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Paint it Black

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The spray of chemical hits him in the face, too fast to react to. There is a hot burst of pain, so bright that it's white-hot and stinging, a jagged line of ache across his temple, and a moment of stillness as everything pauses and hangs above his shoulders.

When he opens his eyes, there is only blackness, and it's strange that his first thought is wondering where the whiteness from only a second earlier went. It's strange because there is blackness: blackness and only that. The sting of the chemical has been replaced with a dull ache that thuds through his forehead. He presses a finger to the ridge of his eyebrow because it's the only thing he can think to do, and the skin against the short hairs is oddly reassuring.

"Bruce?" Tony is asking, and from the tone of his voice, he's been asking for some time and Bruce is only now registering it. This, too, is important: it means something. Bruce closes his eyes and opens them again, and aside from the slight residual sting that flares up as he does so, there is nothing else there.

"Bruce!" There is more impatience in the syllable now. Bruce can gauge where Tony is from the volume. He lets his hand fall from his forehead, so he can slowly reach out forward. He hits fabric before flesh, and the short hairs that slowly edge along the curve of his jaw. Bruce can see him, only because he knows the shape of Tony's face.

"I... I can't see," Bruce says. Admitting it is worse than the blackness is, worse than the nothingness that has taken up residence in his vision. He knows Tony is there, crouched in front of Bruce's semi-reclining form if the height of his face can be judged. He knows the Bunsen burner is there, too, and the shards that are no doubt littering the floor. He just can't see them.

Then, the panic is there, burning like bile in the back of his throat. "Tony, I can't see."

--

The world is dark. The world is dark, and Bruce feels like he's lost an arm. He feels like part of himself has been cut off. The doctors had said that it could be repairable, it could be reversible - but they don't know. The chemicals that Tony Stark uses in experiments on a regular basis are not on the list of common ailments they see.

Bruce sits on the couch in Stark Tower, staring at what he knows, from memory, as a corner, and feels as if part of himself is gone.

He can't see. He can't see the algorithms, he can't see the formulas; he can't see the numbers or the answers or the calculations. He can't see the machines that he and Tony were working on. He can't even see the fabric of the couch cushions he's sitting on, even though he can run his hands over the material and he knows the color of it - deep red, like the clay-based pottery spun on the streets of Jemez pueblo of New Mexico.

But Bruce can't see it.

He sits on the couch at Stark Tower, and can't see anything at all.

--

It takes awhile for Tony to really talk to him - there's something hanging between them that tastes like guilt and regret, and Bruce wonders if he would be able to see just those emotions on Tony's face if he could make out anything. He's been on the couch for days, and he's pretty sure that the AI have been programmed to watch him - watch him, but not necessarily help him. He's felt his way back to the bathroom and his bedroom, and it's been a learning process to re-memorize the turns and twists that he had thought were automatic and familiar.

Tony sits on the couch and Bruce has already heard the pad of the man's feet - Tony wears shoes, even inside, even in his own home, and the soles thud against the tiles - before he feels the cushion shift beneath him.

"I'm thinking Thai tonight," Tony says, without preamble. "There's a new place down the street that's advertising some kind of crazy noodles."

Bruce tries to picture Tony's face - there are blank spaces, and he isn't sure why. He hasn't forgotten, but he just can't seem to conjure the specifics. He is so busy trying to reconstruct his recollection that he doesn't answer, and he can feel Tony shift closer on the couch from the vibrations trembling up his forearms.

"Are you not a fan of Thai? Other suggestions?"

"Tony," Bruce says, exhaling around it.

"Okay, fine, you pick, and if you choose one of those health-food, organic delis again, I promise I'll only mock you a little bit."

He's skating around the issue, playing nice; Tony Stark doesn't play nice, and it's so false that it's ringing wrong and out of place with everything else that is already like an awful charicature of what used to be Bruce's life.

There is only dark nothingness that never goes away.

"I don't want Thai," Bruce says - his tongue is very thick and sticking to the roof of his mouth.

"Well, I could just have six different things delivered and we could mix and match," Tony offers.

He wants to find the anger he knows is lurking just beneath the surface, but it's not there. There's nothing there, and it matches the nothing in front of his eyes. He wants to argue - he just can't.

He manages to unstick his tongue from his teeth, and says, "Alright."

