Okay. This was the way life worked, if you were Tony Stark.
Something would happen, some crisis or other, a stock crash, or a market-anticipation failure, or an alien invasion, or a World-Destroying-Weapon-Of-DOOM about to go off. You know, things. Something would happen, and he'd rush in, do something impossibly brilliant and incredibly foolhardy to fix it, save the day, and then one of two things would happen. Everyone around him would praise him as the best thing since sliced bread (his adoring public), or everyone around him would yell at him for six successive days for being a blithering idiot (everyone in authority, ever).
He was rapidly discovering that SHIELD and the Avengers, like Pepper and Rhodey and most of the American military brass before them, tended more towards the latter than the former. In particular, Captain goddamn America, who seemed to take it as a personal affront if anyone outside of himself put themselves at risk at all, Agent Impossibly Stoic Coulson, who had this bland little eyebrow thing he did that managed to convey an entire week's worth of incoherent yelling in one brief, smooth movement, and of course the One-Eyed Wonder himself, Nick Fury, who Tony was beginning to think was more basilisk than cyclops. (What? He dated a few anthropology majors in his day, okay?)
Point being, quite a lot of the time, Tony figured that the only one impressed with him on this new team of theirs was himself, Thor (who, to be fair, had the whole rush-blindly-into-danger thing down to a science, but, unfortunately, also had the fact that he was a god to back himself up with), and Barton, who seemed to be mildly sociopathic at times and perfectly happy to cheer Tony blowing himself up if he looked cool doing it. Which, you know, Tony could get behind, if the man didn't have a worrying tendency to cheer himself on doing the same thing, without, you know, the massively high-tech suit of armour to back him up.
Tony sometimes figured that Clint was the reason Coulson had that whole eyebrow thing perfected, was his point. Also, that having those two on his side didn't actually do him all that many favours with, you know, the entire rest of SHIELD, and definitely not with Cap.
So the one day Tony found himself very clumsily coming in for a landing after the fight, sparking fitfully from (quite a few) places on the armour, but otherwise perfectly fine, thank you very much, to find literally the whole team, Clint and Thor very much included, bracing up to yell at him ... Yeah. That wasn't a good day, okay?
And he was all fired set to get into a (very hoarse) screaming row with Cap and Coulson, right there in the street, in fact had his helmet off to do so (though, yeah, also so he could breathe, minor air-filtration problem, nothing too bad, really), when there was a massive THUD right behind him, and Cap's face went from furious to slightly panicked, and Coulson's hand went automatically to his taser, and Tony remembered that, oh yeah, the 'whole team' included one very pissed off, and currently really, really green, Bruce Banner.
He was just turning, big reassuring grin fixed to his face, yup, no problems here, sorry about that, Big Guy, when one massive hand wrapped itself securely around his torso, and the whole world got really, really confusing for a minute, because the Hulk plucked him into the air and shook him until his teeth rattled. Just a great big wall of green in front of Tony's face, and a great big wall of sound around Tony's head, because Hulk roared when he was pissed. Boy, did he ever. And Tony hadn't exactly been all that steady before the Jolly Green Giant decided to use him for a maraca (not a concussion, just, you know, some minor light-headedness from the breathing problems, and, um, the slight panic attack/flashback thingy because not being able to breathe sent him back to bad, bad places, but we're not mentioning that one, m'kay?), so ... It took quite a few minutes after the Hulk apparently stopped shaking him for the world to make sense again.
It possibly also took a bit longer than that, because the non-violently-shaking world he came back into still didn't make that much sense. Because, when he came back, he was ... pressed up against a great green chest, a thick green arm around the armour's waist keeping him there, with a great big rumbling sound vibrating around him as the Hulk backed up somewhere. Okay. He could have understood that part. It was that ... the Hulk's other hand, the great, big, green, potentially-skull-crushing hand, was ... cupped around the back of Tony's head, kind of shielding the part of him the armour didn't cover at the minute, and one great big thumb was ... brushing, gently, against the side of his head. Kind of ... soothingly? Ish?
And it felt familiar, distantly, but he just sort of didn't get it, for a long few minutes, until the little thing at the back of his head that matched up sensations to memories while his higher functions were offline (trained by years of waking up drunk in strange places) sent him the appropriate flash of memory -sand, and sun, and pain, and desperate, giddy relief, and the smell of sweat and burnt metal, and Rhodey's arms around him, and safe, safe, oh fuck, safe- and he figured out that the Hulk was ... hugging him. Cradling him up against that great green chest, and cupping one hand protectively around Tony's kind of fragile head, and growling at anyone who came near them.
The Hulk was hugging him. Protectively. And kind of aggressively. And, okay, wow, Tony didn't know what to do with that.
Except, apparently, sort of ... melt, unconsciously and sort of unwillingly, into it. Slumping against the creaking protests of the armour, arms coming up to wrap about as much of that chest as they could, pressing his face into cool, slightly-ozone smelling skin, and breathing. In and out. Soft and kind of whimpering. Inhale, exhale, breathe. Try not to cry. Fuck, try not to cry. Though ... no-one would see. With that hand cupped about his head. No-one would see. No-one would have to know.
