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Sun Baked

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How does one go about truly changing? When the water pooled in his lunges and dread was a constant companion he made plenty of self-promises. That if he ever got out of there he'd change. He wouldn't be such a dick, he'd be nicer to Pepper, call Rhodey more often. He made a lot of promises. Funny, it wasn't till Yinsen laid broken and fading his declaration to make his life worth it that he really thought it was something he'd actually have to do. Rather than something to placate himself with while being repetitively drowned. Now that the weight of someone as good as Yinsen at his back he wasn't sure how he'd actually go about doing so.

It was easy to say that if he got back home, he'd turn a new leaf. Be a better person and all that jazz. It sounded ridiculous to him now. No one can change that easily. Even the trauma he went through, was it enough? Could he live a life where he wasn't alone? After all he's done? Yinsen was dead. He was not. Now he had to make sure that sacrifice was worth it. What could he possibly do to make up for that? It was impossible. While he thought and let the dread flicker ever closer he stumbles and falls heavily on the sunburnt ground. Worrying about that was well and good and all but he didn't see himself getting out of this place alive. He was in the middle of bum fuck nowhere hurt and probably half delirious. He almost wished was getting a face full of water again, that's how much his throat throbbed. Almost. He rolled so he was facing the too bright sky. He was going to perish here, Yinsen died for nothing.

He wished he could change. Be a person worth looking up to, walking beside. Be a hero, like the man his father wasted his life on searching for. He'd scoff if it wouldn't hurt so much. Right now, it was hard seeing that when all he wanted was a burger and to sleep for three weeks.

But really, he wanted a glass of hard liqueur it didn't matter what at this point. He felt his gritty eyelids slide gratingly up and down. Drinking was something Yinsen would probably frown at. Right? If he was going to change he'd start by quitting. He held back a laugh, that would be too painful to try. Quit drinking? After this, he'd deserve a drink. Or two, or... You know what. He kinda wanted someone else to take his place on the path of redemption. It sounded like a road that he was destined to fail. Changing wouldn't be so hard if he wasn't on his own. He couldn't drag Pepper into this and Rhodey, he... They barely put up with him as it was. It was sad that the number of people he might say cared, at least in part for him fit on just one hand. For the man who had everything yet nothing indeed.

Change, he'd change for Yinsen, he could. Though at the moment he wished he was someone else altogether.

Honestly, he wasn't surprised when he started to hear voices, a voice actually. He'd been baking out in the sun for longer than his mind was capable of telling him. Hallucinations and all that shit were bound to happen sooner or later.

So, this is death.

It sure felt like it.

Can't say I'm surprised.

A glint of exasperating acceptance and the taint of sorrow came to be in the back of his mind. Fragments of a place he'd never been, the bitter taste of ashes on one's tongue. Blood caked underneath nail-beds and the death rattle of someone passing on. It was all there even if he wasn't familiar with it. There we go people, he's finally snapped. Although why his mind conjured up something somehow more depressing than his current predicament he'd never know. That sorrow, that overwhelming sadness hidden away but vast enough he felt it. Made his dread and worries pale in comparison. He felt kinda pissed by that. Like what the hell brain, way to make what he'd been through a footnote. That presence in the back of his mind seemed to shake itself and focus better.

...What is this? Alternate dimension? Purgatory? Mind trap?

Whoa, buddy slow down. You, my friend, are a hallucination that yours truly conjured up. Please, make yourself at home. I mighta made you so I wouldn't die alone.

The presence got closer, at least that's what it felt like to him, it felt more real. Which should be freaky but he couldn't be bothered to care. A spark of curiosity, a healthy dose of suspicion and an underlining feeling of critical assessment. Whatever was going on was practically a beacon of feeling as opposed to its more dulled emotion of moments ago. Any feeling other than the acceptance of his death was welcome.

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Who are you?

Somehow that question wasn't as easy as it once was.

That's what I'm going to find out. But for now, call me Tony. What about you, go by anything?

He really shouldn't encourage the part of his brain that was failing but he couldn't help it.

Who I was holds no meaning now.

A smothering weight of loss hit him.

If you don't give me something I'll come up with the most outrageous nicknames, I don't think you want that.

Granted he'd likely do that anyway if of course, he survived and so did the figment of his imagination that is. There was this strange little swirling like an encompassing darkness that folded together in the groves of his mind. And silence there was a bit of that. He sort of thought that'd be it, no more voice just awaiting the end. He tried to get up a while back and got about two inches before collapsing once more. For all his want to change and his need to make things right. He wasn't going anywhere.

Bruce, you can call me Bruce.

Huh, would you look at that? The voice was still there after all.

You are not going to die.

Great, optimism. Somehow he really wasn't expecting such a thing from this voice. Didn't feel right.

And what hotshot makes you think that? Look around, not even a tumbleweed's crossed by.

What remaining good mood he's managed to hold onto soured. There might've been a sigh, he wasn't sure but a dry baritone drawled in his metaphorical ear.

By the wind repercussion of a helicopter coming this way.

Oh. Well, when you put it like that.

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The glorious overflow of relief on seeing Rhodey was in a word, divine. Were there tears? Only the manly overload of 'holy shit I'm actually going to live!' The stay in the hospital was less fun. In fact, it was a drag, it wasn't worth the panic scrambling to tell Rhodey to not let anyone touch what was in his chest or he'd die. If his bestie looked a little green, well, he could understand. It didn't exactly look pretty.

What was worse the man wouldn't tell him what happened while he was gone, just 'God, can't it wait, all you need to do is get better Tones.' It wasn't his fault lying in bed was boring him out of his mind. Speaking of his mind.

Hey, buddy still there?

He waited a long two seconds before asking again. He should leave it be and be thankful whatever it was, was gone.

Hello? C'mon, I know you are.

He did not know but after having someone to talk to when he thought he'd kick it made the sudden silence that much more lonely.

Are you there? ...Bruce?

A spark of what he was beginning to understand as Bruce's focused awareness drew closer.

Unfortunately.

Tony beamed,

Great! Looks like you're stuck with me!

