"Shit!" Tony yelped as his sleek Audi slid off the road and into a pine tree. The airbag slammed him in the face and he sat for a moment, dazed, as it pressed into his face and gradually began to deflate. He shook his head and turned the car off. He stepped out of the car to assess the damage. It didn't feel like he'd been hurt too badly, but the car looked worse than the slow-motion crash might have suggested.
Tony settled back into the driver's seat and tried to start the car, but it didn't want to turn back on. He considered opening the hood, but he didn't really have any tools to deal with a roadside emergency. Well, whatever, that was what AAA was for, right? He'd just call for a ride.
But when he pulled his phone out of his pocket, he saw an unfamiliar sight: "No signal." He held it up over his head and waved it around, but that didn't seem to help. He looked up and down the dark mountain road and considered his options. He could head back up the mountain, toward the ski resort he'd left, but it was miles behind him now. He could stay here and wait for a ride from a passing stranger, but he might be waiting awhile―he'd intentionally taken the winding back road down the mountain to avoid the paparazzi who'd set up camp outside the resort's main road. He hadn't seen any other cars heading out this way.
Now that his car had gone off the road, Tony understood why this route saw so little use. So he decided that his best option was the unknown. He ducked back into the car to pull his ski outerwear back over his jeans and T-shirt, topping the look off with a bright red scarf Pepper had given him last Christmas. He trudged down the road on foot, wishing he'd brought cross-country skis in addition to his downhill skis. He kept his phone out in one gloved hand, hoping to pick up even one bar of signal.
Tony began to feel worried as he walked for what seemed like a long time. His path was lit only by moonlight, as there were no streetlights. His phone was still useless, and it began to snow. He wrapped his scarf tightly around his face and carried on. Tony had heard there was an early December storm coming in, and he'd decided to drive the two hours back into the city that night rather than get snowed in at the resort, a choice he now regretted. Sure, he'd have been stuck at a place filled with insufferable socialites, at least one of whom had probably called the even-more insufferable paparazzi. But at least he'd have been stuck somewhere with a hot tub and wifi.
Fortunately, Tony encountered other signs of human life before his phone did. He saw a lone figure near the road, shoveling a long path. Tony gratefully walked toward the stranger, only belatedly wondering if he should be worried about serial killers or something.
The figure looked up when Tony approached. From under a faux-fur lined parka hood, he said, "Well, I don't suppose you're here to buy a tree." His voice was low and pleasant. He didn't sound like a serial killer.
"A tree?" Tony blinked and then noticed the big wooden sign facing the road: Ross Christmas Tree Farm. Cut your own! CASH ONLY. "Oh. Uh. No, I―I was wondering if I could use your phone? I, uh, my car got into a disagreement with a tree. And I don't have any signal out here."
"Ah. No, no one does. Do you need an ambulance? Was anyone hurt?"
"No, I'm fine," Tony said, although his aching muscles quietly protested that assessment. He'd already been sore from skiing, and the accident and subsequent long walk in the cold hadn't helped. But he was pretty sure nothing was broken. "It was just me. And my car. But I'm okay, I just need to call a tow truck."
"Hmm. Well, come with me, you can use my landline."
"Thanks." He followed the stranger up the path to a tiny cabin. The main room featured a fireplace, couch, and small kitchen area. There was an overloaded bookshelf, and several precarious stacks of books scattered around the place. Once they were both inside, Tony got his first good look at the stranger and gasped. After he pulled off his parka, he revealed a shockingly attractive face, beneath some tousled brown hair and manly stubble. He wore a purple and black buffalo check flannel shirt, with a significant amount of chest hair peeking out over the top. Tony had been saved by a hot lumberjack. "So hot," Tony mumbled.
Oblivious, the man replied, "Yeah, you should take your coat off, you can hang it by the door." Tony shook his head and shrugged off his coat and scarf. Now it was the other man's turn to gasp as he said, "I thought you said you weren't hurt!"
"Your―there's blood all over your face. Please, sit down." He pointed at one of the two kitchen chairs and used a tone that brooked no disagreement. Tony sat down, hoping this wasn't all some kind of wonderful dream he was having while he was actually freezing to death in his car.
"Hey, what's your name?" Tony asked, while the hot lumberjack busied himself filling a kettle with water.
"Oh. I'm Bruce. Sorry, I, uh, my manners are a little rusty. I don't get a lot of visitors out here."
"I'm Tony," Tony said. He waited for some kind of reaction from Bruce―"The Tony Stark?" or "Oh, from Stark Pharmaceuticals?" or "I know"―but Bruce just nodded.
"Well, uh, nice to meet you, Tony. Sorry about the circumstances."
"Are you making tea?" Tony asked, watching Bruce at the stove.
"Maybe later? Oh, this, I―I don't have hot running water," Bruce said. "I didn't want to clean your face with cold water."
"You―what?" Tony asked stupidly. "Are you a monk or something?"
Bruce laughed. "Close, I'm a grad student. I, uh, the cabin has a hot water heater but it broke last week? I told the owner but he hasn't done anything about it yet."
"You've gone a week without hot water? It's freezing out here!"
"I have a stove. Do you have any allergies?"
"I was going to give you some calendula for your face, but I wanted to make sure you're not allergic."
"No, I don't―I don't think so. I'm not allergic to anything, that I know of."
Bruce brought a wooden bowl and a white cloth over to the kitchen table. He dipped the cloth in the bowl and started to gently clean Tony's face. When Bruce pulled the cloth away from Tony's face and dipped it back in the bowl, Tony was surprised to see blood in the water.
"Huh. Sorry, I didn't notice I was bleeding...I guess my face was frozen?"
"It'll probably start to hurt more now that you're warming up. It doesn't look too bad, though. But even minor cuts to the face bleed a lot."
Bruce carefully tended to him, drying his face off with a clean towel and bandaging a cut on his forehead. "I think you'll make it," he said drily. "Does anything else hurt?"
Tony shimmied his shoulders experimentally. The cut on his forehead had started to twinge with pain as he readjusted to an indoor temperature. "I mean, I'm a little sore, but nothing major. I was going pretty slow."
"That's good." Bruce pulled off latex gloves―what a well-prepared lumberjack he was―and washed his hands. "You don't have a headache? Any chance of a concussion?"
"I don't think so."
"Here, open your eyes, track my finger." Bruce studied Tony's face. Tony watched Bruce's waving finger, then let his eyes drift back to Bruce's ruggedly handsome face. "Yes, you seem to be pretty responsive. It's just that if you were going to go to the hospital, you'd be better off going now before the storm really hits."
Tony shook his head. "No, no, I don't need the hospital. It was just a scratch, really. But thank you. I, I'll just call for a tow truck and get on my way."
Bruce pursed his lips in a decidedly kissable manner. He rummaged through a kitchen drawer and handed Tony a business card. He said, "Well, look, this is the only tow truck in town, but at this time of night, and with the storm coming, I, uh...well, I know it's not much, but you're welcome to stay the night here. You'd be better off dealing with your car in the morning."
Tony looked at his cell phone, which still didn't have service, and then at the business card, for RumRollins Garage & Towing. "Well...I'll just give them a call."
Bruce nodded and gestured at a landline phone on the wall near the fridge. "Feel free."
"Thanks." Tony stood, stretched his arms over his head, and called the tow truck. He talked to a guy named Jack who gruffly told him the same thing that Bruce had said―it had already started to snow and that road was tricky enough when it was clear. They'd help him out later.
"Tomorrow?" Tony asked.
The guy laughed. "Yeah, maybe. Give us a call after the road's been plowed."
"But―" Tony said, and Jack hung up on him before Tony could even try to throw his money at the problem. Tony was left staring at the phone in disbelief.
Bruce offered a sympathetic smile. "Did he hang up on you?" Tony nodded. He hung the phone back up and noticed that the message pad stuck to the fridge was a promotional item for a Stark drug, Femanzine. Bruce continued, "Yeah, they're not known for being particularly...friendly. But they do good work."
"That's really the only tow truck here?" Tony asked.
"Yeah. Hence their poor customer service, I suppose." Bruce bit his lip for a moment and thought about it, while Tony thought about how cute he was. "I guess you could call AAA or something, get someone dispatched from another garage closer to the city, but they'll probably tell you the same. That road's dangerous, out that way. The further you get from town, the less they maintain it. You're really better off waiting until tomorrow."
"Seems like that would be bad for business."
"The road? Isn't this a tree farm?"
"Oh. Yeah. Well, the road is better between here and town," he pointed vaguely out the window. "But also business isn't...great."
Bruce shrugged. "Not your fault. Most of the out of towners around here are ski lodge people, and they usually stick to the highway."
"I'm...I'm betting there's no Uber around here?"
Bruce laughed. "You'd win that bet."
"And no hotels?"
Bruce shook his head. "The nearest one is the resort up the mountain, but you'd have a hard time getting up there now. And there are a few other lodges down near Claryville, but it's mostly pretty dead until you get closer to the city. Sorry, I know it's not that comfortable, but I think it's your best option."
"No, it's―I just hate to impose. But, uh, thank you." Tony glanced around the small cabin and figured that even if it wasn't up to his usual level of luxury, sleeping on the couch here would beat freezing to death. And if he played his cards right, maybe he could sleep with the hot lumberjack.
"Of course. I'm happy to help. Do you need to call anyone else?"
"I...I guess not," Tony admitted, which was kind of pathetic. But he didn't need to be at work until Monday―and even if he missed it, he didn't think anyone would be surprised, given his track record. And Rhodey had gotten called into some weekend training, which was why Tony had been skiing alone in the first place, and...no, no one would care where Tony was tonight. Except the paparazzi.
"Okay. Well, feel free to use the phone any time, if something comes to mind. I, uh, I'm going to make dinner. But do you want me to draw you a bath before I start cooking?" Tony's eyebrows went up at the old timey phrasing. Bruce added, "Just―if you were cold and sore, it might help?"
"I thought you didn't have any hot water."
"Well, I heat it on the stove and fill the bathtub. It works...better than you'd think it might?" Bruce gave an adorably sheepish smile.
"I...yeah, sure, that would be amazing. If you don't mind. Here..." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a $100 bill.
Bruce recoiled at the sight. "Please, put that away. You're a guest."
"An uninvited one."
"Still." Bruce turned his back on Tony and put a pot of water on the stove. Then he brought Tony a towel, a pair of flannel pants, a long-sleeved Columbia University T-shirt, and a pair of thick wool socks. "You'll want dry clothes."
Tony was touched by the thoughtfulness. "Thanks, I―thanks."
Bruce shrugged and nodded. He carried the pot of water to the cabin's bathroom, then returned to put another pot on the stove. While the water boiled, he started chopping vegetables. "I was just going to make some lentil soup, if that's okay with you?"
"Oh, uh, yeah, of course," Tony said. He wasn't completely sure what a lentil was but decided not to ask. "Thanks."
Bruce nodded and kept cutting vegetables; his knife hitting the cutting board was the only sound in the cabin. Tony looked around and realized there was no television in the cabin, nor any kind of visible speaker setup for music. The silence threatened to overwhelm Tony, and anyway, if he was going to seduce the hot lumberjack, he'd better get started.
"So...do you come here often?"
"Uh...it's just a seasonal job, I'm out here most of November and December. This is my third year working here."
"Where do you live the rest of the year?"
"In the city."
"Where in the city? I live in Manhattan." In a skyscraper with his last name on it in lights, but he left that unsaid.
"I move around and sublet places...most recently I was in the Bronx. I'm a grad student at Columbia."
"Oh, right," Tony said, gesturing at the shirt Bruce had lent him. "So you're not just a hot lumberjack?"
Bruce stammered, "No, uh, point of fact, I'm neither of those things?"
Tony shook his head. "Wait, please tell me you're not straight?"
"It would just be such a waste if you were!"
"I, um, no, I'm not that, either." Bruce shyly flicked his eyes to Tony's face, then he turned back to the stove.
"Me neither, just for the record. In case my blatant objectification of you wasn't enough of a sign. But I didn't mean to make it weird, just, you know, you're undeniably hot. Even if you're not a lumberjack."
"Okay, well, um, that's, speaking of hot, I, um, your bath should be ready?" Bruce took another pot off the stove and carried it to the bathroom. As Bruce walked away, Tony took the opportunity to observe how great his ass looked in his well-worn jeans. When he came back to the kitchen, empty pot in hand, he gestured to the bathroom and said, "It's all yours."
"Sure you don't want to join me?" Tony asked with a wink.
"There's, um, it's not big enough."
"That's not a 'no,'" Tony crowed.
"It'll get cold," Bruce said, and Tony decided it would be rude to waste all the work Bruce had put into heating the water. He could continue flirting with his host more after his bath. He took his little towel bundle and went into the bathroom, where he found an old-fashioned claw-foot tub. It was steaming hot and smelled amazing, a kind of fresh herbal scent. Tony happily stripped down and slid into the water, which felt incredible to his sore muscles.
When he finally climbed out of the lukewarm water, he felt much better about life in general. He dried off and put on the dry clothes Bruce had given him. He studied himself in the mirror and concluded: his face had taken some wear and tear from the accident, but he was definitely still hot. Plus, of course, rich and famous. Seducing Bruce should be an easy task, and Tony looked forward to it.
Tony stepped out of the bathroom and was hit with the delicious smell of soup cooking and the cozy sight of a fire in the fireplace. Bruce was sitting at the kitchen table, his head bent over a book.
"That was amazing, thank you," he told Bruce. "I'm renewed. Refreshed. Reborn."
Bruce looked up and smiled. "The, uh, soup should be ready." He closed his book and brought two steaming bowls of soup over to the table, along with a plate of focaccia bread. Bruce took a slice of bread and shredded it into his soup, so Tony followed suit.
Tony took his first bite and raised his eyebrows. "Holy shit, this is delicious."
Bruce gave him an endearing half-smile. "Thanks. Um, it's nothing fancy, but I grow my own herbs, so, that, uh, helps."
"Seriously, you're this hot and you're an amazing chef? Wow."
Bruce shook his head and took another bite of soup.
"Not much of a conversationalist, though," Tony said.
"Sorry, I just…"
"No, no, I'm just teasing. I know I'm crashing your hermit party, and I really appreciate you taking me in."
"I'm not a hermit!"
"You live alone in a tiny cabin."
"Only for two months! It's a nice break from the city. Helps me...reset. And anyway, I see people sometimes. When they come buy trees."
"A reset sounds nice." Bruce nodded, but didn't ask a follow-up. Tony asked, "So are you like, really into Christmas?"
"Isn't this a Christmas tree farm?"
"Oh. Oh, yeah, no, I...no, I'm...Christmas is fine. I'm more into trees."
"Oh. And herbs?" Tony asked, gesturing at the rosemary focaccia.
Bruce smiled. "And herbs."
"Is that what you're in grad school for?"
"Kinda. I'm, uh, doing a dual MD/PhD program, with the PhD in botany...I'm very interested in botanical medicine."
"Like medical marijuana? Oh man, I bet you have the best weed."
Bruce laughed, but didn't deny it. Tony grinned. Bruce asked, "Uh, what about you?"
"I have pretty good weed, but I don't have any with me."
"No, I meant, uh, what do you do?"
Tony blinked. Maybe Bruce wasn't just being polite? Maybe he really didn't know who Tony was. "I'm...I'm taking kind of a gap year, I guess." Bruce nodded. Tony continued, "I studied electrical engineering at MIT, but I'm kind of expected to take over the family business, and I...I'm not sure that I want to."
"What do you want to do?"
"I'd like to be an inventor, I think. I really like designing new technology," Tony said tentatively. People he worked with usually expected him to follow in his father's footsteps, and people he was socially friendly with were usually more interested in how much money Tony made than in how he'd like to make it.
"Oh, that's interesting," Bruce said, which would have sounded like a bullshit reply except that Bruce actually did look interested. "Like what?"
"Well, I've been interested in robotics for a long time, but I just...I don't know, we were supposed to have flying cars by now! I just want things to be better."
"Totally," Bruce said, his hazel eyes shining. "Me too." His eyebrows furrowed. "Though I'm not sure flying cars would necessarily help, especially not if they use fossil fuels."
"Mm, no, of course not, I'm definitely also interested in clean energy." This, too, was a generally controversial opinion among most of Tony's social peers. "We need to modernize the country's whole electric grid and reduce carbon emissions, like, yesterday."
Bruce smiled, then, a smile that would definitely generate several hundred joules of clean energy. "I couldn't agree more. Do you want more soup?" Tony glanced over at the stove and Bruce assured him, "There's plenty."
"Then yeah, thanks." Bruce ladled out more soup and listened attentively as Tony talked through his ideas for improving the efficiency of solar power and implementing new solutions to climate change. Bruce occasionally interjected with details about photosynthesis, and Tony was struck by his host's casual brilliance.
When they'd had their fill of soup and bread, Bruce cleared the table and efficiently washed the dishes with a kettleful of hot water.
Tony made his voice sultry and said, "Bruce, you've been such a lifesaver. I don't know how I can repay you."
Bruce shook his head. "Oh, no, I'm happy to help."
Tony huffed. "Haven't you ever watched porn? You're supposed to say, 'Oh, I have an idea of how you can repay me,' and then you take your pants off, and then this night gets even better!"
Bruce blushed. "But―I wouldn't―you don't owe me anything, you don't have to―"
"―Oh, no, no, it's extremely clear that you're not coercing me," Tony said, with his most flirtatious smile. "But I'm trying to seduce you. Is it not working?" He pouted and batted his eyelashes. Frankly, he didn't usually have to try this hard to seduce people.
Bruce tucked his hands in his pockets and bit his lip. Tony stood up from the table and stood close to him, not touching. "Look, if you're not interested, just say the word and I'll back off. But if you are interested...well, this could go from a nice evening to a great one."
Bruce hesitated. "It's not that I'm not interested―"
"Excellent. Because honestly, have you seen me?" Tony asked, gesturing at his face.
Bruce gave him a once-over and then dropped his eyes and mumbled, "―I'm just, um...it's been...awhile?"
Tony grinned. It wasn't the most enthusiastic verbal consent he'd ever heard, but it was good enough for a starting point. "I promise I'll be gentle." He leaned in close to Bruce's mouth, and after a moment's hesitation, Bruce closed the gap between them with a hesitant kiss. Bruce's lips were soft, but his stubble scraped against Tony's skin in a frankly delicious way. They stumbled the few steps to the couch together, and before long, Tony's borrowed clothing was on the floor. And maybe it was because of Tony's near-ish-death experience, or maybe it was Bruce's pent-up hermit energy, or maybe it was something in the homemade herbal lube Bruce had produced (along with some thankfully not-homemade condoms), but it was the best sex Tony had ever had. And he had had a lot of sex.
