Amanuensis (amanuensis1) wrote,
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FIC: The Voice Between (and the monster in green) [Tony/Bruce, NC-17, ~5500 words]

First of my exchange fics for the season that's getting posted. This was for avengers_xchng, for alwaysenduphere.


Title:The Voice Between (and the monster in green)
Rating: NC-17
Warnings/Enticements/Kinks: Submission, frottage, collaring. Implied threesomes.
Characters/pairings: Tony/Bruce (explicit); implied Tony/Pepper/Bruce; Hulk
Summary: Bruce thinks their relationship is as far from "safe and sane" as you can get, but there's a reason Tony Stark believes in him.
Words: ~5500
A/N: Enjoy, alwaysenduphere! I chose to pursue your liking of Tony/Bruce (and /Pepper) and a couple of your tropes (d/s, polyamory). Many thanks to cluegirl for the beta.

Read The Voice Between (and the monster in green) on AO3






Slow, deep breaths fill immense lungs that could survive air-starved for years. Breathing is a habit of the Hulk's weaker form, and so, Hulk breathes.

"Bruce?"

The whisper is soft like a sigh and makes Hulk turn to look about. The word means nothing to Hulk.

"Bruce, please."

The whisper is coming from his arms. Hulk looks down. The lady with the yellow hair, she is the one whispering. Why is she whispering? Hulk has her safe in his arms, her and the red metal man both. Hulk will not let anyone hurt them.

The lady with yellow hair puts up her hand to touch Hulk's face. Her hand is soft. "Can you put us down? I--we need you to put us down."

What does she want? Hulk is busy keeping them safe. The loud screaming noises are far away, down in the city below, where there is fire and shooting; Hulk knows to take people far away from noises and fire and shooting to keep them safe. It is cold up here on the roof, high above the city, but if Hulk holds onto the lady with the yellow hair and the red metal man they will not be so cold.

"Bruce, Tony's bleeding. He's hurt. I don't even know if he's breathing in that-- Bruce, can you understand at all?" She is tugging at Hulk's shoulder, face so close. "We need your help. Tony's suit is broken. Broken." She points at the hard surface of the roof. "Please. Put us down."

Hulk does not understand her words, but the way she is pointing means something. The lady with yellow hair is important to Hulk and so is the red metal man, so, he should try to understand and do the thing she wants.

Slowly Hulk kneels.

*****

Slowly Bruce kneels.

Tony is barefoot and sitting on the edge of the bed, knees spread for Bruce to kneel between, the devil-may-care grin on his face matching the ease of his sprawl. "Now, that is the prettiest sight. Was that so hard?" He sits forward a fraction, lifting a hand to Bruce's shoulder. "Don't answer that. Stupid of me. Of course it was." He leans in, pressing his forehead to Bruce's. "That's why it's so precious." He kisses Bruce on the mouth, and Bruce feels the scratch of Tony's beard on his chin for only the second time in his life. "You good?" Tony asks as he breaks the kiss, breathing softly at the corner of Bruce's mouth.

"Fine," says Bruce, and even though he has to swallow past the thickness in his throat to say it, he is. He's better than fine, so much better.

"Okay." Tony kisses him again. "You know what I want to do to you next?"

Bruce huffs a laugh. "Everything, you said."

"Everything, I promised," Tony corrects.

He did. Trust Tony to be unexpected in every way; Tony's courted Bruce for weeks, without laying a hand on him. Bruce wouldn't have begrudged a quick grope-and-handjob against the back wall of the lab--it would have seemed exactly Tony's speed--but it turns out he's underestimated Stark so stupidly it's laughable.

And Tony's spent those weeks trying to find out what Bruce wants, without analyzing it, without doing anything other than asking, listening, nodding in a way that Bruce has learned means I can do that, all of that, because Tony Stark doesn't back down from any challenge, does he? Especially when it gets him what he wants.

