Tony never knew anything was wrong with him, until that visit to the doctor back when he was fourteen.
He’d gotten in a car accident. Or rather, not really so much of an accident as a miscalculation. One that hadn’t even been his fault. Rocks. Fucking rocks. He hadn’t taken those into consideration. The speed and the curves and the likely number of other drivers on the road, given the time of day, sure, but the rocks... that had been stupid.
“Okay, Tony, now I need you to be honest with me. Does this hurt?” the doctor had said, and pulled a little at his wrist, manipulating it.
Tony shook his head, and the angle of pressure changes, and he grabbed at the exam table as a wave of sickening gray-yellow, the color of baby vomit, washed clean through him. It was a disgusting color, one he’d never felt before, and it was very nearly too much to handle. He felt like he was going to throw up himself, longed to throw up, just to get it out of his head.
“Tony?” the doctor asked again, looking at him with a strange expression on his face. “Did you feel that? You should have felt that.”
The teen clenched and unclenched his hand, trying to get that flood of color out of his vision. Feeling? What the fuck was he talking about? There wasn’t ever any feeling. Just color. Like the brighter sparking orange of the cuts on his face. Like that dull gray-yellow throb of the bruise that’s spreading across his chest. Those colors he was used to, familiar, the color of pain. This was way, way worse. “It’s just yellow,” he groaned. “Fuck, make it go away.”
The doctor had given him a strange look, and let go. “I think you sprained it. Badly. we need to get you in for x-rays.”
Tony didn’t know what he’d said wrong, but it bugged him as the technician tugged and pushed him into place for the x-ray. Who felt pain? You felt the way glass was smooth or the texture of a fresh pad of paper. Feeling was for tactile things only. Pain, sensation, was always color.
His father had been waiting for him two hours later, after the doctor decided he hadn’t broken anything and they’d gotten his hand wrapped and bandaged. His father didn’t look happy. Tony wasn’t sure if that was because he’d stolen one of the cars to go joyriding, or because he’d wrecked it. It sure as hell wasn’t because he’d gotten hurt. He knew that much.
But it turned out not to be any of those things.
“The doctor called me,” his father said after a straight fifteen minutes of silence on the dark, long ride home. “He said you told him your wrist was yellow, that you didn’t feel anything. He said you tore a couple of ligaments, Tony. That shit’s supposed to hurt.”
Tony doesn’t know what to say to that.
“I told him to fuck off, none of his goddamn business, I don’t have some kind of retard for a son,” Howard continued, and kept his eyes on the road. “But you probably shouldn’t say anything like that to anybody again, you understand? Nobody’s gonna understand it...”
“I don’t care how you see things, son. You’re a smart kid, almost as smart as your old man, and nobody ever gets that smart without being a little odd. So put that Stark brain of yours to work, and say something different the next time.”
It had been the most his father had said to him, in one go, in nearly a year that didn’t have to do with some kind of science project. Tony didn’t know how to take that, what to say. But it seemed like a time for honesty, so he asked the question that had been burning in the back of his mind since the doctor had given him that weird look in the exam room.
“What’s pain supposed to be like, dad?”
His dad didn’t say anything more to him.
He got grounded for the car, locked out of the downstairs lab, forbidden to see any girls, all the usual shit for almost a month as punishment, but Tony hardly cared. It wasn’t going to stop him from taking the car again, once his dad got it fixed.
That didn’t matter at all.
What did was that there was something wrong with him.
He’d never realized that before. How wrong it was that sensation was color. So what did that mean about the rest of his brain? Like how music was color and words had shape and weight and... and mass, and numbers... how numbers curved into grids and turned up into spirals and wove in and out of each other, clear as anything he might have seen with his eyes themselves, and...
It was just how he was. It wasn’t going away. He didn’t want it to go away. It wasn’t like he could just separate it from everything else, feel pain like normal people evidently felt pain, however that was, or not see music. He didn’t want to lose that.
But Tony still swore that he’d never talk to anyone about it again.
