It’s almost complete now, the new arc reactor. They’ve been working on it tirelessly, holed up in the lab for god knows how many days, and running mainly on caffeine, adrenaline, and the occasional inspiration.
The only thing that kept them from starving themselves is Pepper, who provides a steady stream of quick-to-eat food and mugs of coffee. Bruce feels slightly guilty for it, but she only waves him off with a smile. According to her, having another genius inventor to look after is no trouble, especially if it keeps Tony from blowing up the workshop too frequently.
It takes Bruce back, really, to the old days, the days before the other guy. Being in his own lab, making, shaping, creating something; it’s electrifying. And he’s almost forgotten how good that feels. But, looking up, and seeing Tony grin at him from behind a soldering mask, he thinks that no; this, here, this is better than it’s ever been, when he was alone.
With a flourish, Tony places the last bit of solder and lifts his mask to share a satisfied smile with Bruce.
“Care to do the honours, Doctor Banner?” he says, handing Bruce a thin, triangular piece of vibranium. It looks like a regular piece of metal, but Bruce knows that actually, it’s anything but.
What he’s holding is a brand-new element, something most of the world doesn’t even know exists. And the fact that Tony had made it himself, at home, well, let’s just say that Bruce was impressed, when he first found out. There may have been a little geeking out on his part, but nobody but Tony and possibly JARVIS needs to know that.
Carefully, he places the vibranium in the core of the arc reactor, and watches as it comes to life, glowing bright blue and humming, just slightly. He reaches out, and traces its outline, feeling the vibration travel up through his fingers.
When JARVIS announces that the arc reactor if fully functioning, Tony gives a satisfied nod, and bewilderingly, pulls off his worn blue t-shirt.
“Um, Tony, what -” Bruce starts, but Tony cuts him off.
“Need your help with this,” Tony says, hopping up into a chair and reclining it slightly. “Usually, I can do it myself, but this is an all new design, and the baseplate’s got to be changed. It’s a little fiddly, and a bit hard to do myself, so.”
Tony’s looking at him expectantly, and slightly pleadingly, if Bruce is reading him right, in the patented Tony Stark ‘I’m-fine-what-are-you-talking-about’ sort of way. So, Bruce reaches out and takes the brand-new arc reactor from Tony’s hand.
He looks at Tony now, at the device sitting in the centre of his chest, taking everything in; the bumps and ridges at the edge between skin and metal, and the faded, bluish veins spiralling outwards. Tony looks strangely vulnerable like this, with his shirt off and the thing keeping him alive on display.
Tony could have made this much more subtle, Bruce knows. Covered it up so it just looks like a solid chunk of metal in his chest. But this is Tony all over, isn’t it? He’s made a spectacularly impressive piece of engineering, and he’s not afraid to show it off. What was it he said to Bruce? Oh yes, you’re tiptoeing, big guy, you need to strut. To be honest, it’s something that Bruce admires about him, sometimes.
“What do you need me to do?” he says, rolling up his sleeves, mostly out of habit.
Tony deftly unscrews the top of the arc reactor still attached to him, and it comes free with a soft metallic whirr. Bruce lays his hand on it, and…Tony flinches. For a split second, just blind instinct, before his mind snaps back on. Tony Stark, who doesn’t even balk in front of goddamn Loki, flinches away from his touch.
Bruce doesn’t know why that hurts so much, he really doesn’t. He should have expected this, he thinks. But this is Tony, who will poke him with a sharp stick and offer him a blueberry snack in the same conversation. As stupid as it is, Bruce has gotten used to the thought that one person, at least, is not afraid of him, of what he can be.
So he jerks his hand away, stepping back. Trying his best not to let anything show on his face, like he didn’t notice Tony’s reaction.
But Tony, he must have known that Bruce did, because he’s sitting up now, his eyes wide. He snaps the reactor back into place, and moves to grip Bruce’s hand around the wrist; not too tightly, but enough to keep Bruce from moving further away.
“Shit, Bruce, no,” he says, not looking at Bruce. “It’s not…it’s not that, okay?”
“It doesn’t matter, Tony,” Bruce says, shrugging and trying to pull away.
Tony’s hold on him doesn’t loosen, and he tugs at it slightly. “I swear, it’s not that. It’s never that, okay, not with you. I’m not…” Tony says, gesturing helplessly.