Tony flopped back against the couch and caught his breath. "Wow. See, that was a great idea, right?"
Bruce breathed out a little laugh. "Um. Yeah. It was...yeah. Here, sorry, uh, let me make the bed." He stood up from the couch, pulled on a pair of flannel pajama pants, and looked at Tony expectantly.
Tony stood up from the couch and pulled his pants back on. He blinked as Bruce took the cushions off the couch and pulled it out into a bed. "Sorry," Bruce mumbled, "I should have done this before, but I just, um…"
"It was the heat of the moment," Tony sang.
Bruce snorted. "That." He lifted the top off of a storage ottoman and started pulling out sheets.
Tony couldn't help but be a little offended that Bruce wasn't going to invite Tony into his bedroom after all that. "Hey, I don't snore," he said.
"Oh, that's good," Bruce replied absently.
"So...if that's what you were worried about, you don't need to exile me from your bedroom."
"Huh?" Bruce looked up from the fitted sheet he was putting over the couch-mattress.
"I mean, you don't have to go to the trouble of making up another bed for me…I don't mind sharing."
Bruce laughed then. "Good, because this is the only bed."
Bruce waved an arm out at the room. "It's a small cabin! Where did you think there was another bed?"
Tony pointed at the back wall, at the door next to the bathroom. "I...assumed that door went to a bedroom!"
"That is a utility closet."
"Well. Now I know that. Jeez, thank god we already had sex, I don't think I could have handled the tension of sleeping next to you otherwise."
Bruce shook his head and smiled. He pulled out pillows and set them on the bed, then started heating some water on the stove. "I think I have an extra toothbrush. Do you need anything else?"
"I need to know if you're big spoon or little spoon. It's too cold not to cuddle."
Bruce let out another quiet chuckle. "Guest's choice." He disappeared into the bathroom for a few minutes. "Your turn. Help yourself to anything in there," he said, nodding toward the bathroom door. Tony found a still-wrapped toothbrush, plus toothpaste and some other products in unlabeled glass bottles. He sniffed them and decided to just stick with the toothpaste and bar of soap for now. He could survive skipping his skin care routine for a day.
When Tony reemerged from the bathroom, Bruce was lying on one side of the bed, wearing adorable reading glasses and reading a book.
"Ooh, you're cute in those glasses!" Tony said. Bruce gave him the amused head-shake that Tony was already familiar with. Tony instinctively reached for his phone, then remembered there was no signal here. "Hey, uh, you don't have wifi here, do you?"
Bruce shook his head. "I have a dial-up modem I can hook up for you if you need to get online?"
Tony clutched his chest dramatically. "Dial-up? How do you live?"
"It's a struggle," Bruce said drily.
"Seriously...I don't miss it that much? There's a coffeeshop in town with wifi, I go there sometimes. And I have to go back to campus at least twice a week."
"You're a stronger man than me. And I'm not just talking about those biceps. Speaking of which, I've decided, I want to be little spoon." Bruce snorted, and Tony said, "I'm serious. I need you to keep me warm." Tony rolled onto his side and gave an exaggerated shiver.
"Okay, okay," Bruce said, but he sounded more amused than irritated. He took off his glasses, put a bookmark in his book, and switched off the light. Then he hesitantly slid behind Tony, pulling the quilt around them both and wrapping one arm over his chest.
Tony sighed contentedly. "Good night, Bruce."
"Good night, Tony," Bruce replied, and planted a surprising kiss on Tony's cheek. Bruce quickly fell asleep, and Tony lay awake for a while, listening to Bruce's steady breathing behind him. He wished he could mindlessly scroll through his phone for a while, even though he knew that wouldn't help anything. Instead, he closed his eyes and tried to match the pace of his breath's to Bruce's. Before long, he was out, lulled to sleep by the gentle lavender scent of the sheets.
And then a few hours later, he awoke with a start. He sat up and tried to catch his breath. Next to him, Bruce stirred. He turned on the light and looked over at Tony with concern.
"Hey, you okay?" Bruce asked.
"Uh huh, totally," Tony managed.
"Hmm." Bruce climbed out of bed and started heating water. "Do you want tea or cocoa?"
"You don't have to―"
"Do you want tea or cocoa?" Bruce repeated.
"Um, I guess cocoa would be nice," Tony admitted. A few minutes later, Bruce brought him a warm mug. "Thanks."
Bruce nodded and took a sip from his own mug. "I―I get nightmares too, so."
"About your dial-up internet?" Tony asked. "Because that is terrifying."
Bruce smiled. "It's okay if you don't want to talk about it."
"I―yeah. Thanks," Tony said. They sat side by side on the bed, quietly drinking their hot beverages.
When they finished, Bruce took their empty mugs and put them in the sink. "Do you want me to turn the light off? Or keep it on?"
"Off is fine. I'm not―I'm not afraid of the dark."
Bruce turned the light off and crawled under the quilt. Tony lay on his back next to him, and in the darkness, he said, "Hey, there's no way for me to say this without sounding like an asshole, but, uh...do you know who I am?"
"You're...Tony who crashed his car?"
Tony sighed. "Yeah. Well, I'm also, uh, Tony Stark? Does...does that name mean anything to you?"
"Stark Pharmaceuticals," Bruce murmured.
Bruce let out a long breath. "Oh."
"I know," Tony said. "I know what people think of me. I'm sorry, I should have told you earlier, I just...most people already know, and I thought..."
"I get most of my news from NPR. I didn't really know what you looked like, I guess. I, uh...I'm sorry for your loss."
"Your―sorry, your parents? I mean."
"Oh. Uh. Thanks. Thank you." His parents had died just under a year ago, but most people expected Tony to have moved on by now. He knew it probably looked to the public as if he had.
"I can imagine you'd be particularly rattled by a car accident, after what happened to them."
"Oh. Yeah, I―huh. I guess you're right. I was so keyed up after it happened, and then...but...uh, I guess subconsciously...yeah. Shit." Tony rubbed a hand over his face. Bruce was perceptive. Tony wasn't used to anyone looking beyond his admittedly flashy surface.
"So...you're taking a gap year, before taking control of your inherited global pharmaceutical conglomerate, huh?"
"It's...what I like to call it. I know most of the media thinks I've been on a year-long bender, but I really have been doing a lot of R&D work. Just, uh, at my own pace. In between...social engagements."
"Wait, you...you weren't drinking and driving, were you?"
"No! I just hit black ice."
"It's okay, I...admit it was probably a fair question. I've been a hot mess in public, but I haven't―I wouldn't―I don't want to hurt anyone."
"I was a mess after my mom died, too," Bruce said softly.
"Oh! I―I'm...I'm sorry for your loss. Too. Ugh. Sorry, I wish I knew something better to say."
"I don't know anyone can say, really."
"Hm. Me neither, now that you mention it. Um...how long ago did it happen?"
"Um. Three years ago. She, uh, had pancreatic cancer―"
"Oof," Tony murmured sympathetically. He wasn't particularly interested in pharmaceuticals but he knew enough to know that pancreatic cancer patients generally had very poor prognoses.
"Yeah. So, it, she was diagnosed in May and died by October. She, uh, actually, she was in a Stark drug trial."
"Oh god, I'm sorry."
"No, I mean―I don't blame you. Or your company. For not―for―we knew it was a long shot."
"Still, though," Tony said. He wished Bruce had been able to say that Stark Pharmaceuticals had saved his mom.
"Can I ask, how old are you?"
"Uh. I'm 22."
"God. That sucks. I mean, not your age. I'm 22, too. Uh, 22, also. I was 21 when my parents had their accident. Which I guess you might know, because it was international news," Tony said, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice.
"It must be hard to grieve in public."
"I mean. Yeah." Tony yawned and mumbled, "It feels like the world at large mourned my dad more than I did."
"Hmm," Bruce said noncommittally.
"Hey, uh...thanks for listening. Sorry to wake you."
"It's okay." Tony glanced over at Bruce in the darkness, and then impulsively rested his head against Bruce's chest. Bruce gently rested a hand against Tony's back and murmured, "Good night, Tony."
Bruce fell back to sleep, leaving Tony wondering why the hell he'd shared so much personal information with a virtual stranger. Most of it was public information anyway, but Tony didn't usually like to discuss it. Bruce was just easy to talk to. Tony took a few deep breaths and fell asleep himself.
When Tony woke up, he was alone. He sat up and stretched, and saw no signs of Bruce. Tony felt a little twinge, though he knew Bruce couldn't have gone far. But now that Bruce knew who Tony really was, maybe he wouldn't be so eager to share his cozy little cabin with a rich pharma brat?
Tony climbed out of the sofa bed and noted that his muscles felt less sore than he'd feared they might. Bruce's herbal witchery must have helped. He went to the bathroom and then noticed that Bruce had left out a container of coffee grounds and a stovetop coffee maker, along with a note on the Stark Pharma notepad: "Tony, I'm out shoveling. Help yourself to anything in the kitchen. You can try calling the garage again but it doesn't look like the road's been plowed yet.―BB"
Tony smiled. He pulled back the curtain and looked outside at a veritable winter wonderland. When he'd gotten here last night, there had been a few inches of older snow, but now there was at least a foot on the ground, and it was still coming down. He saw Bruce out there valiantly shoveling. Even though more flakes kept coming down, Bruce was doing an admirable job clearing the walkway. No wonder his biceps were so amazing.
Tony turned away from the window and prepared the coffee maker, wincing when the ice-cold water hit his hands. He put it on the stove and turned to the cabin's utility closet. He probably couldn't fix the hot water heater without a trip to the hardware store, but at least he could take a look, maybe diagnose the problem. He studied the fuse box and turned off the power to the water heater so he wouldn't electrocute himself, then opened it up. Luckily, the multimeter app he'd designed for his phone worked even in offline mode, and he was able to test the fuses. Even luckier, it was a pretty quick fix for him to find the blown fuse and reconfigure the circuits to bypass that fuse. A short-term solution, but it should hold until Tony could get a replacement fuse. Satisfied, he restored the power to the heater and went back to the kitchen area, where he discovered that his coffee had boiled over.
He took the coffee maker off the stove with a sigh. On the bright side, when he turned on the sink to dampen a sponge, the hot water kicked on. He cleaned up the stove and poured himself what was left of the coffee. It was very hot and very strong. He set it on the table to cool for a moment, and he paced around the small cabin. It wasn't really decorated, which made sense if Bruce didn't live here full time. But he was curious about Bruce and looked for clues wherever he could. The kitchen was tidy but the stacks of books seemed chaotic. Tony flipped through books and found a wide variety―medical textbooks, botany textbooks, but also some novels and some pop science stuff like The Botany of Desire. He saw Bruce's laptop and the dreaded dialup modem, as well as a clock radio, revealing that it wasn't even 8 AM yet. Tony was usually still sound asleep at this hour. Which reminded him to check on his coffee.
Since his coffee had reached a temperature slightly cooler than magma, he sat down and took a sip. He reached for his phone out of habit, then remembered that it wouldn't work here. He drummed his fingers on the table and kept drinking coffee.
Finally, Bruce came back inside. Tony watched with appreciation as Bruce stripped off his winter gear at the door.
"Oh, good morning," Bruce said. He ran his fingers through damp curls and said, "It doesn't look like the snowplow has gotten out this way just yet, so you're probably stuck here for a while longer. How's your head?"
"I haven't had any complaints."
Bruce blinked for a minute before bursting into laughter. "Okay, that's fair. Um, but do you mind if I take a look at your forehead?"
Tony raised a hand to touch the bandage on his forehead. "Oh. I'm sure it's fine."
Tony shrugged. "Sure."
Bruce started to prepare some supplies, and as Tony noticed him filling the kettle, he called out, "Ooh, try the hot water!"
Bruce turned to look at him with a curious expression, then he tried the tap. He turned back to Tony with a huge smile. "You fixed it? How?"
Tony shrugged. "Well, I don't want to brag, but I am something of a genius."
Bruce gave a little laugh and shook his head. Then he bit his lip and mimicked Tony's seductive tone. "I just don't know how I can repay you."
Tony smirked. "Oh, I have a few ideas."
"Wait, this first, though," Bruce said, and he carefully cleaned and re-bandaged Tony's forehead. Tony wasn't used to being touched so gently. He couldn't say he minded it, though.
Bruce cupped Tony's cheek with one callused hand and said, "All done."
"Mm, or, counterpoint, just getting started?"
He stood up from the table and he and Bruce quickly tumbled the few steps back to bed, something made easy by the cabin's small size.
Afterward, Tony said, "Whew! Do you have anything else around here that needs to be fixed?"
Bruce laughed. "Just your car, I think."
Tony gave a mock-pout. "Too bad. I really like the way it feels when you repay me."
Bruce ducked his head shyly before pulling his clothes back on and climbing out of bed, to Tony's dismay. Bruce slipped into the bathroom for a few minutes before returning to the kitchen. "I don't know about you...I was hungry before but now I'm starving," Bruce said. "Do you like French toast?"
Tony perked up. "Yeah, I could eat. And then after you make me breakfast it'll be my turn to repay you, which is also delightful, frankly." He reluctantly got out of bed and went to take his turn to freshen up in the bathroom. He'd never appreciated hot water more.
Back at the kitchen table, he watched Bruce at work and sighed happily. "I can't believe how lucky I was last night."
Bruce looked up. "Oh, yeah, people die on that road every year. I'm really glad you're okay."
"Oh. Well, yikes, yeah, but, uh, I was trying to give you a compliment. I meant it was lucky that I found you."
"Oh! Um, thanks. I, uh, I've been glad for your company. But I'm sorry about your car."
"Eh, I have insurance." And about fifty other cars in various garages at his various properties, but Tony had just enough self-awareness not to say so. "And even if I didn't, it'd be worth it to have met you."
Bruce didn't reply, but he had a shy, pleased look on his face when he brought Tony a plate of French toast and a glass jar of real maple syrup. A small moan escaped Tony's lips when he took his first bite. "Oh my god, this is amazing."
"It's nothing fancy," Bruce demurred.
"Trust me, fancy isn't always better."
After breakfast, Tony licked his lips and said, "So, about me repaying you.."
Bruce laughed. "I know you're kidding―"
"―I'm very serious―"
"―and, uh, it's not that it's not, uh, enjoyable, but I actually have some work I need to do?" Bruce said apologetically.
"Really? You don't get a snow day?"
"Well―from the tree farm, actually, yeah, I don't think we'll get any business today. At least not until the plow comes through. I just have some research I need to do."
"Oh. Can I help?"
"It's―it's probably not that interesting."
"I just have to collect some measurements from some trees. It won't take me too long, you can, um...I mean I can set up the dial up modem for you before I go?"
Tony stretched. "I'll come measure trees. If you don't mind company?"
"I―well, sure, if you want. I think there's still an extra pair of snowshoes up here."
Tony puzzled over Bruce's responses while pulling on his outerwear. Usually the people who Tony slept with were eager for his time. Frankly, usually they threw themselves at Tony. They definitely didn't turn down sex with him to go measure plants, especially not sex as good as what Tony and Bruce had been having. Their chemistry was undeniable, at least, to Tony. What better way to spend a snow day than to fully appreciate their youthful refractory periods? But fine, if Bruce was putting on his parka and snowshoes, Tony would follow suit.
Once they were warmly and un-sexily attired, Bruce led them away from the carefully groomed Christmas tree farm and toward a more heavily-forested area. Some of the trees were marked with yellow bands, and these had little spigots with measuring tubes attached to them. Bruce checked each of these and made notes in his notebook.
Tony asked, "What are you measuring?"
"The taps measure the rate of oleoresin flow," Bruce said absently. "We're just getting some data on how it responds to various factors."
"Couldn't you set up some digital sensors on those? Save you the trip?"
"Oh...I guess," Bruce said. "But I'm making some other observations too…signs of wildlife, human impact...that kind of thing. Like, ah―look. A screech owl!" He pointed out a brownish blob, nestled in a high branch.
"Oh, wow," Tony said, squinting up at it. "Sorry, not trying to replace your job with a robot."
Bruce laughed. "Good. Like I wasn't already worried about paying off my student loans." Tony felt a brief pang. Was Bruce fishing for money from him? But Bruce stopped in front of another tree and made some notes, apparently oblivious to the billionaire in his presence.
Tony asked, "So what's oleoresin?"
"It's a naturally-occurring semi-solid compound."
"Um, not exactly, sap is fluid and resin isn't. And they have different functions within the tree. Pine oleoresin can be refined to make turpentine, and rosin, but there are also some kind of exciting medical applications that are being investigated."
"And syrup comes from…"
"Syrup is sap, from maple trees. These, um, are pine."
"Right, right. So, do you have a favorite tree?"
Bruce's face lit up. "Oh, yes, it's―" and then his face fell. "Oh, were you just teasing me?"
"No! I really want to know," Tony said.
Bruce studied his face for a moment and nodded. "Sorry. Sometimes I―sometimes it's hard for me to read people and I―well, I understand that most people aren't really that interested in my research."
"Well, that's their loss," Tony said.
Bruce smiled and led Tony to a small tree that was growing crookedly out of a sloping rock face. "This one's my favorite," he said. "But don't tell the others."
Tony admired the tree solemnly. It wasn't nearly as tall or impressive as some of the other trees they'd passed, but it was kind of inspiring how it was able to grow in such an uninviting spot. "That's very cool," Tony replied, hoping it didn't come out sounding sarcastic.
"Yeah," Bruce agreed. "Sometimes I―" he cut himself off abruptly.
"Sometimes you what?"
"I just...I guess it's dumb. But I think about this tree when I have to do things that are hard, or...well, I just think it's inspiring." He tucked his notebook under his arm and jammed his hands in his pockets, his eyes cast to the ground.
"Hey. That's not dumb, Bruce, that's...I'm going to think about this tree too now. Thanks for showing it to me."
Bruce lifted his eyes up to Tony's, and after a brief evaluation, he smiled.
"Anything else you want to show me?" Tony asked. He'd intended it as an innuendo, but instead Bruce led him to several other particular trees. And as Bruce enthused about the hardiness of evergreen trees, Tony found that he really was interested. Or at least, he liked listening to Bruce talk about things that interested him.
