IT HAPPENED AGAIN AND I AM OUT OF EXCUSES. This was written pretty much entirely for the horde of TBBC reviewers and Kitty N, who rages against my unwillingness to write smut but promises to beta this for the good of mankind as soon as she stops making really weird noises and we both figure out the genius that is google docs. Tony Stark we are not, but I can operate a mean word processor and she can keep her mirth at my spelling at a minimum.
Right! So this is a continuation of TBBC, sort of, where Bruce Wayne wonders how this has become his life and when can he get off, please?
You guys. You guys, it's becoming a 'verse. I am in so. Much. Trouble.
Baby I think I left my better judgement in your other pants
Bruce doesn't know how this became his life. He'd expected a casual friendship with an unreasonable amount of blowjobs and maybe a long weekend of carnal pleasures both legal and illegal or two to take the edge off before Stark moved on to something busty and blond. He sure as hell never expected to come home after a wet night, aching in multiple places, to find Tony Stark waiting for him with an empty pot of coffee and a first aid kit.
There's no exposed circuitry and no tools other than what he himself left out but that doesn't have to mean anything—he’s seen Tony do heinous things to a MacBook Pro with a disassembled fountain pen while cursing it like it had somehow mortally offended him and his entire family after which it lost all characteristics of a MacBook Pro and started calling Tony “master” every time he booted it up.
“I see you found the entrance,” he says. If he sounds resigned it is because he is. “Is my car changed beyond recognition?”
Tony doesn't answer him but stands up to help him take off the Bat suit. He has this frown of concentration and takes great care to be as gentle as possible. Bruce doesn't like it one bit.
“Not the car, then. The computer?”
Tony's still not talking to him—he's manhandling him onto a table. “I should get more equipment in here. I think some of your false ribs might be cracked but I can't be sure without a proper scan,” Tony mutters.
Bruce is too confused to stop him when he starts doing something awkward with bandages. It's obvious he's never done anything of the sort before which is outrageous when you consider his side business.
“Where's Alfred?” he asks, and finally, finally Tony pays attention to him.
“Your butler, who incidentally, is human, fell asleep. I decided to leave him to it and wait for you in his stead.”
There's something off about the tone. Bruce isn't an idiot, he knows exactly what it is. What he doesn't know is why. “Why are you angry?”
Tony pulls the bandage tight and Bruce has to hide a wince. Yeah, that's definitely cracked.
“Why am I angry? I'm not angry. You chose to throw yourself off a bridge and onto a speedboat in the hope you'd somehow land alive, and that's just fine. Why would I be angry?”
Bruce rolls his eyes. Tony is shit at the passive-aggressive approach. “You're angry.”
“I'm livid!” Tony throws the roll of bandages at his head and he let's the hit land. “It was completely unnecessary, the coastguard had things well in hand. There was no need for you to suicide-dive at a bunch of small-time crooks!”
Bruce gives him a look. “Are you seriously going there?”
“I seriously fucking am,” Tony confirms.
“Shall we talk about that time Iron Man flew into a missile? Or that time with the shape-shifting robots?”
“I have a nigh-impregnable suit of armour!” Tony explodes. “The only thing standing between you and certain death is a layer of kevlar and a cape!”
“Don't,” Bruce growls in warning. They've discussed this before. He will not change his mind.
“Why won't you let me build you a suit? It can be as black and bat-like as you want, but for god's sake, can't you see that every time you go out there in what basically amounts to scuba diving gear and a blanket, you might not come back!”
Bruce grabs him by the neck and pulls him into a crushing kiss to shut him the hell up. Tony forgets all about the bruises and maybe-cracked ribs and kisses back just as hard. It's a strange thing to think but Bruce fancies he can taste the anger. It's bitter coffee on the tip of his tongue, a sharp pain on his shoulders where he's being clawed at. He wonders if Tony ever scratched his girlfriends or if it's something he reserves only for broad shoulders and muscular backs. He's not naive enough to think it's reserved only for him.
“You bastard,” Tony hums into his mouth, “don't think this argument's over.”
“Never,” Bruce growls back, and it doesn't even frighten him that he really means it.
He slips off the table, grabs Tony by the waist and exchanges their positions. He tears through the shirt and then the undershirt in his rush to get to more skin. The arc reactor glows at him and he touches it briefly before digging his fingers into Tony's sides and licking a stripe along his collarbone.
“I'm buying you a couch for the batcave,” Tony says. “This damn table always gives me bruises,” he complains. It doesn't stop him from moaning like a whore when Bruce spins him around and bends him over that table.
“Shut up,” Bruce tells him, reaching for his belt.
“Never,” Tony laughs, and Bruce thinks he can live with that too.
They do this thing where Tony's commute is insane and Bruce takes a weekend off every two months.
No, really, it's insane. In an average week the man somehow juggles Malibu, L.A., Gotham, and New York. If it's an extraordinary week? Well.
A mere SHIELD consultant? Aha, ha, ha, it is to laugh. Nick Fury seems to believe he owns Tony's balls, brain, and billions. Bruce takes some exception to that. He hasn't started the argument yet only because they have enough running discussions without adding another one.
He more than anyone knows how much it means to Tony to be doing something worthwhile, but that doesn’t have to mean he has to be Fury’s bitch. Possibly he won't even have to make it an argument—Tony is narcissistic enough to realise he's being used like a cheap whore and sooner or later, he'll take umbrage.
It'll likely be later, Bruce knows that for the moment this Avenger thing is too shiny for Tony to resist. He keeps the argument in reserve, in case Tony's guilt turns out to be as out of proportion as everything else about him.
So Tony is the commuting working man and Bruce is the hausfrau, only not, and every other month they go away for a weekend.
He's not entirely sure, because the man works in mysterious ways, but he suspects Alfred sent Tony a gift basket the second time he'd kidnapped Bruce to force some rest and relaxation on him. Alfred may not like Tony, but he has no problems with Bruce's reduced workload and the steady stream of Stark-tech Tony foists upon him in the idle crusade to convince him of its superiority to anything Bruce might have.
