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Progress Underlaid by Shared Hopes

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Tony had never been one to care overmuch about the spaces in homes that other people considered of value. He knew that most people did value them. He wasn't unaware that things like kitchens and dens and family rooms and whatever the hell else were considered the main event, home-wise, and what people put their energy into when it came to turning buildings into places they felt were theirs.

But Tony wasn't most people. The things that he cared about in any building he stayed in were, in order, 1) his workshop, in whatever lab or garage or both that he claimed for that purpose, because making stuff was pretty much his life; 2) his bedroom, because most, though not all, of the sex he had happened there and by god he wanted to be comfortable when he was having it; and 3) his bar, because that was were the alcohol lived.

So those were the spaces that Tony devoted his energy to, when he took over a new place. Everything else he didn't care about, so he paid people good money to deal with that hassle for him so long as they followed the directive to keep it clean and simple and not annoying with tons of angles or knick-knacks or bright color schemes or whatever. Yes, keep the place stark in decorating style, ha ha, he'd never heard that joke ever before, now shut up and make it happen, okay?

All of which was to say that when Tony flew past the Tower after he and the team, minus Thor, had done their thing to vanquish some wannabe bad guys who thought that a still smoldering Manhattan would be an easy takeover, he could not help but notice that his formerly sparse living room had a very large and distinctly green colored focal point which had not been there before.

"Talk to me, JARVIS," Tony said. He pulled up so that he could hover a short distance away from his living room windows. Inside the helmet, the battle interface flicked away and was replaced by all the information the suit was pulling in using its various scanners.

"It would appear that you have a visitor, sir," JARVIS said, with a tone that indicated that the AI was having far too much fun with the chance to make what could only be called a phenomenal understatement.

"I can see that," Tony replied. He broadened the suit's search to pull in data from the rest of the tower. "Is he the only one?"

"Correct," JARVIS said. "No other unknown life forms are in the building. I can detect no threats to you or the immediate area."

"Huh." Tony watched as the HUD showed him a rendering of the Hulk who was, to all appearances, simply standing in Tony's living room. "Wonder why he decided to stop by?"

"Perhaps he wished to join you for a cup of tea, sir."

Tony would've replied except Steve's voice broke in over the comm. "Report. Who's got eyes on Banner?"

Natasha's voice came next. "I lost him after he took out the group on 45th."

"I've got him," Tony said. "He's at my place."

A voice which sounded suspiciously like Clint's muttered "There's a surprise." at the same time Steve asked, "Everything okay?"

"Oh yeah," Tony said, airily, as though there wasn't an enormous green rage monster currently staring at him from inside of his apartment. Which was, of course, exactly what Steve had been asking about in his own Steve-like way. But confirming Hulk meant that the whole team would be headed over and that was just not going to be happening if Tony had any say in the matter. "You know Bruce: a shirt, some shoes, he'll be back in service."

"You sure you don't need any help?" Steve asked.

"Pretty sure I can handle getting one of my teammates dressed, Cap," Tony said. He wondered if the fact that he was lying to Steve meant he lacked the moral high ground to roll his eyes in response to Steve's question. Then Tony decided he didn't care and rolled his eyes anyway. "It's like getting them naked but in reverse, right? Besides, I'm grabbing a well-earned shower and trust me when I say none of you get to help me with that. Not even you, Barton, I don't care how much you flirt with me."

"Stark, it's amazing the things you say to me when you have no idea if I've got an armor-busting arrow pointed at your ass," Clint replied.

"If you're looking that close you can tell me how many fingers I'm holding up," Tony told him, though he didn't bother with actually trying to flip Clint off. Clint had to be bluffing, otherwise he would know Tony was looking right at the Hulk and they'd all be having a completely different conversation. "All right, I'm out. You kids have fun. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

"What exactly does that rule out?" Natasha asked.

"Sobriety?" Clint suggested.

Tony turned off the comm before he could hear whatever else they came up with. They weren't talking to him anymore and that was what mattered. Between their need for some downtime and the usual post-event cleanup courtesy of SHIELD, Tony figured he had until at least the next day before Coulson or Fury forced someone to pull the short straw and drag him and Bruce into a debriefing. Plenty of time to spend with his big, green visitor.