Listening to Bruce talk made Tony abruptly realize that he'd largely been surrounding himself with uninteresting people. He'd been on a kind of numb autopilot since his parents had died, and he'd been trying to find some kind of happiness or at least awakeness through his parties and trips and dumb stunts. But none of that shit made him feel half as good as listening to Bruce talk about the curative properties of pine bark.
"Are you sure you're not making fun of me?" Bruce asked, his eyebrows furrowed with concern.
"It's just that you're smiling so much...which people don't usually do when I tell them about pine beetles."
"I―it's just―can I kiss you?"
Bruce still looked wary, and Tony said, "It's not―it's not about the pine beetles. I just...how passionate you are about all this...it's sexy." Bruce's face somehow grew even more skeptical, and Tony urged, "Seriously! I'm sorry if other people don't get it, but that's their loss."
Bruce studied his face for another moment, and then his body language grew slightly less defensive. And then he leaned in to kiss Tony, and it ruled.
"This rules," Tony panted, when he finally came up for breath.
"We should go back inside before we get frostbite."
"I know just how to warm you up!"
Bruce laughed, but when they got back inside he didn't stop Tony from reaching over to deliberately unbutton his flannel shirt. This time they took their time with each other, having already dispelled their more urgent lust earlier in the morning.
"You're wearing me out," Bruce said with a yawn.
"Are you sure it was me and not the five square miles of snow you shoveled today?"
"You wanna take a nap?"
"I never take naps."
"Oh wow, you're missing out, then."
"C'mere," Tony said, and he pulled Bruce to lie against his chest. "Just a little nap." He hadn't known Bruce for very long, but he definitely seemed like someone who could benefit from a nap. Bruce made an agreeable sound and closed his eyes. For once, Tony wasn't hungover on a Sunday morning, but he found that a nap appealed to him also.
They were both awoken by a loud scraping sound that served to highlight just how quiet it was out here otherwise.
"Oh, it's the plow," Bruce murmured.
"Oh, right, good," Tony replied, though he made no move to get out of bed. Once he arranged for a tow, he'd have no excuse to keep hanging out with Bruce.
After a moment, Bruce said, "Um. Do you know...how badly your car was damaged?"
"Mm...could have been worse, probably?"
"Just...if it was going to take a while to fix, um, I need to go back to campus on Tuesday, so if you wanted...you could stay here until then, and you could ride into the city with me?" Bruce offered shyly.
Tony smiled at the offer, but took a moment to consider the logistics. He'd rather have his Audi towed all the way into the city, to a garage he trusted. And theoretically he could ride with the tow and get home sooner. But why would he want to go home sooner, if Bruce was here?
While he was thinking about it, Bruce muttered, "Or, I mean, you probably want to get home as soon as possible."
"Nope," Tony said. "I'd love to stay here until Tuesday. If it's really okay with you."
"Oh, yeah, I mean, if you're not too busy, or―"
Tony leaned up and kissed Bruce. "Nope," he said. "I'm not."
"Oh. Okay. Um, good, then," Bruce replied. "Is―is this weird?"
"I don't know, I just...I don't, you know, um, date…much? And I just―is this a date, or…"
"Hm," Tony considered. "I do date a lot, and this is weird―"
"Right," Bruce interrupted forlornly.
"―but it's good weird!" Tony added hastily. "Seriously, it's weird how compatible we are, given how...randomly we met. I can't remember the last time I got along so well with someone I found when I was looking for a date."
"Oh. Good. I mean, me neither, but I just, um, don't have a lot of experience…"
"Could have fooled me."
"Bruce, let's not overthink this, okay? I―every date I've ever been on has been weird, just because of who I am and what my...reputation is. So what if we were just...us, now, without worrying about everything that came before now."
Bruce let out a shaky breath. "Okay. I'm, um, historically not very good at not overthinking things…"
"Well, I tend to underthink, so maybe we'll balance each other out."
Bruce laughed, then. "Okay. Let's try that." He sat up and ran his fingers through his hair. "I, uh, if the plow's come through, I should set up the stand."
"For, uh, if people come to buy trees."
"Oh, right, right. You have a business other than being a refuge for wayward skiers."
"You should call the garage, though, they'll probably have a lot of business so you'll want to get your place in line."
"And if they want a callback number, um, here," Bruce said, handing over a brochure for the Christmas tree farm. "That number is for this phone." Tony called the garage while Bruce got dressed and started setting something up on the cabin's small front porch, then started a second round of snow shoveling. Tony opened the curtains and watched Bruce out the window while he waited on hold and finally talked to an employee who offered Tony the worst customer service he'd ever experienced, but eventually promised to "give Tony a ring" when someone "was headed up that way." He offered absolutely no timeline as to when that might happen. Normally that would have infuriated Tony, but today he didn't care. He wasn't in a hurry, he was right where he wanted to be. He flipped through one of Bruce's medical textbooks while waiting for Bruce to finish his outdoor chores.
Bruce came back inside, where he stripped off his outerwear and un-made the bed before returning to the kitchen. "Are you hungry?" he asked.
"Yeah, I could eat," Tony agreed.
"How do you feel about grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup?"
"That's testing very positively with my demographic."
Tony settled in at the kitchen table and watched Bruce cook. He said, "They didn't really give me an ETA for when they were coming to tow, but I guess it doesn't really matter since I'm not going anywhere anyway."
Bruce turned back from the stove and smiled at him. "I hope everything goes okay with your car."
Tony shrugged. "I'm sure it'll be fine."
Bruce brought over steaming bowls of tomato soup and plates of grilled cheese sandwiches.
Tony said, "So what do you do for fun around here?"
"I mean, no TV, no internet―"
"―I have internet!"
"―no good internet, no company...usually...so, yeah, I'm just curious."
"Well, usually when the roads are cleared I do have company," Bruce said. "I mean, people come to buy trees, and that keeps me busy. Plus my research and my coursework."
"Okay, sure, but what about when you're not working? You know what they say about all work and no play."
"I like to read for fun, too. Uh...sometimes I do jigsaw puzzles? Um, and I like to go hiking."
"Do you ever go skiing?"
"Not really, just snowshoeing."
"You're so close to the slopes, though."
Bruce shrugged and took a bite of his sandwich. Eventually, he said, "I don't have a lot of experience with skiing."
"Oh. Have you ever gone?"
"I, uh, yeah. My college friend Betty―Betty Ross, her family owns this place―"
"Wait, the American flag girl?"
"That's Betsy Ross," Bruce said.
"Right, right. Sorry."
"Anyway, uh, she's the one who got me this gig, and the first year she came up with me and when she found out I'd never been skiing before, she took me. And it wasn't―I wasn't―it's not really my speed, I guess. Most of the ski lodge people kinda seem like assholes." He wiped his mouth with a napkin and said, "No offense."
Tony laughed. "You're not wrong."
"I guess I never asked, is that why you were up here? Skiing?"
Tony shrugged. "Yeah, I was going to come up with my friend but he had to cancel. I had a few good runs yesterday. I usually prefer the apres-ski, but I wasn't really in the mood."
"Apres-ski? What's that?"
"Oh, it means 'after ski.'"
"I did gather that, but I wasn't sure what it entailed. Other than long walks after car accidents."
Tony laughed. "No, that wouldn't qualify. It's like parties at the ski lodge, or happy hour, or hot tubbing...like literally anything fun you might do after skiing."
Sensing Bruce's discomfort, Tony added, "But you're right, the ski lodge people are mostly assholes. Curling up in front of a fireplace in a cabin with a hot lumberjack, that's my new favorite apres-ski."
Bruce smiled. "I'm not a lumberjack."
"At least you're not denying that you're hot."
"I suppose I can concede that that is subjective," Bruce replied, his cheeks pink. "What about you? What, um, what do you do for fun? Besides skiing, and...all that?"
"What don't I do?" Tony asked. Bruce tipped his head quizzically and Tony remembered that Bruce seemed to be remarkably unplugged from celebrity gossip. He tried to summarize and ended up blurting out, "Right. Um, I just know I have this kind of playboy reputation, and I'm not saying it's totally unwarranted, I just...uh...maybe I'm still figuring out what I really like to do for fun and what stuff I'm just doing because it's...expected of me."
"Hmm. Do you think that what you really like to do could be jigsaw puzzles?" Bruce asked. His tone was solemn but his eyes crinkled with amusement.
Tony laughed. "It definitely could be. I should investigate that possibility."
Bruce smiled. He cleared the dishes and then plucked a box from the bookshelf. "Hey, did you move some of my books?"
"What? I...uh, sorry, if I did. I didn't realize they were in order."
Bruce hummed and carefully placed a few items into different piles, then brought the box back to the couch.
Tony looked at it. It was a jigsaw puzzle featuring a 1000-piece collage of different Beatles album covers. "Oh, you like the Beatles?"
"I mean, who doesn't, I guess? I'm not exactly a superfan or anything but sure, I like them. The puzzle's just from Goodwill, though. Whenever I'm in town I usually pick up a new one and donate my last one back to them."
"That's very generous of you."
"Mm-hmm, that $4.99 is my way of giving back to the community."
Bruce opened the box, dumped the contents out on the coffee table, and started sifting through the pieces.
"What are you looking for?"
"Oh, the edge pieces," Bruce said. He held up a flat-edged piece to demonstrate. "I like to find those first and put together the border first."
"That's how my mom taught me."
Tony nodded and started picking through the box. He kept getting distracted by finding other chunks that fit together, and figured it was better to work with what he found. He asked, "So if you're not a big Beatles fan, what kind of music do you like?"
"I don't know. All kinds, I guess?"
"Nope, that's not a real answer. I mean like...what CDs did you buy as a kid? What was the first concert you went to? What did you put on mixtapes for your crushes?"
Bruce shook his head. "I, uh, my family didn't have a lot of money so we didn't really have stuff like that? We just had a radio. Usually we'd listen to the classic rock station, or oldies. And I...uh...I dunno, in college sometimes Betty and I would go see the school orchestra concerts. I don't know a lot about the composers or anything but I liked those. Um, what about you?"
Tony looked down at the puzzle for a minute, mentally kicking himself. He knew, obviously, that Bruce had less money than him―most people did―but it was hard for him to conceptualize a family that couldn't even afford a stereo. "I'm into hard rock and metal, like old school stuff from the 70s and 80s."
"Oh. That's cool."
"Yeah, obviously, I'm extremely cool."
Bruce grinned, but then his eyes moved up to the front windows. "Oh, looks like I've got a customer. I'll be right back."
Tony watched through the window as Bruce greeted a family and offered them a saw. They walked off into the snow, and Bruce came back inside with a bundle of firewood under his arm. He fed some more wood into the fireplace before returning to the couch. Tony asked, "So how does this work, exactly? You just give kids saws and let them loose?"
"I give the adult a saw. And it's a safety saw."
"Still, what's to stop someone from just cutting down all the trees?"
"And that works?"
"So far it has." Bruce shrugged. "Have you ever cut down a tree?"
"Can't say that I have." The Stark estate had always been professionally decorated for the holidays.
"Well, most people aren't champing at the bit to do it more than once a year. I end up cutting the trees down for a lot of people."
"So you are a lumberjack!"
Bruce laughed. "I guess you were right after all," he agreed drily. They made some more progress with the puzzle, and then Bruce hopped up to help the family check out with their tree and tie it on to their car.
When Bruce returned, he fired up a battered laptop and entered some numbers into a spreadsheet. He tucked a couple of $20 bills into a small cash box and said, "So now that you've seen me on the job...what does your job look like, day to day?"
"Um...good question." Tony toyed with a few pieces of the puzzle, but Bruce waited patiently for him to continue. "It's just, since my parents died so suddenly, there wasn't exactly a plan in place for...I inherited a majority share of the stocks, and everyone knew that my dad wanted me to be CEO eventually, but the board wasn't comfortable with appointing me CEO until I had some more experience, so one of the VPs, one of my dad's best friends actually, took over as CEO, and I'm the vice president of innovations, which I think is fake, and...I don't know, I go to meetings sometimes, but mostly everyone leaves me alone in my workshop and I design other stuff. But not medicines, nothing that Stark Pharmaceuticals sells, so right now it's not really going anywhere. And then I go out partying with the kids of other CEOs, and that's what makes headlines, and not the fact that I'm sitting on some actually brilliant inventions."
"Oh. That sounds...frustrating," Bruce said diplomatically. He snapped a few pieces into place and asked, "Um, could you not...start a new division or something? For your products? Sorry, that's probably dumb, I don't know that much about...business stuff."
Tony smiled. "No, it is a good idea. I just...I need to have a product good enough for them to take me seriously, and I just...I don't know."
"Well. Who says you have to know now, anyway? I mean, most people probably don't get to be vice presidents of major corporations until they're like, at least thirty, I bet."
Tony glanced over at Bruce, who had a small, teasing smile on his lips. "I'm not most people!" he blurted out.
"No, I guess you're not."
"I don't mean to sound like an asshole," Tony said. "It's just, growing up, I always knew how much was expected of me."
Bruce hummed and nodded. Then he looked up and went to greet another customer for the tree farm. Tony stared down at the puzzle and thought about it. Nobody had ever really asked Tony why he wanted to be CEO of Stark Pharmaceuticals; it was just a given that he would, that he could, that he should. And whatever he thought about his father's company, he didn't really want to end up a useless dilettante like a lot of the other rich kids in his social circle. When he got back to work on Tuesday, he was going to have to start planning. Innovating, even.
Over the course of the afternoon, they made a lot of progress on the puzzle and Bruce added small amounts of cash to the tree farm's cash box. Tony said, "You know, if you had wifi up here, you could accept credit card payments."
"Oh...yeah, I guess. People around here are used to paying cash, though."
"Does it bother you when people cut down the trees?"
Bruce squinted at him. "Um...I mean, it would bother me more if people started celebrating Christmas out in my yard?"
"I just mean, it seems like you're, you know, a tree hugger."
Bruce nodded. "Ah. Yeah, I like trees. But the farm is pretty carefully managed. We're always growing more to replace what gets cut. And I think that when families come out to cut their own trees like this, it gives them a little taste of nature. Helps them appreciate where trees come from. I hope."
Tony looked out the window at the idyllic, snow-covered scene. "I certainly do."
Bruce ducked his head and bumped it against Tony's shoulder. Tony grinned and leaned down to kiss him, but they were unfortunately interrupted by another family of tree-shoppers.
When Bruce came back he said, drily, "Sorry. But as a fellow businessman, you understand. The free market is a cruel mistress."
Tony laughed. "Indeed she is. Now...where were we?" He leaned in again to kiss Bruce and groaned when the landline rang.
"Sorry…" Bruce got up to answer it, then called, "It's for you."
Tony took the call and made arrangements with the garage. He gave his credit card number over the phone and they agreed to stop by the tree farm to get keys from Tony, which meant that Tony wouldn't need to traipse back out into the cold to deal with anything. Unfortunately, Bruce kept having to pop out to deal with tree farm stuff.
Shortly after the call, Tony turned his keys over to a gruff mechanic with a scarred face. He didn't bother to introduce himself, but the patch on his jumpsuit identified him as Brock. Tony hoped his car was in good hands, but he didn't really care if it wasn't.
As the afternoon turned into evening, Tony looked into the kitchen. Bruce had cooked several nice meals for Tony, and he thought he might repay the favor while Bruce was busy selling trees. Tony wasn't usually in the habit of cooking, but as a kid he'd spent a fair amount of time hanging out in the kitchen with Jarvis and Anna. He thought he'd picked something up, and he was grateful when he found a box of spaghetti and a jar of sauce. He definitely knew how to cook spaghetti.
Bruce came back inside and raised his eyebrows. "Wow, thanks for cooking."
"Don't thank me until you try it," Tony warned.
"Looks like you're doing fine." Bruce started plucking leaves from his little potted plants. "I usually just add some fresh herbs to a premade sauce."
"Look at you, Barefoot Contessa." Bruce laughed, and Tony added, "Oh, speaking of which, is it okay if we open this?" He pulled a bottle of red wine out from the cupboard.
Bruce peered at it. "Oh, uh, sure. I'll warn you, I got it to cook with."
"Well, they say not to cook with wine you wouldn't drink, right?"
"Yeah…" Bruce said dubiously. "But I don't drink much, myself, and I think you might have...different standards."
Tony scoffed. "Like I didn't go to boarding school."
"And you drank a lot of Two Buck Chuck at your fancy boarding school?"
"I mean, no, but a lot of...questionable cocktails, let's say." Tony looked at the bottle. "Does this really only cost two dollars?"
"No, they raised the price to four dollars but the nickname hasn't kept up with the times."
"Wow." Tony looked around for a corkscrew. Bruce reached into his pocket and produced a Swiss Army knife. Tony grinned and opened the bottle. "You are a prepared little Boy Scout."
"I was never a Boy Scout."
"Well, then you're even more impressive." Tony didn't find any wine glasses, so he poured them each a mug of red wine before draining the pasta.
Once they'd each been served a plate of pasta and sauce, Tony raised up his mug of wine. "I'd like to toast to your hospitality," he said.
Bruce smiled and tapped his mug to Tony's. "You've been a great guest." He took a sip of wine and set down his mug.
Tony took a sip of his own and nearly spit it out. "Four dollars? I think you might have overpaid for this wine."
"I did warn you. But I don't think it's that bad."
Tony shook his head. "When we get back to the city, I'm getting you some real wine."
Bruce raised his eyebrows. Tony hesitated. "I mean, if―if you want."
"Sure. I just, I guess, I wasn't sure if you'd want to see me again? Um, after you get back to somewhere with wifi and all that?"
"Bruce! Of course I do. I'd put all my devices in airplane mode for another date with you."
"Wow. I'm honored," Bruce replied, his eyes shining with amusement.
"You absolutely should be." Tony smiled and took another sip of the terrible wine. "I think it gets better the more you drink it," he suggested.
"Maybe it does," Bruce agreed, and between the two of them, they eventually polished off the bottle. Tony felt a pleasant warmness, but Bruce seemed drunk. Well, Bruce had said he didn't drink much.
Bruce stumbled on his way to the sink. Tony stood, too, and said, "Here, let me do the dishes."
"No, that's okay…" Bruce said, and Tony slipped behind him and kissed his throat.
"I want to," Tony said.
Bruce turned to look at him and said, "Why are you being so nice to me?"
