Bruce - and I can’t believe I’m even bothering to write this - is not a party person.
For a man named Bruce he’s peculiarly averse to macho chest beating and status reveling. For a guy who blows up into a ten foot tall bright green ball of muscle, rage and short-shorts, he’s really not an exhibitionist. His mind’s all full of wit and sarcasm and kindness and intelligence and ideas, and he has so much to contribute to polite society, yet he doesn’t. Keeps it all bottled up, mouth shut, head down. He knows how to mingle, how to schmooze and woo, theoretically, he just doesn’t care for it. He can’t risk the sips of champagne, the wafts of perfume, the bared shoulders and the big crowds. He treats himself like a suspicious looking package that shouldn’t be unaccompanied in public spaces, but this particularly package rates so damn high on the suspicio-metre that he’s not overly keen on being accompanied either, even by the most accomplished socialite of them all.
"Really, there are a multitude of verdant mutants who would bite their bus-sized arms off to have me as a date,” Tony would whine, on a near-daily basis, every time he’d hand Bruce an invitation like a satisfied cat bringing in a dead mouse and Bruce would treat it as such, holding it with the very tips of his fingers and placing it on the edge of his desk like it (or he) may explode at any moment. “There’s only so many rejections even I can take before ego starts to feel a slight tickling sensation,” he’d complain, flopping against the back of Bruce’s chair and ruffling a hand through his hair, greasy from not-sleeping-not-showering-just-working.
"There are plenty of fish in the sea," Bruce would simply reply, eyes trained carefully on diagrams and spreadsheets and equations. He’d feel Tony sigh in his ear, stay there for a long time, huffing a pining and mumbling something like ‘none of the other fish have climbed up buildings for me, King Kong, I’m kinda attached’ before wandering away to tux up and swagger out. Bruce didn’t swagger, he just kinda limped. And he’d never owned a tux, but he did have enough torn pants to make up for it.
In time, however, like a great sea wearing away a mighty cliff, he began to erode, and eventually cave. There’s only so long one force of nature can thwack against another before the force most afraid of cracking concedes. Tony’s afraid of a lot of things, but cracking isn’t one of them - the man’s basically one big walking crack, and I mean that in the least-weird possible way.
So, eventually, Bruce had to schmooze. It was for some Avengers charity event, and he went under the duress of Fury threatening to spike his chamomile tea and dash the consequences, threats he found to offensively stereotype the calm population - he didn’t even like chamomile tea, he was a green tea man, not that he’d admit it out loud, for obvious reasons - but ultimately be not at all hollow.
He was a clever man, and clever men knew from storybooks never to underestimate people with eyepatches.
So now and then he has to shuffle behind a swanning, triumphant Tony Stark into crowded halls of the cheering elite like a shadow behind a skyscraper, head down, hands in his pockets. He’s not an awkward fifteen year old boy, by any means - he’s a grown man, and he’s fully capable of interacting, and even being charming and funny and surprising, but that doesn’t mean he enjoys it, and it doesn’t mean he bursts with blue energy like Tony, whizzing around the room like he’s skating on ice, trading kisses and insults and megawatt smiles like they’re currency, which he supposes, for Tony, they are. He just reaches his necessary quota for handshakes and pleasant exchanges and then steps into the shadows, largely unnoticed, the crowds distracted by the rocketing fireball that is his flatmate, his colleague, his friend(?), all the while trying to separate his feelings of gratitude and displeasure to identify the exact source and object of his jealousy.
All in all, accepting an invitation from Tony Stark is a largely painful but ultimately necessary experience. Bruce thinks of it as a kinda of inoculation, a vaccination to prevent Fury’s pirate threats and Tony’s sulking and his own latent guilt at continually rejecting Tony’s offers in the face of his overwhelming hospitality, all at the expense of his own comfort. The social situations with their bright lights and clacking high heels and peels of cigarette smoke jab at him like tiny needles, the sharp ache flowing in his blood and pooling in his stomach like a bagful of knives, and it takes a while to digest and dilute them, so he can’t attend too many events at once. Sometimes he can’t stay at them too long at all. He made the first initial mistake of trying to get Tony to leave early - “just five more minutes, I swear, buddy,” he’d murmur in a low voice before getting caught up in another wave of handshakes and compliments until five minutes turned into an hour and Bruce shuffled out, unnoticed, and took a cab - but now he simply leaves. Sometimes Tony catches sight, follows, apologies bubbling from his mouth, but most of the time he wraps himself in appreciation and attention, and Bruce can’t find it in himself to blame him.
