“Down...down...no, up a little...good, Dum-E, thanks.”
Voices...oh, that wasn’t good. Tony would have sworn he was hung over if his head felt different. No, he knew that headache with intimate familiarity, the slow throb that leapt like electricity at the tiniest sound or the smallest ray of light. No, this headache was far more sinister than a simple hangover. It felt like someone had tried to split his skull open with a cleaver, and his mouth was stuffed full of cotton. It brought back the smell of wet stone, rust, and woodsmoke that set off a distant, primal scream of terror in the back of his brain.
There was bright light behind his closed eyelids, too bright, so he wasn’t in a cave...machines beeping, quiet and unobtrusive without the echo of stone or the distant drip of water, so he definitely wasn’t in a cave...
“Sir, I believe Mr. Stark is regaining consciousness.”
“...well, with the elevated metabolism, we knew this would happen. Pulse rate elevated?”
“Beyond safe parameters. Shall I sedate him?”
“Probably a good idea...U! Check the assembly, I want to know how we’re coming along. JARVIS? Dope him.”
“Very good, sir.”
Tony wanted to open his mouth to protest, but things were rapidly getting foggy and distant, and his mouth wasn’t responding to the commands of his brain. It was dark, and warm, and...’
Tony sat at his workstation, staring at the diagram on the translucent screen, giving him a play by play of just how fucked he was, complete with a transparent human body simulating the entire fight, replicating every blow he’d been dealt.
“Estimated time left?” he asked, his gaze never leaving the screen.
“Seventy six hours, sir.” JARVIS replied, and Tony could hear the regret in his voice. Sure, it was a figment of his imagination, JARVIS’s vocal synthesizers couldn’t express emotion, but Tony was pretty well convinced that JARVIS had perfected the art of choosing the right cadence and collections of words to make emotions evident.
“To add insult to injury,” he continued, “the heat of the initial blast combined with the force the alien used to crush the armor has both fused the reactor to the casing and driven the entire unit deeper into your chest. Hence the bleeding you were so...insistent about hiding.”
“So the only way to fix this is to replace the magnet, maybe even the reactor.”
“Which cannot be done without removing the entire casing shaft.”
“Meaning I’m more or less up the creek without a proverbial paddle.”
“With the added pressure on the cardiac wall, your likelihood of surviving a procedure of this nature is...low.” JARVIS replied carefully. “You should not have survived the initial one...without a surgeon of Dr. Yinsen’s skill...”
“I’m toast.” He finished, swallowing thickly as he felt the rumble of a heavy blow dealt somewhere else within the confines of the helicarrier currently flying them back to New York. “Which is kind of crap, I mean, didn’t I do this dying thing once before?”
“Yes, sir. I would like to remind you that you did, in fact, survive.”
Tony pushed away from the work station to rise and pace. Pacing was good, pacing helped him not to think about the big green asshole in the other room, and the smaller, less green asshole trapped inside of him...the one Tony wanted there with a desperation that was clawing at his gut, making his already compromised heart squeeze harder with a pressure that had nothing to do with the mangled lump of metal and energy in the middle of his chest.
“Dad’s not here this time, JARVIS.”
“No, sir...but Dr. Banner is.”
“Polarity is still degrading, sir.”
“I know, JARVIS. I’m working as fast as I can. There are no other extra hands around here?”
“I’m afraid not, sir.”
“...okay, fine. Get Natasha for me, please?”
“Right away, sir.”
“Thanks. Okay, give that back...Dummy, give it back. Thank you.”
“...sir? Mr. Stark is regaining consciousness again.”
“Dose him if his heart rate gets above 90 bpm.”
“As you wish.”
Tony’s head hurt a little less, but he was in pain. He was in so much pain...why were they waking him up? If he could just sleep through it...just a little while longer...no more dreams, no more remembering...
Then Natasha was storming through the door, and Tony finally got a little more than annoyed. He had privacy locks for a reason, and if she was just going to go busting through them because she thought she was so goddamn hardcore...
Bruce was there.
He was on her heels, shooting into the lab behind her like he’d been fired from a gun, and Tony’s heart did this strange little leap and twist that was probably bad, considering it was being pinned to death beneath a steel cylinder...and fuck, it hurt. It hurt like hell, because Bruce finally came back and Tony was out of options. He was going to die, and looking at Bruce was killing him. It just plain hurt to stare at the soft gray dusting his temples, those broad and warm features, those warm...
...lethally angry green eyes?
It happened almost faster than he could see, Natasha’s sharp cry in Russian his only indicator that anything was wrong before there were familiar hands fisting in his shirt with untold strength, hauling him in roughly, so close he could feel the warm puff of his ragged, furious breathing...and those eyes, glowing, blazing emerald green and full of the kind of rage he had nightmares about...
”Bruce?! What the actual--”
He never saw the fist that came for his jaw, but he damn sure felt it before everything went black.
“No, Dum-E, leave that alone. If Tony wants a shake later, we’ll tell you, alright?”
He opened his eyes slowly, because his head was still pounding. He ached from head to toe, his jaw burned when he tried to flex it, and something felt...much different, deep in his core. The voices in the room and, by the grace of Thor or Odin or whatever God, the lights were muted. Tony wanted to kiss someone for that.
“Sir, he’s awake.”
Within seconds, a familiar face came into view...this time, with the eyes he wanted to see. Less welcome was the female face that joined it, framed by bright red hair and touched with that small, grim smile he’d learned not to trust.
“Welcome back.” Bruce greeted him softly.