Pepper Potts' way of coping with her migratory employer was simply to demand Bruce's personal contact information.
He tried to fight it, of course. She's a liability and Bruce remembers all too well what happens to those, but she'd looked at him with such disappointment he'd felt like a total dick and handed over all she asked for and more. She's since then used him without remorse to keep track of Tony, and in several memorable cases, as leverage. Somehow that developed into a friendship of sorts where she sends him amusing pictures of Tony in exchange for either pictures of his abs or funny cats.
Generally he sends her pictures of his abs. Pepper's phone security is about as good as his own—Tony makes sure of it—and there is the added benefit of driving Tony absolutely mad because Pepper doesn't share very well. Bruce thinks it serves him right, really.
Then there are James ‘War Machine’ Rhodes and Lucius Fox, who took to each other immediately because they are both pretty much unflappable and Bruce is just waiting for Tony to say something accidentally racist because he’s Tony (it hasn’t happened yet but Bruce believes it to be inevitable). Tony seems to really like Lucius just as Bruce really likes James and no one understands how any of this happened, exactly
It's an adjustment. There are all these people in his life now and he's still not sure if that's a good thing. He's glad he's lucky enough that it's only their closest friends and not, well, the world. He doesn't think he could cope with public scrutiny on that scale and keep his sanity and secret identity intact. He’s not Tony and even if he were, let’s face it, there’s no way anyone can argue for Tony’s sanity.
He hears the by now familiar sound of the Iron Man suit's thrusters and looks up. Tony looks like a falling star, streaking across the sky, and it takes his breath away a little. Bruce takes a step back out of habit. Tony hasn't ever landed anywhere near dangerously close to him but it's still a reflex of his to dodge.
Iron Man lands with a metallic clank and the faceplate opens up to reveal Tony's grinning face. He's obviously sweaty and tired but aside from some scorch marks, the suit looks whole.
Tony's looking at him, eyes running up and down over his body. Bruce shivers. He's holding a tumbler of whiskey while wearing Tony's sweatpants and nothing else. It's late and a bit chilly. He has goose bumps all over his arms and his nipples are hard. He licks whiskey off his lips and smiles.
“Best. Homecoming. Ever!” Tony cheers. “Baby, baby, I want to pounce on you so bad right now my erection might break through the armour but I don't think crushing you under a metal suit would be the best way to convey my appreciation for this splendid surprise. Help me get this off and I swear to god I will eat out your ass until you see stars.”
Bruce schools his expression into something falsely innocent and inclines his head so he can peer through his eyelashes. “That would be a waste of all the lube I so carefully applied. Very thoroughly.”
“You will be the death of me,” Tony groans and chases him into the elevator.
So this thing with Tony is a little weird, which is okay. He's pretty good with weird, even if it is turning him into a sex addict.
Bruce Wayne is expected to date nothing less than a beautiful, intelligent, sensitive lady of good breeding who could share his burdens and look nice in both family portraits and newspaper photographs. If he was feeling sentimental, he imagined someone like his mother—soft and elegant with a sharp mind and caring nature. Once he grew up to be Batman that was amended to probably no one at all or if exceptionally fortunate, a beautiful woman he could trust with his secrets. Let's be serious, though—those are in very short supply.
Funny how nothing ever happens as it's supposed to.
Tony Stark may be intelligent (overly so at times) but he's not really sensitive (unless forced), let alone a lady (unless in the mood to be kinky). Bruce doesn't really have a choice but to trust him with his secrets because the clever bastard makes sure he's aware of any he might have wanted to keep, like it or not. Generally Bruce sides with 'not'.
No, seriously, and the first person he had to convince of this was himself. While both he and Tony flirt outrageously, neither of them have gone on a date in public since Bruce confronted Tony in his workshop about purposefully making his life difficult. Oh, it's still difficult and can be summed up thus: Bruce Wayne is losing his sleazy reputation. It's not yet a catastrophe but he's worried none the less.
It's kind of funny to him. He's never had more kinky sex in his life and yet the press thinks he's growing chaste. Tony is absolutely ruining him and he's letting him. He might even be encouraging it a little. Sometimes.
Good lord, they have a thing.
Their thing includes a lot of fucking, bickering, and mutual heroic and work-related responsibilities which demand their time. It's yet another secret they share, be it that this one includes their very closest friends and the two people who effectively run their lives (Alfred and Virginia Potts), and only them. This is so because Bruce put his foot down and Tony can't say no to him if he asks while working out with his shirt off. So Bruce knows when he comes into his office one morning to find an arrangement of iron flowers on his desk from one 'Nona Mouse', that the gauntlet has been thrown down.
“Jennifer,” he addresses his secretary sweetly, “when did this arrive?”
The girl looks at him like he's just asked her to calculate the distance to Ursa Major for him using a hairbrush and some gum. “When did what arrive, Mr Wayne?” she stutters.
Bruce smothers a sigh. Alfred is amazing and he loves him, he really does, but he might give half his kingdom for a great PA. “Never mind, Jennifer. Thank you.”
It's a branch from a cherry tree in full bloom on a triangular pedestal. The blossoms glow a familiar blue. When he reaches out to touch one, it folds in on itself only to reopen when he moves his hand away.
He is going to throttle Tony fucking Stark.
“Technically, I didn't send you anything,” the infuriating cretin has the gall to say. He's sprawled on a futuristic monstrosity of a sofa which Bruce hates, but it fits him. A new piece of art hangs behind it. It's modern looking, pur foam on cardboard, or maybe wood, he thinks. It’s mainly a lot of black with some grey.
It's a bat, and an argument waiting to happen. Sometimes he thinks Tony lives to harass him. It can wait, he came for a reason.
“You technically broke into my office and left a neon sign saying 'Tony Stark was here'.”
Tony grins and makes shooing motions as if to sweep everything away. The two do not make for a reassuring combination. “Flowers are a universal sign of affection. I didn't even sign my name!”
