It started with socks.
They were down on Steve’s floor for a team lunch. Steve had invited everyone for what he promised would be nothing fancy. Burgers, hot dogs, corn, and bonding without worries about world-saving. Privately Bruce thought that Steve also wanted to demonstrate to everyone, himself included, that he was adapting to the modern world. Bruce didn’t mention that to him, of course. Just accepted the invite and tried not to get in the way of any of the cooking once he got there.
It was while Bruce was hanging back in the dining room that Tony came in, slumped down into one of the chairs, and propped his feet up on the table.
Which was when Bruce saw that Tony was wearing green socks. Not that Bruce normally looked at socks but - green. Hulk green. Bruce would know the shade anywhere and somehow Tony had found a perfect match for it. There was no way that it wouldn’t catch Bruce’s attention.
“Feet off my table,” Steve said as he brought a plate of finished hot dogs into the kitchen.
Tony tilted his head to peer at Steve over his sunglasses. “Excuse me but I believe I paid for the building and everything in it and last I recall not a single one of you has ever given me a dime’s worth of rent. Ergo: my table.”
Natasha gave Tony a studied look. “If you don’t charge rent then what’s with the bill SHIELD gets every month?”
Tony waved it off, then used the motion to reach out for a handful of potato chips. “I don’t charge you guys rent. SHIELD, on the other hand, can bite my shiny metal ass.”
“My home, my table,” Steve said. He gave Tony’s legs a shove. “Feet on the floor.”
“Did I agree that you get to be in charge in non-combat situations?” Tony asked, even as he sat up properly. “Because that sounds like something I’d remember doing.”
With the socks no longer visible, Bruce found it easier to tell himself that Tony’s color choice had probably been by accident.
Then there was the suit.
Bruce almost hadn’t noticed. From a distance he thought Tony’s pants and jacket were pure black. But when Tony, in a rush and talking on his phone the whole time (“It’s my company, Pepper, it’s not like they can start the meeting without me.”), brushed by Bruce to grab his car keys off of a lab table Bruce realized that Tony’s suit wasn’t black but pinstriped. Faintly. The lines were so thin that they might have only been a single thread wide. But, up close, Bruce saw them.
They were the same color green.
Bruce had an observer bias towards green, he knew that. He felt he could hardly be blamed for it, all things considered. Therefore he knew that if he was noticing Tony in green it was simply because Bruce had put himself into a state where he was inclined to notice it. He was making himself notice it. Tony had probably worn green the whole time and Bruce hadn’t even thought to look until he’d seen Tony with those stupid socks.
Bruce thought of all this as he watched TV. Tony was giving a press conference. Bruce looked closely. He noted Tony’s outfit: grey suit, gold tie, white shirt. Not a single hint of green to be found in all of that high-definition view. There. Proof that there was no color conspiracy and this theme to Tony’s clothing was all in Bruce’s head.
Tony finished the conference. He pressed two fingers to his lips, then lifted them in his usual V as he gave his final good-bye pose for the cameras.
Bruce frowned. He grabbed his remote and hit pause.
The light from all the camera flashes reflected perfectly off of Tony’s emerald cufflinks.
People who think they’re being sent color-coded messages through their televisions are usually considered just a little bit nuts, Bruce told himself.
He shut the TV off and swore he wouldn’t think about it.
It wasn’t that it was a problem, per se. Granted most people didn’t wear green around Bruce once they knew who he was. It was like an unspoken understanding that the color might be like red to a bull and thus best left out of sight. But it wasn’t like that was true. Color had nothing to do with it. Bruce certainly hadn’t ever asked anyone to avoid it.
So it was just... different, Bruce decided. Tony wearing green, like the velvet slippers he’d had on that morning when he’d come into the break room to grab coffee. Bruce simply wasn’t used to seeing people in green, through no fault of anybody’s, and seeing Tony do it was just throwing Bruce off a little. That was all.
Tony had found a pen.
The team was gathered around a SHIELD table for a debriefing. Somewhere, somehow, Tony had found a bright green pen. Bruce couldn’t even remember if Tony liked to use pens in these situations. He felt almost certain that’d he’d always seen Tony taking notes with some form of tech.
Granted, Tony wasn’t taking notes right now. He was rocking the pen up and down between his thumb and index finger. The top of the pen was between Tony’s teeth. His mouth was parted, though, so every time the pen hit its apex or nadir there was a click, click, click as the green plastic tapped against his teeth.
“Hey, Tony,” Clint said, after the clicking had gone on for what Bruce estimated to be about five years too long, “wanna hear the funny noises you’ll make if I start playing with my pen?”
“Didn’t know you could get your master’s certificate in snipering if you were easily distracted by writing utensils,” Tony replied. But, to everyone’s relief, he stopped moving the pen between his fingers.
Instead Tony spent the rest of the meeting sucking on the pen’s bright green cap. Which Bruce was fairly certain only he noticed.
The thing of it was that it was such a specific color. If there’d been some variation Bruce might’ve more easily ignored it, or dismissed the hypothesis that Tony was dressing in some sort of deliberate pattern. But it wasn’t. Every time, in every form, it was that exact shade of green.
To what end, though? Bruce asked himself this question because why would it matter if Tony was wearing the color on purpose?
All right: make the assumption that it wasn’t a trick of the eye and was, in fact, the shade of green that Bruce couldn’t help but identify with. Take as a given that Tony knew that. Take as a given that Tony knew that and was therefore choosing the color because Bruce identified with it.
Which meant... what, exactly?
It was late. Bruce had spent far too long in one of the labs, to the point where even he knew he had to stop and get some rest.
