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Through the Jungle, Through the Dark

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Tony's off at some meeting at his lawyer's, and Bruce and Pepper are in the kitchen of the Malibu house, making dinner. Pepper's in her bare feet, stepping around Bruce easily and tugging on the hem of his shirt as she passes. "This looks nice on you," she says, smiling.

Bruce smiles back, feeling a little shy about it, and is about to say something about how of course she likes it, she's the one who bought it for him, when they hear Tony come in the garage.

"Pepper!" he yells from downstairs. "Bruce?"

Pepper rolls her eyes a little, but she's still smiling. "We're in the kitchen," she says in a normal, non-yelling tone. JARVIS always turns the intercom on if they need to talk to each other, but Tony still always yells.

Bruce pops a slice of the cucumber he's chopping into his mouth and smiles at her a little more over how ridiculous Tony is. Pepper goes back to getting out the oil and vinegar for the salad dressing, and neither of them are paying much attention as Tony bounds up the stairs. Bruce glances up casually and says, "Hey, Tony, how --" but then blinks, caught mid-sentence by how Tony is trailing what appears to be a middle-school aged girl. That is… odd.

Pepper looks up at Bruce's abrupt stop, sees the kid, and blinks a few times herself. Pepper's a little better at rolling with the punches, though, and so she almost immediately goes into a confused but friendly smile. "Who's this?" she says, like maybe Tony has just brought home his lawyer's daughter to have dinner with them or something. Which -- for all Bruce knows Tony does that kind of thing all the time. Maybe this isn't weird at all.

The kid is kind of chubby, at that awkward, horrible age that makes Bruce want to crawl out of his own skin in sympathy, with dark hair and eyes and a sensitive mouth. She's wearing a crammed-full backpack that looks more like luggage than like homework, and a black t-shirt with a skull on it, and her nails are painted black, and she's obviously trying desperately hard to seem like a badass, but her face is round and vulnerable and so very young. It's a kid who's definitely not having the best time at school, and Bruce's heart does something strange and sideways and painful looking at her.

Tony sticks out his thumb at her. "That's Sasha. Uh, Sasha, that's Pepper and that's Bruce." He's being all flip and casual on the surface, but Bruce can see that he's actually pretty nervous himself and trying to cover it. He and the kid are standing almost identically, like mirrored awkward bookends.

Bruce looks at Pepper to try to see how they're supposed to react to this non-explanation, and Pepper stares at Tony. There is a silence.

At least Tony can't stand silence. "Yeah, so, you're probably wondering what she's doing here, right? I know, just, it's kind of a long story, and I think maybe I should get her settled in first, and --"

"Tony," Pepper says.

Tony squints a little, wincing. "Okay, right. You're right." He looks like he's trying to figure out where to start. "Um, so, uh -- you know how I used to sleep with a lot of women?"

For a second Bruce doesn't know what that has to do with anything. But then -- oh. Oh. But that -- he -- what?

"Yes," Pepper says, in her most dangerous voice.

Bruce stares at Tony, then at the kid. Oh God, she totally has Tony's nose, doesn't she? He thought she looked familiar somehow.

"Yeah, so, uh, didn't know she existed, but then, uh, boom, you know, car accident, will, lawyer, DNA test, custody," Tony says, all in a rush. The silence in the room is deep and blanketing and Bruce feels like his ears are ringing with it. The apparently-half-orphaned kid shifts from one foot to the other. "Hey, uh, how about that, that wasn't such a long story after all," Tony says weakly.

Pepper smiles very tightly. "Tony, could I talk to you in the other room, please?" she says in a pleasant tone that makes Bruce want to go crawl in a hole and die, and he's not even the target.

"Uh huh," Tony says, ducking his head a little, and starts to go. Then, remembering: "Oh, uh, Sasha, hang out here with Bruce, I'll be right back."

"Um," Bruce starts to say as panic rushes over him, but Tony and Pepper are already almost out of the room, heads leaning in towards each other as they start to fight in lowered voices.

Bruce tries to smile at Sasha. "Um, hi," he says. He has not felt this out of his depth in a long time, and Sasha just looks at him like she thinks he's the dumbest, most annoying person she's ever seen. "Uh," he says, and looks down at the salad ingredients in front of him. "Do you want something to eat?"

Sasha shrugs, but she goes to sit at one of the stools at the kitchen island in front of Bruce. "I guess," she says, slinging her backpack onto the floor beside her.

Dinner's not going to be ready for awhile, but he and Pepper had hummus and stuff out for snacking while they were getting it ready, always a good plan when Tony's about to get home ravenous and cranky, so Bruce brings it over. "Uh, do you like hummus?" he says.

