Clint ragged on them for days, about the whole hugging thing. The little shit had managed to take a video of it, Tony had no idea how, because the radios were audio only, and if Clint had had a phone stashed on him during the battle, it should have been in teeny-tiny plastic pieces by the end of it (despite his own delusions to the contrary, Clint could not actually fly, and even if he hadn't quite gone over the edge of the roof, he'd scraped himself along a good few feet of rooftop before arresting himself). Unless he'd robbed Coulson's phone, and in that case Tony was surprised he'd still had hands to press the record button, so.
Nevertheless, he'd gotten it somehow, and while no-one outside the Avengers had seen it (they defended their own zealously, and JARVIS had an in on the SHIELD servers besides), the others had been fairly merciless about it. Well. Not Steve, because Steve didn't believe in that sort of thing, even if Tony did catch him smiling softly at it, that once, because the Cap was actually an utter sap. But Clint, Natasha, Thor? All over that shit. And Coulson. Oh, not in a way you could pin down. Not in a way you could challenge him on. But Coulson just looked at Tony, sometimes, like Tony had deserved it, like it had been so very amusing. Nobody believed him, when he mentioned this, because Coulson had a poker face like you wouldn't believe, and this bland little 'who me' eyebrow thing, but Tony knew, oh yes, he did.
And it was mostly Tony getting the flak, he had noticed that, don't think he hadn't. Bruce, at first, hadn't had the first clue what people were talking about, only staring at them in some bewilderment until Clint took him aside, sometime yesterday, and showed him the video. He'd come out looking ... pale, and embarrassed, and had met Tony's eyes exactly once, before fleeing to hide out in his room and meditate or something until the embarrassment went away.
Tony ... had tried not to be too hurt by that. Had tried to ignore the sudden lead ball in his stomach, and settled for viciously snapping Clint's head off for some random thing before stomping off to hide in his lab, and let JARVIS politely and pointedly not mention anything for ten minutes before they got to work on ... something. He wasn't actually sure what. Probably a smaller, more durable phone, something that would stand up to getting dragged along a rooftop and blasted by a supervillain, maybe. Because, yeah, they could probably use something like that, and SHIELD would probably buy them up, too, and maybe the intelligence forces, if he could rig it for a stealth mode, maybe throw in a few extras like homing beacons and a small taser ...
And that was fine, that was peachy, up until JARVIS gently informed him that Bruce was asking to be let into the lab. And then, equally gently, asked if Tony would prefer if JARVIS told Bruce to bugger off, because JARVIS was the best AI ever, even if he was a tiny bit overprotective sometimes, and had gotten really weird about letting people near Tony ever since ... well, since Obie, and being forced to watch helplessly while Tony, um, mostly died in front of him. JARVIS ... apparently hadn't taken that at all well, and had forcibly uploaded himself onto every communication network Tony had, and hacked every electronic doorlock Tony went near that would allow it, and could be really vicious about not letting people near him sometimes. Which ... hadn't been in his initial programming, and was possibly something Tony shouldn't allow, but ... Well. JARVIS. If he couldn't trust JARVIS, there was literally no-one in the world he could trust.
But, yeah, not the point right now. Got it. He paused, for a moment, considering holding off facing Bruce until later, but ... Yeah. No. Better to get it over with, maybe. It wasn't like it was Tony's fault. Maybe it was a bit weird to wake up and realise your alter ego had been randomly cuddling people in your absence, but, again, totally not Tony's fault, seriously.
Fuck it anyway. He told JARVIS to let Bruce in, and then studiously pretended to be busy stress-testing the joints on the prototype phone casing. With a machine press. (Hey, this thing might have to stand up to the Hulk. Or Cap. Or Thor. It made sense, okay?)
Bruce let himself in, quietly, and closed the door behind him. Engaging full privacy locks, in the process, and Tony did wonder if he should be worried at that. And then stood for a minute, watching Tony jerkily attempt to crush multiple tiny bits of metal-and-plastic and studiously avoid looking at him. Then ...
"I'm sorry," Bruce said, very quietly. And Tony, who'd been expecting something more along the lines of a lecture on taking liberties with the man when his higher functions weren't engaged (though, seriously, giant green rage monster, it's not like the Hulk couldn't and wouldn't have smushed him to pulp if he'd actually tried something the guy didn't want, it was just a hug, for crying out loud), just kind of ... froze, and blinked into nothing a bit.
"What?" he asked. Maybe more snappishly than he'd intended, but he hadn't quite managed to switch tracks yet. He registered Bruce's faint flinch out of the corner of his eye anyway, and turned to look properly at the man.
Bruce looked back. Steadily, despite the shame in his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said again. Calm and steady. And Tony ... hadn't a clue, really.
"Huh?" Not the most intelligent response, but some context here would be really nice, thanks. This was not how he'd expected this to go. "Um. What for, exactly?"
