 

“Absolutely. I smoked my first cigar at fourteen,” Tony replied and Bruce frowned a little, knowing that was probably true. 

“Actually, you know, it’s a sweet gift,” she admitted, tucking her legs up under her chin as Bruce turned back to her. “It was probably terrible for my health, but after my parents got divorced, I had a lot of anxiety that often translated into nightmares. And if I woke up in the middle of the night at my dad’s place he would almost always be smoking and reading in his office and he’d let me climb into his lap and he’d read whatever he was reading to me until I fell asleep again. So the smell of his cigars? It’s a really warm memory. I didn’t think he even remembered that but now? I think he may have appreciated those nights as much as I did.”

Bruce looked back over at Tony as he was explaining to them how to cut the end of it off with the cutter that came with the box after wetting it in his mouth for a moment. Warm memories were far and few between for both Tony and himself but he wondered if maybe moments like these would one day fill in all the holes where happiness was meant to be in their childhood. 

“It must have been hard,” Bruce said at last, though he didn’t feel it. He spent most of his childhood wishing his parents would get divorced. 

She laughed and took a sip of her beer. “I don’t like to make it seem like my parents' divorce was some horrific thing that impacted me negatively for the rest of my life or something – it was for the best. But there were some rough years.”

Tony cracked the lighter and was explaining how to hold the cigar above the flame to prime it. 

“Must not have fucked me up too bad – I’m here, after all,” she pointed out and Bruce looked back over to her, her eyes crinkled with amusement, and they both laughed a little at that. “So you think you two will do all this? One day?” 

Bruce gave her an affectionate glare as she took a long swallow from the bottle and cocked her brows teasingly. 

“You’re as bad as Tony’s dad,” Bruce smirked back. Despite thinking about it on and off all week, he didn’t really know how to answer. 

He glanced back over to Tony, who was puffing on the cigar over the lighter until the flame flared up over the end of it and then his thumb slid off the lighter. Bruce watched the way his cheeks hollowed out as he drew in and then blew out a stream of smoke, smiling at the end of it and then coughing a little, which only made him laugh.

“You got it,” he said as he cracked the lighter again and held it up for Clint. 

“Why do I find that so fucking hot ?” Bruce asked, feeling frustrated just watching Tony smoke as he helped Bucky light his too and Nat snorted over her beer, trying not to spit it out. 

“It’s that phallic imagery,” she teased and he leaned over and shoved her shoulder. “Freud would have a field day.”

“You don’t think that’s hot?” Bruce eyed the other guys but then Tony was the only one with any sort of confidence about it as Clint sputtered a moment and when his eyes turned back to her, Nat was just giving him a look.

“Yeah – I think it’s hot when Tony’s doing it.” 

Bruce chuckled but he knew he was blushing faintly too. He had rarely felt any sort of vanity in his life, but it was hard not to be vain about Tony.

“Do you want one?” Tony asked as he pulled up a chair next to Bruce. 

“I’m good,” he replied as Clint sat down next to Nat, tucking the humidor beneath his chair. 

“You like this?” Clint asked her, examining the cigar like he wasn’t sure what to make of it yet.

“Smells better than pot,” she teased and he shrugged. 

“I think the jury’s out on that.” 

Val and Carol joined them then with their own drinks and pulled up chairs next to Bucky so they formed a rough circle. 

“Since I already asked Bruce, what about you two?” Nat asked, pointing at Carol and Val, her chin buried in her knees, a silly grin on her face. 

“What about us?” Carol asked with a cautious look as Nat laughed. 

“Do you think you’ll do this? Get married?” 

“Oh God,” Val groaned and Carol laughed. 

“I think this is the longest I’ve ever been with anyone,” Carol said as Nat interjected. 

“Can confirm.” 

“So I’m not sure we should jinx that just yet with a ring,” she finished and Val rolled her eyes.

“You’re just a commitment-phobe,” she argued with a loving expression and Carol frowned. 

“Are you telling me you actually want to get married?” Carol asked and Val shrugged, a little self-conscious. 

“Yeah, I mean – one day.”

“Oh shit,” Bucky said with a low whistle and Clint laughed while Val blushed. 

“Maybe not to you,” she shot back defensively as Carol made a face. “But don’t you think it’s a little romantic? To make a promise to take care of someone for the rest of your life?”

Bruce had noticed Sam walk through the door since he and Tony and Nat were facing it, but he was more absorbed in what Val was saying than thinking about Sam joining them. But he walked up behind Bucky with a big grin. 

“What’s romantic?” he asked, dropping his hand on Bucky’s shoulder, and in that instant, everything changed. 

Bucky stood so quickly Bruce couldn’t even process it, shoving the chair back into Sam and creating space between them. He’d dropped the cigar, his fist raised, but as soon as his mind snapped back to the present and he realized his vicious adversary was only Sam – looking hurt and winded where the back of the chair hit him straight in the stomach but otherwise unharmed – Bucky fled.

They all looked at each other dumbfounded, though Val was the first to find her voice. 

“What the fuck ?” she asked, clearly angry. “You’re just going to come up and surprise a guy with severe PTSD?”

Clint picked up Bucky's cigar as Sam tried to apologize but Bruce slid his hand into Tony’s pocket where he saw him stash the vape pen and went to go find Bucky. He didn’t know why – it wasn’t exactly in his nature to try to comfort a stranger. But he felt like he and Bucky had some kind of kindred understanding and he remembered how nice it was to talk to someone he liked but didn’t really know when he was struggling with his feelings for Tony in South Beach. 

He found Bucky around the side of the hotel, sitting on the ground against the building on a little strip of walkway that really wasn’t intended for anyone to sit there, the landscaping nearly grown over it. His knees were tucked up to his chest and his hand was buried in his hair and he didn’t look over at him when Bruce approached or even when Bruce sat down next to him, their thighs nearly touching. 

But Bruce understood and he was quiet for a minute before pulling out the vape pen and handing it over to him. 

Bucky chuckled mournfully as he pulled his hand out of his hair. “I won’t even feel this weak ass shit,” he muttered – but it didn’t stop him from taking the pen or drawing in on it. 

Bruce gave him another minute – though truthfully he was building up the courage to say something to Bucky as well. This really wasn’t his strong suit. He didn’t know why he thought this was a good idea. But he was here now and he could tell Bucky appreciated it as he relaxed next to him, blowing out vapor. 

“You like him,” Bruce said at last and that got a reaction out of Bucky. 

Bucky choked on a laugh and rolled his eyes and made a hopeless gesture with the vape pen in his hand and then pressed his palm to his forehead. 

“It doesn’t even matter,” he replied, his voice sad and distant. “I can’t like anyone – I’m too fucked up. I could have really hurt him – just because he touched me?” 

Bruce didn’t say anything but he held out his hand for the pen, taking it from him and taking a draw before handing it back. 

“You have to give him a chance,” Bruce said as Bucky paused with his hand on the pen then yanked it from him angrily. 

“I’m not a cute, nerdy engineer with a good salary and my whole life ahead of me,” Bucky grouched in a shitty, fake-optimistic voice and Bruce shot him a glare. It might have looked that way on the outside, but it really wasn’t. 

“I was never officially diagnosed – because I didn’t want to know,” Bruce said as he leaned his head back into the brickwork behind him, looking up at the sky, so much light pollution in the city that you couldn’t see a single star. “But sometimes Tony will raise his voice and I’ll be hiding in a closet twenty years ago.”

Bucky looked over at him then and Bruce gave him a tight smile. 

“Shit,” Bucky breathed out, handing him back the pen and Bruce took it, the action of smoking soothing even more than the pot. 

“Tony’s an Italian from New York – he’s pretty good at shouting,” Bruce said as he studied the pen, his voice distant and technical. “He doesn’t mean anything by it, he’s usually not even mad, but there’s some shit you just can’t shake.” 

Bucky nodded along in agreement. 

“But he tries, and it has gotten a lot better,” Bruce continued more optimistically, handing back the pen. “You have to give Sam the chance to try. And if he cares – and I think it’s pretty obvious that he does – he will.” 

They were quiet for a moment while Bucky smoked and thumbed his jaw nervously. 

“I haven’t – I haven’t been on a date or even kissed a guy since basic training,” he admitted. “I was nineteen when I enlisted so it’s been – fuck. Eight years?” 

“Wow,” Bruce replied, staring at him in surprise. Nat had said Bucky hadn’t been on a date since he came home four years ago. But she must have had no idea just how long it had really been. His entire adulthood? Bruce thought his relationship history was stunted but compared to Bucky...?

Yeah . And I’m so broken now,” he laughed over it though Bruce could clearly see it hurt, “I don’t even know where to start.”

For a moment there Bucky looked at him, as vulnerable as he’d ever seen a man, his blue eyes clearly showing the damage beneath his deep brows but Bruce didn’t look away. Instead, he moved forward slowly, giving him plenty of warning as he leaned in and kissed him. 

Bucky’s lips were soft and warm and it was rare Bruce felt the kind of confidence he did then as Bucky’s tongue met his hesitantly. It was just a brief thing, edging around his lips playfully then going in deep for a moment before pulling away. Bucky was looking at him with soft, confused eyes and Bruce couldn’t help grinning at him. 

“There,” Bruce said, nudging him with his knee. “Now it hasn’t been eight years since you last kissed a guy.” 

Bucky blinked a couple times like it took a minute to sink in and then he started laughing, a faint blush on his cheeks. 

“You suck,” Bucky said, burying his face in the pen defensively. 

“I do, but not for you,” Bruce joked, standing and brushing off the back of his pants, then holding out his hand for him. 

Bucky clearly hesitated to take it but they both knew he was going to have to go back there no matter what. So Bucky took his hand and Bruce pulled him up and they walked back together. 

Their friends were good about not making a big deal about it, letting them rejoin the group without comment – though Tony gave him a curious glance and Bruce reached for his hand to give it a squeeze, feeling vaguely guilty about kissing Bucky even though it had meant nothing, and Sam was apologizing quietly while Bucky tried to brush it off.

“And that’s when I heard the machine make the worst grinding sound and then stall out,” Carol was saying and everyone laughed as Bruce tried to follow along. “Now I don’t know if it was the underwire in my bra or the fact that she just shoved everything in there and slammed it shut before pushing me back behind that shower curtain but whatever it was – that fucking extractor mangled my goddamn suit.” 

“Oh no!” Nat cried as she laughed and even Tony was choking unexpectedly on the smoke from his cigar and squeezing Bruce's hand tight as he coughed through a laugh. 

“I mean I didn’t even get the chance to enjoy this chick going down on me because I was literally pulling spandex out of the rings at the top of this extractor and I swear to God I have never used one since.

“Her suit was fine though, of course – plus she actually brought clothes down with her which I still can’t figure out. We were at a hotel? I mean I sure as hell wasn’t expecting to get laid when I went down to the beach but then for once I was the victim here.” 

“Ah yes, the ‘victim’ of opportunistic locker room sex?” Clint teased and she spit her tongue out at him with a shit-eating grin.

“Anyway – I had a towel at least, though I was fully naked under it walking through that hotel lobby. But that was the worst walk of shame I ever had to do.”

“We were drunk and Bruce lost his shoes, cut his foot, and trailed blood through the hotel lobby of the W when we were at South Beach,” Tony offered quickly, laughing, as Nat looked over at him with wide eyes. 

“You didn’t!” 

“I mean I was bleeding when I got back to the room but I don’t think I really trailed it through the lobby,” Bruce offered but Tony shook his head, his eyes shining with amusement. 

“The gift shop guys were talking about it when I went down the next day to buy you shoes,” he admitted and Bruce’s jaw dropped as they all laughed. 

“You never told me that!” Bruce said, alarmed, as Tony shrugged, ducking his head a little shyly. 

“I thought you’d be embarrassed.”

“You’re probably right,” Bruce replied, chagrined but trying to let it go as Tony squeezed his hand a little. 

“Is that really a ‘walk of shame’ though?” Clint questioned and Bruce leaned over with a little glare. 

“I had just outrun the beach police,” Bruce said, “I was pretty ashamed.” 