Why was knowing a second voice he didn't control in his head comforting? He'd blame it on PTSD or whatever label a psychiatrist would love to tack on him. Hm, his new alter ego felt bored, no, more like increasingly indifferent?

Yeah, we both know who got the short end of the stick in this relationship.

He heard no more from Bruce after that, just a lingering echo of discomfort or dislike at Tony's last words. Although he didn't know what for at least it was better than the muted nothing Bruce tended to give off.

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Eventually, Rhodey caved and handed him a tablet. It didn't take long, Tony found out long ago Rhodes could take only so much whining before folding like a well-made origami. He always fancied his superpower was the power to annoy. This way, when he read through the news of the past months he wouldn't have to see pity in his best friends eyes or the same in some of the nurses.

That though his chest was covered in gauze and wrap he felt it. The stares. He knew intellectually that the only ones who even knew it was there was Rhodey and his doctor, everyone else just knew he was back from captivity. And yet, and yet, he could feel it, looks at his deformity. He went back and forth between the horror and pain of having a chunk of metal in his chest to boosting his mood with 'it's what's keeping me alive!' and 'Yinsen helped make it, in a way it was a memento' ...great now he made himself sad. Time to bug his new friend. Talking to Bruce was hardly a cheerful pick me up but something about his surliness was fun to poke fun at.

Bruce, hey Bruuuuce!

Tony found that if he used Bruce's proper name he'd more likely reply as opposed to just talking to him. When he tried a few nicknames, Brucy Bear, Brucie pooh, just Brucie among others he only felt a vague impression of strange amusement and was otherwise 100% ignored. The less said about the time he called him 'B' the better.

There it was, that little tickle letting him know Bruce was paying attention.

Don't you have better things to do?

Than irritate me was left unsaid but heard.

What and deprive you of my decadent tones? You must be going out of your mind with boredom, anything made from me would. C'mon lets chat, what are you doing when you're not talking to me?

That was a genuine question that was plaguing him.

He didn't know what to call Bruce. Sure dehydration and pain might lead to hallucinations but he was on the mend now and his voice was still there. Was this a warning sign of schizophrenia or maybe dementia? People heard voices with those ailments right? He had no idea. Did Tony acquire associative personality disorder? Was that even possible?

Alright let's look at the facts, number one, Bruce hadn't taken over control or moved his body, nor did Tony have family history of mental illnesses insofar as he knew. Was that sort of thing genetic? Tony was deliberating trying his hand at a medical degree to match his other ones. He tapped his fingers on his leg deep in thought knowing it would take Bruce ages to answer if he even bothered to. Let's see, last time he had a full check up the doctor gave him a full bill of health other than a frowny face at his drinking. Oh well, it was one of life's mysteries.

Admittedly, a traumatic experience might be enough to create a new personality (at least that's what second-hand knowledge told him) to compensate his inability to handle it but he did. Handle it that is, on his own. At least he liked to think he did. The fact he had another separate personality speaking back to him told him something was wrong though. He hesitated in telling anyone. They already gave him pitying looks it would be far worse if they thought he'd gone crazy. Anyways, he liked his voice, it wasn't intrusive or berating. In fact, he had to heckle it, him, just to say something at all. Like now.

Hello? Bruce did you fall asleep? Wait, can you even sleep?

There was a brief pause, he'd call it petulant if he had to call it something, but he knew he had him. Tony was getting better at reading the guy.

I've been going through your memories.

He wasn't sure how to react to that. Anger? But Bruce was apart of him, what was the point? Acceptance? Being just a thought in someone's head, there wasn't much to do. Tony knew he'd go nuts only watching life through another's eyes. In the end, he opted for confusion.

Okay? Find anything interesting?

Not really.

Hmph. That was just rude.

Listen, I'm not a figment of your imagination or subconscious conjuring. I am someone who has been transferred to your mind.

Tony blinked. Ignoring what was said, that was the longest Bruce had ever talked. Frustration filtered through, Tony noted it intrigued at how different Bruce was acting.

This isn't even my universe.

Right... Do you know how to go back then?

He decided to humor him all the while wondering if he actually should get his head checked. Hurt silence bounced back at him, Tony winced, not used to receiving so much emotion from Bruce.

No.

No?

There is nothing to go back to.

Well, this day was turning out just great.

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By the time half a week had passed and he was on his way to being cleared for home he realized Bruce wouldn't talk anymore. No amount of peskiness and cajoling swayed him. If it wasn't for that spot in the back of his head he knew was 'Bruce's spot' he'd fear he lost him. As it was he only met his match, someone he couldn't annoy into doing what he wanted. In Bruce's absence and not much left to amuse himself with he gave what he'd do real thought.

Don't waste it. How should one go about doing that? He knew the first step, he had to stop weapon making. Gingerly he touched his chest remembering the shock, of knowing it was his missile that wounded him. What he'd do in weapon manufacturing's place he wasn't sure yet but he'd get there. He'd do Yinsen proud, he wanted to make at least one person proud.

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He figured it out. The reason Bruce wouldn't talk to him. He noticed Tony still thought he was apart of him, made from his frayed mental health. He did but if being treated as a separate entity, someone who lived a life before now was what his alter needed that's what he'd give him. So long as he'd stop ignoring him! He couldn't take it anymore.

Bruce? Whatever it is I did wrong I'm sorry. It must suck being stuck with me as a host but I'll find a way to make it up to you.

It showed how desperate he was if he managed to choke out an apology, it helped that it was just in his head. Bruce's presence glided closer and sat, it felt like a sat anyway feeling a brush of his awareness to let him know he was there but still he said nothing. There was a strange calm about Bruce similar to that of the breaking of a great storm where the tempest had stopped but there was destruction in its wake. Momentarily Tony fancied that Bruce did have a small temper tantrum and this was the cool off. Now that he had his attention. Time for a small act.

So, if you are some guy shoved in my head what makes you think it was okay going through my memories huh? A lot of those are personal and secret.

As any set of memories would. There was a shift Tony couldn't describe it any more than that before Bruce finally spoke.

I awoke to a foreign world in another's body, trapped. Of course, I learned all I could about you.

Tickled pink by his subconsciousness' imagination he asked

Couldn't you've just asked?