Things change when the Captain returns from his debriefing. It took a couple of months, a handful of S.H.I.E.L.D’s finest and George Lucas’s back catalogue, but when Steve returns from his government-sponsored intensive workshop specially engineered to catch him up on the decades he’d been AWOL he’s — he’s absolutely no different. He knows a lot more, theoretically, about the world around him, but like a socially awkward teenage girl reading Twilight to learn about romance he’s still utterly incapable of putting his theories into practice. Steve is loaded up with too much tradition, too many niceties and far too many manners to fully comprehend the subtle social nuances and references of a far brasher age, and Bruce finds that comforting, finds it nice that someone looks as shoddy in a tux as he does. Not that Steve, poster boy of America, his specifications essentially programmed to work the hell out of any form of tailored garment looks bad in whatever he wears, he just looks ultimately unhappy to be in it, to be in the social situations a tux usually entails. He’s like a fast burning star - as soon as he arrives he garners enough attention to rival Tony, he shakes as many hands and kisses as many babies and takes as many numbers - but whereas Tony’s stamina has set him up for infinite charm, and Steve has been known to run into the next town and back on a morning jog for funsies, he eventually flags. He becomes temporarily jaded by what he sees and experiences, and shirks back into the shadows, seeking out Bruce like an Iron Man suit to Magneto (but that’s a story for another time).
The first time it happens Bruce is observing casually, quietly, his hands in his pant pockets, his glasses slipping down the bridge of his nose. His body’s here but his mind’s stuck in his lab, where it most likes to be, and he’s so lost he almost fails to notice the brushing of shoulders as Steve settles beside him with a slow exhale.
"Welcome," Bruce smiles cordially, and Steve flashes him a puzzled little frown, "to Stark’s Arm Candy Anonymous."
Steve laughs a little, quiet and abashed and staring at his shoes, “You sound like a veteran,” he smiles, and Bruce shakes his head.
"I feel like one. You look winded," he observes, simple and clinical and still finding it occasionally tricky to converse with the figure that embodies everything he tried to be and everything that eventually destroyed him.
"The Super Serum apparently didn’t set me up for having so many women… grope me," he puts delicately, cheeks still a little pink, "In one night."
Bruce nods sagely, his smile wry, “A sadly overlooked flaw in the formula.”
"Just a little overwhelming," Steve agrees, and Bruce looks up at him, squinting a little, and knowing how that feels. If a super-juiced superhero finds these situations flustering, how is a ticking paper maiche nuclear weapon meant to cope? Yet, somehow, incomprehensibly, instead of worse, it makes him feel a little better.
"You should get some air," he prescribes, and Steve’s face falls into an apology, as if it’s Bruce’s odd, polite way of asking him to leave, but as he makes to move away Bruce follows him.
"I’ll join you, if you don’t mind," he adds, and Steve relaxes for the first time since he put on the goddamn tux.
After that night, Bruce makes less effort to sparkle and shine and exhaust himself with conversation and ‘networking’, instead sinking back into the shadows with a baby-faced senior citizen who has no idea what any form of networking even is, no matter how many times Tony’s tried to feed him business lectures. He figures neither of them, even combined, are going to match Tony’s sheer exuberance, his uncompromising ability to make an impression, so why try? They both charm, in their own, quiet, unusual ways, but Tony’s over-the-top indulgence tends to steal the show, something both of them are grateful for. Sometimes they talk, quietly, companionably - sometimes they even make each other laugh, odd for two who have lost so much - but most of the time they’re silent, and easy, and from an outsider’s perspective, brooding, but on the inside simply calm, and restful - very necessary qualities in men who do much, and know much.
And Tony’s not half as distracted by the hoards as Bruce had come to think he was, because he picks up on it pretty much immediately.
"Mind if I cut in?" he drawls, suddenly not half way across the room at the minibar but directly beside them as they dip their heads in low conversation. They both look up, Bruce slowly, and Steve quick, caught-out, deer-in-headlights.
"Tony," Bruce greets simply, "Any marriage proposals this evening?"
"Two, but the night’s still young and my fingers are still bare, so don’t lose out hope just yet," he replies, waggling the fingers of his left hand pointedly. He turns his attention to the Captain, who nods shortly, with a curt ‘Stark’ under his breath. Steve had been the picture of uncomfortable humility since the whole calling-the-guy-who-sacrificed-himself-in-space-with-a-nuke-‘selfish’ thing, and hadn’t particularly seen him since, but Tony edges into his personal space, "Steve," he says, and claps him on the shoulder, sudden and friendly and intimate, like two guys who just saved the world together, "You’re looking good for the oldest guy in the room," he winks, before sashaying off to get his ass kissed some more. "You guys, keep bonding, I expect to be invited to all of your sleepovers," he calls over his shoulder, and Steve just stares at a resigned Bruce, exasperated.
"Welcome," Bruce reiterates, and Steve just shakes his head.
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