"Because you don't have a dishwasher?" Tony joked, but he took in the genuinely distressed look in Bruce's eyes. "Oh, wow, you're a maudlin drunk, huh? Hey, c'mon, the dishes can wait."
He put a hand on Bruce's back and guided him to the couch. Once they were seated, Tony said, "Look, Bruce, I know what they say about me in the tabloids, but I swear, I'm really not that much of an asshole."
Bruce blinked. "I don't read the tabloids."
"Okay, then why do you keep acting like I'm somebody who's going to make fun of your favorite tree and not do the dishes?"
Bruce bit his lip and wrapped his arms around himself. "I…"
"Because, to be honest, it kind of hurts my feelings."
Bruce slumped in on himself. "I'm sorry, Tony, it's not personal...I, uh, it's not you, it's me, as they say." He let out a sort of manic laugh.
Tony reached over and put a hand on Bruce's knee. "I just feel like there's something real between us. And I kinda thought you felt that way too."
"I...I do," Bruce said. "It's just...um...I guess, when I was a kid, I was...people bullied me, a lot, and my father―he…" He trailed off and shook his head rapidly.
"Aw, Bruce," Tony said. He shifted and pulled Bruce closer to him. Bruce curled up into Tony's chest. Tony supposed he could see how a brilliant, shy kid like Bruce would be bullied, if he hadn't had the money and influence of the Stark name behind him.
"Sorry, I'm a little bit...I drank too much."
"You're a real lightweight," Tony said affectionately.
"Anyway, it's just hard to...it's just hard for me to believe. That. Um. That you would be. Interested in me?" Bruce asked. "You're so smart, and funny, and handsome…"
"You're gonna give me a big head, Bruce." Bruce laughed and hiccupped. Tony carefully extricated himself from Bruce and said, "Hey, I'll be right back." He stood up and brought Bruce a glass of water. "It really pains me to be the responsible one but I think you should drink this."
Bruce nodded and obediently sipped the water.
Tony said, "You know, uh, I wasn't on great terms with my dad either, when he died. He was kind of old school, I guess...really high standards, really uncomfortable with expressing his emotions."
Bruce took a drink of water and said, "My father is in prison for felony child abuse."
"Oh my god," Tony said. "Of―of you?"
Bruce nodded, his eyes on the floor. "And my mom but, um, the charges for domestic violence are a joke."
"Jesus, Bruce, I'm so sorry."
"I don't―I don't like to talk about it," Bruce mumbled.
"You don't have to."
Bruce finished off the glass of water in one long swallow. He set the glass on the coffee table and hesitantly leaned against Tony's chest again. Tony held him there, completely unsure what else he should do or say.
Finally, Tony opted for honesty. "Bruce, I think you're an absolutely remarkable person."
"―shh. I showed up at your door, a total stranger, frozen, covered in blood, and you took me in without question. You cleaned me up, fed me...you were so kind to me and you didn't even know who I was. Plus you're so smart, and so passionate, and so hot."
Bruce peeked up at him, a look of wary acceptance in his eyes. "Oh."
Tony rolled his eyes. "And you say so much with so few words."
Bruce sighed. He leaned his mouth up toward Tony's and kissed him, a warm, wanting kiss. And then he pulled away with a lengthy yawn. He rubbed his eyes and said, "Sorry, I'm…" He yawned again. "Sleepy."
Tony gave him a fond smile. "Okay, let's make the bed, then."
Together, they moved the coffee table and folded out the bed. Tony struggled with the fitted sheet until Bruce took it out of his hands. Even tipsy, he had much more experience with bed-making than Tony. Once the bed was ready, Bruce got changed and curled up on his side.
After Tony got ready for bed, he asked, "You wanna be little spoon?"
"You don't have to go to bed yet, I know it's still early…"
"Shh." Tony slid behind Bruce and held him. Bruce tensed at first but gradually relaxed. Before long, Bruce fell asleep, leaving Tony wide awake with his mind racing. After December, Bruce would move back to the city. So they could keep dating. What would it be like to date Bruce in the city? It was hard to imagine Bruce at the kinds of clubs Tony usually frequented. And if he got drunk off of half a bottle of wine, there was no way Bruce could keep up with Tony's social circle. Would Tony get bored staying in? He was probably jumping the gun to worry about this.
In his arms, Bruce stirred and let out a little moan. "Hey, you're okay," Tony murmured. He rubbed Bruce's shoulder reassuringly. Bruce sighed and settled back to sleep without fully waking. Tony could tell it had pained Bruce to share even the small piece of his story. It made Tony feel so tender toward Bruce, he could barely stand it. Eventually, Tony fell into his own uneasy sleep.
In the morning, it was easy enough for Tony to channel some of his anxieties into another round of sex.
"We're getting really good at this," he panted.
"Practice makes perfect," Bruce replied.
Tony grinned and pressed a kiss against Bruce's throat. He’d been wrong―how could he possibly get bored staying in with Bruce?
Bruce gave a little sigh and said, "As much as I'd love to spend the day in bed with you, I have a couple of other things I need to do."
Tony gave a dramatic mock-pout. "Really? You have better things to do than me?"
Bruce laughed. "I didn't say better, just necessary. Starting with coffee?"
"Okay, yeah, I will concede that coffee is necessary." Tony sat up and watched as Bruce got out of bed, pulled on a pair of flannel pants, and started making coffee. He enjoyed the view of Bruce standing shirtless in the kitchen. It was obvious that Bruce didn't have the kind of sculpted six-pack you got from working out with a personal trainer, but he had the biceps and broad shoulders of someone who, well, shoveled a lot of snow and cut down a lot of trees.
Bruce turned and caught him staring. Tony grinned widely, but Bruce ducked his head and pulled a shirt on.
"Noo," Tony whined. "I was enjoying the view."
Bruce laughed. "You were facing the wrong direction," he said, and pointed toward the window.
"Okay, yes, the snow-covered pines are lovely, or whatever, but I'd rather look at you." Bruce gave him a skeptical look and opened his mouth to speak, but Tony held up a hand. "Seriously, don't start with your self-deprecating shit, just let me look."
Bruce gave him another long look, evaluating Tony's sincerity. Tony turned on his best puppy-dog eyes, and Bruce sighed. "Okay. I guess, um, for most of my life I've just been a skinny little nerd, so I'm not really...used to…" he trailed off and made a vague gesture at Tony.
"Not used to being properly appreciated as a hot nerd?"
"I, uh, I guess not?"
Tony climbed out of bed and came to stand in front of Bruce. "Well, I'm sure that's about to change for you."
Bruce shook his head, but he let Tony pull him into a kiss. When they finally pulled apart, Bruce panted, "I thought you wanted coffee."
"I have many complex needs and desires."
"Well, I need for you to sit back down and let me make breakfast."
"If you insist." Tony sat down at the kitchen table and watched Bruce work. He really wasn't in the habit of having breakfast with his hookups, but he thought he could get used to having breakfast with Bruce. "Soo, what would you be doing this morning if I weren't here?"
"Um...this, probably," Bruce said, gesturing at the stove. "Just without the sex first."
"So, this but worse?"
"This but worse," Bruce agreed, a smile playing over his lips. "Uh, what about you?"
Tony peered at the vintage clock radio. "I probably wouldn't be awake yet for another couple of hours."
"I mean, I also would have gone to bed way later. I'm kind of nocturnal."
Bruce placed a mug of steaming coffee and a bowl of oatmeal, topped with brown sugar and raisins, in front of Tony. "Yeah? Staying up late working on jigsaw puzzles?"
"Well, I'm for sure adding those to my rotation," Tony agreed. He eyed the oatmeal skeptically but tried a bite. It tasted better than it looked, and he made a surprised sound. Bruce seemed amused as he settled at the table with his own breakfast. Tony continued, "But, no, honestly, I get most of my work done late at night. Like, instead of holing away in a little cabin the middle of nowhere to get some quiet time, I just wait until everyone else goes to sleep. It's the same basic effect except, you know, with wifi. And 24-hour delivery."
"I'll get you back there tomorrow."
"I'm not in a rush, mind you," Tony said breezily. "I've come to appreciate certain perks about this cabin, such as the fact that you're in it."
Tony smiled at the confirmation that Bruce wasn't totally annoyed with him. And after they finished breakfast, Bruce again cleaned and dressed the cut on Tony's head. Tony didn't protest, even though it felt like it had pretty much fully healed. Whatever Bruce was using smelled nice, a kind of earthy, woodsy scent that reminded Tony of Bruce himself. After he'd finished tending to Tony's injury, Bruce gently stroked Tony's cheek with his thumb.
"How are you feeling?"
"Fine. Great. Perfect."
Bruce quirked his lips. "Well. I need to go out and do another round of data collection, but I thought if you were still feeling sore from your accident you might prefer to stay here? I could run a bath for you?"
"Ooh, yes, now that you mention it, that would be amazing."
"It's no trouble. Since you fixed the water heater and all."
Bruce added his collection of herbs to a steaming tub and then started pulling on his outerwear. Tony said, "Say hi to the trees from me."
"I will," Bruce said, and then he went out into the woods, leaving Tony alone in the tub. He was a bit sore―from the accident, from the skiing, from the sex―and the bath felt amazing. It was a little odd, too, to be completely alone like this. Tony was often physically alone in his workshop, but he always had his cell phone handy and his bots to talk to. Now all he had were his thoughts, which whirred at their usual pace, but with no clear target.
He thought about Stark Pharmaceuticals and how uninterested he was in medicine. He thought about how focused and passionate Bruce was. He thought, with some shame, about explaining his life to Bruce. He thought about how unimpressed Bruce was with Tony's wealth and fame, and he wondered what it would take to impress Bruce. Besides fixing his water heater.
Tony mulled over all of that while the bathwater slowly cooled. He finally climbed out of the bath, pruny and contemplative. He dried and dressed himself and took a minute to study his face in the mirror. The bandage Bruce had carefully applied to his forehead had come off, but he could see that the shallow cut was basically healed already. Still, he wouldn't say no if Bruce wanted to fuss over him some more, and he left it uncovered.
He paced anxiously around the cabin. He couldn't remember how long yesterday's tree walk had taken. He hoped Bruce would be back soon, but maybe Bruce needed a break from Tony. Tony picked at the jigsaw puzzle but it wasn't as much fun without Bruce. He picked a book off the top of a pile, paying careful attention to which pile it had been on.
It was just too quiet in the cabin. Tony thought he might lose his mind, and then he remembered he'd seen a clock radio. He turned it on and fiddled with it, turning it away from the NPR station it had been on and scanning the airwaves until he found a classic rock station. He blasted the music and felt a sense of relief rush through him as he returned to his book.
Tony was skimming through a breakdown of different drug interactions when the phone rang, barely audible over the music. He looked out the window and didn't see any sign of Bruce. He decided to answer it on the off-chance that it was about his car. He turned off the radio and picked up the phone.
After a long pause, a woman asked, "Is...Bruce there?"
"He's not available. Do you want to leave a message?" Tony eyed the Stark Pharmaceuticals message pad.
"May I ask who's speaking?"
"A friend of Bruce's. May I ask who's calling?"
"...Another friend of Bruce's. Sorry, it's just that he doesn't usually have...company."
"I'm kind of crashing. So, message…?"
"Do you know when he'll be back?"
"Uh...probably before too long. He just went out to do his tree stuff."
"His tree stuff."
"Uh, his research...measuring the...oleoresin production?"
"Uh huh." The woman sounded almost amused now. "Well, I'll try back in a little while, but you can let him know that Betty called."
"Hey―what's your name?"
"Tony. Uh, can I just ask...how's Bruce doing?"
"Like at his tree measuring? I don't know, he left maybe an hour ago?"
"No, I mean...does he seem...okay? Nevermind."
"Yeah, he seems okay," Tony said.
"...Okay. Good. I just―I worry about him. Sorry, I shouldn't...uh―just tell him Betty called, please."
She hung up, leaving Tony feeling a bit confused. Bruce had mentioned Betty before, hadn't he? Not the American flag girl...he'd said she'd gotten him this job. Was Bruce in trouble? Why was she worried? Sure, Tony had only known him for two days but he didn't think he'd ever met someone who seemed as independent and self-reliant as Bruce.
Tony hung up the phone, turned the music back on, and flopped on the couch, still skimming through the medical textbook. The content itself seemed boring, but he was charmed by the Post-It notes Bruce had plastered the book with, filled with insights and connections written in Bruce's cramped handwriting. Still, he was relieved when the door to the cabin swung open; he preferred Bruce in the flesh to Bruce in writing. Bruce dusted snow off of himself and shrugged off his outerwear before coming inside.
"How were the trees?" Tony asked.
"They were lovely, as ever. How was your morning?"
"Devastatingly lonely," Tony replied, batting his eyelashes. "But better now." Bruce shook his head and laughed. "Oh, before I forget, someone named Betty called?"
Bruce's eyebrows furrowed. "Did she leave a message?"
"She said to call her back. Or that she would call back. Something like that. You know her number? She didn't leave one."
"Hm." Bruce had been heading toward Tony, but he changed course to turn off the radio and pick up the phone. He dialed a number from memory, leaving Tony to awkwardly eavesdrop from the couch. Was it really eavesdropping if Bruce knew he was there? He had to know that Tony could hear him, especially with the radio off.
"Hey, Betty! ... Yeah, he told me you called...oh, well, I guess it's kind of a funny story, he got into a car crash―no he's fine, that's why it's kind of funny…"
Tony smiled. It was one of the nicer conversations about himself he'd overheard.
Bruce contained, "Uh huh, yeah...no, I'm fine, thanks...how are you?...oh. What kind of news? ...Oh. …" his smile faded. "I'm so sorry to hear that. ...No. No, I understand. ...Yeah, I can do that. Is there anything else I can do? … No, it's fine, I… Yeah. No. ...Really, thanks for calling, though. ...Yeah, love you too." He hung up the phone and stared at it for a long moment.
Tony's two main takeaways were that Bruce had just casually told Betty he loved her, and that Bruce seemed to have received some bad news. He stood up and joined Bruce in the kitchen. "Hey, uh...everything okay?"
"What? Yeah. No. It's fine."
"Do you want some coffee?" Tony asked, and he started making coffee before Bruce could answer. "Sit down, I'll make coffee."
Bruce nodded and sat down at the kitchen table. Tony brought over two mugs and said, hoping he sounded playful and not jealous, "Soo, who's Betty?"
Bruce cast a sideways glance at Tony and shook his head. "I told you, a friend from college. Betty Ross. As in Ross Christmas Tree Farm? She―the first year I came up here, she pretty much dragged me here...it was so soon after my mom died and I wasn't―she's the one who talked to my adviser and helped me with my research proposal and I―anyway, her dad is selling the farm."
"Oh. Like, today?"
Bruce shook his head. "She said it would be after this season. And I―you know, next year I'll start my clinical rotations and I wouldn't be able to get much time away from school anyway, so it doesn't...doesn't really matter," Bruce said. He sounded like he was trying to convince himself as much as Tony.
"Wait, I didn't get you in trouble by being here, did I?"
"What? Oh, no, no, this is nothing to do with you. It, uh, her grandfather died and he was the one who owned it." Bruce shrugged. "This place has never been very profitable but I guess her grandfather used to come up here for hunting sometimes. So now...well, anyway, I have some work to do."
Tony watched with amusement as Bruce set up his elderly laptop on the kitchen table and connected it to the phone line. He had a nagging feeling that the news was bugging Bruce more than he wanted to let on, but he decided it was best to wait until Bruce started talking about it on his own. Sure, he and Bruce had both had their late night confessions, but he wasn't sure how to bring up emotions in broad daylight.
Instead, he joked, "I swear to god, Bruce, I didn't know you could even pay for dial-up internet anymore."
"You can make fun of me, or you can petition your elected officials to subsidize broadband internet for rural areas."
Tony blinked. "Well, I think you'll find that I can do both," he said, and made a mental note to look into that issue later, when he was back on the grid.
Bruce had put his reading glasses on and once again Tony was slightly overcome. Bruce looked over at him and said, "Sorry, I just need to wrap up a few things. You can...work on the puzzle? If you want?"
"How'm I supposed to focus on that when you're so cute in those glasses?" Tony asked with a pout. Bruce rolled his eyes and turned back to his screen, his cheeks slightly pink. Tony grinned and went back to the couch to give Bruce some space to do his work. With good intentions, he stared at the jigsaw puzzle. He fitted a few pieces into place and squirmed. It was just too quiet. "Hey Bruce, do you mind if I turn the radio back on?"
"Huh? Oh, uh, go ahead."
"Thanks." Tony turned the radio on and nodded in approval as AC/DC filled the air. "I don't know how you can think when it's so quiet."
Bruce laughed. "That's how I feel when it's noisy."
"Oh." Tony slightly turned down the radio.
"No, no, the music is fine, just, in the city...it can be overwhelming." Bruce bit his lip and looked back at the computer. Tony drummed on the table while he contemplated the puzzle. "Actually, um, sorry, could you please...not do that?"
"Huh? Oh. Sorry." Tony pressed his hands against his knees and studied the puzzle.
Tony fitted a few more puzzle pieces into place. Bruce clicked away at his keyboard. The radio played "Pour Some Sugar On Me" and Tony started humming along. Bruce sighed loudly.
"Sorry, sorry," Tony said. "Um, how about, are you hungry? I can...make lunch?"
"Oh, you don't have to…"
"I should stay busy," Tony said. "I get into trouble when I'm bored."
"Okay. There's, um, well, I was planning on getting groceries tomorrow but there's...well, you can use whatever you can find."
Tony surveyed the kitchen, which was starting to look a little picked over. He felt another pang of guilt―he'd been eating all of Bruce's food all weekend. He'd have to make that up to Bruce, as soon as he got back to civilization.
He set about making omelets featuring a sad onion, some frozen peas, and a bit of cheese he'd found way in the back of the fridge. The finished products didn't look quite as appealing as the ones Edwin Jarvis had made for the Starks, but Tony was pretty sure they'd be edible. He proudly brought the plates over to the table.
Bruce smiled. "Thanks, Tony. Just give me one second…" He peered at his screen, occasionally typing a few notes. "Uh, sorry, you should go ahead and eat if you're hungry."
Tony waited as patiently as he could while the omelets got cold. Finally, Bruce folded his laptop shut. He took off his reading glasses and said, "Sorry to keep you waiting. I just wanted to get that out of the way." He took a bite and said, "This is great!"
"It was better when it was warm," Tony said.
