Fandom: Marvel Cinematic Universe; Avengers
Pairing: Bruce Banner/Tony Stark
Genre: Lab Romance
Word Count: 2,600
Disclaimer: No claims made to the copyrighted programs and characters referenced herein. Not profiting in any way.
Summary: It's just a reception. They'll make small talk, drink some sparkling wine, listen to awkward speeches, and try to postpone the inevitable Higgs boson throw-down as long as possible.
Notes: This is a collaborative work, written and recorded for the pod_together 2012 fest. I had a blast working with sisi_rambles--her enthusiasm and responsiveness were off the charts! She has been a real pleasure to talk with, and a joy to listen to. And the mods, paraka & podklb, did an oustanding job coordinating this round. Beta by cinaea. Cover art by akamine_chan.
Tony Stark is, hands-down, the worst lab partner Bruce has ever had.
When he isn't storming around the lab, babbling scientific impossibilities, high on caffeine and lack of sleep, he's too quiet, staring at sheets of data as his brain makes preposterous—and frankly terrifying—leaps of intuition.
Tony has all the patience of an engineer, jumping straight from hypothesis to prototype without so much as a nod to the scientific method. In the last two months his reckless enthusiasm has been responsible for no less than three explosions using previously inert substances, two burnt-out centrifuges, and countless headaches.
Of course, he's also the first lab partner Bruce has had in years.
He can't empirically discount the theory that he has simply grown accustomed to working alone.
Bruce's hand reaches out for his mug, only to find empty space. He scowls. "Hey, my—"
"Hot coffee, comin' at ya," Tony says, and sets the mug down with a refill.
"For me? I'm touched."
"If you think that's touching, wait'll you see the new particle accelerator I'm building you for Christmas."
"Really? Which part of the Canadian tundra has Stark Industries annexed?"
"Nah, Canada wasn't for sale. New Jersey, on the other hand, was dirt cheap."
"Can you really see me commuting through the Holland Tunnel every morning?"
Tony grins, sharp and mean-spirited. "Totally."
"You have a sick mind, Stark," Bruce says, and sips his coffee; it's perfect.
"And you have an interesting new data set you haven't shared yet." Tony pulls up a stool, turns the screen his way without asking, and begins reading.
Bruce spends a minute watching Tony: the smile that always lurks at the left corner of his mouth, the calloused fingers that never stop tapping. Bruce drinks his coffee and watches until Tony frowns and points at a dispersion coefficient.
They lose track of time arguing over the latest numbers, until Jarvis says, "Sorry to intrude, sir, but the Davidson Reception begins in five minutes."
Tony snaps his fingers. "Right, that's why I came down here. Thank you, Jarvis."
Tony lifts the now-cold mug out of Bruce's hands and steals a quick sip. "Come on, doc; time to get dressed. An hour is more than enough time to be fashionably late."
Tony swans out of the lab, leaving Bruce to stare at their graphs for a few wistful moments before dragging himself up to his rooms for the futile endeavor of 'getting dressed.'
It doesn't take him long to get ready. Bruce has one good suit—or half a good suit, since The Other Guy blew out the seams on the pants a few months ago. He has one good jacket—a reliable, tan linen jacket he's held onto for nearly a year. That's longer than he's held onto most acquaintances lately, he thinks, before shoving the thought away.
So it's a pair of khakis, a white cotton button-down, and his good jacket for an evening reception with some of the greatest minds in his field. He unclenches his teeth and makes himself smile at the prospect because there's nothing to be done about it; they'll stare at him no matter what he's wearing. At least this way he can pretend it's because he's under-dressed.
When Tony finishes his complicated grooming rituals and finally joins Bruce in the Stark Tower lobby, he's dressed to the nines: bespoke-pinstriped suit, aggressively paisley tie, custom-tinted sunglasses, and the shine of crystal on the turquoise, two-point pocket square. Bruce gives the outfit the onceover it demands, and whistles.
Tony ignores his critique. He walks straight up to Bruce and then around him, looking over his ensemble. Bruce braces himself for the obligatory sartorial sarcasm, but all Tony does is nod and say, "Not bad. Needs one finishing touch." And then pulls a dark blue tie out of his pocket.
Bruce looks up at Tony from under furrowed brows when Tony loops it around his neck and starts tying it for him. "What are you doing?"
"…hops over the log, then the rabbit crawls under…" Tony mutters, flipping the ends of the tie up to brush Bruce's face.
Bruce can't help laughing. "I know how to tie a tie."
Tony hums and says, "Of course. But you looked like you had your hands pretty full, holding up the world."
Bruce's smile dims. "Yeah, well—"
"And voila!" Tony finishes with a flourish. He stands back and frames his fingers around a view of Bruce. "Totally brings out your eyes. Okay, let's go."
And just like that, Tony spins on a perfectly polished heel and marches toward the car.
