bethbethbeth: Bruce Banner and Tony Stark (Avengers Bruce Tony (bleeding_muse)
[personal profile] bethbethbeth posting in [community profile] beth_h
Author: Beth H ([personal profile] bethbethbeth)
Title: "Coming Home"
Fandom: Avengers Movie!Verse
Characters and/or Pairing(s): Pepper & Bruce, Tony & Bruce, background Tony/Pepper,
Rating: PG
Word Count: 4314
Possible warnings and/or enticements - highlight to view (may contain story spoilers): (skip)Nothing to speak of. Please leave a comment if you believe anything should be added here
Summary: It may be Tony Stark's name on the tower, but the final word on who gets an invitation to live there will always belong to Pepper.




Bruce is bemused by how enthusiastically Tony Stark is trying to sell him on a visit to Stark Tower. "Top ten floors, all R & D," Tony says. "You'd love it, it's Candyland."

It's unlikely he'll ever take Tony up on the offer - unlikely he'll ever willingly return to the city his alter ego came close to destroying - but Bruce has to admit, if only to himself, that it's nice to hear somebody say they want him around.

***

Bruce may be a genius where nuclear physics is concerned, but he clearly has little natural talent for predicting human behavior, even his own. In fewer than 24 hours, he finds himself returning voluntarily to New York City, right in the middle of an alien invasion.

When he arrives, he's greeted by Natasha Romanoff as if he were a long trusted comrade-in-arms, despite their earlier altercation on the Helicarrier, and when Steve Rogers contacts Tony to let him know Bruce has joined the rest of the team, Bruce is surprised to hear Steve add, "Just like you said."

The day is full of surprises.

Instead of leaving the city as soon as Thor departs to return his brother and the Tesseract to Asgard, Bruce surprises himself by letting Tony lure him back to the Tower to show off a little of what Stark Industries' Research and Development group is working on.

There may be ten floors of R & D, but the two men barely make it out of Tony's workshop.

They talk for seven hours straight, and the conversation leaves Bruce practically shell-shocked. He's been introduced to a pair of robots that Tony treats like siblings, and to JARVIS, an AI who seems a hell of a lot more intelligent and independent-minded than the majority of the people Bruce has worked with in his lifetime. He's been given small, tantalizing tastes of the dozens of projects Tony is working on, some of them based on ideas so revolutionary, that most teams of scientists and engineers would need decades to get half as far as Tony has in developing them all on his own.

Science isn't the only area in which Tony is conversant. He talks to Bruce about the U.S. military, about global trade initiatives, about the inner workings of S.H.I.E.L.D. - hell, about the intersection of poetry and politics in contemporary western popular culture. Bruce doesn't always agree with everything Tony has to say, but it doesn't take long for Bruce to realize that Tony's superficial charm and glib patter is in large part just a mask for the kind of sharp, brilliant, polymathic mind that only comes along once in a generation.

And through it all, there's Pepper.

FAA security restrictions on New York airspace in the wake of the Chitauri attack delay the return of the Stark company jet, and Pepper doesn't appear at the Tower until night falls, but Tony talks about her so often that she might as well have been sitting right there in the room with them all day.

Tony never actually explains who she is. In Tony's world, Bruce guesses, everybody is so familiar with the name 'Pepper Potts' that no introduction is necessary.

Employee? Colleague? Friend? Lover? Bruce isn't sure what role she plays. Maybe all of the above. Whatever the truth of the matter is, it's pretty clear she's somebody important.

***

Bruce may not have known who Pepper Potts was before that day, but the minute Pepper walks through the elevator doors and into the penthouse, it's obvious she knows who he is.

"Doctor Banner," she says the instant she sees him, her smile broad and genuinely happy - more Christmas morning than Fortune 500 boardroom. "Thank you so much for...thank you."

There's a slightly tremulous quality to her voice, and for a moment, Bruce is unsure what this beautiful, sophisticated, self-assured woman is thanking him for and why she sounds like she's about to cry, but then he sees her turn to Tony, and her hands cover her mouth as she tries to hold back a sob, and Tony's there in an instant, wrapping his arms around her and burying his face in her neck.

"Pep, it's okay...I'm all right. We're all right," he says over and over again. "We're all right." Then Pepper reaches up and her fingertips touch Tony's face, almost reverently, as if she'd never expected to be able to touch him again.

