The first time Bruce hulked out in the lab, it wasn't actually Tony's fault. No, really. It wasn't.
Technically, it wasn't really anyone's fault, as such. Pretty much everyone acknowledged that it was one of those things, that you really can't plan for, and even the best planning and calmest surroundings can't wholly guarantee won't happen. Everyone except, of course, Bruce himself, who, being Bruce, decided he was to blame, and in fact made a pretty decent attempt to swear off sleeping afterwards.
Tony knew all about that. Etched crystal clear in his memory. He knew exactly where that was coming from, and where it got you.
The first time Bruce hulked out in the lab, it was coming out of a nightmare. The kind of sucker-punch out of your subconscious that no amount of meditation before bed can prevent, if the week running up to it is that bad, and full of that many triggers. And, probably, they should have cottoned on to that. Probably someone should have noted that (Coulson, possibly, did), and maybe suggested Bruce have a quiet little sabbatical for a day or two somewhere, de-stress, something, but ... But, see, this was their life. This was what being an Avenger meant, with the week from hell being followed on by, guess what, the week from hell, and sometimes they kind of just ... forgot, really, that life had ever been different, and they didn't have a battle with a supervillain every other Tuesday, and ...
And fucking army didn't show up every so often and make pointed noises at SHIELD about property damage, and unstable weaponry, and containment procedures, and the advisability of letting biological weapons attempt to live normal lives when sneezing wrong in their direction turned them into hulking great property-destroying monstrosities that would be better off getting put the fuck down ...
Yeah. Tony's got JARVIS building a little portfolio of the more objectionable Generals, just ready to start playing some fucking games with reputations and credit ratings and connections to the arms industry, fuck you very much, see what you get for messing with a guy who's lab partner was Tony fucking Stark, you bunch of asswipes ... But that was beside the point.
So they were in the lab, Bruce and Tony, thirty-six hours after Fury had seen the passel of military menaces off with a flat stare that made Tony inescapably think of donuts and getting stabbed in the neck. Tony was working off a pile of seething anger the best way he knew how -by building awesome and awesomely destructive machinery and having a long and fairly vicious snark-war with JARVIS- and Bruce was mostly hiding out in his lab to get away from everyone hovering worriedly at his shoulder, half wondering when he was going to break calm and hulk out, and half wanting to reassure him, ad nauseam, that no-one was going to lock him up or put him down or stop him from going fucking shopping for tea when he needed some in case he had a freak-out in the spice aisle.
Tony hadn't said anything, at the time. You could reassure someone until you were blue in the face, or you could actually throw on your suit of armour and stomp all over the people trying to hurt them. And hey, JARVIS had his portfolio, and political ruination for Bruce's enemies was only a few keystrokes away, if Tony should so decide. So the whole "I am there for you" schtick, kind of pointless, and also not what Bruce was wanting, to judge by the hunted look on his face when he let himself into Tony's lab and made pleading eyes towards the privacy locks.
Which Tony had hesitated over, for a second, considering that he was, you know, banging metal about and having a pissing match with JARVIS, and generally not being what someone in need of calm should probably be looking for, but, well, Bruce was the one who came here, and he probably knew what he was doing, so.
In deference to the company, Tony turned off the music. And then, when the silence around JARVIS's voice got worrisome, turned it back on, but quieter, and he let Bruce pick the tunes. Avoiding a hulk-out was probably worth listening to six hours of classical shit. Probably.
And they'd sort of just ... hid out, for the next sixteen hours or so, having Natasha ninja-drop them off some food once in a while (Bruce, all Bruce, baby, Tony had protein shakes and something unidentifiable and crunchy in a tub under the workbench), Tony building something he figured was one day going to be a ballistic launch pad for the Ironman based off ground-to-air missile tech, and Bruce puttering around in the background catching up on six days worth of biochem journals and drawing equations on the walls of Tony's lab in purple sharpie that he'd found lying in a drawer somewhere (Clint's, Tony'd swear it).
And it was all going fine, it was going swimmingly, until Bruce started looking droopy and bleary, like the adrenalin rush he'd been stubbornly refusing for the past day had finally stopped fighting him on the issue and ebbed out, leaving him ... Exhausted and shaky, and just flat, really. And Tony, when JARVIS had tactfully pointed this little detail out to him, had nodded to the pull-out cot he kept in the corner for those long weeks when they need the supervillain-beating tech right now (actually, technically, for those occasions where he needed to lie through his teeth to Pepper about how spending all his time in the lab wasn't cutting into his sleep, no ma'am, look, there's this cot right here, and she'd nod and smile and pretend to believe him, and then have Natasha stealth-sedate him when things calmed down again), and Bruce had looked tired and grateful and just ... way too much for Tony to know what to do with, so that he'd felt stupidly relieved when the man had curled in a ball under the blanket and either fell into a meditative trance or fell asleep, Tony wasn't sure which.