“They are iron and glow blue, Tony.”
“That means fuck-all to anyone but you and a very select group of people, as I intended,” Tony says reasonably. It's too bad Bruce doesn't want to be reasoned with. He is firm in his belief that their relationship going public would equal a global catastrophe.
“Mechanical glowing flowers are not something you can just pick up in a gift shop.” He gently touches the man's stubbly jaw. He is not above using emotional blackmail for something this important. “You promised me.”
The lecher turns his head and sucks two of his fingers into his mouth. Bruce tries very hard to stay firm in the face of this development. This works better on some parts of him than others.
“It's our anniversary, baby,” Tony purrs. “I have a bottle of sparkling cider to avoid argument and freshly imported sushi is on its way. If I timed it right—and you know how I like to be right—it'll arrive just as I finish giving you your present.”
“Present?” Bruce growls, because the bastard is nuzzling his cock through his trousers now and Bruce needs to regain control of this situation before he loses it entirely.
“Oh, yes. Hours of it,” Tony promises him (or his cock, he's not entirely sure).
Just this once, he can let it slide. It's an occasion, and Tony can be ridiculously sentimental about these things. He'll remind him about the deal later. Hours later, apparently, because Tony really does like to be right.
It's Tony's thirty-somethingth birthday (literally what it says on the invitation oh god) and the party is being held in California and not New York because Tony is being huffy about something and Fury is involved. All Bruce can say about that is finally, god damn.
Bruce is invited of course, which presents him with a dilemma. Go stag and invite talk of venereal disease and erectile dysfunction (or worse, broken hearts), or take a plus one and endure ceaseless pouting from the birthday boy.
They haven’t talked about it but they have a system which is basically that they both show up a little late to everything without dates and then proceed to flirt their way through the women together, then pretend to leave separately while in reality it’s a race to see who gets to pounce who in a dark corner somewhere. They’re not keeping score but Bruce knows Tony is winning when it comes to flirting while Bruce is the better skulker, which, well, ninja.
He's toying with the idea of asking that gender confused child Tony introduced him to that time he seriously considered drowning him in a punch bowl, but unlike Tony he doesn't know the boy's mother and he has a feeling she would crush his testicles for even daring to breathe with his reputation.
He should probably go stag for the sake of his own sanity, and that of Tony's liver.
He's glaring at his suitcase, trying to divine just how long Tony will trick him into staying for, when Alfred walks in with lunch.
“Planning a trip, master Bruce?”
He sounds hurt at not having been informed and it makes Bruce feel all of nine years old. Alfred was a Jewish mother in a previous life, he is sure of this. Intellectually he knew he could hardly hide his departure from Alfred. That didn't stop him from trying to hide it like a child hiding pilfered cookies behind his back while his face is covered in crumbs.
“A short one. To Malibu,” he admits. “It's Tony's birthday.”
Alfred has still not warmed up to Tony and it's only partly due to the juvenile name calling. Bruce has figured out Alfred is genuinely concerned for Bruce's safety.
It's not an outlandish fear. Tony has a permanent target on his forehead just for being a business mogul worth billions and hardly an inconspicuous one at that. Add Iron Man to the mix and there's a whole pantheon of villains to up the danger scale to beyond lethal, then, there's the temptation of Tony 'Iron Man' Stark and Bruce 'Gotham Prince' Wayne that is near impossible to resist for an enterprising villain—and this is still without adding the Batman to the mix.
While substantial, that is only the tip of Alfred’s iceberg of grievances. Alfred knows, just as Bruce does, that while Bruce Wayne's playboy reputation is largely fictional, Tony's sure as hell is not. It's nice to have someone care about the state of your heart, but Bruce remains guardedly optimistic. So far, Tony has proven he can be trusted. Bruce is willing to run with that for the time being.
“And in other news, billionaire Tony Stark, owner of Stark Industries and the man behind the Iron Man suit, is celebrating his birthday this weekend in a three day glamour extravaganza! Mr Stark has been unavailable for comment but our very own Samantha Jones has managed to ask him the question we all want answered.”
Bruce stops glaring at his suitcase to give the television his undivided attention. On screen a windswept brunette is running towards a car from which Tony is just emerging. Bruce smiles. Tony is wearing a black suit and red-tinted shades, which is unimportant, but the rust-coloured tie is one of Bruce's.
“Mr Stark!” the woman screeches, “Mr Stark, Samantha Jones with E! News, can I ask you a few questions about your upcoming birthday party?”
Tony pauses and turns his head to look at her over his red lenses. “And ruin the surprise? Absolutely not.”
“But Mr Stark!”
“Come now, Sam—is it okay if I call you Sam? Good. Sam, it's not nice of you to make me give up my veneer of mystery. Whatever would you report on?” he tells her bluntly and makes to leave, his bodyguards close by.
The woman is relentless, she rushes after him, ducking the swipe of the guard's arm and weaving through until she can thrust the microphone in his face again. “The identity of your date! It's the biggest mystery since your revelation as Iron Man!”
Bruce grimaces at her horrible ploy and covers his eyes with his hands because he realises it'll probably work. Still, it's a question he'd like answered too, so he peeks through his fingers. Tony is standing frozen, his eyebrows way up on his forehead.
“Date? Sam, that would be disrespectful. Now, if you don't mind, I'm already late and you're not helping any. Bye, now!” He finally escapes into a Stark Industries building and the woman stands there, grinning widely into the camera.
“There you have it ladies and gentlemen, notorious playboy Tony Stark is attending his own birthday without a date! Does this mean the rumours about Virginia Potts were true, or is there another mystery girlfriend? Whichever it is, it is obviously serious and will likely only be revealed to those lucky enough to have received an invitation to what is probably the event of the decade. This was Sam Jones with E! News, reporting to you outside Stark Industries.”
Bruce is at a loss for words. He groans and drops down into a chair. Alfred is standing by the television with the remote control in his hands, looking smug.
“That did not just happen,” Bruce mutters.
“I'm afraid, master Bruce, that it really did.”