Something distinctively unamused gave way

In my experience, very few people bother with anything truthful.

Tony would feel hurt if the guilt didn't wash over it. But he persevered, he continued on,

let's make it even then. Tell me about your life.

There was a flicker of emotion, not happy ones but were gone too fast to place.

You do not want to hear about my life.

There was dark weight to his words, so sure of them he was. A steely certainty that Tony could feel in his bones. He held back the urge to roll his eyes.

Try me.

Tony felt that if Bruce had a body he'd be seeing a grim smile adorn his face. With that parting imagined image, Bruce skulked back into his hidden corner. Tony shrugged, it was worth a shot. Ominous mystique aside not having any concrete evidence Bruce was from some other planet (snicker) not hearing any of his supposed 'memories' made it all the harder to buy.

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You do not have magic in your world.

He speaks! Tony was stunned, here he was happy to finally head home on the morrow when the improbable happened. Should he write it on his calendar? It sounded like a question but said as a statement.

Uh, no. I'm guessing yours did?

Yes.

A nice simple word, the way Bruce said it made it seem so much more, relieved, annoyed, maybe disappointed?

Is that a good thing or a bad thing for you?

For a moment Tony thought he'd be ignored again but low and behold he stayed,

It's of no consequence. At least its sufficiently technologically advanced here.

Tony tried to hold back feeling smug as he wasn't sure if it was a compliment or not but he'd take it as one.

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This was it. He was going home. There were actual fucking butterflies in his stomach. He was no longer in danger of dying, his skin wasn't an array of blues and yellows. At least, his face wasn't and really that's all that mattered. Rhodey sat next to him a soothing presence murmuring nonsense whenever Tony started getting antsy.

He hadn't told him what he was planning, he didn't know if he'd approve. He worked for the army, after all, an army he supplied with life taking weapons. He didn't promise Yinsen he'd stop but he did promise himself. Tony feared that if he told Rhodes and he flat out disapproved he might cave. He'd explain when it was over and done with.

As time ticked by he tapped his leg repeatedly, soon he'd see Pepper. It felt like a lifetime since he saw her. In a way it was, his old life was over, it had to be. Bruce's essence swirled closer, lingered a moment making Tony take an artists approach and imagine it as a mental pat on the shoulder as encouragement. It was easier to take his silence if he imagined that kind of interaction even if Bruce didn't give off the comforting type vibe. Strangely enough, he felt better after that. If Bruce was a real person crammed in his head-space he'd feel bad about it but as it was, he was glad he got him.

A warm fluffy person Bruce was not but maybe nice and compassionate wasn't what he needed. Tony leaned forward in his seat lacing his fingers together. Not another twitch came through, Rhodey's worried looks were ignored. Figures he'd notice his game face when it was put on. The slowing of the plane told him they were home. He grinned, it was showtime.

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He bantered with Pepper so happy to see her but not sure if giving her a bear hug was the best choice of action. Seeing her puffy eyes and watery smile told him she at least missed him a little. Tony rushed into the car afraid if he put it off he wouldn't work up the nerve. “Call up a press conference,” he stated much to her bafflement, he jolted up as if struck by a great idea, “But before that. A cheeseburger.” Oh, he was getting that cheeseburger, his mouth was watering at the thought. “Tony you're not making any sense, shouldn't you be going to the hos-,” cutting off her no doubt well-meaning words he told Hogan to step on it. He had something to say. The Tony of old was gone.

Obie opened the car door before embracing him in a slightly too tight way. Not that he wasn't happy to see him but he had a job to do, so he brushed him off stalking towards his goal. Obie asked if he had a burger for him. Fuck no, it was all his. Although, maybe he should've gotten three. Two might not cut it. Later, Tony, you can have all the cheeseburgers. Right. This was it. The scarfed burger sat churning around uncomfortably.

The flashing and colliding voices gave him dueling dispositions, on one hand, this was familiar like a well-worn jacket. On the other side, the noise and lights were aggravating in a way he didn't expect. After having no one near him that wasn't hostile except Yinsen for what was it, four months? All these people were too much.

He ignored it falling into his old way of thought, attention was good regardless of what kind. Suddenly it got quiet as he got to the pedestal, the weight of those stares made his knees weak. “Can we just, all sit down?” He slumped to the ground motioning for them to do the same. This way all they would see was Stark and his peculiar ways and not someone unprepared to face everything just yet. He went on about his father, rambling really but he didn't exactly come up with a speech he just knew what he wanted to say in the end, not how to ease them into it.

Besides, did it really matter? He was going to do this whether people liked it or not. He'd go on to tell them a piece of what he'd seen. “I've seen what my weapons can do, what they've done.” He might have to stand for this bit. Answering a question he laid it out for them “I've come to the conclusion that I have more to offer this world than making stuff blow up,” he stared into their eyes, all earlier jitters were gone, it wasn't so hard now. He welcomes Bruce's presence that slowly got closer as he spoke, “So I decided that Stark Industries will no longer be making weapons. That is all.” Obie tried to smooth things over or change his meaning so the press wouldn't 'take it the wrong way' Tony talked over him so it couldn't be refuted, he said what he needed to and now he was going home to eat a few more hamburgers and drink some scotch or a lot. He shrugs off lingering journalists and Pepper's frustrated face telling Happy to take him home.

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“Honey I'm home! Didja miss me?”
“I awaited your arrival with bated breath, Sir.” Good ole JARVIS. He made his way to his workshop he needed to make sure everything was as he left it.

So Bruce what do you think? Isn't it the best you've ever seen?

There was a distinct lack of presence considering he felt him just minutes ago a little put out he asked JARVIS to give him a better rundown of what happened since he was gone. In fact, Bruce tucked himself away so tight Tony wasn't entirely positive he was still there. A little worried he tried calling out to him, eventually he gave up he'd just have to face it. This was going to happen a lot, wasn't it? It's fine he was getting used to it. He crumpled up another burger wrapper, he's had Burger King and In-N-Out should he have McDonalds next?