The reception in honor of Dr. Larry Davidson's Nobel Prize is the social event of the year for American nuclear physicists. Or as Tony describes it, a small cash bar in a rented hotel ballroom in midtown, organized by Davidson's own press team.
Bruce finds himself cruising through Manhattan well after sundown in the backseat of a silver Audi, its finely-tuned mechanics humming all around him while Tony sits in the seat next to him, trying to poke holes in Davidson's dark matter theorem without a calculator.
"I don't need a wingman," Bruce says, when he can't take the pretense anymore.
Tony doesn't miss a beat. He scoffs, "As if. You're my wingman, buddy."
Bruce rolls his eyes. "I'm pretty sure you didn't get an invitation. Unless you earned a degree in nuclear physics while I wasn't looking."
"What, a guy can't dabble? If I stayed cooped up alone in my workshop all day, I'd go stark raving mad." He shoots Bruce a boyish grin at his own name-dropping.
"You'd blow yourself up, more likely," Bruce says, for lack of anything else.
It's the same flippant answer Tony gives every time Bruce asks…. Every time he realizes it's past midnight, they've skipped dinner, and they've spent hours hunched over data sets in his physics lab, arguing about electron waves and quark dispersions. Tony's answer never rings true, but Bruce doesn't feel entitled to push—not when it's Tony's lab he's working in; Tony's fortune funding his equipment; and Tony's genius breaking down barriers that have impeded Bruce's research for years.
Why Tony is coming with him tonight…. Bruce realizes he doesn't want that question answered after all.
Too soon, the driver pulls up in front of the Hilton Suites, and Bruce starts to take centering breaths. It's just a reception. He's been to dozens of these events. They'll make small talk, drink some sparkling wine, listen to awkward speeches, and try to postpone the inevitable Higgs boson throw-down as long as possible.
He can't make himself believe the lie, though. In a minute, he's going to walk into that ballroom, and everyone whose opinion ever meant anything to him—his peers, his mentors, his idols—will turn and stare at him. Wonder why he's there—who let the violent beast out of its cage? Gawp at Frankenstein's monster given the gift of speech, thinking he can pass as one of them. They'll whisper, and they'll stare, and Bruce can already feel his knuckles aching, his temples throbbing with accelerated blood flow, the tight ball of fury in his chest eager to expand—
He dials it back, sucks in a big gulp of air, and locks those thoughts away. He plasters on a wan smile in time to meet Tony's gaze in the reflection of the mirrored doors, and they pull the doors open and walk in together.
The ballroom is exactly as he expected—faded-gold wallpaper, thick, densely-patterned carpeting, tall tables and a low stage, and dozens of men and women in somber suits and polished shoes.
Tony enters the room like a whirlwind, making an Entrance with a capital E. All eyes turn their way, everyone stops and stares…but they're staring at Tony, who has grabbed the hand of the nearest woman, kissed it grandly, and is now shouting, "Hey, alright! Not too shabby for a guy who wrote an equation my toaster could disprove before breakfast!"
Bruce forces a laugh to hide his cringe and waits for the night to fall to pieces.
Nothing actually goes wrong.
Tony spends the first 15 minutes dragging Bruce around the room to insult men and women who each have three more doctorates than the combined Stark family tree. Hackles are raised, feathers are ruffled, and Bruce slowly relaxes, mesmerized by a Tony dialed up to 11, mugging and aping his way through the crowd.
Next to him, Bruce looks positively normal.
Bruce is, as he expected, disgracefully underdressed. Everyone else is buttoned-up, stiff and uncomfortable. Bruce's hand strays to the tie Tony looped around his neck, the knot fashionably loose, relaxed like his outfit. His fingers run up and down the length of cool, smooth silk, and he doesn't feel like he's suffocating.
Bruce has learned to avoid constrictive clothing—not to mention anything expensive. The pristine silk around his neck…. Bruce wonders how much he would owe Tony if he hulked out right now.
And then he imagines the faces of his peers if The Other Guy made an appearance in the ballroom; buying Tony a new tie would be the least of his worries.
They've made it halfway around the ballroom when Bruce spots a familiar face headed toward them. Professor Martin, his doctoral advisor from Michigan State, ignores Tony's favorite new introduction of, "Hi, I'm Tony Stark, and I have 23 patents. What's your name?" and grabs Bruce's hand.
"Bruce, it's so good to see you! You haven't been publishing," he tsks, but then smiles sympathetically, acknowledging Bruce's unusual circumstances.
"Oh, he will soon," Tony says, cutting off Bruce's response. "It's gonna be huge. Beta decay—gone. Next year, that Nobel Prize is ours."
Professor Martin pats Tony on the shoulder, as if to say 'that's nice,' and starts telling Bruce about the scandalous new tenure practices at the university. Bruce can barely get a word in edgewise, just like old times, and he falls back into the trick of nodding along and then distracting Martin with a completely new topic.