Sasha shrugs again, but at least she reaches out for a piece of pita. "Do you live here?" she says.

"Uh," Bruce says. That is not a question that should be hard to answer, but…. "Sort of?"

Sasha's eyes narrow. "What does that mean?"

"I mean, I, uh," Bruce says. Well, he's been staying here for six months, so even if there hasn't really been any discussion of how permanent this may or may not be, probably he should just say yes for the sake of simplicity, right? "Um, well, I guess, yeah, basically," he says. "Sure, I live here."

But Sasha is still giving him a hard look. "Are you Tony's boyfriend?" she says.

Bruce almost chokes. "Um," he says. His face is getting a little hot, which is way more embarrassing than the actual question -- God, blushing because of a 13 year old girl, that's great. But leave it to Tony to leave her here without briefing Bruce on what he's supposed to say to her about anything. He coughs. "What makes you say that?"

Sasha looks like she thinks he's even dumber than she did a minute ago. "You live here," she says.

Right. "Very logical," Bruce says. "But this is a big place." Never let it be said he can't sidestep a question.

That has the added bonus side effect of actually making Sasha look a little young and overwhelmed again, and she glances around the room what looks like in spite of herself. "Yeah," she says. Bruce knows the feeling -- he was never exactly in a mansion socio-economic class either.

"I guess you live here too now?" Bruce says -- it's meant to be a statement, but it comes out more like a question.

Sasha shrugs yet again. Her shoulder muscles must be enormous. "I guess so," she says. "That's what the lawyer said."

"So let's get you settled!" Pepper says from the doorway, coming in all brisk and warm. The only hint of tension is in the line of her back, and the way Tony's standing behind her rubbing the back of his neck and looking sheepish. "Sorry I didn't have more warning, or your room would already be set up." She gives Tony a look. Tony rolls his eyes a little, but only when Pepper isn't looking.

When Pepper has ushered Sasha out of the kitchen, in the direction of one of the guest rooms in the east wing, Bruce looks at Tony. "Seriously?" he says.

Tony shrugs, looking entirely unrepentant. "Condoms fail like three percent of the time. When you think about it, it's amazing I don't have two hundred illegitimate kids floating around out there."

**

Now that there's a kid involved, Bruce really feels like he should probably move out already, let the three of them be a family, get out of the way and stop intruding. But the thing is, Pepper and Tony are really doing a remarkably terrible job with the kid.

Pepper blows it on day 2, when she decorates the kid's room all in cream and pink with a Degas of a ballerina on the wall. When, obviously pleased with herself, she shows Sasha, Sasha just gives her a blank, dead-eyed stare.

"I'm not some girly-girl," she says, like that's the most damning indictment of a person she can think of, and puts her headphones back on, leaving the room again to go wherever she goes. Bruce thinks the library, mostly.

Pepper looks genuinely shaken, and Tony snickers. "Nice one, Pep," he says.

Bruce is staring at the painting. "Is that real?" he says, because did Pepper honestly put a real Degas on the wall of a 13-year-old's bedroom?

But Pepper just looks at him like that's a crazy question. "Of course," she says. Bruce is never going to get used to living in the house of a billionaire.

Tony manages not to blow it until week 2, which Bruce is honestly impressed by -- Tony's giving this thing a lot more effort than Bruce ever thought he would. That Thursday, he pokes his head into the lab where Bruce is working and says, "Hey, I'm gonna pick the kid up at school, you wanna come?"

Shocked that Tony is enough aware of the time to realize that school is about to let out, Bruce says sure, heading down to the garage… where Tony picks out what Bruce is pretty sure is the most expensive of all his sports cars. It's on the flashy side, to say the least.

"Uh," Bruce says. "Are you really taking this car to junior high?"

"What?" Tony says. "C'mon, get in, let's not keep the kid waiting."

Bruce shrugs and climbs in the front seat, but by the time Tony is screeching ostentatiously up to the front of the school, stopping in a place that is neither a parking space nor what is clearly the drop-off lane, full of parents in minivans, Bruce knows he should've pushed harder to get Tony to take it down a notch.

Tony even gets out of the car dramatically, his arms out like he's making an entrance at the Stark Expo, his leather jacket and red shades just about as recognizable as if he had actually shown up in the Iron Man suit, and the kids notice immediately. In about two seconds he's mobbed by a bunch of twelve-year-olds wanting autographs, clearly having the time of his life, and there's no way Bruce can stop him.