“Sir, Mr. Obadiah is requesting admittance.” Tony waved his hand “Yeah yeah sure.” Seeing Obie storm in, looks like he's in for nasty weather. “Tony what were you thinking? Shutting down the weapons manufacturing? I know things have been tough, maybe you should take some time off. Really think about-” Tony cut him off,

“I'm not mentally impaired, I know what I'm doing. Listen, something happened to me in that cave, I've turned a new leaf and I believe,” this time he was the one stopped mid-sentence. Oh boy, here we go, Tony thought, the first hurdle on the road to change. Arguing with Obie wasn't anything new but it still hurt. Why couldn't he believe in him? A small voice nothing like Bruce's whispered that he wasn't exactly dependable material. He hadn't made believing in him easy. Well, he was set to changing that wasn't he? He'd show Obie, he'd show everyone. He'd show himself that it could be done.

He was half ready to rip off his shirt and show Obie exactly what changed him, what was done to him and why he wanted to try something new. Halfway through the now near screaming match a low thought struck clear,

You shouldn't trust this man.

Tony faltered not used to Bruce speaking up on his own especially after a full day of Tony talking at him. He sidestepped Obie going to fill up a glass with whatever drink was nearby,

What do you mean? You've been through my memories by now, haven't you? He was more of a father then my own was.

Obie was at the placating variation in his argument, trying to see his own way through softer words and warm eyes.

I know his kind. He's a shark, showing him your weaknesses will only draw him in for the lunge.

Tony rolled his eyes gee Bruce sure was dramatic.

Bruce buddy, I trust very few people and those I do have earned it.

There was a heavy pause, in which Bruce might've said more but decided on,

Suit yourself.

Before disappearing back into his little cubby hole. Hmph, drama queen. He showed Obie his arc reactor, who was more understanding after that. He also bought himself a few days or weeks without the press clawing down his throat, give him some breathing room to pull himself together and truly decide the course of his fate from now on.

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As half expected and prophesied by Obie the stocks didn't take too well to his announcement, plummeting the value of SI. Let the news leave scathing reviews, it's what they do. In the meantime, he finally completed the newer arc reactor, its design more sleek and well, not made in a cave.

What do you think, Bruce? Isn't it a beaut?

Tony beamed wanting to show off.

You should make backups.

Bruce said sounding disappointingly unimpressed. No way, all he needed was the one in his chest the less of these things floating around the better.

Understandable but when your life hangs in the balance because of one thing. It helps to plan ahead.

Ignoring Bruce's probable ability to read minds now instead of thoughts Tony sends his way, he calls Dummy over. Time to try this bad boy out.
It doesn't work out the way he was expecting. He might have to call in the big guns. “JARVIS? Call Pepper.”

What follows was both embarrassing and painful. Figuratively and physically. After his little heart attack scare, she flat out tells him she wouldn't be doing that again. He doesn't blame her. He didn't want to do that again either. He lets her keep the old hunk of metal citing something cheesy that now she had a piece of his heart. She smirked telling him he didn't have one. Ouch, Potts, you win this round.

Dry arctic tones come to the forefront of his mind

How nice of you to make things easier for your enemies to be rid of you.

Tony scoffs, how paranoid can one guy's inner conscious be? He felt a flicker of unease. He did have enemies and now he potentially gave them a target. Not that he planned on letting his arc reactor be openly known about. He wasn't that foolhardy.

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Sleep did not come easily to Tony. One would think being back in familiar territory would make things better. He didn't have this problem in the hospital so doped up on whatever they shot him up with that sleep was dreamless.

Now was not the case.

He fell into a montage of the worse parts, the electric sizzle, the fight for air, panic and Yinsen's calm words. Somewhere down the line, his dream changed.

He was running, gliding over surfaces with practiced ease. Loud booming noises were overhead, clashing of metal and screaming of exertion was getting closer. He tossed out several projectiles cape flapping behind him as he settled ready, ready for what? A woman comes into focus for a moment Tony quickly scanned her for injuries as she flips backward as what he threw earlier combusts. She immediately plows forward in a show of fighting skills he'd never see again.

“Ten minutes,” he grits out several of his ribs were cracked. She nods to him a strange whirring sound ominously buzzes to life Tony tenses ready to dodge or attack if needed. A man, at least something close to a man steps through a portal his rocky face a grotesque impression of a smile. “Well well well, if it isn't two of Earths Finest Protectors. What is it like knowing you failed?” In Tony's head seconds were counted down, full awareness of his surroundings was compiled, the pain was swept away. It was do or die.

The fight blurred together hours or minutes passed as bombs were thrown, lasers from the man's eyes scarcely dodged. The flying beasts grew in number it was becoming harder to maneuver but they had to keep him there so the others could enact their Holy Mary. A stumble was all it took, a lucky shot from one of the monsters and he fell, in the half-second it took for him to destroy his attacker and arise was all it took for his enemy to strike him.

It was all he could manage to escape a death hit. Laughter trailed after him and the woman's scream of rage melded together as he crumpled a gush of blood pooled before his eyes. He may be down but he was far from done. The counter was still ticking.

Tony jerked awake yelling, sweat dribbled down his face as he clutched his arm as if to reassure himself it was still there. He didn't know what the fuck just happened but he had an idea. The unsettling realization that maybe, just maybe Bruce wasn't something he created after all.

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He didn't go back to sleep after that. Content to drinking his coffee and waiting for it to be 'late' enough so he could visit Rhodey. He wanted to finish what he started. Now that he had suitable resources he wanted to make a proper suit. His friend would no doubt want a part of it. It would be one of the best things he'd create. Minus the Arc Reactor of course. He didn't have a sure purpose for it yet but a flying suit had to come in handy right? Because it would fly, he had plans. Now he just needed someone to help him make it.

Tony walks up to him as Rhodey was speaking to some troops. Too hyped to wait for him to be done he chimes in with an embarrassing story knowing Rhodes would tell them to wait while they talked and possibly be annoyed and or amused.

“You all right?” He asks likely seeing the bags under his eyes who knows. “Better, better than alright. Look I'm working on something big you want in?” Rhodey's eyes brighten “Oh good, you're about to make some people happy. Cause that conference man, that was something else.” Tony tapped his teeth together, sensing this conversation might not go as hoped. “Yeah, it's not for the military Rhodes. It's different.” He watches as Rhodes' face folds closed, he lost him. Damn.

