Chapter 1: The Morning Routine
A typical morning in the Stark/Banner household.
He was stretched sideways across the bed, and as Bruce awoke, the first thought that came into his head was that his ankle was sore from pressing weirdly into the end table. And his face was in a puddle of drool. And Tony was already up. For last night involving nothing more than takeout and movies, he felt like complete hell. Sighing, he stretched and grunted, and clumsily fell off the bed.
“Shit.” Rubbing his ankle and scratching himself, he groaned to his feet and shuffled to the bathroom. Tony was already there, sitting on the toilet.
“Morning, Green Bean,” Tony said with a yawn, not looking up from his game of Gem Drop on his phone. “You sleep OK? You kind of kicked me out of bed.”
“Morning, Tone. Yeah, I slept fine. Sorry about that, I think I was wrestling giant mutant kittens or something in my dream.” Bruce chuckled. “I’m surprised you let me kick you out of the bed. Seems like holding on for the ride might have been more fun.” He leaned over to kiss Tony’s forehead, then trollishly tapped his fingers all over Tony’s screen, causing him to lose the game.
“You fucker, c’mere!” Tony tried to pinch Bruce’s still-nude butt, but Bruce was already over by the sink, grinning at Tony’s indignant reflection in the mirror. Tony scowled at him and started a new game, while Bruce smeared some paste on his toothbrush. He saw Tony smirk evilly in the mirror, and narrowed his eyes suspiciously in return.
“What?” Bruce asked around the lather in his mouth, and then it hit him. “Goddamn it, Tony!” Bruce wrinkled his nose and left to finish brushing from a less potent spot in the bedroom, Tony’s roars of laughter following him out.
They both stumbled through their morning routine as always; scrubbing each other’s backs in the shower while picking apart the acting in last night’s movie, Bruce wiping at Tony’s face with the corner of a towel because he always missed a spot of shaving cream by his ear, Tony disappearing to the kitchen to bring back coffee and tea while Bruce scrutinized his reflection and debated whether he could get away without shaving for another day (he decided he could). Tony made his way back with two steaming mugs that he handed off to Bruce, before disappearing into the closet. Bruce sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on a pair of socks, and looked up when Tony emerged, tugging a t-shirt over his head.
“What are you up to today?” Bruce asked, rolling up his shirt cuffs.
“I’ve got to go meet with some stooge at the main reactor. He swears he had some brilliant epiphany on a way to double the power output, but I’d bet the Mark V that I’ve already come up with it and figured out why it wouldn’t work. After that I don’t have anything planned, thought I’d keep working on the engine to the Rolls. You?”
“Still working on the cellular regeneration project. I’ll probably be at that all day.” Bruce reached out and grabbed Tony’s waistband and pulled him back towards the bed and into his arms, then lifted Tony’s shirt and pressed a kiss to his belly. “Come find me when you get back, I want to try that new café that opened down the street.”
Tony wrapped his arms around Bruce, leaning down from his standing position to kiss him deeply. Bruce could feel Tony’s hot breath send a shiver down his spine as the other man whispered into his ear. “Can’t have you down in that lab all week again. All work and no play, et cetera.” Bruce laughed and swatted Tony’s butt as the other man moved toward the door.
“See you this afternoon. Love you.”
“Love you, too!” Tony shouted with a wave, already halfway to the elevator.
Chapter 2: The Backscratch
It's good to have an extra set of hands around.
Tony hunched over the thigh-piece of the suit in the workshop, recalibrating the thrust output of the small missiles housed there. Bruce sat over on the couch, reading a science journal on his tablet and half-watching some bullshit reality show on TV. Cracking his neck and heaving a sigh, Tony arched back and twitched his shoulders, and spent a few moments flailing uselessly trying to reach the fucking Bermuda Triangle in the middle of his back that was itching like mad.
“Goddamn it.” Tony muttered, reaching around the pile of missile parts for a screwdriver, which he shoved down the collar of his t-shirt to reach the spot. Of course he would jam it right into his shoulder blade, instead of getting to the itch.
Bruce took off his glasses and looked over his shoulder at Tony, now rubbing his back up and down against Dummy, who was trying to twist around to see what his creator was doing. Bruce sat back and watched with amusement for a few moments. “Tony, what are you doing?”
“What does it look like? I’m trying to scratch my damn back! Jarvis, what’s the humidity? It’s drier than retired hooker in here.”
“Raise it to 45%. Fuck!”
“As you wish, sir.”
“Oh, for the love- Tony, stop that and come here before you knock over Dummy.” Bruce set down his glasses and tablet, and patted the couch next to him. Tony pushed off from Dummy and flopped sullenly on the couch, where Bruce immediately tackled him and pulled his shirt off. “Roll over.”
Tony waggled his eyebrows. “Why Doctor, shouldn’t you offer to take your date out to dinner first?” Bruce arched a brow in response, and Tony could see him suppressing a smile.
Tony sighed melodramatically and rolled over, one hand still trying to reach the itch. Without warning, Bruce straddled Tony’s hips and swatted the hand away. Then he began running his glorious fingers with his delightful nails and beautifully rough callouses up and down Tony’s back, covering every last millimeter of skin with heavenly, blissful scratches. His nails worked into the little grooves of skin around each vertebra, around the lines of Tony’s shoulder blades, and even up his neck and into his hair.
“Uuuhhhhnnggh…” Tony moaned obscenely, arching his back and pressing into Bruce’s back scratch. “Oh my God, this is soooo good…”
“Tony, how is your skin even this dry? Here, stay there a minute.” Bruce got up and crossed over to his desk, and rooted noisily through the drawers and knocking items to the ground before finding what he was looking for. “Here we go!” He held up a small bottle of lotion for Tony to see, and settled back over the other man’s hips. Bruce poured a dollop on Tony’s back, causing him to hiss from the coldness. Quickly warming it with his hands, Bruce rubbed the lotion all over Tony’s back, finally relieving the last of the itch. Tony rolled over and smiled up at his favorite scientist.
“Better now?” Bruce asked, rubbing some lotion into his own hands and smiling back. Tony stretched back so that he was sprawled the length of the couch with his head in Bruce’s lap, handed him back his tablet, and picked up the TV remote.
“Yep, thanks a lot.” Tony started flipping channels.
“You’re welcome.” Bruce went back to his reading, his hand resting protectively over Tony’s arc reactor, Tony’s hand resting over Bruce’s.
Chapter 3: The Rage
Bruce gets angry.
Bruce had gone through the simulations what seemed like a thousand times, and everything should have worked. He clenched his fists and took a deep breath before looking at the decimated sample under the microscope again. Why did everything work perfectly in every imaginable test, equation, and simulation, but completely fall apart in application? The missing variable had been taunting him for weeks now.
“Shit. Fucking shit!” Shoving roughly away from the table, he paced the room and muttered to himself for a while before giving up and falling onto the lab couch to lie down with a tablet in his hand. Reading through his email, his frown got deeper and deeper before he just let the tablet fall onto his stomach and threw a forearm over his eyes. Bruce sighed despondently. This was the third deadline that had passed for his publication on bioelectric radioactive cellular regeneration. Everything should’ve worked by now. He knew that if he could just find the missing variable he would be able to present a groundbreaking alternative to stem cell research, and the positive impact in the medical field would be monumental.
But nothing was working. The experiments were failures; he was going to lose his spot in the journal if he missed another deadline, which meant that he had to tweak an earlier paper or bullshit something new and hope he didn’t embarrass himself, since he had put all his eggs in this basket for the past six months. Not to mention all the other research deadlines that he was supposed to be supervising, the projects he was advising, the superhero duties and, you know, trying to have a normal life. Just… everything was going wrong. He couldn’t do anything right. This is what happened when a gamma physicist stupidly tried to dabble in biology. He could feel the fury bubbling up in his chest, which was just another thing on his list of personal fuck-ups that he could check off.