His voice is tinged by a shade of desperation, and Bruce softens, however unwillingly, at that. He looks Tony in the eyes and says, gently as he can, “Really, Tony, it’s all right. I mean, it’s only logical for you to be scared of me, yeah? That what I’ve been telling you all along.”
Tony shakes his head, frustrated. “Bruce, just…just listen, yeah? Please?”
Looking at Tony, Bruce doesn’t think he can do anything else, so he nods his assent. Only then did Tony let go of his hand, and sat back in his chair, and huffs out a tired sigh.
“There was someone. Someone I trusted,” Tony says, turning to look Bruce in the face. “Someone I let in my house, and had been in my life as long as I could remember. And he, well, he turned out to be the one who wanted me dead.”
There were pain, and anger, and yes, sadness too, in Tony’s voice, and Bruce tries to speak up, at that. Because he knows what it’s like, wanting to keep something to yourself, and not wanting to relive the pain. But Tony shakes his head, just slightly, signalling for him not to interrupt.
“He tried to take this,” he says, palm on his chest. “He did take it, in fact. Straight out of my chest. Waited for me in my house, took the thing that’s keeping me alive, and then left me there to die.”
Bruce listens, appalled and silently horrified, as Tony recounts the way he almost died. He’s aware of the slow, silent anger that is beginning to burn under his skin. Not at Tony, never at Tony. But at this shadow of a person, whoever he is, who tried to hurt him; who tried to kill someone Bruce has come to care about, so very much.
“What happened to him?” Bruce asks, tightly. Because this, this isn’t the kind of hard, explosive anger that calls out the Hulk. No, this is the red-hot, slow-burning kind of anger that makes Bruce want to hunt the man down, and hurt him.
“Dead,” Tony says, his voice strange. Triumphant, but strangely guilty.
Bruce nods, shortly. “Good.”
Tony lifts his head up to look at Bruce, and a corner of his mouth lifts up. Not a smile, not yet, simply an acknowledgement. “Yeah.”
Bruce steps closer, and places his hand on Tony’s shoulder. Slowly, giving plenty of time for Tony to track the movement. “Shit, Tony, I’m sorry,” he says quietly.
“I just…nobody’s been that close, y’know? Not since then,” Tony says, low but earnest. “There’s Pepper, obviously. And Rhodey, occasionally; and by the way, you two have got to meet, seriously, you’ll love each other.” He pauses.
“That’s it, Bruce, there’s no-one else I’ve trusted that much. But I trust you, okay, I really do,” Tony continues. “I’m just a bit out of practice with it.”
Bruce huffs out a quiet laugh. “I’m not exactly the prime example in that aspect, either, am I? It’s fine, Tony, we’ll get there.”
Tony grins at him, pleased to hear Bruce sounding amused. “Can we get on with it, then? I want to try out the new toy.”
“Yeah, sure,” Bruce murmurs. He lifts the hand resting on Tony’s shoulder, and moves it to trace the outline of the arc reactor attached to Tony, much like he did the new one before. “Okay?” he asks.
When Tony nods his agreement, Bruce undoes the arc reactor as efficiently as he can, and places it aside. Listening to Tony’s instructions, he reaches into the cavity in his chest and unlatches the baseplate to replace it with a new one. He’s grateful for his experience in surgery, now, because it helps keep his hands steady and his mind focused.
When it’s all done, Bruce is twisting the new arc reactor into place and Tony is closing his eyes and making a shocked, slightly satisfied sound. Bruce rests his hand on the newly-installed arc reactor, just for a moment, feeling it hum in time with Tony’s heart.
Then Tony opens his eyes and grins up at Bruce. And Bruce, with his hand covered in a metallic-smelling fluid, and holding the still-glowing, now-defunct arc reactor, can’t do anything but smile back.
"Better than a science fair, isn't it?" Tony asks, a mischievous glint in his eyes.
And then Bruce laughs and laughs. Because this man has just trusted Bruce enough to let him put his hand in his freaking chest, and now they're standing here talking like it's something that happens every day. Enormous green rage monster aside, Bruce still can't believe that this is his life.
But then he hears Tony laughing along, and he decides that yeah, okay, life's not all bad, these days. Not at all.