“I am going to throttle him.”
“Not with the Ferragamo tie, I hope.”
“No,” Bruce says, smiling at Alfred and his usual need to have the last word, “that would be too impersonal. I was thinking more of the bare hands approach.”
Alfred raises an eyebrow in mild interest. “Then if I may suggest, Master Bruce, that you at least consider wearing gloves. I haven't yet worked out the best way of baking a file into a cake.”
Arrived in sunny California, Bruce dodges the car sent for him and has a short adventure in taxicabs and buses. Like a man being hunted he switches out parts of his outfit along the way for something more t-shirt and jeans and a tourist hat. Then he realises he just had a spur of the moment and berates himself.
He gets a hotel room out of spite. It's not a penthouse or even a suite—he's late in arriving and all of those are taken. It's actually a positive thing when you think about it. Tony being Tony would look for him in the kind of accommodation he himself is used to.
Bruce has an, admittedly feeble, plan. His libido probably won't thank him for it but he's making a point so it's for the best really. It's a simple plan. He will go to the party because it's expected of the Wayne-Stark bromance, hang around just long enough to wish the schemer a happy birthday and then he will leave before whatever scheme lies in wait has the chance to hatch.
Bruce is not actually stupid and therefore he knows perfectly well that Tony Stark is baiting him. The man never said anything to the press he didn't explicitly want them to know for whatever inane reason and that means? The entire débâcle was planned.
He really will throttle the man.
A slight kink in his plan appears in the shapely form of one Miss Virginia Potts. She shows up at his door unannounced but he's learned to tell that walk and knock apart to protect his modesty. He has no idea how she found him so fast—the woman has arcane powers when it comes to picking up after Tony Stark.
He opens the door, making sure to lean attractively in the doorway. “Miss Potts.”
“Please don't make the pouting worse by making him think you're interested in me. I have enough to be getting on with,” she says, walking briskly past him.
“I haven't the faintest—”
“Please don't insult my intelligence either by thinking I am not perfectly aware of what you're doing,” she cuts him off. “I have seen enough tantrums to be able to recognise them by smell.”
So, he really likes Miss Potts, if that wasn't clear already.
“That must be very useful,” he says genially. “Can I offer you some refreshments?”
She turns on her toes in the middle of the room and stares him down until she believes her displeasure is fully known to all, then takes a deep breath. “I know, Mr Wayne, that Mr Stark is not the easiest man to deal with. God knows I have wished to drown him many times over myself, and I hardly mean to belittle what I'm sure is an insurmountable obstacle to the only liaison he's ever managed to drag out for months, but I have to ask; does it have to happen on his birthday?”
He wants very badly to say 'Tony started it'. Instead he settles for a sheepish grin. “It is a little childish, isn't it?”
“Far be it from me to judge, Mr Wayne.”
By now he's grinning openly. He raises his hands in surrender, chuckling. “All right Miss Potts, I know when I've lost. Out of curiosity, what would you have done had I refused?”
She blinks thoughtfully, like it hasn't even occurred to her he might not jump to her command. “I've always had good results with threats and blackmail,” she says.
“Ah. I think I'd rather not know.”
She smiles coldly. “Glad to hear it, sir. If you'll follow me?”
She herds him out of the building and into the back of a black armoured car. “Step on it, and lock the doors, will you? I don't want to risk this one flinging himself out of the car. We're not insured for it,” she tells the driver, who stutters a 'yes, miss'.
Bruce laughs. If there was any conceivable way to breed Pepper and Alfred so their genius offspring could take over the world and run it with preternatural efficiency he'd be all for it, but there are all these human rights laws, basic morality, and all the ethics in the world. Still, it's an amusing thought.
It's a Tony thought.
He shoves it to the back of his mind and sits back to enjoy the ride and listen to Pepper Potts insult Tony under her breath. She's rather imaginative, he might research some of those ideas himself.
The Malibu house is all about light and space and shape. It is very much unlike Wayne Manor. Where Wayne Manor has the tendency to loom, Tony's cliff-side house sprawls self-indulgently like its owner. Bruce isn't a fan. The whole thing reminds him of precariously stacked paper plates.
“Your things are on their way and will be arriving shortly. If you like I can have a suit pressed and delivered for you,” Pepper tells him while the driver jogs around the car to open the door.
“That would be great, thanks.”
She escorts him to the front door and pats him on the shoulder with no sympathy whatsoever. He appreciates the gesture none the less.
“Mr Stark should be around, and if not, you can ask JARVIS to locate him for you. If he's in his workshop it might be prudent to wait him out, or send a message down first, but I leave that to your discretion. You have unlimited access,” she rattles off.
“That's new. Any particular reason?” he asks her. She makes a gesture he can't quite interpret but she clearly doesn't have an answer for him so he lets it be. She smiles. “Good luck.”
“You won't be coming in?”
“A few last minute preparations,” she says. “Nothing to be concerned about.”
He's not exactly concerned until Miss Potts actually jogs to the car on four inch heels like someone might stop her if she doesn't get out in time. He shakes his head and enters the lair of the beast.
Just as he's been told it would, the house responds to him without incident. He decides to look for Tony and get the argument portion of the day out of the way before anything else. When he finds him, Tony is mid-rant.
“No, no, you don't say that to me. We're not talking about a lost cat, this is a six foot two human male, how the hell do you lose that? Did you misplace him during the security check? I hear the new policies are very unforgiving, did they assume you were smuggling attractive Gotham men? Oh god what is wrong with you people? Stop crying! For the sake of your future and the future of all your progeny you will find me Bruce Wayne or I will systematically erase your bloodline like a particularly irritating computer virus.” He makes a slashing motion and the connection breaks. “JARVIS! Tell me we have something and I won't have to resort to Fury.”
“Sir,” the AI tries, but Tony's hardly done.
“Fuck's sake, the man believes I use SHIELD networks to download meta-human pornography—as if anything can beat out Stark satellites for speed. I will spank his pretty ass, I swear I will. He is ruining my plan!”