“Goddamn it!” Bruce sat up suddenly, and violently hurled the tablet at the wall. He stood and stomped on pieces of the tablet, kicking around the shattered remains with feral rage. He had a lot of levels of angry between he and the Hulk, but just because he wasn’t enormously green didn’t mean he couldn’t be enormously destructive. Ah yes, another thing for the fuck-up list. Bruce stomped his way over to his desk, and viciously shoved everything on the surface to the ground with what could only be called a roar, then picked up individual books and items that fell, and hurled them one-by-one into the wall, each punctuated with a shout.
“Goddamned piece of FUCKING SHIT! CAN’T EVEN FIGURE OUT A FUCKING EQUATION! Just another failure in an otherwise PERFECT MOTHERFUCKING LIFE!” Bruce fell to his knees on the floor, panting wildly and clenching and unclenching his fists, as he mentally berated himself again and again. He felt ripples of tension slide up his spine when he heard the door to the lab slam open, and Tony’s voice ring through the lab.
“Bruce! What happened? Are you OK?” Tony asked in a rush, hurtling into the room from wherever he was, quickly looking around for a threat.
Bruce sighed darkly and gritted his teeth. It wasn’t Tony’s fault, and he refused to take it out on him as long as he was able to make the conscious choice not to do so. “Nothing, Tony. Just in a bad mood. You should probably go now, though.”
“Helluva bad mood,” Tony muttered, surveying the mess before him. “Need anything? Hug? Stiff drink? Joy ride in the suit?” Bruce knew that even though Tony joked, the other man knew not to come nearer, and that the only thing for his outbursts was time and space.
Bruce didn’t turn to face Tony, but reached out and fingered at the pieces of broken glass at his feet. He worked to keep his voice calm, even though his breaths were still coming in ragged pants and he was doing everything he could not to punch a hole through the concrete the wall. “I just need you to leave me alone, Tony.”
Tony didn’t answer, but stood quietly for a few moments before leaving and shutting the door softly. Bruce sighed after a couple minutes, stood, and trudged over to the storage closet to round up a broom and dustpan, then started cleaning up his mess. When he was done, he pulled out a new tablet and downloaded his files, then found a scrap of paper and a pen. On it, he drew a little stick figure with curly hair and a lab coat holding up a tablet with a heart on it, and scrawled underneath “Sorry about breaking another tablet, please forgive me?” Then taped the paper to Tony’s main view screen at his workstation, trying not to look too closely at the gamma-green reflection of his eyes in the glass.
Bruce was still sitting on the couch some time later, staring at the wall miserably and making a feeble attempt at meditation, when Tony came back quietly. Bruce didn’t look up until he smelled the tea. Tony was bustling matter-of-factly before him over a tray with a steaming teapot, some sandwiches, a packet of candies, and a deck of very worn playing cards. One corner of Bruce’s mouth quirked upward a little, but he said nothing and accepted a hot mug from Tony, who was already prattling.
“Well, I’d say we’re at about 50/50 odds on Gin. I still think you’ve had a streak of good luck, so if you’re ready to get your ass beat, then I’m ready to unleash the heat and quit letting you win. If you don’t think you can take it, then I suggest Go Fish. Pick your poison, Green Bean.” Tony set a plate of sandwiches on Bruce’s knee and began to shuffle the cards, looking up expectantly.
Bruce took a bite of sandwich. Peanut butter and jelly, one of his favorite comfort foods, just like him mom used to make for him. He sighed, looking at the cards, and replied softly. “Mighty strong words, cowboy. I think we’d better test your Gin theory, but I have to say, your hypothesis doesn’t sound too promising.” Tony snorted and began to deal, while Bruce unwrapped a few candies and put them on each of their plates. He picked up his cards and smiled inwardly at how Tony always seemed to be just the right kind of balm to soothe the raging beast inside his head.
He slowly straightened each faded, dog-eared card, lining up each hole punch precisely. He wondered if Tony would ever say why his favorite deck was a free throwaway from some no-name casino that got put off the strip before either of them were born. The first time Tony suggested a card game, Bruce would’ve put money on the deck being made of platinum. Now he couldn’t imagine playing cards with Tony with any other deck. This one had too many memories wrapped up in its little box, all held together with plenty of scotch tape.
Tony settled across from Bruce, bumping his knee as he played his first card. But before Tony could even withdraw his hand, Bruce reached across and pulled Tony into a crushing hug. Tony wrapped his arms tightly around Bruce.
“Hey now, no trying to seduce the dealer, you have to win fair and square.” Tony murmured, smiling into Bruce’s shoulder. Bruce pulled back with a matching smile, cupping Tony’s jaw and soaked up the love and forgiveness in his eyes.
“What? No, I was just trying to peek at your cards.” He took another bite of sandwich and played his next card, leaning back into the couch. “Waiting on you now, Bellagio.”
Chapter 4: The Salted Cashews
In which Bruce is a troll, food fight ensues.
“Seriously? We’ve watched that one a hundred times”
“So? It’s cinematic artistry! It’s cultural history! Just because you live under a rock doesn’t mean that the rest of us have been so deprived!”
“Can’t we watch a drama or comedy just once? Does it always have to be some sci-fi space alien robot future-dystopia movie? Don’t you think we get enough of that in our real-life lines of work, Tony?”
Tony patted Bruce’s knee reassuringly, and promptly flicked the Star Wars icon from the tablet in his hand to the screen on the wall, letting Jarvis handle the rest. Tony settled back into the living room couch and shoved his hand into the bowl of salted cashews on Bruce’s lap (popcorn was for chumps), before pulling a blanket over his bare feet.
“You said if I won the last game of Gin, I could pick the movie. I pick Star Wars, which, incidentally, took place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” not in some future-dystopia. You can cease the bitching anytime. Jarvis, lights.”
The lights dimmed, and the chords of the fanfare came through the speakers. Bruce began to read the lines of the opening crawl out loud, in a poor and obnoxious imitation of James Earl Jones. Tony slapped Bruce’s arm lightly.
“Knock it off, sour grapes. Just because you lost doesn’t mean I have to, too.”
“IT IS A PERIOD OF CIVIL WAR. REBEL SPACESHIPS, STRIKING FROM A HIDDEN BASE…”
“Seriously, I swear next time we’ll watch Citizen Cane and I’ll recite the whole thing like fucking Elmo!” Bruce leaned closer and deadpanned as dramatically as possible.
“REBEL SPIES MANAGED TO STEAL SECRET PLANS TO THE EMPIRE’S ULTIMATE WEAPON, THE DEATH STAR…”
“That’s it!” Tony lunged for the cashews, pulling open the elastic waist of Bruce’s pajama pants and dumping the contents of the bowl inside, before smugly crossing his arms. Bruce yelped and jumped up, shaking his pants so the cashews fell out of the ankles and onto the floor.
“What’s the matter, Bruce? Something wrong with your nuts?”
“Yeah, they’re all salty now. Maybe you should clean them up for me.” Bruce grinned mischievously at Tony, who just now snorted his drink into his nose from laughing. Tony was wiping his face when Bruce pounced on him with a handful of cashews.
“Here, Tony! Wanna eat my nuts? I hear they’re tasty!” They wrestled for a few minutes, Bruce unsuccessfully trying to fill Tony’s pants with cashews, before falling on the floor panting from laughing. After a bit, Bruce got up to go refill the cashews, scattering the ones on the floor as he walked, while Tony hunted for the tablet.