Just cause he was weird didn't mean anybody had to know about it.
Over the next few years, Tony tried, with varying degrees of success, to do what he’d committed himself to doing on the drive home from that hospital. Keep the crossed wires in his head from being an issue for him.
Most of the time, as he moved on through his education, he found it useful, helpful, being able to look at a problem in a way that none of his classmates could. It pissed the seniors off to no end, having some smart-ass little freshman in all their classes showing them up, but it wasn’t his fault that he looked at a curve, and could instantly see the equation that described it, laid out neatly in his mind already. No fuss, no muss. Simple.
It wasn’t so simple, though, when the ultra-expensive private high school ran out of classes that challenged him in any significant way in his spring semester, sophomore year. And his father insisted that, despite the fact that his acceptance package to MIT was sitting on his work bench in his bedroom, he maintain at least some contact with the damn place.
You’re a mouthy little shit, Tony, and you know it. You need friends your own age. You’re staying there.
Tony thought that was insane. Friends? Who the fuck said anything about high school friends? It’s not like he needed them. It’s not like he even really had any. Everybody there thought he was more than a little weird. He liked his classmates in the college classes he got to attend three days a week a hell of a lot better. They didn’t think he was some kind of freak. Most of them were arguably geekier than he was...
So Tony thought maybe his dad was fucking with him or something, leaving him there.
And then he got an invitation to a party. Thrown by one of the senior girls. Clinging to her friend as she handed him the note in between fourth period and lunch, shy in her big sweater, teased hair falling over her shoulders.
She looked cute, way cuter than any of the half-dozen girls in the MIT physics program, so Tony agreed. Even if hanging out with high schoolers really should have been beneath a college student. She was cute.
She was even cuter, the night of the party three days later, with that teased hair falling down around her shoulders, across his lap, her head bobbing between his knees with his cock in her blissfully warm mouth, in some bedroom upstairs in her family’s ludicriously large mansion, her parents in the Caymans for the month. It was thrilling.
Tony ran his fingers through her hair, gripping tight, feeling her flex around him. God, that felt good. Really good. A smooth feeling, frictionless, white. round. Completely without feature, without blemish, nothing to detract from the perfection. A sphere, realized in all its glory.
He laid back on the bed, gasping, overcome with just how utterly right that was, that shape that was expanding to fill every corner of his mind, all consuming...
And then something - that damn girl, had to be, had to be, his suddenly fevered mind told him - burst it open, draining all that pressure, destroying that beautiful, beautiful thing...
She crawled up next to him on the bed, reaching for her half-finished cup of warm beer on the nightstand. Tony listened to her take a sip, edge up to lie next to him, trying to cuddle into his side. He moved his arm, not really wanting to touch her, sweating, angry at whatever she’d done to ruin the shape.
The girl, however, seemed to take that as permission to move into her space and kiss his cheek. “You like that, Tony?” she purred in what the teen assumed was supposed to be a seductive voice. Damn, he’d heard better off the interns his father brought home every now and them.
“You ruined it,” he told he flatly. “It was so cool, and you ruined it. Really kind of mad at you for that.”
She sat up then, and slapped him on her way off the bed. “You’re an asshole,” she snapped over her shoulder as she pulled her shirt back over her head and stormed from the room.
It was then that Tony’s brain finally caught up with his body, and he realized what had just happened.
Right. Pretty girl. Getting hard. First blowjob. Coming in her mouth...
So that was what sex looked like, he thought to himself, and wondered if it wasn’t another one of those weird sensation crossed wire things.
Still. It had been fantastic. Sex... sex was fantastic.
He'd never seen anything like that before. Not even when doing math.
So he just filed his reaction under the don’t tell anybody about this category, figuring that getting slapped by a girl at the end of things wasn’t a good way to make sure it happened again.
By the time he finished his undergraduate degree five semesters later, he’d gotten completely comfortable with faking all the socially acceptable reactions to the act. Part of him hated it, though, how he couldn’t just enjoy it how he wanted to enjoy it. Lay there and enjoy the shapes.
