Bruce wakes up tired and cold despite the fact that his skin is burning up, the bare cement floor grating against already sensitive nerve-endings. The pain is bearable, nowhere near the top end of his, admittedly skewed, scale of experience. He thinks about getting up but the first attempt results in a muscle cramp that makes the backs of his eyelids spark up like Fourth of July so instead he lets himself fall back to sleep.
Or unconsciousness, depending on one’s point of view.
It’s dark. The darkness smells of vomit and piss and feels alive, surrounding him like some kind of amorphous entity. Bruce rolls once, twice, away from the puddle of his own misery, and the darkness follows him. He breathes it in, lets it fill his lungs and empty, aching stomach until the line between him and the formless black disappears.
Bruce is in a cage. Bruce is the cage.
No change there then. Behind the bars of a drug that dulls everything, Hulk is howling. Right now, Bruce would like nothing better than to set him free, smash through the prison that holds them both, but he can’t find the key. Everything is sliding away, thoughts falling like grains of sand through clumsy fingers.
The darkness and he laugh together, the echoes of hysteria fading into the endless night.
It’s water that pulls him back the next time, lukewarm and clean, aimed at him from somewhere beyond his vision. Bruce blinks his eyes, realising that he can see again, the light diffused but there, bringing to focus exciting things like a floor and burnished steel of the walls and his own bloodied hands. It’s enough to make his mind snap back from its travels, at least temporarily.
He turns into the spray, trying to see who or what is holding the hose, but unable to catch more than a shadow.
The water is followed by a towel and clothes and a tray of food. Bottled water and a blister back of generic brand of broad-spectrum antibiotics are also pushed through a hatch in the door.
He knows it’s a ploy, a torture more effective than any physical hurt they could inflict on him. After all, nothing is more painful than hope.
Despite that, Bruce gets dressed, eats, drinks and takes the medication. He could refuse, knows everything is spiked with whatever chemical compound is keeping his transformation at bay, but he is too weak to survive without right now so it’s a compromise he has to live with in order to live at all.
Under the dulling effect of drugs, Hulk shifts. Unhappy and angry, always angry, but focused now.
There is a grace period of two days. Forty-eight hours – as far as he can keep track – of light and nourishment and warmth.
Then the lights go out again.
Bruce doesn’t move, determined to ride it out. He keeps breathing, slow and deep. It’s been six hours since his last meal. This time he isn’t unconscious or sick, and he can wait it out. The drugs will clear and then… Well then they’ll see just how quickly this cage of theirs will crumple.
The hiss of gas takes them both by surprise.
He expects unconsciousness or death, gasping agony or a quick drop to nothing. Instead, the first inhale brings every nerve to sharp alertness, synapses firing as if under enemy attack. Somewhere not-so-deep inside, Hulk roars.
Bruce screams his approval, back bowing as the change ripples through him in waves, a tsunami of rage dragging him under.
The sky is blue.
This seems like a revelation. Bruce stares at the shining robin egg curve of a perfect summer’s day, unsure if he’s alive or dead and not caring about the answer as much as he probably should.
“Welcome back.” Tony’s face pops into his field of vision, the red of the Iron Man helmet a striking contrast to the blue of a cloudless sky. His visor is up and Bruce can see every line and imperfection on his handsome face. He looks like hope feels; dangerous and painfully essential.
Bruce lifts his hand, touches two fingers to the corner of Tony’s mouth, the jut of cheekbone, the bruised skin under his eyes.
“I’m here,” Tony says, blinking hard. Bruce can feel the brush of lashes against his fingertips. It may just be the most miraculous thing he’s ever experienced. “I’m here,” Tony repeats. “This is real. I’ve got you.”
Yeah, Bruce thinks, you do.
He takes a long, shuddering breath and dares to believe.