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Exposed Nerves

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Bruce wanders into the lab, a cup of coffee in each hand. “Were you up all night?”

 

“I caught a few hours of sleep,” Tony replies. “Is one of those for me?”

 

“Well, I was planning on drinking both, but you know how much I hate cold coffee,” Bruce replies, handing one of the mugs to Tony. “Are we going to talk about it?”

 

“You said you weren’t that kind of doctor,” Tony shoots back. “You fell asleep while I was telling you my life story.”

 

Bruce’s smile is rueful. “Yes, well, in my defense I hadn’t slept much because I was a little worried about a certain person at that time.”

 

Tony smirks. “You know you love me.”

 

“Jury’s still out on that,” Bruce replies and takes a sip of his coffee. “I’m just asking if we need to talk about the fact that you pulled an all-nighter when it wasn’t necessary.”

 

Tony sighs. “I couldn’t sleep, and no, I don’t want to talk about it.”

 

Bruce nods mildly. “Just thought I’d make the offer. You know we have that mission today.”

 

Tony groans, because he’d forgotten that was today, and he suddenly knows exactly why Bruce is in his lab with coffee. They’re friends, but Bruce doesn’t exactly make fetching Tony’s coffee one of his priorities. “I don’t even have time for a nap, do I?”

 

“Nope,” Bruce replies, although he appears sympathetic. “Sorry.”

 

Tony gulps his coffee. “At least we don’t have far to go this time.”

 

There’s more coffee in the conference room, and Tony pours a refill, slumping into a chair. “Are you going to be okay?” Bruce asks quietly.

 

“I’ve managed with a lot less sleep in the past,” Tony replies. “I’m fine, Big Guy.”

 

 

 

Bruce gives him a searching look and then nods, just as the others begin to filter into the room. Thor isn’t on Earth at present, but Natasha, Clint, and Steve are there in uniform.

 

Steve appears a little surprised to find Tony and Bruce already present, but he shrugs it off quickly enough. “Great, we’re all here. Let’s get started.”

 

Tony tries to focus on the briefing that Maria Hill had pulled together on a small Hydra research center they’re planning to shut down. Their intel indicates that it’s been all but abandoned, but there’s some concern about the tech they left behind.

 

It’s routine by now—find a Hydra base or facility, figure out who or what they’re holding, and shut it down by whatever means necessary.

 

Tony knows it’s important, but they’ve done it all before, and it feels a lot like work to him.

 

“I don’t think we’ll need the other guy, Bruce,” Steve says, capturing Tony’s attention again after his mind wanders. “But we’ll need both you and Tony because we’ve heard they’ve got some interesting, and potentially dangerous, technology.”

 

Bruce shrugs. “Fine.”

 

Tony’s fairly certain that if Bruce could get away with it, he’d hole up in his lab and would never go out on missions. And really, Tony understands the impulse, but when they need the Hulk, they really need the Hulk.

 

“Okay, let’s go,” Steve says, finally calling an end to the meeting.

 

Tony heads for the roof, and the suit forms around him. He feels a little more awake now, and Tony stands next to Bruce in the back of the Quinjet. “You good?”

 

Bruce raises his eyebrows. “I’m fine, Tony.”

 

“You hate this.”

 

Bruce sighs. “That’s a strong word. It’s not so bad if I don’t have to transform, and we usually get a couple of new toys out of a research center.”

 

Tony might hate Hydra, but he has to admit that they’ve been working on some very cool toys—a lot of them are twisted, but ingenious. “You think the rumor that they have a souped-up polygraph is true?”

 

Bruce hitches a shoulder. “It could be useful if it is—as long as the methods aren’t abhorrent.”

 

“Want to bet on that?” Tony asks.

 

“That’s a sucker’s bet,” Clint calls from the pilot’s seat.

 

Bruce smiles. “He has a point.”

 

“I could think of something that would be a win-win for both of us,” Tony offers.

 

“What would that be?” Bruce asks, amused.

 

“You could cook me dinner.”

 

That earns him one of Bruce’s rare full-throated laughs. “How is that a win for me?”

 

“You like eating your own food,” Tony points out. “Almost as much as I do, in fact.”

 

Bruce rolls his eyes, but he’s still smiling. “How about if it’s something we can actually use, I’ll make you dinner. If not, you’re buying.”

 

“Fair,” Tony agrees.

 

“Can the rest of us get in on that?” Natasha asks.

 

Bruce shakes his head. “Fine. Team dinner.” He puts his headphones on, but he’s relaxed, and there’s still a smile playing around his mouth.

 

Tony knows why Bruce doesn’t protest; he likes knowing there are multiple people in the world who give a shit about him. Tony feels much the same, especially these days.