But he knew better than to think anyone was going to exactly understand that.
When Tony was nineteen, he tried drugs for the first time.
Cocaine, two lines of it, some frat party.
His friends said it would be like flying, like life sped up, all the bullshit gone, colors and bright and beautiful as some hyper-slick music video, everything but the truth gone. They said it was like being god, if only for a few minutes. Tony thought that sounded pretty damn good. Like listening to a Mozart symphony played live, maybe, or like surfing the crest of a particularly difficult differential equation.
It was nothing like that. It was, it turned out, a huge mistake.
Color became saturated, sure, to the point of explosion, his mind so full of some insidious shade of violet-pink that he thought he would bleed it out through his eye sockets, claws from deep within it assaulting the dark space that defined his body with tesselating conic sections that defied his ability to calculate, slipping away from him in a haze of gold laughter, the same color of something dug out of some decrepit tomb somewhere...
He had no idea how long that went on for, except that by the time it finally faded,the sun was coming up outside. And by the time he'd finished vomiting in the frat-house bathroom, trying with some marginal success to banish that velvet-hued monstrosity from his mind, he'd had enough presence of mind to call himself a cab and get back to his apartment. Just in time for that thing to morph into some winged creature with perfectly curved feathers dividing out into infinity.
Tony had never experienced anything so horrifying. And he vowed he'd never do drugs again. Classical music, sex, math was way better for tripping out. At least it didn't try to fucking kill him.
But then, a few years later when he was working on a Master's degree in robotic engineering out of sheer boredom, his father died - suddenly, unexpectedly, shockingly - and Tony needed something. Anything. Anything at all to cut through the blanched gray wall that descended down through his mind on the day of the funeral, growing thicker and stronger and more impenetrable every day.
Obie told him to go see a shrink, even set up an appointment for him, but Tony couldn't communicate to the nice woman what he was dealing with. You're grieving, it's natural, she'd say, and Tony would just stare at her.
It wasn't grief. At least, not like he'd heard how other people, normal people, dealt with grief, experienced grief. For him, it was as real and as solid as if somebody had bricked him into a corner of his mind, trapping him in the dark, like that guy from that Poe poem.
I don't need to fucking talk about my feelings, he finally snapped at her in the second session. I need this fucking gray mass to go the fuck away.
She just pursed her lips, confused, and he'd stormed out.
Dad was right, nobody's ever gonna understand, Tony thought to himself on the drive home, and wondered for the first time if maybe his dad hadn't been like this too. If his dad saw things, experienced the world, like he did.
The thought sent a wave of blue-black guilt washing up over across the top of that wall, over everything, and Tony damn near crashed his newly-inherited Porsche 911 into the back of the Chevy in front of him. He only barely managed to pull off onto the median, and turned the engine off as he was pulled under the surface.
When it subsided, when his mind cleared enough for him to start thinking again, he realized something had to be done. Something just beyond music or color or numbers.
He started drinking. And while beer had just always been a bad idea - it made everything go a fuzzy, indistinct dirty-snow brown that he'd never trusted - hard liquor I large, liver-kill quantities, crappy vodka and whiskey especially, had the effect of making that gray wall blur into two easily manageable dimensions.
Sure, there were other side effects of drinking that much. It didn't just flatten out the grayness, but everything else, too. Equations no longer curled up through themselves like they always had, conversations didn't spread out like three-dimensional scrabble games anymore, sounds lost their color and color lost its feeling and feeling lost its shape.
It was okay, though, it was all okay. He was trying to escape from all that. It was better with it all gone.
He skipped a lot of class that next month. There was no point in going if he couldn't see anything that was going on. He went to a lot of bars, and even tried to have sex a couple of times, but everything was so damn flat it was about as much fun as looking at a topographic map of the Grand Canyon and wondering how deep it was.
But it wasn't until week five of his binge that he realized he had to stop. It wasn't the way his place had kind of started to smell really bad, or how Obie kept calling, or anything like that. No.