“Sir,” the AI says again, more firmly this time.
“What!” Tony snaps, glaring at the monitor.
“I have located Mr Wayne,” the AI says dryly.
Tony jumps out of his chair and starts striding towards the stairs. “Why the hell didn't you say so? Where is he? Is he all right? I'm going to fetch him my damn self.”
“He is currently leaning against the southern wall of this very room and has been doing so for the past minute,” JARVIS informs him, “and may I say sir, your observational skills astound.”
“I quite agree,” Bruce says dryly. “Close your mouth, it's unbecoming.”
Tony does, but it hardly lessens his flabbergasted expression. “Where have you been? I was about to call the national guard. I knew I should have implanted a tracking chip in you.”
“Shut up,” Bruce tells him. “I'm fine, and I'm here. And no, you're not implanting anything in me.”
The grin he gets is particularly filthy. “Sure about that?”
His answering smile is a touch on the malicious side, maybe. “Very sure. You're going to tell me all about your plan first, and then you're going to explain to me what the hell you were thinking when you talked to that reporter about your nonexistent date.”
“Sir,” the AI chirps, “the order of a hundred white doves has been confirmed and all relevant paperwork has been approved.”
“What?” Bruce splutters at the same time as Tony says, “Great timing JARVIS, thanks.”
“No,” Bruce says firmly to all the disaster scenarios playing out behind his closed eyelids.
“I have no idea what you're talking about,” Tony sulks. “I like doves. They're majestic.”
“They are an urban pest!” Bruce snarls, “And you know that's not the point at all.”
Tony turns his head, nose in the air, and crosses his arms. If he had long hair, Bruce bets he'd have flipped it. “It's my party and I can have doves if I want to.”
“Sure you can,” Bruce agrees, “you can have a million buzzards for all I care. All I want is for you to stop deflecting as it's already going so swell for you and your poor acting skills. You're not a Valley girl and you should stop acting like one.”
“Are you implying I'm not a pretty princess?” Tony pouts at him, and damn his eyes it's adorable.
By rights it shouldn't be. Tony is pushing forty and has impressive shoulders and calloused hands, but when he pushes out that lower lip Bruce wants to kiss him breathless. It's sad how he realises he's being played but can't be bothered to care much in the face of the wobbly lip.
He crosses the distance between them and takes Tony's face between his hands. Slowly, he sucks that lower lip between his teeth and nibbles lightly. “The prettiest princess of them all,” he assures him. Then, he remembers what they are arguing about. “Now tell me what you're scheming before I catch the first plane to Gotham.”
Tony sighs like the drama queen he is. “Follow me, then. Party pooper.”
They go down into the workshop which is always an experience in and of itself. It's a lot less cluttered this time and he sits where Tony tells him to. Tony stands behind him and puts his hand on the back of the chair.
“JARVIS, run the simulation please.”
The holographic projection comes to life in bright blues and white, showing a room with a dais. A typical love song of the 80’s plays over the speakers. Over the dais there is a banner spelling 'Go Out With Me Bruce, <3 T' and then there are digital fireworks and projected doves flying overhead.
“It would have been magical,” Tony laments.
“It would have been a disaster,” Bruce disagrees.
Tony huffs and leans his chin on Bruce's head. “It's my birthday, I ordered doves and flowers, a shit-ton of aphrodisiacs like oysters and truffles and caviar, mood music, hell, I even made us a font! You can't say you can resist all that, it wouldn't be human. There has got to be some rule about denying a man a date on his birthday.”
Bruce tilts his head back, forcing Tony to move back. “I've hardly denied you anything. It hasn't stopped you from pushing when I thought we agreed, Tony.” He stands up and turns his back to the display. It's only making him angry. “Tell me, how could you think I'd be okay with you blackmailing me into taking this public? Forgive me from repeating myself but which part of 'I will be arrested if anyone finds out I'm Batman' did you fail to understand!”
“Being Batman hasn't stopped you from dating as Bruce Wayne!” Tony shouts back at him. “You aren't doing this to protect your identity!”
“I'm—what the hell is wrong with you? Of course I am! Why the fuck else would I do this?”
“Because it's me!”
They stop to stare at each other for a second. Tony looks anguished. His hands are shaking, hell, all of him is shaking and Bruce is positive it's not from anger. He himself has clenched both hands into tight fists and is keeping them resolutely down.
“What?” he says softly. He doesn't want to raise his voice again, not at this Tony Stark. Not when he looks a blink away from shattering.
“Let's face it, I'm the boy your mother warned you about. There is a googolplex of reasons why you should stay the hell away from me,” Tony spits bitterly. “God knows your butler hates the air I breathe and I can't blame him.” He breathes out slowly and sits down. He leans his arms on his thighs and drops his head into his hands. “I always ruin every good thing ever, hell, most of the time I do it on purpose. I just thought that maybe this time I could do it right. If I tried really hard.”
This? This is new. Bruce has no idea what to do with this version of Tony. He's never even had the slightest suspicion that under all that bravado was a cracked core.
It makes sense when he thinks about it. Tony's track record in dealing with people is abysmal. He'd literally have to be cold steel to be unaffected. In light of this realisation Bruce understands why Tony believes Bruce is trying to hide their thing—fuck, all right, their relationship—because of this supposed poison that is Tony Stark, genius idiot. It never even crossed his mind for longer than a second, if that.
It should have. It’s not like him to be wilfully blind and yet that’s exactly what he’s been. Tony wears his guilt and shame like a tattoo and he covers it up with the glitter of his former self. Tony wears the Stark Playboy Billionaire Genius suit like he wears the Iron Man armour—to cover up Tony Stark, human male with flaws like everybody else.
By all that is holy, now what? It’s not like Bruce’s own track record of human relationships is so fucking stellar but he has to smooth this out before it festers even more, because he refuses to have this relationship crash and burn over something imaginary when he’s just getting used to the idea.