***

Somebody - Pepper or Tony, Bruce isn't sure which one - makes a phone call and in fewer than twenty minutes, dinner is delivered to the penthouse. There's quiet conversation about Thai cuisine and French impressionist painters and King Sunny Adé's earliest recording, which Bruce had on vinyl before he...well, before.

They don't talk about Stark Industries or the Avengers Initiative.

The three of them move to the mostly-intact living room to share a bottle of frighteningly expensive looking wine. Tony asks JARVIS to put on some Iron Maiden, but Pepper wants to listen to Charlie Byrd and after a cryptic conversation about Pepper's musical taste being 12% better than Tony's, Byrd's Jazz Samba starts to play.

When Tony finishes his wine, he lies down on the couch, curled up on his side with his head in Pepper's lap, his hand reaching out over her knees towards Bruce, and within ten minutes, he's asleep.

Pepper and Bruce continue to talk late into the night.

"You know he wants you to stay," Pepper says softly.

Bruce does know that; Tony's mentioned it more than a few times. Of course Tony hasn't said anything about making the arrangement permanent, but in the past 24 hours, Bruce has heard a lot that Tony doesn't actually say out loud, and so in reply to Pepper, Bruce simply nods.

"Are you considering it?" she asks. "Do you want to stay?"

He thinks about it for a moment, and it surprises him how much he'd like to be able to say yes, but he can't, not before...well, not yet.

"I have to talk to...a friend first."

Pepper tilts her head slightly to one side and studies his expression for a few seconds, then a sudden look of understanding comes across her face. "Doctor Ross, yes? The General's daughter?"

Bruce rubs the back of his neck. It seems that Pepper's super-power is mind-reading; maybe Fury should invite her to join the Avengers.

"Betty Ross, yeah. I, uh, I need to speak with her before I decide anything." And he does, although he's no longer certain what, exactly, he wants to say to her. He just knows that he has to talk to her about...about everything really, because running away was the act of a coward, no matter how many times he tells himself he was just trying to keep her safe.

"I can give you some privacy if you'd like to call her now."

Bruce offers a small smile and shakes his head. "No phone."

"Would you like to use mine?" Pepper asks.

"Thanks, but, um...I think this conversation probably needs to take place face to face."

"Then can I offer you a ride to Virginia in Tony's helicopter?"

For a moment, Bruce just stares at Pepper, then he laughs. "You know, you live in a very different world than the one I inhabit."

"If you want to know the truth, Bruce," says Pepper, "it's very different from the one I used to live in, as well. So...would you like to borrow a car instead?"

"Does, uh...does Tony have any cars that aren't likely to attract attention?"

Pepper smiles. "Not a chance."

"Then I think I'll pass," Bruce says with a smile of his own. "Honestly, I don't think any of the streets around the Tower are even drivable yet. I'll just...I can get the bus, Pepper. Port Authority's close enough to walk to, and there'll be a bus."

Pepper looks suspiciously at him. "At this time of night?"

"3:00 a.m. to Richmond, and from there...well, I might have looked into this earlier today."

Pepper smiles. "Can I at least give you the bus fare?"

"No, I'll be fine with..." Bruce looks down at his borrowed clothes and borrowed shoes and grins wryly. "Okay, um...yeah, I wouldn't mind borrowing some money if it's no problem."

"It's no problem," Pepper confirms, and Bruce is grateful that she isn't rolling her eyes at the thought of how ludicrous it is that either she or Tony would miss the price of a bus ticket to Virginia.

"Do you have your I.D.? Even domestic bus travel requires identification these days."

Before Bruce finishes grimacing at yet another thing he's overlooked, Pepper has her phone out and she's calling S.H.I.E.L.D.'s New York headquarters. There's a small hitch in her voice when she gives the operator her name and asks to speak to an 'Agent Sitwell.' Bruce gets the sense that this isn't the person at S.H.I.E.L.D. that Pepper's been accustomed to dealing with.

"Jasper," she says pleasantly when her call has been connected, "It's Pepper Potts at Stark Industries. I'm sorry to be calling you so late--"

In less than five minutes, Sitwell has agreed to send an agent over with Bruce's passport and driver's license, and an as-yet-to-be-determined amount of cash from one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s probably unofficial 'discretionary funds.'

***

It takes fewer than five minutes for Bruce to pack his few belongings.

"Tell Tony I said goodbye," he says quietly.

"Are you sure you don't want to tell him yourself?" Pepper asks.