“I think you need to tell me more about what happened on South Beach before we showed up,” Nat said but Bruce just grinned as he met her eyes. 

“What happens on South Beach...” he said and they both laughed. 

“I don’t know, it’s pretty hard to have a walk of shame when you’re banging your way through the available guys in the boy’s dorms,” Tony offered and Nat shoved his shoulder. 

“You’re as bad as Carol!” 

“I told you,” Bruce said as Tony drew deep on the cigar with a grin that made Bruce hornier than he would have liked to be right then. 

“Really I’m just a high maintenance bitch,” Tony offered after blowing out a line of smoke. “Fuck with me and I’m not getting out of there until you’ve made me breakfast and offered to pay for my Lyft and college kids have no money so the dorm rooms it was.”

Tony had them all laughing and Bruce’s eyes trailed over to Bucky and he realized with a little thrill of success that he and Sam were ignoring the conversation completely, talking quietly between themselves. Tony squeezed his hand, cocking his head at him curiously when he noticed the pleased look on his face, and Bruce blushed that he’d made it so obvious and shook his head. 

They only stayed down for an hour more before Bruce was trying to yawn discreetly into his hand and the conversation waned off as they all started to feel the same drag. And he was glad to be walking hand in hand back to the room with Tony, ready to curl up next to him in bed and pillow talk themselves to sleep. 

When they finished their nightly routine and he finally flipped off the light and fell in bed next to him, Tony already had his hand out, waiting for his, and Bruce took it, slipping his fingers between Tony’s and squeezing them a moment. 

“So Nat asked you if you thought we’d get married?” Tony teased, his voice soft in the quiet, competing only with the air conditioner. 

“Yeah,” Bruce replied, rolling his eyes though Tony couldn’t see it. 

“What did you say?” he asked, something seeming a little hesitant about his voice but Bruce just chuckled. 

“I told her she was as bad as your dad.” 

Tony laughed. 

“Good answer,” he admitted and Bruce brought their hands up to kiss the back of Tony’s.

“I kissed Bucky,” he offered after another minute and that one took Tony some time to really comprehend.

“You what ?” Tony asked, rolling over on his side to look at him. 

Bruce sighed, his stomach suddenly tight with guilt. “When he went off after Sam startled him. He said he hadn’t done so much as kissed a guy since he enlisted at nineteen and I don’t know – I felt really sorry for him. So I kissed him. It didn’t mean anything, obviously, I just thought – you know – maybe it would help him feel more confident if it hadn’t been eight whole years since he’d kissed anyone.” 

Tony was quiet for a moment as Bruce worried his bottom lip between his teeth, waiting for Tony to be mad at him – to yell at him, to be hurt or disappointed. But instead, Tony just laughed. 

“God – that’s hot.”

Bruce blinked and looked across the pillow at him. Tony's smile was easy and he slid closer and kissed him hard, his tongue moving in to claim the territory of Bruce’s mouth as his own and the immediate jolt of electricity it sent through Bruce’s body to be kissed like that by him was something Bruce knew only Tony could achieve. 

“And sweet, you know, that you would do that for him, but next time? I want to watch,” Tony teased with a Cheshire grin as Bruce laughed breathily. 

“There’s not going to be a next time because by the end of the weekend he’s going to be shacked up with Sam.”

“Is that the only reason?” Tony asked as moved in closer, sliding a knee over Bruce’s hips and settling himself over them. 

“Well, it doesn’t hurt that kissing you is so much better,” Bruce replied as he slipped a hand around the back of Tony’s neck, pulling him down into a much more heated kiss.

Chapter Text

Bruce awoke to Tony sliding up behind him, pulling him close, his dick hard against his ass and his lips on the back of his neck and his hands pawing at his stomach. He chuckled, laying there immobile, letting Tony roll his hips sleepily against him.

“Mmmph baby,” he mumbled, sighing against the back of his neck, voice thick with sleep. “You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna make you cum, nice and slow, just like you like, and then I’m gonna get you room service and we’re gonna eat waffles in bed and then I’m gonna make you take a shower with me and then – then I’m gonna make you cum again.” 

Bruce chuckled again, moving a hand down to slide his fingers through Tony’s, low on his gut, like he was holding in the delicious tension there that made him hard with Tony’s words. 

Tony made this little sound deep in his throat as he rubbed his hips against him and Bruce sighed, squeezing his fingers. This was what he wanted. This is what he had been waiting for this whole trip. This feeling of endless nothing. Just them and a bed and nothing but time. Of course, they had the wedding to go to later but Bruce didn’t have to be there until three and if Tony just wanted to lay around the hotel and fuck Bruce was more than game. 

But Bruce stopped Tony’s hands from moving lower and he huffed. 

“Go on, get up, ruin the mood,” Tony teased as he drew his hands away and Bruce did just that, laughing. 

“I have to piss!” he defended on his way to the bathroom but he heard Tony find their supplies anyway. 

When he came back feeling more prepared Bruce lay down just as he was, sliding his back up against Tony’s chest then and nestling down into the pillows and closing his eyes as Tony slipped his hands back around him and pressed a kiss to the back of his neck. 

“That’s better,” he murmured as Bruce forced himself to relax again, taking slow, deep breaths and focusing on the feeling of Tony’s hands on his chest and stomach and thighs. 

He gasped a little as Tony took his dick in his hand and true to his word he went slow. It would never have been enough to get him off but he held him with one arm up against his chest, teasing his nipple, and the other down across his hips, pulling at him lazily, and Bruce sighed with appreciation. There was nothing he wanted more than that. 

Bruce had no idea how long Tony had been at it – time a formless, meaningless thing beneath Tony’s hands – before he stopped to get the lube. And then instead of moving back to his dick, he slipped his fingers in his ass and Bruce moaned against the intrusion, rocking back on his hand. 

“You like that?” Tony breathed as his lips whispered over the edge of his ear and Bruce felt helpless, locked in against Tony’s chest by one of his strong arms, pinned in place by his fingers. 

And Tony took his time fingering him. Bruce knew Tony usually liked it hard and rough, wanted firm hands on his body and to have it be gasping and desperate. And truthfully, Bruce didn’t really care, as long as Tony was moaning his name while they fucked then it was good by him. But when they had the time and Tony felt like indulging him? There was nothing in the world better than this. 

Every slide of his fingers inside of him left Bruce breathless and he whimpered every time Tony pulled out to get more lube. Tony focused on stretching him and teasing those sensitive muscles but every so often his fingers would slip deeper, seeking out the spot inside of him that made him gasp and cry out helplessly, jerking away from the sensation but wanting nothing more. By the time Tony reached for a condom Bruce was a mess and he didn’t want it to end but he didn’t think he could keep going like this either. He was pretty sure the next time Tony hit him there he was going to cum whether he wanted to or not and what he really wanted to feel Tony buried deep inside of him first. 

Although he felt loose and wide open, Tony moved in slowly, making him really feel it, holding his hips in place so he couldn’t speed the process along – not that he wanted to. Fucking Tony wasn’t like anything else. Being filled by him, made by him – it made him feel whole, gave him a sense of safety and intimacy he’d never felt before. He reached up for Tony’s hand on his chest and held it there, holding him tight, pressed close against his body, sinking deep into the sensation of Tony rolling his hips into him slowly, tucked up so near him Tony couldn’t move much but he didn’t want him to. He wanted this. He wanted this forever. 

“Bruce.” Tony’s lips were on the back of his neck as he moaned his name and Bruce could feel his teeth brushing against his skin. “God, baby – you feel amazing.” 

Bruce groaned back as Tony’s hand slid from his hip down between his legs again and Bruce met his hand there with his own. His whole body was slick with sweat and he could tell Tony wasn’t going to last much longer but he didn’t care, Bruce forced his hand to move slow, wanting to prolong it as long as possible. 

“Fuck. I’m – I’m gonna –” Tony gasped as he buried his head in the back of Bruce’s neck, moving his hand back to his hip to pull him in close, closer than was possible as he came deep inside of him. 

And Bruce leaned his head back against Tony’s, speeding up his hand because he couldn’t stop himself with the way Tony felt against his skin, with the way he moaned and shivered with delight, with the way his hips rolled and spasmed. Bruce gripped the hand Tony had across his chest hard as he came, holding him near, wanting him near even though he couldn’t be any closer. He felt desperate and needy and he couldn’t even articulate why but Tony was there. There for him. 

There was a moment where they lay just like that, breathing hard, but then Bruce was rolling over and gathering his face in his hands and kissing him all over with soft, gentle kisses and Tony was grinning splendidly at him. It made him feel giddy. It made him feel whole. It made him feel like there was no part of him that didn’t love Tony – and no part of him that ever wouldn’t. 

“That wasn’t too bad, yeah?” Tony teased and Bruce kissed his smile with his own. 

“Where’s that food I was promised?” Bruce teased back and Tony kissed him, biting his lower lip playfully when he drew away. 

But he didn’t say anything and Bruce just looked at him, pressing his hair back from his face and staring into his eyes and seeing everything he wanted right there and for a brief moment his heart leapt in his chest and he thought maybe – 

Maybe he was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t the fact that he wanted to get married to Betty that was wrong. Maybe it was just the wrong person. 

“Do you even want waffles?” Tony asked at last and Bruce laughed and kissed him again, trying to calm the beating of his heart that made him want to say something stupid. 

“Let’s get everything and decide later,” Bruce replied and Tony laughed back but neither of them was motivated to move to get the menu for a while. 

Tony just lay his head on Bruce’s chest, running his fingers across it and down the thick hair that trailed across the middle of his stomach as Bruce stroked at his hair. At least until Tony’s stomach growled and they laughed, Bruce kissing his temple and rolling over to get the menu. 

Bruce didn’t order everything but he did order way more food than they could actually eat in anticipation of lazing around the room all morning – including Tony’s Belgian waffles with whipped cream. And Tony let him lay in bed dozing, throwing on a robe to get the food and then turning on some mindless TV while they ate. 

“I kind of missed this,” Bruce said as he set down his fork and lay back against the pillows he’d propped up against the headboard. 

Tony grinned, licking syrup from his thumb. “All that drama of buying a house and now you tell me you’d rather just live in a hotel.”

Bruce shot back a cute glare and Tony chuckled. 

“It was nice though...” Tony admitted, his eyes distant and somewhat guarded. “Maybe you’re right and we should rent a boat in the spring, go on a real vacation.”

“We can do something else,” Bruce offered. “We could... I don’t know. Go to Vegas or – or somewhere you’ve never been before. I just thought it’s been a while since you’ve been sailing and that you might like to rent a boat.”

“It’s not that,” Tony said, a faint blush on his cheeks. “The boat is a good idea. It’s... dumb but when you said that in New York I didn’t want to think about it because I – I just wanted to be home.”

Tony was looking at him then with hesitant uncertainty, like he was admitting some big vulnerable secret, and Bruce swallowed hard around the lump that took up residence in his throat. He didn’t know how he was supposed to say what he needed to say. This whole week and Tony was feeling the exact same way as him. 

“Me too,” he said at last, looking over at Tony so he’d know he was sincere. “All I’ve wanted this week was to be home, too.”

A genuine smile spread over Tony’s face as he pressed forward and kissed him with sweet syrup lips that made Bruce smile too. And then Tony wrapped his arms around his neck and pushed him back on the bed, crawling over him and kissing him again and then leaning down over him. 

“Two more days,” he said, grinning, and Bruce grinned back. 

“Not even. More like 36 hours,” he corrected as Tony kissed him, feeling himself get a little hard beneath Tony’s hips despite the fact it had only been an hour or so since they’d fucked. 

He was looking forward to it though. The past two days had been good but he was ready to be home. Even though his mom hadn’t agreed to come back with them, he needed the safety of it, the time to decompress and reflect. The routine of work and chores and just coming home to his boyfriend and having dinner together, snuggling on the couch watching Netflix, laughing over stupid shit in bed...

“One more night,” Tony said, smiling down at him, “and then we’ll be back in our bed.”

“And then you can bring me breakfast in bed,” Bruce teased as he pulled him down for another kiss. 