Bruce blinked. He took another bite and said, "Oh. Huh. Sorry, let me heat them up."
Tony watched as Bruce transferred the omelets onto a baking sheet and put them in the oven.
"You don't have a microwave?" Tony blurted out.
"Sorry the accommodations aren't up to your standards," Bruce said drily.
"I mean―it's just―it's just different," Tony managed.
Bruce retrieved the omelets from the oven and re-plated them. He also brought a bottle of hot sauce to the table. "Thanks again for cooking."
"Thanks for keeping me out of the cold."
"Mm, I meant to ask, were you reading one of my textbooks when I came in?"
"Oh, sorry, I thought I put it back in the right place."
"No, it's fine, it's just―not really light reading material."
"I guess I was a little curious. My―my parents had wanted me to go to study medicine, but I didn't want to."
Bruce raised his eyebrows. "You could still go, if you wanted to. Most people our age are still undergrads, it's not like you've aged out."
"No, I know, I just...I don't think that's what I'm supposed to do. I don't know. I mean, with my parents dying so suddenly―my dad had been a doctor first and then founded the company, and I know he wanted me to follow in his footsteps but things are different now. It's not like you need an MD to run a pharmaceutical company. And I just think...I don't know. Sorry, I know this is, uh, a privileged problem to have."
"Well. Med school is a lot of work. I wouldn't recommend it to someone who didn't really want to be there."
"And there are a lot of other ways you can help people besides medicine."
"Right!" Tony pointed with his fork for emphasis.
"I'm sure you'll figure something out, if you want to."
"Of course I want to!" Tony said defensively.
Bruce held up his hands palm-out. "I didn't mean it like that. I just meant, you seem like you'll accomplish whatever you put your mind to."
"Oh," Tony replied, once again startled by Bruce's earnestness.
Bruce shrugged and turned his focus back on his plate. Tony ate too, turning Bruce's words over in his mind. After they finished lunch, Bruce washed the dishes and then pulled a different textbook off of one of his piles.
"Noo," Tony whined.
Bruce laughed. "Sorry, Tony, I just need to prepare for class tomorrow." He settled in at the kitchen table with an array of office supplies.
Tony leaned over the back of Bruce's chair and whispered in his ear, "Are you sure I couldn't distract you?"
Bruce's breath hitched. "I'm sure you could, but I'm asking you to please not?"
"Oh." Tony stood up. "Sorry, I just thought―I thought we were on the same page."
"We were! I―Tony, I―" Bruce swallowed. "It's just that I already wasted too much time this weekend and I really do have a lot to do."
"Well, I'm sorry for wasting your time," Tony said coolly.
"Tony! I didn't mean wasted. Just, uh, unproductive. I guess. I―it's been a really great weekend. And I―I just need to get all of my work done and then I should be free to spend tonight with you." Bruce looked up at him with those big, earnest eyes.
Tony sighed. "Okay. No, I understand. I―I'm sure my assistant wishes I had your work ethic."
"Hey, if you need to get online, I can connect my laptop for you. I don't need it right now."
Tony shuddered at the thought of trying to get anything done on such a slow connection. It would be more frustrating than doing nothing. "Nah, I'll just wait until I have real internet. But thanks."
"Okay. Well, let me know if you change your mind. But for now...the more I can focus on this, the faster I'll be done with it?"
"I will strive to be as un-distracting as possible."
The afternoon dragged on as Bruce diligently took notes and Tony diligently tried to keep quiet. He flipped through more books, he worked on the puzzle, he made more coffee, he used aluminum foil to build a better antenna for Bruce's clock radio, and he snuck glances at Bruce.
Finally, Bruce closed his textbook and packed everything into a well-worn messenger bag. He settled on the couch next to Tony. "I'm all yours for the rest of the day," he said.
Tony grinned and gave him a quick kiss. "First things first, I didn't want to finish the puzzle without you."
"Aww." Bruce smiled up at him sweetly, and Tony felt all his annoyance melt away. There were only a handful of pieces left, and they raced to complete it. Tony triumphantly snapped the last piece into place, and then frowned when he realized there were still a few blank spaces in the puzzle. Most notably, Paul's face was missing in the Abbey Road cover.
"Paul really is dead," Bruce mused.
Tony craned his head to look around for missing pieces. "Should we check the couch cushions?"
"Oh...we can, but they're probably just lost. Sorry, I forgot to mention, that's the peril of buying used jigsaw puzzles. After I do them I always put in a note saying how many pieces are missing, before I donate them back to Goodwill. That way the next person will know what they're getting into."
Tony looked at the incomplete puzzle. "Doesn't it drive you crazy?"
Bruce shrugged. "I just like putting them together. If I were one of those people who liked to glue them together and frame them, I'm sure it would bug me more."
Tony pulled out his phone and snapped a photo of the puzzle. "When I'm back at my office, I'm going to fix this."
Bruce laughed. "It's really not a big deal."
"Well, it'll be easy to fix."
"Okay. Do you want to box it up and take it with you?"
"What, and have to put the whole thing back together? Absolutely not."
Bruce looked amused, but he lifted his hands up. "Okay. Well...then the puzzle's done, for the moment, so..."
"Is anyone coming to buy a tree today?"
"Probably not. The weekends are our busiest times, and the few days right before Christmas."
"Great! So, then I think we should take our clothes off."
Bruce inclined his head. "You make a compelling argument. Let's move the table out of the way first. And close the curtains."
"Are you sure? I feel like a certain amount of exhibitionism might boost tree sales."
"This is a family-friendly establishment," Bruce said; his tone was scandalized but the look in his eyes said differently.
Once they were safe from prying eyes and loose puzzle pieces, they unfolded the bed and fell into it. It was worth the wait, no matter how long and boring the wait had been.
Eventually Bruce climbed out of bed and started working in the kitchen. Tony turned on the radio and asked, "What are you doing?"
"Just making some bread. We used up the last of it yesterday."
Before long, the cabin was filled with the delicious scent of bread baking. While it baked, Bruce started a fire in the fireplace. After they ate warm sandwiches and cleaned up, they sat up in the bed together. Tony leaned his head against Bruce's shoulder and said, "I'm really glad I crashed my car."
Bruce laughed. "I'm really glad you weren't seriously hurt."
"I'm glad I was hurt enough that you needed to kiss me better." Bruce turned and kissed Tony's cheek. "Did you learn that in med school?"
"Mm. Gold star from me. What else are you studying?"
"I'm still in my pre-clinical years, and I'm doing the dual―oh, you were doing innuendo."
"Oh my god, you're so cute. Yes, I was, but I'm also curious about your studies."
"Hmm," Bruce said, and then he began to thoroughly demonstrate his knowledge of human anatomy.
After they'd cleaned up and gotten ready for bed, Tony curled up next to Bruce and said, "I'd love to try that on a real bed."
"A real bed? Is this one illusory?"
"I just mean I was holding back because I didn't want to break your couch."
"You were holding back?"
"Just a little. Like ten percent." Bruce gave an appreciative hum. Tony said, "Anyway, what I'm saying is...well, you're welcome at my place in the city, any time. You don't even have to crash your car."
"Good to know." Bruce yawned. "We should try to get some sleep. Tomorrow's a long day."
"Kay," Tony agreed, and he found that he was actually tired enough to fall asleep quickly, instead of being kept awake by his racing thoughts like usual.
In the morning he awoke to the annoying beeping of Bruce's clock radio. Bruce was already out of bed and standing in the kitchen area, but he ran over to turn off the alarm.
"What time is it?" Tony squinted at the clock. "Six AM? That's not...that's…"
"You can nap in the truck."
"Five more minutes." Tony closed his eyes and heard Bruce's sigh.
But five minutes later, Tony smelled coffee very close to his nose. He opened an eye experimentally and saw Bruce standing next to the bed with a mug. "C'mon, sleepyhead."
Tony sat up and took the mug. He saw that Bruce was already dressed, and felt a brief flash of guilt. Bruce was doing him a favor. Sure, Tony could call for a driver from the city, but...then he'd miss out on a few more hours with Bruce. He took a big sip of coffee and said, "Thanks. When do we need to leave?"
"Twenty minutes, ish?"
Tony made a face, but then realized that he didn't really need to worry about his usual routine. He didn't even have any hair products with him. "No problem." He slammed the rest of the coffee and changed back into his original set of clothing―now dry but slightly stiff. He didn't have much of anything to pack. In the bathroom, he brushed his teeth and studied his face in the mirror. It had healed remarkably well from the incident on Saturday; Bruce knew what he was doing with his herbal remedies. He splashed some water on his face, which combined with the coffee in his bloodstream woke him up pretty well.
Back out in the cabin, Tony squinted at Bruce. "You look different. Wait, you shaved!"
"Yeah, I try to clean up for class…"
Tony reached out and stroked Bruce's cheek. "Hmm. Smooth. I kind of miss the lumberjack look, but I can adapt."
"Glad to hear it."
Tony leaned in. "I just need a quick test…"
Bruce rolled his eyes, but he kissed Tony back. His smooth cheeks felt lovely against Tony's face, but too soon Bruce pulled away and said, "We should go. I...I don't want to be late for class."
"Of course. So studious."
Bruce locked up the cabin, put out a "closed" sign, and led Tony to a vintage pickup truck parked out back.
"This isn't what I imagined you'd drive."
"Oh? What do you imagine?"
"I don't know, a Prius? Something environmentally friendly?"
Bruce grinned. "You're right. Usually I rely on the most environmentally friendly option: a bike. Or public transit. The truck is Betty's grandpa's but they let me borrow it." His grin faded. "For now."
"Ah. Wait, when you say bike, do you mean motorcycle or bicycle?"
"Uh...bicycle, usually. But I do have a motorcycle license."
Bruce shook his head and started down the mountain, navigating the rough terrain with confidence. They soon came to a small town and Bruce pulled into a gas station.
"Let me pay for this," Tony insisted. "Since you wouldn't take my money for food and stuff."
"If you insist."
Bruce started pumping gas, and Tony went inside to pay. He picked out a few pre-packaged cinnamon rolls, plus more coffee, and went to the cashier. "This stuff plus pump number...uh...well, the only one in use."
The clerk, a middle-aged woman whose nametag said "Deb", nodded and rang up his purchases. Tony slid over his credit card. Deb looked at it, then up at Tony and seemed to see him for the first time. "Tony Stark?"
Tony gestured at his face and smiled. "The one and only."
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself!" She angrily swiped his card and flung it at him.
"Uh...yeah, probably. For what, now?"
She just shook her head. Tony shrugged and grabbed his treats. On his way out, he noticed a newspaper with the headline, "State Attorney General Sues Stark Pharmaceuticals For Illegally Monopolizing Life-Saving Drug." Well, that wasn't good. Tony thought about buying a paper, but he didn't think he'd survive another round of eye contact with Deb. Anyway, he was sure he'd hear all the details soon enough.
He forced a smile on his face as he brought the gas station breakfast back to Bruce, who accepted it with a nod. Tony scanned Bruce's face and found no sign of disgust, just the same resigned amusement he'd gotten used to. Bruce must not have heard the news yet. Tony wondered if he should mention it, but decided that he needed to learn more first.
Once they were back on the road, Tony slipped his phone out of his pocket and checked it for signal. He had two bars and two million notifications. He grimaced and started trying to triage them, but he sensed it was hopeless. He'd need to talk to Pepper. He slipped his phone back into his pocket and took a sip of coffee, then nearly spit it back out. "Oh god, this coffee is awful." He briefly wondered if Deb had poisoned it, but Bruce nodded calmly.
"Yeah...that place isn't my first choice for coffee. It's not even in my top ten. But, uh, thanks for the cinnamon roll..."
Tony sighed and kept drinking the terrible coffee. Bruce turned on the radio, and Tony winced when he heard NPR come out over the speakers. He really didn't want Bruce to hear about the Stark Pharmaceuticals lawsuit like that. Deciding to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, he reached out and searched the channels until he found a rock station. "Little early for news, right?"
"Oh, I guess so," Bruce replied. He gave Tony a quick, amused glance. "I guess if you're CEO, you can start your day whenever you want?"
"I guess you can. I mean, I'm not actually the CEO―"
"―oh, that's right, you told me that, sorry."
"It's a common mistake. Anyway, you're right, my job doesn't really require me to be a morning person."
"That's a nice perk."
"Yeah, I guess it's not really an option for doctors. I don't know, unless you want to be a plastic surgeon or something."
Bruce snorted. "Not my top choice, no."
They chatted about the pros and cons of the medical profession for most of their journey. As they approached the sprawling outskirts of the city, Bruce asked, "Should I drop you off at, uh, Stark Tower, or…?"
Tony thought for a moment. If there was some kind of bombshell lawsuit against SP, and if Tony himself had been unavailable for a few days, it was a good bet there'd be reporters waiting for him at Stark Tower. Tony knew he'd have to deal with them eventually, but there was no need to drag Bruce into it. "No, that'll be a big hassle for you. You just go where you're going and I'll get a cab."
"Yeah, you got me most of the way here, and with rush hour...I'd hate to make you late for class."
"Okay. Yeah, thanks. I hate driving in the city."
Sure enough, Tony watched with amusement as soft-spoken Bruce was slowly overcome with road rage, honking and shouting at other drivers. Fortunately, they made it to the parking garage without major incident. Bruce took a few deep breaths before checking the time.
Tony asked, "What time is your class?"
"The first one is at 9AM." Bruce wouldn't be late, but there wasn't time for Tony to offer to buy him a better breakfast. But maybe that was for the best; there was a chance they'd be photographed together, and Bruce didn't need that.
Tony pulled a card out of his wallet, a real one―he kept some decoys that only had a general information number on them. He handed it to Bruce and said, "Well, hey, call me if you want to get lunch after class. Or dinner. Or breakfast. Or just sex in a real bed. Or all of the above."
Bruce took the card and carefully tucked it into his bag. He gave Tony a slow smile and said, "Yeah. Sounds good."
They got out of the truck and shared one last parking garage kiss. Well, a couple of kisses, until finally Bruce said, "Oh, no, I'm going to be late―bye, Tony, good luck with your car and...and everything!" He sprinted out of the garage, leaving Tony to face the music. For a moment, he leaned against Bruce's borrowed truck and scrolled through his phone, trying again to make sense of the many messages there. Finally, he gave up and called Pepper.
She answered after a fraction of a ring. His reception was garbled in the garage and he could only hear every third word, but he could tell she was frantic. "Hey, Pep, sorry, one minute." He found a stairwell and left the garage. Once he was on street level he sat down on a bench and said, "Okay, so, what's going on?"
"Tony, where have you been? Where are you? Why haven't you replied to any of my emails?"
"Sorry, sorry, I went skiing and I didn't have any internet."
"Okay, fine, don't tell me the truth, but where are you now?"
"Pepper, seriously, I didn't have any internet or cell signal. Just a landline. I was basically off the grid. What's going on?"
"You told me you were going to the Greenwood Resort for one day, and I know they have internet there."
"Okay, yes, but then I ended up staying at a...friend's place."
"God. Of course. So where are you now?"
"I'm in Morningside Heights."
"What are you―never mind, I don't even want to know. Are you coming in to work today?"
"Yeah, I'm trying to figure out what's going on!"
"Okay. You know what, why don't I...why don't you come to my apartment? There's a lot going on at Stark Tower right now and I...I just think it'll be better if we can talk in private."
Tony debated this for a moment. He didn't like being driven out of his own building, but he also wanted to know what he was walking into. "Okay. Sure. Thanks, Pepper, I really do―"
"―I'll text you the address." Pepper cut him off and hung up on him. She sounded pissed, which was maybe a little bit fair. Tony had only meant to be the usual amount of irresponsible. He didn't realize he was blowing off what seemed to be a couple of the worst days SP had ever faced. He pulled his scarf over his face and hailed a cab.
Pepper let him into her place, which was bigger than Bruce's cabin but not by much. Tony sized up the tiny apartment and blurted out, "This is where you live? Do I need to pay you more?"
"Yes, always, god, Tony, I cannot believe you have just been MIA. Is there blood on your scarf?"
"Yes, I stained it in the car accident I was in." He batted his eyelashes at her.
"You're not going to make me feel sorry for you." She frowned. "You're okay, though, right?"
"The doctors think I'll live."
Her face softened a little and she said, "Good, because you need to deal with this shit. Have a seat." He settled on her couch and she handed him a stack of paper. "So, did you read any of my messages?"
"Well, some, this morning, once I got back to civilization. SP is being sued for monopoly price gouging? That's ridiculous, right? We...we don't do that, do we?"
She looked him in the eye for a long moment and nodded. "Okay. I wasn't sure if you were secretly evil or just incompetent."
"Well, I'd rather have you be well-meaning and incompetent than skilled and evil."
"I'm―" Tony looked down at the paperwork and then back up at Pepper. "Fine. For the moment, let us assume that I am...perhaps not completely in the loop."
"I haven't been sure who I could trust, but it seems like Stane has been making some really shady deals."
"I know you weren't involved, but I wasn't sure if that was for plausible deniability on your part or for stealth on his part."
Tony gritted his teeth as he remembered all the times Stane had dropped by Tony's workshop and made patronizing little comments about Tony's projects, reassuring him that all the "real work" was being taken care of elsewhere. "I didn't know, I―I guess I could have paid a little more attention to that stuff."
Pepper snorted. "Well, I believe you, but it might be harder to convince the court, not to mention public opinion."
"Court...right...but, we're...how do we fix this? Did they already fix it? The price, I mean? Arcelamine...that's a cancer drug. I―people who need chemotherapy should be able to have it!"
"Yes, they should. I'm glad to hear you agree."
"I guess I just assumed that's how it was."
Pepper rubbed a hand over her forehead. "Okay. I clearly deserve some blame here, I've been coddling you too much."
"I don't feel very coddled."
"Well, pick up the phone the next time the New York Times calls and then you'll understand what it feels like to not be coddled!"
"That's...probably fair. Fuck. Pepper, I hate this."
"So what are you going to do about it?"
"What...do you think I should do about it?" he asked hopefully.
She crossed her arms and cocked her head to one side. "You really think I can just solve all of your problems for you?"
"I mean...yes? That's what you do every day?" She kept staring at him and he said, "Pepper, seriously, I'm sorry for missing all your calls and everything but really I was stranded in the middle of nowhere with no internet and no car!"
"I thought you were staying with a friend."
"Well, he's my friend now."
