Steve couldn’t say that he did want to stay at Stark Tower, but he also couldn’t say that he didn’t.
He and Tony got along better-than-amicably now, as did all of them, really. Stark had extended the invitation to everyone after their shawarma date, but it was before he took off on his motorcycle that Tony had given Steve a more personal invitation.
“Where ya headin’?”
“Don’t know. One of my old army buddies is still alive Virginia – barely, but...I don’t know, I’ll probably just go to my place, be bored in Bensonhurst.”
Stark shrugged, hands in his pockets. “Or you could stay at the tower. You know S.H.I.E.L.D. is gonna want to debrief us like a million times in the next few weeks...easier than driving a motorcycle over from Brooklyn. And anyway – living with us? With…this?” And he waved a hand over their loose congregation – Clint and Natasha were climbing into a flat black roadster and Bruce was fiddling with his watch in the passenger seat of Tony’s Audi. “Never a dull moment.”
“That’s my concern.”
They just laughed and then Steve sped off, and sure enough, at 10 p.m. he was watching the TV Land station, which was showing some awful show called Wonder Woman.
He looked at the sleek laptop that Stark Industries had given him and thought of finding the original ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast to entertain himself with, but he had to be honest with himself: he didn’t know how to do that. He looked back at the television to see the woman in a swimsuit spinning in a circle only to suddenly be wearing another swimsuit, and he turned the television off when she took off running, breasts bouncing garishly.
The next day he stepped off of the elevator and walked out into the common area of Tony’s guest floor. The vastness of the space didn’t go with the rather comfortable way it had been decorated: there were huge leather couches and chairs, homey potted plants like tulips and petunias, framed photos on a few of the surfaces...and Bruce Banner reading a book, lying barefoot on the couch nearest him.
“Dr. Banner,” Steve said, and the scientist glanced up comfortably before standing. “Stark convinced you to stay, too, huh?”
“He’s a good salesman,” Bruce said, shaking Steve’s hand. Their lack of familiarity meant that their rapport could be rather stilted at times, but right now was comfortable. No mission, no S.H.I.E.L.D. briefing to attend, no blues tights on Steve, no ripped pants on Bruce. “That’s it?” Bruce gestured to the tiny gym bag sitting at Steve’s feet.
“I got my own place in Brooklyn, too,” Steve said, “so I don’t need to bring too much. It’s easier just to be here for the next couple weeks since Fury will probably wanna debrief us” -
“ - at least a million times,” they heard, and they both looked up to see Tony Stark walking into the room, eating an apple and wearing nothing but yoga pants. Bruce lifted an eyebrow, grinning almost imperceptibly at the man before them, who just shrugged.
“Pepper thought I should try it,” Tony said, and he started heading down the hallway leading to the bedrooms. “Whatever, I’m tired of pulling muscles when I’m in the suit and Pep looks hot in yoga pants, so it’s a win-win for me.” He waved a hand, not even looking back. “Come on, Cap, come see your room!”
Tony had been nice enough to give him a corner room, which was larger than his current bedroom in Bensonhurst. He had windows on two of the walls and there had been some attempt to decorate it with him in mind. There was a drafting table in one corner, fully stocked with charcoal, pencils, pastels, and paper, anything he needed.
“Wow, thanks,” he said, placing his bag on the wrought-iron framed bed, and Tony just brushed it off as he turned back to the door to leave.
“We eat dinner at seven around here,” Tony said, his voice echoing down the hallway, “and once a week, Bruce cooks – that’s tonight. And he will go green if you’re late.”
Steve heard the tiniest mumbling of, “Shut up.”
After that first dinner, Steve knew that “a couple of weeks” would turn into a month. He liked waking up and having people around, whether it was the militaristic moments of brushing his teeth while Clint took his morning piss, too groggy to care, or just smiling as he walked past Natasha on the way to the gym. He liked having an excuse to fry four eggs instead of two when Bruce would walk in for breakfast. Tony quite often came down from his penthouse to finish his coffee with whoever was in the kitchen, and it surprised Steve to see that Stark was actually quite social for being such a shameless jerk. He’d chat up the housekeeping staff incessantly about quantum mechanics, oblivious to their starry-eyed faces and just happy to have an ear to ramble into. He’d sling an arm around Bruce when leading him down the hall, and Bruce never balked or moved away from the touch. Stark clearly liked having company.
Those who had once been soldiers were now just friendly faces, roommates, and occasional co-workers whenever Fury showed his face. There was the odd debriefing or testing on his shield, which Tony and Bruce were revamping for him, but besides that Steve basically spent his days exercising, drawing, and – to his endless amazement – talking to people. He could be dragged out into the city sometimes, always by either Bruce or Tony – Tony would take him shopping for flat-front pants and Bruce would make him carry things for him at the international market.