“Hmm is that what you want?” Tony asked as he shifted his hips against Bruce’s and Bruce pulled his hair a little playfully. 

“Your huevos rancheros are the best,” Bruce grinned up at him and Tony laughed the full, throaty laugh that Bruce loved. 

“So you like my huevos , huh?” he joked, rolling his hips again and leaning in to kiss Bruce as he laughed at Tony’s terrible joke. 

“You’re so dumb,” Bruce teased, running a hand back through his hair and trailing his lips down to his jaw, “but I love you so much.” 

“Umph baby,” Tony moaned gratuitously, clearly messing with him, “love it when you call me dumb.” 

Bruce laughed as he dug his teeth into Tony’s neck, listening to him gasp and feeling his dick fill out against his bare hips. He spent a long moment on giving him a fresh hickey, loving the feeling of Tony squirming on top of him. 

When he eventually let up Tony’s face was flushed and he was breathing heavily and Bruce slid his hand down his neck, thumbing the damp spot and listening to Tony’s little moan. He looked down at Bruce a moment before nosing his neck, kissing and sucking on it, making Bruce squirm now as he moved his way slowly downwards to his collarbone then sucking on it hard. 

“Shit,” Bruce growled as he tried to shift away but Tony had him restrained and moving only increased the friction on his dick. 

“Mrmmph,” Tony argued before releasing his mouth, smiling a big self-confident thing that Bruce had to admit made his blood hot. 

He narrowed his eyes at Tony just a second before using the element of surprise to flip him over on the bed, nearly rolling him into the room service trays as he pinned his arms to the bed then descended back on his neck. 

“Fuck!” Tony gasped and Bruce could feel the way his throat moved beneath his mouth and his lips curled as he sucked hard at his skin. 

As soon as he pulled away though he moved only an inch downwards before biting in again and Tony’s hips bucked against his, looking for friction, but Bruce held his own hips firm and still, making sure he couldn’t move. 

“Bruce,” he begged as Bruce moved his teeth down to the joint between his neck and his shoulder. “Fuck baby, this is so hot but I – I need –”

He rocked his hips against Tony’s and Tony bit off a moan as Bruce laughed. Tony pulled at his hand, trying to get free from where Bruce had him trapped. Bruce hesitated, liking him like this, beneath his body where Tony was his and his alone, but he sat up, pulling Tony up with him, his legs across Tony’s, his knees at his hips, facing him and taking his face in his hands and kissing him a moment before wrapping a hand in his hair and moving his mouth back down to his neck. 

“Aw fuck yeah ,” Tony breathed over his shoulder as his hand wrapped around his dick. 

Watching Tony masturbate was pretty fucking hot too and something Bruce was fairly sure he was never going to get over. Even with his head buried in his neck sucking little bruises into it where he couldn’t see him it was hot. Bruce could feel his arm moving fast, listen to him moaning, and the hand not wrapped around his dick was on Bruce’s chest, running the pad of his thumb over a nipple, sliding up around his neck and pulling on the back of his hair. 

Bruce moved his mouth up to his ear where he could nip at it and moan and drive Tony crazy as he reached for his own dick. 

“Oh, fuck, Bruce ,” he whined, his voice tight as he pulled on his hair, pulling his face back so that he could look him in the eyes. “I wanna see you cum, baby.” 

Bruce hated to be vulnerable like that but Tony’s eyes were hot with lust, mouth parted just slightly as he panted, the tip of his pink tongue over his teeth, and in that moment it didn’t make him self-conscious to be watched like that. In that moment he wanted to see Tony cum too. 

Still, he surged forward to kiss him, hard, all tongue and teeth and Tony moaned into his mouth before pulling him away again, the force on the back of his head making him swell. He knew it should be more difficult since they’d just had sex but it didn’t feel like it was going to take him that long with Tony pulling his hair and jerking himself off and looking at him like that .

Bruce gasped. He was sore and sweaty and his mouth hung open as he brought Tony’s forehead to his own, just wanting to kiss him, to feel him there. Tony gave in and kissed him. He was jerking it so hard his legs jumped beneath Bruce’s and his face was all twisted up with concentration and Bruce couldn’t help but feel it building as he watched him all wrapped up and desperate like that. 

“Come on, Tony,” he growled, not usually one to vocalize during sex but he knew Tony loved it when he could bring himself to do it and this time was no exception.

Tony moaned low in his throat, sliding his forehead down to bury his face in the crook of Bruce’s neck, dropping his hand from his hair and grasping desperately at his back. And Bruce was pushed over the edge, coming in a pitiful spurt as his free hand jerked in Tony’s hair – the release of that tension soothing, the soreness in his thighs a kind of relief. 

“Cum for me, yeah? Come on,” Bruce breathed in Tony’s ear where his head still lay against his shoulder and Tony pressed his face in further, groaning as he finally got himself there, clinging to Bruce like a lifeline. 

Bruce wiped his hand on the bedsheets and wrapped his arms around Tony gently, holding him still as they both just breathed. He kissed his sweaty cheek and chuckled a little, breathless. 

“See? This is why we need to go on a real vacation,” Bruce teased and Tony laughed into his skin, making him feel light and happy. 

“And why’s that exactly?” Tony asked, leaning back on his hands and Bruce loosened his arms a little but they still circled his neck. 

“So we can do this twice a day every day,” Bruce teased, blushing as Tony laughed at him, leaning in and giving him a chaste kiss. 

“Come on,” he said, pulling him down on the bed. “I want to cuddle.”

Tony’s leg in his tender crotch made him wince and Tony laughed at him but he didn’t care. He wrapped his arms around him anyway and kissed his forehead. 

“We should probably move these trays,” Bruce said as they were currently laying parallel to the headboard in a bid to avoid them.

But Tony just reached over and grabbed a pillow and shoved it in his face. 

“Not moving,” he said with a satisfied grin as he cozied up against Bruce’s body and Bruce tried to get the pillow under his head without disturbing Tony too much. 

“I love you,” Bruce murmured as he managed to pull a bit of comforter over their legs.

“Love you too,” Tony replied and then yawned, laughing a little as he hugged Bruce closer. 

Although Tony fell back asleep easily, it took Bruce a little longer, and he ran his fingers through his hair slowly, down his back, holding him close. ‘I love you’ didn’t seem enough for what he felt for Tony – but he didn’t know how else to say how he felt. He supposed there was only one way but... he tried not to think about it too hard as he fell asleep with Tony in his arms. 

**

True to his word Tony took a shower with him and then helped him do his hair, lovingly curling it around his fingers as he blow dried it out. Then he helped Bruce into his tux, cuffing the sleeves for him and tying his bow tie and leaning in to give him a little kiss as he adjusted the pocket square. 

“You know how lucky I am that I get to show up with the most handsome guy in the room?” Tony told him as he pulled away, his eyes forward and sincere, and Bruce could feel himself blush brilliantly but he tried not to argue or push him away. 

“You haven’t seen all the other guys yet,” he said at last as Tony moved away to throw some supplies in a bag since he had agreed to help Bucky with his beard and hair. 

“I don’t have to,” Tony replied, looking back over his shoulder from the bathroom with a warm smile that made Bruce feel tingly and light. “I’ve seen you.”

Bruce moved up behind him, wrapping his arms around him and kissing the back of his neck softly. 

“I think I’m the lucky one,” he murmured and Tony twisted in his arms, grinning at him with a hand on his neck. 

“I think we’re both pretty lucky, huh?” he offered and Bruce nodded shyly as he kissed him again, long and deep, and when Tony pulled out of the kiss Bruce was breathless and starstruck and so, so in love. 

He followed Tony down to the lobby like the hopeless idiot he was, reaching out for his hand as they crossed the street looking silly together – Bruce in a tux and Tony in jersey shorts and a t-shirt with his hair still damp. But Bruce thought he was the most beautiful man he’d ever seen. 

They made their way up to where the other guys were getting ready and Tony swung open the door with a particularly affected gay shout of “I’m heeere!” 

Clint, Bucky, and Matt were already there drinking beer and eating sandwiches left out by the planner and they laughed until Clint turned to get a good look at Tony and then his beer fell from his mouth. 

“Holy shit Bruce – the fuck did you do to him?” 

Tony reached out for his neck immediately as Bruce stood there staring at him, hoping Tony would save him from this awkwardness. He hadn’t even thought about it before they left the room. 

“Don’t tell me Nat’s never given it to you rough,” Tony snapped back with a sleazy grin and Matt looked perplexed behind his glasses, nudging Bucky to explain. 

“I’m covered in hickeys,” Tony offered as he stepped over to Bucky, completely owning it. “Shame you can’t see it.” 

“I’ll bet,” Matt replied with a smirk and although Clint was still looking at him with a vague note of surprise the moment was over and they all let it drop. 

Tony took Bucky into the attached bathroom and opened his bag as Bruce walked over to Matt and away from Clint’s curious eyes to peruse the food set out for them and grab a sandwich for himself. 

“Scott should be along any minute,” Matt offered. “I guess he had to pick something up for the girls.”

“You should let me do your hair Clint,” Tony called from the bathroom and Clint laughed as he buttoned his shirt. 

“I already did my hair!” he called back and Tony made a disgruntled noise of disbelief. 

“Okay. Sure.”

Bruce chuckled, glancing at what he could see of them through the open door, trying to repress the little flutter of jealousy he felt at Tony giving Bucky the kind of intimate attention that meant so much to him – even though he knew it meant as little to Tony as their shared kiss had meant to Bruce last night.

“And he’s a mechanic?” Matt asked as he took a sip of beer and Bruce kind of shrugged. 

“Yeah – but Tony can do anything,” he answered truthfully and Matt gave him a smirk he wasn’t sure was entirely friendly. 

“Crisis averted!” Scott announced as he walked in with his tux in his hand still bagged. “I managed to get another veil and it was almost exactly the same as the one that tore.”

“Oh man thank God,” Clint said as he grabbed his hand and pulled him into a one armed hug, clapping him on the back. 

“What happened?” Bruce asked and Scott explained that Carol called him and told him that Nat’s mother accidentally stepped on and tore her full-length cathedral veil and apparently there was some question as to how legitimate an ‘accident’ it was because while Nat was extremely upset, her mother laughed it off saying something terrible had to happen that day or it wouldn’t be romantic. 

Bruce was rolling his eyes as Scott began to strip down to get changed. “But I mean I only had to drop $250 on one at David’s Bridal so it could be worse, right?” 

“We’ll pay you back,” Clint assured him but Scott paused as he dropped his pants and looked over at him.

“Nah man, it’s a wedding gift. A nicer one than we actually got you anyway,” he joked and Clint looked truly thankful for him. 

“If anyone should pay for it, it should be your mother-in-law,” Tony called from the bathroom and Bruce made a face of agreement as Clint frowned – clearly not something he was planning on asking from her. 

Scott was buttoning up his shirt and he laughed. “Tony’s right – but don’t worry about it. I can ask her for the money if I want.”

“You sure you’re ready to hitch this cart to that particular horse?” Matt asked and Clint sighed. 

“Thankfully I’m not marrying her mother – for the most part,” Clint grimaced as his friends laughed. “I need another beer.”

Bruce leaned down to the cooler located under the snacks and handed him over one which he accepted gratefully though Matt laughed cynically at that too. 

“You’ll want to remember your vows,” he snarked but Clint just tapped his pocket. 

“Right here with the ring buddy,” he assured him but Matt didn’t look convinced.

“Well then you’ll need to be able to read the page.”

“Shit,” Scott laughed as he put on a belt. “What crawled up your ass and died?” 

“I just don’t love the idea of seeing one of my best friends engage in a meaningless, outdated system of financial and social oppression,” Matt replied off the cuff but then he smiled gamely. “Not that I’m not happy for you Clint.”

“I’m so thrilled you decided to show your support by standing next to me on this the most joyous occasion of my life,” Clint muttered but his voice was more good-natured than the sarcasm in his words implied.

“Ta-da!” Tony announced, interrupting their argument as Bucky walked out. 