"I want to give you a present," Tony continues. "Actually I want to give me a present, except I have to give it to you and you have to wear it for me so that it's my present." Bruce doesn't answer, but he must be giving Tony that smile that Tony seems to find so reassuring, because Tony's grin widens and he falls back and crawls over the bed's surface to swipe a box from the bedside table and return with it. The idea that Tony planned this out beforehand makes the desire twist in Bruce's belly, ramp up like his traitorous heart rate. He ignores that particular flash of danger--no, he laughs at it--and it falls back, cowed, leaving only the deep, sweet ache tightening his groin.

The shape of the box means Bruce isn't surprised when the contents prove to be a slim metal collar, a shiny silver alloy with a D-ring at the front and a deceptively plain clasp in the back. Bruce turns it in his hands and then looks at Tony.

Tony doesn't waste time asking Bruce if he likes it, if he minds it, if it fits in with the sort of giving up control Bruce had red-facedly confessed to Tony over beer and the best calzones New York City could boast and the view from Stark Tower's observation deck at eight o'clock at night, summer twilight and the city lights glowing amber. Tony just says, "Get your clothes off and wear it for me? Just that and nothing else? Please?"

Bruce breathes. He sets the collar down long enough to wrestle his shirt over his head and off, then picks it back up again. "What's it, some kind of molecular agent that'll stretch if the Other Guy comes out to play?"

"Nope." Tony shrugs. "Just plain metal. You Hulk out, it breaks. And I went to such trouble to pick out a nice one for you. I really did, honest; JARVIS narrowed down the online search but I didn't delegate it to my assistant; I picked it out myself and bullied the shop's server into overnight shipping even though that wasn't listed as an option. So, yeah, my hard-won gift, in pieces if the Other Guy does show up. But he won't. That simple."

Bruce sets the collar around his neck and snaps it closed, finding that he needs to swallow against thickness in his throat again and it has nothing to do with the collar's constriction. To cover he makes himself smile again. "You liar. You just asked Pepper, didn't you."

Tony's eyes half-close but don't leave Bruce's. "I haven't shown you Pepper's gift yet."

Bruce, surprising himself, shivers. "Pepper's...really serious about this. Really." Tony'd said it. Pepper had said it. Bruce still isn't sure he believes he can be this lucky.

"As serious as I am." Tony strokes the collar with one finger. "But I get to have you to myself first."

Bruce breathes slowly.

*****

Hulk breathes slowly as he sets down the lady with yellow hair and the red metal man--Tonystark, that is the red metal man's name when he is not in the red metal. Tonystark is not moving; the lady with yellow hair kneels next to him on the cold rooftop, her hair blowing in the wind and getting in her face.

"Tony. JARVIS. JARVIS, please. Dammit." She looks up at Hulk. "The reboot function isn't working. My phone's gone and--" She stands up but the wind nearly blows her over; she kneels back down. "If that was a relay up there, but I don't think I can...if you could, Bruce..."

What does she want? Hulk could pick them up again. Does she want to go below again? No. Hulk will not take them where there is danger. Too many shooting things below, too many things on fire. Hulk will not.

*****

Bruce will not. "I don't want one," he says. "I'll tell you the truth. If I'm doing okay, I'll say so. If I say, 'no,' take it from me that I mean it."

Tony nods. "Just asking. Safewords are for scenes, anyway, and this isn't a scene, is it?"

Bruce shakes his head. Nothing like a scene. This is him on his knees, not some pretending version of Bruce; it's not some role he's taking on. Just him, being given what he wants.

"All the same--" Tony reaches out and strokes his fingers through Bruce's curls-- "if it's too much for you, just...hit me, or something, if you can't talk. I'll listen; I'll watch, but if I miss something don't let me get away with it, okay? I won't hold it against you no matter what bruises you leave."

"Tony..." Bruce's laugh is just a small huff of air through his nose. "You don't have to worry about damaging me, remember."

Tony genuinely looks puzzled. "Don't say that. I'm not that much of an insensitive prick."

"That's not what I meant." Yes, Tony does need it to be spelled out, doesn't he? "I mean you can't really hurt me. You know."