Pepper gave him a long, slow blink before presenting him with another folder. "As it happens, I did have a meeting with your legal team yesterday. Since you weren't here to do it. The board is appointing you interim CEO, which means you're kind of on the hook for all of this."
Tony skimmed it and frowned. "Are they arguing that we have a duty to price gouge because we owe it to our shareholders?"
"I think that's the essence of their argument, yes."
"Ugh, gross, what's the other option?"
"Try to settle out of court? That would be less...public than a trial. It also separates Stane's actions from the company."
Tony scrubbed his hand over his face. "Wait, is it just the Arcelamine or does this affect other drugs, too?"
Ever-prepared, Pepper handed him a sheet of figures. "Tony, where did you think the money was coming from?"
"I...don't know how to end that sentence in a way that doesn't make me sound like a complete asshole," Tony said. He had always had as much money as he needed, and had never felt the need to investigate very far beyond that. He knew the company was doing well, but he'd assumed that it went without saying that he meant for the company to also follow the law.
"At least your self-awareness is growing."
Tony flipped through the papers with increasing agitation. "I can't believe this has been going on under my nose this whole time! I...this is what Obie's been doing?"
"He was my dad's best friend, I thought...ugh. I thought I could trust him. I thought he could just kind of handle all of the…" he made a vague hand gesture. "This stuff."
"Well, the business was very profitable under his leadership."
"But sick people went bankrupt!"
Pepper gave him another long blink. "Yes. Okay. Let's...let's just set up a meeting with your legal team."
"Thank you, Pepper," Tony said fervently. "I really don't know what I'd do without you."
"Go to jail, probably," she said, before picking up her phone. The rest of the day passed in an interminable blur of meetings and paperwork. Every so often Tony checked his phone, hoping for a message from Bruce, but of course none came. By now, Bruce would undoubtedly have heard about how awful Tony and his company were; and a pure-hearted person like Bruce wouldn't want anything to do with him anymore.
Hours turned into days. Tony eventually slipped back into Stark Tower via a private entrance and cooped himself up in his workshop whenever he wasn't meeting with lawyers. He thought he'd gotten used to paparazzi attention, but that was back when people thought he was just an irresponsible playboy. Now that he'd become a bloodthirsty criminal, he wanted to avoid the media as much as possible. Alone in his workshop one night, it occurred to him to look up Ross Christmas Tree Farm. They didn't have much of an online presence, which wasn't surprising. But he did find a phone number. When he called, he got a woman's voice on an answering machine and hung up before the "beep." He wasn't sure if that number went to the landline at Bruce's cabin or somewhere else, and anyway, what did he really have to say for himself?
He got back to his latest clean energy power source prototype and happily buried himself in his work until his phone rang from an unknown number. Tony didn't give out his personal number to very many people, and he picked it up with a fragment of hope. "Hello?"
After a short pause, Bruce's low voice said, "Oh, uh, hi, Tony. I hope I didn't wake you up...I...thought I'd just leave a message."
Wake him up? Tony squinted at the time and saw that it was 5:30 AM. "Oh. No, you didn't wake me, I haven't been to bed yet today. Yesterday. Whatever. I'm glad you called."
"Oh. Well, it's just...I got a call from the garage in town...your car is ready? I...I'll give you their phone number."
Tony had already forgotten about that car, but he didn’t mention that to Bruce. Tony scrawled the number on his tablet. "Thanks."
Bruce said, "Well, I'll let you go―"
"―no, wait, please, Bruce, can we talk?"
"You should get some sleep," Bruce said gently.
"I can't sleep, I just―Bruce, I know that the news about me, and my company―I know it's horrible. But I'm trying to fix it. I swear to you, I didn't know any of this stuff was going on."
"And I just―I thought we really had a connection. Didn't we? That wasn't just in my head, was it?"
After a very long pause, Bruce said, "No."
"No to which?"
"No, it...it wasn't in your head."
Tony exhaled. "Okay. Good. Because, I―I've been missing you. Do you think we could get dinner or something the next time you're in the city?"
Another pause. Tony pictured Bruce in his cabin, talking on the landline. Maybe he was sitting at the cozy kitchen table, wearing cute flannel pajamas and holding a cup of tea. Finally, Bruce said, "I'm not sure when the next time I'll be in the city is."
"Don't you have class?"
"I...I've been thinking about withdrawing."
"I should go. Take care, Tony," Bruce said, and hung up before Tony could respond. Tony huffed and immediately called back, but it went to the same Ross Farm message he'd gotten earlier. Again, he hung up without leaving a message. He wasn't yet sure what he could say to convince Bruce to stick it out.
Bruce really shouldn't be Tony's biggest concern right now, but he couldn't stop turning over their conversation in his mind. He drank some more coffee and started another new project, and when the clock finally rolled over to normal business hours, he made some phone calls.
Shortly after he thought he'd finished his arrangements, he got a call from Pepper. "Hey, Pep!"
"Tony, what's this I hear from Happy about you going upstate today?"
"I have to pick up my car from the garage there."
"Surely you know that Happy could get someone to tow it."
"I like that car! I want to make sure it gets back in one piece."
"Didn't you crash it in the first place?"
"And lightning doesn't strike twice, so I'll be fine."
He could exactly picture the way she rolled her eyes as she said, "Even if that made sense, which it doesn't, does this really seem like the best use of your time?"
"Pepper, I have to get out of the city or I'm going to lose my mind. Anyway, it's Saturday. I didn't think I had any meetings today."
She sighed. "No, you don't."
"Be careful? And let me know when you get there. And when you get back."
"Why don't you just microchip me?"
"Don't think I haven't thought about it."
"Byeee, Pepper," Tony sang out. He hung up the phone, packed a bag, and went to meet Happy in the Tower's private garage. As long as his phone signal lasted, Tony kept working on his phone, researching his case and reviewing the files Pepper sent him.
When Happy pulled up into the lot of a dingy garage, he made a face and said, "Let me handle this, Tony."
"I don't know, I just don't like the look of this place. I'm supposed to be your security officer."
"What, you think these mechanics are going to mug me?"
But Tony saw the tough-looking mechanics eyeing them and decided to let Happy have his way. If nothing else, Tony had already been scolded by enough residents of this town. A few moments later, Happy came back with the keys to the Audi. He made a big show of looking over the car while both Tony and the two mechanics rolled their eyes. Eventually, the car passed muster, and Happy gave the keys to Tony.
"Thanks," Tony said, nodding at both the mechanics and Happy.
"I'll see you back at the Tower, boss," Happy said.
"Yeah, I just have a quick detour, but I'll catch up with you."
"A detour? You didn't say anything about a detour! Does Pepper know about this?"
"Bye!" Tony said, getting into his Audi and peeling out of the garage. He remembered the route back to the Christmas tree farm―it was pretty much a straight shot out of town. He pulled into the empty parking lot and stood on the front porch of the cabin for a moment, trying to prepare himself to see Bruce again. Finally, he knocked.
Nothing happened. He knocked again, more loudly, and called, "Bruce? Bruce?" Still no answer, and Tony tried to peek inside the windows to see if Bruce was home. Shit, he hadn't really prepared for this. It was Saturday, and he'd thought Bruce only had classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays (or maybe none at all, if he'd actually dropped out of medical school). It seemed like it was too early for people to buy Christmas trees. Maybe Bruce was out counting trees? Should Tony go out into the woods after him? He wasn't really dressed for it.
Tony was still standing off to the side of the house when he heard footsteps crunching on the snow. He turned to look, and his heart did a stupid little flip when he saw Bruce in his full lumberjack aspect. Bruce's eyebrows furrowed, and as Tony approached him, he realized that Bruce did not look particularly happy to see him.
"Tony? What are you doing here?"
Tony gestured to his car. "I came to pick up my car."
"Okay...but your car wasn't here."
"Well, I was in the area, so, I wanted to stop by and deliver a gift to my favorite lumberjack." He reached into his jacket pocket and produced an envelope.
Bruce hesitated before taking it. "I don't need any gifts."
"But here you go, anyway. It's your lucky day."
Bruce pulled off his gloves, opened the envelope, and gave a reluctant smile at its contents―the missing pieces to the Beatles puzzle they'd worked on. "Where did you get these?"
"I took a picture of the puzzle on my phone, and then I mapped it against the cover art and reproduced the pieces in my workshop."
"That's...thank you. That's very thoughtful."
Tony beamed and didn't even mention the key role actual internet access had played in his gift. "You're welcome! Anyway, since I was in the neighborhood, I wanted to drop by and ask why a brilliant, kind person like yourself would withdraw from medical school?"
Bruce tucked the envelope of puzzle pieces into his pocket and crossed his arms, tucking his ungloved hands into his armpits. "That's what you're worried about?"
"I'm capable of having many simultaneous worries."
Bruce sighed. "Look, thank you for the puzzle pieces, but I think you should probably go."
"Wait, Bruce, please. I―I understand that my company fucked up, and I should have done a better job keeping an eye on things, but―but I'm fixing it. And I, I don't know, if this has anything to do with you leaving medical school, I just...I think you'd be a great doctor, and I would hate it if anything I did stopped you from becoming one."
"Tony...have you ever seen someone die of cancer?"
Tony shook his head.
"I...I hope you never do. It's unbearable. And the―the idea that if I become a doctor in this country, that I might have to explain to dying patients how much their life-saving medicine will cost...that some of them might go without it, just for lack of money...I don't know how I could live with myself."
Tony winced. "But, Bruce...we're fixing it!"
"This isn't only about Stark Pharma, it's just...a symptom of a bigger problem."
"But wouldn't you rather those patients had someone like you in their corner? I know I would."
Bruce looked unmoved. "Bruce, please," Tony said.
Bruce took a step closer to Tony and asked, "When was the last time you slept?"
"This morning, didn't you say you hadn't been to sleep yet? And then you drove all this way?"
"Oh. Well, my bodyguard drove me down here."
"You have a bodyguard? Are...are you in danger?"
Tony shrugged. "I mean, he does other stuff."
Bruce pursed his lips. "So did you sleep in the car? You look...tired."
Tony frowned and smoothed his hair back. "No I don't. I don't really need a lot of sleep. I'm fine."
Bruce paused, and Tony could practically see the mental calculations Bruce was doing. "Why don't you come inside?" Tony smiled, and Bruce added, "Sleep-deprived driving is even more dangerous than drunk driving. I don't want you to get into an accident."
Tony's smile widened: Bruce still cared whether Tony lived or died!
Bruce sighed and shook his head as he stepped around Tony to open the front door. Tony followed him in, and they both paused to remove their outerwear. Bruce headed for the kitchen area, and Tony followed. Bruce started preparing tea.
"How are your trees doing?" Tony asked.
"They're fine, thank you. How's your 500% price increase on life saving medication doing?"
"Bruce! You have to know that wasn't me. It's―we're fixing it. I didn't know."
"But you didn't have any problem spending that blood money?"
"I―I don't really pay that much attention to that stuff! I just listened to my accountants. Which I see is a problem now, but it's not like I personally sat down to charge that. But I am personally trying to fix it!"
"Which is why you're custom-making puzzle pieces and delivering them to the middle of nowhere?"
"Yes, because if you don't become a doctor, that is also a problem and I personally would like to fix it!"
Bruce's lips quirked―just a little, but Tony saw it. Bruce said, "Drink this and take a nap. I'm going to set up the tree stand for the day."
"I'm not even tired."
"You will be."
Tony looked into the mug. "Are you drugging me?"
"It's camomile and valerian."
Tony wanted to protest that he was fine, that he didn't even like tea...but Bruce lit a fire in the fireplace, and put out a pillow and quilt on the couch, and Tony thought he might as well take advantage of the coziness, since he was here. He drank the tea, curled up on the couch, and was out like a light.
When he awoke, it was dark out and the cabin smelled delicious. He sat up and stretched, then went over to join Bruce at the kitchen table. Bruce looked up from his book with a smirk. "How was your nap?"
"It was...good, thank you," Tony admitted. He checked the clock and did a double-take at the time. "Shit. Can I borrow your phone? I was supposed to call…"
"Uh oh. Is your bodyguard going to arrest me?"
"No, no, but my PA might murder me."
"Personal assistant. Her name's Pepper, she's great but...intense."
"Ah. Not a physician's assistant?"
"No, I don't have one of those."
"Makes sense. Anyway, yeah, go ahead." Bruce gestured at the phone.
Tony dialed Pepper's number from memory, keeping his fingers crossed that she might answer an unknown number. But she picked up and said, "This is Pepper Potts," in a tone that was so professional you didn't even notice how goofy her name was.
"Hey, Pep, it's―"
"―Tony, where are you, you explicitly said you weren't gonna do this!"
"I know, I know, I'm sorry, but I'm fine, I picked up my car but then I went to see a friend and fell asleep on his couch for, uh, longer than I intended."
"A friend, huh? The same one you were holed up with last weekend?"
"Well. I'm glad you got some sleep, at least. Are you staying the night with this friend?"
"Um...if he'll let me." He cast his eyes at Bruce, who was fussing with something at the stove with his back to Tony. "Any updates?"
"Not really. Will you be back on Monday, though? Legal is hoping we can get this settled before Christmas."
"Yeah, and that would probably be the best, if we can get this all swept out of the news cycle as soon as possible. I emailed you the drafts."
"I'll...take a look when I can. Thanks, Pepper."
He hung up and returned to the kitchen table.
Bruce asked, "Is everything okay?"
Tony shrugged. "No new developments, anyway."
"Are you staying for dinner?"
"Do you want me to stay for dinner?"
Bruce considered this question for longer than Tony would have thought necessary. "I―I do like you, Tony, and I don't wish you ill. I'm just still having trouble reconciling the man I met last weekend with...well, you know." He made a flapping hand gesture.
"The blood-thirsty vampire?"
Bruce shrugged. "You said it, not me."
"Yeah. But that's not me! Stane's the vampire!"
"So what are you going to do about it?"
"My legal team is coming up with some stuff. I guess we're trying to settle out of court."
Bruce looked unimpressed. "Meaning what?"
"I―I mean we're fixing the prices of the drugs, back to something reasonable. And Stane's fired, facing legal charges. I'm the interim CEO now."
"And how will you prevent this from happening again?" Bruce asked. His tone wasn't exactly aggressive, but Tony felt called on the carpet.
"Well―I―what do you think I should do?"
Bruce slid a bowl of soup in front of Tony. "Eat some soup."
"Okay. But after that?"
"I guess if I'm being fair, I can't hold capitalism against you," Bruce said. "I wish medicine could be outside of that system, but I...I guess that's just America for you." He dragged his spoon through his soup. "I've just been thinking about moving to Canada, maybe, or...I don't know, Brazil?"
"What? I mean, Brazil is nice this time of year, but to live there?" Bruce held out one finger in response, then hopped up from the table to help a late tree purchaser. When he returned to the table, Tony asked, "Seriously, Brazil?"
"I could work with an organization to protect the rainforest."
"Oh. That's...noble. But don't you think you could get more done, big picture, if you stay here?"
"Yeah. Maybe. I don't know, the big picture is just kind of overwhelming, to be honest. Especially…"
Bruce looked at Tony for a long moment. Tony looked back, hoping to present himself as someone worth confiding in. Finally, Bruce looked back down at the table and said, "I guess I've just been thinking about not being able to come back to this place next year. I know it's not much, and it was never really mine, but I...it's been really...important for me to have a quiet, peaceful place like this to come to. It's...it's hard for me to be around a lot of people, in the city, and...I guess I'm not sure if I'll be able to handle it?" He hunched his shoulders inward and Tony wanted to give him a hug, but the table was in the way and anyway, he still wasn't sure exactly how mad at him Bruce was.
"Bruce! You're brilliant, of course you can handle it."
Bruce's lips twisted into something that wasn't quite a smile. "It―thank you, Tony, but it's...I'm not worried about my intelligence, to be honest. I'm worried about my...my stress levels, I guess."
"It seems like you already have some decent coping mechanisms."
"The baking, the puzzles, the early bedtimes…"
"And it's not like the city doesn't have trees. New York has some pretty good parks...I'm sure you've heard of them."
Bruce cracked a smile. "Yeah. It's just not the same."
"It's actually better, because in Central Park you can look at trees and still have cell signal."
Bruce shook his head, still smiling. "I guess we just have different priorities."
"No! I mean, yeah, when it comes to recreational activities, maybe, but we both want to make the world a better place."
Bruce tilted his head and considered. "Yeah?"
"Yes! Seriously, Bruce, you can't give up. And I won't either."
"Are you sure? Didn't you say you were trying to settle out of court?"
"Well―that's not giving up. That's just...so I can keep going. My lawyers..." Bruce pursed his lips. Tony squirmed under his intense gaze. Finally, he threw up his hands. "Okay, okay, I'll go...figure something else out. Thanks for dinner." He stood up from the table and went to put his coat back on.
Bruce trailed after him. "Wait, where are you going?"
"Back to the filthy, treeless city so I can get back to work."
Bruce gestured out the window. "But it's dark out. You shouldn't drive on this road at night."
"I have...headlights. And it's not snowing tonight. Surely other people drive here."
"Seriously, Tony, please...just stay tonight."
Tony crossed his arms. "I don't get you! At first it seemed like you didn't even want to talk to me, then you drugged me into taking the longest nap of my life, and now you want me to stay the night?"
Bruce blushed. "Sorry. I―I'm not really used to…" He trailed off and twisted his hands together.
"Used to what?"
"Used to...feeling this way."
"I―I really like you, Tony, but I…"
Tony beamed, his frustration forgotten. "I really like you too."
Bruce licked his lips. "So you'll stay tonight?"
"If that's where you want me to be." He looked at Bruce for confirmation and was pleased by the spark of desire he saw in Bruce's eyes. Tony slipped his coat off his shoulders and hung it back up. He stepped closer to Bruce, and then they were kissing, and then they stumbled to the couch together. He and Bruce just clicked in a way he'd never experienced before―and not for lack of trying.
Later that night, Tony lay awake in Bruce's sofa-bed, listening to Bruce's steady breaths. Bruce had fallen asleep early, but Tony was still well-rested from his afternoon nap, and his brain simply wouldn't shut off. As quietly as possible, he crept out of bed. Using his otherwise-useless phone as a flashlight, he pulled his laptop out of his bag and figured out how to connect it to Bruce's ridiculous dialup internet. Luckily, most of what he needed to look at was text-only. He plugged in headphones, blasted some music, and tried his best to stay focused on the overwhelmingly boring research ahead of him.