He was just in the tux pants and a white undershirt but Bruce had to admit, he did look good. Tony had trimmed back his beard so that it was neat and tidy and smoothed it out with balm. He’d straightened the waves in his hair so that it lay nice and tied half of it up so it was out of his face. And Bruce was pretty sure he’d shaped his brows and filled them in as well. 

Bruce couldn’t help but grin. He had a pretty good feeling Bucky asked for Tony’s help to impress Sam and if that was the case, then he was certainly going to succeed. 

“Hey, looking good,” Clint said encouragingly and fist-bumped him though Bucky looked shy about it.

“Your turn,” Tony sang as he came at him with a tin of hair wax and a brow pencil. 

“Christ!” Scott exclaimed as he caught sight of Tony’s neck and Bruce felt his cheeks get hot all over again. 

“Hey Scott,” Tony shot coolly as Clint laughed. 

“We’ve already kinda been over the hickey thing,” Clint told him as Matt started laughing too. 

“It must be pretty bad,” he said and Scott turned to Bruce as he tied his bowtie. 

“You didn’t tell us you were fucking feral,” Scott teased, giving Bruce a wink that made him even more embarrassed. 

“Bruce isn’t particularly good at promoting his best qualities,” Tony said with a particularly feral smirk of his own as he twisted the lid on the hair wax.

Bruce decided that right then would be a good time to get a beer of his own. 

Tony fixed Clint’s hair, making it look a little more polished and handsome and then he filled in his brows too, defining his face a little more. But it wasn’t long before he was giving Bruce a quick kiss and leaving him for the photographers to take over and although he was standing on Natasha’s side, they were used to taking pictures of all the guys together and that's where they started. 

Afterward though, Bruce left to go find Nat and found her and the other girls finishing their pictures in a decorative room upstairs. She looked absolutely gorgeous with her hair fashioned into a wavy bob in a simple white satin dress with a high, straight neckline and an open back that ended in a few simple buttons and a large bustle. The other women, Carol and Kate and her sisters, were dressed in matching gold, like no other bridesmaid dress he’d ever seen. Wide strips of sequined gold plated together horizontally from the knee to the bust and then curved into a ‘Y’ over the chest and one shoulder, a mid-century elegance about them that was absolutely Nat. 

Her mother glared at him as he walked in but he ignored it and stepped to the side to wait for the photographer to finish up the pictures and give them a moment before the ceremony. Bruce smiled at her as she smiled back with bright red lips and he walked forward to wrap her in a delicate hug. 

“You’re almost there,” he joked softly and she laughed and he was glad it seemed legitimate given her eyes were full of nerves. “You look beautiful.” 

“Thank you,” she replied. “How’s Clint doing?” 

“I think he’ll be a lot better when he sees you,” he said with a smile. “But he’s okay. I have a feeling the stress level is probably a little higher over here...”

“I have a feeling you’re right,” Nat replied with a short glance towards her mother as Carol came over and rested her hand on his shoulder.

“A traitor in our midst,” she accused and Bruce rolled his eyes.

“Hardly.” 

“You don’t want to take your chances over here,” she continued and Bruce made a face. 

“I’m not sure. If it’s between you-know-who and Matt’s pessimistic bullshit the choice is less obvious than you’d think.” 

“Oh my god, go back and shut Matt up before Clint gets cold feet!” Nat laughed but there was a serious edge to her voice that betrayed her genuine concern. 

“Don’t worry, between me and Scott, we’ll make sure he gets up there,” Bruce teased and Nat pursed her lips. 

“Those three have been friends for too long,” she muttered and both Carol and Bruce laughed then. 

“Clint’s childhood friends are not going to ruin your wedding – any more than your mom is,” Carol added the end under her breath and Nat frowned. 

“The day isn’t over yet.” 

“There’s that patented optimism Clint is marrying you for,” Carol said as she leaned over and boxed Nat in the arm and Nat huffed.

“I’m pretty sure Clint knew what he was getting into when he proposed,” Bruce assured her and she gave him a grateful smile. 

“Yeah, and he’s the traitor?” Nat shot back at Carol, scrunching her nose with an affectionate glare. 

“Don’t you think he should leave? It’s fifteen minutes until we need to be downstairs,” Nat’s mom said as she walked over with a frown on her face. 

Nat took a deep breath but Bruce just gave her a conciliatory smile. 

“You’re right – I lost track of time,” he replied calmly and that seemed to appease her but he certainly didn’t want to cause a scene for Nat. 

So he gave her another brief hug then said ‘see you soon’ with a little grin before going back to meet Clint and the other guys. 

Thankfully fifteen minutes passed quickly and everyone but Clint was down meeting the bridesmaids in the hall and they were joking and giggling as Nat and her father joined Bruce and Kate in the back, waiting for the processional to start. He reached back and grabbed her hand a moment when the quartet started, giving it a little squeeze. 

He looked for Tony as he walked down the aisle with Kate’s arm around his own but he didn’t see him as he took his place behind Matt. When the song changed he stared out at the crowd and watched as everyone stood before Nat came down the aisle. 

She was perfect – gorgeous and beaming at Clint as soon as their eyes met – and Bruce watched with his heart full as Clint thumbed at his cheek to wipe away a tear as she came to stand at the altar before him. 

Much of the ceremony harked to the outdated system Matt spoke of – giving away the bride and some flowery language about the meaning behind love and marriage. But Bruce’s eyes sought out Tony and found him halfway to the back with Val and Hope, Karen and Frank. And then Clint was pulling out his vows and Bruce tried to watch as Clint recounted the story of the moment he knew he wanted to marry Nat but Bruce’s eyes kept pinning back to Tony like magnetic North. 

“It was so dumb – the apartment was filled with smoke, whatever was supposed to be in the pan was black, the smoke alarm was going off, and you were coughing. But as you walked out of the smoke you just has such a big smile on your face, like nothing was more hilarious when I was expecting tears, and that’s when I knew – I wanted to spend the rest of my life with someone that could laugh like that.

“‘Course it took me another year and a half to ask.”

He heard Nat laugh and glanced over to see her grinning at Clint just like that, holding the hand of his not holding the piece of paper, her eyes glimmering under the lights. 

But then Bruce was looking back at Tony and he wondered – would there be a moment like that? Was this it? Tony was smiling up at their friends and Bruce thought about him being there, with him, how happy Tony made him, how clearly Tony loved him, how much Bruce trusted him, brought him home with him to see his mom even, something he never did before and he thought – he wanted to spend the rest of his life with him. 

“I don’t have any cute stories,” Nat offered with a laugh when Clint had finished, no paper of her own, completely off the cuff. “I’m not sure I even knew I wanted to marry you before you asked – sorry.” She ducked her head and blushed, laughing. “But I knew from the moment I met you that I wanted to spend as much of my life with you as I could.”

Bruce smiled at her and glanced back at Tony. Maybe it was like that. Maybe there would never be a moment. Maybe he just wanted Tony, however, he could have him. Well – about that there was no maybe. He definitely wanted Tony. Married or not. Just as long as they could go home together at the end of the day.

He knew the wedding stuff was just getting in his head – knew that he wanted Tony, knew that none of this mattered, knew that he was wildly in love with him. But watching Nat and Clint as they slid rings on each others fingers, kissing before all their friends and family, making that kind of commitment to one another – there was something unspeakably romantic about it that made Bruce want to get down on one knee as well. 

But then the processional music started and Nat and Clint were lead out to a rain of flower petals and the rest of the wedding party followed behind, immediately being ushered into pictures as the other attendees were directed out to the pre-function ballroom for appetizers and drinks. 

The grounds of the venue were beautiful and Bruce listened dutifully as he was directed but his smile grew wider when he noticed Tony had snuck out to find them and waved at him over the photographer’s shoulder. 

He looked as handsome as ever with his hair done in this really rugged, wind-swept way – the guise of his femininity from Thursday completely erased. Now he was in a two-button heather grey suit with only the top button done, a white shirt underneath with no tie – the top two buttons undone to show off his bare chest – and brown leather shoes and he just exuded an easy, happy self-confidence. He’d covered up his hickeys – which Bruce was thankful for, though not as thankful as he was that their pictures were only a few minutes longer and he was able to join Tony as the photographers took Nat and Clint off for solo shots. 

“You look good,” Bruce told him, feeling a weird sort of nervousness around him that he hadn’t felt in a long time and Tony laughed, pulling him in for a quick kiss. 

“You look like you want to get out of that tux.”

“You have no idea,” Bruce murmured, trying not to be too grumpy too loudly. 

But Tony leaned in close to him, scraping his teeth along his neck and causing a shiver to cascade down his spine. 

“You know I’ll always help with that,” he teased as Bruce tried desperately not to let Tony’s magnetism affect him. “But first we have to get a picture.” 

Tony moved away, calling after Kate before she disappeared inside to where the guests were mingling. But she gladly came back and took a few pictures of them and they followed her in, Tony quickly posting one. 

“Can you send one to my mom?” Bruce asked a little shyly as Tony laughed. 

“Oh I’m about to,” he said but something in his tone made Bruce suspicious and he leaned over. 

“What are you saying?”

“Nothing!” Tony shot back, teasing him by jerking the phone away from his prying eyes but he had already seen the message line. 

Me with the most handsome guy here. GQ top ten at least.

“You’re ridiculous,” Bruce accused, rolling his eyes – even though it was a really good picture of them. 

“No I’m not,” he replied sincerely, leaning his hip into Bruce’s as he hit send then looking over at him and leaning in for a kiss.

They got drinks – old fashioneds, which always made Bruce think of New Year's in South Beach – and found Carol and Val and chatted with them until the ballroom reopened for dinner.

The entire space had been transformed from when it hosted the ceremony less than an hour earlier, tables full of gorgeous floral centerpieces with chairs draped in black ribbons took up most of the space. But across the far end of the space that had once held an arch of roses now was set up with a band that began playing an instrumental cover as people filtered in to find their seats. 

Thankfully the bridal party was mostly sat together except for Kate, Taylor, and Alexis who were with their respective families instead and being flanked by Tony and Val put Bruce in a relaxed frame of mind. 

They were just being served when the band announced mister and missus Barton and Bruce smiled to see his friends walk in, hand in hand, Natasha ducking her head shyly as she beamed and walked down to the front of the dance floor as the band began the slow opening strains of ‘Earned It’ by The Weeknd. 

Tony looked over at him and Bruce laughed. 

“This is their song?” he asked, bemused by the pick, and Bruce shrugged, not feeling it was out of character. 

“It must be.” 

Everyone had been served as the song came to a close and they all clapped and whistled for the newlyweds and Clint took the microphone from the vocalist. He thanked everyone for being there and joining them in celebrating the first day of the rest of their lives and telling them to have a good time since all the drinks were on his new mother-in-law.

Bruce couldn’t help but glance over at her, not seated far from them, and to his surprise, she was blushing and smiling like she was honestly amused. Nat had said Clint could do no wrong in her eyes, and clearly that was true.

The food was good though the conversation was better and Bruce was starting to feel the alcohol by the time they got to the cake. Watching Nat and Clint do all these silly little rituals as Tony grinned back at him, grabbing his hand to give it a little squeeze, was more than he could bear. Everything was there, right on his sleeve, and he was sure Tony could see it. But he just smiled back and he kind of hoped that was Tony’s way of showing him too.

He was grateful for when the party picked up in earnest and Tony went out to dance with Carol and Val and Hope and Nat. He watched from the table for a minute as Sam slid into the place newly abandoned by Tony so that he could join the guys remaining there and chat with Bucky. 

Bruce knew he wasn’t the best at picking up social cues, but it was pretty obvious that something had changed between Sam and Bucky since last night. The charge between them was a little more gentle, the space more intimate, and Bruce couldn’t help but smile at that. There was nothing more romantic than a wedding, his mom used to say. He hadn’t understood that until now.

“You gonna go out there and join him?” Sam asked after a minute and Bruce broke his wistful stare at his boyfriend sandwiched between the four girls, lip-synching ‘Sweet Caroline’ with them in a silly way that made his heart feel even more full. 

“Maybe in a while,” Bruce replied, not feeling very motivated to when Tony was clearly having a good time. 

