At first, Bruce thinks it’s callousness. Disregard. Scorn. All things he’s familiar with, all things he expects from Tony Stark, the world’s richest asshole.
He watches the man from the moment he sets foot on the bridge of Fury’s insane ship (which he can’t wait to get his hands on, to be honest), and all he finds is arrogance. Brilliance, yes, but so much arrogance.
Still Bruce can’t help but be reluctantly charmed by the fact that Tony keeps up with him, is faster than him in working out what Loki is going to do.
Right up until, “I am a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into a giant green rage monster.”
That sort of puts a dampener on it, even if Tony does shake his hand while he says it, which is strange. Usually people stay a safe distance away when they’re about to say something Bruce might not like. (Well, what they think is a safe distance anyway.)
But Tony is right there, shaking his hand and throwing it in his face. Arrogance. Disregard for... everything, really, except genius.
That’s why Bruce assumes the nicknames are more of the same, casual callousness and a total disregard for propriety and tact. Another way to poke the bear.
(Assuming the bear is ten feet tall and can topple a building on your head if you sneeze at him.)
Jolly Green. Green. Giant. Big Guy. Frog. Kermit. Green Bean. Angry.
And Bruce’s all time favourite: Shrek.
He expects Tony to run out of names eventually, but he never does. In the twelve hours of so they spend on the helicarrier together, he counts no less than eighteen insulting nicknames, all of which fall off Tony’s tongue as casually and naturally as ‘honey’ and ‘darling’ do for other people.
Bruce focuses on that, on the numbers, on the origins of the words and exactly how they are rude, not on the insults they carry. If he pays attention to that, to Tony’s casual brilliance even in insulting people, he doesn’t have to get angry.
Later, he realizes that’s not what’s going on at all.
Tony pokes him with sticks (big sticks) but he doesn’t do it to be mean.
He tests Bruce, the way he tests his own suits, the way he tests everyone. He drags his feet with Pepper, he gives Fury and Steve lip, he flirts with Natasha and, surprisingly (or not), with Clint. He stays away from Thor, but only because even Tony Stark isn’t that brave. And anyway, Thor just sort of... happens, whether you want him there or not. Tony makes a lot of ‘act of god’ jokes. He is not wrong.
He pushes people as easily as he breathes and Bruce figures that out sometime during the second week he spends holed up in Stark Tower, intending to leave soon, really, soon, tomorrow, in fact, definitely tomorrow.
Tony tests everyone because Tony needs to know where people’s boundaries lie. He needs to know where he’s safe, Bruce thinks, and it’s been a long time since he pitied anyone but himself, but he pities Tony when it finally clicks.
Tony is using scientific methods to determine how far he can trust people.
And Bruce wants to hug him, sort of, because, good lord, a forty-year-old billionaire should not be this fragile, this helpless in the face of social interaction. But he is. Tony is terrified of trusting the wrong person.
So he pushes them all until something breaks and then pulls away, safe in the knowledge that he was right not to trust in the first place.
The pokes are part of that. And, Bruce figures, so are the insults, the nicknames.
Except... that’s still not quite right.
Long after he’s stopped prodding at everyone on the team (none of which murdered him and gave him an excuse to hide away, except Natasha, who got close a time or two), Tony still keeps coming up with new, ever more inventive names.
Forest. (as in forest green, not Forest Gump, Tony hastens to assure under Steve’s ferocious glower). Flubber, which, seriously? Smash-a-lot. Green Machine. Fiona.
It grows more and more ridiculous and Steve is developing something of a twitch because of it. Especially because Tony keeps using the names on comms.
(The truly ridiculous part is that Bruce reacts to each and every single one of those nicknames like they’re his given name.)
And still they keep coming.
The only one who laughs at most of the names (the ones he gets the references to, at least), is Thor. But then, no-one’s bothered to explain sensitivity to the god. Ever. Bruce mostly excludes him when he’s making observations about the team because, well. God. Also, Thor doesn’t take criticism very well. The only one who’s worse at that is Loki and that says way too much about both of them. And possibly Odin’s parenting.
But. Tony. The names. Bruce finally, finally figures it out when Pepper decides it would be a great idea to have the Avengers attend one of the Stark charity balls. For publicity.
Every Avengers gets a gold-embossed, absolutely ostentatious invitation, hand-signed by Tony himself. Bruce gets two.
