Bruce halted in his tracks, a strange combination of terrified shock and morbid curiosity coursing through him. He knew the arc reactor wasn’t small…but seeing that dark, gaping hole in Tony’s chest as he removed the bright glowing object was still a shock.
“Hey, get over here. I need you to help me connect this,” Tony waved him over, voice breezy and nonchalant in a way that seriously had Bruce questioning the man’s sanity. Because how could Tony possibly be so lax when he had a fucking hole in his chest?
Bruce swallowed thickly as he stepped forward and peered down into the shadowed recesses that the arc reactor called home. Always the scientist, Bruce wondered how Tony’s internal organs had shifted to accommodate the arc reactor. Wondered how Tony’s bones had been broken and removed just to open up space for the arc reactor to lay within the man’s chest.
A resounding snap had Bruce flinching backwards, eyes raising to meet Tony’s guarded glare. “You’re gonna define a whole new level of morbid curiosity if you don’t help me out here, Bruce.” Tony lifted a new arc reactor and shoved it into Bruce’s hands.
The doctor fumbled a bit, trying to calm his shaky nerves under the dark glare Tony was giving him. Clearly the man was upset with having to ask for Bruce’s help, but Tony shouldn’t be ashamed of this. It wasn’t a weakness. The arc reactor was a shining beacon of inner-strength. It made it impossible for the world to ignore how strong and brilliant Tony Stark was. You can’t deny proof like the arc reactor.
Bruce dutifully ignored the thready, fragile quality to Tony’s tone as he bit out the instructions for replacing the arc reactor. Didn’t take the angry, dark mood Tony was exuding to heart. The man was pale and sweaty when Bruce slotted the new reactor into place, body trembling as he swallowed in a few deep, steadying breaths.
He knew Tony would want a least a semblance of privacy so he turned to the lab bench, picking up the discarded arc reactor and studying it carefully. There was a small crack in the casing and Bruce’s mind automatically started supplying a dozen different experiments they could do to make a stronger plastic polymer to house the reactor.
“Thank you,” Tony broke him out of his thoughts, causing Bruce to turn and study his now recovering friend. “And…sorry.”
Bruce tilted his head to the side, frowning a little in thought. “For what?”
“I just…” Tony scowled darkly, glaring down at the arc reactor in his chest. “I don’t like people seeing…”
“You don’t like people seeing you vulnerable,” Bruce concluded when Tony trailed off, more than a little shocked when Tony shook his head in denial. “No?”
“Well, yes. I mean, who does? But no, that isn’t the reason why I was upset with you staring.” Tony raised a hand to trace the edges of the arc reactor, fingers moving to follow the path of scars littering his chest. “I don’t like showing the people the hole the arc reactor sits in. You and Pepper, you’re the only ones I’ve let see me without the reactor in. But I’ve replaced it myself a few times…and I don’t like the gaping hole in my chest when I take it out.”
Bruce frowned, trying to puzzle out the implications of Tony’s confession. He didn’t quite understand why Tony would be upset about something like that.
“Why?” Bruce asked, never having needed to refrain from asking questions of Tony. Tony was one of the few that would tell him to back the fuck off if he didn’t want to answer. The man didn’t fear upsetting Bruce and it gave Bruce a bit of freedom to act without that carefully manufactured control all the time.
Tony stared at Bruce for a long moment. Whether he was testing his own comfort in revealing the reason to Bruce, or testing whether Bruce could handle the reason was unknown to the doctor.
“You know, a few months ago…before the whole revelation that ‘oh, would you look at that? Howard Stark used to abuse his son’ thing, I would have told you to go fuck yourself. But I guess if there was anyone who could understand…it would be you, so here it goes.”
Bruce leaned back against the lab bench, crossing his arms over his chest as he waited patiently and slightly anxiously for Tony’s answer. Given that little introduction, he wasn’t entirely sure he was going to like this conversation.
“My father was a bastard. He was cold and mean and drunk all the time. And no matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried to prove myself to him, he always told me I was nothing to him. Told me I was worthless and would never amount to anything.”
Tony’s voice was bitter as he spoke, laced with a seething rage aimed at the memory of the father he had been cursed with. Bruce shifted, an uncomfortable yet familiar sense of anger surging through him as his own dark past creeped along the edges of his consciousness.
“I like the arc reactor. It was absolute torture and scary as fucking hell the way I got it, but it’s also something I’m proud of. But the hole? The stupid, gaping hole sitting just under the arc reactor?” Tony tapped on the casing of the arc reactor, a sneer on his lips as if he was seeing that dark hole sitting there in his chest instead of the bright light.
“I hate the hole. It’s disturbingly ironic that the object that proves I succeeded where my father failed sits within the thing that proves I am just as worthless as he always accused me of being. The arc reactor is my legacy. But the freaking hole shows the world that Tony Stark is nothing but a hollow shell of a man. There’s nothing inside me, no substance, just empty space. I’m nothing.”
Bruce recoiled slightly from the embittered explanation Tony had just given, the scathing words pricking at those carefully constructed shields he had put up long ago.