“The band is pretty good,” Scott observed from across the table and Bruce nodded.

They really were. They covered a wide range of popular music with a unique bluesy back note and the vocalist’s voice could hit a note hard. Plus they pegged the room and played a variety of old and new music to keep the audience engaged. 

Bruce even found himself having a good time watching Tony dance while talking with the other guys but it wasn’t long until Tony was dancing over to him acting goofy and punch-drunk although he’d only had two drinks, singing ‘Brass in Pocket’ with the band as he did, and Bruce couldn’t help but laugh, his whole chest warm with all the poorly managed love in his heart.

“Gonna use my arms, gonna use my legs,” he sang as he came over, holding out a hand for Bruce, shed of his jacket and his shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest, a sheen of sweat on it from dancing.

“Gonna use my style , gonna use my sidestep,” he continued as he pulled Bruce up out of his seat with a huge grin on his face, leading him backward onto the dance floor, and Bruce realized even though he’d covered the hickeys on his neck with make-up, he could still see the ones on his collarbones peeking beneath his shirt.

“Gonna use my fingers ,” he whispered in Bruce’s ear as he rang his fingers pointedly hard down Bruce’s side to his belt, making his breath hitch. 

“Gonna use my, my, my imagination,” the singer continued as Tony pressed his lips against his, grinning into the kiss. 

“‘Cause I’m gonna make you see, there's nobody else here – no one like me.”

Tony’s hands were on the center of his back, cradling him close and Bruce put his palm on his cheek as they kissed, pulling him back after a moment and Tony bit his bottom lip, his eyes shining and hesitant as the singer continued – 

“I'm special, so special... I gotta have some of your attention – give it to me.”

And Tony blushed a little as he mouthed the last bit with her, leaning in for another kiss, and then Bruce understood – Tony was feeling just as blown open and vulnerable as Bruce was.

Bruce could feel the way his hips ground against his minutely as he pressed him close, holding him there, kissing him, giving him all of his attention. And when finally he pulled back a little, he stroked his thumb against his cheek, staring deep into his pretty eyes.

“I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with you,” Bruce said, quiet under the music but it wasn’t meant for anyone else but Tony. 

He felt Tony’s hands tighten against his back as his smile grew impossibly wide, making Bruce’s heart slam in his chest. 

“You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Tony told him as he reached up to push his curls off his forehead with tender fingers. “And I want to spend the rest of my life with you, too.”

Bruce’s chest actually ached with how full it was and he tightened his arms around him, pulling him back in, swaying to their own sappy soundtrack despite the upbeat music. 

“I am so, so in love with you,” Bruce told him as he nosed his face into his cheek, feeling it all through his body, way down deep to his soul, and Tony reached up to tighten his fist in his hair, holding him against the crook of his neck as he kissed under his jaw. 

“I am so in love with you too,” he sighed, sending a warmth down Bruce’s spine that radiated out through his entire body. 

“It feels like I was meant to be yours,” Bruce admitted, so softly that he wasn’t sure Tony would even hear it, but he felt Tony tense up, trying to close his arms even more tightly around him like they weren’t already totally aligned. 

“If that’s the case then I was right – I really am the luckiest man alive,” Tony teased as he pressed kisses to his neck and up to his mouth before claiming it in another long kiss.

When they broke away Tony was laughing and Bruce wasn’t sure why but he was laughing too, so glad to be here with him, to be in love with him. With Tony, even the bad stuff didn’t seem so bad – and the good stuff, like this, was even better. He really was looking forward to spending the rest of his life with him – if he were so lucky.

But then Nat grabbed his sleeve and they both looked over at her and she was grinning at them as the vocalist sang “shut up and dance with me” and they indulged her. 

Bruce was pretty sure he had danced more over the next hour than he had in the entire rest of his life combined and his feet were sore and he was sweaty but he was also deliriously happy. He was free – for the first time in his life. He knew it, he did, but it wasn't until that night that he really, really understood just how free he was. He was free from his father, from poverty, from expectations. And he was happy . And he was so, so in love. And every time Tony looked at him he was smiling and every time he touched him it felt like home and he would pull his body in close and rock against him only to have Nat or Val or Carol or Hope pull them apart, laughing and throwing her arms around his or Tony’s neck, inserting herself between them, and it was just so easy. It was just fun. 

Though they wanted to stay until the end, given they had a twelve-hour drive the next day, they decided not to. Instead, they left about an hour early, finding Nat and Clint on the dance floor, congratulating them and giving them big hugs and promising they’d make plans soon to meet in the middle. Then Tony took his hand and they snuck off through the nearly empty pre-function room and out into the night. 

And just as they were about to pass by without noticing, Bruce heard a laugh behind him and he turned to look and caught sight of Bucky and Sam hiding out by the side of the building, nearly obscured by shrubbery, wrapped in each other’s arms, and suddenly Bruce understood why Natasha liked to play matchmaker. The little thrill of success and happiness he felt for them was nothing he could articulate. He just squeezed Tony’s hand even tighter, grinning over at him. 

If he could feel like this, then surely everyone deserved to feel this way too.

They showered and packed and Bruce packed his tux away to drop it off with Scott in the morning. By the time they rolled into bed together, Bruce was wired and exhausted at the same time and he grasped Tony’s hand, holding it against his chest as he watched Tony’s breathing even out as he relaxed. He was so handsome and he made Bruce so happy and Bruce scootched in even closer until he was at the edge of his pillow, and he whispered into the big silence, 

“Let’s get married.”

Tony chuckled as he cracked his eyes open to look over at him in the dark room. “Right now?” 

Bruce huffed a laugh and blushed. “No, not right now but you know – one day. Soon.”

“Soon?” Tony teased as his eyes drifted closed again. “Who knew my little Bruce-y was such a hopeless romantic?” 

It felt like a rebuke even though Bruce knew it wasn’t but there was only a brief moment of dead silence before Tony was chuckling again and he turned over on his side, withdrawing his hand and using it to push on Bruce’s shoulder. 

“Come on, little spoon,” he teased and Bruce flipped over so that he could press his back up against Tony’s warm chest, feeling his arms locked around him, the same position they’d woken up to this morning.

“I will absolutely marry the hell out of you,” he mouthed against the back of his neck, his nose nuzzled in against his hairline. “Whenever you want, wherever you want. A chapel in Vegas, cathedral in Rome, a courthouse in Philly – hell, I would marry you in the middle of the goddamn farmer’s market if that’s what you wanted.”

Bruce couldn’t help but laugh, locking his fingers with Tony and holding him tight against his chest. 

“I was hoping you would do the planning because I would be perfectly happy to marry you in the back alley.”

Tony laughed now and Bruce felt it all across his back.

“Okay, so New York City, Times Square. Naked Cowboy officiates.”

“Oh my god,” Bruce groaned, “courthouse in Philly it is.”

Tony laughed into his neck and Bruce laughed back, blinking back happy tears as they edged across his eyes.

“Courthouse in Philly sounds perfect,” Tony sighed as Bruce brought his fist up to kiss his palm, snuggling back against him. “Gas station parking lot, on short notice...” he yawned and Bruce closed his eyes.

“IKEA and we can raid the cheap candy after,” Bruce offered softly. 

“Hooters for those shitty chicken wings,” Tony mumbled and Bruce sniggered.

“I’d rather Micky D’s fake chicken,” Bruce teased and for a long moment he wasn’t sure Tony was going to reply – but finally he sighed.

“Whatever you want baby, it’s yours.” 

His voice was a tired slur and Bruce let him go to sleep, feeling safe and happy and so unbelievably loved in his arms and he knew, he just knew that with Tony right there beside him everything would always, always be okay.

Chapter Text

The morning was rough. Much as Bruce wanted to get home, he hated waking up early and he really just wanted to lay in bed with Tony for at least an hour, kissing and touching and making love. But Tony was anxious to get home too, and he forced Bruce up – although Bruce made him promise they’d go to bed early tonight.

“Anything for you,” Tony replied with a kiss, shouldering a bag and sweeping him from the room with a big grin and the promise of only twelve hours on his face. 

Tony started out optimistic, playing songs from the wedding last night and singing along, fingers linked loosely together as Bruce dozed against the window, gazing over at him after every jar in the road that forced his eyes open. 

But then there was silence when Bruce started awake and he wiped at his face. 

“I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to fall asleep.” 

“It’s okay,” Tony offered, glancing at him with a tight smile. “You have to go to work tomorrow. But we should probably be thinking about stopping soon.”

Bruce stared out the car window, trying to discern where they were from the relative nothing around them and a roadsign with a name he didn’t recognize. 

“Where are we?” 

“Almost to Charlotte.”

Bruce looked at the clock and realized it was nearly eleven and that Tony had been driving for almost four hours. 

“Fuck – yeah, stop,” he said. “I’ll drive.”

There was silence between them – not even the radio was on – and Bruce furrowed his brows, feeling like Tony was upset with him as he wrung the steering wheel in his hands. 

“You should have woken me up, I would have switched off,” he said with a conciliatory tone but Tony shook his head. 

“No – it’s fine, I like to drive.”

And Bruce knew that was true, at least as far as highway driving was concerned. He often did the bulk of the drive himself and was content with that. But he still seemed upset and though Tony tried to offer another smile, it came out pained. 

Bruce gave it a few minutes, waited to see if Tony would offer it on his own. He liked to talk, even if he wasn’t always good at getting to the point, but this time whatever it was he wasn’t willing to offer.

“What’s wrong?” Bruce asked and Tony sighed and thumbed the stitching on the steering wheel. 

“Nothing,” he puttered out but Bruce made a face Tony didn’t even have to see to know he’d been called on it. 

“It’s dumb,” he tried again, trying to get Bruce to drop it but each stupid excuse just made him more curious. 

“I just... I know you said nothing was going to change but...” Tony said at last, huffing out a sigh. “What if it’s... different, now?”

It took Bruce a moment to figure out exactly what he meant. He was so looking forward to being home, being able to decompress, being able to fall back into his routine with Tony that he couldn’t think of anything else. It was perfect. It was theirs. How could it be different?

“Why would it be different?” Bruce asked, not meaning to be flippant but truly curious what Tony was concerned about. They were going back to their same home, their same jobs, just as in love as they were before, right? What could be different?

“I don’t know,” Tony sighed, running a hand through his hair and resting his hand on his palm as he leaned his elbow into the window. “It just feels different now that – you know – you met my parents and my dad had to be such an asshole about the prenup. And then, with your mom, and she...” 

Said no , Bruce filled in for him mentally, wincing. That would be hard, yeah – every time he went downstairs it would hurt for a while. But if he were honest with himself, he wasn’t quite ready to give up hope that she would change her mind eventually.

“But it’s always been just us,” Bruce said instead of acknowledging that – and really, it was true. 

No one helped them pack up at MIT, no one helped them move to Philly, no one helped them buy a house but for Tony’s parents fronting the money that was already his, no one helped them navigate living together in a new city. It was them and just them right out of the gate.  

Tony looked thoughtful, chewing his lower lip as he stared forward, and Bruce gave him a moment. He didn’t know what to say, what he could say, he just knew – he loved him. Just as much as he loved him before. Maybe even more, now.

Now that he knew first hand what Tony grew up with, how his father treated him, how Howard ruined what could have been a happy family, the largess Tony had available to him and how willing Tony was to give it up just to be with him. 

Now that he knew how easily Tony could cope with the past Bruce had always been terrified to truly divulge, how easily Tony glossed over dealing with his father, how he held him together through his breakdown, talked to his mom so easily, did every single thing right – without even trying. 

Now that they had been through so much and Bruce knew just how deeply Tony’s love lied.

“I like it like that,” Bruce said at last. “Just us.”

It took a moment but slowly, slowly Tony’s whole face light up into a blinding smile as he shifted the hand on the steering wheel so that he could take Bruce’s hand in his own again, lacing their fingers together and squeezing tightly. 

“Me too,” he admitted, taking his eyes off of the road for a moment to see Bruce smiling back at him. “I like it a lot.”

“I’m not quite ready to give up on my mom yet,” Bruce confessed as his smile fell and he looked away, tightening his fingers with Tony’s as Tony ran his thumb against Bruce’s wrist. 