And that was still fine, that was still good, up until three hours later when Tony almost, almost, didn't notice the noises starting.
Nightmare noises. He hadn't registered them at first. If he'd been two years younger and two years stupider, he might not have recognised them, either. Rhodey'd had them, on occasion, after hard missions, but Tony hadn't understood them at the time. I mean, nightmare, sure, he'd gotten that, but not what they meant. It was only later ... Yinsen hadn't had many, those three months in the cave, but there'd been some nights, some nights when he'd been just that shaken, and then there'd been the nights, then and now, when Tony'd woken up himself, rigid and sweat-drenched in his bed, and one of those sounds clawing its way up his throat ...
He knew what they meant, was what he was saying. He knew what those noises were. When Bruce started, not twitches, no motions to key someone in, controlled even in his sleep, but those noises crawling out of him, a whimper here or there, a small choked noise that Tony knew wanted to be a scream ...
They all had nightmares. Fucking all of them. Get anyone to tell you different. They'd all been through shit. Mostly they kept the nightmares private, kept them tucked away, just bouts every once in a while after those weeks, and if one happened in company, punching you up out of a nap in-flight or in the lab or what have you, the rest of them politely forbore to mention it, and something hot and liquid would make its way to you if circumstances allowed, or someone's back to lean on/hide behind while you got your shit back together if they didn't. They all had them. They all knew.
None of them had ever seen Bruce have one. Tony only realised that later, only figured that out after the fact. He wondered, afterwards, how many times Bruce had rigidly kept himself awake, those long watches, just to avoid the chance of one happening. Just in case.
Probably a whole hell of a lot. And that ... that kind of made Tony mad. Mad as hell. And he wasn't completely sure why.
But that night, tucked up in that lab with a sleeping, crying Bruce, blinking up from his machines to watch the man try to claw his way to wakefulness ... Tony hadn't been smart enough to register the possibilities. Running on empty himself, bleary and not quite out of the zone yet, he'd just watched as Bruce stiffened under the blanket, limbs drawing taut (like he was being restrained, like someone was holding him down), noises slowly building in his throat and adrenalin, long fucking denied, pulsing its way through the man's system. Tony'd just fucking stood there, wondering distantly whether or not you were supposed to wake people up from nightmares, and totally not fucking registering that Bruce + fear + adrenalin = HULK, whether he was asleep or awake.
So when he moved over to the cot, one hand tentatively reaching out to try and touch Bruce's shoulder, bring him out of the bad places ... He'd been really fucking surprised when Bruce's eyes had flared open in his rigid face, the irises wide and green and blown, and Bruce had roared up off the cot, flooding great and big and green like an oncoming tide, and swept Tony off his fucking feet in one of the Hulk's giant hands and slammed him against the wall.
Which, ow. Just, you know, so you know. That hurt like a mother, and even if he had managed to avoid hitting the wall with his head as well as his back, it had been a long second or two before the world stopped ringing long enough for him to take stock of the situation.
Which was, in essence, him in tank top and sweatpants and bare feet, pinned against the wall in his lab by an enraged, terrified and desperate Hulk who'd woken up out of a nightmare and hadn't the first fucking clue what was going on, beyond the fact that whatever it was had terrified Bruce past reach of calm.
Fucking A. He was just saying.
Alarms started blaring in about two seconds flat, JARVIS having an entirely understandable shit fit and alerting just about everyone in communicator range of the situation, and Tony had a wild moment in the middle of all the noise and blaring and ringing in his head, staring down the barrel of big, green and angry's fist, of thinking "Oh, fuck off, seriously?". And then ... Then his hands had come up, instinctively, to wrap around the Hulk's wrist, trying to pull it back, to get him to let Tony go before the crushing grip at his chest damaged something he really needed, thanks, and he'd looked desperately up at the Hulk, right into his eyes, and seen ...
