Perhaps the worst thing about being a fugitive was the loneliness.
Bruce had contact with people. He had to, in order to survive. But rudimentary interactions with other humans for the purposes of retaining money, or food, or shelter, were a far cry from the forming of actual relationships.
Bruce couldn't have friends. Not right now, at least. Not until he was positive that they would be safe. He wasn't about to experiment on an unsuspecting soul. And announcing who, or rather what he was, wasn't safe for him. Besides, anyone who found out about Bruce's ugly side would most definitely take off in the opposite direction as fast as they could.
And there you have it. Bruce was unable to have a friend, or be a friend, because it would just be too dangerous for all involved. End of story.
So he remained a loner. And sometimes loners were viewed with the same contempt as a person who was a known monster. They were shadowy characters, these loners. Always by themselves, unwilling to carry on a conversation, evasive when questioned. Best to steer clear of them. But loners tended to become excellent observers. They circle the edge of society, and watch the human race maneuver the maze in search of the cheese.
Bruce found himself sitting at one of the little tables that were set up outside of a small cafe. He sipped his tea, and studied the world around him. A couple of tables away, two women were chatting. One had her back to Bruce, but he could see her companion clearly. She was a lovely woman, with long dark hair and a cheerful smile. He began to imagine how pleasant it would be to be able to sit with her, and talk and laugh and be...normal.
He didn't realize he was staring. He didn't mean to. But he must have been, because the brunette's eyes suddenly met his. Embarrassed at being caught, he tried to maintain his composure, and smiled politely at her. She smiled in return, but in the next moment her expression turned wary, and she looked away.
Bruce sighed. Typical, but for the best.
So this was Tony Stark, Bruce thought, as the aforementioned commandeered all the attention the minute he hit the bridge of the helicarrier. Of course Bruce knew who Stark was. Was there anyone who didn't? The man was brilliant, a genius. And, if some of the tabloids that Bruce may have glanced at now and again were to be believed, 'eccentric' might be a diplomatic term to throw into the mix.
It didn't take the man long to find his way to Bruce. Before he knew it, Stark was before him, shaking his hand, and babbling words like 'unparalleled' and 'rage monster'. His eyes were bright as stars, and his hand warm as the sun. Bruce was so dazzled by him, all he could manage to sputter was a feeble "Thanks".
Then, Tony cocked his head, and studied Bruce for a moment. He released Bruce's hand and said, "I didn't mean any offense...but I did mean what I said." He then winked at Bruce.
And maybe Fury started talking at that point. Bruce can't recall.
Sharing lab space with Stark was like trying to work in the midst of a tornado. Tony talked, a lot. And joked, a lot. And tested your patience. A lot. Everything about the man was taken to the tenth degree. But he was fascinating. Absolutely.
They'd been discussing the seemingly obvious differences, or were they similarities, between the circle of light in Tony's chest, and the giant bundle of anger in Bruce's psyche, when Tony abruptly asked, "Do you do that for everyone, or is it me?"
Bruce was baffled. "What?"
Tony rattled on. "Because I haven't seen you do that for anyone else, so I'm starting to think..."
"What are you talking about?" Bruce clearly had no idea what Tony was referring to.
"Follow me." Tony commanded.
He lead Bruce out of the lab and down the hall to, of all places, the bathroom.
It was deserted inside. Tony gently placed his hands on Bruce's shoulders, and steered him to the mirror. They stood before it, Tony behind Bruce, his hands still resting on Bruce's shoulders.
As they stared at each other's reflections, Tony spoke. "You're a beautiful man Dr. Banner. Do you know that?"
And then it happened. Bruce blushed. But not the typical wash of rose. Bruce's blush was the softest shade of green. Akin to the pistachio flavored custard that Tony loved as a child, and hadn't had in years.
Tony thought it was exquisite.
Until this very moment, Bruce had not known that he could do this.
Tony responded to Bruce's astonished gaze with a warm smile. "When it happened on the bridge, I thought I'd made you mad. But now, I don't think that's the case at all."
There would be a few instances when Bruce's blush was caused by someone other than him, but Tony chose to ignore those anomalies. To this day, he insists that Bruce blushes green only for him.