Bruce is locked in a battle of wills with a credit card.
It's been sitting on his bedside table for two days, mocking him. It's black and shiny and his name is on it, but it's not actually his. It's linked to Tony's account and Bruce knows that no matter what he tries, he will never see a statement or bill from American Express. He will never have to repay anything he pays for with a swipe of this card.
Pepper sat him down two days ago, incredibly nice Pepper who shouldn't be wasting her valuable CEO time on him, Pepper whom Tony visibly adores with the kind of wholehearted love that sort of hurts to watch. Pepper, who runs Stark Industries, a multibillion-dollar corporation.
She sat him down in the kitchen and sat next to him and said -- and this was before he understood what was going on:
"You need to understand that Tony means it when he says he's a philanthropist. He's ridiculously rich, the kind of rich where his bank statement just looks absurd," she said, hands around the cup of coffee he poured for her. "He's never loaned anyone money in his life because if he gives it to you it's a gift."
"Okay," Bruce said slowly. He'd gotten the idea; the first day of his life in Stark Tower, Tony had just flat-out given him a lab.
"So this is going to look like I'm paying you to be Tony's friend, I know that, but that isn't it at all," she said, and set the card down on the counter with a little click. "Think of it as a research grant, if that helps."
Bruce stared at the card.
"I can't..." he looked up at her. "They put me on the payroll, you know. I get a check every two weeks. More than I'm probably worth, really. And Tony won't let me pay rent. I can't accept this."
"You can, and you will," she said. "If nothing else, for lab equipment and supplies. It's actually more efficient than requisitioning it, less paperwork for the billing department. But you can use it to buy books, food, whatever you need. And you do need clothes," she added kindly. "You've been here a month and you keep washing the same three shirts."
"JARVIS told on me." It's easier to be amused than to be angry, Bruce has found. At least, it's easier on the architecture.
"JARVIS is programmed to protect the health and safety of the Tower's occupants," Pepper replied.
"I was going to. When I got my first check. The paperwork's still processing."
Pepper patted his hand. "Get yourself some nice clothes, Bruce. If you don't want to go out alone, Tony will take you, or Happy's a good guy to give opinions. If you don't want to go out, JARVIS can make sure your measurements for online ordering are exact."
And she'd gotten a text message and left, with an apologetic smile and a toss of her pretty red ponytail.
Bruce had gone from poor kid to starving college student to grubby graduate student to man-on-the-run. He's never really had the money to dress the way he'd like, the way he's seen other people dressing. There's always been a distant, gnawing envy of wealth.
Hence, the battle of wills. Because he could take that card and go out. He could buy whatever he wanted. Tony probably wouldn't even notice.
But it isn't his money.
Ironically, in the end, it's Steve who makes the decision for him. Steve shows up one evening, shield on his shoulder, a bag slung on his other arm, and after the hello-how-are-yous are done, says, "Mr. Stark said I could bunk in with you."
Bruce gives him a measured look. "If you're okay with that."
Steve's brow crinkles. "Sure. Shouldn't I be?"
"Most people are a little iffy about sharing space with me, once they know."
"Oh. Oh! Well, no, I don't imagine I mind that, it's not like he just shows up," Steve says easily, and sets his bag down. "There a spare room?"
"Couple of 'em, down the hall. Take your pick."
"Thanks. Sure you don't mind?"
Bruce shakes his head.
"Truth is," Steve continues, walking into the kitchen -- he makes a pleased noise when he finds half a pot of coffee, and Bruce offers him a mug from the rack. "Truth is, SHIELD got me this apartment out in Brooklyn and it's nice, and I like the neighborhood, but I was rattling around in it. Never lived alone in my life, couldn't get used to it."
Bruce realizes Steve is nervous, and talking and moving to cover it. And the funniest thing is, it's obvious the Big Guy is not what's doing it. Steve's just...in a big new place and unsure of his footing.
Bruce can relate.
Steve sips his coffee, and a blissful look passes over his face.
"In the war we only got chicory," he says, explaining. "I'm still getting used to the real stuff."
"There's beans in the freezer," Bruce offers, and Steve looks baffled.
So they spend the evening playing Kitchen Appliance Roulette: how to work the complicated grinder-percolator coffee machine, what a food processor is for, and the basic functions of a microwave.
And the next morning, when Bruce comes out of his bedroom, damp from the shower and starving, Steve is sitting at the kitchen table talking to JARVIS.