"JARVIS, hold my - " Tony pondered all of the potential calls and appointments that could try vying for his attention in the immediate future " - everything. Lock the place down. Even you go on mute once I get in there. I'm thinking this is a bad time for anything that might qualify as an interruption."

"Indeed, sir," JARVIS said. "Though may I suggest leaving the balcony doors open? Should your guest wish to leave, he may prefer using the same method that he used to enter."

Which explained the lack of broken glass all over the place. "Yeah, do that," Tony said.

"Not that I imagine you of all people could possibly do something which might antagonize your guest into leaving, sir," JARVIS added.

"What did I say about you going on mute?" Tony asked.

"You said to do it after you entered the apartment, sir."

"Sure, now you listen to me." Tony didn't wait for JARVIS to reply before he flew over to his landing pad. Hulk watched him from inside, which was enough to make Tony pause before the suit could make full contact. Even Tony could recognize that anything that might startle the big guy would probably be a bad idea. He turned on the external speakers. "Hey, jolly green. Just a heads-up that I'm taking the suit off. Don't panic or anything. I promise you I'm dressed underneath here."

"Sir," JARVIS said, through the internal speakers only. "Are you certain removing the suit is a wise idea?"

All of my ideas are brilliant," Tony replied. He landed and walked the easy pace that allowed the suit to be taken off of him piece by piece. In the back of his mind Tony noted, with no small amount of satisfaction, how the process still flowed smoothly even after all the post-Chitauri repairs.

But this he filed away for future study. Now his attention was entirely on the Hulk who was looking at Tony with - huh, Tony'd swear it was irritation. Which on the one hand: irritated Hulk. But on the other if you were a being made up of rage maybe irritated was you having a good day.

"Don't get me wrong," Tony said as he made his way inside. "I've tried going commando under the suit. But the chafing is something you would not believe so no real need to repeat that test, huh?"

Hulk kept staring. He'd placed himself in the middle of the sunken living room, which meant Tony got to be closer to eye level than he usually would when standing near someone nine feet tall. Tony had no idea what the Hulk was staring for, so he decided to keep acting like everything was normal.

"Wanna drink?" Tony asked. He went over to the bar. The scotch was tempting, but Tony wanted a clear head for this particular meeting. He grabbed a cold soda instead. "Soda? Or - hey, Bruce takes decaf because of you. Do you want coffee? I could have JARVIS brew you up a pot of the best fully-leaded that I've got. Maybe twelve pots, considering your stomach size."

"Tin Man," Hulk said, and holy shit was that not Bruce's voice. Like at all. Sure Tony had watched the footage and heard the big guy give off a roar or ten during the heat of battle but hearing words in person was not the same. And this - this was more than increased lung capacity and overall body changes could account for. Tony was glad that JARVIS was recording the crap out of everything because Tony was going to analyze the hell out of the audio later.

"Or Tony, if you want," Tony told him. He came out from behind the bar and stood at the top of the steps into the living room. Having fewer barriers between him and the Hulk felt like the right thing to do, even as he was certain JARVIS would insist this was another example of something that wasn't the smart thing to do. Tony gave a shrug. "Whatever you want. Not like I can fault someone on a judicious use of nicknames. What about you? What do you want me to call you?"

"Hulk," Hulk replied, looking at Tony like he wasn't certain if perhaps Tony wasn't quite as smart as he'd been advertised.

"Hey, I'm just checking that you like that," Tony told him. "Maybe you've considered other options since the last time we met. How about nicknames? Anything you want me to avoid?"

There was a long pause filled with enormous green eyes trying to, if Tony's guess was right, determine just how sincere Tony's question had been. Tony got the how-full-of-shit-are-you look often enough to recognize it even when it was being leveled at him by gamma gone wild. Finally Hulk said, "Not Banner."

And wow was that a story to be delved into. Because Hulk said Banner in the way that, if it was anyone but Bruce, would've had Tony recommending that he move to anywhere that Hulk couldn't get to, even if that meant figuring out how to grab dual citizenship over in Asgard.

"No, I can see that," Tony said. He gestured towards Hulk's face. "I mean there's a little resemblance in the cheekbones but that's about it. You are definitely not Banner."