Fear. Fucking fear, not anger, or at least the thing powering the anger, a great big sea of it in those eyes, in that massive green face, and he'd thought, how many times, huh? How many times had Bruce sat there, and smiled serenely, and been wondering the whole fucking time when SHIELD was going to drop him, when he'd do that bit of damage too far, when he'd hulk out at the wrong time, hurt the wrong person, and those fucking army boys with their suggestive words and snide insinuations would get exactly what they wanted, and he'd be fucking helpless, fuck, maybe he'd even deserve it, deserve what they did to him ... How many times had he woken up out of nightmares, hulked or otherwise, and wondered when they would become reality?
Someone was rushing down the corridor to the lab. He could hear them. And they'd have tranq-guns, and sedatives, and everyone would be all calm, and professional, and maybe the team wouldn't let them past, maybe they'd help try to calm Bruce down first, or maybe they'd tranq first, ask questions later, to try and get Tony out of the danger zone, and you know what? Fuck that. Fuck all of that.
He told JARVIS to lock the door. Staring down into the Hulk's desperate eyes, he ordered JARVIS, in no uncertain terms, to shut the fucking door and keep it shut, come hell or high water, until he'd gotten Bruce back, or the Hulk decided he didn't need doors, whichever happened first.
Steve was going to yell at him, later. A lot. (Forty-seven minutes, as it turned out). But fuck that shit. Tony'd gotten yelled at his whole fucking life, and done it all anyway.
"Hey, Big Guy." Stay frosty, that was the key. Smooth and easy, like he always was in the face of danger, and this wasn't danger. Not really. This was Bruce, and Bruce was having one hell of a bad week, and Tony knew all about that, knew all about the shakes and the fear, clawing your way up out of the nightmare, trying to figure out where the fuck you are, and who's going to hurt you. He knew. He fucking knew. "Bruce. Hulk. Buddy. Easy, yeah? Breathe for me, okay?"
The Hulk snarled at him, guttural and pained, green eyes casting wildly around him. Tony wasn't a threat. He was no threat, not like this, and anyway, they fought together, faced fucking Loki together, not just him and Bruce, but him and Hulk, and maybe he didn't look right without the armour, maybe they'd never met quite face to face before, not like this, not without a gold faceplate and electronic voice projection between them, but ... But the Hulk knew him, and Bruce knew him, and if either of them thought Tony would ever fucking hurt them, then Tony was going to let them kill him.
"It was a nightmare," he said, low and fierce, gripping the thick, green wrist between his hands, his feet swinging in the air. "I know it was ... I know what it felt like, Big Guy. I don't know where you think you are, but I know what it felt like, and I swear to you, wherever it was, you're not there." Caves, or paralysed on couches that were supposed to be safe, or strapped down somewhere unmentionable, who the fuck knew, but it didn't matter. It couldn't matter, because wherever it was, you weren't there now. That was what you told yourself. That was what you had to tell yourself. "You're with me, buddy, we're in the lab, you're 100% safe. I promise you."
He tried a smile, light and casual, that touch of breezy Tony Stark confidence that made allies smile and opponents forget they had him broken, if they wanted. It ... didn't quite work, exactly. The Hulk narrowed his eyes at it, shook Tony a little, banging him back against the wall. Yeah. Okay. Not good, got it. But ... Something else, then. A different promise, if that one ... if it was too raw for that one to be believed.
"I've got your back," he rasped, when he had breath back. Looking up into dark, storming eyes, seeing Bruce behind them somewhere, hearing the little noises crawling out of a dreaming man's throat, and letting his own anger, his own black fury, bubble up. Fuck it. Let them see. Let them know, exactly who Tony Stark was, exactly what he was willing to do. Let them see what Ironman was made of. "Bruce. Hulk. Wherever we are, whoever comes through that door, whatever the fuck you think is going on. I fucking swear it. They're not getting to you unless they go through me." He had a flash, Yinsen, a glowing coal nearing a face, the sounds of gunfire fading away, and it seared through him like wildfire, made him blind for a second, and when his vision cleared ...
The Hulk was watching him, with something new in his eyes, something Tony usually only saw with a faceplate in the way, something usually only directed at Ironman, not him, not when he was like this, all small and frail and arrogant and annoying. The Hulk was watching him, and the fear in those huge eyes was ebbing, slowly, away. Anger, fear, the surging rush of adrenalin, the remnants of whatever nightmare had started this. It was all fading out as the Hulk, very gently, set him back on his feet, and steadied him as he staggered a little, and, with big green eyebrows crinkling a bit in confusion, tried a small smile.