Steve liked watching Bruce best. He seemed to exist in a constant state of discomfort, always fidgeting and looking around and shuffling his feet. It wasn’t amusing to Steve – quite the contrary, but what he really liked was watching those uncomfortable moments pass, seeing Bruce eventually drop his hands to his sides and hook his thumbs into his pocket. The tension happened less during one-on-one interactions and more in the presence of groups, and Steve was glad that Bruce didn’t behave that way when they were around each other. Not that they spent a lot of time together or anything, but he sometimes sketched the skyline from the living room while Bruce prepared dinner in the open-air kitchen. They’d yell across the great expanse, sharing an odd comment or two, and after a couple of weeks Steve moved his workstation from the couch to the bar. He would draw vegetables or steaming pots of soup, and sometimes he’d draw Bruce leaning over a cutting board or making salad dressing. Steve wasn’t sure if Bruce knew that he was drawing him, as he seemed comfortably oblivious as he cooked, humming and swaying along to old big band records that JARVIS would play for them.
Steve could also see that Bruce had forged a real friendship with Tony in the end of all of this, and he couldn’t say that he wasn’t impressed by that. He saw the good in Stark, too, but he couldn’t say that he thought of the guy as tactful. Tony liked to tease Bruce about the Hulk and Bruce’s responses were always either short or nonexistent, but it didn’t seem to bother the scientist at first. Tony had a Hulk glove, a big green fist that some toy company had produced without anyone’s permission, and he’d slam it down on the countertop if he overcooked his eggs or if Pepper appeared with papers to sign. Steve watched Bruce laugh at the Hulk glove at first, then after a few days the laugh was replaced by a wary smile, and then just a grin, and then nothing at all.
“Oh, don’t pout, Bruce,” Tony said as he removed the glove, trying to give the doctor a mousy look. He’d just punched Steve’s old vibranium shield with it, and the tone it produced had been loud enough to make their teeth vibrate.
“Could you put that away?” Bruce said, never looking at either one of them as he continued to scribble onto a clipboard. Tony gave a defeated shrug and then picked up the glove, walking toward a room right off of the lab.
Bruce waited until Tony was out of the lab when he looked up at Steve and deadpanned, “Haha.”
“He’s got a thing for your green buddy,” Steve said, shrugging, and Bruce just shook his head.
“Yeah, he’s rather fond of him. Can’t understand why.”
“Oh, I can. Stark just likes messes. Every city is a playground to that guy.”
“Playground,” Bruce repeated. “I can’t say that I think of what the other guy does as fun.” His pen stopped. “I mean it probably is fun for the other guy to a degree, but it’s not for me. Not waking up like that.”
Steve opened his mouth to speak but Tony was talking loudly to JARVIS now, rattling off an equation as the program took note of it. He just shook his head and looked at Bruce, whose amused face had a hint of gloom to it.
“He’s real piece of work sometimes,” Bruce said, and he walked around the table to another computer, pulling up schematics for Steve’s new shield.
“I knew you’d regret wearing your dress uniform. It’s burning up out here.”
Steve ignored Tony and fanned the lapels of his jacket. The sun was beating down on them out on Tony’s patio, where a small group of extremely rich people milled about. It was some sort of fundraiser for a children’s organization that the Stark Foundation sponsored, and Steve hadn’t been able to refuse when Tony personally asked him to come and meet some of the kids in the program. Clint and Natasha also milled about in civilian dress, pretending to have less fun than they actually were. Tony wore a seersucker cotton suit and $2,000 sunglasses while he drank $500 scotch out of a $300 glass. Bruce stood nearby in clothes that were new and clean, but plain, piping in whenever Tony would direct the conversation to him. The public didn’t know the identity of the Hulk so Bruce’s secret was safe in this crowd, but still he seemed nervous, uneasy. He often just tuned himself out of Tony’s conversation altogether, opting instead to just enjoy the view, to watch the planes in the sky, or sometimes smile at a child running by.
“Captain Rogers,” Steve heard, and he saw Agent Maria Hill approach. She was in civilian dress as well – well, an actual dress – and she held a pale green drink in her hand.
“Agent Hill,” Steve said, turning to face her. “I didn’t expect to see anyone from…work here.”
He knew that S.H.I.E.L.D. was a covert organization, so it probably was best that he be vague about how they knew each other.
“Stark is trying to win me over,” she said, and beside them Steve saw Tony pout comically before returning to his banter. “I told him that I didn’t think he gave to any aid organizations and since then he’s invited me to at least five Stark Foundation charity gatherings.” She shrugged and sipped her drink. “Finally had to come to one.”
“Well I hope you’re not too bored.”
