Steve wound up moving into Stark Tower on Wednesday, the day after the initial uncomfortable meeting. Sta- Tony wasn't around when Steve showed up with his two bags of belongings, and he instead found himself being greeted by Bruce.
"Travel light, huh?" Bruce asked as he met Steve at the Tower's private garage entrance, hands in the pockets of his khakis.
"Yeah," Steve replied, kicking down the stand on his motorcycle and hoisting his bags higher over his shoulders as he swung his leg off the bike. "Not really much left for me when I woke up."
Bruce gave his polite smile again. "Generally, I know what you mean."
Steve nodded, hands fisting in his bag straps. There was something about being confronted with Bruce in any capacity that made Steve feel a bit ashamed. He knew that Bruce only became the Hulk because of the same serum that had been destroyed. It wasn't fair that Bruce, someone who legitimately understood what the serum did and what it could do from a scientific aspect (and left Steve in the comprehension dust) should suffer so horribly while Steve was just... there. "Sorry. You've lost so much, and all because of the serum." He smiled wanly. "Sometimes I wish it had never worked. Maybe it would have been better if it had just failed."
Bruce chuckled, shaking his head. "Steve, no offense, but that's one of the stupidest things I've ever heard."
Steve flushed, looking down. Well, he'd already determined that compared to Bruce he wasn't exactly any kind of brain power worth mentioning, and -
"And I can guarantee that whatever is going through your head at this very moment is also incredibly stupid," Bruce continued, his voice suddenly sharp.
Steve glanced back over at Bruce only to find the man studying his shoes, arms now crossed protectively over his chest. "I - sorry?"
There was a moment of echoing silence throughout the low ceiling garage, and then Bruce let out another chuckle.
"Steve, you didn't get asked out on a lot of dates before the war, did you?"
Steve blinked in the face of the abrupt subject change, and thought he maybe was supposed to be offended by the question, but it seemed so obvious that he couldn't really be bothered. "Uh, no, not really. I assume you've seen photographs of what I used to look like. Can you imagine any girl wanting to bring me home to her parents?" Steve smiled, shaking his head.
But Bruce didn't smile. "Yeah, Steve," he said, perfectly serious. "I can."
Steve wasn't exactly sure what to say to that. "I don't... I mean, Dr. Banner, I -"
"It's Bruce, Steve," Bruce reminded him gently. "And I ask because you're such a nice guy, but you never ever give yourself enough credit." He took a step forward, hands going back in his pockets. "Steve, it's true that the Other Guy only happened because of my attempts to mess with the serum, but that was because the serum didn't have the goodness in me to hold onto like it did in you. In me it had a lot of anger and a lot of rage that I never figured out how to channel. You, on the other hand, were always this nice. You're a good person, and a great guy." The smile slipped off his face. "But you need to stop thinking you're a lesser man because of it."
This wasn't really a conversation Steve had expected to have with, well, anyone, and certainly not in a skyscraper garage with a genius who turned green whenever he needed to let off steam. "Um, Dr.. Bruce, I don't -"
"Tony and I kept tabs on you, you know."
Steve's spine straightened minutely. "What? Kept tabs on me? When?"
Bruce pulled his glasses off, cleaning them on the hem of his purple button down. "Following the invasion. We know that you didn't leave your apartment those first couple of weeks. Tony was kinda bugged that you hadn't stopped by the tower -"
"I didn't know -"
"I know, Steve," Bruce interrupted him, just as gently. "I know you didn't really get what he was offering. Tony's not the most transparent person, and then he tends to overreact, which was what you saw yesterday. But he wanted to know what you were doing, what was going on, and we realized you weren't ever leaving your apartment." Bruce looked at Steve, eyes sad. "I know what we did was tantamount to spying, but we were worried. We didn't know what you were doing in there, or what you might try to do. You have a very expressive face when you're not in leader mode, Steve, and your expression is almost always sad."
Steve couldn't have said anything if he'd wanted to. It was taking a moment to sink in. So all those weeks ago, when he thought he was so alone, there were two people watching for him, worried about him?
And he hadn't even known.
Bruce took a step closer. "When you started going out again, Tony got a little hurt that it was always to SHIELD and never to see us, and so he stopped watching. But I didn't. I know it probably seems creepy, and weird, but..." Bruce shrugged, his own cheeks taking on a tinge of color. "You've been an inspiration to me, Steve. You always were. I wanted to recreate Erskine's formula to be great like you, but that's just not who I am."