Now it was Bruce's turn to blink at him. Frowning for a second like he maybe thought Tony was trying to make him say it, draw it out, like that, which ... okay, not going to lie, if Tony'd had the first clue what this was about, and also thought he deserved an apology, would, yeah, totally be something he would do. But he didn't. At all. So.
"For ..." Bruce made a frustrated gesture, waving between them, like Tony should know something, figure it out. "What Clint said. 'Scooping Stark up and using him for a teddy bear?'"
"... Clint said that?" Yeah, not what he should be focusing on, here, Tony got that, but still. Teddy bear? Okay, yeah. Totally not regretting randomly snapping the man's head off, now.
Bruce glared at him. Tony would be mildly concerned for his heart rate, except that Bruce was way too controlled for that, and besides. The Hulk would nearly be a relief, at this stage.
"I'm sorry for hugging you," he snapped, a quick flash of temper, and then winced, shame flooding back. "I mean ... I'm sorry for. For the Hulk. For ... for using you."
Tony ... stared at him, nonplussed. Belatedly, after a minute, realising that, rather than wanting Tony to apologise to him for taking liberties, Bruce was trying to apologise to Tony for ... well, taking liberties. With Tony. Like that was a thing you had to apologise for. Huh? Bruce had met him, right?
"No," he said, a bit blankly. "Yeah, no. No worries." A pause, to blink. "Using me? What?" And then, a vague suspicion, an idea. "Has Cap been talking to you about workplace harassment, or something? Or Clint? Because, trust me, they don't mean me, you can totally ignore that shit ..."
He trailed off, because Bruce was frowning at him in earnest, now. Again, with some temper, a slow burn of anger, but it didn't seem to be pointed at Tony, so ... all good? Something?
"No," Bruce said, slowly. "No-one's been talking to me." A pause. "I'm not concerned about being reprimanded for workplace harassment. I'm worried that I ... did something that you didn't want. That I hurt you."
"... with a hug?" Tony asked, somewhat incredulously. And yeah, not the right answer, wow, he was pissing Bruce off, he got that, but seriously. What?
"With the Hulk," Bruce hissed, actually stalking forward a little bit before he got himself under control. Before ruthlessly forcing temper away, letting calm settle on him like a wave. Tony watched, in some fascination.
"Did anyone ever actually explain the concept of unwanted contact to you?" Bruce asked him, eventually, when he'd settled himself. Resisting the urge to rub his temples, by the looks of things. Tony saw that look a lot. Him and Clint had sort of a competition on who could make Coulson look like that most often before he snapped and murdered them.
"Yup," Tony answered, relaxing a little, and leaning back against the press. And they had. A lot. Pepper, shortly after she'd come to work for him. And again, after they'd started dating, and she was trying to explain what was appropriate when. And again, when he'd started working for SHIELD, because she apparently felt he needed to know that poking the nice, paranoid people with guns wouldn't end well for him.
It occurred to him that Pepper really didn't trust him around people. He wasn't completely sure why, when he didn't actually randomly touch people all that much. Sleep with them, sure, but he asked for that first, and never since Pepper, anyway. Touching them, not so much.
Except Bruce, now that he thought about it. But that was because, you know, Hulk. It was like a big, green, glowy, pushable button, and Tony'd never been able to resist a big glowy button in his life.
"Not other people," Bruce shook his head, now looking mildly exasperated. "You. People touching you when you don't want them to."
Tony blinked at him. "No-o," he said, slowly. "Why would they need to?" People didn't actually touch him all that much, either. Not unless they were either trying to sleep with him or kill him. Or they were a reporter. Or Cap, trying to get him to do some training. Or Natasha, trying to stab him in the neck, no, he was not letting that go, why do you ask? Or ... Pepper, sometimes, but he liked that, he wanted that, those were sometimes the best moments of his day, when she fixed his tie, or touched his arm, or maybe, sometimes, kissed his cheek (not his mouth, not in public, there were apparently rules about this sort of thing, but still). Tony liked being touched, when it wasn't ... you know, aiming to hurt him, or kill him, or one of those empty, hollow things where there were hands all over him, but nothing in the person's eyes when they looked at him, nothing for him.
Okay. So maybe he knew what Bruce meant. But, yeah, no. No-one had ever explained that to him. He was Tony Stark. Why would he need it?
Bruce ... was looking at him oddly again. Like Tony was suddenly something horribly frail and delicate, and that pissed Tony off, so much, you have no idea, and then the shame came back, the weird flinching thing in Bruce's eyes, and no, no way, do not do that. Stop that right now.
"I'm sorry," Bruce said again. "I shouldn't have ... the Hulk shouldn't have ..."