The next few minutes, after that, were kind of confusing. Admittedly, the kind of confusing Tony was (mostly) used to, with doors breaking down, and Natasha and Clint dropping from the ceiling, and Steve storming in yelling the house down, and the Hulk, already half-way back to Bruce, backing away with a warning rumble while Tony paced belligerantly in front of him and warded the lot of them off with snappy putdowns and edgy, adrenalin-fueled snarling. A confusing few minutes full of people taking other people down off alerts, and someone rustling up shock blankets, and scanning for injuries, and Clint exasperatedly asking him "What the fuck did you do now, Stark, did you poke him with a stick?", and Steve glowering at him and promising dire retribution for a locked door and even five seconds of worry.
Until Bruce, now only slightly green around the edges, raised his head up from where Natasha was calmly and cautiously bundling a shock blanket around his shoulders, and snapped at the lot of them to leave Tony alone. Which shut them up in short order, either because of the still-present threat of the Hulk, or because Bruce was defending Tony, he wasn't quite sure.
And then Bruce turned to look at him, to look at Tony, and there was shame in his eyes, and pain, and lingering fear, and something maybe like gratitude, and fuck, Tony couldn't handle that. Nuh-uh. No way. Not that, and not the hesitant, shame-faced, slightly fearful attempt at apology Bruce tried to follow it up with.
"Save it," he dismissed, waving a hand and trying not to flinch at the way Bruce's face froze up for a second. "It's not like you, oh, say, accidentally blew up the kitchen by turning the microwave into a bomb after three days without sleep while trying to avoid a nightmare." Which wasn't the whole story, of course - there'd been alcohol involved, too, and heartbreak, and some pool-cues and a blaring row with Rhodey, and JARVIS had frozen him out with exquisitely polite and purely functional answers for three days afterwards when he'd tried to pin the blame on the AIs influence. But. Bruce got the point regardless, yes?
Shit happened. Shit always fucking happened, and it was always going to, and yeah, Bruce went a bit green and ragey when it happened to him, but Tony blew shit up, and Thor nearly blacked out all of fucking New York with a thunderstorm that one time, and Steve quietly and systematically destroyed every piece of gym equipment SHIELD possessed, and Clint made every junior agent cringe in paranoid terror at the sound of a copy machine for a week, and no-one knew what Natasha did in her room on the bad days, but fucking Coulson refused to go near her, and Loki in full flight wouldn't faze that man on a bad day, so.
They had their shit, their bad days, their nightmares. They occasionally leveled city blocks, or blacked out New York, or flattened terror cells in a bad mood. But, fuck it, they also saved the world. A lot. They stood between the little people and the nightmares all the fucking time, and if Bruce thought that one little nightmare and some bruises on Tony's back that he could have given himself testing a propulsion system were going to ... to get him carted off, or locked up, or make Tony scared of him ...
Fuck that shit. Fuck it right up, 'cause Bruce was Tony's lab partner, and his team, and just sort of his, and JARVIS had his little portfolio, and Tony was richer than Croesus and built the Ironman from missile scraps, and anyone who came for Bruce could fucking come through him, so there!
And maybe he might have said part of that sort of out loud, and maybe Steve and Pepper sort of sat on him for three days until he got some fucking sleep, and maybe Bruce, regardless, tried to stay awake for the next fifty hours in paranoid terror, just in case, until Natasha and Coulson between them did some sneaky-ass thing involving his favourite tea and horsepills and a snuggly blanket, but ...
But Natasha looked at Tony differently after that, just a little hint of maybe pride sometimes, when she looked at him, that Tony'd never seen before. Maybe Steve didn't yell at Tony quite so much, or call Pepper on his ass when he was getting 'tetchy'. Maybe team-nights were a little different, a little easier. Maybe people ... didn't keep the nightmares quite so private anymore, didn't look away so much when they handed something hot and liquid down the line. Maybe Bruce started to look ... calmer, and more relaxed, and less like he half-expected them to lock him up if he looked at them funny.
Maybe Fury even fucking loosened the watch on them, a little, even Bruce, and fuck Tony sideways if he'd ever believed that would happen, so.
The first time Bruce hulked out in the lab, it wasn't Tony's fault. It really, seriously, wasn't. But if those were the results, if Bruce sort of smiled at him, sometimes, and the Hulk had taken to cuddling him a bit after a battle ... Well. Tony'd been blamed for worse things, hadn't he?
Gift horses, teeth. That's all he was saying. Capisce?