He was working on a model, one of his proposed designs for his thesis project, when he sliced his thumb open with an exacto-knife. Through the nail, almost to the bone.
It hurt, Tony knew. It hurt like nothing he'd ever felt before...but he felt it. Tactile. Nothing else, though.
He couldn't see yellow anywhere.
Tony knew he was too drunk to drive himself to the hospital, so he called Rhodie instead, a junior from one of the undergrad classes he TA'ed for. They were something approximating friends, as close as Tony ever really got to it in his life anyway, and the guy said he'd be over in ten.
"Thanks," Tony said tersely, and tossed the phone away, squeezing the dish towel tighter around his bleeding thumb, thinking to himself that maybe this was what it was like to be normal.
Rhodie, being ever the responsible AFROTC cadet that he was, chewed him a new asshole on the way to the hospital, but Tony didn't really mind. He'd figured out a way to be like everyone else, and that in itself was almost worth the five stitches he had to get.
He never drank quite that much again, but if he overindulged every so often, he didn't think anyone could really blame him for it. Drinking was fun, being drunk was fun, and it was something of a relief to have a reliable, trustworthy escape from the constant, abnormally hyperactive machinations of his own brain. Nice to feel like everyone else, even if only for a little while.
Even if nobody else understood that at all.
Obie was always setting up meetings. Obie set up so many damn meeting that Tony couldn't hardly be bothered to care, or remember, when any of them were. If somebody needed him for something and it was really that important, they could come and find him themselves, and not torture him with the details of it all.
He had more important shit to do.
Like what he was working on in his office at the main R&D lab at Stark Industries that afternoon.
He'd gotten an idea, an absolutely magnificent idea, the night before. His current girlfriend - probably ex-girlfriend now, like it mattered - had been on top of him, riding him hard, and she'd twisted or pushed or done something, and changed the shape of the structure of his orgasm, building up in his mind, and he'd see something amazing. Something that had to be done. So he'd pushed her off and thrown something on and rushed to the office, working that model in his mind down into it's component equations all the way there.
Where he'd been for almost eighteen hours, trying to lay it all out in a way that could be translated, then expressed, to his engineers. This was way too complex for the biggest of chalkboards, and Tony had zero patience for computer coding at times like this. But he couldn't just get it out, he knew, unless something a little less conventional was tried to...
"Tony?" Obie's undisguisedly confused voice asked from somewhere that Tony knew vaguely to be the direction of the door. "What are you doing?"
It was the first time somebody had spoken to him in the past six hours, when one of the interns had come in to deliver more sticky notes and some of those metal stands the cafeteria used to hold up order numbers for the servers to see, and the sound of something other than the pounding green and golds of AC/DC very nearly threatened to undo everything that was running through Tony's head.
It took him a moment to respond.
"Working, Obie, thanks. You can leave now..." he managed to get out, distracted by the uninvited presence in his work space, and looked back at the expanse of neatly colored-coded squares in their hexogenal grid on the room's main table, three of those metal stands rising from just the right spots, with more notes positioned, two in spiral, one vertically arranged. On some of the notes was neat black writing of variables or numerical values, on others, equations, symbols that stood for other things he hadn't gotten around to defining yet that kept changing based on where he moved them in the whole...
"Tony? We have a meeting with Oscorp right now about the biological..."
Ah. That super-soldier serum bullshit or whatever, Tony remembered. Promising. But no, that wasn't more important than what was trying to get out of his head. That huge plane of equation laid out before him in his mind. "Fuck the bio-enhancement initiative for the Army, Obie, it can wait until I'm done here."
"And when will that be?"
That was a different voice. A very different voice, much more irritated, far less forgiving than Obie's normally indulgent tones, and Tony turned away from his fifty square feet of mess to figure out who that...
"Norman," Tony acknowledged, nodding the to the CEO and the four or five people that were clearly out in the hall. Damn. Norman Osmond was the last person he needed in his workspace while he was trying to get something done. The man, he'd always thought, was a snake. Smart, too, which meant that having him around for something in the development phase out the project immediately at risk. And Tony wanted this one all to himself.