--

Bruce wakes in the middle of the night having dreamt of color. He dreamt of gamma radiation that was green and harsh as the coiling rage in his gut, of Tony's armor that glistens crimson in the sunlight. When he wakes, he sees the echoes of the colors around the room as only a vestige of the dream, and then it's gone.

He doesn't go back to sleep. He can't; he can't risk seeing it again. He can't risk being reminded of everything he has lost all over again, in shapes and figures that he can no longer make out.

--

It seems that they will only allow him to wallow alone for so long - Nick Fury arrives a few days later, with Barton and Romanov in tow, breezing into Stark Tower like he owns the place. Bruce can hear the clip of his heels against the floor; Fury has a very distinct way of walking. He puts a lot of weight on his heels and rolls his feet forward as best he can in his boots. Romanov, on the other hand, makes almost no noise moving across the floor. Bruce catalogues these things away, because it's all he can hold onto.

Separating the details into categories is like putting together an equation with the correct variables.

"Banner," Fury says, somewhere to Bruce's right. They are on the floor with the widescreen television and the second best-stocked mini-bar, because Bruce hasn't yet managed to get himself back into the lab he can no longer use. Bruce imagines that Fury is standing near the door with his hands down at his sides, fists tight.

"At ease," Bruce says. There's a soft scrape of boot against tile, and he knows he was right. He can make out a whisper that no doubt accompanies a shared glance across the room. Tony is here, somewhere, because he is always here, whether Bruce wants him to be or not.

Someone clears their throat, and it sounds like Barton.

"I see that you are recovering nicely," Fury tries again, and stops when Bruce starts laughing, because he can't figure out what part of losing days to couch cushions could be considered a good recovery. Maybe Fury has different standards; maybe Fury expected him to have already rage destroyed the entirety of the tower.

There's a press of fingertips against Bruce's shoulder, too light to be Fury's.

"Bruce," Natasha says, very near to Bruce's ear. She really does move without sound. "I'm happy that you're okay."

He's not okay - how can anyone be okay without the vision they have relied their whole life on, professional and otherwise. But Natasha's hand is warm and the weight is welcome, so Bruce doesn't say anything and she keeps her fingers there for a moment longer than completely necessary.

"I assume you are here on business?" Tony says. He's across the room, maybe by the windows.

"I'm always here on business," Fury replies. His boots click across the floor, and Bruce loses his small gauge on where the man might have been. He's less familiar with this level of the tower, at least in terms of having seen it.

"Is this high security?" Tony asks, and that makes Bruce pause. Last time he checked, he was considered a part of high security - and then he realizes, with a sinking feeling, that Tony is talking about him. Tony is trying to figure out if Fury has come to talk about Bruce himself, and if they should take the conversation elsewhere.

Anger does flare up then, hot and residual red, and it's the best thing Bruce has felt in days. He feels alive again. His hands, resting against his thighs, clench slightly, and he lets a bit of the anger through, just because it's something. It's anything in a world of nothing but inky blackness.

"Sir," Barton says, the first bit of his voice that Bruce has heard since they arrived. It's a warning note. Barton, wherever he is, has noticed.

The man really does see everything.

Bruce closes his eyes, even though it changes nothing in his vision, and breathes deep.

"That won't be necessary," Fury says, and it's probably in response to Tony. "I have some information regarding the Tesserect that I wanted to pass along. It's come filtered down through Thor, who asked that it, and information regarding Loki, be distributed to you."

"Did he," Tony replies. It's not a question at all. "Then, by all means, proceed."

There is a pause that indicates that Fury is perhaps annoyed at being bossed around, and Bruce takes the opportunity presented within. "If you don't mind, I think I'll head down the hall to the bedroom," he says.

"This information will no doubt interest you," Fury tells him, and at least by turning away, Bruce feels like he's accomplished something. He already can't see, but turning his back is symbolic. At least, he hopes it's symbolic.

"Can't see why," he calls back, and feels his way to the door - he knows he must look silly with his hands splayed against the wall, but he's still only half-sure of the space and positioning of the things he knows he needs to avoid, and of the corridor itself. None of them cross the room to help him, and he's fiercely, achingly glad for it. "Won't be much help if I can't read the monitors or access databases on it anymore."

"Banner," Fury snaps.

"Sorry," Bruce says, and he isn't sure who exactly that he is apologizing to - everyone, maybe. Maybe himself more than anything. "But I think I'm going to sit this one out."