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Better Than the Alternative

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Technically, Tony’s hearing loss isn’t Bruce’s fault, but Tony still blames him just a little bit. Oh, not because he’s going deaf, but definitely for the fact that Tony knows about it. He could have remained happily oblivious for years, but Bruce is very attuned to Tony’s well being, and Tony doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring it.

 

And, okay, he’s grateful that Bruce is so invested his health, but still. Ignorance is bliss and all that.

 

He’s working on a project in his lab about two weeks after the explosion with his music cranked up to ward off the boredom. After so long without the use of his suit, Tony wants the distraction of project with his music blaring. And, since he doesn’t have use of the suit, he’s tweaking the Stark phone.

 

He has some ideas for improving processing speed and battery life, and that’s what he’s focusing on when the music cuts out.

 

“Tony!” Bruce sounds exasperated. “I’ve been calling you for the last five minutes.”

 

“I was focused,” Tony replies defensively. “On the thing.”

 

Bruce frowns. “Did you get your hearing checked out after that explosion?”

 

“I don’t need my hearing checking out,” Tony replies immediately. “My hearing is fine.”

 

Bruce’s eyes narrow. “All right. I won’t push for now. Are you interested in dinner? Because Aunt Elaine invited us over tonight if you’re up for it.”

 

“Sounds great,” Tony says immediately. “It’s been awhile since we’ve seen her.”

 

Bruce nods. “I’ll let her know. But Tony? Maybe don’t turn the volume up quite so loud?”

 

Tony smiles. “Anything for you.”

 

He keeps his music to a dull roar after that, figuring that it won’t do to worry Bruce, not so soon after he got blown up.

 

Elaine hosts them at her place, putting out a meal that hipsters would probably pay good money for as some revival of home-cooked Americana. For Tony, it takes him back to his teenage years, when he’d visited Bruce. It’s comforting.

 

“Are you recovering?” she asks sympathetically while dishing up green beans to go along with her pork roast and mashed potatoes.

 

“Getting there,” Tony replies. “I feel less like I’ve been run over, but I’m still stuck in the cast for another six weeks.”

 

Elaine pats him on the shoulder. “Better a cast than the morgue, dear.”

 

“That’s true enough,” Tony admits. “Thanks for dinner.”

 

“It’s my pleasure,” she says easily. “Bruce, how are you holding up?”

 

“Just fine,” Bruce replies. “I wasn’t the one who got blown up.”

 

Elaine smiles. “Taking care of someone who has been blown up can be rather taxing.”

 

Tony frowns. “Hey!”

 

“I was married to a sheriff,” Elaine reminds him. “I know how that goes. Morris was a much bigger pain in the ass when he was injured.”

 

Bruce snorts and then tries to turn his laugh into a cough.

 

“I heard that,” Tony says sourly.

 

Bruce smiles. “That’s good. It means you’re probably not going deaf, considering the volume of your music.”

 

“It’s so nice to hear you boys sound like an old married couple,” Elaine says. “Now, you try some of my pork and tell me if it’s too dry. And be honest! It’s a new recipe, so I can blame any mishaps on that.”

 

The pork is delicious, as is everything else, and the evening is an enjoyable one. But it’s quiet enough that the ringing in his ears, which has been present since the explosion, is more obvious than when he’s in his lab. He’d been trying to drown it out by keeping his music at peak volume.

 

“You sure you’re all right?” Bruce asks as they head back home. They’ve opted for a driver, since Bruce hates driving in the city, citing the Other Guy.

 

Tony frowns. “Bruce.”

 

“Tony, you got blown up, and I just want to know you’re okay,” Bruce says quickly. “The volume of your music has been at least three notches higher than usual.” When Tony gives him a look, he admits, “I asked Jarvis.”

 

Tony sighs. “I’ve had some ringing. I’m sure it will go away.”

 

“It’s been two weeks, and if it hasn’t gone away by now, I think you should get it checked out,” Bruce argues.

 

“I’m fine.” Tony really doesn’t want to go back to the doctor.

 

Bruce’s eyes narrow. “Fine. But if the ringing in your ears doesn’t improve, I’m going to insist on it. One week, Tony, and then you’re getting checked out.”

 

Tony doesn’t see that he has any choice but to agree. “One week.”

 

Bruce nods reluctantly. “It’s a deal.”

 

And Tony knows Bruce isn’t going to let it go any longer than that.