“I thought about that, actually,” he said, pressing the pad of his thumb to Bruce’s pressure point. “There’s no reason to convert it to anything else. We can use it as a guest room for when Rhodey visits or whatever and if she ever changes her mind, it will be there, waiting for her.”

Bruce looked back over at him, feeling a hesitant little smile on his face. Hesitant because he was afraid if he smiled too big or too hard he was going to start crying. It was one thing to have gotten a full ride to MIT – he deserved that, he always had. And he deserved the job offers he got too. But there was nothing in the whole world he did to deserve Tony. Nothing at all. 

“Thank you,” he said at last but Tony just shrugged, flipping on the signal to exit the highway. 

“Don’t worry about it.”

**

Traffic wasn’t great outside Richmond or DC and they stopped longer than Bruce wanted for dinner just because the traffic was so bad. So the twelve-hour trip took closer to fourteen and it was almost nine by the time they got home. 

“I’m calling in sick,” Bruce groaned as they drove into Philly.

“No you’re not – what about your cultures? They’re like you’re babies.” Tony laughed and then gasped, infuriatingly upbeat considering they’d spent nearly fourteen hours in a car. “ Our babies!”

“Shut up – they can’t even leave the lab,” Bruce argued back, pulling at his hair. “But you’re right, I’m not calling out. It’s just going to be so hard to get out of bed when you’re laying there naked, sleeping in.”

“I’ll get up with you,” Tony offered but Bruce just frowned and shook his head. “I need to go on a run anyway – it’s been too long.”

“Only if you want,” Bruce replied and Tony grinned over at him, both of them knowing Bruce wanted him to. 

And when they pulled up to their spot on the street, Tony’s bike untouched in the front of it, nothing in the world looked more welcoming than their three-story brick row house with the red door. 

“I can carry you in,” Tony teased and Bruce pushed his shoulder hard as Tony laughed. 

“You can carry in the bags so we can get in bed,” Bruce told him instead and Tony leaned back over to give him a quick kiss. 

Though it was dark when he unlocked the door, the instant familiarity of home – their home – hit him as Tony flipped the light.

It was all there, just where they’d left it. The little key dish on the counter, Tony’s piano, their wine glasses on the counter next to a few bottles they wanted to try, the distinct lack of art or anything else on the walls or the floor or anywhere else because they’d only moved in six months ago and had nothing.

It was his dream. Their dream.

“Hand me your bag,” Bruce said, blinking against the light and holding out his hand. “I’ll go put our clothes up and get in the shower and you bring up a bottle of wine.”

Tony grinned as he dropped his bag in Bruce’s hand. “My nice shit gets dry cleaned.”

Bruce rolled his eyes but it was tender and he smirked. “Yeah, yeah – I know.”

Carefully he separated the stuff in their travel bags into Tony’s laundry basket system that Bruce was finally getting a handle on and then he got in the shower. Tony joined him after a few minutes, laughing as they stood close in the small space. 

“Hotel is better for this,” Bruce pointed out, both of them soaking wet, water dripping down their faces and Tony looked so happy and relaxed as he grinned over at him.

Tony’s neck was still covered in bruises, darker than yesterday, and he planted one strong arm against the tile behind Bruce as Bruce put his hands on Tony's hips, grinning back at him.

“You’re such a dick,” Tony laughed as he leaned in and kissed him. 

With two people inside, their little shower was neither effective for showering or for fucking but they tried for the first and ended up just kissing their way to bed. Tony had brought up the wine as promised, pouring them both a glass and leaving the bottle on the nightstand by his side of the bed since all Bruce had was a questionable bookshelf on his. But he also put together a plate of cheese and crackers from whatever was in the pantry and the fridge and Bruce smiled at the offering, pushing Tony down into the bed and straddling his hips, staring down at his boyfriend in their bed in their house in their city and feeling full to the point of bursting. 

“I’m calling out tomorrow,” he repeated and Tony laughed, his hands on his thighs, staring up at him with the prettiest eyes. How was he supposed to leave for work in the morning when he had all of this here?

“Think of our children!” Tony teased and Bruce buried his thumb in his hip, making him laugh as he tickled him. 

For a minute they fought, Tony finally managing to buck him off his hips, twisting Bruce up in the sheets until Bruce was trapped beneath him instead. And Tony kissed him full on the mouth, smiling into it, slipping his hand under his neck, up it, twisting his fingers in his wet hair. 

“I love you,” he whispered, his voice breathy, and Bruce put his palm on Tony’s cheek, stroking it. 

“I love you, too,” he said back, words like that coming so easily to him now, easier than he ever thought possible – at least when he was with Tony. 

“This is good, right?” Tony asked, vulnerable, needing a reassurance Bruce didn’t understand but was eager to give him. 

“This is so good,” he replied effortlessly, wrapping his arms around him and flipping him off his hips so they were side by side.

They were both hard but it didn’t mean anything, there was no urgency, and Bruce just stared lovingly into Tony’s eyes until Tony couldn’t take it anymore and he pressed a hand to his face, laughing. 

“Unless you’re gonna screw me, I’m not drunk enough for this,” he joked and Bruce let up. 

He sat up, grabbing his wine glass as Tony set the plate between them and took up his own, sipping it and frowning. 

“You forget how good good wine is until you have it again,” he said before taking another swallow, undeterred by its apparent unsuitability. 

Bruce looked at it uncertainly as he took a piece of cheese. Maybe he just wasn’t cultured enough for good wine. He looked out the slats of the blinds to the city lights beyond their window and he wondered if that’s why Tony needed reassurance – because he could see that Bruce was second rate, like their city and their wine. 

But after a minute Tony set his empty glass down and he moved the plate away and he slid up close to him again, sliding an arm beneath Bruce’s back and pillowing his head on Bruce’s chest and throwing a leg across one of his, locking him in tight. The little tendrils of fear and doubt that began snaking their way into Bruce's mind wilted and died on contact. He finished his glass as he stroked at Tony’s hair, feeling him relax against his body until finally, on the verge of sleep he whispered – 

“It’s good to be home.”

And Bruce couldn’t agree more.

Chapter Text

“Oh my god, stop! You're going to make that poor cat sick!”

Tony’s voice was shrill but they were both laughing, watching one of their two new cats sniff and tentatively lick at a spoonful of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream Bruce held out to him. 

“I’m telling on you,” Tony teased as he whipped out his phone. “Clint is going to hear all about this.”

Bruce rolled his eyes and shoved the spoon in his own mouth, shooting Bixby an apologetic look as he reached out to scratch under his chin, holding the spoon between his lips.

Bixby was a beautiful, friendly, outgoing young cat with slick silver-gray fur and a puff of a tail that fanned out when he held it up and the shelter said he was quite popular but bonded closely with another cat named Simon and they had to go together. Simon, on the other hand, was old and fat and grumpy and he hated kids and he hated dogs and he didn’t really even like any other cats besides Bixby – and they would be found curled up together half the day. Tony laughed and laughed and said it was perfect and Bruce scowled. They weren’t planning on getting two cats, but they also weren’t planning on having kids or dogs – at least no time in the foreseeable future – so it was okay. 

And when the volunteer at the shelter finally wrangled Simon into the meet and greet room he curled up behind Bruce’s feet and wouldn’t move and the volunteer called everyone else in to see it because apparently that was abnormal. Apparently his normal response was to tuck himself up in a corner and spit at everyone as Bixby charmed circles around their prospective adopters. Bruce had to take that cat, they said.

“Your mom did say cats love you,” Tony agreed and Bruce sighed. Two cats it was.

Simon had finally come down from the bedroom after two weeks quarantining himself up there and he sat beneath the TV stand now, somehow squishing his fat body under there, watching Bixby with disinterested cat eyes. Bruce couldn’t help but wonder how his mom would feel about not one but two indoor cats. They’d never had a pet like that growing up.

It had been just over three months though – not that Bruce was keeping track – and he had never been hopeful about much of anything in his life but this he couldn’t seem to let go of. Things had returned to normal after their trip – Tony resuming his scheduled workouts and piano practice and meal planning, Bruce returning to work and his labs and uncovering hidden gems near their house on the weekends. Maybe hoping his mom would one day agree to live there was just part of his normal. It was easy, anyway. He was used to it. 

Bruce finished off the last few bites then tilted the empty bowl towards Bixby, letting him lick at the dregs as Tony laughed, grabbing the bowl from his hand and displacing the eager cat. 

“You’re the most indulgent dad,” Tony teased, planting a kiss on the top of his head as he took their bowls to the kitchen.

He heard the bowls clink in the sink as Bixby stared over the back of the couch, realizing he wasn’t getting that ice cream back, and sank into Bruce’s lap happily instead. And then his phone rang. 

“Christ – Clint is actually calling me!” Bruce called back to Tony, laughing, assuming that was the only person who would be calling him at half-past nine on a Thursday night. 

But when he looked at his phone screen it wasn’t Clint – it was his mom. 

She still called him rarely, preferring to text first, and never at night, and frankly, more and more she started calling Tony, so immediately his adrenaline spiked as he answered the call. 

“Hey mom – everything okay?” he answered as Tony stepped back into the room, sharing a concerned look with him. 

“Bruce?” the soft female voice on the other end of the line said and it definitely was not his mother’s. “This is Josie Miller, from up the street?”

Bruce blinked as he looked around the room in confusion like if he stared hard enough he could make that make sense. Sure he knew Josie – he hadn’t seen her in years but she had a couple of kids a little older than him and a well-maintained ranch a few streets over and his mom and she had always gotten along because she was quiet and calm and her husband was almost never home so as far as neighbors went, they were never a threat.

“Yeah?” he asked, his hand tightening in Bixby’s fur. 

“Your mom is here, with me,” she said, her voice wavering just slightly. “She’s not doing well.”

“Fuck,” he breathed and he had to look away from Tony who was staring at him anxiously, clearly able to tell something was wrong.

“She said something about you might have a place she could stay? But she’s scared to call.”

“Is she there right now?” 

“I – I gave her an Ambien and sent her to bed,” Josie admitted on the other line, sounding nervous though Bruce sighed deep with relief. 

“Can you keep her there?” he asked, trying to keep his voice steady and still. “I live – shit – like eight hours away?” 

“She should sleep at least seven hours on the Ambien, probably more – she’s got to be exhausted.”

Bruce got up quickly, scaring Bixby from his lap and bolting up the stairs with Tony on his heels. 

“Good, good – I will be there as soon as possible. Please text me or have her call me if she wakes up and wants to go back. What’s your house number again?” 

“Eight seventy-two,” Josie responded automatically, then took a breath. “I will try to keep her away from him but – Bruce?” 

“Yeah?” he said as he stared at the room – not even sure what he came up for because he didn’t need to pack a bag, he didn’t need anything – blowing past Tony and descending the stairs again in a near fall.

“If he comes around here looking for her I’m locking the door and calling the cops.”

“Absolutely. Just – don’t let her leave until she sees me. I –” he swallowed hard, not able to get the rest of the words out. 

But Josie understood. She knew. She had to know. She stood silent vigil as cop cars with lights shining slid silently into the neighborhood week after week, watched as she left the house with a face full of foundation, visited her in the hospital time and again and begged her to leave in quiet whispers until her voice faded away to nothing and she gave up the way everyone always did eventually. 

Not Bruce though. With the blind and infallible hope of a child who had nothing else to hope for, he never gave up thinking that he would be able to rescue his mother.

“I’ll be there soon,” Bruce said as he grabbed the keys from the counter. 

“See you soon,” she said as she hung up. 

His hand was on the doorknob by the time he felt Tony’s hand on his arm, holding him there, surprising him with the strength he never used on Bruce.

“Baby stop,” he begged as Bruce opened the door anyway. “Take a breath. What’s going on?” 

The warm night air filled the foyer quickly and even though he wanted to dart down the sidewalk and to the car, he found himself stilled by Tony’s words, taking the breath Tony told him to. 

“My mom – she’s at a neighbor’s. She – I think she’s ready and I need to go.”