"I'm sort of in the middle of a classified project right now, eyes only and all that," he lied, just wanting the man and his entourage gone before the math is his head flattened out and he lost it forever. "Obie should have told you that I wasn't going to be able to waste your time today."
"Tony, your father and I..." the other CEO began, holding out a hand and walking forward, and Tony felt the carefully-nurtured curve of equations in his mind start to collapse.
So Tony just reached for the remote and turned up the music, letting Walk This Way blare at deafening forest-kelly volumes until Obie finally got the hint and drug Norman Osmond from the room.
Two days later, Tony handed the draft project program to his engineering team. One of the leads pointed out that this was a great deal more complicated than a standard nuclear fusion reactor, and he told them to stop bitching and get to work.
They lost the partnership proposal with Oscorp. Tony was fine with that - his father had tried that whole super-soldier thing back in World War Two, and it hadn't turned out so well, from what he understood. The company stock took a pretty bad hit though, which Obie said was bad business, and Tony very reasonably pointed out that the arc reactor concept was going to be worth a fortune if they could get it working.
Which, of course, they would. Math never failed him.
"I'm getting you an assistant so this doesn't happen again," Obie decided that night over dinner, sighing a little. "And what was all that shit with the post-it notes?"
Tony shrugged back. Wasn't it just fucking obvious, so completely logical? How else did one even begin to work through a problem as complicated as a reactor like the one he'd just designed? "You got a better way to flatten a three-dimensional problem into our irritatingly limited two-dimensional language?" he asked pointedly.
Obie didn't say anything for a moment. And then. "You're freaking people out, Tony," he finally said, and left Tony with a very large bill, wondering about how normal people saw math, and whether or not there was a more efficient way of going about modeling his thought process.
He got drunk that night, got laid, felt a little more human for it all and after very politely kicking the girl out of his house, put in a call to Jobs over at Apple. There had to be a way, he figured, of communicating how he saw things to everyone else.
Three months later, as the prototype arc reactor was going in at Stark Industries, Tony debuted their new integrated, three-dimensional, fully-interactive holographic displays to the world at a trade show in Tokyo. Stock more than recovered. Apple jumped ahead of Microsoft for the first time. Jobs started talking about things that had only been in science-fiction movies before. New government and private-industry contracts started rolling in.
Tony thought that maybe, this time, his weird brain thing had netted them a win.
He still got an assistant, though. Strawberry blond. Legs up to here. Gorgeous. But despite all the effort he'd gone through to make his thought processes visual, she still didn't understand him, either.
Don't lie, Miss Potts," he told her. "I know you're here to babysit me, as and kinky as that whole thing could be, I'll have you know I've graduated to college girls at my age."
She looked offended, off-balance. Tony thought she maybe looked a little relieved, too. which made sense; this was probably a woman who'd gotten grudgingly accustomed to being hit on by every man in her professional life. She was pretty enough for it.
"Fine, Mr. Stark," she shot back, dropping the use of that Tony she'd used when she introduced herself, "but don't think I'm going to let you sit up late watching scary movies on cable, eating ice cream."
They grinned at each other. He liked her, Tony decided. It wasn't often a woman quipped back.
And he continued to like her, over the next few months or so. She got him organized, anticipated and defended his schedule, learned to adapt fast when things changed. She saw him hungover, caught him in bed at the worst possible times, put up with his occasional research binges, and kept her dry sense of humor about the whole thing.
Tony'd never met a woman who could be that sweet and that strong and that cynical at the same time, and he liked it.
Liked her. A lot.
To the point where she'd started to remind him of the girl in those stories his dad used to tell him. About the British girl that he'd broken his own rules for, Penny or Peggy, back in the war. Like he could trust this one. Like there could maybe be something there...
Tony had never been in love, though. He had no idea what it was supposed to look like, what color it might be or what shape it might take. He'd never even really worried about it - his dad had had that talk with him at one point, told him something that had never left him, and very likely, never would.