Two former coworkers from Oak Ridge join them, shaking Bruce's hand and talking over Martin until the professor's wife finds him and pulls him away with an apologetic smile. And Bruce finds himself laughing and answering his old friends' questions about the Einstein-Rosen phenomenon as if the last five years never happened. He's trying to estimate the explosive force necessary to open the wormhole when he sloshes his glass too hard, spilling wine on the carpet.
He grabs his tie to check that it's clean, lifting up the tail to inspect it. And that's when he notices the subtle polka-dot pattern on the tie. Green polka dots. Suddenly Tony's crack about bringing out his eyes makes sense, and he grins, looking up to share the joke.
He's surprised to find his loud and ebullient friend gone; somehow, Bruce had missed him slipping away. He's touched to realize that Tony left Bruce to his conversation, clearing out to the opposite side of the room like a true wingman. Bruce can see him talking stridently to a table of people all wearing faintly outraged expressions. From the few words Bruce catches, it sounds like Tony is castigating them for allowing the IAU to downgrade Pluto.
Tony looks over, catches his eye, and smirks. Bruce realizes he's still holding up the end of the tie. He relaxes his grip, letting the expensive material slip through his fingers, and shrugs. When Tony grins at him, brighter than paparazzi flashbulbs (a fission bomb), Bruce smiles back.
After Dr. Davidson's appallingly self-congratulatory speech, Bruce drifts between tables, nodding to vague acquaintances and strangers who nod politely back. Just as he finds himself at loose ends, Tony throws an arm around his shoulder and steers him toward the door.
"Running before they tar and feather you?" Bruce asks. He's flying high, feeling better than he has since…he can't remember when.
Tony shakes his head. "First rule of being the life of the party: Always be the first one out the door."
"You sure that's why? I'm pretty sure I saw some pitchforks being sharpened…."
Tony takes off his tinted glasses and says, looking down as he polishes a lens, "You look like you had a good time."
"I did," Bruce says. He's still marveling at it. He opens his mouth to thank Tony, to try to convey his gratitude for all the ways he took the pressure off Bruce in there. But glancing over at Tony's carefully nonchalant body language, he isn't sure Tony wants to hear it.
Some things, they understand without words.
"Next year," Tony says, and then clears his throat. He slides the glasses into his breast pocket and straightens his jacket. "Next year, we're gonna host this thing, and it's gonna be spectacular. None of this cut-rate, in-house–catering crap. It's gonna be five-star all the way."
"After your performance tonight, I doubt any of them would want to come to your party," Bruce says.
"Hah. Once we win that Nobel Prize, they'll be banging down our door for an invitation!"
It would be easy—and incorrect—to interpret that as another joke, as a continuation of the role he'd been playing inside. Bruce knows the research they've already accomplished, knows how promising the data looks, and knows how well they work together, so he says, "We'd better work fast, then. The call for nominations closes in eight months."
Tony shoots him a pleased smile.
They're just stepping out into the small front courtyard when Tony's eyes dart around the area with a level of alertness that belies the five drinks he'd held throughout the night. Bruce tenses, looking around for a threat.
Tony stops walking and says, catching his attention, "Hey. Before we seal you up in imported German engineering and hand-stitched Italian leather…I wanna run an experiment."
Before Bruce can start to guess Tony's meaning, Tony nudges him backward with gentle taps, until Bruce is backed all the way up to the stucco wall of the Hilton, standing in the shadow of a sculpted topiary.
This close, the tree smells like plastic.
And this close, Tony smells like whiskey and cologne. And when he leans closer, Bruce has a moment to recognize that Tony has skipped any type of scientific control to validate his results before he—
The kiss is firm, confident, hypothesis straight to execution, and Bruce kisses back on instinct, too surprised to be rational. Hot breath against his lips, hint of stubble against his chin, intimacy he hasn't enjoyed since….
Tony steps even closer, crowding him, cornering him, and Bruce feels a thrum in his chest, like a second heartbeat waking up. His hands come up automatically, fisting in Tony's clothes, and Tony stops cold, weight leaning against Bruce, lips still pressed to his, but every muscle perfectly still.
Tony's eyes flick up to meet his, and a part of Bruce is on the verge of panic, but then he feels it: cool silk under his fingers, Tony's tie clenched in his fist. He takes a deep, centering breath, and then pushes and pulls until Tony gets it and lets Bruce switch their positions. And when he has Tony pressed against the wall, open air at his back and his fingers looped through the sloppy knot of Tony's tie, he leans up and kisses him again.
They're almost back to Stark Tower, Tony's hand hot on Bruce's thigh, a promise, and Bruce's brain pinballing between old friends, skin-warmed silk, kinetic energy, and kissing Tony, when he remembers.
"Maybe the particle accelerator should wait a year."
Tony looks up from his StarkPhone, his confusion illuminated by the screen and the passing street lights.
"They won't give us a Nobel Prize if we blow up New Jersey."
Tony's expression resolves into a wicked smirk. "Fair enough. But there's always Canada."