“See, now we have to start it over! Hey, will you get me another drink while you’re up?” He brushed cashew bits off the couch and shook out the blanket. Bruce eventually flopped down on the couch with another drink and more cashews. Tony hit the play icon to restart the movie, and leaned back against Bruce, spreading the blanket over the two of them.
“PURSUED BY THE EMPIRE’S SINISTER AGENTS, PRINCESS LEIA RACES HOME ABOARD HER STARSHIP…”
Chapter 5: In which the future of humanity and plans for Thanksgiving are straightened out over lunch
Deep discussion; chapter title is rather self-explanatory here.
“You know, I just don’t think the future of humanity lies on this planet. With the way medical technology has progressed and continues to progress, if there’s not an incredible overhaul of the way humans consume resources or some kind of mass natural disaster that will shrink the population, humanity will outgrow the planet far sooner than any of us like to think.” Bruce shuddered a little. “God, that’s a morbid thought.”
“Yeah, I know all that. But handing over arc technology to NASA is as good as putting it in the military’s hands. Unless I have some controlling interest, it’ll be used in a WMD before you can say ‘warp drive’.” Tony stabbed at his penne, filling the fork with as much pasta as possible before stuffing it into his mouth.
“Have you considered a space technology branch of Stark Industries?” Bruce asked around a mouthful of salad. They sat in the sun at a new café in the neighborhood, which had quickly become a favorite lunch spot. Tony had just come from a board meeting, and had his suit jacket draped over the back of the chair, tie loosened, collar and cuffs already undone, and feet propped on another chair. Bruce had spent the morning there sipping tea and working on his cellular regeneration missing variable, which was starting to look hopeful. The crisp autumn air and warm sun was a welcome change of environment.
“Actually, yeah. It’s not that I don’t agree with you. I really think space exploration would be a brilliant use of arc technology. It’s just…” Tony idly pushed his food around on his plate, contemplating his empty fork. “I don’t know. There’s so much good that arc technology can contribute to the world and the future, but I worry that unless I keep it close, someone will turn it into a weapon as soon as I blink.” Leaning back, he rested his hand over his arc reactor protectively and continued to stare at his fork.
“And a weapon using arc technology could be at least as destructive as the Tesseract.” It was Bruce’s turn to contemplate his empty wine glass, while Tony nodded in agreement. Bruce huffed a dry little humorless laugh. “Why do the bad guys have to be such jerks? Always ruining our fun.”
Tony laughed at the sarcastic, loaded question, one that each of them had asked many times before during long conversations filled with “deep, philosophical bullshitting,” as Tony liked to call it. Bruce loved that he had someone whom he could talk to about these things. Regardless of Tony’s weaponeering past and Bruce’s destructive alter ego, they were humanitarians at heart. And Bruce knew that Tony desperately wanted to share the arc technology to help people, and desperately feared what may happen if it fell into the wrong hands. They picked at their food in silence a few minutes, before Tony spoke up.
“Got any plans for Thanksgiving?”
“No, you have something in mind?”
“Yeah, I thought it’d be nice to fly us and the team out to the private resort in Bora Bora. Spend a week dicking around on the beach, getting a tan, maybe some snorkeling and a seafood feast. Weather looks like it’ll be great. Whatcha think?”
“Mmm. Sounds good. Let the bear out of his cage to run wild and free for a bit.” Bruce bared his teeth in a grimace and tugged playfully at the ample chest hair poking out of the top of his collar, eliciting a grin from Tony. “I should be done with my project by then. Well, at least I hope so. Separate cabins, right?” He arched a brow at Tony and made a show of leering at him up and down.
“And private nude beaches. Although I can’t say I wouldn’t laugh if a video of Steve skinny-dipping made it on YouTube. Anyway, you ready to get out of here?”
“Yeah, let’s walk the long way back, I wanted to return this book to the check-out at Bryant.” Tony anchored some cash (the tip was at least twice as much as the bill, as always) under a glass, and grabbed his jacket with one hand and Bruce’s hand with the other.
“Yeah, I could see SI getting in on the privatized space industry. You hear they’re doing a table-top warp drive test using laser interferometer tech to create tiny warp bubbles? It’s supposed to be tested down in New Mexico here soon, I need to ask Jane if she’s in on it.” Tony swung his jacket over his shoulder as the two strolled down the sidewalk.
“Maybe you should see if you can be there, I’m sure all the top researchers in the field will be there; you could do some head-hunting.” Bruce tucked his book and tablet under his arm and put his free hand into his pocket.
“You know, I don’t know why you keep insisting on checking out those mangy books from Bryant. I could buy you the entire library if you wanted it, not to mention everything you could download on the tablet.” Bruce only smiled.
“I like my mangy books.” The two continued on to the park hand-in-hand, keeping up their deep, philosophical bullshit the entire way.
Chapter 6: Post-battle patch-ups require more than just bandages
When shit goes down, don't let go of anyone. You'll need them more than you think later.
Tony flew straight past the suit disassembly platform and into the living room, with a mostly-nude, unconscious Bruce lying limply in his gauntleted arms and covered in blood. Tony was already calling out orders in a strangled shout before he had even landed.
“Jarvis! Start the shower, get going on the gamma-containment scans, and tell me the goddamn second you see anything. I’m pretty sure none of this blood is Bruce’s, but you’d better divert the shower drainage to the biohazard containment unit for now until we know for sure.”
“As you wish, sir.” Tony strode straight into the enormous walk-in shower, Iron Man suit and all, and tenderly laid Bruce on the floor. Propping him against the wall, Tony aimed a gentle stream of warm water over him, helping to loosen the already-drying blood. Stepping back out, Tony stood anxiously in the suit and observed Jarvis’ scans in the HUD (far faster and more accurate than any joke that SHIELD medical could come up with). The moment the Bruce was confirmed clear of uncontained gamma radiation Tony frantically yanked the emergency release pulls on his suit and let it fall in pieces to the floor around him, and ran into the shower without even shedding his undersuit.
“Bruce. Bruuuuce. Are you with me? C’mon buddy, wake up. You’re freaking me out here.” Tony had Bruce cradled in his arms, and was using a washcloth to rub Bruce’s arms vigorously, trying to both scrub the blood away and get Bruce to wake up. Bruce had never been out this long after a transformation, and had definitely never been knocked the fuck out as the Hulk. What ever these… creatures were, they almost… well, it was over. Hulk’s screams of pain were still ringing in his ears, and Tony felt wetness on his face that had nothing to do with the shower.
“Bruce, please, please wake up. Let me know you’re still in there. I can feel your pulse, don’t tease me like this. Bruce?”
“Uhnnggh… Tony?” Bruce groaned faintly and tried to raise a hand to his face, but missed, hitting Tony’s shoulder instead. Tony released the breath he didn’t even realize he was holding in a whoosh, and bent over Bruce to hug him tighter.
“Always with the dramatic return,” Tony whispered with relief into Bruce’s wet curls. When Bruce was finally able to open his eyes and take in his bloody arms, the pink water around them and Tony’s disheveled appearance, he immediately tensed up.
“What…” Bruce coughed and tried again. “What happened? Is this… oh my God, whose blood is this? Is it mine? Tony, get out of here… the radiation!” Bruce tried to sit up and pushed at Tony weakly, before Tony was able to get his attention.
“Don’t be stupid, you think I didn’t do a gamma scan on you before taking off the suit? It’s not your blood. And it’s not the blood of innocent bystanders, before you start freaking out. It’s from those… things that we fought. Just… shit, Bruce. I’m just glad you’re awake.” Tony slumped back against the wall and put his face in his hands. Bruce was finally able to see Tony; the blooming bruise on his temple, the gash across his shoulder blade and chest that had cut right through the undersuit, and the haunted look in his eyes. Tony’s breaths were ragged and his shoulders were shuddering.