“What you humanitarian now?” Eyes flinty chin jutting out, “No, it's just,” if he would just listen, he could explain better. “Look, Tony, why don't you take some time off? Hm, get your head together? You can call me then.” Tony held back a whine or a huff he wasn't sure, he was getting sick of people telling him to think things through, take some time, get your shit together. Did people have so little faith in him? Seeing the back of his best friend told him his answer. “It was nice seeing you Tony,” he says leaving those parting words. “Thanks,” he mutters somehow that hurt more.

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As he thought, changing was hard. Obie was mad at him, Rhodey was mad at him, Pepper was unhappy with him. At least he still had JARVIS. He was all he needed anyway. Together they brought together the Mark II. He let music drown the area as he worked, melding parts to make more, bigger parts. He'd pull Bruce into a conversation if he wasn't still uncomfortable with his new outlook on his 'alter ego.'

Now that the possibility Bruce wasn't a person of his own making was higher, having someone in his head wasn't as quaint a thought it once was. Figures having an actual person sharing his head-space was unnerving as opposed to his mind cracking. But there you have it. It was a good thing his mind-mate was so solitary or he'd have to explain his sudden wariness. It's not like Bruce lied, he did tell him. It was just a dream too, it's not like a slumber image was enough to fully sell him on the idea but it was enough to unsettle him.

How did Bruce get stuck to him of all people? How did he get into Tony's world because what he saw wasn't from his planet. He'd like to think he'd notice mass flying monsters, bombings, portals and a weirdo laser eye baddie running around. Maybe the worst thought was, did Bruce die? Fuzzily he recalled his first words, 'So this is death.' Although his next words were confusing he got the sense Bruce lived quite the life. How was he handling being reduced to nothing but a man's second personality? Great now he felt bad. “JARVIS, louder please.” He didn't hear his snarky reply the music was now too loud for voices or thoughts.

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Shoot to thrill was blaring and he was bobbing his head both to the music and because he was going on 40 hours no sleep. He really shouldn't be using the high dense laser, in fact, JARVIS threatened to call Pepper if continued, he retaliated by putting him on mute. That and a promise he'd stop once he finished this one thing.

Honestly, he was always careful when using dangerous-

Tony's eyes widened to comical widths when in apparent slow motion it slips, cutting through metal with deadly speed, he also felt more than saw his hand slide out of the way with smooth movements as he readjusted the machine, deftly turning it off. He stared at his hands, “Did you just-”

You nearly lost your hand.

A low growl echoed in his head telling him what he suspected. Tony shifted uncomfortably whether from the close call or the knowledge Bruce could take control. “I think I'll just...”

Go to bed Stark.

Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.

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His dreams were thankfully quiet that night. Sitting at his bar he stroked his hand before moving it upward to his shoulder.

Bruce? I think we need to talk.

Bruce unfurled himself gathering to the fore edge of his conscious.

So, you're from another world.

Bruce's essence settles before answering,

Another Universe. A different dimension so to speak.

Tony sloshes some scotch in his glass.

Have you traveled to other dimensions before?

Now and again.

Tony blinks, wow he knew Bruce was something else from the small glimpse he had but dimension traveler? It sounded a little much for him.

When you said there was nothing to go back to... Did you mean?

A heavy silence, did he push too far?

I died yes.

Oh.

I'm sorry.

There goes his intention to help him back. Given time he could (probably) create a dimensional portal but he couldn't bring back the dead. He felt at a loss. He wanted to make it up to Bruce, for not believing him, even now he struggled with the concept. To help make his now jointed life better, Bruce was stuck with him and therefore his responsibility.

He knew it was a long shot but maybe wishing he was someone else, that he wasn't so alone brought Bruce to him. Bruce who lost his world, his life and reduced to be an endless viewer. He thought of his armor and an idea struck him. It would take a long time to come to fruition but the mere thought brought a mad grin to his face. He'll make things right. Even if it took him years.

Chapter Text

Do you know about the first suit I made? Mark I?

Bruce didn't answer but he could tell he was listening rather than ignoring him as he was prone to do.

Those atrocities I shoved on my feet aren't my idea of safe flight.

He held up the mostly completed gauntlet,

So I made some adjustments. Repulsors for the feet and stabilizers for the hands.

He massaged his face remembering his disastrous test flight with just the legs. Explaining what he was doing was more for himself because even though he knew Bruce could look into his head he also knew the man wasn't always around. He'd fade to the back of his awareness time and again.

Now that he had his attention Tony was bragging as he was prone to do. Tony looks up when Pepper enters the room carrying something. “Didn't you hear the intercom?” She places what she held on his desk. “Yeah mhm,” he held up his hand, he'd have to shift some of the pieces. It didn't fit quite right. “Obadiah's upstairs,”
“Great I'll be right up,” he says offhandedly ready to see this baby in action. He felt a flicker of amusement as if Bruce knew something he didn't, he'd be wary about it but he was set on trying it out, even Pepper was here to see. “I thought you were done with weapons,” she says hesitantly, Tony straightens, “It's not, it's a flight stabilizer.” he starts it up and is promptly tossed like a rag doll.

You knew that was going to happen, didn't you?

He asked accusingly, Bruce gave a smirk like impression before receding.

Hmph.

Chapter Text

Tony saw pizza and knew this was bad news. At least Bruce was nearby to watch it in real time. Apparently, his company thought he had PTSD, which meant they were trying to bulldozer over his decision as he was 'unsound in mind.' So what if the stocks dipped 40 points? Oh sorry, '56 and a half.' He was being responsible for once! Why was this so hard? Obie gave him that look like he knew every vulnerable part of him, sipping on his drink like he had him all figured out. And pepper giving him a disappointed look.

That's it, he was done. He grabbed his pizza ready to abscond when Obie stops him. “Hey man, I'm trying to buy you some time. Maybe if you'd give them something, or maybe if you,” he drops his stare to his chest where the arc reactor was proudly displayed. Tony bristled “No, absolutely not, this is mine.” Firmly stating while adding softly “It stays with me.” He feels the pizza box being taken out of his hand, something bitter rises up as Obie replies with “Then this stays with me,” overwhelmed by it all he snatches a piece and goes back to his workshop. Ignoring Obie's request to visit, like he'd let him after all that.