You're going to be alone in your life, son. I'm sorry about that, I am, but that's the price of what you are. Nobody's ever gonna understand you.
He hadn't ever hoped for anything after that.
And he didn't want to, not with the women and occasional man that flitted in and out of his bed, or Pepper Potts, or anybody. Not really. His life was pretty damn good the way it was now.
But sometimes when he looked at his assistant, a line of bright 1960s-Corvette cherry red ran right down through the center of him, pooling white and hot at the base of his mind, curling around everything else like smoke, and that was beautiful enough, interesting enough, to try to pursue.
So he opened up a little. Just to see if she could handle it. An experiment, he told himself, even though it was more about a growing inability to keep the usual walls up.
He made a few comments, here and there, about all the things he normally didn't say to other people, about how the colors, about the shapes, about the way math always laid out for him. And she didn't call him weird or crazy or anything like that, and Tony thought it might be okay, that she might be able to live with it and not judge, like she ever judged anything with him...
But then fucking Enya had to just go and kill it all.
He'd gone down to his garage to tinker with his new project car, the one that was keeping him from being horribly bored with the R&D on the Air Force's latest missile contract, and gone to turn on his stereo. But the music that came on was horribly, horribly wrong, and after five minutes of frantic searching, he tore back upstairs, furious.
"Where the hell is my music? I need it back, right the hell now," he demanded, as politely as he possibly could.
Pepper, sitting cross-legged on her desk chair, heels kicked off, just smiled. Like she had done him a fucking favor or something. "I thought you could use something different."
He stared. "World Celtic girl-power, tree... whatever the fuck? Are you kidding me, woman? I already have to put up with it leaking its pasty tentacles out of this office on a daily basis, and you want it in my garage?"
Her smiled faltered, but she kept it up, like she was determined to convince him that she was as right about this as she'd been about what brand of socks he should be wearing or coffee he should be drinking. "Come on, Tony, you always have that ridiculous rock blaring..."
"...it's not ridiculous, it's Black Sabbath for fuck's sake..."
"...from the speakers down there and it's so loud I have no idea how you even manage to think with it on," she finished firmly, and smiled at him again. "So I got you something that's a little more soothing. It'll help, I swear."
Tony wanted to go over and shake her. Who was that dumb? Who thought that? Was she really so blind she didn't see it, how important these things were, how impossibly essential music was? How dangerous music could be, how thought-altering? How precise he had to be about what he let into his ears? How could she do this to him...
"So you take my music, my music, my very important, perfectly green mechanic work music and replace it with... with what? Some kind of peach-fuzz, powder-pink New Age bullshit? And you think I could work with something like that running through my head? It'd be like bleach on a cell wall, it would just tear through everything and ruin the way all the gears fit together! It would..."
And caught up as he was in the horror of losing everything in his head to that kind of skin-colored crap that Tony didn't realize he’d gone from quiet ranting to full-out yelling until Pepper got up and shoved past him, out into the hall.
"You're an asshole, Tony!" she shot back over her shoulder, walking away. “I’m going home!”
"Not until you give me my CDs back!” he yelled back in warning.
"They're in my office, you crazy bastard. You can look for them yourself," Pepper snapped, and stopped, turning back around, anger evident in the tilt of her hips, her expression nothing but confused. "And the next times try to do something nice for you that you don't like, why don't you think about all the shit you put me through and be honest with me, instead of making up a bunch of BS about... about colors or octopi or whatever. Jesus, you don't have to be so... so mean!"
And that, the hurt in her eyes, how she clearly had no idea what he was talking about, why it mattered so goddamn much, was like a bucket of cold blue had been tossed on his anger, putting that fire clean out.
His stupid, stupid brain. Ruining everything. Yet again.
Tony knew he should apologize, or something, say that he didn’t really mean to explode at her like that, but he didn't quite know how. It wasn't his fault that it was all just the wrong fucking color. These things mattered. Why couldn't anybody else see it like he could?