The puzzled look doesn't go away, but it dawns on Bruce that Tony isn't actually misunderstanding. "You're the most vulnerable thing in this room. I'd say in this whole tower, but the room includes me and that's probably profound enough, because I'm pure emotional Jell-o behind an iron mask, you know that's the truth." He kisses Bruce on the mouth once more, lightly. "The idea that you're letting me this close, I get that, get what a gift you're giving me."

"Well, you're hard to shop for," Bruce says, a little desperate to keep some cardboard mockery of a wall over his emotions.

Tony's having none of it. "Which means now I really am the guy with everything." He takes Bruce's hands in his, turns them over, studying them. "I have Bruce Banner in my bedroom, letting me collar him and take control. I'd say that's a helluva prize."

"I'm not the only one you have here," Bruce says stubbornly, because, dammit, Tony can't just act as if there isn't any danger.

Tony cocks his head. "I only see you. Tonight, that's all I'm gonna see. I'm sure of that."

Does Tony think saying it will make it true, like a charm? In that moment, Bruce imagines that, here in Stark Tower, with Tony to speak it, yes, it just might. Again, his fears fade in the welcome twist of desire.

Tony draws Bruce's hands forward. "You wanna get my clothes off me next? I come with my own night light."

Bruce reaches for Tony.

*****

Hulk reaches for Tonystark. He pushes at him with a finger. The red metal man lies as if he is asleep, but it does not look right. He should not be sleeping right now, not when the lady with yellow hair looks so worried and there is fire and shooting down below. He does not smell right either.

"He's bleeding." The lady with yellow hair pulls at the metal skin of Tonystark. "Oh. Oh, that's--that's a lot of blood, that's a lot too much. JARVIS? JARVIS, please come in, you need to get this off him, I can't see where--" The lady makes a gasping sound and puts her feet against the metal skin, pulling harder at the place where the metal skin fits together. Some of Tonystark's blood gets on her hands, or maybe some of it is hers.

Blood is not good to smell or to see. Hulk knows that.

The lady with yellow hair lifts her face and she is crying. "Bruce, you have to help. Please."

Hulk wants to understand; he tried to keep Tonystark and the lady safe by taking them away from the fires and shooting. But the lady wants something else. What can Hulk do? He crouches as low as he can, to look at her face.

She blinks and points, points down to the ground far below. "Take us somewhere I can get a connection to JARVIS, to--" She swallows. "Down." She points again. "Down."

She wants to go back to the ground. No! The ground is not safe. Even Hulk knows that. Why does the lady not know that? He shakes his head, baring his teeth with a soft growl. The lady pulls back. She is afraid of Hulk, because everyone is afraid of Hulk, but she does not try to run, so maybe she understands Hulk is not going to hurt her even if she is afraid.

She looks down at Tonystark. He is still not moving.

"Look, Bruce," she says, looking up at Hulk. "Do you see this? Do you understand? Tony's bleeding. The suit, the metal--" Hulk looks at where the lady is pointing, at the red metal man's leg. She is pointing to the place where the most blood is and the metal is bent there in a way that looks wrong for a leg. "He's bleeding here, where the suit's cutting into his leg. And I can't get it off him, because JARVIS--" She stops talking. Hulk watches as she swallows. "Here. Here." She points twice at the same place. Hulk understands he is supposed to look there. She does not have to point twice; Hulk is not stupid.

"We need to get this off him." Her hands lift and and she makes clawing motions with her hands. "It's cutting into him and I can't get it off him to stop the bleeding." Now her hands pretend to squeeze something between them. Hulk lifts his own hands and pretends to squeeze. "No!" The lady shakes her head, reaches for Hulk's own hands and shakes her head again. "No, you can't do it, you'll--that will hurt him more." She makes her hands into claws again and pulls out. Does it again. And again. "Take the armor off him. Off."

Hulk stares. Hulk wants to understand.