“I never meant for you to think that,” he says. When that doesn't work he sinks to his knees in front of Tony and makes him look in his eyes. “For what it's worth, I think you're doing fine,” he says, and then kisses him gently, without the kind of heat that ensures they'll end up spread out on the floor, but with affection. He doesn't do it enough, obviously. He'll have to work on that.
Tony melts into him and he has to bring up his arms to keep him from falling. There's still a little shaking and Bruce has to wonder how this man can not see the effect he has. Really, he is literally on his knees for him and still he can detect self-doubt just oozing off Tony. Somehow, he doesn't think this is a usual case of panic, and that makes him angry yet again. Bruce wants to kick himself in the head, because he feels awful even though it's hardly his fault. The kicking is directly related to what he can't not say.
“All right. All right, but no doves, Tony. Or bats,” he adds quickly, just in case. “We’ll talk to Pepper, see if we can spin this right.”
“You didn’t even want to be here,” Tony says. It’s not what Bruce wants to hear but it’s words and he’ll take it.
“I didn’t,” he admits. “Pepper offered to threaten me.”
He lifts his head at that, finally looking more like himself and Bruce swears he’ll send Pepper pictures of anything she wants for this.
“No shit? Pep threatened the Batman?”
Bruce grins. Its absurd but he’ll take it.
“No shit. And I said offered, Tony. There was no need as I’d already capitulated.”
“You folded like wet cardboard.”
“Indeed,” Bruce agrees. “You should have married her.”
“I really should have,” Tony laughs.
“Are you going to tell me who I have to beat up for this or is it something I will have to find out for myself?” he asks. Tony's twitch betrays him and Bruce knows he's right to assume. “I will ask Pepper, don't think I'm joking here.” He's not. Tony is not easy to ruffle so whoever it was must have said something unforgivable. Bruce is itching to find out what almost as much as he wants to know who.
He's willing to step out of character for this. Warning bells are ringing in his ears.
Tony chuckles weakly. “My knight in a kevlar bodysuit.”
He's deflecting again. This time Bruce lets him.
“But of course, you are after all the prettiest princess of them all.”
They're both dressed and ready to go and they're sitting around a table. It is a council of war the likes of which have not been seen since Alexander the Great walked the earth with his armies and laid claim to all he surveyed. On one end sits Stark, for once not vibrating with energy but tense with determination. On the other end sits Wayne, eyes tight and uncompromising. Virginia Potts sits in the middle, likely wondering why she puts up with this shit. Bruce sympathises with her for exactly as long as it takes him to remember she is the reason he’s sitting there in the first place when he could have been sipping Mai Tais on the beach.
There are no clear guidelines to the treaty being made and some parties (Stark) need to be made aware how unacceptable this is. Bruce steels his resolve. It is in many ways a do or die moment, and he, is a survivor.
Tony fires the opening salvo. “Press conference.”
“Veto,” Bruce fires back. “I refuse to announce my relationship like a royal engagement.”
“But you're the prince of Gotham, darling,” Tony says, his smile all teeth.
“Veto. A quiet dinner in a public place and wilful blindness to camera flashes,” he offers.
Tony bats the offering away like he were swatting a fly. “Pshaw, like I would be so gauche. Let me buy you a monument. A fountain, or a large sculpture of some kind. We can keep the plaque small if we absolutely must but I'd prefer the testament to our true love to be magnificent.”
Bruce digs his fingernails into his thighs. “Veto.”
“You are the most infuriating man in the universe! Fine, fine, we can do a talk show. It's too bad Oprah retired, though.”
Pepper, whose hair has slowly been curling from the steam coming out of her ears, slams her tablet PC down on the table. “Why not keep to the planned announcement? The birthday party is a closed event which should allow us to keep the information stream contained and it adds an air of sentimentality which certainly won't hurt. Afterwards you give a select few interviews like normal people and call it a day.”
Bruce, sadly, has nothing to say to this except that lesser evil is still evil and Pepper Potts is the Queen of the Underworld. Tony on the other hand relaxes in his chair, radiating satisfaction like a conquering hero. “Pep, this is why I love you best.”
Bruce rolls his eyes and taps the tabletop for their attention. “No doves,” he stresses. “We might as well hyphenate our names if we release a hundred doves.”
Tony looks at him, blinking thoughtfully. “Is that an option? Because I vote we do it just so we can listen to the sound of corporate America shitting bricks.”
“Tony,” Bruce and Pepper chorus.
“What?” he says with genuine bafflement, “Are you seriously telling me it surprises you I’d like to stick it to all those assholes who think I’ve got one foot in the door of Betty Ford’s? Because darling let me tell you this, there’s nothing that gives me more joy than when my win is some dickhead’s loss.” He pauses for a second, then amends that statement. “Except for your ass, honeybee. That gives me all the joy in the world.”
Pepper, he notices, has no comment. Bruce drops his head on the table and wonders if it’s too late to run off to the mountains of Tibet and become a monk.
The venue is a gigantic reflective glass dome with an electronic roof Tony had built just for the occasion. Bruce is too tense to rib him about it, which is a shame. The extravagance is absurd and very Starkish. For example, there is champagne flowing from jars held by metal statues of robotic Iron Man-esque women. Honestly, the sheer egomania of the man is overwhelming, not that he’d expected different.
He bears it with good grace and even laughingly redirects a stream of champagne at Tony while deep down he wants nothing more than to dunk his head into one of the pools. He doesn’t, of course. The bastard would probably enjoy it.
Surprisingly enough, while Tony is never without a drink, Bruce knows it’s always non-alcoholic. Bruce hasn’t commented and Tony hasn’t mentioned it, but Bruce can tell there are servers who cater specifically to the two of them and all they carry is a variety of virgin mixes and sparkling cider. It’s sweet, even though Bruce wants nothing more than to drown himself in a barrel of gin to shut off his brain.
They shmooze with all of Tony's wealthy ‘friends’ (who are very much like Bruce's wealthy ‘friends’, joy) and generally dominate whichever corner of the room they're in like they were born to do.
“I think that woman pinched me,” Bruce says through clenched teeth when they make their excuses and escape another husband hunting party.
