Tony generally didn’t have much respect for robots as opponents, particularly large, heavily-armored, slow-moving robots like the one determinedly rumbling down the street, knocking cars out of the way like chess pieces off a board. First of all, he was quite confident that the new explosive cartridges that his suit could now fire at extended range could eventually handle the armor or at the very least cripple the thing’s tank treads. Second of all, large and slow-moving objects didn’t generally stand much of a chance of catching up with him. And third and probably most relevant, he knew the Hulk was currently pounding his way down 5th Avenue and would very shortly be picking the thing up and turning it a smoking heap of road debris.
“How far out is the Hulk?” he asked.
Clint’s voice came through the team’s headsets. “Less than two minutes. Assuming he doesn’t get distracted. The thing seems to be following you, though, so it’s not doing much harm besides smashing a hell of a lot of cars. At least everyone seems to have plenty of time to get out of the cars first. Just don’t get too far away, or it might lock on a new target it has a chance of catching.”
“What exactly was their plan with these things?” Natasha asked. “Because the one on the other end of town didn’t hold up to Thor’s hammer very well. It did fire some kind of flame thrower, but apparently if you play with lightning for a hobby, fire doesn’t do much. It did scorch his new cape, though. He’s very unhappy about that.”
“Where the hell is Bruce?” Tony demanded, turning around as he hovered to look down at the robot. “This thing is racking up a price tag, if nothing else, and we’re going to hear about it from…”
The thing made a booming belch of a noise, and Tony swerved in midair as something black and tarry splattered across the front of his suit, blocking his vision. He tried to steady himself, but the suit had become sluggish and unresponsive.
“JARVIS! What the hell is this?”
“I don’t know, sir, but it seems to contain an extremely heavy metal component and it’s putting considerable strain on the thrusters.”
“Fuck… I can’t see anything.”
“All the cameras are covered with…”
Suddenly, there was a much bigger problem, because through the black tarry film he could see a flash of red and realized it was attached to him. The stuff was on fire. The thing had fucking fired some kind of heavy-metal-doped napalm at him.
He had just enough time to realize this before the screen in front of him began flashing red warnings, and alarms began to ring in his ears. Whatever the stuff was, it was burning really, really hot, and even through the suit the heat was starting to become suffocating.
“Tony, why the hell are you on fire?” Clint’s voice demanded.
“Little help?” he called, but he could tell from the dead sound of his microphone that the electronics were shot, and a moment later he realized why, because now the heat wasn’t just suffocating; it was a searing pain that flared across his body, and his next breath would have been an emergency call that his suit was breached, but instead, it was a lungful of thick, heavy black smoke that instantly closed up his throat as it burned into his chest.
“Sir, we’re losing altitude rapidly…” JARVIS managed to warn, but then his voice was cut off as well.
There was a violent thud against his body and then another one that sounded like smashing concrete, and even fighting for air he recognized the near-crushing grip as the Hulk’s massive arms. At least the fall wasn’t going to kill him, he thought dizzily, just before the lack of air shut his brain off.
He woke to the feeling of choking and instinctively tried to grab for whatever was shoved down his throat, but the motion sent pain flaring up his arms, and at the same time, someone else’s hands caught his wrists.
“I think you need that,” a familiar voice said.
He realized he could breathe, although every breath felt like he was being stabbed in the chest, and he blinked and tried to rub his eyes, but there was that pain in his arms again, and the hands on his wrists again.
He blinked a few more times and found himself looking up at a white ceiling and white walls, and as his eyes moved they found a metal IV stand with several bags hanging from it on one side, and Bruce on the other side, sitting in one chair with his feet propped on the other and a laptop on his lap. He tried to take stock of the situation; even through the fog of drugs his chest and arms were on fire, scalding through his thoughts with unrelenting pain, and the tube down his throat kept forcing air into his chest despite the jagged shards of agony that flared through him every time it did.
Bruce frowned as he watched him, then leaned over and jabbed his thumb into the red button beside the bed. A moment later, he heard a door open.
“Yes, Dr. Banner?”
“Mr. Stark is awake and I think he needs more pain medicine.”
Tony didn’t want to look at the nurse, so he looked at Bruce instead while the man did something with one of the bags on the IV stand.
“That should help. If he needs anything else, buzz us again.”
The door closed. Bruce chuckled. “Someone from S.H.I.E.L.D. came up with some bogus M.D. credits for me. They think I’m a medical doctor. I’m your personal physician. Does that make you nervous?”
Tony rolled his eyes, but then the drugs in the IV hit him like a brick, and suddenly the pain seemed just as intense, but much farther away, as if it belonged to somebody else. He flexed his fingers and found that they, at least, moved without too much discomfort; the gloves on the suit must have remained intact. He wondered if there was a pen somewhere, and tried to mime writing something. Bruce chuckled.