*****

Bruce wants to understand. How is Tony so unafraid of everything? It isn't that he lacks any sense of self-preservation; you don't fight your way out of an Afghani terrorist abduction without a damn good handle on that. Although most people wouldn't do it by way of inventing a flying suit powered by weapons-grade palladium, so, maybe self-preservation is a bogus measuring stick in the first place.

Bruce is still on his knees and Tony is standing in front of him, naked as a man can be who's wearing the world's most expensive piece of jewelry on his chest. The smell of him, ripe and sharp, is so close to Bruce's nose; he wants to bury his face in Tony's pubes and get an even more appreciative whiff. He assumes the opportunity won't be long away, given his position.

Turns out he's assumed wrong. "Lie down on your back," Tony says, the anticipation in his eyes doing even more to throw Bruce off his expectations. Tony must see that in Bruce's expression; he says, "It is lie, right, not lay? I obsess over those so much I actually screw them up sometimes."

"I..." Bruce closes his mouth. "It's lie."

"Figure if I'm going to give you a command I should be grammatically correct. Lie down on your back," he says again, and this time there's a husk to it, a graze that makes it sound like a command, "and just put your arms at your sides. Spread your legs."

Bruce shifts and lays himself out flat on the carpet, feeling the flush creep up his chest and up his face with every inch of distance that grows between his spreading ankles. "More," says Tony, and Bruce obeys. It's just taken that little bit of time, and Bruce's cock has gone from interested and stiffening to full mast, balls beginning to draw up in a tightness that makes his toes curl.

Tony, above him, sucks in air in a lightly musical note, not enough to be called a whistle. "You look...wow. That collar looks amazing on you." Bruce feels his flush deepening; trust Tony to be staring at his neck right now. Tony's sinking to his knees, then falling further onto knees and knuckles, crawling forward. He's--oh, hell, he is, isn't he, planting himself right between Bruce's spread legs. Bruce's belly clenches and it's all he can do not to thrust his hips up. Tony props himself up on one elbow. "You're gonna stay like this for me, aren't you? Not moving, because I asked you not to? Right?

Because he can't let it be that simple, Bruce breathes, "What happens if I don't?" His eyes are fixed on the ceiling, savoring the silence he anticipates.

Tony doesn't disappoint. There's a pause while Tony contemplates the question and his answer. He's so close that his breath huffs through the hair on Bruce's groin, his belly, his thighs, and, yeah, wouldn't that make Bruce get even harder if he could. Then Tony says, "You want to do what I say, right? Because I asked?"

Bruce nods, his hair rasping against the carpet. He swallows and says it aloud. "Yes. But what if I don't?"

"Well." Bruce startles as Tony's fingers touch the inside of his thigh, tapping lightly--drumming, he realizes. He stifles a laugh as Tony continues. "That sounds a lot like someone who's begging to be punished. If this were a scene." Tony takes a handful of Bruce's flank and squeezes. "But we both know it's not. I'll give you pain, if you want it. I'll scrape away your dignity and leave you with no barriers. All of that, yes. You just concentrate on doing what I say. Earn that present of yours." Tony's mouth presses against that same spot on his thigh where his fingers had been drumming, just a graze, just a promise. "You put all the responsibility in my hands when you let me put that collar on you. Now you're only an extension of what I tell you to do. Okay?"

"Yes." Bruce is nodding. He says, "Yes," again, wanting Tony to understand he means yes to all of it: the collar, the pain, the loss of dignity, his complete conviction that he can do anything Tony asks of him.

"Good." Another press of Tony's mouth to his thigh; Bruce can feel the curving of Tony's lips, hear the smile in his voice. "Stay right where I've put you, you sexy fucker, and let me get a taste of what you've been teasing me with for weeks."

That's when Tony's tongue licks a cooling stripe up the underside of Bruce's prick. Bruce shudders, shuts his eyes, and breathes, "God, yes..." as Tony does it again, tongue spiraling over the tip like sandpaper silk. Bruce wants, needs to fling his forearm over his eyes, but he's promised not to move, he promised. Suddenly that's the moment that makes everything clear--not the slide of Tony's mouth to engulf Bruce's cock all the way to the back of his palate, not Tony's hand pressing down on the ticklish surface of Bruce's inner thigh, not even the heartfelt groan that comes from deep in Tony's throat--it's the calm acknowledgement that Bruce can resist the impulse to move because Tony told him no; that's what tells him Tony's faith in his own safety isn't so ridiculous after all. He can do this.