Chapter Text

There were many painful tests. After Bruce's snarky

'You have terrible core balance, I have some exercises that might help with that,'

He felt the need to prove him wrong if it wasn't for the fact he knew Bruce was just making fun of him he'd have taken him up on that offer. He'll show him, besides he had a good feeling about take 37.

Whirring sounds came closer and he quickly threatened Dummy to send him to charity if he was sprayed one more time unnecessarily. Threat or no threat he expected to be 'extinguished' regardless. As much as it annoyed him it was endearing in a roundabout way. Lifting off the ground he wobbled and ultimately came back down without incident. He shooed Dummy back telling him off once more.

“Okay, let's bring it up to 2.5,” after his countdown he was higher, straining he hovered and glided to a spot he didn't want to be. Not the cars! Leaning to the side he passed over his desk sending paper everywhere. Okay, okay if he moves like this then... He landed heavily but otherwise, he landed great. Whirling he pointed at Dummy “Ah ah ah! No.” Despondently he slumped no longer about to douse Tony.

Hey Bruce, guess what? I can fly.

Chapter Text

“All you have to do is make the weapon Stark.” Words were meaningless when he was chocking on water. It was always the same. He came up for air in that brief moment he could, heaving and careful to time it so he wouldn't be heaving water instead. Far away he could hear someone yelling.

“Another of you heroes snuffed out like the worms you are.” That was weird. That was a weird thing for them to say.
He was dunked again, strangely the voice followed after unimpeded “It was so easy, it always is just as taking care of you will be.” A scream of defiance rang in his ears. What was a woman doing here? He shook off the water, no blood. Why was he choking on blood? This wasn't right.

“Bruce!” Calm down, he had this. Fumbling he grabbed at his belt and unhooked something, the searing pain and burnt smell was nothing. He couldn't die here. He arose with sheer will ready to throw the last of his firepower. Any second now. The earth trembled, there it was. Good, they were on time. The figure before them halted

“What. What have you done?” Now, with his back turned. A quick flick of his wrist he watched as the connected impact made the target stumble as the woman took advantage of his momentary opening. “What have you DONE!?” His enemy's rage rumbled through them causing him to almost fall but stomped down to steady himself, not yet. He couldn't fall yet. “Now,” he rasped and tossed a smoke bomb, he was swooped up and paled there was no time to be gentle about it. He blacked out before they went through the portal.

He woke up alone.

This time when Tony awoke it wasn't in panic but with a wave of sadness. This was the second time he saw Bruce's, what, his dream? His memory? He was through holding back.

What was that?

It took a while but eventually, he responded.

What.

Tony hesitated now, did Bruce not know?

My dream, it started out as my own but morphed into, into something of yours?

A quick pulse of Bruce's essence grew and retracted. Was he panicking?

Bruce, calm down, you were fighting some guy with a woman's help. You lost an arm.

Bruce evened out

Ah, a memory then.

Mhm, this was the second time, a continuation of the first one. It ended with you going into, a tunnel portal thing.

I see.

There was a pause,

I'll do better blocking them.

No! No, it's alright. I don't mind or anything I wanted to let you know was all. Bruce?

Damn, he was gone.

Chapter Text

He was expecting it but Bruce's silence throughout the day was still upsetting, he didn't even feel him looming around. Just when he was about to try out flying for real. “JARVIS you there?” “For you Sir? Always.” He dons the helmet and goes through some scans when JARVIS says “Preparing to power down and complete diagnostics,” he belays that.

“Yeah no, we're doing this.”
“Sir there are still terabytes of data needed before an actual flight is-” “JARVIS. Sometimes you gotta run before you can walk.”

This was a relatively short second life.

A thought deadpans. Good, he was here. Didn't want him to miss the show. Laughing he counts down. Speeding up the opening was like a dream, adrenaline rushes through him as the night sky embraces him. Balancing and adjusting were difficult but nothing he couldn't handle. Eyes widening with each breeze he pierced through. He circles around holding back more jittery laughter.

Arching up “Let's see what this baby can do.” With a dizzying climb, he asks “What's the SR-71's record?” After JARVIS' prim reply he shoots out “Records are made to be broken!”

Your suit is not adapted for high altitudes. It's going to freeze.

Great now he had two mother hens.

Watch me.

“Sir there is a potentially fatal buildup of ice occurring,” Well now he had to continue. A deep sigh echoed in the back of his head. “Keep going. Higher!” Eventually, the lights went out and JARVIS wouldn't reply. He had his second of panic and fumbling about, “C'mon we gotta break the ice!” A low growl came from his mouth.

Only it wasn't from him.

His arm moved on its own grabbing at his leg gave a twist and suddenly he was back online. He could actually feel the light impression Bruce gave his body to help straighten out. They kissed the top of cars and looped back up. Whooping he gave a happy cry. “We did it!” He could feel the glare bearing holes on the back of his metaphorical head. He came to a stop above his home,

Do not land he-

“Cut power,” consequently landing through several floors and being shot by Dummy. Bruce's gravely annoyance sat at the forefront, he didn't even fade away. Tony doesn't let pass he's pleased by it all, Bruce might be trying to ingrain in him his disapproval but he was only making him beam. It was the longest he's stuck around to date.

Chapter Text

Hey, why don't you let me call you anything else? It's killing me. Brucie can't be that bad, can it?

Tony let it pass before when Bruce was new and steadfast stonewalling him whenever he came up with a nickname. Now though, his habit of cutesy names was threatening to overpower him. He spots the box Pepper brought in when she visited, he turns it over.

How about Grumpy? My own Jiminy Cricket?

I've been called Brucie before.

There it was again that weird sensation of amusement that wasn't

I sense a story there, tell me tell me!

Those who didn't know me called me such.

Tony frowned, why would strangers butcher someone's name? He starts ripping off the paper on the box.

Fine, and 'B'? What's the problem with that?

A near ominous aura came off Bruce.

Bad memories?

Tony guessed not wanting to tick him off.