From the tone of her voice, it's obvious that Pepper already knows what the answer to her question will be. Bruce knows this. What he doesn't know is why she's letting him disappear while Tony sleeps. She must know as well as he does that Tony is going to be unhappy with Bruce's decision and frustrated that Pepper did nothing to stop him. He probably won't be angry with her, not today of all days, but still....

"I'm sure."

And he is, even though on one level, it would be the easiest thing in the world to just stay. Unlikely as it is to believe, he and Tony Stark seem to have a lot in common. Bruce likes Tony, for all the guy's bluster - he likes him a lot - and he knows his feelings are returned.

He can also tell that Pepper likes him - which is somehow even harder to believe - and he likes her too.

A lot.

He just doesn't know what to do with either of these realizations.

"Are you going to come back to us, Bruce?"

Bruce looks down at the sleeping man curled up on the couch, then back up at Pepper. "We'll see. It depends on...well, it depends."

Pepper nods, then reaches into the breast pocket of her jacket and pulls out two business cards. "Bruce, here's Tony's card, which--" She laughs. "You know, I'm not actually sure Tony knows he has business cards."

Bruce smiles.

Then Pepper hands him the second card. "This is my contact information. And this," she says, handing him a phone that seems to have materialized from nowhere, "is also for you. It's solar powered, so you won't have to worry about electricity, regardless of where your travels take you. It's a prototype, something Tony's been working on."

"I can't...."

"Think of it as beta testing, Bruce," she says, the soft velvet timber of her voice barely masking the core of hard steel below. "You'll be doing Tony a favor."

"That's...thank you."

"I hope things work out the way you want them to in Virginia, but either way, don't forget about us."

"I won't and...thanks, Pepper. It was great meeting you and Tony. You've both been so...thank you."

"Be safe, Bruce."




The phone's an unaccustomed weight in Bruce's jacket pocket and each bump of the phone against his chest reminds him of the growing guilt he feels about leaving without having said goodbye.

A day passes, and the phone doesn't ring, and Bruce starts to wonder if Tony is annoyed with him - or if somehow he and Pepper both are - and Bruce has the strangely unsettling thought that maybe he'll never hear from either one of them again.

But then the texts start coming in.
Ginger or Mary Ann? (Tony)

Or were you a 'Professor' kind of guy? (Tony)

John Cage vs Philip Glass? (Pepper)

Chicken Tikka Masala or Martabak telur? (Pepper)

In case you were wondering, Tony's been coercing me into playing this game. (Pepper)

Lies! Pep's telling you lies. (Tony)

What are your favorite colors? (Pepper)

That was my own question, by the way. (Pepper)

Tell her red & gold. There's big money riding on your answer. (Tony)

Possibly more than $10. (Tony)

Bruce, you're my favorite. $5 of my winnings are awaiting your return. (Pepper)

Okay, I need you to get a Facebook account so that I can unfriend you, you traitor. (Tony)

So...just wondering. Estimated compressive strength requirements, re: walls? (Tony)

Estimated tensile strength requirements re: Hulk pants? (Tony)

Bruce has never been much good with small talk, but texting isn't talk, precisely. Or maybe it is, Bruce isn't quite sure. Either way, every time he gets another text message, it makes him smile, makes him feel like maybe he really does have friends.




He doesn't text Tony unprompted for four weeks, not until the Greyhound Bus is halfway through the Lincoln Tunnel.

The reply comes quickly, which tells him that Tony must not be in his workshop, and Bruce lets him know he'll be getting into Port Authority soon and is Tony free to meet for lunch (Bruce knows by now that Pepper never takes a lunch break). Twenty seconds later, he's sent the address of a diner on Ninth Avenue, just a block up from the bus station.

Bruce makes his way there and gets a booth in the back. He sits facing the door, then orders an iced tea and waits. He sees a limousine pull up in front of the diner and a moment later, the door opens.

Pepper walks in.

She spots him in an instant and smiles when she sees him, then sits down on the other side of the booth. "I hope you don't mind that I came here to meet you for lunch instead of Tony," she says. "He and Rhodey were called in to S.H.I.E.L.D. this morning, and JARVIS has been forwarding all of Tony's non-emergency messages to me."

Bruce knows that Rhodey - James Rhodes - is one of Tony's oldest friends, but he also knows that Rhodes is a Colonel in the Air Force [1], and he's a little uneasy about any interactions between quasi-secret intelligence organizations and the military. However, Bruce is almost entirely certain that whatever Tony and his friend are working on at S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't have anything to do with him or, more importantly, with his alter ego.