*****

Hulk can do this. Hulk can make himself understand. The thing the lady is doing with her hands; that is easy. Do what she does. Do it where she points.

She points at the place where the metal looks wrong; that is what is broken. Tonystark is underneath it, and she wants to see Tonystark, not the metal. Hulk reaches.

The lady puts both her hands on Hulk's hand. Her hands are such little things to sit there, on his. "Gently. Gentle. Careful. Slow." She smiles at Hulk, her long yellow hair blowing around her face in the wind. "You can do this without hurting him, I know you can. Just go slow."

He does not understand the words, but he likes her smiling. People do not smile at Hulk very much. Tonystark smiles at Hulk, when he is not wearing the face of the red metal man. The man with short yellow hair who wears blue and red, and the one who makes the sharp sticks fly, and the strong one with long yellow hair, all of them smile at him. The other lady, the one with red hair like fire, she does not smile as much, but she smiles at Hulk too.

Hulk huffs at the lady with yellow hair and strokes her little hands with the finger of his other hand, careful not to hurt. Her smile goes away for a moment as he touches her, but then it comes back. "Yes. Like that, careful. Yes, Bruce."

Hulk takes his hands away from hers very gently. She pulls them back to her chest and waits as Hulk looks down at Tonystark.

*****

Bruce looks down at Tony. Everything's awash in the pale blue light from Tony's arc reactor; its shadows should make everything sinister, but something in the spectrum of it is soothing. Nothing like the glare of a monitor screen in the dark, nothing like the green-on-black of a retro lab readout. It's like firelight and everything in it is fucking gorgeous.

Laid out full length on the floor on his back, Tony has one hand tucked behind his head, the other is curled around Bruce's shoulder, who lies atop him. They're aligned, their similar heights a comforting, familiar measure as they fit themselves together, everything focused on the lock-and-slide of of both their stiff pricks, side by side. The cradle of their hipbones gives them a fulcrum to press into; Bruce groans as Tony lifts into him again, curls his fingers into Tony's flanks.

"Better?" says Tony.

"No--yes, no, I don't know what the right answer is," Bruce pants. "Tony, my God, it's been a long time for me, I don't think I can--"

The hand on Bruce's shoulder strokes, pets him. "Ssh," Tony says, and Bruce shushes, any further protest turning into a whine. "Just...want to savor this. So fucking good."

Bruce lets his face collapse into Tony's shoulder, mouthing the round curve of it. Tony hasn't let him come yet, not from the sucking, not from the dance of his hands over Bruce's body while he pressed Bruce against the cold window and kissed him from behind, and now he's forbidden hands to come anywhere near their aching pricks, just this slow shuddering shove-and-grind of the two of them together. Tony's legs are spread, and the two of them shift in unspoken turns, seeking the shelter of that little bit of space between them for their tight ballsacs, ignoring that caution altogether when another push of cock against belly makes them wheeze with the gorgeous aching need of it. Fuck.

And then Tony's arms twist their way about Bruce's back, thumbs pressing into the small of it, fingers gripping his ass. "Jesus, yes--Bruce, I want to--want you to..." What Tony wants Bruce to do as he comes Bruce doesn't learn that time, but he can fill in half a dozen things in his mind, and knowing Tony he would likely want all of them: kiss him, fuck him, choke him... He picks one, setting his teeth into the shoulder his mouth is pressed against and biting, not enough to damage, but enough to mark, mark and make his, for at least a little while. Tony yells as orgasm pulses through him, spits its way out his prick and onto Bruce's skin, while an ocean thunders through Bruce, riding so many pieces that make up the wave: that yell of Tony's, the feel of Tony's fingers clinging to Bruce, the warm slick covering their bellies, and only last, like some afterthought, the final shove of his own cock through Tony's wiry nest of pubic hair. The ocean breaks, spiraling him down into a whited-out whirlpool and he follows Tony down into a panting, trembling deceleration of skin and heartbeat.