This wasn’t how battles usually went. They went out, beat the baddies, maybe got some stitches and ice, and went home to lie in bed and suppress a few nightmares. But they were always able to deal with it. They were superheroes. Battle didn’t make them quiver in fear and piss down their fucking legs. But this one was different.
“Tony, tell me what happened.” Bruce’s strength was coming back, albeit slowly. He reached out and cupped Tony’s cheek, pulling Tony’s hands away from his face and exposing golden-brown eyes rimmed in red. Tony took a deep, shaky breath and waved his hands vaguely in front of him as he tried to explain what he saw.
“There were these animals. Or something. Huge. Terrifying. Jarvis…?”
“Preliminary scans indicate that they appeared to be mutant animals of a sort, with physical characteristics that most closely resembled those of a Grizzly bear and the grey wolf, with a high level of biomechanical implants. The creature was approximately the size of a two-story building, exhibited extraordinary strength, and emitted an unusual electro-magnetic pulse that elicited an intense emotional and physiological fear response in any human within a 100-meter range. It first appeared in the forests upstate, and the Avengers were able to prevent its movement into populated areas. Casualties were minimal. The blood present belonged to the creature. SHIELD agents are currently conducting routine investigations, results to be presented at the morning debriefing.”
“Thanks, Jarvis. So it made you all… scared?” Bruce asked tentatively, trying to piece together snippets of Hulk’s memory based on Jarvis’ account.
“More than that. It was worse than…” Tony swallowed, continuing in a whisper. “Worse than the caves. Worse than going through the portal. And it had you… I mean, Hulk, in its jaws. We saw it try to bite you in half, and you screamed…” Tony clapped his hands over his ears. “We couldn’t move, we were so terrified; the EMP just dropped me out of the sky, and the suit was barely functioning. I just stood there and watched. If you had died, it would’ve been because of me…” Tony hugged himself tightly and screwed his eyes shut against the memory.
“You had all these holes… puncture wounds, and it knocked you out. Before it did though, you punched through the roof of its mouth and pulled out a fistful of wires, and the EMP stopped. We were able to get our shit together well enough to destroy it, and I flew straight back here with you in my arms. Your wounds closed when you transformed back, but I didn’t know how much of the blood was yours and how much was the creature’s.”
Bruce and Tony just held each other for a long while, letting the water wash away the blood, filth, and fear. Eventually Tony’s heart didn’t feel like it was trying to eject the arc reactor, and his breathing had slowed to something resembling calm. When they both were feeling more normal, Tony pushed himself up and helped pull a still slightly shaky Bruce to his feet.
“Sir, Captain Rogers has requested permission for he and the other Avengers to visit your floor. Shall I let them in?”
“Sure, J. Tell them we’ll be down in a minute.” Tony picked his way around the suit pieces still on the floor, stripped off the soaked undersuit and rubbed himself with a towel, and tossed another to Bruce who leaned against the counter. “I’d say a movie night and some good old fashioned denial and emotional suppression sounds in order, don’t you?”
Bruce smiled and agreed, and pulled out some pajama pants and tank tops for them both. They made their way stiffly to the living room, where they found the rest of the team in pajamas and t-shirts, either sitting on the couch, rummaging behind the bar, raiding the fridge, or patching themselves up with the vast array of first aid supplies spread over the table, all of them pretending not to notice the extent of the bruises, cuts, and red-rimmed eyes that they all shared.
Tony grinned wryly at their little ritual, each of them helping to hold the others together when they all felt like falling apart inside. It was one of the few things that actually helped him feel a little normal after dealing with what most people would consider extreme physical and emotional trauma. No one ever wanted to go back to their own floors alone after battle, and Tony didn’t think anyone could blame them. Tony clapped his hands together as he paused between the bar and the kitchen, trying to decide which he need more at the moment (the bar, of course), while fending off a worried Bruce who was trying to dab at his shoulder with an alcohol-soaked gauze.
“All right kids, what’ll it be tonight? I’m putting a special request in for nothing with bears or wolves.” He swatted at Bruce’s hand, who rolled his eyes in return. “Knock it off, Bruce. I think tonight I’ve earned my alcohol in a glass instead of on my shoulder.”
“How about Toy Story? I like that one.” Steve said, already thumbing through the movie files on the tablet. Clint gestured with his beer bottle.
“Fine, but not the third one, I don’t feel like crying. Oh, don’t you fucking judge me, I think we can all agree that this was a bad day at work,” Clint said, catching a throw pillow that Natasha threw at him and holding his beer at a safe distance.
Thor nodded, speaking around a mouthful of some aromatic noodle dish that he had managed to whip up out of nowhere. “Aye Steve, I also enjoy that one. May I suggest it be followed by the account of the good Doctor Brown and his friend Marty in Back to the Future? I am intrigued by the ability of this scholar to harness the power of lightening to rend the veils between the past and present. Such an achievement is still not possible in the other realms.”
“Thor, it’s fictional. Time travel doesn’t exist.” Natasha rolled her eyes at Thor’s furrowed brow.
“I have spent many hours immersing myself in Midgardian culture through the medium of what my Lady Jane tells me are called “documentaries.” I find it difficult to discern truth and fiction, when they are presented in such similar fashion. What of the story of the Witches of Blair? Was it not prefaced with the statement that it be based upon truth?”
“Still fiction. They say that so the audiences get more scared, because they think it’s real and could happen to them.
Bruce flopped on the couch with his customary bowl of salted cashews. “Who needs fiction when you have real life?”
“Just start the movie, Steve.”
“Wait, pause it! I have to pee!”
“For Pete’s sake, Clint, I’m not pausing it. Just hurry up!”
“Give me some of those cashews, Bruce.”
“Nat, quit hogging the pillows, throw some over here.”
“Shhh, their leader speaks!
“OK, I’m back, you can un-pause it.”
“He didn’t pause it, Clint. Who has my cashews?”
“Tony, what’d you do with the plaid blanket?”
“I don’t know, it’s somewhere over by the TV. Here, have this one.”
“I don’t want that one, I like the plaid one.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Jarvis, where’s Little Miss America’s plaid blanket?”
“It is folded in the ottoman near the TV, sir.”
“I shall retrieve the blanket for you, comrade! I am in want of a pillow, myself.”
“Thanks, Thor. Now everyone hush. We’re missing essential plot points, here!”
Tony settled back in the cushions, feeling the pit of anxiety in his stomach fade, and the warmth of Bruce’s hand on his own spreading throughout his body. He was sure the team would be keeping the SHIELD therapists busy for weeks to come with their own special brands of PTSD, and Fury would have plenty of things to say at their debriefing in the morning about why his super team reacted like schoolgirls in a haunted house, but until then, they had Woody and Buzz and each other, and that was more than enough.
Chapter 7: How the hunt for a Christmas tree ended between the sheets
Smut. Consider yerself warned.
“We should get a big-ass Christmas tree this year.”
“Ok. Any reason why?”
“Why the fuck not?”
“Well, I suppose that’s as good an answer as any. Real or fake?”
“Real. And better than the one in Rockefeller Square.”
“Tony, that tree is 32 feet tall. Why don’t we just go down to the vendors at Central Park and see if there’s one there we like?” Bruce set down his snack of sharp cheddar and BBQ sauce (don’t ask, it’s a holdover from college) and pulled up a search for tree vendors on his tablet. “Look, this one’s on our side of the park. Want to go for a walk and have a look? I could stand some fresh air.”