"I don't mind at all," he answers, realizing as he says it that it couldn't be more true.

Bruce orders a tuna melt deluxe and a refill on the iced tea. Pepper just asks for a cup of coffee, black with one sugar, but as the waitress is about to walk away from the table, Pepper adds an order of sweet potato fries.

"So, how have you been?" she says when they're alone again. She sounds friendly and interested and she doesn't indicate with even the smallest gesture that her question has anything to do with Culver University or Betty Ross.

"I've been good," he replies. "I've been doing a little traveling. It's been...fine." And he wonders if Pepper is using her secret mind-reading abilities to hear what he isn't saying, that he and Betty said goodbye the right way for once - and that he's finally remembered what it was to notice he was lonely.

And maybe she does hear what he's left unspoken, because she says, "You know, Tony wasn't the only one who wanted you to stay. I did too, and not just because you saved Tony's life."

The words "It was the Other Guy who saved him" spring automatically to his lips, but Bruce swallows them back down unspoken and waits for her to continue.

"Tony likes you - I know you know that - but at the risk of sounding even more 'junior high' than I'm already sounding, I like you too, and I think you like both of us."

Bruce looks down and starts to reach for an abandoned pickle spear, but he leaves it on the plate and bows his head in silent acknowledgement.

"There's a reason Tony put me in charge of his company, Bruce. Well, there are number of reasons, but one of them is because Tony doesn't want to have to think about other people."

Bruce frowns, and Pepper shakes her head. "No, I don't mean he doesn't care about other people; I think it's pretty clear from what he did on the day the Chitauri attacked that Tony cares a great deal about others, no matter what the personal sacrifice." There's admiration and love and not just a little resentment in Pepper's voice when she says this, and Bruce can understand where all those emotions come from. "But he has a hard time remembering there are other people in the world when he's involved with something that's important to him."

She pauses, waiting, maybe, to see if Bruce is going to ask the obvious question, but he just gnaws a little on his bottom lip and remains silent.

"I think it's obvious that you're important to him, Bruce, and if you feel the same about Tony, then I'm happy about that, and I mean that sincerely. But more than five thousand people work in Stark Tower, not all of whom are Stark Industries employees and we're not even up to full occupancy yet. In the end, I'm responsible for their safety."

He nods, then takes a drink of his tea, putting off the inevitable for just a moment. He believes Pepper was telling the truth when she said Tony had an appointment at S.H.I.E.L.D., but this...this is why Pepper's here. This conversation is about the Hulk - of course it is - and why the hell Pepper didn't just tell him not to bother coming back in a text is--

Bruce feels Pepper's fingers wrap around his left hand and he looks up in surprise to see her shaking her head, a fond expression on her face. "Whatever you're thinking," she says, "you're probably wrong."

"I doubt that," he says defensively.

"Bruce, Tony trusts you. He and I have talked extensively about everything that happened last month, and that's one thing I know for sure: just how much he trusts you."

"And what about the Other Guy?"

Pepper smiles gently. "Tony trusts him too - and Bruce, so do I, and not just on Tony's behalf. I've been getting some interesting reading material from JARVIS, and it didn't take long for me to learn that the Other Guy hasn't hurt anybody Bruce Banner cared about in years."

Bruce shook his head. "That may be, but there's no guarantee that..."

"There's no guarantee that Tony isn't going to blow up my home testing something in his workshop, but I'm willing to take my chances with him - and with you." Pepper squeezes his hand. "But Bruce, I can't take the same risks on behalf of everybody in the building. Tony may be in the habit of brushing aside those concerns, but I'm not, which is exactly why he gave up so much control of the company to me."

Bruce nods, then laces his fingers in hers. It's good to hear that she trusts him, even if it's a little crazy that she trusts the Other Guy, but this makes sense to him, this is what he's been expecting all along. Of course they can't let him stay at the Tower on a permanent basis, no matter how much Tony thinks everything would be fine. Of course they--

"Bruce, are you with me?" That fond expression, the one from earlier - the same one he's seen her give to Tony - is back on her face. "You haven't heard a single word I said in the last five minutes, have you?"

"Maybe...um...no, I'm sorry Pepper."

"You really are so much like him," she says under her breath. "The invitation Tony extended to you last month was never rescinded, Bruce. He'd never do that, and neither would I. You are absolutely welcome to stay with us whenever you're here and for as long as you want."