"You're a hero, Bruce," Steve said, cutting off the other man for once. "You and the Hulk...er, the Other Guy, may not exactly have a close working relationship, but I've worked with him and I've worked with you. You both fight the good fight."
Bruce smiled sadly. "It's not always been that way."
"But you're trying," Steve insisted, taking his own step forward. "And so many people can't say that. So many people who go bad do so because they just don't feel like trying to be good. It's easier to be bad, to get that instant gratification and to ignore the needs of others. You don't do that, Bruce."
Silence reigned again through the enclosed space, Steve's words lingering along the curves of the support beams before disappearing down the tunnel. Bruce just looked at him for a long time, polite expression a little more shuttered than usual, until finally he coughed.
"Steve, I asked if you didn't get a lot of dates because the girls and the boys at school just don't go for the nice guys. I know it must have been hard for you, but it's pretty impressive you're still this nice. So, my current advice for you, considering you're about to move into a building that houses Tony Stark, is to stop being so nice." Bruce winced. "Not that I think you should go around punching the elderly or stealing baby strollers, but your initial response to things is always to fold, to bend and let others walk all over you. Don't let people do that. Don't let Tony do that."
Steve frowned. "Tony? What's he got to -"
"I have eyes, Steve," Bruce said, the amused twinkle back in his eye with the twitch of his lips. "Tony may seem like all bluster, but he's just as intimidated by you as you are by him."
Steve chuckled. "That sounds like the spider discussion Natasha tried to have with Thor."
Bruce's smile widened. "Did it work?"
Steve shook his head. "No. But that was probably because she decided throwing live spiders at Thor was the best way to get the problem over with." He grinned. "Natasha is one tough dame."
Bruce laughed, finally stepping over to the elevator and waving Steve to follow along. "Watch out for her, too. Natasha is... interesting."
"Should I refuse to let her walk all over me too?"
Banner smirked as the floors pinged by. "No, you probably should do absolutely everything Natasha tells you to do. I'm not exactly sure what would happen if you didn't. Hey, so here we are. Let me show you to your room, and we can see if you have any questions, okay?"
For most of the tour it was just Steve and Bruce. Thor was staying with Jane until Thursday, when she had to go back to New Mexico to continue her studies (and wouldn't let him come with), and both Clint and Natasha were about to leave for some kind of meeting with Fury to determine whether or not the SHIELD doctors were prepared to let Clint re-enter the field.
"You were taken off active duty?" Steve asked when he and Bruce passed the assassins as they were leaving. "But that's ridiculous. You're fine now. You were fine all through the Manhattan invasion."
Clint grinned at Steve, clapping him on the shoulder. "Yeah, except for the part where I helped start the whole thing."
"That wasn't you," Steve insisted, crossing his arms over his chest. "You didn't know."
Clint's grin faltered for a moment, eyes going a bit distant, and there was that look of sorrow and loss that Steve knew so well. This time - for the first time, actually - Steve reached out and put his own hand on Clint's shoulder, drawing the guy tentatively into a one armed hug.
"It wasn't your fault," he said. "And regardless of what the SHIELD shrinks decide, you've always got a place with The Avengers. I'll call you in anyway."
Both Natasha and Bruce stepped off to the side, beginning a quiet discussion that seemed to be about window cleaner and giving Clint the privacy he needed to sag into Steve's side.
"Thanks, Cap," Clint said, and the 'nickname' had never sounded fonder. "I'm just... a little worried, you know? I mean, if I had been better or stronger or more... I dunno, more somethin', all those people wouldn't be dead. Coulson -"
He broke off, and Steve tightened his grip around Clint's shoulders. "None of it was your fault, Clint. Unless you managed to grow a foot taller, get long black hair, and develop a weirdly Brit accent for someone supposed to be from another planet, then none of this was your fault."
Clint snorted, then started laughing. "Wait, grow a foot? How short do you think I am! We can't all be six foot something of golden hair and 300 lbs of muscle!"
"You do realize you're kind of blonde too, right?" Steve asked. "And 300 lbs? I think you're calling me fat."
"I'm calling you hewn from stone, you meathead," Clint replied, jabbing his fingers into Steve's abs, and Steve writhed away. "If you fell on me, you'd probably pulverize my legs."
"Clint," Natasha said, finishing up her conversation with Bruce, "you're an idiot. Let's go. Steve, I'll see you later."
"That's not foreboding at all," came a new voice, and Steve turned just as Tony entered the room, clad this time in track pants and a black tank top. "Unless you two have something going on, which is kind of hot, and JARVIS, remind me to videotape the inside of Cap's room."
Steve flushed. Natasha stared at Tony, and then at him.