He was sure his eyes looked wild, his heart was pounding so hard in his chest he could only think of moving, of speeding down the dark highway until he was there, until he was ushering her into the car and a few hundred miles away from him where he could never hurt either of them ever again. If Tony said ‘no’ – oh fuck, Tony would never say ‘no’ – but if Tony said ‘no’ he would – 

“Okay,” Tony said, holding out his hand. “Give me the keys and get in the car.”

Bruce felt lost but Tony? Tony looked so calm and self-assured it was easy to hand him the keys and Tony unlocked the doors before going back into the depths of the house for – Bruce didn’t know, he just walked out into the night, opening the door and sitting down in the passenger seat. 

It felt like an eternity but Bruce knew it was only moments before he saw Tony at the door, locking up before joining him in the car, not even bothering with the GPS before starting the ignition and pulling out. 

“You don’t have to come with me,” Bruce said even as he made for the highway. 

“You can’t drive,” Tony scoffed, “you’re shaking like a leaf.”

Bruce stared down at his hands. They were trembling furiously in his lap and he didn’t even realize it. 

“Besides, this is like my fucking mother-in-law we’re talking about and if there is a one percent chance you’re going to run into your asshole dad then under no circumstance am I letting you do this alone.”

“But work,” Bruce protested although it was way too late for that and he hadn’t even considered his own job. 

“Fuck work,” Tony answered cavalierly. “I’ll find someone to take my shift. The worst that happens is they fire me – which they won’t – and you know how easy it would be for me to find another job as a mechanic. You should contact Helen though and tell her it’s a family emergency and that you’ll be in on Monday.”

Tony was right and he pulled out his phone but his fingers were shaking too badly to type and it would have to wait. 

“You’ve gotta speed,” Bruce told him, his voice breaking as his throat constricted, the fear that suddenly overtook him overwhelming him like riptide, dragging him down into a deep, dark place he hadn’t been to in a long, long time. 

“Bruce, baby – you know who you’re dating, right?” Tony asked with a laugh, trying to reassure him as he reached over for his hand. “‘Speed’ is practically my middle name.”

**

They were about halfway through Pennsylvania when Bruce relaxed enough to realize just how thankful he was that Tony had come with him. 

“Think you can do a few hours?” Tony asked, yawning, and Bruce nodded as he tried to shake off his own exhaustion. 

“Yeah,” Bruce said, rubbing at his eyes. “Stop at a gas station and I’ll get some coffee.”

“I wanted to do the whole thing for you,” Tony winced and Bruce shifted, leaning over the center console, grabbing Tony’s hand and pressing it against his cheek. 

“It’s better this way,” he said, squeezing it tightly. “You can sleep now and drive on the way back.”

Tony’s fingers reached out and stroked his face. “You sure?” 

“Yeah,” Bruce sighed, fighting back a yawn of his own. 

I need you , he thought – but he figured Tony knew so he didn’t have to say it. Tony was so much smarter than him when it came to shit like this, always one step ahead. There were a million reasons why he needed him here – he helped him through texting Helen to get off work tomorrow, talked him through the plan for when they got there, guessed at what his mom might say, knew that if Tony was there with him his mom couldn’t use Tony as an excuse as to why she shouldn’t come back, that Tony was far more equipped to deal with his father than he was if it came to that. And he calmed him down, made him feel better in that way that Tony always made seem effortless, and then let him rest. And he felt better when he woke up, too – even though he hadn’t expected to. He just knew it was okay. He just knew, with Tony there, they’d make it work. They’d be okay.

They stopped at a rundown Sunoco and Bruce refilled the gas tank, took a piss, and bought a couple energy drinks, meeting Tony back at the car. Bruce opened the passenger side door to give him a kiss and Tony already had the seat leaned way back, cuddled up in a fleece blanket Bruce had drug out of the back earlier. 

“You’re ready,” Bruce observed, feeling himself laugh despite how shitty he felt and how severe the situation ahead of them was likely to be. How Tony could do that to him he didn’t think he’d ever know. 

“Gotta make sure I’m rested up for the trip back,” he said and Bruce leaned into the car, kissing him harder than even he expected to but he was just so thankful for him at that moment.

“Hey,” Tony said when Bruce finally pulled away, shifting a little and cradling Bruce’s head in his hands a moment, carding his fingers through his hair. “It’s going to be okay.”

“I know,” Bruce told him, squeezing his knee with his free hand. “Because you’re here.”

Tony gave him a soft smile and Bruce ruffled his hair as he stepped away from the door, closing it and taking up the driver’s seat. He steered the car in the dark back to the highway with the shitty direction of the GPS confused as to why they stopped. He could hear Tony’s breathing, deep and steady in the silence of the car as he cracked open a big can of Red Bull and chugged down about half of it all in one go. His mind rolled over the thoughts in his head, struggling to focus as he edged the car up to ninety. But one thing stood out, glaring and painful in his mind. 

“I don’t know what I’ll do if she won’t come back,” he muttered, his knuckles white on the steering wheel he was gripping it so hard. 

“She’ll come,” Tony said softly, his voice on the edge of sleep, reaching his arm across the car to rest on Bruce’s hip, and attempt at comfort though in his agitated state Bruce nearly batted it away. “She’ll feel too guilty we’ve gone all that way not to.”

Bruce swallowed, feeling ill. That wasn’t exactly what he wanted. He didn’t want to guilt her into it. He wanted her – 

What he wanted was a pipe dream and he knew it. But he wanted her to choose him . Her son. The boy who adored her, who loved her. Just once. He wanted her to choose him.

But she never would. Not when his father’s hold was so damn strong.

“You’ll say, it’s not forever, just a little while, a break,” Tony continued and Bruce’s hands wrung the steering wheel as he tried not to cry. “And I’ll say ‘please’ and then she’ll come. And then she’ll see how good it is to be away and she’ll never want to go back.”

“I hope you’re right,” Bruce whispered and he felt Tony’s hand search his hip gently, looking for his belt loop and twisting his fingers in it.

“I’m right,” Tony said, that ridiculous self-confidence Bruce loved him endlessly for. “You’ll see.”

“Get some sleep,” Bruce said, changing the subject as he hit play on the radio for a distraction. But then his face softened as he looked over at his boyfriend, cuddled up, eyes closed, arm across the car, connected to him. “Love you.”

“Love you too,” Tony sighed as Bruce chewed at the inside of his cheek – reaching out to put his hand on Tony’s arm, stroking his thumb along it gently, taking a blessed moment to think about what he ever could have done to deserve a love like this.

Chapter Text

The sun was just starting to blaze over the horizon line when they pulled wearily into Josie Miller’s driveway. Tony’s eyes finally betrayed a sense of nervousness when he stared at the bleach white house with the rose bushes pruned to perfection across the front and the numbers eight, seven, and two in black wrought iron displayed prominently by the red door with a flag wreath on the front, surely a holdover from the Fourth of July.

Tony reached over and grabbed Bruce’s hand, squeezing it tight before Bruce switched off the ignition and opened the door. He warned Tony not to be too obvious about their relationship – he wasn’t sure what his mom had told Mrs. Miller and people in midwestern Ohio could still be pretty weird when face to face with actual gay people.

He didn’t even have to ring the doorbell before the door swung open and an older lady in a zip-front pink robe with greying hair tied back in a braid that was coming undone greeted them. It had probably been ten years since he’d seen her and she looked nothing like he remembered really but she gave him a tight smile, clearly remembering him.

“You got here just in time – I think she’s waking up,” Mrs. Miller said, ushering them in with a curious look for Tony, locking and bolting the door behind them. 

“This is Tony,” Bruce was saying quietly. “He’s my – uh – my roommate.”

Tony smiled gently and held out a hand to her, taking hers and squeezing it just a little as she offered them the couch. 

“I’m going to check on her,” she said, her face drawing down into a grimace. “She looks bad, okay?”

Bruce swallowed hard, lacing his fingers together so he didn’t reach out for Tony. It wouldn’t have been the first time but it would be the first time in a long time since he was face to face with it directly.

When she left they shared a look of impending dread and he was pretty sure Tony felt like reaching out and holding his hand too but they stayed still, waiting for Mrs. Miller’s return. 

It was several long minutes in which Bruce wiped his sweaty palms against his slacks about fifteen times and swallowed back the anxious lump in his throat probably twenty before Mrs. Miller reappeared with his mother in tow. 

She was clearly shocked to see them, covering her face instinctively with one hand to hide what had been done to her – but one small hand could never cover the blackening eye, the swollen and split lip, the bruising on her cheek and neck and Bruce heard Tony drawn in a breath as he tried to keep calm himself. The last thing she needed was judgment or anger or fear. 

“Mom,” he said softly, standing and taking a step towards her, waiting to see if she would move away. 

“How are you here?” she asked, truly alarmed, her eyes flitting back and forth between him and Tony uncertainly as he hazarded another step closer. 

“We’re going to take you home,” he said, pitching his voice low and gentle, offering her a little smile even though he didn’t feel it, just trying to garner her trust. “With us.”

“I – Bruce, honey, you know I can’t,” she said, her voice deeply sad as she let her hand fall away. “He’ll be so mad. I – I can’t betray him like that.”

“Just for a little while,” Bruce told her, just like Tony said, trying to ignore what she had said in favor of his fantasy. “Just for a week. Tell him that I begged you to come see my new place. I’ll tell him if you want.”

“He’ll never believe that,” she said, chewing on her broken lip and then wincing, grasping at her pocket with trembling hands for a cigarette she wouldn’t smoke in Josie’s house even if she'd had one. 

“He won’t care, mom,” Bruce assured her, “not for a week. And we’ll be so far away.”

“You should go,” Mrs. Miller agreed, encouraging her with a mild tone, no real pressure. “It will be like a vacation.”

“But work –”

“I know Rich will understand,” Mrs. Miller argued, voice firm but not hard. 

“I can’t,” she said at last, her shoulders dropping. “You, and Tony, you can’t –”

Tony stood then, striding across the room, taking a completely different tack than Bruce and even Mrs. Miller by wrapping her in a tender embrace, holding her close. 

“Please?” Tony asked as he held her to his chest and Bruce thought his heart might simply break in two as he watched Tony do exactly what he said he was going to do. “Please come home with us?”

Bruce could see her resolve fading but her hands dropped from Tony’s back and he let her go, stepping back again and offering her one of his quirky little smiles that was so boyish and endearing and she looked away, pushing back her curly hair from her face as she tried to think. 

“I need to go home and pack a bag for the week,” she said and Bruce’s face immediately dropped as Mrs. Miller shook her head at him from behind his mom. 

“No – we can get you something on the way,” he said with a finality in his voice he almost never used. “We’re getting in the car and we’re leaving.”

“Bruce,” she argued, her voice sharp, as if she was going to admonish him , “I can’t leave here with nothing! I don’t even have a credit card or my cigarettes.”

“We can stop at a gas station. I’ll buy.”

“I can’t let my son pay for –”

“Stop,” he said, fighting back exasperation. “I’ll take it out of your next mortgage payment.”

That was pretty mean and she flinched back as Tony looked over at him in shock. But it was just so damn ridiculous. He already took better care of her than his father ever did. He didn’t want to hear her stupid fucking excuses, not again. He wanted her in the back seat of their Cadillac, headed back across the state of Pennsylvania, putting hundreds of miles between them and this worthless town and his abusive piece of shit father.

“It’s a week, mom,” he tried again, softening his voice and his eyes. “Let’s just go.”

“I –”

“We came all this way,” he said, guilt-tripping her suddenly the furthest thing from his mind, ready to pull out all the stops if he had to. “Please don’t do this.”

Their eyes met in a tentative battle of wills. She knew just as well as he did what he meant and her dignity, her pride, and her stubbornness were all on full display, threatening to ruin it. She was his mother and she was supposed to be the one in control, the one who had her shit together, but... it didn’t work out like that. It never had been that way. So Bruce had to come and save her. At least for a week. And she didn’t want it to be like that, she never wanted it to be like that, but that’s how it was. There was nothing left to do but admit it. 

She licked her lips, seeing that she was cornered, and then threw her hands up in the air in frustration. 