"So," he's saying, with the air of a man working through a complicated problem. "I just run this through a machine in a store and things are paid for?"
He has a Black AmEx in his hand.
"That's correct, Captain," JARVIS replies.
"But how does it know?"
"There's a magnetic strip on the back, encoded with your information," JARVIS says smoothly. "In simple terms, the machine reads the strip -- "
"Like a punch card."
"More or less. It then transmits your information and the cost of what you're purchasing to a second machine, which deducts the amount from your bank account or, in this case, tells the company issuing the card to add the amount to a total, which is paid at the end of each month."
"Like buying on account at a grocery store! I get it now," Steve says, delighted.
"I'd have thought SHIELD would give you a debit card," Bruce says. "Morning."
"Morning, Dr. Banner," Steve calls cheerily. "There's coffee."
"They gave me another little card -- well, a few." Steve produces a wallet from his pocket and lays them out on the table. There's a driver's license, a military veteran ID card, a debit card, a public transit pass, and to Bruce's amusement, a membership card to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "I use this one at the ATM," he says, pointing to the debit card. "And I get cash. But apparently you don't need cash with this. Ms. Potts gave it to me this morning -- you missed her, she said to say hello."
"She give you the speech about philanthropy?" Bruce asks, pouring out some coffee and adding cream. There isn't much left. Steve's coffee is very pale.
"Funny, isn't it? Eggs in the oven, by the way."
Bruce blinks at him. In the oven there is indeed a plate of scrambled eggs, with a piece of fried ham and a slice of toast, as well.
"Anyhow, I guess the difference is, I'm not paying on this one," Steve adds, putting the other cards away. "Did she give you one too?"
"Yep. Haven't used it yet." Bruce sits down at the table and picks up his fork. "Not really accustomed to handouts. Not on this scale, anyway."
Steve hums to himself for a moment. "I suppose. On the other hand, some weeks we had to go on the bread lines during the Depression. Ma always said you couldn't eat pride."
"Sounds like a smart woman."
"She was," Steve says quietly, and then visibly changes the subject. "Did Ms. Potts tell you what to buy, too?"
Bruce laughs a little. "Why? What'd she tell you?"
"She said I could buy some gym equipment. And books. And clothes that SHIELD didn't pick out for me."
"I think Tony might have suggested the clothes thing." Bruce grins at him. "He's all about style, after all."
"Aw, chuck it," Steve says good-naturedly. "I hardly knew him then. Or you."
"You hardly know us now. Where'd you go off to after the fight, anyway?"
"Here and there. Just looking around at the place," Steve replies. As if he owns America and wants to inspect it. Bruce supposes in some ways that's not an incorrect way of looking at it. "Figure I'll go get some supplies today. Pretty much used up the cream, sorry about that. And basic stuff. Some bananas and some bread and sugar. Couple of cans of Spam."
Bruce sets his coffee down. "The Spam is all yours, Captain."
"You know," Steve says, flicking the card through his fingers like a magician about to do a trick, and Bruce just wants to hook him up to some electrodes and measure his dexterity, "it's a shame, wasting these things."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, someone went to the trouble of getting 'em, and there's all those machines JARVIS told me about. Guess I could do with some clothes. I need a hat, too."
Steve gives him a meaningful look, and Bruce knows he's done for.
"I could show you how. Nothing planned today," Bruce says casually.
Steve beams. "Well, let's spread a little around, huh?"
They walk, because Steve loves walking, and because Bruce is not eager for another encounter with Manhattan traffic. It's only gotten worse since the battle, with blocks cordoned off and a million detours. Steve has, apparently, learned how to do exactly two things on his phone: make phone calls, and use the map application. He seems to like navigating, so Bruce lets him.
And Steve's enthusiasm is infectious, if a little forced at first. Neither of them are accustomed to this kind of shopping -- Steve's from a time when Woolworth's sold everything, and Bruce hasn't shopped anywhere but outdoor flea markets and second-hand stores in years. He doesn't feel right just strolling into the fancier stores, aware that he looks one step up from a homeless man (which he was, about a month ago) but Steve walks in as if he owns the place. It occurs to Bruce that Steve probably has to. A thousand little encounters with the modern world, and Steve's put on his soldier face and barged through each of them doing the best he can.
The first time Steve takes out his credit card to buy some undershirts -- "Just to try it out," he murmurs to Bruce -- the attendant looks at the card, looks at the pair of them, and asks, "Would you like these delivered, sir?"