There was a pen in his hand.
“You can’t sit up, though. I’ll put the paper under the pen.”
Tony rolled his eyes again, since that seemed to be pretty much the only thing he could do at the moment; people had trouble reading his writing when he was sober and could see what he was doing. Nonetheless, he attempted to scribble something, which Bruce studied carefully.
“Three days, if you’re asking how long you’ve been here. The others have been in to see you, but they keep making them leave. I get to stay because nobody wants to argue with the guys from S.H.I.E.L.D. when they show up. That, and nobody wants to piss you off too much… something about you donating a couple of millions of dollars in imaging equipment last year…”
Tony scribbled something else.
“Have I been here for three days? Pretty much, yeah. JARVIS is accessing my laptop remotely and we’re working on some things. He’s supposed to be analyzing the molecular content of whatever that thing fired at you. There’s a chunk of it over there in the corner, by the way… not that you can tell, after what Thor and the Hulk did to it, but Thor thought it might cheer you up.”
Only Thor would think that would cheer him up, Tony thought. He scribbled again.
“When are they letting you out? I think it’ll be a few more days at least,” Thor said. “They said your burns aren’t severe… the suit protected you… but your skin blistered enough to be vulnerable to infection until it starts to heal over, and you breathed in some toxic chemicals from whatever was in that stuff while it was burning, or from the actual suit burning… JARVIS is supposed to figure out whether any of the toxic components came from the suit material so we can make sure the next model…
Tony waved his hand; he got the idea. His skin was scalded and raw, and his lungs were a mess, and he was going to be stuck here for longer than he liked.
“Respiratory therapist and burn specialist who were here earlier said you should recover completely,” Bruce said.
I always do, Tony thought, staring at the ceiling.
“You know, you’ve had a lot of hospital admissions,” Bruce said.
Tony glanced over at him and frowned.
“I wasn’t reading them. Just that S.H.I.E.L.D. uploaded me all your medical records when they set me in here and told me to play doctor. I didn’t read anything that isn’t from this particular hospital stay… but it was hard to miss the list of other ones.”
Tony scribbled on the paper. Bruce looked down at it.
“Kid stuff, huh? You know, I did notice that the cause of admission on one of them was listed as ‘spiral fracture of the humerus’. How’d you manage that?”
He tapped the paper.
“Kid stuff?” Bruce repeated, raising his eyebrows. “You know, a spiral fracture only occurs when an excessive amount of torsion is exerted on the bone. Usually only happens in children when someone yanks on or twists their arm. Had to yank or twist really hard, too… the humerus is the strongest bone in your arm. That type of fracture in a child is considered extremely suspicious of child abuse.”
Tony looked at the ceiling. Bruce shrugged.
“It doesn’t take a genius to figure that one out, Tony. Should I bother to guess how many of the rest of those ‘kid stuff’ hospital admissions were your dad’s handiwork?”
Tony fumbled for the pen, but couldn’t get a grasp on it with his hand shaking like it was. Suddenly there was a hand on top of his own, pressing it down gently.
“Don’t,” Bruce said. “I’m sorry. I’ll leave it alone. I promise. I just… it pissed me off. Reading that and knowing somebody hurt you that many times. I shouldn’t have said anything. I won’t mention it again, all right?”
Tony nodded, but moving his head just made the tube down his throat even more torturously uncomfortable, and he tapped Bruce’s arm and motioned to the tube. Bruce glanced at the monitor on the wall over Tony’s head.
“Your oxygen saturation has been good since you started waking up. Since you’re conscious, I don’t see why they couldn’t take it out and just try you on an oxygen mask instead… but I’m warning you, if I’m wrong and the oxygen mask isn’t enough, they’re going to sedate you and shove that tube back in there.”
Tony gave him a thumbs-up.
“All right,” Bruce said, not sounding tremendously sure of himself. He pushed the button again, and this time a different nurse came in. This one was older, with a warm face, and she smiled at Tony.
“It’s good to see you awake, Mr. Stark. Dr. Banner, what can I help with?”
“Mr. Stark’s oxygen saturation has been pretty consistently good since he woke up. Do the respiratory people think we could try extubating him?”
“I’ll ask them,” she said. “It would be a lot more comfortable, wouldn’t it?”
Her tone was sympathetic, and Tony thought to himself that she was one of the kind of nurses he had always hoped would come into the emergency room to take care of him when he was there, one of the ones who would be gentle with him and not ask him questions he couldn’t answer, even though her eyes said she already knew.