On the way to the elevator he noticed a soft light (Not green, his mind couldn’t help but point out, as though that proved something.) Curious, Bruce poked his head into the doorway to see who was there.
It was Tony. He’d had meetings again that day so he was once more in a suit. It was long past the time for those meetings to be over, though, so the suit (dark navy blue) was now in casual mode. Tony’s shirt was unbuttoned down to his arc reactor, which was providing the light that Bruce had seen and that Tony was currently using to read some papers he was holding.
The arc reactor light also made it easy to see Tony’s silk tie. It was undone. The two halves of it draped over Tony, perfectly framing the opening of Tony’s shirt and the bare chest exposed by it in the same shade of green.
Tony looked up from his papers. “Need something, Bruce?”
“I - no.” Bruce ran a hand through his hair and hoped the gesture passed for casual. “I was heading to bed. Night.”
“‘kay, night,” Tony said, and turned once more to his papers.
You are losing it, Banner, Bruce told himself. At least Tony hadn’t noticed.
He wasn’t supposed to identify with green that much. Bruce knew this. At least if he did identify with green it shouldn’t be with a positive association. Green meant the other guy. Green meant losing control. Green meant all the things that Bruce was supposed to hate and stay away from.
Green wasn’t supposed to be something that Bruce was happy to see on Tony.
Bruce heard the sounds of The Clash long before he got to the space in the Tower dedicated to Tony’s personal tech development. He also heard the sounds of bangs, metallic crashes, and “Dummy, so help me if you drop that I swear to God I will turn you into a jungle gym for the daycare center. Not kidding this time.”
“Sounds like you’re on schedule,” Bruce said before he turned the final corner into the room. “Do you need any help with - “
Tony wasn’t wearing green. Bruce told himself that as his words trailed off and he took in Tony’s outfit. Tony was in black pants and a tank top. Bruce noted the pants because it helped him support his theory that the tank top was not green. It was one of Tony’s older shirts, surely. One of the ones he always wore when he worked up a sweat while wrestling - sometimes literally - his latest hardware into place. Tony worked hard and got grease all over himself and his clothing. Which meant this was a black shirt that had undoubtedly lost its color over the course of many washes, and Bruce was simply imagining that Tony, bare-armed and already panting over the effort he’d just spent on whatever he was doing, was wearing anything resembling the color green.
“What? Yes. Perfect!” Tony snapped his fingers at Bruce as though Bruce had managed to finish asking his question. “Come here. I need you to hold my tool.”
Bruce had started to walk over and then stopped. Come on. Even he knew that was Tony giving him a line.
Except Tony wasn’t looking at Bruce smugly, or with his second usual option of fake innocence. If anything he seemed irritated, like he could be busy continuing with his work if Bruce would stop gathering dust in the doorway.
“Right. Uh - “ Bruce came forward. “What do you need me to - “
“Hold this.” Tony tossed something towards Bruce, then disappeared into a mess of wires that he’d pulled up from the floor.
Bruce caught the item with both hands. He looked down at it.
It was a hammer. With a green handle.
It shouldn’t matter. Tony should be able to use whatever color he wanted. It was just a color. It didn’t mean anything. Bruce was obsessing over it for no damn reason.
Bruce told himself this again and again. Each time there was a new green item (sweatpants while sparring with Happy) Bruce told himself that it was nothing (handkerchief tucked into a back jean pocket after being used to wipe motor oil off of Tony’s forehead). That (sport coat) it was nothing but his own issues (green tint that only appeared in Tony’s glass when he tilted his head back to take a drink of water out of it) and he was ignoring (hoodie) all the other colors (polo shirt) Tony wore (sweater) every day.
It meant nothing (dress shirt). There was no reason (cashmere scarf) for Bruce (jade belt buckle) to spend a single (watch band) second of his time (driving gloves) thinking about it.
(Loose towel around Tony’s hips)
Bruce was waiting by the elevator. The doors had opened to reveal Tony standing there wet, barefoot, bare chested, with a towel around his hips. Bruce didn’t even need to look down to know what color it was.
“Please tell me you just came from the pool,” Bruce said, because the alternative was the showers, and that meant - that meant thinking a lot about eye contact.
Tony quirked his eyebrows up. “I’m saying that because...?”
“Nothing. I - I forgot something in the lab.” Bruce stepped back, fully prepared to let the awkwardness pass.
The elevator doors had almost closed when Bruce put his hand between them.
“You’re doing this on purpose,” Bruce said.
“No. Yes. Maybe.” Tony shrugged. “I do a lot of things on purpose. I do a lot of things because my natural state is to make amazing things happen whether purposefully or not. Feel like narrowing down which ‘this’ you’re talking about?”
“The color.” Bruce braced both hands on the elevator doors to keep them open. “The green. You’re wearing it on purpose. Stop.”
“I’m sorry, am I hearing you correctly?” Tony asked. “Did you just tell me to stop wearing a color?”
“Green.” Bruce stepped into the elevator and hit the button to leave it on that floor. “That’s my color, not yours.”
“Don’t recall seeing your name on it, Banner,” Tony pointed out.
“Well now I’m telling you,” Bruce said. He stepped close so he could be eye to eye with Tony. “Green shirt, green socks, green anything. It’s mine.”
Tony didn’t look away. “So what you’re saying is that anything green on me is yours?”
“Yeah,” Bruce replied. Because that was the feeling thrumming through his entire body. His color. He owned it. If it was green it was his. If it touched green it was his. If Tony touched green he was -
“I actually don’t have a problem with that,” Tony told him.
“I think I’m past caring if you did,” Bruce admitted, and yanked Tony’s towel down onto the floor.