“Fine!” she shouted, letting the hopelessness of her position get the best of her. “Whatever you want! I can never make a damn decision for myself.”

Mrs. Miller frowned at Bruce sympathetically as Tony followed on his mom’s heels so she couldn’t go anywhere but the car. 

“You’re doing the right thing,” Mrs. Miller said and Bruce let out a breath he didn’t realize he was even holding, unclenching his tense fists. 

“If I do the right thing, she’ll never come back,” Bruce warned her and Mrs. Miller reached out and squeezed his arm. 

“You’re a good boy,” she said and her voice was strained like she wanted to say so much but there was nowhere near enough time, “but you can’t fix her.”

“I know,” he replied as her hand fell away. “But I have to try.”

Bruce thanked her for everything and then left, joining Tony and his mom in the car. She looked just as petulant as Tony had looked three months ago in the back of his father’s car, staring out the window like a thirteen-year-old who was just told she couldn’t go to the class sleepover with the boys. But frankly, Bruce gave exactly not a single shit about her mood, all that he cared was that Tony was starting the ignition and backing out of the driveway and she was there, in their car, going home with them.

**

They were on the road for about an hour before she finally spoke up. 

“I could really use a cigarette.”

“We’ll stop at the next gas station,” Tony offered back before looking over at Bruce, unsure if he overstepped his bounds but Bruce didn’t care. They probably could use gas anyway and he didn’t think she would literally try to run away at this point.

“Thanks,” she muttered. 

They were just outside Columbus so the next exit came up quick and Tony signaled to get off. When they pulled up to the pump Tony took out his wallet and two twenties to hand them back to her and she just stared, eyes wild and terrified. They all paused, all unsure. Tony not daring to break eye contact with her, Bruce looking between the two of them, unsure if it was the offer of so much money that caused her reaction or the fact that it was Tony or what, and her eyes pinned to Tony's and filled with a deep, all-encompassing fear.

“I can’t go in there.” 

Her voice cracked on the last word and tears started rolling down her cheeks. 

“I’ll get ‘em,” Tony offered easily as he shoved the cash back in his wallet. 

“Marlboro Golds,” Bruce said as he opened the door to get into the back seat with her. 

She looked like she might be about to hyperventilate, her breath coming in painful gasps as she sobbed into her hands and he’d seen him mom wrecked plenty of times, but seeing her like this? The pain was immense, he felt it through every single part of himself, and he slid into the center seat to put a gentle arm around her as she finally let herself fall into his chest and just cry.

Tony finished putting gas in the car and came back from the service station with a whole carton of cigarettes, some soda, and a couple of breakfast sandwiches. It took a few minutes and his mom was still crying but at least she was breathing a little more normally by the time Tony got back. He shot a questioning look back at Bruce and Bruce nodded slightly, turning his eyes to the road, letting him know it was okay.

“Fuck,” she muttered as she felt the car move, trying to wipe her eyes. 

“I don’t think you’ve eaten and you probably feel all fucked up from the Ambien,” Tony said, giving her a cover for the outburst as she reached past the sandwiches for the carton on the console. 

“You’ve probably never smoked in this car,” she said as her fingers fumbled to open the box. “I’ll crack the window.”

Bruce dug in the bag for a lighter, opening the package for her and handing it over as she finally managed to get the plastic wrapping of an individual pack. She was still sniffling but he knew as soon as she took a few drags she would even out a little. He’d seen it enough times.

“At least have a soda,” Bruce said as she cracked the lighter and opened the window about halfway, leaning into the door so she could smoke and blow it out the window. 

“In a minute.”

Bruce watched the way her fingers stopped shaking after a few draws, the way her breathing settled. From this angle, he couldn’t see how bruised her face was but still – she looked tired. Worn down. She always had been, but even more so now. It was like the weight of all their years apart had settled in on her face. He should have come back sooner. The guilt gnawed at his heart. 

“This is fucked up,” she said at last, turning to look at him with the cigarette dangling by the window, a sad smile trying it’s best to work its way onto her face. “I’m supposed to protect you.”

Bruce fought not to roll his eyes and he looked away, biting his tongue. When had she ever once tried to protect him? It was a shitty thing to think – he knew in her own head she had done everything she could. But she never left – never . And he would always be angry about it – always

But now wasn’t the time. He had to shove that shit back down deep where he always kept it, shove it down where it couldn’t hurt either of them right now. This was the first time she had ever been this honest with him about it – there was plenty of time to fight about it later.

“It doesn’t matter, mom,” Bruce said, hoping Tony would keep his eyes on the road and his mouth shut for a minute. “It’s you and me – we protect each other.”

Her smile grew steady for a minute, though it was still sad. 

“You’re too good to have been his,” she said, looking away to press the cigarette to her mouth again and Bruce swallowed, his fingers trembling now but no cigarette to soothe him. 

“I’m not his,” Bruce said, voice strained and weak against the powerful wave of emotions that felt like they were drowning him. “I’m yours.”

She glanced over at him then and Bruce knew what she saw – his glassy eyes, his bleeding heart. It was all right there, right on the surface, he wasn’t trying to hide it. Maybe he fought to be vulnerable with others but not her, never with her. She was his mom – the woman who despite everything had sung him lullabies as she carried him to his room until he was too big to be carried, who made him Halloween costumes with hot glue and cardboard, who bandaged his booboos and kissed away the tears, who got him his first library card and showed him how to use it, who scraped together enough money to buy him a TI-89 calculator for Christmas and hid it from his dad so he wouldn’t sell it for booze, who when the time came let him go to MIT, let him move states away from her without knowing if she’d ever see him again. She was the woman who loved him unconditionally, despite all her own flaws, despite the fact that her best just wasn’t good enough, and he couldn’t help but love her for it. 

He often wondered if his best was good enough, anyway. 

She smoked down the last bit of her cigarette in one long breath and then flicked it out on the highway, breathing out and then closing the window as Bruce laid his head down on her lap like he was six years old again and wanting nothing more than to believe she could protect him, knowing as an adult with the benefit of hindsight that she had wanted to believe that too. And her fingers found their way to his hair, stroking it softly, just like she used to, and he could almost hear her singing, her voice softer then without eighteen more years of smoking added to it – 

And if that horse and cart fall down, you’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town ...

But she was silent now. And Bruce felt like crying but he couldn’t make the tears come as the car sped down the highway in silence.

**

By the time they finally made it back to Philadelphia it was that awkward time between lunch and dinner and Tony gave a long, gratuitous sigh from the back seat, stretching so that his torso was exposed, glad to be home after seventeen hours in the car. Bruce looked back at him and smiled, but then his smile became more mild as he looked over at his mom in the passenger seat. Her eyes betrayed how nervous she was – but also how excited.

“I never imagined I would see your house in person,” she admitted softly as she stared up at the three-story brick structure he adored. “It’s beautiful.”

Bruce swelled with pride to hear her say it and Tony leaned forward to squeeze his shoulder. 

Although the trip started out rough, slowly they all grew more comfortable with one another until they were all singing along with one of Tony’s silly playlists and his mom was actually smiling. She smoked through about half a pack of cigarettes and she stared at herself in the mirror constantly, trying to cover her face with her hair discreetly. And they had to spend a good five minutes convincing her to leave the car to go to the bathroom at a nearly abandoned rest area in the middle of Pennsylvania because she was terrified some nosy asshole would see them together and call the police on Bruce and Tony and that was the only time she dared to leave the car. But by the last hour or two, she began to loosen up and Bruce hoped it was because she finally felt a little free. 

“Yeah, I kind of love it,” Bruce admitted with a light blush but while they sat there admiring it out the window Tony was more than done with the car and opened the door. 

“You two coming inside?” he teased and Bruce grinned at his boyfriend as he shut the car door on them. 

“Ready?” Bruce asked softly and his mom looked back over at him, nodding a little – shyly – and for a minute it was like all the age in her face fell away and she looked... soft and new.

They got out of the car and Bruce locked the doors before joining Tony on the stoep in front of their red one. Tony was grinning at him and Bruce couldn’t help but grin back. So much of their relationship had been focused on this very moment. It had been dissected time and again as they followed their Realtor into house after house, looking for a place where she could stay too. It had been pressed in terrified whispers to the center of Tony’s chest as they lay in bed, Bruce’s mind forced through that desperate hope over and over again. It stopped him from staying in Miami with Tony, stopped him from doing anything but his best at MIT, stopped him from taking any other job than one which would afford him the ability to do just this. 

So Tony knew. Tony knew more than anyone else on Earth just how monumental this moment was, just how much Bruce wanted it, needed it. And when he grinned at him it wasn’t some cute little thing, oh I’m so happy for you – no. Bruce knew Tony felt it with the same sense of enormity that Bruce did. And he knew Tony would have grabbed his hand and shared his excitement with him in a tangible way but neither of them wanted to make it awkward for his mom or scare her off so he didn’t. 

Instead, he let Bruce open the door on his dream – finally completely and totally fulfilled – and let Tony and then his mom inside, closing the door behind them. 

“Oh, Bruce,” she breathed, taking in the beautiful wood floors, the piano, the fully stocked pantry, the pictures of them in Miami tacked with magnets to the fridge, the two cats hiding under the table cautiously. 

She stepped forward, marveling in it, stepping down the hallway and past the piano, walking back to the living room, taking it all in. 

"I would have tidied up more if I knew," Bruce said softly as she walked up and he followed her, pointing out their laundry room, the office, the tiny second bedroom that wasn't furnished, the master suite. 

"It's so beautiful," she murmured, staring at their giant ornate bed frame, the third story view of the city. "I can't believe all of this is yours."

"Well, you know, Tony helped," he admitted, biting down a happy flush. 

"Tony is good to you?" she asked and he knew what it meant but standing in their room, where Tony loved him so gently night after night, it felt surreal. 

"So good, mom," he admitted, his heart so full he was sure it was spilling from his eyes. "He's so good."

She wrapped him in a hug and he held her back for a long moment, struggling to believe that she was here, that this was real. It felt even better than he imagined.

"I have something else I want to show you, mom," he said as he pulled away slowly and she wiped her eyes with nimble fingers, hoping he wouldn't see. 

He lead her back downstairs where Tony was at the table, yawning over a grocery list. 

"I'm going to go down to Mitch's and get us some steaks for dinner," he offered with a smile. "I'll pick up some toiletries and stuff too while I'm out." 

"That sounds great," Bruce told him earnestly with a fond smile, knowing Tony would pick up some clothes and stuff as well until his mom's bruising faded and she felt more confident going out, and Tony beamed up at him.

Bruce opened the door to the downstairs, looking back at his mom with thinly veiled excitement as he lead her down to the floor he'd thought of as hers from the very moment he laid eyes on it. 

"There's a bathroom down here and –"

"Oh!" she interrupted, rushing to pick up the afghan from the chair under the stairs as soon as she saw it. "Your aunt made this!"

"Yeah!" He was grinning as she smiled up at him teary-eyed.

"I haven't seen it in years – I thought..."

She didn't need to say what she thought. Bruce knew. I thought your dad threw it away to spite me.

"I took it with me to MIT," he admitted but she didn't seem upset.

"I'm glad," she said. "It's yours. Since you were a baby."

She clutched it to her chest as he opened the door to her room – the wrought iron bed frame and the chest of drawers Tony painted and the impressionistic painting of bluebirds over the bed just for her – and as he looked back at her, her face full of wonder, he knew that everything was perfect. More than perfect. Everything was wonderful now.

"And this is yours," he told her as she stepped into the room, fearful and awed like it was a dream and something that could be taken away from her in an instant if she wasn't very, very careful.

And Bruce understood – fuck, how he understood that fear. Sometimes it was more than he could bear just to believe that it was real. But he had been living in this dream now for over a year and it hadn't been taken from him yet. His dream could be her dream too and they could live there together in it for the rest of time. She just had to believe it, she had to try. She just had to say yes.

"It's too much," she whispered, her fingers working the yarn of the afghan as she tucked it under her chin like a small child. 

"No, mom," he said, reaching out and grabbing her elbow, grounding her. "It's just enough."