She returned a few minutes later with one of the respiratory specialists; apparently when someone paged a doctor with a question about Mr. Stark, they responded without delay. The younger woman in her white coat pulled her stethoscope out and pressed it to various spots on his chest, listening intently while her eyes watched the monitor.
“I’m not sure I’d want to extubate him yet… damaged lungs can take a bad turn unexpectedly if they start filling up with fluid… but he’s a pretty healthy guy overall and we’re keeping a pretty close eye on him, so it should be OK. You want me to do it?”
Bruce glanced at Tony, who tried to give him his most desperately pleading look. He knew what this part was like.
“Considering the burns to his throat, do you think we could give him something before we do this?”
“Sure. I can get something that’ll put him under for about five to ten minutes. It’s not a painkiller…. Just a short-acting anesthetic.”
“That should work,” Bruce said, glancing at Tony, who gave him a quick nod.
The young doctor was back shortly, followed by a nurse wheeling a tray of some sort of equipment Tony couldn’t get a proper look at without raising his head. He must have looked slightly panicked, because the doctor patted him on the shoulder.
“You won’t know anything that’s going on for about five or ten minutes. You won’t be completely asleep, but I’ll make sure you don’t know what we’re up to. When you wake up, hopefully, that tube will be gone. If it’s still there, it means you weren’t getting enough oxygen without it and we had to put it back in. Any questions?”
He shook his head.
He suddenly realized he did have a question… had Bruce just grabbed his hand? But it was too late to ask.
He got an answer to his question when he woke and yes, Bruce’s hand was still on his, and the stupid tube was gone, even though his throat was on fire, and there was a mask over his nose and mouth, but that was definitely better than the tube. Bruce was watching his face intently, and Tony almost reached for the pen before he remembered he could talk again.
“You all right?” Bruce asked.
“Fantastic,” he rasped.
Bruce chuckled. “You’ve looked better. And that’s a pretty high concentration of oxygen, so don’t start taking off the mask.”
“How do you feel?”
“Yeah, I’m sure it does. The nurse was going to bring some water and some ice chips. I’ll go see what happened to it… don’t go anywhere.”
Bruce was back a minute later with two Styrofoam cups, one with a straw in it. He pushed the door closed with his elbow and sat back down in his chair.
“This one’s your ice water. This one’s my coffee,” Bruce said.
“Can I get iced coffee?”
Bruce snorted. “You’re lucky you’re off the ventilator. Don’t push your luck.”
He lifted the mask long enough for Tony to get as much water as he could before Bruce took it away, then settled back down and picked up his laptop again, propping his feet back up on the spare chair.
“JARVIS says there wasn’t anything in the stuff they used on you that should have any long-term toxicity. That should make the real doctors feel better.”
He pulled out his cell phone and scowled at it. “What? Oh. Great. The rest of the team is downstairs and they’re asking to come up, but the front desk is throwing a hissy-fit because it’s not visiting hours and you’re not supposed to have four visitors at once. Do you want company or not?”
Tony considered it for a moment; the team might be a nice distraction as long as they weren’t here forever, and he’d learned long ago from previous hospital stays that if you pretended to fall asleep, the nurses would make your unwanted visitors go away.
“Okay. Then I’ll just go use the phone at the nurses’ station and remind the front desk that Mr. Stark may not approve of them hassling his friends. It’s handy being a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, isn’t it?”
Bruce set his laptop aside and stepped out into the hall. He was gone longer than Tony expected, and when the door opened again, it wasn’t Bruce, but Thor, followed by Steve and Natasha and Clint, who milled around for a moment and all said things at the same time before Natasha claimed one chair and Clint perched on the back of the other one and Steve settled on the windowsill and Thor continued wandering around the room and inspecting the medical equipment with obvious curiosity.
“Don’t let him touch anything,” Natasha said, poking Clint’s leg.
“Shit. If the god wants to touch stuff, I’m not stopping him. Hey, Tony. You look better without the machine.”
“How are you feeling?” Steve asked.
Tony shrugged. If they didn’t figure out he could talk again, he could get away without having to say anything.
“Enjoying the food?” Clint asked.
“How was he supposed to enjoy the food with a tube down his throat?” Natasha asked.
Clint shrugged. “I dunno. Just seems like when you visit someone in the hospital you’re supposed to make some kind of comment about the food. Isn’t that the general rule?”
Steve chuckled. “I think that was a rule when I was a kid.”
“Is the food here unsatisfactory?” Thor asked, frowning. “We should go and procure some proper food for our friend...”
Somehow, Bruce had managed to slip in between the others without drawing any attention to himself until he was elbowing Clint off his chair and sitting down.
“Hi,” Tony said, then winced, realizing he’d given himself away. Fortunately, although Bruce gave him an odd look, the rest of the team seemed too busy discussing food-related issues to notice.