"Shouldn't have what?" Tony cut him off, with a sudden snap, jerking upright again. "Look, I get it, it's not fun to wake up and find yourself snuggling some random someone ..." Okay, yeah. He did get that. "But you shouldn't just assume that just because you were big and green at the time ..."
... And there was no way to finish that sentance without embarrassing himself, was there? Nope. None at all. But Bruce was looking at him, and there was this expression of dawning comprehension, and fuck, okay, so maybe he wouldn't have to finish it, and now he'd get the 'taking advantage' lecture, or possibly a crap-tonne of really unwanted pity, and ...
"You ... didn't mind," Bruce said, wonderingly. Staring at Tony like Tony'd grown another head sometime in the past two seconds. "You didn't mind."
Tony twitched, abruptly trying to look anywhere, anywhere at all, that wasn't at Bruce. But, okay, he'd already embarrassed himself thoroughly, so might as well ...
"It was ... nice," he agreed, gruffly. "The Hulk gives ... a really awesome hug, you know that? Just ... It was safe, okay? It was like ... the safest place in the world ..."
And yeah, that made him sound about three years old, but ... But he looked up, and looked at Bruce, and Bruce ... looked a bit like someone had punched him. Bewildered, and breathless, like someone had winded him, and he was staring at Tony with ... something Tony couldn't fathom at all, in his eyes.
"Safe," Bruce said. Distantly. Suddenly a little pale and shaky looking, and Tony found himself moving forward a little, concerned, but Bruce shook his head. Looking at him, with something that half wanted to be a smile, and half wanted to be ... shock, or disbelief, or suspicion, or something, Tony wasn't sure. "You ... felt safe?"
"Um." Tony wasn't sure what was happening. "Yes?"
Bruce ... shook himself. Or tried to, tried to make with the amused, skeptical face, but ... Yeah. Not quite working. "You, ah. You realise ... There has been maybe one other person, in the world, who would ... feel safe, when I'm ..."
Big, green and angry. Ah. Right. "Yeah, but most other people who meet the Hulk spend most of their time screaming and/or shooting at you," Tony pointed out, reasonably enough. "I wouldn't be all that inclined to make them feel safe either." Then, because he was curious, he had to ask. "Though ... one other?"
Bruce, still a bit dazed looking, blinked a bit. "Oh. Um." He flushed. A little. Adorably. "Betty," he confided, slowly. "My, ah ... Betty." He smiled, real and wistful and distant, and Tony ... That was fascinating, and ... and adorable, and, oh, Bruce needed to talk about this person more often. He looked ... soft. Huh.
"Betty's your Pepper?" he asked. Once upon a time, he'd have asked if Betty was his girlfriend, or something less polite again, but since Pepper ... She was sort of his benchmark. Girlfriend wasn't the right word. Not if you had a Pepper.
Bruce blinked at him. Took a second to parse that, consider it. Then ... then Bruce smiled. Softly. "Yes," he said.
Just that. Yes. Because, yeah, okay. Betty was his Pepper. Tony grinned at him, a little bit. That was ... good. That was good. Everyone should have a Pepper. Someone who ... when they touched you, had something in their eyes that was actually for you.
"That was why I ..." Bruce said, suddenly, looking back at him. Stopping, grasping for words. Tony blinked a bit. "When I ... You were there. When I ... came back. You were ... right there. With me. And you ..." He curled his arm, a helpless hugging motion. "The last time ... The only time. It was Betty. And it was like ..." He flinched, a little bit, hunched away. "It was good. And then Clint showed me the ... the video, and I thought, maybe you'd only done it because ... Because I made you, or you were afraid, or didn't want to upset me, and ..."
And he'd felt a sinking feeling in his gut, and a rush of shame, and an anger he hadn't known what to do with, and had stormed off to hide and invent cellphones. Well. Not that last part. But.
"Nah," Tony said, and it was gentle, he knew how to do gentle, fuck you, he did. Just. Not everyone was worth it, was all. This, though. This was Bruce. "That was all me, baby."
Bruce smiled. Not his faint little one, the half-hidden one, like he wasn't sure smiling was something he was allowed to do. A real one. Bruce smiled, at Tony.
"Betty was never afraid of me," he said, quietly. "Well. Some. But she never ... She never flinched. She was ... the bravest thing I've ever seen. And she ... She touched me. Sat with me. Was there when I came back. And ..."
He paused, and looked up with a faint, lopsided smile, the kind of smile Tony knew, the little twisted thing he felt on his own mouth, sometimes, when ... Yeah.
"People don't touch me," Bruce continued, very quietly. "When they know. Have you noticed?"
Tony ... hadn't actually, but then, he didn't really pay attention to that sort of thing. Too many people, too little ... you know, interesting stuff. He shook his head, and Bruce smiled that twisted smile again.