No one had thought to question where the anger came from when he said he was always angry. They assumed it was because of his…situation. And in a way, it was. But it wasn’t the whole truth of the matter. They weren’t seeing the whole picture.
And that was fine. That was perfect in fact. Bruce didn’t want them to know the truth. Didn’t want them to know that the reason he hated himself so much…hated what he had become…was because the Hulk was a manifestation of everything his father had cruelly accused him of being.
Oh, he’d denied it. Smart enough, even as a child, to know that his father was nothing more than a weak, cruel man who took all of his anger out on his only son. He was always cognizant of the fact that the true monster in their family was his father. Never took his father’s harsh accusations as truth, but still enraged by the injustice of them nonetheless.
And then the accident.
The accident that turned him into the cage for the Hulk, a true monster if there ever was one. And yeah, that had made him angry. Pissed off beyond all reason that he now had this seething, roaring, beast inside him.
But it wasn’t because of what the Hulk was. Wasn’t because he hated the monster within. Wasn’t because he hated himself. Those made him mad, sure. But the anger he felt towards the Hulk and towards himself was like a small candle in the face of the raging maelstrom of fire he felt for another reason.
The reason he was always angry…the real reason was because he could no longer say his father had lied. Bruce could no longer deny that he was a monster. Because he was. A very real and very terrifying monster. There was no way to refute that fact. It simply was.
And that fact- the fact that his father was right- yeah, that is where all the anger came from. That is what powered the fury within him.
It was a vicious cycle. Bruce thought of his father. Thought of the fact that as a kid, he had always known the bastard was wrong…only to realize as an adult that he wasn’t. Thought of the fact that every cruel thing his father had ever said to him, had ever done to him, was now deserved, in a way, because Bruce really was a monster.
So there was that anger, hot rage aimed at cruel Fate for making Bruce the very thing his father had always believed him to be. Bruce had escaped the title, done everything right to prove his father wrong, only for Fate to smack him down and raise his father the victor in the Banner family war.
It was unfair. It was unjust. It was an undeserved hardship to put on a single man.
And it would be so easy to just let go. To just let himself succumb to the white, hot rage. To unleash the monster and let him destroy the world…
But then that really would be giving up, really would be proving his father right.
And that was just unacceptable.
“We can’t let them win,” Bruce growled out, teeth grinding together as he worked through the emotion raging through him.
“We?” Tony asked, making it a question so Bruce could deny it, but his voice was calm and steady, a sign that he had already seen the truth. Bruce had never told anyone of his own abuse, didn’t think he could force the words out, even now, so he settled for confirming Tony’s assumption in not so many words.
“You know,” Bruce met Tony’s gaze evenly, watched as the man nodded.
“Yeah,” Tony admitted. “I’m too familiar with the disenchanted, haunted look in the eyes…saw it in the mirror every day. It’d be kinda sad if I didn’t recognize that look in your eyes, right?”
Bruce didn’t answer, didn’t need to. He turned around and picked the broken arc reactor back up off the lab bench, listening as Tony rose to his feet. A solid weight landed on his shoulder as Bruce turned the small, brilliant object in his hands.
“Guess we’re brothers in more ways than one, huh?”
And this time, Bruce did answer. Because as much as their lives were completely different, Bruce and Tony were very much the same. They weren’t men pushed into an abyss, gaining strength by clawing their way back out. That would be far simpler than what they had been doomed to.
Bruce and Tony were men born in that dark abyss.
They were men born into a place that offered nothing but pain and torment at the hands of their fathers. And their strength, it was something far greater than that of most men. It was a strength gained by catching small glimpses of light, small moments of kindness and love. Moments that should have made them run away, an instinctive distrust of anything that didn’t hurt them because all they knew was cruelty. But instead of shying away in fear, they had found the courage to embrace it when offered. Found the courage to open themselves up for more pain with each person they let get close to them.
Both of them knew pain. Both of them knew what it was like to live in the shadows of their fathers’ sins. But both of them also had the strength to fight it. Fight the ghosts that haunted them, even now.
Bruce looked over at Tony and grinned, a small flash of teeth, dark and half mad. He didn’t have to worry about Tony judging him for it. Tony would understand.
“Yeah, I guess we are.”
Tony grinned back, squeezing his shoulder once before letting go and turning away. Bruce watched the man for a moment, wondering how it was possible to have found someone who could understand him so completely…decided questioning his luck wasn’t worth it. It was comfort enough to know that Bruce wasn’t the only one still trying to exorcise his father’s demon.
Setting the arc reactor back down, Bruce moved towards the exit. “I’ll let Steve know he can come down now,” Bruce called over his shoulder, lips twitching in amusement when Tony let out a huff of annoyance. “Be nice, Tony,” Bruce admonished as he turned to give Tony one last look.
“He started it,” Tony said childishly, angrily, as the elevator doors closed and Bruce was whisked up to the living quarters of the tower.
Leaning back against the wall, Bruce closed his eyes, exhaustion seeping deep into his bones. The fight against his father wasn’t over, never would be, but he’d be damned if he ever let the bastard win. And it seemed Tony was just as dedicated to his own fight.