The Hulk stopped moving, having backed up as far as he was going to, or something, and paused in his angry rumbling to make a kind of questioning sound down at Tony. And, yeah, no, no questions, okay? Tony ... was not up for questions, right now, don't do that, fuck, don't just randomly hug him and then expect him to answer shit, what the hell? And Hulk made this sort of rumbly, bubbly noise that, hey, Tony figured out was a laugh, or a chuckle, or something, and the big finger at the side of his head brushed lightly at his cheek, the one not currently pressed into the guy's chest, and ... Shit. Shit and fuck. What was Tony supposed to do with that?
The others had backed off, he figured. Because there was yelling at Tony, and then there was yelling at the Hulk, and Tony and possibly Clint were the only suicidal monkeys in this outfit, yup. Point was, no-one bothered them, for a while. While the Hulk kind of sat them down, on a nice, handy bit of rubble, and shifted Tony up into his lap, and, yeah, okay, undignified, totally, but Tony was not going to be the one to mention that to the massive green rage guy, and it wasn't like Tony hadn't been worse (oh, so much worse) kind of a lot of times before (alcohol was the devil, yup, he was aware, thanks), and anyway. The Hulk's now free hand was moving up and down his back, and he couldn't exactly feel it through the armour, as such, but he knew it was there, and the motion was sort of ... hypnotically soothing, and his head was still hidden behind the other hand, and ...
Mostly people hugged him when he was dying. For real, that was. Mostly that was it. And he wasn't going to tell the fucking Hulk that actually, he didn't want a hug, thanks, and it was kind of ... nice ... and, you know what? Fuck it. There was that thing in the back of his head still going safe now, fuck, safe now, shit, we can breathe, and people mostly only hugged him when he was dying or coming back from the dead, and he liked this, okay, sue him. He liked it.
And maybe the Hulk kind of did too, because after a few minutes, Tony felt the chest in front of him start to shift, to shrink, and he looked up, startled, leaned back to look at the man's face ... And those big green eyes were crinkled and calm and fond, while the face around them started to lose coherency, and the Hulk was looking down at him with a kind of soft, exasperated smile, and Tony's stupid heart did this floppy thing in his chest, and fuck. Fuck, he was so fucking screwed.
And then, to top it off, in the rushed moment where he hurriedly struggled off the Hulk's rapidly shrinking lap to avoid, you know, crushing Bruce to death beneath the armour, he had a moment of surging protective fury. Scrambling back and glaring at anyone in range while the Hulk became ... small, and fragile, and human, and Bruce, in front of him. Standing (kind of battered) guard over the man's shrinking form, daring anyone to mess with them.
So fucking screwed, seriously, you have no idea. This was why he did not do the whole friendship, caring-for-people shit. It twisted stuff up inside him, and had him snuffling stupidly against people's chests, and Tony did not understand that, okay? He was bad at that.
But ... There was Bruce, and he was looking confused, and tired, and washed out, and blinking up at Tony as he stood protectively over him, and then ... smiling, too, a weird faint little thing once Bruce had figured out where he was and what had happened, and that it was Tony there with him, and ... And Tony made his face do the thing, the casual grin thing, bright and easy and no-problems-here, holding out his hand to help the man up, and if he couldn't quite help it, if he had to pull the man in, briefly, a clap on the back (gently, armour) and a quick, manly, we're-buddies sort of hug ...
He was so screwed. He was so screwed. But Bruce looked kind of surprised, and then kind of grateful, like people maybe didn't hug him so much either, and Tony just ... didn't particularly care, okay? He was screwed, but he was always screwed, that was like, his whole life, and he didn't much care.
His, right? His team, his people. His Hulk, his Bruce. Like his Pepper, and his Rhodey, and his JARVIS, and his Avengers. Tony was (mostly) not a possessive man, because stuff came and went and it was all just stuff, but sometimes there were people, and those people were his, and he would happily rip his heart out of his chest for them, and he would do incredibly stupid stunts every goddamn time to keep them safe, even if they never ever stopped yelling at him for it, and Bruce ...
He was bad at this. But he would be bad at it all day long, forever and ever, so long as they stayed, and they were safe, and they made that weird little confused smile-thingy at him, like Bruce was doing right now, just once in a while, and sometimes maybe touched him, hugged him, like that, and he would do anything in the world for that. As many times as he had to.
And, yeah, it wasn't something he particularly liked about himself, but he knew it was there, and there were times ...
There were times, like now, where he sort of mostly didn't mind.
Oh yeah. He was totally screwed. Oh, so very screwed. But hey. Bruce was smiling at him, sort of, behind the bland, zen-face he put on for company, and ... yeah. You know what? It was good, being an Avenger. It really, really was.
Even if Cap did, actually, spend the next week yelling at him.
There was just no appreciation for genius, these days.