“You had us scared for a second.” Natasha added with that same little twist of lips that usually had Tony making sure his back was to a wall.
“What...” His own voice was dry and papery in his ears, his tongue felt thick enough to chew.
“Don’t move. You’re in Malibu, you’re fine.” Natasha soothed as Bruce left his field of vision, making Tony’s heart lurch painfully...literally, painfully, the sudden elevation in his pulse from anxiety making his whole chest throb.
“You were injured in the fight.” Bruce’s voice informed him. A moment later, he felt his head being lifted, Bruce’s warm fingers at his nape, and ohhhh, there was water, cool and sweet trickling past his lips. Bruce let him have two swallows before he pulled the cup away and settled Tony’s head back on the pillow. He imagined, just for a second, that Bruce’s fingertips lingered just a little as he drew his hand away.
“How the hell did you know?” he slurred, blinking hard and fast as he tried to make his vision focus better.
“We didn’t.” Natasha replied, her gaze lifting to Bruce, luminous eyes strangely focused on the other man. “He did.”
Slowly, Tony realized just who she meant, and felt his blood run cold in a way that had nothing to do with...well...whatever had been done to him, and he could already feel some serious chills building.
Reaching up slowly, fumbling only a little, Tony lay a hand against his chest and met with the familiar touch of gauze, this time cool and clean under his fingers.
“How am I still alive?” he murmured, turning his head just enough to focus on Bruce, blinking owlishly. “How, for that matter, did you punch me like the Other Guy w’thout being green? ‘Cause I ‘member that.”
Bruce blushed, Tony could see it even in the low light, smiling with no small measure of chagrin.
“I’ll leave you two alone.” Natasha suddenly offered, sharing a look with Bruce that Tony didn’t understand, but knew he didn’t like. At all. It was too...close, too warm.
He forgave her when she kept her word and left, and then it was just Bruce and him again...and a knot he didn’t know was there eased, letting him breathe more deeply and hurt less intensely. Tony felt himself slide into that strange state of consciousness he only found around Bruce, where everything wasn’t quite so...hard. Because it was Bruce and Tony, Tony and Bruce...they were a thing, collectively, Tonyandbruce. Or Bruceandtony...
“Give it to me straight, Doc.” He murmured, watching Bruce’s face as he shuffled closer, staring down at Tony. “Will I ever pose for Playgirl again?”
Bruce huffed softly with a weak laugh, the sardonic little smile making his face glow with something that tightened Tony’s raw and aching chest.
“I probably shouldn’t have hit you, but...that wasn’t all me.” Bruce admitted, shifting to sit on the edge of Tony’s gurney. His hip and thigh pressed against Tony’s, warm and solid. Tony didn’t ask him to move.
“S’ok, I probably deserved it.”
“Oh, you did. You had an episode of brachycardia after he knocked you out. Natasha told me what the Other Guy did during that fight, and I was able to piece it together. He wasn’t being an ass, he knew you got hurt...and somehow, he thought I could help you, he just needed to let someone else know it, then tell me. Seems JARVIS felt the same way.”
Tony’s eyes rolled up to survey the room. “You did?”
JARVIS didn’t answer right away, but finally he spoke with audible reluctance.
“When it was clear you were in distress, I showed Dr. Banner the results of our workup...and I asked him, please...to save you.”
Tony found himself blinking hard again as he drew a shaky sigh, his eyes blurring for a new reason as Bruce shifted and continued speaking. Tony imagined that he did it to get closer, imagined that his leg pressed just a little harder against his.
“Guess you did.” Tony murmured quietly, avoiding Bruce’s gaze for a moment.
“Yeah...the helicarrier brought us to Malibu, chopper flew us down to the house. JARVIS gave me run of the lab, and Dum-E and U lent me a hand with the procedure.”
“JARVIS didn’t study nuclear medicine with two cardio-thoracic specialists that graduated egregia cum laude from John Hopkins, and doesn’t know the structure of your chest plate as well as I do, thanks to all the work we’ve been doing on the converter.” Bruce pointed out with a raised eyebrow and a smile. “Got a little advice from a friend, and I won’t gross you out with the specifics? But I managed to shift the casing back into place, then removal was easy. JARVIS helped me machine a completely new setup, complete with a couple of upgrades.”
“Some stuff I was going to run by you before the Rock Biters hit us. I came up with a shunt system for the casing that will dispense the synthetic glucose once the converter is ready. We added it to the casing with a cap that will prevent leakage until we’re ready to move forward.”
Tony nodded, and for a second they just sat there, quiet...not really silent, there was worlds they weren’t saying in the stillness, questions that needed asking about why Tony ran when he knew he was dying, why Bruce hadn’t hulked out completely when he hit him, why Natasha was there and how the hell Bruce managed to get Dum-E and U to work with any sort of efficiency, but their bodies connected at that point of heat between hip and thigh through loose cotton scrubs and denim. For a second, it was enough just to sit there and feel that heat.
Then Tony yawned, and he thought he saw Bruce glance upwards at the ceiling, as if someone was watching, waiting for a signal. He started feeling sleepy again, but Bruce was there, and he hurt like hell, head to foot, so Tony just sort of let it happen. Hell, if Bruce could get those rust-bucket droids of his to do anything right, nothing ought to blow up while he took a nap, right? Right...
Tony imagined he felt a press of heat against his cheek, a brush of lips against his forehead, and soon he was dreaming about someone holding his heart in their hands...and for the first time in ages, Tony wasn’t scared.