“Mrs Lune? She probably did. All about testing out the merchandise, that one,” Tony says with this nonchalance and approval that irritates Bruce like nothing else.
“She's old enough to be my mother!”
Tony chuckles and pats him on the butt. “This is Cali, baby,” he says and saunters off.
“What does that even mean?” Bruce grouches.
He doesn't follow Tony because fuck that, he's not crazy. These people see them as meat at best and he's not in the mood. He's in a mood, which is entirely different and has to do with being walked all over by plotting and backstabbing. On both first and second thought it seems like a good idea to hide out somewhere hidden by tasteful shrubbery for a while before braving the den of iniquity again (he hasn't seen any strippers but it's clearly just a matter of time). He spots Pepper standing alone and makes a beeline for her not even caring if the rumours start.
“Hi,” he says brightly, “I see you're hiding. Mind if I join you?”
She gives him a look and he wonders when he fell into the same category as Tony because he must have, at some point, to be deserving of her looks.
“Can’t you at least pretend you’re having a good time?” Pepper asks him softly while he tracks Tony on the other side of the room.
“Am I that obvious?” he murmurs back.
He makes a conscious effort to relax and drags up a smile. “How about a dance, Miss Potts?”
She takes his hand lightly and he escorts her to the dance floor. Automatically they fall into step, but his eyes are scanning the crowd of the rich and famous searching for Tony. He finds him talking to James and looking genuinely happy which only lasts until a group of silicone fashionistas descend. Tony evades their grabby hands and makes a graceful retreat. Bruce breathes again.
“You make him better, you know.”
It takes a moment for the words to sink in. “Pardon?”
“Never mind, Mr Wayne,” she says genially. “I’ll just enjoy the dance, shall I? You seem to have a lot on your mind.”
He breathes deeply and slowly exhales. “It's not that I am new at all this, but he...”
“Is Tony Stark,” she finishes for him. “I know.”
She would, if anyone. He can’t put it into words, this fear he has. It doesn’t have a true basis, or focal point. He’s not exactly afraid of Tony, he’s not even exactly afraid of being outed. He doesn’t know what exactly he’s afraid of, just that he is.
“The thing about Tony is that when he’s good, he’s magnificent, but when he’s bad, he’s still really good at it,” she says with a faraway look in her eyes. Her smile is a little dreamy, a little wry. “He doesn’t have middle gears like the average person and while it’s exciting, it’s also frightening.”
“Have you ever...” he trails off, not knowing exactly how to ask.
“Oh god no,” she laughs and Bruce pretends he’s not stupidly happy to hear it. “Aside from one awkward kiss I’ve stayed well out of harm’s way.” She pats him on the arm. “I’m realistic enough to see that it would be a disaster from start to finish. I don’t have what it takes not to be consumed by the flame, Mr Wayne.”
“What does it take?” he wonders out loud. He doesn’t expect an answer. He honestly doesn’t believe there is one.
“Pushing back when needed. Picking him up when he falls. Pulling him down when he soars too high. Picking your battles. Balls of titanium.” There, she pauses. “Understanding.”
“Sounds like a lot of work,” he says lightly.
Pepper looks at him and she knows. There is the tiniest bit of longing in that expression, but mostly it’s fond exasperation. They don’t talk about it further and when the song ends, he takes her back to the sidelines and filches a glass of champagne off a tray for her. She almost misses it when he hands it to her.
“Damn it,” she curses. Bruce is instantly on edge and with the ease of a lot of practice, he follows her gaze to whatever is upsetting her.
“I can’t believe this,” Pepper mutters.
“What’s wrong?” Tony’s surrounded by people he doesn’t instantly recognise save for one, both because he’s enormous and because Bruce took great pleasure in watching the videos of his tiny girlfriend beating the crap out of a cameramen. The rest of them slide into place after that. He can’t see Tony’s face but he knows the defensive stance. Oh. “Aren’t those SHIELD people?”
“Yes,” Pepper hisses.
“You don’t think they’re going to drag him out of his own birthday party, do you? They’re not exactly in costume.”
Pepper is still glaring at the group, only fiercer. “They’d better not. But no, I don’t think that. He probably invited them out of courtesy.”
“Selective manners,” Bruce muses. “Is it going to be a problem?” She turns to look at him and he exhales. Of course, why does he even bother to ask, this is Tony Stark’s party. Suddenly Tony’s laughing, but Bruce can tell something is very much wrong. He leans into Pepper. “I’m going over there. Save us, please.”
“I’ll have the cake brought out,” she tells him. “If you could direct him to the stage that would be great, thank you.”
Bruce nods once. He's already shifted into that place you go when you have a goal you must reach no matter what. With every step he slips more into Idiot Playboy, adding a sway to his walk, grabbing a glass from a passing tray and sloshing half of the contents over the rim. In the mean time his mind flies, trying to recall everything he's ever read about the Avengers. There are only four of them present. It only makes sense they'd leave the rage monster behind when going into a crowded place full of regular people. He can't see Fury which doesn't mean he's not there, but he's glad he won't have to deal with him none the less. He thinks he'll have his hands full as it is, what with the god, the super soldier, the expert marksman, and the super spy.
He catches Tony’s eye and winks at him. He drinks down the contents of his glass in one go and wipes the wetness off his lips with his thumb, following it up with his tongue. Tony falters and he winks at him again. He’s being a proper fool but it doesn’t matter. Tony is no longer moving like a jerky robot.
“Tony,” he says cheerfully, slurring a tiny bit for effect, “while I do appreciate the lovely Miss Potts, I don’t appreciate the abandonment. You know I have issues.” He giggles at his stupid joke and stands way too close to Tony to be proper. He doesn’t care. Captain fucking America is frowning at him as if suspecting him of Nazi heritage which he does not deserve and it's making him petulant and a little defensive. He's under a lot of stress, all right?
“I’m sorry Bruce, I got caught up in charming company. Let me introduce you to some of my co-workers. From left to right we have Clint Barton, Natalie Rushman, Steve Rogers, and finally, Thor Odinsson.”