"Octopuses," he muttered, feeling defeated, completely unsure of what to do about any of that. "The plural of octopus is octopuses, not octopi."
"I'm leaving, Tony," she said with a sigh, voice small then, and was gone.
It took three days, eight phone messages, two missed meetings and the promise of a forty percent pay raise to get her to come back.
"You're never going to talk to me like that again," she warned him, when she showed up at his door.
"Cross my heart," he promised, and meant it. He had no idea how he'd gotten along without her, he still saw that cherry red inside of himself when he looked at her, and he couldn't stand losing her, losing that.
He slept around a lot more after that incident, though. A lot more. More men, too. And even though Pepper eventually got over it and they flirted off and on and things still seemed promising. Like there could be something there, if he wanted there to be. But mostly, he remembered that conversation over the CDs, the utter confusion he’d seen her eyes when she’d asked him what the hell was wrong with him.
So he smiled and flirted back, maybe gotten a little too close to her after Afghanistan and Ironman and the world going upside-down with supervillians and S.H.I.E.L.D. and everything else. But he’d never made a move. He promised himself he never would.
Because dad was right.
Which was just depressing. For so, so many different reasons.
“It’s... I... no,” he states flatly, and jerks away, pacing across the bedroom that’s quickly becoming theirs, instead of just his. “I’m good. Really. Just need a drink. Let’s go back an join the party, shall we?”
Not if we can’t get through this bullshit, Bruce thinks to himself, and feels an echo of agreement from the other guy, grumbling about how damn irritating this man can be.
Tony can be like a little boy at the best of times, which Bruce doesn’t normally have a problem with - hell, he understands how it is, he’s had his own battles with a less-than-perfect family life and an above-above-average intelligence his whole life. It’s one of the things that makes the man so damn appealing to him in the first place. They just seem to click.
But after battles, it’s a lot more difficult. Especially after those skirmishes when the Hulk fades away and he wakes up, with only the faintest of memory and the battle damage on his lover’s armor to tell him what the hell just happened.
It’s one of the things that Bruce hates the most about his little rage problem. He’s not there for Tony, not really, when it matters the most. Although he and the other guy have a mutual agreement about how damn important Tony is to both of them, it doesn’t mean Bruce feels any less impotent in it all.
And then to have Tony keep hiding things from him - because this kind of childish refusal to seek medical attention is definitely an avoidance mechanism - sort of really pisses him off.
Which isn’t a good thing.
“Tony, I’m serious,” he says, following the other man to the door, and getting in front of him before he can disappear out through it. Go back to the others, celebrating another well-fought mission, put his walls up, pull away from him again. “There’s something wrong with your wrist.”
Tony looks... scared, actually. And what the hell is that about? “It’s fine,” he says.
“No, it’s really not. Look, it’s a simple thing. If it hurts in one direction or the other...”
“It doesn’t hurt,” Tony says, but his eyes are shifting like he doesn’t quite believe that himself, staring right back at Bruce as a big hand is wrapped back around his wrist. “Seriously, Bruce, you don’t have to...”
But Bruce doesn’t have the patience for one of their hour-long arguments where both of them end up trying to one-up each other in the who’s-smarter-than-who department right now. Not when his only memory of the battle is of Tony falling from the sky, barely catching himself with the repulsor on this hand. Not when the Hulk’s threatening to start talking some sense into him.
So he does the only logical thing to do.
The results are... interesting.
Tony gasps, coughing, weezing out a few words.
“That hurt, Tony?” Bruce asks calmly, letting go, watching Tony turn away, walk a few steps, wretching a little, holding his wrist. “Come on, talk to me.”
“It doesn’t hurt...”
And then Bruce realizes what Tony said there. Something about...
“Yellow?” he asks.
The other man stops cold.
For somebody who almost never shuts up, that’s fascinating. But Bruce gets the sense that it’s more going on here, and the way Tony pulls away again when he goes over only confirms it.