Bruce studies Pepper for a moment, trying to see if there's something hidden beneath the calm, friendly exterior - something that doesn't match her words - but Bruce has never had any particular talent for reading people's faces.

"I get the sense that you left a 'however' out of that sentence," he says finally.

"We wanted you to stay with us, Bruce, but as I reminded Tony, to make that happen, we'd have to make some fairly substantial changes to the building. Structural reinforcements, safe rooms, secure exit routes to be used in the case of unexpected transformations...that sort of thing."

"So...past tense. Wanted, right?" Bruce says tentatively. "Because I really will understand if you've had to change your minds."

"Past tense, yes," Pepper says. "But we haven't changed our minds. We already took care of all the Hulk-specific requirements while we were doing the reconstruction work on the Tower. It's a done deal; everything's ready for you to move in, if that's what you've decided to do."

"Seriously?"

"Seriously. Tony even set up a lab for you, although since he's not a physicist, he had to get some help figuring out what you might need to get back into the game."

"Help from...?"

"Brookhaven. He hasn't been able to buy their heavy-ion collider yet, but it's only a matter of time."

Bruce's eyes widen in shock. "Brookhaven's proton collider? That isn't even...Pepper, Tony can't do that!"

Pepper laughs, then reaches out and pats Bruce's hand. "You are so incredibly easy. No, Tony isn't actually trying to buy it, but he's been dangling an arc reactor installation in front of Brookhaven's director to get you time with the collider, and the last time I spoke with Dr. Aronson, he seemed extremely amenable to making a deal."

Bruce slumps down in his seat, and lets his head drop heavily against the back of the booth bench. Pepper and Tony are both absolutely...honestly, he doesn't have the words to describe them. When Bruce thinks about the ridiculous amounts of money they've been spending, about the sheer effort they've both been making on his behalf, it's almost unbelievable.

"Are you all right over there?" Pepper asks, and Bruce doesn't even have to look up to know there's a grin on her face.

"Yeah, I'm...I'm fine." Bruce leans forward, crossing his arms on the table in front of him. "Pepper, why didn't either of you tell me any of this was in the works?"

"Because if you were going to stay with us, we wanted the decision to be yours alone," Pepper says. "With no high-energy particle accelerators as bribes."

It's a good thing the Other Guy doesn't appear when Bruce is completely mystified, because if he did, the Westway Diner would be rubble by now. "That's...that's completely nuts, you know that, don't you?" Bruce says, shaking his head in disbelief. "So, what would Tony have done with a physics lab if I'd never come back?"

"Well," Pepper says, a small smile brightening her face. "I suppose we'll never know, will we?"

Bruce shakes his head, but whatever reply he might have had is lost in a flurry of incoming text messages from Tony.
Hey Big Guy, you're in New York!

Which...I guess you already knew.

I'm not tracking you or anything.

Not exactly.

Anyway, JARVIS ratted you out. He says you're with Pep.

Are the two of you running off together? If you are, can I come along, too?

Or better yet, come back to the Tower.

Rhodey's here. It's time you met the rest of the family.


Bruce looks up at Pepper. "How does he type so fast?"

"Magic fingers. I'm absolutely certain Tony would be more than happy to teach you."

Pepper says this matter-of-factly, but Bruce knows he's not imagining the suggestive subtext to Pepper's words, and suddenly Bruce knows beyond any doubt that the invitation Pepper and Tony are extending to him is for much more than just a place to stay.

God.

Bruce takes one last swallow of his now mostly-lukewarm iced tea, then reaches for the check, but Pepper already has it in her hands.

"I'll take that," she says. "And you can have this."

Into Bruce's hand, Pepper places a red and gold key.

"Security on the upper levels of the Tower runs more to iris scanners and fingerprint readers than to locks and keys, but this particular key...Bruce, there are only two others like it, Tony's and mine." She pauses, then says, "You can think of it as...a housewarming gift, if that makes it easier to accept."

Bruce has barely had time to come to terms with the fact that he's just been given a fully-equipped physics lab, yet it's the gift of a $3.00 house key that threatens to overwhelm him. Before he can make any reply, two last text messages from Tony ping on his phone:
Say yes.

Please.

Bruce closes his fingers tightly around the key, then takes a deep breath.

"Pepper," he says. "Let's go home."





Note: In comics canon, Rhodey is a Marine, but for the most part, this story follows movie!verse canon.
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