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Holding Back

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“Here it is,” Tony says, holding up a vial of clear liquid. “Your insurance policy.”

 

Bruce takes it from him and sits down on his lab stool. “It will need to be tested.”

 

“We’ll find a deserted place where the Other Guy can run free,” Tony says, leaning against the lab bench next to Bruce. “Maybe uproot a few trees, then we’ll test it out.”

 

“I’d like to test it now,” Bruce says. “Do you have a syringe?”

 

Tony frowns, looking uncertain. “Now? Why now?”

 

“I knew the last time that the Other Guy wasn’t going to come out,” Bruce replies, staring at the vial. “If I take this now, we’ll know, or at least have a good idea.”

 

Tony touches him on the shoulder. “You’re not thinking—what are you thinking?”

 

“If this works, and if there aren’t a lot of side effects, I could use it consistently,” Bruce says. “As you said, it’s my insurance policy.”

 

Some undefined emotion passes over Tony’s face. “It’s up to you, of course, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see what the side effects are.”

 

“Tony—” Bruce stops, knowing that Tony’s probably not going to approve of him using the drug to keep the Other Guy away. “Thanks for this.”

 

“I want to keep you here,” Tony admits. “If this is the price, I’ll pay it.”

 

Bruce manages a smile. “We don’t know if it’s safe yet. I’ll take it slow, I promise. I won’t take unnecessary risks.”

 

“See that you don’t,” Tony replies. “I’m nowhere close to done with you yet.”

 

Bruce puts the vial on the table and hooks his fingers through Tony’s belt loops, not quite able to believe that he gets to do this, that he’s here with Tony in Candyland, and that he can reach out and touch him anytime he likes.

 

“I’m not done with you either,” Bruce replies. “I promise I’ll be careful.”

 

Tony sighs and produces a syringe. “I brought this just in case.”

 

“How much?” Bruce asks.

 

“Jarvis’ calculations suggest 30 CCs,” Tony replies. “We can go up or down from there.”

 

“Thirty it is,” Bruce says, and measures the dose.

 

Tony grimaces as Bruce injects the drug into a vein. “Tell me how you’re feeling.”

 

A few tense minutes pass, and Bruce yawns. “Okay, maybe a little sleepy, but that’s about it.”

 

Tony gives him a hard look. “I want a full 24 hours before we call it a success.”

 

Bruce shrugs. “I don’t really feel any different.”

 

“I can be cautious when it’s called for,” Tony replies, a little cryptically. “And you require caution.”

 

Bruce isn’t terribly worried. “I don’t think anything can kill me.”

 

“And I don’t want to have a hand in the one thing that does,” Tony replies, and then he leans in to steal another kiss.

 

And Bruce kisses him lazily, a little sleepily, and thinks he might finally be getting what he’s wanted for so long.