Hulk's mouth curved in a half-smile. He nodded as though agreeing with Tony. "Hulk not Banner. Banner puny."

"Well, yes. But let's be fair, so's Thor in comparison to you. We need to grade on a curve here." Hulk's smile started to vanish, so Tony pressed on. "Don't pout about it. You knew I liked Bruce before you met me. If we're gonna hang you'll need to cope with the fact that I'll defend him. Just as he has to deal with how I defend you."

The how-full-of-it look was back.

"You do know that, don't you?" Tony asked. He took a step closer, trying to close some of the distance while keeping the eye-level height. "How much do you get from him? He says he just gets flashes of you, and even then it's not much. And can you stand up straight for a second? I wanna check you for damage."

This earned Tony a snarl. "Hulk not puny!"

"Yeah, yeah." Tony waved that off. "I know you're nigh-invulnerable or whatever but I'd rather not find out we assumed wrong on that count after you bled to death while I was talking to you. Humor my paranoia and let me look. And don't think I've forgotten my question about you and Bruce, by the way."

Hulk pushed back off of his knuckles to show Tony his full height. Hulk actually heaved a sigh of long-suffering which Tony assumed was being aimed towards him until Hulk said, "Banner talks."

And that, that right there was the same whine/sigh used the world over to indicate someone being a complete and total buzzkill. Tony would know, he'd used it himself often enough. "Let me guess, he tells Hulk not to smash?"

Hulk thudded back down onto his knuckles. He grumbled in something like agreement. "Now Tin Man's turn."

"What? No way." Tony swigged some of his soda. "Smash all you like. If you break something I need I'll get it fixed, if you break one of the bad guys I'll cheer you on, and if you somehow find a way to break Fury's coat I will not only cheer but possibly figure out a way to make out with you as well."

"Not smash." Hulk came forward and poked Tony's chest with a single finger. It was a surprisingly light touch, all things considered. "Tin Man let Hulk see."

"See…" Tony started to ask, and then he got it. He put his soda back onto the bar then lifted both of his shirts high enough to show the arc reactor. "You mean this? It's fine. Shiny as ever. Tin Man is perfectly okay, or as okay as Tin Man ever is."

Hulk leaned in close enough that Tony could feel the warm whuff of each exhaled breath. Finally Hulk seemed satisfied that the arc reactor wasn't going to go dark anytime soon and he leaned back. "Tin Man should stay in suit."

"Tin Man cannot stay in suit all the time because Tin Man is not as fond of going to the bathroom in suit as he might have previously indicated to several party-goers," Tony said. He pulled his shirts back down. "But I appreciate the sentiment, big guy."

"Tin Man fight with Hulk," Hulk said.

"Tin Man is not pissed at Hulk so not much need for fighting," Tony replied. Then he caught Hulk's expression which wasn't pissed so much as - worried? Could Hulk do that? Where in the scale of zero to rage did worry fall, exactly? "Wait, back this up. What kind of fighting are we talking about?"

Okay, now Hulk was definitely looking at Tony like he was the stupidest person Hulk had met in his few years of life. Hulk pointed a large green hand towards the window. "TIN MAN FIGHT WITH HULK!"

"Ow!" Tony rubbed his ears. "Standing right here, dial it down from 11, okay? I'm not deaf. I just wasn't following you. You mean this afternoon? With the bad guys?"

Hulk's reply was a stare and a quirk of giant eyebrows that silently but obviously said duh.

"Wow. Huh. Okay." Tony folded his arms as he tried to process this information. He thought back over the past few hours and yep, Hulk was right. At no time had the two of them fought near each other. Heck, Tony hadn't even been there when Bruce had turned. This was the first time Hulk had laid eyes on him since he'd shown up today, and the meeting had been Hulk's idea. Which meant… "So wait, this is you checking up on me? Are you checking up on me? Because that's kind of cool. Also it means I've got like eleven thousand 'I told you so's that I could be saying to some key people, Bruce included if we're being frank here."

"Tin Man fight with Hulk," Hulk said again, though this time not as ticked off as before.