Tony nodded, and went to the closet to get his and Bruce’s long wool coats. They put each other’s scarves on in the elevator ride on the way down, with not a little bit of making out like a couple of teenagers. With lips and cheeks already rosy, they stepped out into the clear, cold autumn night.
“Whew! When’d it get so damn cold?” Tony turned up his collar and rooted through his coat pockets in search of a second glove, with no luck. “Hey, check your pockets, I can’t find my other…” Tony stopped as he watched Bruce pull on his own gloves. “Are those… are those mittens? Red mittens?” Tony’s hand shot out and grabbed Bruce’s wrist before it could disappear into his pocket, then threw his head back and laughed.
“Bruce, these are the greatest fucking things I’ve ever seen! Where’d you get these?” He was turning Bruce’s hand over, inspecting the mitten. It was bright red with gold stitching around the edges, a blue repulsor stitched into the palm, and an arc reactor stitched into the back of one and an “M” with a dot over it on the other. Bruce smiled and blushed endearingly, and pulled one off for Tony to look at more closely.
“Steve made them for me. You know how he’s been taking those art classes? Well, one of them was fiber arts. He dyed and spun the wool himself, and knitted them for me.”
“These are really good! Think he’d make me some Hulk mittens?” Bruce ducked his head, a little embarrassed.
“I’m sure he would if you asked.” Tony immediately tossed the mitten back and pulled out his phone to text Steve.
“Hey, nice Iron Man mittens. Can I commission a pair of Hulk mittens? -TS”
“LOL, never thought you’d ask. Fair warning, I’m charging you more. -SR”
“What? No fair! –TS”
“Call it an income adjustment. ☺ -SR”
“Whatever, I’ll throw you a bone. Just make them awesome! -TS”
“Awesome is all I do. ☺ -SR”
“I’m getting Hulk mittens!” Tony did a ridiculous little jig as he put his phone away, while Bruce laughed into his hand. “What’s the “M” with the dot?”
“It’s supposed to be an “I” and an “M” merged, for Iron Man. Clever, huh? So about this tree…?”
“Oh yeah, let’s go.” Tony pocketed the phone, and they continued on, Tony still searching for his lost glove and bitching about having a cold hand. “Hey, that mitten have room for two in there?”
“Uh… yeah?” Bruce rolled his eyes. “Come here, you big baby.” Bruce held open the wrist of his mitten, and Tony slipped his hand inside. They intertwined their fingers and Tony slipped their mittened hands into his coat pocket, grinning with satisfaction. He began to rub circles into Bruce’s palm, and leaned over to whisper into Bruce’s ear.
“We might get cold from walking around outside. You better start thinking of all the different ways we could warm each other up when we get home.” Bruce blushed, but grinned back.
“Hm, I think you’ll be able to keep plenty warm until we get home.” Bruce began to whisper into Tony’s ear, causing the other man’s eyes and smile to widen. Bruce kept up a steady and vivid monologue in Tony’s ear of all the delightful and depraved ways they could bring each other to their knees, so that by the time they got to the park, Tony could barely concentrate on the trees. Bruce suddenly paused in front of a display of already-decorated trees.
“Well this one looks nice, don’t you think, Tones? A blue spruce would really compliment the cool colors of the stone tile in the living room.” Bruce scratched his chin thoughtfully, while Tony openly stared at him, incredulous.
“Oh, so now you’re suddenly not in a big damn hurry to get home?” Tony tried to tug Bruce toward the exit, but Bruce had his hand in a vice grip inside the mitten, and was already headed for another tree.”
“Now Tony, you wanted to get a big-ass Christmas tree, I thought we were going to look around?” Bruce had a suppressed grin in his voice. “Look at this pretty Douglas Fir. It’s so big though, I’m not sure the room can take it. But I know how much you like things big. You know, a nice, tight fit.”
“Jesus fucking Christ, Bruce.” Tony was getting visibly antsy.
“I mean, we could probably force it all in one go, but I think easing it into the room nice and slowly would be best. Give the room time to get used to it, enjoy being so full.”
“Bruuuce.” Tony growled the name through clenched teeth.
“Yes?” Bruce asked, as innocently as possible.
“I think it’s time to go home.” Tony jerked his head toward the entrance, before pressing their mittened hands, still in Tony’s coat pocket, against the hardness in his groin. Bruce just raised a brow.
“But Tony, there’s another vendor about halfway up the park, we could check that one out, too!” Bruce couldn’t even finish the sentence without laughing, because Tony had nearly jerked him off his feet in his haste to reach the exit.
As soon as they were clear of the park, Tony ducked them into an alley and roughly shoved Bruce against the wall, crushing their lips together. They kissed with abandon, tongues tasting each other and hands flitting between layers of fabric to tease and explore. Bruce reached around and grabbed a handful of Tony’s ass in each hand and thrust their hips together in grinding circles. Tony threw his head back and made an obscene sound halfway between a gasp and a moan, causing Bruce’s eyes to slide shut as he let his head fall back against the brick wall.
“Ok, you’re right, back home.” Bruce panted as he broke away, adjusting himself as they ran out onto the sidewalk and he flagged a cab. “Sorry, I’m in too much of a hurry to walk.”
“No, no, cab is fine. I can slum it sometimes,” Tony said, bent double with hands on both knees as if he had just run a sprint.
“Don’t be such an elitist jerk,” Bruce said sarcastically, giving Tony a side-eyed grin and tweaking him on the butt as they got into the cab. The short ride home still seemed far too long, and their hands wandered probably a little more than what was strictly appropriate in the back of a cab. When they got to the tower, Tony threw a wad of cash at the cabbie and ran for the door with Bruce in tow. The coats were on the floor of the elevator before they reached their penthouse.
“Bedroom,” Bruce growled, his voice beginning to take on a dual-tonality that sent shivers straight to Tony’s dick. It took them a long time and a lot of patience and frustration before they were able to get Bruce and the other guy on the same page sexually speaking, but once Hulk realized that a good fuck wasn’t a threat, it was as if a sexual monster was released within Bruce (literally and metaphorically). Tony liked to see how green he could make Bruce’s eyes go in public. Bruce pretended he didn’t like Tony’s little game, but they both knew that wasn’t true.
The path to the bedroom was littered with articles of clothing, Tony’s shirt being the first to go so that Bruce could touch every part of the arc reactor and the skin around it with his tongue. Tony gasped shallow breaths and shuddered from head to toe while Bruce spread the wet warmth of his tongue over the incredibly sensitive line where metal meets flesh, sending waves of goose bumps across his body.
When he couldn’t take it anymore, Tony pushed Bruce back against the wall, both hands on the other man’s chest. Tony fumbled with the fastenings on their pants, until their cocks were free. Bruce held them both in one hand, working their lengths together, while he buried his other hand in Tony’s hair and brought their mouths together. When Bruce sucked hard on Tony’s bottom lip, Tony hissed sharply.
“Shit Bruce, I need your mouth on my cock right fucking now.”
“What’s the magic word?” Bruce teased.
“NOW!” Tony yelled with a grin, and playfully shoved down on Bruce’s shoulders. Bruce laughed and obliged, sinking to his knees and making a big show of sucking on two of his fingers before licking a trail with his tongue on the underside of Tony’s cock, lingering teasingly at that sensitive spot where the head met the shaft. In one swallow, he took Tony’s entire length deep within his mouth, and reached behind to tease and stretch Tony’s hole with his slick fingers while swirling around the head of his cock with his tongue. Tony threw his head back and moaned loudly, and wound his fingers through Bruce’s curls. Fuck, it was everything he could do not to thrust into Bruce’s mouth; the man was so goddamned good at this that he didn’t want to ruin it.