 

~~~~~

 

Bruce pours a cup of coffee and wanders over to his lab bench, stifling a yawn.

 

Tony enters the lab behind him. “Didn’t you sleep last night?”

 

Bruce covers his mouth to hide another yawn. “Yeah, but I’m still a little tired.”

 

Tony grimaces but refrains from pointing out the obvious. “How’s it coming?”

 

“I’m still correlating the information from my blood tests over the last few days,” Bruce replies. “I’ll let you know when I have something solid.”

 

“I think I’ll stick around until you do,” Tony replies, settling into a seat and pulling up the data for the latest iterations of the coms for the team.

 

Bruce ignores Tony as he runs his calculations, although he knows he’s not moving as quickly as he does when the drug isn’t in his system. “Twenty-five CCs seems to be the appropriate dose, and if I take it every twelve hours, that should keep the Other Guy at bay,” he finally says.

 

“For the record, I think this is a really bad idea,” Tony replies, sounding disgruntled. “At least cut back the dosage.”

 

“We’ve been over this, Tony,” Bruce says wearily. “This is the lowest possible dose if I want to completely suppress the Other Guy.”

 

“And we have no idea what it will do to you if you take it constantly!” Tony protests.

 

“The blood tests from the last week haven’t shown any problems,” Bruce retorts. “We know what level is required to keep things on an even keel, and we know it’s not going to kill me.”

 

“And what if we need the Hulk?” Tony demands, his arms crossed tightly over his chest, clearly unhappy with this turn of events. “Have you thought about that?”

 

Bruce shakes his head and injects the next dose. “It’s too much of a risk.”

 

“Not having the Hulk available is also a risk,” Tony argues.

 

Bruce’s frustration gets the better of him, and he snaps, “You asked me to stay with you, and this is the price.”

 

Tony looks hurt and actually takes a step back, putting more distance between them. “And here I thought you were staying because you wanted to.”

 

Bruce feels immediately contrite, and he reaches for Tony, wrapping a hand around his wrist. “I’m sorry. You’re the reason I’m staying, but I need to know I’m safe.”

 

“I’d feel safer if I knew we could count on the Hulk,” Tony grumbles. “And if I knew you weren’t going to suffer any long term side effects.”

 

“I’ll keep an eye on things with weekly blood tests, and I’ll stop taking it if it looks like it’s doing damage,” Bruce insists. “I want you safe.”

 

“He likes me,” Tony counters sourly. “I am safe.”

 

“But the Tower isn’t, along with everyone here,” Bruce argues. “The Other Guy doesn’t care about collateral damage, Tony. I’ll grant that he’ll protect you, but the same can’t be said for everyone else.”

 

Tony sighs and reaches for him, pressing his face into the side of Bruce’s neck. “I worry about you.”

 

“Don’t,” Bruce murmurs, and pulls back so he can kiss Tony. “I’m indestructible, remember?”

 

Tony smiles. “That’s the way I like you.”

 

There’s the sound of a throat clearing. “Is this all you guys ever do?” Steve asks, sounding deeply amused.

 

“We don’t do it often enough,” Tony protests as Bruce steps away. “Mostly because we keep getting interrupted.”

 

Steve shrugs. “You could always lock the door.”

 

“What do you want, Steve?” Tony asks, clearly irritated.

 

“I just wanted to see how Bruce was doing,” Steve replies. “Is the drug working?”

 

Bruce shrugs. “Looks like it. I haven’t had an incident, but then, I haven’t had real provocation.”

 

Steve raises his eyebrows. “I find that hard to believe, given that you’re living with Tony.”

 

Tony’s “hey!” is offended, but Bruce grins. “He’s an acquired taste.”

 

Steve’s expression sobers. “Are you sure we can get the Hulk if we need him?”

 

“That’s not the point,” Bruce says.

Tony nudges him. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

 

Bruce pinches the bridge of his nose. “Don’t you start, Steve.”

 

“I have to think about all the possibilities,” Steve replies. “And the Hulk gives us a huge tactical advantage.”

 

Bruce looks away. “The drug is effective for twelve hours.” He doesn’t want to meet Steve’s eyes, not wanting to see the censure there. He’s well aware that an emergency requiring the Other Guy isn’t going to wait that long. “It’s safer for everybody this way.”

 

“It’s your decision,” Steve says dubiously.

 

“I’m so glad you agree,” Bruce replies, unable to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

 

Steve nods, looking a little taken aback. “I should get going. I’ll leave you guys to it.”

 

“Call us if you need us,” Bruce replies, although he knows the assurance probably rings a little hollow.

 

He doesn’t miss the look that Steve and Tony exchange, and he thinks it’s probably a bad sign that the two of them are on the same page. The fact that they do agree casts doubt on Bruce’s strategy.

 

“Steve agrees with me,” Tony says in an undertone as soon as Steve has gone.

 

Bruce had expected that, since Tony’s incapable of letting anything go. “Steve doesn’t know everything, and neither do you.”

 

“You’re looking at the drug like a crutch,” Tony argues. “It’s the wrong perspective.”

 

“It’s the only perspective,” Bruce shoots back, although he’s not sure he believes it.

 

Tony’s eyes narrow. “You’ve been slower on your feet, and it’s harder for you to wake up in the morning. I don’t want to lose you, not any part of you.”

 

“I need this,” Bruce replies. “I need to know I’m safe. Please, Tony.”

 

Tony shakes his head, and wraps a hand around the back of Bruce’s neck. “I don’t know what it says about me, but I can’t say no to you.”

 

“That makes two of us,” Bruce mutters, and he rests his forehead against Tony’s and wishes he could be more confident that he’s making the right decision.

 

~~~~~

 

Bruce blinks, and adjusts his glasses, trying to make the numbers in front of him clear. There’s something he’s missing with this current project, but his thoughts feel sluggish. He could ask Tony for help, but doing so would mean admitting that the drug is having a deleterious effect on him.

 

Bruce doesn’t like feeling slow and stupid, but he tells himself that it’s better than the alternative, which is risking losing control and killing people.

 

“Hey,” Tony says, putting his arms around Bruce from behind, and Bruce wonders when he’d entered the room. “How are you feeling?”

 

“Fine,” Bruce replies.

 

Tony nuzzles the back of his neck. “You want to take a break?”

 

Bruce thinks he probably ought to feel more than a mild interest, but he doesn’t. “I’m trying to get through this report,” he demurs.

 

Tony makes a disgruntled sound and says, “Your math is wrong.”

 

Bruce blinks. “Where?”

 

“Second line from the top,” Tony replies. “You misplaced a variable.”

 

Bruce looks a little closer, but it takes him a few seconds to see what Tony’s referring to. “Oh, huh. I did.”

 

Tony pulls back. “That’s all you have to say?”