Tony didn't know if the repetition was because he hadn't really given Hulk an answer yet, or if it was because Hulk had decided that Tony needed to be told to do something multiple times in order to get him to actually do it."All right. Here's the thing: I'd say yes, except it can't happen. Not all the time. We've gotta fight where we're most needed, and sometimes that means you and I can't be side by side."

Hulk gave a low, disapproving growl that rattled through the floor and the walls. Tony entertained a brief fantasy of what it would be like if he could get Hulk to growl like that in the middle of a board meeting, which would guarantee the meeting would end early plus would result in the board members making hilarious faces as they scrambled for cover, but Tony knew that wasn't the thing he needed to focus on right now.

"I know, not the answer you were looking for," Tony said. He held up a hand to ask for patience. "Hear me out. We can't always fight together but how about we promise to check in with each other when the dust clears? Hulk sees that Tin Man is okay, Tin Man sees that Hulk is okay, everybody's happy."

"Hulk always okay," Hulk told him. He squared his shoulders as though somehow Tony had forgotten how strong and huge he was. "Hulk not hurt, Hulk smash."

"Yes, but maybe Tin Man doesn't like seeing a few hundred tanks or alien jet skis shooting at Hulk without making sure Hulk's all right," Tony said. Then, because Tony both liked pressing his luck and also grabbing an advantage when he saw one, he added, "Maybe Tin Man would like it if Hulk checked in with him, even if normally Hulk might run off to get away from, say, puny army guys. Just for example."

Hulk snorted with disgust. "Hulk not run. Banner runs."

Tony would've pointed out that previous footage would indicate that it was sure as hell Hulk's body crossing state lines in a single bound, but he suspected this was what Hulk meant about Bruce talking to him and getting in the way of his fun. This was also why Tony was glad that what passed for his own conscience didn't mind playing dirty pool. "I know he does, which is why I'm asking Hulk not to. Even if Banner says to run, I'd like you to stay here. Think you can do that for me, big guy? Because I like having both of you around, and if he goes you do too."

"Tin Man likes Hulk?" Hulk asked. He looked… well shit, like he wasn't entirely sure Tony wasn't lying to him. Like Tony, puny as he was, had the power to jerk the rug out from under him and actually hurt him by saying he didn't care.

Which was all kinds of fucked up, not the least of which was how bad was someone's life when Tony Stark was the guy you hoped wouldn't find a way to disappoint you. But that just made Tony feel pissed off on Hulk's behalf, because not only did he think Hulk deserved better than that but he realized he might be the only person who thought Hulk deserved better than that. Which was even sadder still.

"Tin Man very much likes Hulk," Tony told him. "Which is why Tin Man promises to check in with Hulk after fighting."

Hulk nodded, as though he found Tony's words acceptable, or at the very least believable. "Hulk likes Tin Man. Hulk won't run."

Tony felt a rush of relief that would've chalked up to knowing he now had an ally in keeping Bruce near, except, well, Hulk liked Tin Man. That was actually pretty cool too. "Good. Great. It's a deal. Let's shake on it."

Hulk looked at Tony's outstretched hand in puzzlement, then slowly and carefully held out his own. A full on handshake was just not happening without Tony breaking something, so instead Tony held on to as much of Hulk's fingers - okay, finger, he could manage a finger - as he could grasp.

It turned out not to be much of a worry, though. Because whatever happened when their hands made contact turned out to be whatever was needed to flip the off switch on Hulk being in charge. Green skin turned pink, green eyes turned brown, and everything shrunk down into the form of Bruce curled up on the floor.

Which made Tony glad he'd opted for the shag carpet since hey: if Bruce was going to end up passed out on it often enough, he might as well be comfortable.

"C'mon, stud," Tony said. He bent down to get an arm under Bruce's and lift him up. Bruce wasn't always completely wrecked after a transformation, but clearly this one had done a number on him. "Let's get you to bed. Though if you wanted to sleep with me again you could've just said so. I don't need the pretense."

"Won't be much fun right now," Bruce mumbled. He was nearly asleep already, though he was able to follow as Tony half carried, half guided him to the bedroom.

"Yeah but you're cute so I can at least enjoy the view," Tony told him.

Bruce's reply was a soft chuckle, which Tony decided to take as a win.