"Um," Steve says, glancing at Bruce. "Yes. To Stark Tower, please. Care of Dr. Bruce Banner," because Bruce's name is the one on the apartment.
Until now they've mostly been left to their own devices, the sales clerks too busy for the guy in cheap khakis and the one in a shabby tweed jacket. But when Steve says those magic words -- Stark Tower -- one of the clerks hears, and then he sees the card, and he descends on them.
"Did you find everything okay, sirs?" he asks, and Steve (who was focusing really hard on the credit-card swipe machine) looks up.
"Well," he says. "I was looking for some suits, but I don't think..." he gestures to his shoulders, embarrassed. "And Dr. Banner, you...?"
"Oh, I'm, uh, I'm good for the moment," Bruce says. Interacting with salesmen, even before, was always excruciating.
After that, however, their lives are no longer their own. Steve is hustled over to the suits, introduced to the in-store tailor, and dragged around the dress shirts (he picks blue, mostly, and some white with red pinstripes; never let it be said the man doesn't have a theme going). Bruce finds himself at the mercy of a slightly older man who, once he mentions he's looking mostly for casual clothing, just starts pulling things off the rack and muttering about skin tones. When he finally escapes, a dozen full outfits richer and hundreds of dollars lighter (in theory), Steve is deep in conversation with the tailor.
" -- knew it. I thought as soon as you came in, that's a military posture," the man is saying. "How long have you been overseas?"
Steve catches Bruce's eye. "Oh, a couple of years."
"And your partner, he's a doctor? He must be glad to have you home."
"Just a friend," Bruce says, because Steve looks flustered and confused. "Almost done?"
Steve looks questioningly at the tailor, who nods.
"Have these done for you in a few days. For delivery?"
"Please," Steve says. Then, with endearing earnestness, "Do you know where I could find a nice hat?"
The attendants send the pair of them to an actual hat store, a store that sells nothing but hats, and not the novelty kind of hats either. This is a store that takes hats very seriously. Bruce takes advantage of the store's bathroom to tear off a couple of tags and change into one of his new shirts and a new pair of nice trousers; at least now he looks like he belongs in a place like this. Meanwhile Steve tries and discards fedoras and kangols and a bowler that Bruce is pretty sure he tried just to make Bruce laugh. He settles on a dark blue trilby with a red-and-grey band, tipping it to one side on his head.
"Dapper," he says to Bruce, grinning. "I'll wear this," he adds to the attendant, who nods and tries to sell Bruce on a straw panama before ringing them up.
"What next?" Bruce asks as they leave the store. Steve tips his hat to a pair of mounted policemen, apparently just to practice, and then looks at Bruce. For long enough that Bruce says, a little defensively, "What?"
"Well, in my day we'd say you look like a hepcat," Steve says.
"What does that even...?" Bruce asks. "I need a translation, Cap."
"You've got a lot of hair, is what I'm saying."
Bruce ruffles his hair with one hand. "Yeah, guess I'm a little shaggy."
Steve pokes at his phone, concentrating. "There's a barber shop somewhere around here."
"You're pretty into all this," Bruce says, following him around a corner.
"Well, this part's all right. Familiar, I mean. We didn't get leave very often in the war but when we did..." Steve looks up from his phone, looks around, and steers them to a street corner, waiting for the light. "It's what you do. You get some new shoes, shave and a haircut, spend a little dough. Some guys went to dance halls but...I always just liked being back in civilization for a little while. Remind ourselves why we were fighting."
He looks distant for a moment. "And if we did go out to the dance halls, there was always a card game going in the back, or decent music."
"Not a fan of dancing?"
"Gotta have the right partner," Steve says, and the distance turns into a weird, quickly-hidden sadness. "Let's lower your ears, huh?"
Bruce watches Steve from the barber's chair while he's getting his hair cut. Steve buys a paper from a stand outside and reads it, but Bruce catches him watching, too. He wonders what Steve makes of him.
By the time he's done, Steve is outside with a handful of hot dogs from a street vendor. He bestows two upon Bruce, eats three himself, and then finishes the second one when Bruce can't.
"Metabolism," he mumbles.
"I can imagine," Bruce replies. He's always starving after the Other Guy gets out. "Anywhere else? I bet if you walked in somewhere and held up your credit card, people'd sell us anything from underwear to socket wrenches."
"Do you need those? I'd think Stark could lend you a socket wrench."