Eventually, the sun came up, and Bruce with it. Bruce slid a cup of coffee in front of Tony and settled into the other chair at the kitchen table. "Did you stay up all night?"
"Bruce, have you ever heard of a benefit corporation?"
"You didn't answer my question."
"You didn't answer mine!"
"I slept plenty yesterday. Anyway!" He pulled up a document and read aloud, "A benefit corporation includes positive impact on society, workers, the community and the environment in addition to profit as its legally defined goals."
"Shouldn't every company do that?" Bruce asked, sounding unimpressed.
"Okay, yes, sure, but traditional c-corporations―like the current Stark Pharmaceuticals―actually only have to count profit as a goal. And shareholders can sue if the company doesn't try to profit as much as possible."
"I truly hate capitalism," Bruce mumbled.
"I know you do, sugarplum. Anyway―I think this would actually be a great time for me to convince the board to convert SP into a b-corp, and then we'll have to do things better."
Bruce rubbed a hand over his eyes and then came to stand behind Tony, peering at his screen. "You stayed up all night reading about this stuff?"
"And some other issues, yeah."
Bruce kissed his cheek. "That's...you're really something, Tony. I'll make pancakes."
Tony dashed off another email to Pepper before disconnecting from the terrible internet and packing up his laptop. Once the table was cleared off, Bruce brought over a delicious breakfast.
"Hey, Tony, I know you tried to explain this to me before but I guess I still don't get why you have to convince the board of anything? Aren't you the CEO now? And didn't you already...own the company?"
"I own a 51% stake in the company, which definitely gives me some leverage. But not enough to do whatever I want without getting buy-in from the board. Basically, the board represents the interests of the shareholders, which officially means making as much money as possible."
"Hmm." Bruce looked at him with glazed-over eyes. "This all seems really complicated."
"I'll be honest, I don't think there's any point in me explaining it further...not that I don't think you could understand it, I'd just feel bad filling up your brain cells with capitalism when you could use that space for a couple more plants. But I promise, I'm trying to make things better."
"Thank you, I appreciate that."
After they ate, Tony said, "Hey, thanks for everything. I'd better hit the road before it gets dark."
Bruce raised an eyebrow. "I know it gets dark pretty early in December, but it's not even 8 AM. You could stay awhile longer. If you wanted."
"Here's the thing, Brucie-bear, is I desperately do want to stay here with you. But I'm afraid I'll get sucked in by our insane sexual chemistry and never leave, and I really do have a lot of work to do."
Bruce quirked his lips. "Insane sexual chemistry, huh?"
"I mean, what would you call it?"
"I...I guess that's pretty accurate," Bruce admitted, ducking his head.
"Anyway. So, I gotta get back to the city and stop my company from being like, the villain of a cyberpunk novel. And then once that's all under control I should have some more time to devote to you, my gorgeous lumberjack doctor."
"I'm not any of those things!"
"My sexy tree scientist? My hot botanist? My...Jolly Green Giant?"
"You're ridiculous," Bruce said, but he was smiling.
"Yeah, but you like me anyway. Right?"
"I like you anyway," Bruce affirmed.
Tony smiled back. "Good. Okay. So I'm just gonna...go...back to the city...alone...ugh, this is a terrible plan."
"No, it's a good one, and I'm proud of you." Bruce opened a cabinet and pulled out a small glass jar, which he handed to Tony. "Here...it's some more tea. If you have trouble sleeping again."
Tony carefully tucked the jar into his bag. "Thanks. Will you come make it for me? Next time you're in the city? You are coming back for your classes, right? That stuff about dropping out was just some bullshit you were telling me when you thought I was a disgusting robber-baron?"
Bruce sighed. "I really was thinking about withdrawing...maybe still am. But I'll at least finish out this semester. This is the last week of classes before finals. I...yeah, I'll call you on Tuesday."
"Yay! You still have my number?"
"I still have it."
"You can call anytime. I'll answer, if it's you."
Bruce tucked his hands into his pockets and blushed. He was so cute it was making Tony question his dedication to corporate ethics. With great effort, Tony walked to the door and pulled his coat on. Bruce said, "Wait," and pulled him into a breathtaking kiss.
"Bruce, if you keep that up, my company's going full Standard Oil and it'll be your fault."
"God forbid," Bruce said, sounding genuinely troubled by the thought. He took a step back.
"Right. Okay. So...bye!" Tony said, and scurried out of the cabin before he could change his mind.
Back in the city, he met with Pepper and the new legal team she'd assembled after he'd fired the old one, the one who'd encouraged him to distance himself from Stane and let things blow over. Nelson, Murdock, and Page weren't as prestigious as his last team but they seemed to actually get what Tony's intentions were and they assured him that―with a few minor tweaks to accommodate some pesky legal details―it was achievable. After a long lunch meeting that turned into dinner when Pepper ordered some pizzas, the lawyers retreated to Hell's Kitchen.
"How are you feeling about all this?" Pepper asked.
"Not bad. I'm pretty sure those are the least sleazy lawyers I've ever met."
Pepper laughed. "Right?"
"I'm glad you found them."
"Me too." Her phone pinged and she said, "Wow, they already sent over some of the documents. So I'll work on creating talking points and sending those to you. Our meeting with the board is at 10 AM, and if there's any way you could get a few hours' sleep before then…?"
"I'll see what I can do."
Tony retreated at last to his private workshop, where he puttered around with his clean energy project for a few hours before checking the time and wondering if 9 PM was too late to call Bruce. He decided to go for it.
"Ross Christmas Tree Farm."
"Hey, I'm in the market for some hard wood?"
A pause, followed by laughter. "Does your lawyer know about your proclivity for sexual harassment?"
"Honestly, they'd probably prefer that to my current case. Or, no, my old lawyers would. The new team, I don't know, they seem...decent."
"Yeah. How's the Christmas tree business?"
"Oh, fine. I had some ski lodge people come by...no offense."
"I'm not offended."
"That was pre-emptive. I haven't told you about how ski lodge people are all assholes yet."
Tony laughed as Bruce continued his story. They talked for a long time, the conversation flowing easily from topic to topic. Finally, Bruce yawned.
"I'm sorry, Tony, I need to get ready for bed. And you should too."
"I'm not even tired," Tony whined.
"You could drink some of the tea I gave you?"
"I don't even know how to turn this into tea. You didn't give me tea, you gave me leaves."
"Really? Mr. Genius Inventor can't improvise a tea strainer?"
"I mean, when you put it like that," Tony grumbled. Bruce laughed, but he talked Tony through the process as best he could. When it was done, Tony sipped the tea. It made him feel warm and pleasant, but maybe that was just Bruce's voice? Whatever the cause, he managed to sleep for a few hours in his bed, and after his morning coffee―and the additional coffee that Pepper was wise enough to bring with her―he actually felt ready to meet with the board.
Still, as he checked his reflection in the mirror one last time before leaving the penthouse for the boardroom, he muttered, "I hate meeting with the board."
"I know, Tony, but if you want to get certified as a b-corp you're going to need them to sign on. It's a good case, and I really do think they'll agree. Just...don't antagonize them."
"Me? Antagonize the board?" Tony asked, arranging his face into an expression of innocence.
"I'll be good!"
"What are your talking points? Let's go over them one more time."
Tony sighed. "It's the right thing to do, and I don't understand why that isn't enough."
"Mm-hmm, but it's not, so…"
"Benefit corporations have better public images. It, ah, they have…"
"Higher levels of brand trust," Pepper prompted.
"Higher levels of brand trust. The greater transparency involved can reduce due diligence costs for investors…'due diligence costs'? Seriously?"
"Yes, seriously, keep going."
He needed more coffee. "Ah...benefit corporations tend to have greatly reduced employee turnover, which promotes stability and saves on the expenses of recruiting and onboarding."
He practiced with Pepper until he had nailed the uncomfortable corporate language and even her strict eye couldn't find fault with his presentation.
So he was thrown when the board rejected his proposal by a 3-2 vote.
"It's a nice idea, but given all of the...unpleasantness...with Stane, we need to stay on the course right now, and focus on project stability," said Alexander Pierce, with a smarmy smile. He'd been on the board forever. "Maybe next year we can revisit this proposal."
"I still think rejecting this proposal is a stupid-ass idea," grumbled Nicholas Fury, one of the younger board members.
Tony stalked out of the board room before he could make things worse. Fury followed him into the hallway and said, "I mean it, this is a good idea. First thing I've heard in a long time that gives me hope for this company."
"Well, see if you can convince one of your buddies on the board," Tony said.
Fury squinted his one eye. "You know, the board is...conservative. They don't like to approve of changes. Might be better if you just presented them with a done deal." He nodded once and strode off.
"What does that mean?" Tony asked. He glanced at Pepper, who'd followed him out of the boardroom. "Pepper? What does that mean?"
She smiled. "I think I get it. Don't go anywhere, I'm going to set something up with a publicist."
"A publicist? Noo, are you punishing me?"
"I'm helping you."
"Just go wait in your office, I'll have someone here soon."
"But this isn't a punishment?"
"It's not. If it were, I'd take away your office coffee pot."
His eyes widened. "Devious!" He went up to his office and made himself another cup of coffee before Pepper could change her mind. He'd drank half a cup before Pepper returned with a glossy, smiley publicist in tow.
The coffee got him through about the first five minutes of her "media strategy" slide deck.
"Excuse me, hey, this seems like a lot of bullshit?" he said. Pepper glared at him, but Tony continued, "Like, everyone knows this is bullshit. Why can't I just say that we totally fucked up and here's what we're doing to fix it?"
The publicist turned to Pepper. "I assume you have yet to discuss this approach with your counsel?"
"Actually, we've recently changed our legal representation and they support Tony's stance," Pepper said smoothly. She looked at Tony, then at the publicist. "You know what? I think...I think we're going to take things in a different direction. Thank you for your time." She smiled firmly until the publicist finally understood that she was being fired and left in a polite huff.
Tony raised his eyebrows. "Pep? You feeling okay?"
"I...Tony, you're right―"
"―I need that in writing. And notarized."
"This is bullshit. And I...I'm proud of you for taking accountability here."
"Aw, Pep! That's going to go straight to my head." He drank some more coffee. "Wait, so what's the different direction?"
"It's like Fury said. Present the board with a done deal. We'll hold a press conference where you announce that you're deeply remorseful about Stane's actions and to prevent this from ever happening again, you're applying for SP to become a b-corp. You'll have public opinion in your favor. It'll be more of a statement for the board to contradict you."
Tony's eyes widened. "Pepper, you really are a genius."
"I know." She smiled. "Okay. So, I'll get a press conference booked for tomorrow. Late morning, probably."
"Do you have more talking points for me?"
"Nope. I...I thought the publicist could help, but actually seeing you in action, I think you should just...say what you need to say and we'll figure it all out later. People can tell when you're being honest, and they'll respond to that."
"Okay, I can do that. Oh, Pepper, can you do one more thing for me?"
She tilted her head.
"I need to see about buying this farm."
"Is that a euphemism?"
"What? Oh, no, literally a farm. It's a Christmas tree farm."
She stared at him. "Is this a...drug front?"
"No, literally a Christmas tree farm. I'll send you the details."
"Okay, fine, whatever, Tony," Pepper said. "I guess this isn't your weirdest whim."
He smiled. "Thanks, Pepper, you're the best."
"A fact that I'm sure my holiday bonus will reflect."
That night he was surprised, but pleased, to receive a phone call from Bruce. He picked up and said, "Hey, lumberhunk!"
Bruce's sigh traveled through his landline to Tony's ears. "Hey, Tony."
"How are you? How are your trees?"
"Fine. We're all fine. I was calling to see, uh, how everything's going? With your company?"
"Well...I guess that's still kind of TBD."
"Oh. I thought you had a board meeting today?"
"Oh, yeah, that went badly, but we're trying something else."
"Yeah, I'm not really sure how well it's going to work, so if you could, you know, light some sage for me or something, I'd appreciate that."
"That's not...I'm not going to appropriate indigenous culture for your business venture, Tony."
"Oh. Sorry, I guess I just thought it was a hippie thing. Is there a hippie thing you could do? For luck?"
Bruce sighed. "Am I a hippie or a lumberjack?"
"Both, as far as I can tell."
"Well. I will prepare a ritual offering of pancakes to Paul Bunyan, the lumberjack god, to ask him to intercede on your behalf."
"Thank you. In turn, I will burn a stack of cash on the altar of capitalism, to grant you extra luck on your finals. Not that I think you'll need any luck."
"Wait, do you have to burn it? Couldn't you give it to charity?"
"Same thing. As far as the altar of capitalism is concerned."
Bruce laughed, and once again they kept chatting until Bruce was audibly nearly asleep at the kitchen table.
"I'll let you go," Tony said reluctantly.
"You should get some sleep too," Bruce said, punctuated by a big yawn.
"Yeah, yeah," Tony said.
"Seriously, take care of yourself."
"Okay, I'll try. For Paul Bunyan's sake."
Bruce laughed. "Good night, Tony."
"Good night. Don't let the bedbugs bite. Or the pine beetles, or whatever." And then, before Bruce could hang up, he added, "Hey...are you going to be in the city tomorrow?"
"Yeah, I have class…"
"So...could I take you out for dinner tomorrow?"
"Um...yeah, I'd...that would be nice."
"Good. I'll have something to look forward to after the press conference, then. Call me when you're done for the day."
"Okay." Bruce hung up, and Tony puttered around for a few more hours before grumpily making himself a cup of tea. It definitely tasted better when Bruce made it, but Bruce and Pepper were right―he should really try to get some sleep before tomorrow's press conference. He wanted it to go smoothly, and it would be harder to focus if he was worried about bags under his eyes.
He slept fitfully, but it was better than nothing. In the morning he put on his favorite suit and checked himself out in the mirror. His injuries from the past weekend's adventures had fully healed, and he looked...healthy. He made himself some strong coffee and prepared himself for the day.
Pepper came to greet him with more coffee. "Wow, you're already dressed!"
Tony brushed an imaginary speck of dust off his shoulder. "Pepper, I'm a respectable businessman."
"I can almost believe it when you say that," she said with a smile. "I'm really proud of you, Tony."
"Honestly, it shouldn't have gotten to this point before I did this."
"Well, you got here, and that's what counts."
She led him down to the press conference, where they started right on time, probably for the first and last time for Tony. He looked out at the crowd of journalists―the room was so full he knew some of these people represented trashy gossip blogs, but whatever, better they heard from him first. He smiled his most charming smile and said, "Hi, I'm Tony Stark, but of course...you already know that. A lot of you also knew my late father, Howard, who founded this company. Howard was...a complicated man, but he was also a brilliant researcher, and the medications he invented saved countless lives. He was very proud of that. Of course, his work was also very profitable, but to him, the lives saved were the most important thing. When he was CEO, SP had programs in place to cover the costs of medications for people who needed it but couldn't afford it."
He took a sip of water and looked out at the crowd. They were listening, for now. "So, anyway, time to talk about the elephant in the room. We all know that the former CEO of SP, one of my father's oldest friends, is awaiting trial for criminal monopoly price gouging. Allegedly." He rolled his eyes. "Now, I'm going to tell you that I truly had no idea this was going on, and oh, maybe 10% of you will believe me. And I understand your skepticism. I know that since my parents' deaths, I haven't exactly been a model citizen. Which, by the way, you're all welcome for all the magazines I've helped you sell. So, you've all seen my very public, messy, grieving process, and maybe you've wondered: when would this guy have time to set up a criminal monopoly? And the answer is: I didn't."
A woman raised her hand and Tony said, "I'll take questions at the end, if I feel like it. Anyway. I'm coming to see that Obadiah Stane and others in power at SP were actively working to keep me in the dark about these disgusting business practices. And I'm not saying I'm blameless...I know that I've been negligent. And it sickens me to think that my inattentiveness caused families to suffer."
He heard a rustling sound and looked up to see a bright spot of red and black buffalo check flannel slip in the back of the room. Pleasantly surprised to see Bruce, Tony bit back a smile and continued, "Unless I build a time machine, I can't change the past. But I can change the future, and here's how I'm going to do that. First, as interim CEO, obviously we're doing a full audit of our drug pricing and returning everything to fair levels. This is already underway and should be enacted soon, before the end of the year. I'm also applying to have SP certified as a benefit corporation, meaning that it will be a written part of our corporate values to consider the community and environmental impact of our actions going forward." Thinking of Bruce's reaction, he added, "Which, I know it sounds bad that we have to actually write that stuff up and not just count on management to do the right thing, but...well, we can see where that attitude got us, so let's write it down."
This got a few chuckles from the crowd, and he smiled. "Then, once that's all squared away, I plan to step down as CEO and nominate as my successor the most capable businessperson I know, Ms. Pepper Potts." He heard Pepper gasp from the front row, and he intentionally didn't look at her. "The fact is, that I appreciate what my father worked for, and I know that he meant for me to take over this company one day. But ultimately, he'd want what was best for the company, and I know that means Pepper."
"So what am I going to do, you might ask? Well, I'll be keeping myself busy working on R&D for some new products as we expand SP into the world of consumer technology. And I'll also be working closely with the Maria Stark Foundation on some new initiatives focusing on income inequality and environmental justice."
He looked down at the podium. "I think that's everything? Anyway, any questions?" Every hand in the room went up, and he sighed. "Seriously? All of you? I have a lunch date. Uh, okay, you, in the red shirt? No, not the maroon...yes. You."
"Mr. Stark, you really want us to believe that you were completely unaware of the deals that Mr. Stane was making as CEO?"
"Uh, yeah, I do. Honestly, it's pretty embarrassing to me. If I was going to lie, don't you think I would have come up with something more flattering? Like, I dunno, I was an undercover whistleblower, or something? But nope, I was just a clueless patsy." He shrugged and scanned the audience. He couldn't see Bruce anymore. Hopefully he'd just stepped out for some air? The room was crowded. "Um...you in the front."
"Do you have more concrete plans available about Stark Pharmaceuticals' upcoming charitable efforts?"
"I...am going to tag in someone who does. Pepper?" He beckoned her forward.
She glared at him as she approached the podium, and she whispered in his ear, "Future CEO???"
"It's like you said, better to present it as a done deal," he whispered back. "You got this." Louder he said, "Okay, please give Pepper the same respect you give me...actually, no, give her way more, she deserves it." He gestured to Pepper and stepped aside. She shot him one last glare and then she took the podium and launched into a polished impromptu presentation about the Maria Stark Foundation.