No.
...Good memories.

Tony winced as all emotion was snuffed out leaving an empty weight at the back of his head in its place. He should've known bringing up B was a bad idea. He should've known not to push. Floundering he wanted to leave their conversation without a bitter taste. Placing the box down before completely opening it.

How about Mr. Paranoid, Sour Grape, Sour Puss, Mr. Mysterious or-

A short sigh answered him. Different from his deep sigh and his other more annoyed versions. Tony grinned crisis averted finally looking inside the box. Tony stared flummoxed at what was before him, startled at Bruce's hum of approval.

Good. You have a back up now.

The glow of his old Arc Reactor shone words both heartfelt and mocking reflected back at him.

Chapter Text

“So, the suit can't handle high altitudes. Ice problem.” Tony spoke tapping at the blueprints already working on how he'd fix it. “How astute Sir,” JARVIS couldn't have dryer tones if he was made of sand.

“Yeah yeah, I get it. You tried to tell me I know.” He was thinking Gold Titanium alloy. It should help out in several ways. While telling JARVIS just that he took a sip from his drink. “Shall I render using proposed specifications?” He swished the liquid around “Dazzle me,” a new form of schematics came up, he looked them over noticing the slight differences.

Problem spotted. It was all gold, that was over the top even for him.

“That's... A bit much don't you think?” “I see because you'd never wear something so garish.” JARVIS wasn't pulling his punches today.

What colors should I paint it, Bruce?

While he waited for him to possibly reply he looked around for inspiration. Eyes catching onto the hot rod, he grinned, it was then Bruce came forward.

So long as you don't add blue.

There was something serious to his tone, but since when wasn't he serious or sarcastic? Besides why the hell would he do that? Red, blue and gold? Puh-leeze. “Hm, let's go with some hot rod red JARVIS darling.” “Ah, yes that is so much better.” No need to be mocking JARVIS. He knew what he was doing. A sigh reverberated in his head, Tony cocked his head trying to decipher what this one meant, melancholy?

What's wrong with the color black.

Tony ignored that thought, he had a feeling Bruce wasn't really asking him anyway. Besides all black? That was way too boring.

Chapter Text

Turns out. If you don't show up after a while the media takes it on themselves to diagnose you. The last straw was broke ages ago. Did he have PTSD? Maybe. Does that matter? No. What did matter was that he was going to crash a party. It had been three months since his last outing, the suit took up a lot of his time after all.

With JARVIS machining the parts he went upstairs to get ready. It would also be one of the few times Bruce got to see something other than his workshop, again he felt the prickle of guilt. The prickle grew when he realized that he hadn't spoken to Rhodey since their... Disagreement. Pepper came and went brisk but caring in her own way shoving food in his face and expecting him to eat it. They hadn't really hung out or talked though, she was too busy for that and he too preoccupied.

As for Obie, they haven't talked since finding out his own business was trying to shove him out. Didn't he tell himself he'd do better? Interact with his, well his only friends? Rhodey wasn't his fault though, he didn't want to listen, told him to 'get his head on straight'. That still irked him. As Tony pointed out Pepper was busy what with him putting everything off as he made his suit. Tony sighed. Tightening the tie to near unpleasantness. It sounded like excuses to him. At least he still talked to JARVIS and Bruce frequently. Because an AI he made and a man stuck inside his head was so much better.

Chapter Text

Tony waltzed through breezing passed flashing lights and past conquests. There it was again, that trickle of unease with everyone's hyper-attention on him. He slammed the faucet closed, he liked attention remember? A roll of his shoulders and a sporting grin later he continued strolling by.

Spotting Obie and noticing calming tones let him know the man was sucking up or smoothing something over. Their gazes locked and before he knew it Obie was next to him. “Tony! What a surprise.” Tony's grin grew stretching wide, “You know how it is, came to crash my own party.” Obie nodded patting him on the shoulder, “Take it easy,” he said eyeing him “I've got the board just where I want them.” A wink and another pat later he was encouraged onward.

Right. Be seen, don't make waves. Yadda yadda. He got it. The longer he was surrounded the easier it was to relax. He huffed, relieved, to think he was getting worried. He smiled and chatted mood brightening the further he got to the bar. Once arriving barked at the bartender “Give me a scotch, I'm hungry.” He turned so he could watch the swarm mingle to and fro. Bruce was there, lingering, Tony likened the feeling to leaning in a doorway. The more days go by the easier it was to give descriptions to the sensation of what Bruce gave off. It was just in his head but Bruce's voice/thought was far different than his own. Tony had a great imagination so it wasn't hard envisioning Bruce's essence as a body doing things. There were times when it felt like he flooded everything, was everywhere. Most of the time he loomed like a low hanging storm cloud or was gone completely.

“Mr. Stark?” Tony almost jumped so intent on waxing poetry about Bruce's presence he didn't notice someone right next to him. “Yeah?” Looking at him, he didn't look familiar.

He was at your conference. He spoke to your assistant.

Oh really?

Somehow he wasn't surprised Bruce noticed or even recalled something like that. “Agent Coulson,” Now he remembered, Pepper told him about him and his long-winded company name. “Right, yeah, the guy from the-” A polite but bland smile greeted him along with “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.” He probably had to say that a lot, several times over.

SHIELD. Cute.

Bruce was chatty today. Speaking up without any prompting. It was so much more fun hearing his unamused voice when it wasn't directed at him.

Shield?

S.H.I.E.L.D. A fitting acronym.

Ha, clever.

“Oh, of course, Shield. Cute.” Tony said parroting Bruce half because he agreed half so that Bruce got to speak through him in a way. There was a moment when the Agent stared non-pulsed, about to open his mouth but clamped it instead. Tony almost laughed, it looked like he wanted to say 'why didn't I think of that?' The moment didn't last long, his eyes that had so far been professionally blank brightened “Sure rolls of the tongue better,” he admits gracefully. A genuine laugh slips past Tony.

You should have your AI look them over. A blossoming Spy Network is something to keep tabs on.

Tony looked the man over again, appraising him with new eyes.

Spy, you say?

He's green but has potential.

Bruce sounded approving but begrudging about it.

High praise, coming from you.