"Just saying," Bruce says with a smile.
"We should go back, I guess. Unless..." Steve hesitates.
"There's an art store on the way back to the Tower. Won't take long."
"Sure," Bruce says. They're nearly bag-free; almost everything's either still being tailored or being delivered, except for Steve's hat and the bag with Bruce's old clothes in it.
And it really doesn't take long. Steve beelines for the sketchbooks and hovers over them for a minute, opening and closing various covers, then settles on a small wirebound one. He picks up a cheap pencil-case, a few fancy pencils, and then -- Bruce pretends he isn't watching -- carefully selects two fine-tipped ink pens, black and red, handling them like they're precious.
Bruce gets a call as they're walking back to the Tower, and it's Tony's ringtone; when he answers Tony starts in a mile a minute, no salutation, which is in some ways sort of sweet.
"So, I know you're not a morning person but it's after lunch and I thought I'd come find you and both you and Rogers are missing, did he abduct you? If you've been abducted, just say yes."
"No," Bruce says.
"Thank god. Are you coming back to the Tower? I have equations that need massaging and nobody twists math like you, Fluffy."
"Yeah, we're on our way back now."
"We? Is the Otter Pop with you?"
Bruce grins. "Hang on a second," he says, lowering his phone. "Steve, smile. I'm sending your picture to Tony."
"Oh, wait!" Steve says, and takes a pair of sunglasses out of his pocket, putting them on. "I got them from a street vendor," he explains, tipping the trilby to one side again, rakishly. The glasses are sleek and blue-tinted, and his grin is stunning; he looks like a movie star. Bruce snaps a photo, sends it off to Tony, and lifts the phone back to his ear.
"Just sent you a picture. Cap and I went shopping like Pepper ordered."
"Receiving," Tony replies, and then there's the sound of uncontrollable laughter.
"See you in a few," Bruce says, and hangs up. He glances at Steve as they continue onwards; the man looks like he's genuinely smiling, not the tight polite smile that screamed I don't know what I'm doing here from the Helicarrier or the weary after-battle smile he was wearing when they sent Loki off. He looks happy.
"Do you like Manhattan?" Steve asks abruptly.
"Sure. I like cities," Bruce says. "They just don't always like me. How about you?"
"It's new," Steve says. "And it's all sharp edges and speed. Didn't used to be that way. I'm starting to like it, though."
"Thanks for comin' along today. I don't think I'd have been all right doing this alone."
"Thanks for dragging me out. I definitely wouldn't have."
They've reached Stark Tower, and Steve stops, smacking his forehead. "Groceries. We forgot."
"JARVIS can order some. Hey JARVIS," Bruce calls, as they step into the elevator.
"Welcome back, Dr. Banner."
"Thanks. Can you get us some groceries? Cream, bread, sugar, you know the brands I like. Couple of bananas, and some Spam."
"Certainly. Captain, would you prefer Spam Classic, Spam Low Sodium, Spam Lite, Spam with Cheese, Spam Jalapeno, Spam Single Serving -- "
"Uh, just the regular one," Steve says. "Even canned meat is fancy now," he adds to Bruce.
"Anything else, Dr. Banner?" JARVIS asks.
"No, that's all. And take us to the workshop," he says, and then to Steve, "You should come in, show off your hat in person."
"Sure," Steve says. "I hear it's a marvel palace."
"Something like that."
When they step off the elevator, Tony is head-and-shoulders inside a machine.
"Dr. Banner and Captain Rogers, sir," JARVIS announces.
"Yeah, yeah, be out in a second," Tony yells back, and then pops out of the machine, hair standing on end. His eyes fall on Steve first, and he shakes his head, grinning.
"I can't fault your taste, Captain Armani," he says, throwing himself onto a stool at a workbench. Dummy buzzed up to Steve at high speed, swoops the hat off his head, and bolts with it. Steve looks after him, wide-eyed.
"He's putting it somewhere safe," Tony says. "I showed him this cartoon once -- never show robots movies -- and he..."
He trails off, looking at Bruce. There's a strange silence that falls.
"Now, Dr. Banner," Tony says finally, slowly. "You didn't tell me you did modeling in your spare time."
"It's just the hair," Bruce replies, self-conscious now.
"No, you are wrong, and not in the way where I tell you you're wrong and you mathematically prove you're right later," Tony replies. He's stalking towards them, and Steve steps to one side as he circles Bruce.