“Not particularly, no,” she said, and her eyes traveled up and down the front of him. “Kinda warm for dress blues, isn’t it?”
Steve chuckled. “Yeah. I think I’m gonna go take my jacket off, actually. I’ll be right back.”
Steve went inside and quickly went down the three flights of stairs between Tony’s floor and the guest area. Steve removed his jacket and hung it carefully, then checked himself in the mirror to make sure his tie was straight. He neatened his hair a bit – it was windy up there – and then picked up his hat, which he’d leave tucked under his arm.
He noticed that Bruce’s door was open as he walked out, and he could never stop himself from peeking into the room. There really wasn’t much to see, but still. Steve wanted to see the inside of that room. It was the mystery of Bruce himself that made the room seem like a secret garden, a forbidden place waiting to be found. He chuckled at himself for such thoughts, but he couldn’t help but be a little fascinated by the scientist. He was brilliant, selfless, and austere in his lifestyle, which was in direct opposition to the beast that lay beneath his skin, a simpleminded thing bent on anger and destruction. He almost didn’t believe Bruce when he said that he didn’t enjoy his time as the Hulk – Steve could swear that he saw a smile on the brute’s face whenever he smashed and killed with the unfocused swings of his tv-sized fists.
Steve finally reached Tony’s floor again and walked through the living room to pick up his shield, and he stopped when he saw Bruce and Tony in the kitchen. There was a little girl sitting on the countertop, her big toe dotted with a small amount of blood. She was smiling though there were tears on her cheeks, and Tony juggled avocados as Bruce used sterile gauze to carefully dry the girl’s face. Bruce didn’t say much as he cleaned the wound while Tony chattered away, and Steve went over to the fireplace to pick up his shield. He knew the kids would want to see it so he’d brought it down earlier.
He headed back outside now, his steps slow as he continued to spy on the scene in the kitchen. Why was he so fascinated by this? Bruce wrapped the toe carefully, and now the little girl was staring with wide eyes as Tony used a penlight to project a little Iron Man hologram into the air. She swiped her hands through it as it swooped all around, blasting imaginary foes.
“All done,” Bruce said, and he picked the girl up and placed her on his hip as he and Tony walked back onto the porch. Steve was already out there, talking to Maria again as he watched Bruce carefully put the girl on the ground. A woman nearby turned and seemed to thank Bruce, then leaned down and spoke to the girl, who in return reached up and shook Bruce’s hand. Bruce kneeled down to talk more with the little girl, and it was clear to Steve that this woman didn’t know who Bruce really was.
“Yeah, sure,” he said immediately, turning back to Maria, who just shook her head and took a sip of her drink. “I’m sorry.”
“No, its fine,” she said, “but let me know if you’re serious about that drink, okay?”
Steve almost allowed his brow to wrinkle but then he caught himself and smiled confidently. What drink?
“I will,” he said. Maria walked away then, and when he looked back at Bruce he was sitting on the ground with the little girl now, shoes off, pointing out and giving her the Latin name for each bone in the human foot.
Steve sat at his drafting table sketching the view out of his window. It was a new angle of New York that he’d never been able to see for that long. Up so high, so removed from everything. He had to keep his pencils sharp if he wanted to get the details right.
He heard his phone ring and picked it up, the display flashing ‘Tony Stark.’ He stared at it for a moment before remembering to press the green button.
“Ah, didn’t hang up on me this time. Green not red, right?”
“What do you want?”
“Do you like opera?”
“I got you two tickets to I Pagliacci. Mayor’s box, total panty peeler. Best seats in town.”
“What – why?”
“You’re taking Maria Hill to the opera on Friday, okay? She wouldn’t shut up about you today.”
Steve felt all the blood drain from his face. Maria Hill was basically a model with weapons training. Ridiculously beautiful and equally as dangerous, she definitely fit the bill for him, but there was no way he could go out with a girl like her. He wasn’t even sure if he’d ever thought of her that way. “Stark. Why in the world would you” –
“Look, just be an hour late, talk through the entire first act, fart a lot, spill a drink on her, tell her she looks weird in a dress…there’s a million ways you can bomb this date and never go out with her again. But first just give it a shot. Live a little.”
“But why would you even…” Steve trailed off, dropping is head in his empty hand. “…do this.”
Tony huffed on the other end of the line. “Please don’t make me tell you all about how lonely you are.”
Steve didn’t have a response to that – because it was true, and also he couldn’t deny that he was a little touched by Tony’s concern.
“Does she know we have a date in four days?” Steve finally asked.
“Yes,” Tony said cheerfully. “I sent her an email from your account that you never use.”
“Son of a…” Steve stopped himself. He didn’t like to curse.
“Steve, come on. Have you seen Agent Hill? Those legs just keep on goin.’”
Steve hung up the phone.