"They don't," he affirmed. "Not without ... Without being ready. Braced. Just in case. Most of them just don't, and the ones that do ... You've seen Natasha, right? When she's ... balanced, like she's about to kill you six different ways if you look at her wrong?" Tony nodded. Oh yeah. Definitely knew that one. "They're like that. Willing to do it, because they're ... so brave, and they sort of trust me, but ... Never just ..."
"For you," Tony said. "Never just for you." Because, yeah, people didn't touch him much. He ... had an idea.
Bruce smiled tiredly. "Except for Betty," he said, softly. "And then ..." He looked at Tony, something soft and warm and kind of confused, and ...
Tony ... blinked. Oh. He ... actually hadn't thought that far ahead, but, okay, yeah. That would ... maybe fuck you up a little bit.
"I, ah," he floundered. He was not good at this, okay? "I didn't notice? Mean to? I mean, I wasn't trying to fuck you up, or anything. But, you know, I poked you a bit, the first couple of weeks, and you didn't kill me, and there have been normal people who tried to kill me after that, so ..."
So he'd stopped being afraid? Mostly? Or even really all that wary. If Bruce was going to snap, he'd have done it long before this. And then ... well, Tony'd met the Hulk, under less-than-favourable circumstances, and Hulk had had his back, the whole way, and after Obie, Tony didn't exactly trust people that easily, but ... Bruce wasn't like that. If Bruce was going to hurt you, he'd be upfront about it, and Tony'd never gotten that vibe, so, he'd just ... Not even really thought about it. Because Bruce let Tony touch him, and sort of smiled at him sometimes, and then the Hulk randomly snuggled him, and Tony'd just ... Until Bruce had fled earlier, Tony hadn't ever thought it would be a problem.
"I know." Bruce was still smiling at him softly. "I know. But it was nice, and ..." He waved a hand at himself, depreciating, frustrated, and suddenly, Tony got it. Suddenly it clicked.
"And nice doesn't happen to you. So you thought ..."
"Yeah." Bruce shook his head, ruefully. "You're not Betty, and I never thought that anyone else would ... Why would they? I mean, you have to work with me, yes. But you don't have to ..."
To like me. To ... be there for me. To touch me just for touching's sake. Because it never even occurs to you to be afraid, or worried, or concerned about propriety. To just ... be there.
"I didn't do it because you made me," Tony said, very slowly, watching Bruce. As serious as he could be. "It was ... It was nice, and good, and for a few minutes I was the safest person in the world, and then you changed, and I ... Well. I had to back off a bit, because believe me, you do not want to be sitting under me in full armour when you're just ... just you, but ..." But he'd wanted to protect him, and make sure no-one hurt Bruce when he was all ... suddenly small, like that, and then ... "I ... People don't touch me much either, yeah? I just ... wanted."
And when Tony Stark wanted something, he did his best to get it. Not always (or even often) successfully, not with people, but ... He tried. He always tried. And sometimes it worked. Sometimes it did.
"I told the Hulk I'd have his back," he said, suddenly. Belatedly realising that Bruce maybe didn't know that. "When you ... that night in the lab. With the nightmare. I told the Hulk I'd have his back. I. I meant it. Him. You. You know?"
Bruce smiled at him. The real one. The one Tony liked. "I know," he said, almost gently. "And Tony?" The smile darkened, a sudden menace that had nothing to do with rage and loss of control. A glimpse, maybe, of the man who'd managed to run for five years, who'd managed to control himself, ruthlessly, for so long, even with people hunting him. Not the Hulk. Bruce. Bruce fucking Banner. "Anyone who comes for you? They had better be Hulk-proof doing it. Or they will not last very long."
And there was a dark sliver of a smile, and a man of grit and courage, even without the monster under the amiable, careful skin, and Tony ... blinked, at him. A bit. And then ...
Then he moved forward, light, on the balls of his feet, with a fierce kind of grin as he grabbed Bruce's shoulders, and Bruce caught his arms under the elbows, and they just ... grinned at each other, for a bit. Just held on, for a minute. Before life happened, before Tony backed off and made noises about cellphones and JARVIS and inventing, and Bruce let him go with that faint smile of his and nodded seriously at him. Before that. Just ... just for a moment. Just for touching's sake.
And maybe that would have been that, maybe the conversation would have been just about ... Reassurance, and promises, and maybe nothing more, but ...
But Tony had a mind that niggled at things, and remembered things, and ...
And he wondered, later. About the one other person in the world who apparently didn't balk at the Hulk. About the woman who was Bruce's Pepper. About why ... he hadn't seen her, and Bruce looked distant when he talked to her, like she wasn't here, and about ...
About whether or not someone was keeping her away from Bruce. Possibly even Bruce himself. About whether or not Tony should maybe fix that. Because if you had a Pepper? The last thing you did was let anyone take them away from you.
And Tony'd promised to have Bruce's back. All the way, baby. All the way.