He’s about to point out that there’s a mistake when he sees they’re addressed differently.
Dr. Bruce Banner
And The Hulk
The Big Guy gets his own invitation. Bruce is still blinking at the two cards stupidly while Tony is rambling on and on about black-tie and cocktails in the background when the penny finally drops.
Green. Jolly Giant. Shrek. Double-Oh Green.
All of those names refer to the Hulk. And they refer to Bruce. Tony is... Tony is acknowledging the Hulk, even when he’s hidden away inside Bruce.
It’s embarrassing that it takes Bruce so long to figure out. In his defence, no-one before has ever done that, just looked at him and seen both, him and the Hulk, as equals. Those who saw the Hulk at all called him monster.
But not Tony, never Tony, because Tony is brilliant and arrogant but he also has the biggest heart Bruce has ever seen, even if he tries to hide it, and for the past three months, he’s been telling Bruce, with every stupid nickname, that he’s okay, that he’s fine, that Tony gets it and doesn’t judge.
Bruce remembers that moment, on the helicarrier, when Tony tapped the metallic thing under his shirt and said he understood. Bruce didn’t believe him.
He should have.
He really should have.
“So,” the man in question interrupts Bruce’s epiphany, “what about you?”
He looks around, finds everyone looking at him. Waiting, he realizes, for an answer. Well, except Thor, who seems fascinated by the gold print and is trying to lick it to see if it’s real gold or not.
Bruce considers. Out of all of them, he is the weariest of publicity and crowds. The ball will undoubtedly have plenty of both.
But Tony’s been quietly and patiently supporting him for the past months, so Bruce figures he owes the other man one.
“We’re in,” he says with a nod and he knows that none of the others caught the plural pronoun, but Tony definitely did, if the way his grin ratchets up to five thousand watts is any indication.
“Great,” he breathes, clapping Bruce on the back.
Yeah, Bruce thinks. Sort of.
The names don’t stop, of course, just because Bruce figured out the message behind them. In fact, they get more ridiculous than ever.
Tony works his way up to, “Green Bean Love Machine,” one day during a team meeting, which has Coulson’s lips twitching (whether in laughter or in disapproval Bruce just cannot tell), Clint practically rolling on the floor and Steve looking like he’s about to deliver a lecture.
Bruce smiles at him, sort of, hoping to derail him. It works a little bit. Steve only frowns at Tony briefly, telling him to, “Stop antagonizing Bruce, please.”
Tony nods, smiling like the saint he absolutely isn’t, and goes back to his colourful report.
The thing is, it happens all the time.
Whenever someone acts normal around Bruce – bumping shoulders with him, back slapping him, even surprising him, or saying something he might disagree with, either Steve or Coulson or even Natasha are there to tell them off.
Tony catches the brunt of it, which surprises no-one, but Clint gets his fair share of the blame.
(Thor would, because he’s sort of like a giant, fluffy golden retriever that doesn’t know his own strength, but no-one actually dares tell him anything, except Fury. Tony has a betting pool on what Fury’s balls are made off. Even Coulson has money on that. )
Don’t make Bruce angry.
Don’t startle Bruce.
Don’t antagonize Bruce.
Don’t touch Bruce.
Don’t breathe on Bruce.
Don’t even think mean things about Bruce, because he might explode and kill us all.
They’re right, of course, but they have no idea how much Bruce craves these moments. Hanging with Clint and Tony, listening to them snipe at each other like sixteen-year-old girls, watching the inevitable rough and tumble their fights degenerate into, he feels normal.
One of the guys, just hanging out.
He feels like the person he once was, before his rage took over a significant part of his mental faculties and all of his life.
And then, during movie night one week, Tony leans over Clint to say, “Pass the popcorn, Mighty Mouse,” and Bruce just does. He’s even smiling because it’s a good one. Bulging muscles and all that.
He knows Tony catches the expression and he knows the name’s going to be used again.
Then, suddenly, the movie stops and Steve, remote in hand, rolls to his feet, serious expression on his face. “Honestly, Tony,” he says, sharply, “I know you think that this is all a game, but I expect the members of this team to show each other at least a basic respect. Especially Bruce. Stop insulting him, please!”
(Of course Steve still says ‘please’ when scolding people like wayward children.)
Bruce can’t help it. He cringes.