“Greetings and salutations!” the enormous blond man booms cheerfully, and maybe Bruce hates him a little less. The rest of them are full of forced smiles and greetings so he lets himself feel justified in his hate. They might be big damn heroes but that doesn't necessarily make them good people. Personally he would like to put a continent between them, and himself and Tony.
Bruce makes an uncoordinated bow/stumble for them and smiles too widely. “A pleasure,” he lies unconvincingly. “Tony, you’re needed up front.”
Tony checks his watch and he wants to argue, but Bruce doesn’t let him. He links their arms and waves goodbye to the superhero army while towing Tony away. Once they’re far enough away for Bruce’s comfort, he lets go.
“Pepper sent me to rescue you. What she expected me to do against a group including Captain America and a Norse God I do not know, but I guess I’m expendable like that,” he says lightly. He pre-empts Tony’s response by giving him a little push. “It’s your show now, Stark. Don’t mess it up.”
“They’re honestly not that bad you know,” Tony says over his shoulder anyway.
Bruce rolls his eyes and gestures for him to walk on, already. He’s formed his own opinions on the Avengers, thank you. Besides, he cannot possibly care any less in light of what is happening to his life at this very moment.
When Tony accused him of not wanting to go public with their thing because he was Tony, he’d not been wrong. He was wrong about the particulars—Bruce is not a blushing virgin fearing for his virtue and his poor fragile heart, thanks—but in general, he was right. Bruce does indeed not want to have a public relationship with Tony Stark (other than the friendship they could hardly hide) and this entire night is against his better judgement.
Don’t get him wrong, it has nothing to do with Tony’s reputation (he’s not shallow, he leaves that to Tony). It has everything to do with his hobbies—namely, the Avengers and SHIELD.
Bruce knows Tony will never give up his secret willingly to anyone, but he also knows Tony. He can think of at least fifteen scenarios off the top of his head where it will seem like a good idea to reveal him as Batman and he can think of no less than thirty three ways that can end badly for him or both of them.
To his great consternation he can also think of several scenarios where he would reveal himself if it meant keeping Tony safe. He is fucked.
James Rhodes materialises at his side and strikes an intimidating pose. “I've been sent to make sure you don't run like a little girl,” he says.
Bruce rolls his eyes. “Tony?”
“Pepper,” James corrects him.
“Ah, of course. As you can see, I’m still here.”
James raises an eyebrow and stares him down with the air of someone who’s heard it all before.
Tony, in the mean time, has reached the stage where Pepper is already waiting beside an enormous cake in the shape of the SI logo. The music starts playing and Bruce has to laugh, really laugh. Of course, of course Tony has Marilyn Monroe singing him happy birthday complete with holographic projection and edited lyrics. Tony mimes his way through a dance with the projection and everyone cheers and whoops. The cretin soaks up the attention and beams at the crowd, radiating charm. Bruce, heaven help him, feels affection.
“Thank you, boys and girls, for coming to celebrate this day with me. I am now officially older and wiser,” he says, then holds up his hands in victory signs while everyone cheers again. “Thank you for pretending this isn't just an excuse for us to get hammered and have a good time. Really, it was very believable.”
Bruce groans and looks away from the train wreck happening on stage, a train wreck is is going to be part of, oh god. Rhodes isn't even bothering to try to pretend he's not laughing at him. His karma is shit.
Tony laughs with the crowd then holds up his arms, shushing them. “Yes, yes, but! This is my birthday and there are some traditions that still need to be honoured. You know I’m all about the traditions,” he says and winks. He snaps his fingers and the cake lights up with an impressive amount of candles. Tony looks at it, acting out horror and a touch of anxiety. Then he looks out into the crowd, his eyes unerringly landing on Bruce. He smiles this half-grin and crooks his finger. “You want to help me out, buddy?”
A spotlight lands on Bruce and he has no choice, does he? It's show time. He smiles, too bright and too wide, then makes an exaggerated bow because he too knows about theatricality.
“As you wish.”
The crowd parts, letting him pass. Tony gives him a hand up, Pepper tries her hand at an encouraging smile. Bruce would give anything for the Joker to bomb the shit out of everything so he can have an excuse to run.
“On three? Pep, you help too,” Tony orders. The three of them gather around the cake and the crowd counts down for them.
Three, and Bruce is not ready. Two, and he still isn't ready. One, and Tony grabs his hand.
The candles don't stand a chance.
“Make a wish, boss!” Hogan shouts out of either genuine enthusiasm or because he's been coached to do it, Bruce can't tell.
“Already did!” Tony shouts back. “Let’s see if it worked!”
He snatches Pepper’s SI tablet and does something complicated on it with his nimble fingers. The lights dim and the ceiling glows blue, catching everyone’s attention. Bruce doesn’t look up at the projection because he’s looking at Tony, who’s looking at him. The party-goers are all suspiciously quiet and Tony milks the moment. He shuffles his feet and taps a fast beat on the sides of the tablet. Then, he thrusts it at Bruce and everyone gasps as one.
Bruce looks down at the tablet and has to hold back hysterical laughter.
Will u go out with me??
He ticks the box. Then, because Tony’s brand of asshole is nothing if not infectious and he refuses, fucking refuses to end the night on a note of romcom-type insanity, he covers the microphone with his hand and leans in close to whisper in Tony’s ear.
“You are going to sweep me off my feet and take me home right now, because if you don’t and I have to deal with even one comment from these vultures no matter its content, I will castrate you with your tie pin right here on this stage and have Pepper film it with her phone and upload it to YouTube, understand?”
Tony clutches his hand and gazes into his eyes with a total absence of fear.
“I might be a little in love with you, Bruce Wayne.”
“You are an idiot and a masochist,” Bruce tells him.
“Sir, the helicopter is almost in position and the roof is opening up now,” Pepper interrupts.
“And I hate you,” Bruce finishes just as the unfurling rope ladder falls in front of them.