Sasha tries to slink up to the car undetected, and Bruce is trying to help her get in the backseat before she gets noticed, his skin crawling with sympathy, but unfortunately, Tony sees her. "Hey, there's my kid!" he says. Yells, almost. The heads of every kid in the crowd swivel to look at her, and all those middle-school eyes, the pretty blond girls and the cool jock boys, all clearly thinking, 'Her?' -- it's enough to make Bruce feel judged and on-display, and he's a grown man.

Sasha is beet red, and throws herself into the backseat as fast as she can, hunching down so she's barely even visible. Luckily Tony goes back to signing autographs, and the attention of the crowd goes back to him. Bruce gets in the car.

"Uh, so, how was your day?" he says to Sasha, trying to act normal, like they're not practically in the background of a One Direction concert right now, kids swarming around the car.

Sasha lets out this tiny, almost hysterical laugh. It sounds a little wet, like she might be crying. Jesus, Tony.

Okay, that's enough. Bruce gets out of the car and pushes his way through the crowd to put his hand on Tony's shoulder. "Hey," he says. "Let's go, c'mon."

Unfortunately, then some nightmare child recognizes him. "Oh my gosh, are you the Hulk?!" she says.

"Not today," Bruce says, steering Tony back towards the car.

And of course Tony doesn't get it at all, just annoyed at Bruce for cutting the autograph session short. By the end of the car ride, he's at least noticed that Sasha isn't speaking to him, but when they're back at the house and she's stormed off to her (now de-pinked) room, Tony says, "What's with her?"

"You embarrassed her," Bruce says, just as Pepper comes walking in, tapping out an email on her phone.

"You did?" Pepper says. "What did you do?"

"I didn't do anything!" Tony says, clearly completely blindsided, and actually a little upset, which is an emotion Bruce isn't used to seeing on him.

"He took the Lamborghini to pick her up at school," Bruce says. "And then he signed autographs."

"Tony," Pepper says reproachfully.

"What?" Tony says. "The kids wanted my autograph! Why would she be upset about that?"

Bruce looks at Pepper, who sighs. "Well," Bruce says, trying to be gentle about it. "Not everybody likes being the center of attention."

This looks like it's news to Tony. "Why wouldn't she want to be the center of attention?" Tony says. "She's smart, she's beautiful, she's a Stark." Bruce blinks a couple of times, because he thinks Sasha is great, but she's definitely not fitting anyone's definition of beautiful, and it'd be really mean for Tony to be sarcastic about that. But… he appears to be serious. Huh. That's… interesting.

Leaving that alone, Bruce says, "Well, she's only been a Stark for about ten days. Give her a break. Don't you remember junior high?"

That looks like it just confuses Tony more -- yeah, now that he thinks about it, Bruce bets Tony was exactly the same in junior high as he is now. He probably would've loved for his famous dad to pick him up in a fancy car and sign autographs -- huh, Bruce wonders if he actually did all that on purpose, trying to do something nice for Sasha. "Never mind," Bruce says. "Go apologize or something."

"Apologize for what?!" Tony says. "Picking her up at school? I'm not going to apologize!"

But by the third day of Sasha not speaking to him, he finally does cave and apologize. Not that it does any good -- Sasha looks at him with this hurt, furious, powerless look, a look that Bruce remembers vividly from his own childhood, and still refuses to speak to him.

So. This is going great.

**

"She hates me," Tony says, mouth against the back of Bruce's neck. He's draped himself all over Bruce the way he does when he's feeling insecure, and Bruce involuntarily glances at the doorway to make sure Sasha's really left the kitchen. "Don't worry," Tony says. Bruce can practically hear him rolling his eyes. "She's gone to hide out in her room the way she does every night, so you don't have to worry about her catching us in this scandalous pose. Because she hates me."

"She doesn't hate you," Bruce says, trying to focus on scrubbing the pan he's working on.

"No, she does," Pepper says, putting leftovers in tupperware. "Not as much as she hates me, but she definitely does."

Tony groans, pressing his face against Bruce's shoulder. "Give her time," Bruce says. "She hates everybody."

"She doesn't hate you," Tony says, in something of an accusatory tone. Which is actually true, and which continues to confuse Bruce, because it's not like he's great with kids, and not like he's actually doing anything so remarkable to charm her or be fun Uncle Bruce or whatever. But Sasha will even come hang out with him sometimes after school, when he's in the study working on proofs, doing her homework next to him and sometimes talking to him about the book she's reading. He can't explain it. She's a nice kid, though. Smart.