The other guy grumbles again, Bruce’s irritation bubbling up again. Stay down, he orders. “Yeah, I know that was mean, but as your doctor, I think we need to talk about this...”
“I don’t think I wanna talk to my doctor about this,” Tony snaps, surprisingly vehement about that.
“Okay, fine,” Bruce sighs, and holds out a hand, saying something he wasn’t ever really planning on saying, but kind of liking the way it sounds as he does. “As your boyfriend...”
“Are we boyfriends?” Tony asks, equivocating now, pacing like he does sometimes when he wants to get away from a situation. “Because I don’t think we’ve exchanged promise rings or anything like that...”
“Come on, Tony. Just talk to me. It’s okay.” Yellow, right? Bruce double-checks with himself. “If you’ve got synaesthesia or something like that, it’ll make it a lot easier for me if we can talk about it.”
Tony turns to stare at him. “Sinnie-what?”
“Synaesthesia. It's a mental condition where certain senses combine, or you can literally see mathematics or language or...” and he trails off at the disbelief stamped across the other man’s features. Has Tony ever heard about this? “You do know that’s, like, a thing, right? It doesn’t make you weird.”
The billionaire seems to shake himself, and then smiles. “Of course I’m weird,” he replies, cocky as ever. “That’s one of my best attributes.”
Bruce just shakes his head, rubbing his hands together. “You are such a physics major,” he shoots back, only half in jest.
That little jab seems to do the trick. Because Tony’s grin widens, and he nods, and he starts talking. “Okay, yeah, maybe... maybe pain isn’t really about, umm, feeling it.”
“So you see it as... yellow?”
“Pain, yeah. Most sensation’s a color, or shape, different shades, different forms,” Tony says, more serious this time. “Music’s almost always colored. Math is...” He stops. “You sure this doesn’t make me sound... you sure this is a thing?”
“About four percent of the population, so you’re still kind of weird,” Bruce shrugs back, dead-panning for all this is worth. Despite how interesting this is. How much it tells him about Tony. “It’s just science,” he continues with a perfectly straight face. “We should probably start cataloging your responses, keep track of what colors mean what, so we can diagnose your injuries better...”
“Science, huh?” Tony interrupts, grinning, but he looks a little shaken behind that mouthful of teeth, and Bruce realizes that he could fall in love with a man like this. “Really?”
“It’s a fascinating phenomenon. I’d welcome the chance to do some research on it,” he says honestly. “And, uhh, you know... this thing between you and me... I’d just like to know.”
It hangs between them for a moment, those words, Tony staring back at him, expression unscrutable. To the point where Bruce wonders if he said something wrong. But then Tony steps into his personal space, and presses his own grin to Bruce’s lips.
“How ‘bout we do some science right now?” Tony whispers.
Bruce blinks, even as his arms wrap around his lover’s strong body of their own accord. “What do you mean?”
“Do science to me, Doctor Banner,” comes the answering whisper, low and seductive, eager as everything else about this man, and somehow, they’re walking back towards the bed. “We can talk about what the orgasm you give me looks like.”
Bruce shivers. Fuck... “Do they all look the same?” he asks, mock-serious, his curiosity driven higher by his sudden, growing arousal.
“Some are better than others,” Tony murmurs back, and then his uninjured hand is fisting up in Bruce’s hair, his lips are locked to Bruce’s neck.
“Talk me through it,” he tells his lover as he strips him naked and takes him in hand, circling a finger around the sensitive skin along the top of stainless steel port on Tony’s chest, making him moan. “Tell me how you see it.”
And in breathless, hesitant gasps, Tony does just that.
By the time they’re done, Bruce feels like he’s just been narrated through a trip to the center of the sun. Tony looks wrecked, sated, content. And Bruce realizes, as he’s pushed back onto the mattress and his shirt’s ripped off, how damn, damn lucky they both are to have each other here, like this.
Because little by little, Tony’s letting him in, letting him see, understand, and Bruce doesn’t have to be a genius to know what a precious thing that is.
So the only thing to do is just kiss the man again.
And ask him what color that is.