 

“I made a mistake,” Bruce replies defensively. “You make mistakes.”

 

“Not in my math,” Tony shoots back. “You’ve been on that damn drug for a week, Bruce, and you’re not yourself. You’re making simple errors, and you’re practically sleepwalking.”

 

“It’s an adjustment period,” Bruce argues halfheartedly. “Once I get used to it, I’ll be back to normal.”

 

“I’m holding you to that,” Tony says seriously. “Because if you’re not back to normal in a couple of weeks, I’m going to insist that you rethink this.”

 

Bruce thinks he can promise that much, because he’s not sure he wants to spend the rest of his life feeling like this, even if it’s probably a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things. “I’ll think about it,” he promises.

 

Tony pats Bruce on the shoulder. “Good. Come on, you need to move around. You’re going to fall asleep at your desk otherwise.”

 

“Where are we going?” Bruce protests as Tony pulls him to his feet.

 

“You’re going to help me with the new iteration of the suit,” Tony replies. “I’ve got the hologram all set up, and at least you’ll be moving around.”

 

Bruce follows Tony, feeling a little bemused, and he wishes he could have his cake and eat it, too.

 

~~~~~

 

“Bruce, come on,” Tony says the next morning, shaking Bruce awake. “Wake up.”

 

Bruce groans. “What?”

 

“Wake up.” Tony shakes him harder. “We have an emergency on our hands.”

 

Bruce manages to open his eyes, blinking blearily and trying to get his vision to clear so he can see Tony’s face. “Huh?”

 

“We have a call,” Tony says, climbing out of bed, dragging on a pair of pants. “Get up.”

 

Bruce blinks groggily. “I’m up.”

 

Tony glances over his shoulder. “Funny, it doesn’t look like it.”

 

Bruce realizes that he’s still in bed and rolls out of it, stumbling as he finds his feet. “Yeah. Sorry.”

 

“Don’t be sorry. Tell me you can get the Other Guy to come out and play,” Tony replies, his voice muffled briefly when he pulls his t-shirt over his head.

 

Bruce grabs the first clothing that comes to hand. “I don’t know. It’s been eight hours, so maybe.”

 

“Let’s hope so,” Tony mutters. “We’re going to need him.” He glances at Bruce. “Are you okay? It took me forever to wake you up.”

 

“A little groggy,” Bruce admits.

 

Tony scowls. “It’s that damn drug.”

 

Bruce rakes a hand through his hair. “Can we not do this now?”

 

“No, you’re right,” Tony says. “We need to get going. There’s not much time.”

 

Bruce follows along in Tony’s wake, muzzy-headed and still tired. Tony’s accusations are on target, but Bruce wants to believe that restraining the Other Guy is the right call, whatever the toll on him.

 

He’s beginning to think he was wrong.

 

“Where are we going?” he asks as they head out to the helipad.

 

“Brooklyn,” Tony replies. “Steve was understandably upset by that.”

 

There’s a chopper waiting for then on the helipad on Stark Tower, and Bruce climbs onboard. “What about the suit?” he asks Tony, shouting to be heard over the noise of the rotors.

 

“Already loaded,” Tony replies. “I’ll activate it when we get closer.”

 

Bruce feels as though he should know that. “What’s the problem?”

 

“Doombots,” Tony replies sourly. “And I’m getting really tired of that guy. Somebody needs to kill him.”

 

“You and Steve should flip for it,” Bruce suggests.

 

“Maybe we will,” Tony says, sounding a little disgruntled. “Or maybe when the Hulk shows up to the party, we’ll let him deal with Doom.”

 

Bruce glares at him. “He doesn’t exist to do your dirty work.”

 

They stare at each other, neither willing to look away, and then Tony sighs. “Yeah, I know he doesn’t. Can we count on him anyway?”

 

Bruce tries to summon up the ever-present anger and feels—nothing. He’s empty, hollowed out, apathetic. And he knows that should alarm him, but he can’t feel alarm either. “I don’t think so,” he replies slowly.

 

Tony nods, looking worried. “Bruce, promise me you’re going to rethink this.”

 

“I’ll rethink it,” Bruce replies. “If the helicopter dropped me, I could probably get the Other Guy to come out.”

 

“Definitely not,” Tony replies decisively. “And before you say it, maybe it worked before, but there wasn’t another choice. The rest of us will handle this. When you feel up to participating, the door is always open.”

 

And that’s the last Tony speaks to him before they’re landing, and the suit enfolds Tony, and Bruce is left behind.

 

Bruce is always left behind, but he had no idea how much it would hurt not to have some part of him participate in the action.

 

Once the chopper takes off, Bruce realizes he has nothing to do, and he stands there for a long moment before he spots the van where SHIELD agents are presumably coordinating efforts.

 

The door opens before he can knock, and Hill sticks her head out. “Dr. Banner, what are you doing here?” she asks.

 

“I’ve been experimenting with a sedative,” Bruce admits, feeling like an idiot. “To keep people safe. From the Other Guy.”

 

Hill frowns. “You mean we’re not going to be seeing the Hulk for this one?”

 

“I don’t think so,” Bruce replies apologetically. “Maybe if I was in danger?”

 

“Forget it,” Hill says. “You’d better get in here.”

 

Bruce makes himself as unobtrusive as possible and listens to the voices on the coms—Steve calls out orders, and Clint makes calls from his perch up high. The three agents inside the van are mostly coordinating with local law enforcement and emergency medical personnel to ensure they stay out of the Avengers’ way.

 

He nearly nods off, and then he hears, “Stark! Tony! Tony!” Steve’s panicked voice has Bruce on his feet, stooping to avoid banging his head on the ceiling.

 

“What’s going on?” Bruce demands.

 

Hill shoots him a dirty look. “Captain, report. Barton, what do you see?”

 

“They managed to shoot Stark down,” Clint replies. “He didn’t fall far, but he’s not moving, and they’re closing in on his position. I don’t think we’re going to get there in time.”

 

Bruce throws himself out of the van, pelting towards Tony’s last known location, ignoring Hill’s orders to come back. Tony’s not far away, and Bruce doesn’t know if he’ll reach Tony in time, but he has to try.

 

He has no idea what will happen if he’s hit, but Tony has always maintained that the Other Guy protects him. Bruce hopes Tony’s right.

 

Tony’s on his feet, but he’s bent over, and Bruce can’t be sure, but he thinks Tony’s in pain. Steve is trying to shield Tony, but there are half a dozen Doombots closing in on their location, and Bruce has no idea where Clint is.

 

“Bruce, get out of here!” Tony shouts when he catches sight of him. “What the fuck are you doing?”

 

“Saving your ass,” Bruce replies grimly, and steps in front of Tony, taking the beam from the energy weapon meant for him.

 

And then he knows no more.

 