"Why are you washing dishes, anyway?" Tony says. "That's why we have robots. Come comfort me instead."

Bruce has been avoiding doing anything with Tony or Pepper since Sasha moved in -- there's no point in confusing the kid, or shocking her, or making things seem more serious than they are.

"I don't know," Bruce says, glancing in the direction of Sasha's room again.

"For heaven's sake, Bruce," Pepper says. "He's driving me crazy. Do me a favor and distract him for an hour."

Tony's kissing Bruce's neck now, that way that always gets to Bruce, and Bruce is starting to cave. He's been feeling edgy all day anyway -- he and Tony had to go to a meeting at SHIELD this morning with half the other Avengers, and one of the generals there was eyeing Bruce in a way Bruce didn't like. He's been nervous enough about being in one place for six months as it is, especially one place with the military knowing exactly where he is, and he thinks maybe this weird, brief honeymoon phase of being left alone might be coming to an end. The anxiety from the meeting is still tight in his body, and it'd be nice to blow off a little steam.

"All right," Bruce says, turning so he's facing Tony, who grins and presses him back against the counter, kissing him fast and sharp. It's taking all Bruce's energy not to look back at the door to make sure Sasha's really gone.

"Don't worry," Pepper says, laughter in her voice. "I'll watch the door for you. Get going."

**

There's another meeting at SHIELD the next day, with even more generals, and even more tension between the military and the Avengers, and yeah, okay, Bruce was right. He needs to lay low for a little bit. Maybe he'll go to Latin America this time.

He drops the idea of it being time for him to move on casually that night at dinner -- they've been having family dinners every night since Sasha moved in, which Bruce is pretty sure is weird for all of them. But nice. Bruce is going to miss this when he's gone.

He didn't think it'd be too big a deal to say it -- everybody knew he'd be leaving eventually, right? -- but all three of them stare at him in dismay like he just said he's dying of a brain tumor.

"What?" Sasha blurts out. She hardly ever talks at dinner, so this is a milestone.

"Why?" Pepper says, looking almost as upset as Sasha.

"Um, no, you're not," Tony says.

Bruce shrugs, feeling a little embarrassed at everybody making this big a fuss. "It's really not safe for me to be here," he says. "The military -- I just, uh, I should get out of the country for a little bit, I think. It's not a big deal."

"It is a big deal," Pepper says, at the same time Tony says, "Is this about that meeting today?" and Sasha says, "You're leaving?!" Bruce blinks at the three of them -- why are they acting so upset?

"Well," he says, starting to explain, but he can't even get a word in, because all three of them are talking at once, the volume level getting out of control in about two seconds, and the blow-out fight goes from there.

**

By bedtime, Bruce is exhausted from trying to hold out against all of them. Sasha went to bed a couple of hours ago, so at least he was spared those hours of her tragic giant eyes looking at him like she's been betrayed. But Tony and Pepper are almost as upset, not even letting him duck out of this to go back to his own room, but dragging him in with them so they can keep fighting about it as they get ready for bed.

"Fine," Bruce says finally. "Fine, okay, I'll stay for awhile longer." By this point they look at him like they can't even believe it, like they're waiting for the other shoe to drop. Bruce sighs. "But if I get kidnapped by the military, you have to come rescue me," he says, kicking irritably at the side of the bed.

Tony's starting to smile, slow and relieved. "Deal," he says immediately.

Pepper looks like she might cry, but she just leans in to kiss Bruce on the lips, both hands cupping the sides of his face.

"I'll go tell Sasha," Tony says, already halfway to the door.

"Tony," Bruce says, pulling back a little from Pepper. "It's one in the morning on a school night, don't wake her up. I'll tell her in the morning."

Tony hesitates, but Bruce reaches out for him, and that's all it takes for Tony to come back to bed.

**

"Are you serious?" Tony says an hour later, after they've all caught their breath and Bruce is putting his clothes back on so he can go back to sleep in his own room. He wouldn't want Sasha to catch them in the morning, Bruce walking out of Tony and Pepper's room like they're all living in some kind of pervert hippie commune or something. Bruce knows Tony's her biological father, and that wouldn't be enough to make them lose custody, but he doesn't feel like it'd look great to a judge.

But Tony's sprawled out naked, looking at Bruce like he's being ridiculous. "Just sleep here, Jesus," he says. "Don't be such a baby."

Bruce looks at Pepper like, back him up here, but Pepper is looking at him like she wants him to stay too, her eyes a little Bambi-esque.

For a second Bruce really wants to. But, "Maybe next time," he says, and slips out the door into the darkened upstairs hallway.