“How many times are you going to say ‘hi’ to me today?” he asked.
“Never mind. You want some more water?”
“So, when does he get out of here?” Clint asked.
Bruce shrugged. “Few days. Not sure. Depends on whether he can behave himself when he gets home and rest like he’s supposed to instead of playing in his lab.”
“Well, you know that’s not going to happen,” Natasha said.
“You’d have to lock him in his room and convince JARVIS not to let him out,” Clint agreed.
Bruce glanced at Tony. “I don’t know. I think he might be willing to promise to behave, just to get out of here.”
“I would, if I were him,” Thor said, wrinkling his nose. “This place has a terrible smell.”
“It smells like sick people,” Clint said, shifting uneasily on his feet, and Tony wondered exactly how many times Clint and Natasha had ended up where he was; he’d seen reports on missions where both of them had had to be “retrieved” from “compromised situations” and although he hadn’t read the details, he’d gotten the idea that this meant it had been a rescue operation. He could see the scars on Clint’s arms, but Clint was pretty well known for apparently trying to get hurt; Tony wondered if Natasha’s habit of wearing pants and long sleeves hid the kind of scars Clint didn’t mind displaying, or worse ones.
“Where are the presents?” Thor asked.
“Oh, right,” Steve said, holding up the paper grocery bag sitting by his feet. He reached in and pulled out Tony’s tablet and laptop. “We thought you might want these. And I brought you some books, although I’ve been informed…” (he shot a dirty look at Clint) “that people don’t actually read books anymore. And JARVIS loaded a bunch of movies on the tablet for you to watch. And Pepper sent this.”
He held out his hand, displaying a small bird figurine made of solid blue glass.
“She said you might like to have it.”
Bruce took it from him and set it on the table beside the bed.
“She said she would have come, but she’s too busy keeping the rest of us and your robots from destroying the building,” Thor said.
Tony smiled to himself and shook his head. The bird meant Pepper would show up later, when the room wasn’t full of noisy teammates, and she would smuggle in a big bag of assorted candy and treats, because she knew what really kept Tony happy, and she’d been playing this game with him for years now, and they had it basically down to a science, whether he was in the hospital or stuck inside one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s meeting or research or decontamination facilities or somewhere else he didn’t want to be. She was a professional at it, regardless of who she had to threaten, bribe, sweet-talk, or lie to in order to get it to him. Fury had finally given up and started letting him bring food to official meetings in violation of the rules, just because he knew Pepper would manage to get him some anyway.
Eventually, Bruce managed to quietly shoo the rest of the team out, muttering about germs and burn patients and Tony being supposed to be resting and whatever else he had to say to get them moving toward the door, and they drifted out, promising to come back tomorrow.
“That depends on whether you decide to let them,” Bruce said, closing the door behind them. “I can always call Fury and have him keep them all busy for a day or two with something.”
He settled back in his chair and retrieved his laptop.
“Hi,” Tony said, before he could not say it. Bruce just raised an eyebrow.
“Hi. Is this a habit, or are you developing a tic?”
Tony shrugged and looked at the ceiling again. “Is there more water?”
“Your cup is empty. I can go get you some more.”
“Only deal… you have to promise not to say ‘hi’ as soon as I sit back down.”
Of course, he did it anyway. He didn’t mean to; his mouth had already put the word out before his brain reminded it to shut up. Bruce just smiled and held out the cup with the straw, lifting the oxygen mask.
“You’re nuts, you know that?”
Tony nodded. “I’ve been told that.”
Bruce made sure the mask was back in place before returning to whatever he’d been looking at on his laptop. Tony found himself yawning.
“What time is it?”
“In the morning or the evening?”
“Go to sleep, Tony.”
He closed his eyes. Part of his brain registered the fact that Bruce had moved to rest his free hand over Tony’s where it lay on the bed and rub absent fingers soothingly over the unburned skin.
“Do you ever have nightmares about all the other times you were in the hospital? When you were a kid?” he asked quietly.
“Not as long as I have a few drinks before bed,” Tony murmured.
“Yeah, well… hopefully the pain medication will work too. But if you wake up and I’m sitting here snoring in the chair, just wake me up, all right?”
Tony nodded sleepily. “I will.”
Bruce’s fingers were still rubbing over the back of his hand. Tony flipped his wrist, and after a moment of hesitation, Bruce’s fingers slid across his palm and wrapped between his own, squeezing them lightly.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Well, I figure the only way to make you stop saying ‘hi’ to me is just not to leave.”
“Works for me,” Tony muttered.
He wasn’t sure if Bruce heard him, but he figured he did, because before he drifted off completely he felt him give his hand another quick squeeze.