~~~~~

 

He stirs and groans, and he hears Tony say, “That was a stupid stunt.”

 

“I wasn’t going to let you get hurt because of me,” Bruce replies without opening his eyes.

 

“I’ve been hurt before,” Tony replies. “And I’ll get hurt again.”

 

Bruce lets out a breath and opens his eyes, looking around at the rows of beds and the dull gray walls, immediately recognizing SHIELD’s medical bay. Tony’s sitting next to the bed in one of the hard plastic chairs, wearing a threadbare black t-shirt. Bruce can see a scrape on Tony’s forearm and another on his cheek, already darkening into a bruise. “Are you okay?”

 

“Bumps and bruises,” Tony says dismissively, waving a hand. “We couldn’t wake you up, which is why you’re here.”

 

Bruce rubs his eyes wearily. “Tell me the whole story.”

 

“You changed as soon as the energy weapon hit you,” Tony replies. “The Hulk wasn’t quite as energetic as I’m used to seeing, but he smashed the robots with apparent satisfaction, and as soon as they were gone, we had you back.”

 

Bruce glares at him. “I meant, how badly were you hurt?”

 

“Some bruised ribs, a headache, but nothing more than that,” Tony replies. “Their weapons weren’t quite as effective as they wanted. But back to you. That was a seriously stupid move.”

 

“You said the Other Guy protected me,” Bruce points out. “You were right.”

 

Tony crosses his arms across his chest and winces. “I always like hearing that. What else was I right about?”

 

Bruce looks away. “I won’t take it anymore.” It’s as much as he can say with his guilt rising up to choke him. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Hey,” Tony says softly, reaching out to touch Bruce for the first time since he awoke. He grabs Bruce’s hand and then moves to perch on the side of the bed. “I know why you did it. We’re all okay. We’re going to be okay.”

 

Bruce pulls Tony’s head down, pushing his fingers through Tony’s hair, grateful that his experiment in restraint hasn’t resulted in a worse outcome.

 

Tony kisses him, his hand cupping the back of Bruce’s head, his tongue meeting Bruce’s, and his teeth catches Bruce’s bottom lip as he pulls back. “What do you say we get out of here?”

 

Bruce smiles. “Yeah, I could go for that.”

 

Tony brushes his lips against Bruce’s briefly. “I’ll make sure you’re free to go.” He rises, and then reaches back, tangling his fingers with Bruce’s. “Good to have you back, Bruce.”

 

“Yeah,” Bruce agrees. “It’s good to be back.”

 

He means it. He might be placing others at risk, but Bruce can’t risk Tony, or anyone else on his team, and the Other Guy is their insurance policy.

 

Bruce is just going to have to keep it under control, that’s all. For Tony’s sake, he’ll manage it.