Ages later, Tony's hand lifts, strokes through Bruce's hair. "Hey, big guy," Tony murmurs.

Bruce snorts against Tony's neck. "'Fraid it's just me."

"I know." There's a little satisfaction in it, but nothing like the load of smugness his voice takes on as Tony says, "Told ya."

Rather than try to make Tony pay for that, Bruce only says, "Are we done for the night? Because I don't think I can follow any commands that aren't Roll over and go to sleep."

"Not even to get on the bed? It's a lot more comfortable."

"I'm not sure I can believe that. This is an amazing carpet, really."

Tony grunts. "It is pretty good carpet, yeah."

Bruce makes himself shift, despite the delicious lassitude of his muscles. So long since he felt that. So, so long. He kneels up, looking down at Tony, who is looking... not at Bruce's face, but his throat. Bruce lifts a hand to the collar once more, suddenly shy. "You...going to ask me to leave this on? Tomorrow?" He's not sure if he's asking because he's afraid, or because he's savoring the thought.

Tony sits up. "Nuh-uh. Not that." He leans forward and sets his mouth to Bruce's, a kiss that's no less possessive for all that it's briefly given. "Where did I put...JARVIS?"

The AI speaks softly from the overhead speaker. "The closet holds another package that you set there this afternoon, sir."

"Right, right. Wait here." Tony doesn't rise right away; he crawls most of the way to the closet, but eventually has to get up because it's his bedroom and the double-doored closet is the size of a missile silo. He disappears inside and emerges with a plain white narrow box. "This is for tomorrow," he says as he scurries back to Bruce and plops it in his lap.

It isn't wrapped; when Bruce separates the top of the box from the bottom, there's no question what he's looking at. The plug looks like silicone, luridly colored purple, about one finger thick.

"I want you to wear that all day," Tony says. "So that I know you're wearing it. Because I said so." He ducks in for another kiss.

Bruce huffs a small laugh, taking the thing out of the box and weighing it in his hand. "You know, this isn't quite the size of your cock."

"Yeah, but you said it's been a long time for you. Ought to start out a little easy at first."

"And then we move to one your size?"

Tony's grin is narrow-eyed. "And we don't stop there." He leans back so that the shadow of the arc reactor light is directly beneath his chin, and now, yes, it lends a spooky cast to his smile. "We still haven't got to Pepper's present yet."

Bruce...thinks he knows.

*****

Hulk thinks he knows. He is supposed to take the metal shell off Tonystark so that the yellow-haired lady can make him stop being broken. Hulk is good at breaking, but is not good at making things stop being broken. Hulk might make things worse, so it is important for him to do only what the lady shows is right. He reaches out to pick Tonystark up in his hands.

"No, no." The lady kneels down again, slaps her hand on the roof beside her. "Don't do that. Don't pick him up. That could hurt him. Come down--see? Come down, by me."

Her hands wave at him. Hulk understands that he should come closer to both of them. Hulk is already kneeling, so he leans close again. The lady slaps the roof again. Hulk puts his hands on the roof like hers. This is something he understands, doing the things she does. She lifts one hand and sets it on Tonystark's metal leg, pretending to pull.

She wants Hulk to pull with just one hand, Hulk thinks. Hulk can do that, so he reaches out to the metal in the same way she is doing. Hulk's fingers are so large. Instead of using his hand he puts just his thumb and one finger on the metal, finding the place where the metal is not one piece but two, and Hulk pulls.

The metal squeals. The lady makes a sobbing noise as the metal comes apart. "Careful. Careful! Bruce!" Hulk stops, in case she is telling him no, but she is only looking at his hands and what they are doing, so he pulls again. The metal falls away from Tonystark's leg, showing Hulk where the blood is coming from. Another sobbing noise from the lady. "Yes. Yes. Stop!" Her hands wave at Hulk again, and she is looking at Hulk's face this time. "Enough, yes, stop there."