 

~~~~~

 

The research facility is located in an old office building in Detroit. The area is sparsely populated, making it perfect for Hydra’s purposes. Their recon intel is good, and there are only a couple of bad guys on guard duty. Natasha and Steve take them out without breaking a sweat, and Clint sets up in a defensible location to watch their backs.

 

Unfortunately, Hydra hasn’t left much for them to find. Tony locates what’s clearly a lab, complete with burned out circuit boards, a couple of monitors unattached to computers, and a bin of shredded paper.

 

“Hey, Tony, I think I’ve found something,” Bruce says over the coms. “There’s a basement. The entrance is in the southwest corner of the building.”

 

Tony leaves his suit at the top of the stairs and clatters down to find Bruce standing in front of a chair with a helmet of some sort attached to the back. “What is it?”

 

Bruce shakes his head. “I don’t know. If it’s really a polygraph of some sort, then maybe it makes some sort of sound when a person tells a lie?”

 

“Do you want to try it or should I?” Tony jokes.

 

Bruce snorts. “You say that like it’s a joke, but you’re dying to turn it on, aren’t you?”

 

Tony shrugs. “Hey, I have to know who won our bet.”

 

Bruce stares at the chair. “This is a terrible idea.”

 

“It’s a really terrible idea,” Tony agrees.

 

Bruce finally shakes his head. “It could kill you or trigger me. The safety protocols are there for a reason.”

 

Tony knows Bruce is right, but as with most things, he wants to know exactly how it works, and the sooner the better.

 

“We can at least check to see if there’s a power source,” Bruce says, kneeling down next to the back of the chair and removing the panel he finds there. “Huh.”

 

“Good huh or bad?” Tony asks, crouching down next to him.

 

Bruce shakes his head. “I don’t know. It’s a crystal of some sort, but I’ve never seen anything like it before. We’ll probably want to remove it before transport.” He touches the crystal and goes stiff with surprise, making a muffled cry of pain.

 

Tony grabs his shoulder, and then he—he’s lost, swimming in a sea of rage so potent he can’t catch his breath. Amidst the rage there are glimmers of other emotions—affection, lust, fear—but Tony’s just so angry.

 

And then it stops, and he’s left feeling empty and lost, on his hands and knees on the floor, gasping for air.

 

“What the hell was that?” Steve demands, standing between Tony and Bruce.

 

Bruce is on his ass a few feet away, his back against the wall. “Sorry. God, Tony, I’m sorry.”

 

“Well?” Steve demands impatiently. “Tony? You were—you sounded like someone was killing you, but—”

 

“I think it was the crystal,” Bruce says faintly. “I was removing it for transport, and I felt something odd. When Tony touched me, it got ramped up to ten. It was probably worse for him.”

 

Steve puts a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “Do you need some help?”

 

Tony takes the hand up, still feeling a little rocked. “Bruce, what was that?”

 

“Ah, that would be the inside of my head.” Bruce looks absolutely ashamed of himself. “I think the crystal forges a telepathic connection, but—the Other Guy isn’t much of a talker.”

 

“Where’s the crystal now?” Steve asks.

 

Bruce gestures at the floor, where there are blue shards. “I dropped it.”

 

“Probably for the best,” Steve says. He’s still watching Tony with a concerned expression. “Are you okay?”

 

Tony shrugs off the concern. “I’ve got a monster headache, but otherwise I’m fine.” He notices that Bruce won’t look at him. “Let’s finish up and head home. I could really use a drink right about now.”

 

He wants to talk to Bruce, but he wants privacy to do it.

 

~~~~~

 

No one insists on a team dinner that night, not when Bruce is hunched in on himself and silent during the entire flight back to New York. He’s off the Quinjet and heading inside before Tony can tell him to wait, and Tony knows he’ll probably have to chase Bruce down later.

 

“I can talk to him if you want,” Steve offers before they part ways.

 

Tony shakes his head. “No, it should be me. I was the one that got whammied, and he probably wants to apologize some more—not that I’ll let him.”

 

“Was it that bad?” Steve asks.

 

Tony gives him a look. “You remember when Bruce said he was always angry? That’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

 

He’s used to Bruce’s routine by now, and Tony isn’t above using Jarvis to time things right. So, Tony calls for Bruce’s favorite takeout, pours himself a drink, and knocks on Bruce’s door right about the time he’d be getting out of the shower.

 

Bruce doesn’t answer at first, and Tony knocks again. “You asked if I wanted to talk about it,” he calls. “I have your favorite food, and I’m not going anywhere until we at least clear the air.”

 

The truth is, Tony doesn’t want to talk about it, but he’s not going to risk losing Bruce, not when he’s losing Pepper, too.

 

Bruce opens the door, his mouth an unhappy slant. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Don’t,” Tony says shortly. “It wasn’t your fault.”

 

“It kind of was,” Bruce replies, and he steps out of Tony’s way. “I never should have touched it, not without knowing what it was.”

 

Tony shrugs. “You know how often I’ve blown shit up because I didn’t know when to leave well enough alone.”

 

They sit down on Bruce’s couch, and Tony puts the bag of takeout on the coffee table. “I’m the one who’s sorry, you know,” Tony says.

 

Bruce looks at him, startled. “Why?”

 

“Because you told me what it was like for you, and I brushed it off,” Tony says bluntly. He sees no sign of the rage he’d experienced earlier. “You live with that all the time, and you told me, and I treated it like it was no big deal.”

 

Bruce shrugs. “How could you have known?”

 

“But I should have known,” Tony insists. “And I—I probably should have figured out how you felt about me.”

 

Bruce flushes. “I was hoping the rage would drown that out.”

 

Tony shrugs. “Almost, but—it was there.”

 

“It’s not—it’s something I can live with,” Bruce says quietly. “I’m not pining or anything. And it’s not great timing.”

 

Tony squeezes Bruce’s knee. “I’m not going anywhere, you know.”

 

Bruce frowns. “Even after you saw all that?”

 

Tony shakes his head. “Especially after that. Now that I know, I’m even more impressed by you, Dr. Banner.”

 

A faint smile crosses his face. “Well, I have to admit that it’s easier to feel all of those other emotions, and not the rage, when I’m with you.”

 

“Yeah,” Tony murmurs. “I think I know exactly what you mean.”