As if Bruce could read Tony’s thoughts, he pulled off slowly, and looked up at Tony with his damned beautiful green eyes and deep red cheeks and innocent-but-not-really expression and disheveled curls and incredible cock twitching from between the folds of his open trousers that hung around his hips.
“Fuck my face Tony. I know you want to. I want you to.”
“Jesus Bruce, the things you do to me…”
Bruce sat back on his heels and leaned his head back to rest against the wall, then held Tony’s gaze with a smile in his eyes as he opened his mouth and rested his palms on his thighs, open, exposed and waiting, never looking away.
“You’re gonna make me come just looking at you. Holy shit.” Tony didn’t hesitate another second. His hand shot out to grip Bruce’s jaw, the other wrapped around the back of his neck. He slid his cock into Bruce’s waiting mouth; one slow push into the soft, wet heat was all he could do before he shoved it down Bruce’s throat.
Bruce’s head was against the wall, jaw in the vice grip of Tony’s hands, unable to move. Tony was slamming into his throat with abandon, fucking his face into wall with complete, unbridled lust. Bruce never broke eye contact. Tony couldn’t take it.
“Unngh, stop, stopitstopitstop!” Tony pulled out roughly and bent double, his forehead resting on Bruce’s with one hand still buried in his curls. Tony drew deep, ragged breaths, his cock jumping, as he squeezed his eyes shut and tried to stave off orgasm. His voice was a rough whisper.
“I don’t want to come until you’re inside me.” Bruce’s face split into a wide, feral grin.
“Good. My turn.” He suddenly stood, and lifted Tony bodily, flipping him and tumbling him onto the bed. Tony landed on his back with a yelp, with his head hanging off the side of the bed. From his vantage point, he could see an upside-down Bruce struggling to get his pants off, before tripping over them and falling clumsily to the ground. Tony laughed as Bruce crawled on all fours over to him and peppered his face with kisses.
“Didn’t you say something about it being your turn?”
“I believe I did. Open.” With Tony’s head hanging off the bed, there was a straight path down his throat, which Bruce took full advantage of. Bruce slid deeply into Tony’s mouth, always slowly, with both hands wrapped loosely around Tony’s throat so he could feel himself moving in and out. The feel of Bruce’s powerful hands around his neck (no matter how lightly) and his thick cock filling his throat, was an electric current straight to Tony’s dick. Tony found his hand moving to his own cock, stroking himself in time with Bruce’s movements, until Bruce’s hand swatted it away.
“Not until I’m inside you. God, you should see how beautiful you are like this.” Bruce rested one hand over Tony’s arc reactor as he slid in and out, while Tony’s fists twisted into the bed sheets and he tried not to hump into the air. Tony was getting light-headed from the shallow breaths that he had to steal around Bruce’s cock filling his throat, and when Bruce finally pulled out with a shuddering groan, Tony met his gaze with eyes that were wide and already fucked-out. Bruce gently lifted Tony’s head and pressed their lips together, not breaking contact as he moved Tony fully on the bed and whispered against his mouth.
“Remind me where you’ve been my whole life?” He could feel Tony’s whiskers scratch lightly across his chin as Tony grinned and whispered back.
“I got lost. Your place was in the middle of nowhere, and the street wasn’t marked.”
“Mmm, an utter travesty.” Bruce inhaled deeply as he settled over Tony fully and buried his face in Tony’s neck. “I like your smell.”
“I like your face.” They both huffed out little laughs, as Bruce hitched Tony’s hips up off the mattress and curled his body over Tony’s, wrapping his arms completely around Tony’s body and laying his forehead against his arc reactor. Tony’s breath caught as Bruce pressed against his entrance. He released a deeply blissful sigh as Bruce slowly, so slowly pushed his way inside him, growling more like the Hulk than himself. Tony wrapped his legs around Bruce and arched into his embrace, letting his upper body fall limply back onto the bed in ecstasy.
Bruce rocked into Tony, stretching him, grinding their hips together and holding him so closely against his body, it was as if he worried Tony might disappear if he didn’t. Tony’s cock was pressed tightly between them, and the heat and sweat and friction surrounding it was fucking explosive. Soon Tony was gasping, his body tensing. Bruce reached out to brush the hair out of Tony’s eyes and cup his jaw.
“Look at me, Tony.” Tony wrenched open his eyes and locked them on Bruce’s, already keening and scrabbling his hands against Bruce’s arms. Bruce almost appeared to be vibrating, green eyes intense in their need, breathing ragged and shuddering from the effort of holding himself back. “Come. You… I want you to come before me…”
The words were all it took, before Tony convulsed with a shout, riding incredible waves of orgasm. His vision tunneled, and he was barely aware of the warm wetness spreading between them. Bruce wasn’t able to hold off any longer, coming while biting Tony’s shoulder to muffle a very Hulk-ish roar. They fell limply to the bed, where they lie draped over each other until the panting and racing hearts slowed. Bruce was the first to speak, his voice rough and sleepy, but completely his own again.
“Up for a shower, messy?”
“Too much effort.”
“You’re not going to want to sleep like this all night.”
“How about you give me a sponge bath?” Bruce chuckled, but got up with a grunt and headed for the bathroom. When he returned with a warm washcloth, Tony put on a satisfied smirk as he stretched out and put his hands behind his head. Bruce cleaned Tony with the cloth, following its path with sweet kisses. After they were both clean and drifting in and out of sleep in each other’s arms, Tony heard Bruce’s whisper against his earlobe.
“We forgot your big-ass Christmas tree.”
Chapter 8: Even the Arc Reactor can’t Illuminate the Darkness Inside
TW: contains PTSD flashback, traumatic memories of violence/torture
In which Tony has a flashback while he and Bruce are performing regular care and maintenance on the arc reactor. Includes arc reactor porn.
“Almost got it…”
“No, further to the left… ow! Watch it, I’m already damaged, don’t make it worse!”
“Quit being a baby. Here, maybe this will fit better…”
“Fuck, it’s too big, knock it off!”
“Almost… there! How the hell did you manage this, Tony?” Bruce held up a pair of surgical tweezers in his gloved hand, a tiny piece of metal shaving held between its teeth. Tony took the bit of metal between his fingers and held it up to the light.
“So you’re the piece of shit causing me more than the usual amount of pain, huh? Well fuck you very much for your time.” He tossed the metal into a surgical bowl on the table next to where he lie shirtless on the exam chair, a web of wires connecting the sensors on his chest to the many monitors surround them. For several days Tony had been scratching at a red, irritated area on the skin adjacent to his arc reactor. Bruce had nearly forced him into the exam chair in the lab to check it out, insisting that he waited far too long between routine maintenance on the arc reactor. Well, turns out that being a walking magnet for shrapnel was something he’d never outgrow. It’s not like the skin sealed itself to the metal reactor casing, you know; stuff sometimes got in there, and got irritated.
“Luckily you’ve got me around to poke you with sharp objects. You know, this is the fourth time you’ve had shrapnel between your skin and the reactor casing. As much as this pains me to suggest, you might want to start wearing a shirt when you’re fabricating in the workshop. ” Bruce smirked at Tony, who rolled his eyes back as he pulled a small, wheeled table toward him, and typed commands into the arc reactor diagnostic dock.
“Yeah, yeah, doc. Just give me a minute to set up the… OK, ready.” Bruce hesitated, and brushed Tony’s cheek with the back of his hand, looking into Tony’s eyes for reassurance before continuing. When Tony met Bruce’s eyes and nodded, Bruce reached for Tony’s arc reactor, and turned it slowly with just the tips of his fingers until it clicked, then lifted it delicately from the casing as Tony watched intently. The monitors began to beep, indicating an elevation in heart rate. Bruce paused, and looked up at Tony, then continued when Tony nodded again and muttered.