Because he knows Steve didn’t mean to, but he just insulted Bruce, too, and he knows exactly what’s going to happen now. Tony gives everyone lip all the time, especially Captain America, but never about anything he truly cares about. Never about the things that actually hurt him.
So in about five seconds, he’s going to find an excuse and then rabbit. Four, three, two...
“Look at that, we’re all out of drinks, drinks for everyone, who needs another beer?”
He shoots out of his seat, grabs a few empties on his way and practically runs into the kitchen, narrowly avoiding falling over Thor in the process, who’s sprawled on the floor between the couch and the coffee table, snoring at truly impressive decibels.
Steve moves to follow, to fix things. That’s what he does. He keeps this team running, he keeps them all from murdering each other in their sleep (mostly Natasha), driving each other up the wall (Clint and Tony) and getting the entire team banned from public establishments all over the city (also Tony. And Thor.)
But this time he’s wrong, so Bruce says, “Don’t.”
“Bruce,” Steve defends, sighing, thinking Bruce is just playing peacemaker because that’s what he usually does. The Other Guy doesn’t like screaming. “He’s not...”
“He’s not insulting me,” Bruce cuts off.
Steve is enough of a good guy, enough of a good leader, to let him finish. “He’s not insulting me. He’s just... acknowledging the Big Guy. He’s... he doesn’t pretend he’s not there and I don’t... Steve, Tony could call me Flower for all I care. It’s his way of saying he’s not afraid of me the way you guys are.”
“We’re not,” Steve starts immediately, because he probably isn’t even aware of it, of how careful he gets. Natasha, bless her heart, puts a hand on his arm. Stops him.
Bruce rolls his shoulders in a shrug. “Yes you are. You’re right to, even. But sometimes... Tony just isn’t, and it feels good, you know? To have someone who isn’t too scared of me to call me ridiculous, dorky names to my face. So just let it go, please?”
Steve subsides, sinking back down into his seat next to the Black Widow, passing her the remote. “I’m sorry,” he eventually says, looking straight at Bruce, because that’s the kind of person he is. He’s so good it makes Bruce’s teeth ache sometimes, and he knows it makes Tony’s skin crawl, because neither of them should be anywhere close to someone like that.
Bruce sighs, waves him off, because yes, Steve is sorry. But he’s also doing it again. Stopping a fight before it begins. Backing down. Anything but make Bruce angry.
There’s a beat of silence before Tony comes shuffling back into the room, a tumbler of scotch in hand and no beer in sight, rambling loudly about something absolutely unrelated and yeah, he was eavesdropping from the hallway. He almost falls over Thor again and no-one has ever accused Tony Stark of subtlety, but this is so very overboard Bruce wants to laugh. Or maybe cry.
He nudges Clint in the side, who rolls his eyes and mutters something about ‘epic bromance my ass, so gay’ and moves down the length of the couch. When Tony comes breezing past, still going a hundred miles per hour at the mouth, they both grab a wrist and tug him down between them. Bruce takes the tumbler from his hand, Clint dumps the bowl of popcorn back in his lap and that’s that.
Except Tony’s still talking.
“Shut up, Tony,” Bruce tells him with an elbow to the ribs.
“You shut up, Mighty Mouse.”
“You’re ridiculous,” Bruce intones.
“And you’re a whiny bitch,” Tony shoots back and then Clint rolls his eyes so loud it cuts out any further banter and Natasha presses play, thankfully. Thor snores on.
Tony keeps coming up with more and more ridiculous names. At one point, Dr Doom actually stops mid-speech because Tony calls the Hulk ‘Tiny’ and all the big guy does is grunt. And punt Dr. Doom into the nearest skyscraper. Whoops.
After that, he saves Tony’s life because that’s sort of become their thing.
During the next movie night, Steve dares to disagree with Bruce’s taste in bad martial arts flicks and Thor gives him a bear hug that almost breaks his spine. Natasha bumps his hip playfully in the kitchen while they’re working next to each other, because, apparently, none of the others can do more than nuke leftover Chinese to feed themselves.
Or toast Pop Tarts, in Thor’s case. Bruce is still waiting for the story behind that one.
Tony does, of course, call Bruce ‘Flower’ at one point.
In front of a choleric Fury.
And most of SHIELD’s field agents.
On national television.
All the Avengers do is dissolve into helpless giggles like a bunch of school children.