Hulk takes his hands away, watching as the lady pushes her own hands against Tonystark's bleeding leg, then takes her hands away again. She begins pulling at her own clothing. Why is she doing that? It is cold up here.

There. Come on, you damned brute, do what she was doing!

Who is talking? Hulk realizes that he is not hearing the voice outside, but inside instead. Who is that?

Tony's going to bleed out if you don't get pressure on that. That's what she's doing. Help her!

The voice inside Hulk's head is so loud. Hulk cannot understand what it wants and being loud will not help.

Don't listen, then. Look. Look! Where I'm showing you.

The voice stops being a voice. Instead the voice pushes its way deeper into Hulk. Hulk turns his head to make it stop; he does not like it.

There--yes, there.

Hulk's eyes are turned back to Tonystark; he can feel the voice in his head wanting him to look in that place.

Femoral artery. Never mind--forget it, just...that place. Right there. Pressure. One finger, just one. Come on, goddamn it, lift your hand! This is Tony. We like Tony, get it? We don't want him to die. Let me have just this much control, Hulk. Please.

Hulk lifts his hand. Puts out one finger to touch Tonystark's leg, in the place where the voice in his head wants.

Yes. YES.

The voice in his head sounds happy and sad at the same time, which does not make sense. The lady, who is holding a piece of her clothing in her hands, looks at what Hulk is doing, and makes that sobbing noise again. "Yes. Just like that. Bruce. That's you, isn't it, Bruce." She begins to tie the piece of clothing around Tonystark's leg, near the place Hulk's finger is pressing. "Thank you. Yes." She sounds happy and sad at the same time too.

Hulk will never understand other people.

*****

Bruce will never understand other people--how Pepper's first thought when the Other Guy finally went away was to see if he was all right, even as the paramedics swarmed over Tony, oxygen masks and thermal blankets and IV tubing descending. Bruce held Pepper and let them do their job. He'd done his.

Pepper keeps hanging on to him, too, in the emergency transport and in the hospital, even when the docs have pronounced Tony stable and let the two of them sit next to his ICU bed, Natasha and Steve and Clint and Thor giving Pepper and Bruce the privilege while they pace outside. Even when an extra chair's brought in, Pepper doesn't move to it or let go of Bruce, filling his lap and holding him in his borrowed shirt and flip-flops and his ripped trouser legs.

At some point Bruce falls asleep, because he's awakened by murmuring in the room, murmuring that has Tony's cadences echoing softly in his ears. Pepper's hand on his shoulder brings Bruce awake completely--she's standing, bending over him, and behind her Bruce can see Tony in the bed, conscious at last, his sleepy eyes on Bruce. "Hey," Tony croaks.

"Tony," Bruce says thickly, clearing his own throat, starting to stand.

"Heard the Other Guy was trying to make time with our best girl," Tony says. "Got to watch her take off her slip and everything. Kinky."

Pepper gets out a wet laugh and wipes her nose with her hand. Her other arm is sliding about Bruce's waist.

"Thank him for me, wouldja?" Tony shuts his eyes. "Maybe tell him about buying her dinner first next time, though."

Bruce squeezes Pepper's hip in a familiar gesture and she tucks her head against his shoulder, even as both of them keep their eyes on Tony. "You can tell him yourself next time. You're the one he likes," Bruce says.

Tony's eyes open again. "Yeah, but you're the one he listens to." And for all Tony's weariness, the look in his eyes absolutely fixes Bruce.

Bruce swallows. "Tony--"

"It's true. Told you to trust me." He shuts his eyes again. "Don't argue with me; I'm a sick man. Stay for a little bit? I may need you to threaten the doctors to give me the really good pain killers."

Bruce stays. Pepper stays. Tony sleeps, and it's just the three of them. For now, Bruce can be sure it will stay the three of them.

And the next time the Other Guy steps in...Bruce has something to tell him. And he'll listen.
Tags: avengers, fic
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