“It’s fine. I’m fine.” Bruce seated the reactor in the dock and Tony began the diagnostic program, then pushed the table to the side, but still within arm’s reach. He looked back up at Bruce, who was scrolling through a list of readouts on a nearby screen.
“Heart rate elevated, blood pressure elevated, increased levels of cortisol and epinephrine, increased respiratory rate, vascular dilation…” Bruce turned away from the screen and put his hand over Tony’s. “Tony, we don’t have to do this, if you’re uncomfortable having me here…” Tony closed his eyes, and put his other hand around Bruce’s wrist.
“Don’t go. I don’t trust anyone else the way… I just need your help sometimes, ok? It’s not you that stresses me out, it’s… just… this. Everything.” Tony looked back up at Bruce and gestured to his chest vaguely, then dropped his hands back to his lap uselessly. Bruce brushed a bit of hair off Tony’s forehead.
“Just tell me if you want me to stop, ok?” Tony nodded. “Good. I’m going to start by flushing the casing. It’s been too long since you took it out and did this properly, it looks like the plasma discharge has begun to build up some, and is caked around the magnet and pacemaker leads. I’m going to have to pull the magnet partway out, ok? You can hold it while I flush.” Tony sighed and closed his eyes, head falling back on the chair’s headrest.
“Just tell me when you’re done. I think I need to visit my happy place.”
“I will. Jarvis, how’s the diagnostic?”
“Approximately seven minutes are left in the diagnostic program, no anomalies to report as of yet. There are approximately 25 minutes of reserve power remaining in the core backup system, after which you must replace the arc reactor or connect the electromagnet core to an alternative power source, or risk cardiac arrest. I shall warn you five minutes before power failure.” Tony’s brow furrowed.
“Jesus, Jarvis, don’t sound so fucking morbid.”
“My apologies, sir. I thought it best to-“
“Never mind, Jarvis. I’ll be done before that.”
“Very well, Doctor.” Bruce reached one hand into Tony’s arc reactor casing, feeling for the round electromagnet at the bottom. When he found it, he gently pulled it out, using a finger of his other hand to ensure that the thin wire remained connected. The sharp, metallic smell of the clear plasma discharge filled his nostrils as he began to flush the buildup away and check the wires for corrosion or damage. Finding none, he checked again on Tony; readouts were holding steady at the elevated levels, his eyes still tightly closed. Bruce reached for Tony’s hand, brought it up to his chest, and pressed the magnet into his palm.
“Hold.” Bruce’s murmur seemed as loud as a gunshot in the tense silence, but Tony didn’t respond, other than to nod again. Bruce set about checking the pacemaker leads, lifting the small disc to flush away the plasma buildup around it. He clicked it back into place and checked interior connections, cleaning the inside of the casing, and inspecting the skin adjacent to the metal for irritants. Tony grunted as Bruce pressed into each of the ribs where the casing was attached, then pulled at the casing, making sure the bolts and pins that held it in place were still doing their job. Tony released a sharp breath, and the knuckles of the hand holding the magnet had gone white; Bruce pressed a kiss to his forehead.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, “I know it hurts, I’m almost done.” Tony breathed deeply through his nose and squeezed his eyes shut tighter. Bruce pried Tony’s fingers away from the magnet so he could re-seat it. He had just tucked the last bit of wire under the magnet and clicked it back into place, when the door to the lab slammed open and a loud voice pierced the air, shattering the intense silence.
“Hiya Tony, Bruce, some packages came in the mail for you, looks like fan mail. Hey Tony, I was wondering if I could convince you to help me design a drafting table? I can’t seem to find any I like online.” Steve looked up to smile at his friends, but instead, he and Bruce’s eyes were both drawn to Tony, who had sat bolt upright with a startled gasp and stumbled from the exam chair, nearly knocking it over. The monitors wailed, indicating extreme levels of stress. Tony frantically ripped at the sensors and wires, and scrabbled for the reactor dock. His breath was ragged and gasping, his voice a panicked croak.
“Steve, what the fuck?! Who said you could barge in here like a fucking drug raid?”
“Hey there, I was just coming to bring you mail, I didn’t-“
“GET THE FUCK OUT!” Tony screamed the words, eyes huge and hands shaking as he clumsily shoved the reactor back into his chest, slapping at it with the heel of his hand when it wouldn’t engage.
“Bruce, I can’t… GET HIM OUT!”
“Go stand by the door, Steve.” Bruce’s voice was calm but firm. He wasted no time moving to Tony, gently pushing his grasping hands away and clicking the reactor into place. As soon as it was seated, Tony shoved away from Bruce violently. When his back hit the opposite wall, his knees went out from under him and he slid to the ground, arms clutched around his chest, nails digging deeply enough into his ribcage to draw blood. Bruce swore, and immediately went into action, rushing to Tony and sliding to his knees in front of him.
“Shit. Shit! Steve, first aid kit, I need the vial of peppermint oil in the compartment on the right. Jarvis, play AC/DC, Back in Black, 75% volume.” Bruce held Tony’s face in his hands, but Tony’s head was already lolling and his terrified stare was glassy and distant. Bruce raised his voice over the sound of the music, and put his lips to Tony’s ear.
“Tony, listen to me, you’re home, you’re safe with me, it was only Steve. No one’s going to take your arc reactor. Tony, focus on my voice, ok? I know it feels real but it’s just a memory, Tony…”
His lungs would betray him, they did every time. He tried to block his throat and will his panicked body to obey, but his lungs convulsed painfully, fighting desperately against him for air. He knew it would happen again… his heartbeat stuttered, weak from assault after assault. Weak, just like him. His vision faded and filled with white starbursts before his body finally gave in, and he inhaled deep, horrifying lungfuls of icy, musty water through his nose and mouth, burning all the way in. They dragged him roughly from the tub and threw him to the ground, where his bruised kidneys and broken ribs were pummeled with fists and boots until he had choked out most of the water and could draw gasping, wet breaths.
He curled limply around his car battery as his heart tried to hammer a steady beat and hot blood flowed freely from the unhealed, tattered wound around the electromagnet. Someone was in his face, shouting words he didn’t understand, punctuated with the word “Jericho.” Tony glared at the blurry, swimming face before him before whispering a hate and pain-filled “no,” and was hauled off the ground and shoved back under, bloodied knees digging into the sharp gravel. He couldn’t feel his heartbeat at all now. This time he blacked out before the water filled him.
“Breathe, easy, easy. You remember this one right? It’s a shame the government didn’t approve it. There’s so many applications for causing short-term paralysis.”
I can’t... breathe- Jarvis…
“Tony. When I ordered the hit on you…”
It was him.
It was Obi.
His heart skidded to an excruciating and violent stop as he struggled to push the water from his lungs, and the battery slipped from his arms and fell into the tub of water.
Steve kneeled beside Bruce, who had him waft the peppermint under Tony’s nose. Steve looked up at Bruce, worried.
“Dissociative flashback. Tony… ah, he’s had some pretty horrible things happen to him. You’ve read his file about Afghanistan. That didn’t even cover a fraction of the tortures he faced.” Bruce hesitated, giving Steve a searching look. “You remember reading about his battle with Iron Monger?” Steve nodded. “That was Obadiah Stane.” Steve inhaled sharply.
“Isn’t that the man who stood in as a father to him after Howard died?” The muscles in Bruce’s jaw clenched.
“That’s the man. He was also the one who ordered the hit on Tony in Afghanistan, then attacked him, ripped his arc reactor out of his chest, and left him for dead.”
“Oh my God,” Steve whispered.
“In case you hadn’t noticed, Tony’s very protective of who sees it, or even knows about it. He’s very vulnerable and stressed when he has to do maintenance on it, and you showed up at exactly the wrong time.” Steve nodded, disturbed.