 

~~~~~

 

Bruce knows what repeated acoustic trauma can do to a person, and Tony has been in a number of explosions—not to mention the preference for loud music. Plus, he’s noticed that Tony has been having a little trouble hearing since the last explosion.

 

Not only is his music louder than usual—something Bruce confirmed with Jarvis but noticed on his own—but Bruce has to call Tony’s name several times to get his attention. Plus, Tony seems startled when Bruce approaches from an angle that he can’t see, even when Bruce makes noise.

 

But the real kicker is when Bruce goes to see what Tony wants for lunch a few days after their visit with Aunt Elaine. Tony’s music is a few notches quieter, and Bruce makes plenty of noise as he approaches. Tony definitely should have heard him, and it’s not like there’s a lot of other ambient noise while he’s working on a car engine.

 

“Tony,” he says, pitching his voice above the music. Tony doesn’t look up, and Bruce touches his shoulder to get his attention.

 

Tony spins, wrench in hand, and only Bruce’s quick reflexes prevent Tony from braining him.

 

Bruce scrambles back a few steps, his hands up. “Whoa.”

 

“Shit,” Tony says, dropping the wrench. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t hear you.”

 

“Yeah, I got that,” Bruce says wryly. “But you’re seeing a doctor. I made noise, Tony. The fact that you didn’t hear me tells me something is wrong, because you’re never that oblivious.”

 

Tony’s shoulders slump. “Yeah, okay. I agree.”

 

“I’ll make the appointment,” Bruce replies. “Thank you.”

 

“Well, I wouldn’t be much of a husband if I killed you because I’m jumpy.” Tony reaches out and hauls Bruce close. “I’m really sorry.”

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Bruce says. “I just want to be sure you’re okay.”

 

Tony nods. “I’ll go.”

 

“I’ll go with you,” Bruce promises.

 

With Jarvis’ help, Bruce finds an audiologist with impeccable credentials who’s willing to sign a nondisclosure agreement. He has no idea how long they’ll be able to keep the information under wraps, but he doesn’t want to give Tony’s enemies extra ammunition.

 

“How did you find this guy?” Tony mutters as they ride the elevator up a high rise near Stark Tower.

 

Bruce shrugs. “It’s a woman, and Jarvis found her.”

 

“And she signed the thing?” Tony asks.

 

Bruce raises his eyebrows. “I’m used to being discreet, Tony. Trust me on this. I sent someone from Legal, and they intimated they were representing an A-list actor. They only told her who you were once she’d signed it.”

 

“An NDA isn’t going to prevent her from talking,” Tony points out.

 

Bruce pats him on the shoulder. “It will if she doesn’t want to lose her license to practice.”

 

“Sneaky.”

 

“I have a vested interest in protecting you,” Bruce counters. “I always have.”

 

The woman who greets them at the door immediately offers her hand. “Come in, Mr. Stark, Dr. Banner. I’ve cleared out my staff for the lunch hour, so it’s just us here.”

 

“Thank you,” Bruce says. “I appreciate you accommodating us, Dr. Reymer.”

 

“Well, to be honest, I thought it was safer for everybody if no one knows I treated Iron Man,” she replies. “Mr. Stark, Dr. Banner won’t be able to be present while you’re actually doing the hearing test, but he can join us afterwards while we discuss the results.”

 

Bruce stays out of the way as the doctor tests Tony’s word recognition and ability to hear tones at various hertz. When she meets with them afterward, her expression is sympathetic.

 

“Okay, so there was some damage to your hearing,” she says to Tony. “The tinnitus—the ringing in your ears—may clear up in time, but it’s more likely to be at least intermittent for the rest of your life. You show some loss of hearing across all hertz, but it’s most pronounced in the higher range. Now, some of that is probably due to age, but acoustic trauma also causes hearing loss, and you’ve had more than your fair share of that.”

 

Tony takes a breath. “What does that mean?”

 

“I can give you hearing aids that will help with both the hearing loss, and can help mask the tinnitus, but…” Dr. Reymer trails off. “Well, I’d tell you to avoid explosions in the future, but I don’t suppose that’s a possibility.”

 

“Not really,” Tony says.

 

She shrugs philosophically. “Well, chances are your hearing is going to get worse as you age. I can have those hearing aids for you in a few days.”

 

“That won’t be necessary,” Bruce inserts smoothly. “If you could just send me the specifications.”

 

She smiles. “That would be one advantage to being married to a genius. I’d be happy to send you the information, Dr. Banner.”

 

“Thank you so much,” he replies. “We really appreciate your time today.”

 

Tony’s usual charm is in short supply, and Bruce suspects he’s still reeling a bit. He nudges Tony anyway, and Tony manages a smile. “Much appreciated.”

 

“Of course,” she replies. “And if you need anything in the future, or if you want to consult on the hearing aids, just call. For you guys, I’ll make a house call.”

 

Bruce ushers Tony out. “You know,” Bruce begins on the elevator ride down. “I thought we could work up a model that’s connected to Jarvis. He could give you proximity alerts, as well as help mask the ringing.”

 

“You’ve been thinking about this a lot,” Tony says.

 

“I’ve been worried a lot,” Bruce replies. “Also, I’d prefer if you didn’t hit me with a wrench when you don’t hear me coming.”

 

“I said I was sorry,” Tony replies.

 

“You don’t have to be sorry,” Bruce insists. “I just want to be sure you’re okay.”

 

“I’m losing my hearing,” Tony says wearily. “And it’s going to get worse.”

 

Bruce thinks about that for a moment. “Well, I’m losing my sight. I wear glasses, you’ll wear hearing aids, it’s not all that different. You know, the argument could be made that this is just another part of getting older,” Bruce teases. “And that’s better than the alternative.”

 

Tony smirks at him. “Acoustic trauma, Bruce. Also, you’re older than I am.”

 

“By six months,” Bruce replies. “That’s hardly enough to count.”

 

“You’re always going to be older, and that’s the important thing,” Tony insists. “So, are you planning on building me a better hearing aid?”

 

“I’ll build you the best one on the market,” Bruce promises. “Maybe we can sell them, or give them away to people who really need them and can’t afford them.”

 

Tony pulls him close and presses a kiss to his temple. “I love the way you think. Something good will come out of this anyway.”

 

“Isn’t that our specialty?” Bruce asks, and is grateful that the news isn’t worse.

 

Bruce can fix this, and that’s the important thing.