"Yep. I'll definitely be seeing you tonight."
Tony kept looking at Steve even as the assassins filed out, leaving Steve alone with the two scientists.
"Your tower is very nice," Steve said after a moment of silence, fidgeting slightly.
Tony smirked. "Our tower, Steve. You live here too. And good, glad you like it. Try not to break anything though, okay?"
Steve's eyes went wide. "Break anything? I won't, I mean, I'll try not to, but I - I don't even know what half this stuff is or how to use it and if you could just give me a list of things not to touch -"
"Steve," Bruce cut in with his endless patience, "Tony's just being a dick."
"Actually," Tony interjected, looking a little disturbed, "I was just teasing. It's not my fault Cap over here apparently has endless stores of guilt for things he hasn't even done yet. Christ, do you ever just talk normally without apologizing?"
Steve flushed, looking down. "Sorry."
Tony threw his hands up in the air. "Okay, you know what? I'm banning that word. Take note. JARVIS, if you hear Captain Guiltbag over there apologize to anyone about anything, I want you to automatically turn on whatever sprinkler systems are overhead. Got it?"
"Apologies, Sir," came the automated voice that Steve still jumped at every time. "I was busy running tests on the sustainability of the suit repairs you were working on in your lab. But if you would like me to switch my focus to the harassment of the inhabitants of your tower -"
"What the," Tony said, glaring up at the ceiling. "Why do you sound an awful lot like Bruce? Bruce, what have you done?"
"JARVIS and I do yoga together in the mornings," Bruce replied. "It's very centering. And then we talk about how to keep you from being a dick."
"You swear more than I would have expected," Steve told Bruce.
Bruce grinned. "I have anger management issues, and you're surprised that I can swear? Truthfully, I'm surprised that you don't curse more than you do, being the military man that you are."
Steve winced. "Just wait until sprinkler systems start turning on above my head."
Tony scoffed, stepping over to Steve. "Oh, c'mon, I wouldn't actually let that happen. Well, maybe once. Or maybe twice, if your response to the first time is funny enough. But that's not the point."
"What is the point?" Bruce asked, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
"The point is, Hulkster," Tony said, grinning widely, "that I want full access to Cap's spangly outfit."
Steve frowned. "Wait, you what?"
Tony turned back to Steve, poking a finger into his chest. "I want your suit, Steve. It's pitiful. It's shameful. A small furry dog could rip holes in it with its well maintained claws. You've got no support in there, no real armor except for that shield. Your helmet is practically made out of plastic, and if we're going to do this Avengers thing, I want to do some upgrades."
Oh. Well, that made sense. Honestly, Steve was kind of touched that Tony would want to do that. "Okay, that sounds great."
"And it's no use arguing the point, because I'm letting you live here for free and -"
"Tony," Bruce cut in. "Steve said yes."
There was a moment of silence, where Tony did that staring thing again, only this time it was as if he had never seen Steve before in his life. "What?"
Steve shrugged. "Yeah, sure. That would be really nice of you."
Tony still stared, brown eyes fixed and unblinking. "Really. It's going to be that easy."
Steve looked helplessly at Bruce, who shrugged. "Most people don't really want Tony touching their things. He tends to set them on fire."
"Urban legend," Tony replied.
Steve turned back to Tony, sticking his hands in the pockets of his khakis. "No, I don't mind. I mean, the suit's a little old fashioned, I know, and it could use some extra protection. I got rammed real good by a couple of those alien things, and if there had been some kind of armor in there, like my old suit, I probably wouldn't have been so slowed down."
Tony finally blinked. "I don't actually remember you slowing down at any point at all, but that's.. okay. I'll want to take measurements of my own, you know. And you'll have to put up with me making you try on a bunch of stuff that might not work right away."
Steve nodded earnestly. "That's fine. That's totally fine. I really appreciate it, Tony."
Tony nodded slowly, reaching up to scratch at his goatee. "Good. Good. Okay, well, then I'll come find you tomorrow and we can get started."
"Okay," Steve said, smiling a little shyly, but it was lost on Tony, who had already started walking out of the room. Didn't really matter, though - the fact that Tony wanted to help Steve out, and maybe actually spend a little bit of time with him, was enough to keep him cheerful for the rest of the day, even when all it consisted of was him lifting heavy things for Bruce. It was fine. It was all fine.
And then Natasha jumped out of his ceiling and onto his shoulders, bearing him down to his mattress the second he walked into his bedroom to get ready to sleep.
"So," she said, perched on top of him. "Let's chat."
And Steve groaned.