Tony was jealous. He made a suit that could fly and what did he get? Advice on how to drive. “I'd like to speak to you about setting up an appointment.”

Stark, I need you to take note of each of the exits.

Huh, he used his name. Now that he thought about it, had Bruce ever done so?

Are you serious? Since when did I turn into a spy?

Bruce sounded like Q telling Bond what to do. Bruce's displeasure coursed through him, Tony grimaced. Not a good feeling. Cool words rang clear,

Are you aware of the danger? Tell me did you find your captors? You were taken. Now a spy agency is contacting you.

“You see, there's still a lot of unanswered questions.” Tony pushed back the swirl of dread that filled his stomach, “We need to debrief you. How about the 24th at 7:00 pm?” Unable to take it he jabbed out,

“Yeah, right why don't you set up an appointment with Pepper, my secretary and I'll see you then?” Tony nodded towards him and set off,

Give me a break, I'm totally safe here. Nothing ever happens at these kinds of parties unless I wish them to.

Still, he looked around just to make Bruce happy. He noted the four exit signs and said,

There happy?

Why can't he get rid of the image of Bruce glaring at him?

4'o'clock.

Excuse me?

It wasn't anywhere near four. The glare deepened. Oh, OH. Four o'clock, gotcha. He adjusted his eyes to the appropriate spot.

See that man? The bartender just poisoned his drink and someone's about to spill it.

No way.

He knew the bartender, got his drinks from him all the time. There was no way,

Watch.

He did. Tony stared astounded when low and behold another person came stumbling through knocking the drink from their hand, “Oh my gosh. I'm so sorry, please let me make it up to you.” It shouldn't have worked. If it was a man who spilled a drink on a woman it wouldn't unless it was a certain kind of woman who wasn't insulted by acts of clumsiness. Or the guy was that good looking. Either way, Tony watched as the two walked off chatting, the man now wearing the alleged poisoned drink was smiling amiably. Quickly he looked at the bartender to see his reaction, a flash of a sour face was seen before smoothing out.

Counter Assassin.

Bruce noted plainly, Tony had no proof of what Bruce suggested but the possibility made Tony squirm.

I want you to take up self-defense.

Tony pursed his lips.

Maybe I will.

Oh and Stark?

Yes, Bruce?

Hearing his name again made him perk up.

There are ten exits.

Show off.

Chapter Text

Tony sat back at the bar, taking note that the bartender was subtly led away by security and replaced. If that didn't sell it he didn't know what would. Tony knew for a fact he wouldn't have noticed it on his own. He took a moment to be impressed by the security of the place or was this normal and just never saw anything?

See anything else of interest?

He was only half joking.

You are about to be approached.

A jolt of fear mixed with adrenaline made him look around. There, oh no, she looked familiar. “Well! Tony Stark.” That coy smile with eyes narrowing in triumph. What the hell was her name? C, Ch? Carly? Carol, it was Carol.

Bruce? A little help?

Bruce was there but he didn't seem to care about his predicament. Not even a morsel of feeling came forth. Fine. He had this. “Carol right?” She slips besides him the smile sharpening. “Christine,” riiight, of course. Christine Everhart. Flashes of the day before his capture came forward. “You've got a lot of nerve coming here. How about a reaction?” It was just one thing after another wasn't it? “How's panic do?” She leans in slightly “I was referring to your company's involvement in--”

“Hey, when an invitation has my name on it...” The waves were being rocked. “You know, I almost bought it.” She sneered, Tony frowned. “Can you cut to the chase? I've been out of the loop, you know what with being out for a few months as I'm sure you've heard.” A smirk now, “Is that what you want to call it?” A folder was placed before him, Bruce's attention leans closer.

Tony holds back a swallow. He takes it to hand, sifting through the pictures before going cold. Fingers tightening to near painful grasps. “When were these taken?” His voice was dead and toneless. She gives him a once over. “Yesterday in a village called Gulmira,” his stomach plummets. Yinsen... He feels both nauseous and furious. He knew those faces, saw the Ten Rings insignia. Raza's men with his weapons.

“I didn't approve this shipment.” His voice sounded far away, just like he was feeling at the moment. “Someone in your company did.” Oh god, they did didn't they? Someones been playing with the sharks. He should find Obie. Halfway through the crowd, Bruce spoke up.

Wait. This isn't the best place for a confrontation, he won't say anything in front of all these people.

So? I'm going to get answers.

He's on the board too and as much as you don't like it there's a chance he's the one who approved it. It's always the one you trust.

There was bitterness in his tone and a hefty seriousness that gave Tony pause. Sounded like there was a story behind all that.

You should start with finding out who filed the injunction on you.

Tony nodded because once he knew who filed the injunction he would find the one who was dealing weapons. And what better way than asking Obie himself? Bruce sighed, it was a quiet one, one he didn't feel like deciphering he didn't want to know right then.

Chapter Text

Bruce was right. Tony was finding Bruce was leaning on the more often than not, the always right side of the bar.

Now he knows what you know. You need to work fast.

At least there wasn't disapproval or annoyance in his voice, just dark calm. At least someone was. Obie... Obadiah was the one who tried to cut him out of his own company. To 'protect him.' Words couldn't be sourer. He was the one dealing weapons behind Tony's back. Now to prove it. Weapons... Tony stares at one of the pictures in thought.

"The road to change is a long and arduous one," he mutters under his breath. It was quickly becoming a mantra. Oh. Hm, a serial number. He could track that. On the T.V. there was news playing over the horror going on in Yinsen's village. Every death caused by his logo was blood on his hands. The blood he was trying to wash off. He slipped on the gauntlet opening and closing it deep in thought.

Is this what you really want?

Bruce spoke softly, sounding overtly monotone. He clenched his fist.

No. But since when do we ever get what we want? I won't sit back and let this happen.

A pregnant pause

I'm not a fan of killing.

Tony barks out a laugh.

You think I am? I don't have the time or skills to take it easy. I'm doing this. People like them, only speak one language.

Bruce drifted away, leaving a numbness in his place. Tony had more important things to worry about than trying to understand this new set of reactions, he was just glad Bruce wasn't pushing it.