He takes a shower and gets into his pajamas, puttering a little before bed, but even though it's late he can't seem to settle and just go to sleep. He's just really unsure about staying, really unsure about everything. He doesn't think Tony and Pepper know what they're getting into here, and what if soldiers come to the house? What if the Other Guy shows up with Sasha around?

Yeah, okay, he's definitely not sleeping. He goes out to the living room to try to watch some TV and clear his head a little, slumping on the couch without bothering to turn on the lights, the TV on mute with the closed captions on.

He's staring at it, trying not to think about anything, when he hears a noise in the hall behind him, like someone dropped something. He immediately goes alert -- shit, what if it's soldiers already?

He slips back toward the noise, hoping he can see who it is before they see him, but as he peers around the corner, it's just Sasha, sneaking towards the front door.

Oh. Sheesh. He flips on the light on her, bright and shocking, trying not to roll his eyes. His heart is still pounding.

Sasha jumps, spinning around fast and blinking in the sudden bright light, but then visibly relaxes as soon as she sees it's Bruce. She's got her backpack on, obviously full of stuff, and wait, is she sneaking out? Wait, that's luggage, is she running away?!

"Where are you going, young lady?" Bruce says. He doesn't even mean to say the young lady part, it just comes out.

Sasha shrugs, her eyes darting around the hallway like maybe she'll be able to see the answer written on a wall somewhere. "I dunno," she says.

She is definitely fully dressed, and that is definitely all the stuff she came with packed into that backpack. Bruce is genuinely shocked. "Are you running away?" he says.

Sasha shrugs again. "No," she says, but very unconvincingly -- she is the worst liar. Bruce forgot how transparent kids are, all their emotions just hanging out there. Though actually Tony is a little bit like that too, now that he thinks about it. Maybe it's just a Stark thing.

"Why?" Bruce says. He goes over to her and puts his hand on her back, starting to usher her back to the living room and away from the front door.

"What do you care?" Sasha says, abruptly ferocious. "You're going to run away, why aren't I allowed?"

Bruce blinks a few times, sitting her down on the couch and sitting across from her. "Is that why you're running away?" he says. He's shocked -- she wouldn't run away just because Bruce was leaving, would she?

"No," Sasha says. She's staring at her shoes, looking furious and sullen. But then after a second she says, "I can't believe you're going to leave me here with them." From her tone, you'd think Pepper and Tony were torturers.

Maybe Bruce should've let Tony go tell her Bruce wasn't leaving right away after all. "Oh," he says. "I wasn't --"

But Sasha interrupts, saying, "Did Tony say something mean to you? Is that why you're leaving?" She looks angrier than he's ever seen her, like if he says yes and it is Tony's fault, she's going to go kill Tony in his sleep Menendez-style.

Bruce puts up a hand, "No," he says. "And I'm not -- uh, I'm going to stay, so, uh. Yeah."

"And anyway, you shouldn't -- " Sasha starts, before she processes what he just said and pulls up short, blinking at him. "Wait, you're staying?"

Bruce rubs the back of his neck. "Yeah, uh, you all talked me into it," he says.

"Oh," Sasha says. She's staring at him and doesn't seem to know what to say.

"I mean," Bruce says. "I'll stay if you do too. You can't leave me here alone with them." By now he's trying not to laugh at the flabbergasted look on her face. He kind of wants to give her a hug.

"Oh," she says blankly. "Okay." She swallows, and her body relaxes a little, slumping against the couch. She kind of looks on the verge of tears.

"Okay, good," Bruce says, getting up and holding out his hand to her to help her up. "C'mere," he says. When she's on her feet, he can't help actually pulling her into a hug, expecting her to resist it, but she leans into him, clinging a little. "You okay?" he says.

She nods, not looking up at him, and sniffles.

"Okay," Bruce says. "You better get back to bed. I don't want you falling asleep in the car tomorrow when I take you to school."

She looks up at him, letting him shepherd her back towards her room. "Really?" she says.

"Yeah," he says. "I'll be there."

In the morning, everyone's cranky from lack of sleep, getting testy with each other for getting in the way and not making the coffee right and having misplaced her purple Converse, but everyone keeps touching Bruce casually every time they pass him, Sasha leaning in to Bruce's side as she waits for her toast to pop up, Tony bumping him with his shoulder to show him a headline on his tablet, Pepper putting her arm around his waist for a second when no one's looking. He thought today he'd mostly be feeling anxious about not leaving, but instead he feels relieved, relief down to his bones, and as he drives Sasha to school he's pretty sure he's happy.