"Don't make fun," Bruce says.
"I'm not," Tony replies absently. "Is that Prada? I figured when Pepper told you to hit the town and dress yourself you'd go to Sears or something."
"Steve took me," Bruce answers.
"Remind me to tip you," Tony says to Steve. He grabs Bruce by the arm and pulls him along, through the workshop to a mirror at the far end. It's a little grimy, but he stands Bruce firmly in front of it. "Have you even seen yourself?"
He hasn't, much. He got used to not looking in mirrors, to avoiding his own eyes. But Tony tells him to look, so he looks.
He's wearing a pair of charcoal trousers that are, in fact, Prada; they're clean and new and expensive, fitted to him, no fraying or loose seams anywhere. The man at the store went on about low, wide collars and open throats, so he bought a bunch of the kind of shirt the man indicated and he's wearing one now, linen, still stiff from the store, in the pastel purple he likes. It's not anything flashy. It's clean and simple, but just an inch off of ordinary.
He asked the barber to cut his hair short, because short is efficient and means he won't have to get it cut again for a while. It curls a little, but it's too short to stick out. The grey isn't so evident as it was, the cut modern enough (anything would be after the cut-it-yourself school of hairdressing he's been subscribing to) that...
He takes it in at once, not in pieces, and realizes he looks ten years younger. He looks...attractive, even. Like someone you could meet in a cafe or a bookstore and think, there goes a nice normal guy, I wonder if he'd give me his number?
Tony claps his hands on Bruce's shoulders and he knows the realization must have shown in his face.
"Welcome home, Dr. Banner," Tony says, amused, and lets go, turning to Steve. "You, this was your doing. I'm going to build you something. You want a robot? A mechanized hat rack?"
"I just have the one hat," Steve says haplessly. Most people, when confronted with Tony, get that look. It's a little late in coming, but Bruce still finds it funny.
"What do you need? I'mma think about it. Bruce, math?"
"Got it," Bruce says, grabbing the nearest StarkPad and settling into a corner of the couch up against the wall. To his surprise, Tony drops down next to him.
"I'm beat. Thinking is hard work, it's why most people don't do it. Come on, White Star, take a load off," Tony adds, gesturing for Steve to join them. Steve, hesitantly, sits down and then shyly produces his pencil-case, opening the sketchbook in his hands.
"Now everyone be quiet, Daddy's thinking," Tony says. "JARVIS, what's that cartoon I showed Dummy? You like cartoons, right?" he asks Steve.
"Sure. But not the stuff they show now, it's..." he makes a face. "There's this one about a sponge, it's awful."
"Fuck that noise," Tony agrees. Bruce smiles, even half-buried in Tony's chaotic formulas. "Disney, JARVIS. Modern Inventions."
A square of light appears, and cartoon music begins to play. Bruce is engrossed in the math but when he looks up halfway through, while Donald Duck is pitching a fit, Steve is staring at it, entranced. His fingers are flicking the pencil over the page, trying to capture the images on the screen -- machines, robots, a duck in a sailor suit -- as they go by.
Tony catches Bruce watching.
"Hey," he says, and Bruce leans close to hear him. "This works, doesn't it?"
He could be talking about the math, but he's not. Bruce thinks about Steve needing someone to stand by him, even if they don't have to do much. Bruce needs someone to push him, remind him who he is, because his view of that got lost somehow. Tony...well, maybe Tony just needs people to take care of.
"I think it will, yes," he replies.
"Good. That's good. OH," he yells, and both Bruce and Steve flinch. "Vibranium detector!"
He leaps off the couch and begins rummaging for parts on his workbench.
"Vibranium is the rarest element on Earth," he says, as Bruce and Steve watch him flail around. "Refined Vibranium exists in exactly two locations -- your shield, and -- " he taps his arc reactor. "It's vibration-absorbent so it shouldn't be hard to...hah. To make a device that can bounce a signal off a satellite and tell you, anywhere, anytime, where your shield is. In case it gets lost during a fight. Or, you know, you can find me if I've been kidnapped. Multifunction. How big are those hilarious pockets on your utility belt?"
Steve holds up a thumb and finger, about four inches apart.
"That's what she said," Tony replies. "Okay, you two entertain yourselves. JARVIS, Donald in Mathmagic Land, please."
Steve shoots an amused look at Bruce, and Bruce gives up on the math for a little while, just watches Tony and the cartoon and Steve.
Yeah...he could get to like this.