Before long, she had the crowd eating out of her hand, and Tony slipped out the side door. The hallway was disappointingly empty; he'd hoped to find Bruce out here. He checked his phone and found a voicemail from an unknown number. He hit play and heard, "Hey, Tony, um, this is Bruce...it's my cell phone...anyway, uh, I, good job at your press conference...I know you said you had a lunch date after so I...I'll see you later, I guess? Uh...bye."
Tony closed his eyes and counted to five in his head before calling back.
"Bruce, my sweet snow angel, you were my lunch date. Where are you?"
"...Oh. I thought...we were doing dinner."
"Well, yeah, but that was because I thought you had class all day, and then you showed up...I was trying to be subtle because I didn't think you'd like it if I pointed you out in front of a room full of reporters. Was I...too subtle? Because that would definitely be a first for me."
Bruce laughed. "Okay. Sorry. I, uh...guess I was a little...overwhelmed."
"Understandable, I'm overwhelming. Where are you? Are you done with class? Can I take you to lunch?"
"I'm outside, I was just about to get on the subway."
"Eesh! Thank god I caught you. I'll come down."
Tony caught up with Bruce―his red flannel stuck out in the crowd―and pulled him into a kiss. "Thanks for coming, by the way. How did you find me?"
Bruce blinked. "Well, press conferences are public. It turns out you can find pretty much anything on the internet."
'How about that." Tony grinned at Bruce, oblivious to passersby. Bruce smiled back but his eyes darted around the crowd nervously, and Tony said, "Right. Lunch. Are you in the mood for anything particular?"
Bruce shook his head. "No, but I have to be back on campus by 2 PM."
Tony looked at his watch. "Why don't we just go back up to my place and order in? That'll be...more intimate."
"Okay, yeah," Bruce said, sounding relieved.
As Tony guided Bruce back to Stark Tower, he said, "Plus I have a very informal dress code. Clothing optional."
Bruce laughed, but by the time the doors slid shut on Tony's private elevator, they were already peeling off each others' outerwear. Once they made it up to the penthouse, Tony led them directly to the master bedroom. "It is going to be so fun to not have to worry about this bed folding back up on us," Tony said, and it was.
Afterwards, they ordered pizza and ate it in bed. Tony said, "You can't do this in Canada, probably."
"Oh, it's a common misconception but actually sex is legal in Canada."
Tony snorted. "I meant the pizza."
"I'm pretty sure they have pizza in Canada."
"Not as good as New York pizza, though."
"No, probably not. Maybe I'll have to stick around."
Tony leaned over to kiss Bruce. "Good. But maybe we'll go to Brazil for spring break."
Bruce laughed. "Well, if that's the plan, I'd better get back to campus so I don't flunk out before then."
They pulled their clothes back on and Tony said, "You want a ride back to campus? I'll drive you."
"Oh, no thanks, the subway is fine. And I'm sure you have work to do," Bruce said. "Making your company less Scrooge-y in time for Christmas and all that."
Tony sighed. "I suppose I do." He walked Bruce back to the elevator and gave him one more kiss. "Good luck with your finals."
"Thank you. Good luck with your capitalism."
Tony laughed. "Thanks."
Pepper had clearly been monitoring Tony's private elevator, because moments after Bruce left, she stalked into his apartment. "You really are unbelievable," she said, but she didn't sound as mad as she could have.
"I know. And you're amazing."
She tilted her head and asked, "Do you really want me to be CEO or was this some kind of publicity stunt?"
"Pepper, how could you doubt? Absolutely I want you to be CEO! Who better?"
"Unless you don't want to be?" He squinted at her. Maybe he should have asked first.
"Are you kidding?"
"Okay, great, then we're agreed. How did the rest of the press conference go?"
"It...it went well. So far, the public is definitely on our side, and the stock price is going up. And we got an interesting email from Nick Fury, did you see it?" Tony grimaced and she said, "No, why did I even ask? How's your cute lumberjack?"
"Ha! I told him! He does dress like a lumberjack! He's...good. What's in the email?"
"So, as you know, the board is elected by the company's shareholders to represent their interests. And they have set term limits, but their contracts have a provision where a ⅔ majority vote can terminate them early. And since you're a 51% majority shareholder anyway, we really don't have to convince that many more people, and then we can vote out Pierce and the rest of the Old Boys' Club."
"Oh, that's great!"
"It might be a little tough to get a vote called before the holidays but Fury doesn't think we should lose momentum on this, and I have to agree."
"So, I'm filling your calendar with people you have to schmooze." Tony made a face, and she held up her hand. "We're calling a vote on December 23rd. We just gotta make it through a rough week-and-a-half, and if we pull this off, we'll all have a merry Christmas and an even better New Year."
"Except for Pierce and those guys."
Pepper rolled her eyes. "They'll be just fine. Are you in for this?"
"I―yeah, of course. Let's do it."
"Great! Check your email, your first meeting is happy hour with Maya Hansen. Tonight."
He opened his mouth to ask, "Who?"
Pepper held up her hand. "Check your email, you'll find a file to refresh your memory. You met her at a conference once."
Tony looked at his phone. "Oh...yeah, I think I remember her."
"Make sure that you do. And then after that you have dinner with Ho Yinsen at 8 PM."
Tony pulled open his calendar app and recoiled at the explosion of appointments. "Jesus, Pepper."
"I know it's a lot! Just put your head down and get through it."
"I know. I mean―you're amazing, you got all of this together so quickly."
"Still. I can't wait to see what you can do when you don't have to spend so much time keeping me on track."
"Well. I can't wait to see what you can do when you can stop pretending to care what the board thinks. Now go, get cleaned up and start reading those profiles!"
"Yes, madame CEO."
"Not yet!" She said, but she smiled brightly.
The next week and a half passed in a blur of meetings. Tony found that he didn't hate them as much as he thought he would; most of the people he met with were actually interested to hear about his plans and flattered to be part of something bigger. Occasionally he was able to steal some time to talk to Bruce, who sounded both stressed about his schoolwork and proud of Tony's efforts. Tony really couldn't wait until they could both take a break.
It was probably inevitable that Tony would double-book himself at some point. When Bruce asked if Tony was free for dinner, he'd said "yes" on impulse and then apologetically dragged Bruce along to the restaurant Pepper had booked.
"I'm really sorry, Bruce, I promise this'll be quick and then I'll make it up to you."
"It's okay. Who are we meeting with?"
Tony looked at his email. "Dr. Helen Cho? It says she doesn't own much SP stock but her opinion is influential…"
"Are you serious?"
"Yes? I mean, Pepper doesn't usually joke about stuff like that?"
"No, I mean, Dr. Cho…" Bruce trailed off and ran his fingers through his hair. "Her work is incredible! Have you read her latest paper on cellular regeneration?"
"Yes, have you?" a woman's voice asked. Tony and Bruce turned to see that Dr. Cho herself had approached their table. She smiled and extended her hand to shake. "No worries if you haven't. I've heard it's a bit dry for most people."
"Are you kidding?" Bruce asked. "It's groundbreaking, it's...ten years ahead of anyone else's work, at least! It's such an honor to meet you, Dr. Cho!"
"Please, call me Helen. And you are…?"
"Bruce, Bruce Banner, I'm, uh, Tony's boyfriend."
Bruce cast a sidelong glance at Tony, who beamed in response. It was the first time either of them had used that word, and he loved hearing it.
"Well, it's a pleasure to meet you, Bruce. And of course, a pleasure to see you again, Tony."
"Yes, likewise. I'm sorry I'm not up to speed on your research. I've been a bit...busy."
"So I've heard! I have to say, I'm impressed with your vision for the future of SP."
"Isn't it great?" Bruce asked, his eyes shining. "And maybe you and Tony could collaborate."
"Oh?" Tony and Helen both asked in unison.
"Oh―sorry if I said too much, but I was just thinking, you know, Tony, that energy source you've been working on, well, if you could use it to power the tool you've been working on…"
Bruce explained his collaborative vision while Tony and Helen both stared. Eventually, Bruce trailed off. "Oh, uh...sorry, I know this wasn't really what you were here to talk about…"
"Don't apologize!" Helen said.
"Keep going!" Tony said. He reached over to squeeze Bruce's knee under the table.
It was lucky that his meeting with Helen was the last of the day, since it went long. By the time the restaurant closed, Tony had gained a powerful ally and a strong appreciation for his boyfriend's brilliance.
When they were back at Tony's penthouse―it being too late for Bruce to drive back to the tree farm―Bruce said, "Sorry if I talked too much…"
"Brucie! Are you kidding? You were incredible." He kissed him. "I'm so lucky to have such a smart boyfriend."
Bruce blushed. "Was it okay to say that? It kinda slipped out."
"It was perfect. You're perfect."
"Keep that in mind when my alarm goes off tomorrow morning," Bruce warned.
"Well, we'd better make the most of the time until then," Tony said. They did, and the memory of that night would power Tony through his last few days of meetings. Between finals week and the uptick in Christmas tree sales, Bruce was even more off the grid than usual. Tony missed their evening chats, but he gritted his teeth and got through every last investor meeting. He'd done more work for SP in the past two weeks than he had in the rest of the year, and he still found a quiet moment to put flowers on his mother's grave on the anniversary of their accident.
Finally, on December 23rd, he paced around the penthouse while the shareholders voted, and he hugged Pepper when she brought the good news of their success.
"We did it!" she cheered.
"Of course we did. Your plan was brilliant."
"Well, I couldn't have done it without you."
"I couldn't do anything without you. Speaking of which, did you buy that tree farm?"
She rolled her eyes and pulled a manila folder out of her giant purse. "Yes, of course. But you know, going forward, you're going to have to find someone else to arrange your real estate deals for you. I'm going to be very busy running our company as soon as the new board signs off on it."
Tony frowned. He somehow hadn't thought about the fact that making Pepper CEO would mean losing her as a PA. But he'd deal with that later. He brightened and said, "Well, this should be my last real estate need for the foreseeable future. Thanks!" He tucked the folder into his backpack and double checked its contents.
"Are you going somewhere?"
"Yeah, up to Bruce's cabin."
"Have you checked the weather?"
"Noo…" He pulled out his phone and frowned at the impending snow. "Okay, well, I'll take something with a 4-wheel drive. It looks like it should just be a couple of inches, no big deal. Not like that blizzard at the beginning of the month."
"Or just wait until tomorrow?"
Tony scrunched up his nose. "Absolutely not. Bye Pepper! Enjoy your Christmas bonus."
She sighed. "Call me when you get there?"
"Will do. But if I don't, it probably just means we're in bed, not that I'm dead."
"That thought will comfort me, I'm sure."
Tony went down to the garage and chose a Range Rover from his fleet. He considered the weather for another moment, then pulled a set of cross country skis out of storage and added them to the roof rack. Just in case.
He blasted a heavy metal playlist and felt his spirit lighten as he got further from the city and closer to Bruce. As predicted, snow started falling about an hour away from Bruce's cabin. It was light at first but quickly intensified. Tony gritted his teeth and slowed down, but he kept driving. He was so close.
Tony was paying such careful attention to the road ahead of him that he was shocked when a car slammed into him from behind. He'd passed someone coming from the other direction, but hadn't even noticed anyone behind him.
Tony pulled over and turned off his car. He did a quick assessment and found that he didn't seem to be hurt. He ran a hand over his face and checked: no blood. That was good, at least. He experimentally started the car. It turned on, but it seemed to be pretty well stuck in a drift.
He turned the car back off and went to check on the other driver, ready to give them a piece of his mind for delaying his well-earned vacation.
A skinny teenage boy hopped out of the drivers' seat of the old station wagon. Tony noticed there was a Christmas tree tied to the roof. "Oh my god, oh my god, I'm so sorry, I―are you Tony Stark? Oh my god!"
Tony felt his irritation fade and he tried to think of what he could say to reassure this kid. "Hey, it's gonna be okay. Are you hurt?" He walked closer, and they stood together, surveying their cars as snow fell around them. At least the wind wasn't too bad, and it was still daytime.
"No, I don't think so. I―I'm really sorry, I just hit some ice and spun all the way around, it was crazy...god, May is gonna kill me. I wasn't supposed to drive in the snow but I knew she really wanted a Christmas tree and we didn't have time to get one before..."
"Nobody's gonna kill you. We'll just call for help. Everything will be fine...what's your name?"
"Peter. Peter Parker." Peter wiped his face with his sleeve. "Right. I'll just call…" He pulled out his phone and made a call. Tony pulled out his own phone and sighed at his lack of signal.
Peter hung up and said, "They're coming. They said it was lucky there's not too much snow yet, but I just feel really dumb..."
"How'd you get signal?"
"Huh? Oh...I built an extender for my phone."
"Really? Can I see?"
Peter shrugged and handed over his phone. "Yeah, there's like, never any bars around here, and it's really annoying, so I put this together...it's not that fancy or anything."
Tony studied it. "How old are you?"
"Sixteen. And a half."
Tony laughed and then pulled out one of his prized real business cards. "Well, give me a call when you start college."
"Seriously?" Peter stared at the card like it was printed with actual gold.
"Yeah, seriously. I could always use more minds like yours."
Peter looked up at him. "Wow, what you did with Stark Pharmaceuticals...that is so cool. I'd love to work with your Foundation one day."
They kept up some idle chatter until a tow truck came. Tony recognized the RumRollins logo on the truck. A mechanic with a scarred face hopped out of the truck. Brock, Tony remembered. He surveyed the scene and then looked at Tony with a look of surprised recognition. "You back already?"
"Couldn't stay away," Tony said with a cheerful smile.
"Well. Peter didn't say there were two cars involved."
"Sorry!" Peter winced.
"I'll take the kid's car back to the garage first, but I think you can both ride in the cab with me. Least you can wait somewhere warm while we get this straightened out. Kid, put your car in neutral and I'll get started, okay?"
Peter did so and got back out of the car, standing aside while Brock started hooking the station wagon up to the tow cable. Tony asked, "Hey, Peter, can I see your phone again?"
Tony pulled up the maps app and double-checked his route. "Thanks." He handed the phone back and pulled the cross-country skis down from the top of his car.
Brock approached them. "We'd better get moving…" He broke off when he saw Tony putting on his skis. "What, you training for the biathlon or something?"
"I can get myself where I need to be," Tony said confidently.
"And where's that?"
"The Christmas tree farm."
Brock snorted. "You gonna carry a tree on your back, then?"
Tony winked. "I'm not going for the farm, I'm going for the farmer."
Brock considered that and nodded. "You could do worse. Alright, well, good luck. Give me your keys, I'll have my husband come back for your car. We'll call you when it's ready. We've still got your contact info on file from last time. I'd tell you to stop driving around here but, well, it's good for business."
"Wait, Mr. Stark, you should take this! In case you need to call for help." Peter snapped the signal extender off the back of his phone and handed it to Tony.
"Thanks, kid! Hey, give me your number so I can get this back to you later?"
"Oh, you can keep it, I've been working on an upgraded model anyway."
"Well. Thanks, Peter Parker. Happy holidays."
"Quit chatting, we should get a move on before this snow gets any worse," Brock grumbled.
"Right. Um, bye Mr. Stark! Sorry again about your car!"
"Don't worry about it."
Tony watched as the tow truck took Peter's car―Christmas tree still affixed to the roof―back into town. Tony skied off in the opposite direction. The exercise felt good after his weeks of being cooped up, and made it to the tree farm without further incident. Although he was really looking forward to being warmed up by Bruce.
He pulled off his skis and propped them up on the cabin's porch, then knocked hard on the front door.
Bruce opened the door, and Tony watched his expression morph from curiosity to happiness to concern. "Tony? What are you―are you okay―come in!" Tony brushed the snow off himself as best he could before stepping inside. Bruce peered behind him and asked, "Did you ski here?"
"Just the last couple of miles. I had to come here...you know how ski lodge people are," Tony said lightly.
"I don't understand."
"Well, I'd planned on driving, but, uh, something came up, and I had a backup plan."
"Why on earth would you drive all this way in a storm again?"
"It wasn't that bad today! Just a light dusting, really. And I―ugh, hang on, I had a whole thing planned."
Bruce looked amused, now. "I guess you're in better shape than the first time you came here."
"Yeah, I'm fine. Okay, ask me why I'm here. Try to sound less worried this time."
Bruce pursed his lips, then asked, "Hey Tony, why are you here?"
Tony dug in his backpack and found the folder. "Because, Bruce, I wanted to buy a Christmas tree―"
"Shh! Because I wanted to buy a Christmas tree, but I couldn't decide which one, so I bought all of them." He handed over the folder and smiled.
Bruce opened it and looked down at the deed inside. A smile bloomed over his face. "Tony―this is―you didn't have to―"
"This is a great real estate investment, I assume!"
Bruce laughed. "You're ridiculous," he said fondly.
"It's a good thing we've established that you like ridiculous, then."
"Good thing," Bruce agreed.
"Oh, wait, how did your finals go?"
"Fine. I'm glad they're over. And I'm really glad that nobody else is likely to come through the snow today." Bruce smiled slyly as he folded out the bed.
"Mm! Me too," Tony said. "By the way, as owner of this place, I'm going to be having a new bed delivered. And a new router. And―" Bruce cut him off with a kiss. "Mm. Okay. Yes, we can talk about that stuff later, and just―god, yes. No, wait, stop!"
Tony said, "I have to call Pepper or she will definitely murder me."
Bruce said, "Oh no! If you die, who inherits the tree farm?"
"Funny," Tony grumbled. He remembered Peter's signal extender and checked his cell phone. Sure enough, he had a couple of bars, even at the remote cabin. Impressed, he fired off a quick text to Pepper and turned off his phone. "Okay, I'm all yours."
Bruce smiled and cupped Tony's cheeks with his hands. "And I'm yours."
"Seems to me like we're both technically under a Christmas tree...several of them...so now we should unwrap each other?"
Bruce groaned at Tony's joke, but he complied.
After they were unwrapped and warmed up, Bruce curled up against Tony's chest and murmured, "It's not even Christmas yet."
"Then I guess we'll get to do this again."
"Okay. But I'm going to make dinner first."
"I'll start a fire."
"I was going to use the stove."
"Oh, sure, trying to make this place feel like the ski lodge?"
"Of course not! It's already much better."
Bruce raised his eyebrows. "Even with dialup internet?"
"Even with dialup internet," Tony agreed, and he meant it.