Blood trailed wetly from his ears, racing heartbeat pounding behind his eardrums. His heart knew it was dead, and was desperately trying to fit in a lifetime of beats into the few minutes it had left. Obi’s fat fingers left burning impressions on his face.
“But you see? It was just fate…” the device hissed as it forcibly disengaged the reactor from the core. Tony tried to scream, to throw a punch, anything, but all he could manage was a gasp as Obi’s face swam before his eyes, taunting him. “…that you survived that. You had one last golden egg to give.”
He was choking on the icy water that pressed into his nose and throat like a sentient being set on robbing him of air. He was paralyzed and unable to swallow back the bile that threatened the back of his throat. He could hardly see Obi through the blinding light of his heart mere inches in front of his eyes. All he had to do was take it back. Just reach up… Don’t be so fucking weak, take it back! It’s right fucking there, don’t let this asshole traitor reach into your chest and rip your heart out and hold it in front of your face while you bleed out and just lie there and take it…
The man in front of him screamed the word “Jericho” over and over, but Tony couldn’t shake his head or whisper; he was paralyzed. No… he was- he was tied to a chair. The man grabbed a handful of Tony’s hair and yanked his head up so he could yell the word “Jericho” in Tony’s face. Then he cocked his arm back and drove his fist straight into the electromagnet in Tony’s chest. A weak cry and a spray of blood were forced from Tony’s mouth, as his head fell forward limply. It was all he had in him. If he were lucky, he’d lose consciousness. But he was in a cave being tortured. He wasn’t lucky. No, he got to feel the sharp metal edges rip through his lungs and press against his failing heart, splintering against the sawed-off bones that should’ve protected him. He felt his heartbeat stutter, and vision start to fade as fresh blood began to pour from his chest again.
Huh. Maybe it’s my lucky day, after all.
“And all this?”
“They’re his cues. Something familiar to help ground him. Something intrusive enough that his senses can focus on it through the flashback, help bring him back. He doesn’t have these that often anymore, but when he does…” Bruce’s jaw was clenched and shoulders tense, but his strokes on Tony’s cheek and words in Tony’s ear were tender.
“Tony, sweetheart, come back to me. Listen to my voice, you’re safe, you’re at home, it’s just a memory. Dummy’s here, Jarvis is here, Steve’s right here, we’re all here keeping you safe at home.”
Obi’s rotten breath filled his nose and mouth with the stink of stale cigars, aged whiskey, and gingivitis. Obi leaned over him like a predator surveying its prey, eyes lecherous and deadly.
“Your father, he helped give us the atom bomb. Now what kind of world would it be today if he was a selfish as you?” Obi yanked sharply on the reactor and the short wire connecting it to the electromagnet and his goddamned pacemaker, pulling it from Tony’s chest. The reaction was almost immediate. Searing, white-hot pain filled his body as heart began to fail and muscles began to spasm around the now freely-moving shrapnel. The pressure… fuck, he was going into cardiac arrest. His breath hitched in his throat as his heart skipped three, then four beats, then struggled back to life before dropping another few beats. He gasped, drowning for air.
Not enough time…
I trusted him with my life…
Yeah, well, good job with that. He’s gonna end it for you.
He could hear AC/DC in the background. But that isn’t right... Jarvis is still offline… His eyes glazed; his heart stopped for several seconds at a time now. Obi’s hot breath across his face… like cigars, and… and peppermint.
Fight it for Pepper…
For Pepper… mint…
“Tony, I’m here, Steve’s here, come back to us.” Bruce’s face was close to Tony’s, looking into eyes that were wide and staring at a horror a thousand miles away. Tony’s lips moved almost imperceptibly. Bruce put his ear to Tony’s mouth, and barely heard the words that Tony breathed.
“Pepper… cat’s eyes…” Steve leaned in.
“What is he saying?”
“He’s waking up. He’s recognizing the song.” Bruce continued his litany of reassurances in Tony’s ear, and he and Steve were tense as Tony began to murmur in a choked, desperate whisper.
“No… no… please! No…” All at once, Tony gasped an enormous breath that he had been holding, and his distant eyes suddenly refocused on Bruce’s face, horrified, as if Tony didn’t recognize him. Tony immediately flailed his arms and strained away, hitting the back of his head hard against the concrete wall. Bruce held Tony’s head in both hands, thumbs rubbing across his cheekbones.
“Tony, stop! It’s just Bruce, you’re safe!” Tony stopped straining and looked at Bruce confused; the moment he came back to himself was clearly written in his eyes with fear and humiliation when it happened. At once Tony’s face crumpled and he folded his body protectively in on himself, drawing his knees to his chest and letting his head fall forward onto Bruce’s shoulder, who wrapped Tony in his strong, safe arms.
“I’m here, you’re safe at home.” Tony gulped air, and muttered deliriously into Bruce’s shoulder.
“Jesus… fucking… I’m- I-”
“Shhh, it’s ok. I’m here, Steve’s here, you’re surrounded by friends you can trust.” Tony clutched at the front of Bruce’s shirt, his shoulders shaking silently as he desperately tried to shut out the memories that he had just relived. Steve stood and walked away, returning quickly with a glass of water.
“Here, buddy. I’m sorry, I didn’t know…” Tony shook his head against Bruce’s shoulder, his voice cracked as he spoke, muffled in the fabric.
“Don’t. S’ok. We’re all fuckups around here, right?” Steve let out a sigh, and reached near Bruce’s chest and took one of Tony’s hands.
“We sure are. That’s why you can trust us.” Tony didn’t reply, but squeezed Steve’s hand in return. Steve settled on the ground next to Tony, and wrapped his big arms around both Tony and Bruce, resting his head on Tony’s. He murmured into Tony’s hair. “They say friends are the family you choose. You’ve got a good family here, Tony.”
Tony nodded into Bruce’s shoulder, still taking deep shuddering breaths. Bruce met Steve’s eyes over Tony’s head, and mouthed the word “thanks” with a small smile. Steve returned the smile, and they all stayed in the protective comfort of each other’s arms for a long time.
Chapter 9: Superheroes 101: Becoming Iron Man
Tony teaches Bruce how to fly the Iron Man suit. I've spent a lot of time thinking about the engineering and mechanics of how the Iron Man suit works; such technical and mechanical marvels fascinate me, so of course I've got headcanon. Oh man, have I got headcanon.
So gird your loins for a massive amount of armor porn here; some details of which are in fact based on real military exo-suit mechanics, incredible stuff, really.
“So what’s it like?” Bruce lie on the floor by the enormous penthouse windows, covered in a blanket of brilliant afternoon sunlight. His attempt at meditation had been foiled by a battered copy of I, Robot and a bowl of grapes, followed closely by a long stretch of daydreaming while staying warm in the sun.
Bruce sat up on his elbows to face Tony, who was lying sideways on an armchair with his feet up dangling over the arms, and orchestrating a complex holographic projection like a maestro conducting a symphony from his back.
“Flying. What’s it like?”
“You’ve flown in the jet before. No matter how much bank you make, the food still blows.” Tony muttered absently, hands and glowing imagery moving in a swirling blur before him. Bruce flicked a grape at him to get his attention, which sailed through the projection and bounced off Tony’s arc reactor.
“I meant in the suit. Does it actually feel like flying, or does it feel like watching a virtual reality display from inside a sarcophagus?” Tony sat up and minimized the projection, then leaned over the back of the chair to regard Bruce.
“It feels like flying. The suit doesn’t feel heavy or anything, it bears its own weight. You can still feel the G’s, hear the wind rushing by.” Tony quirked a smile at Bruce. “You’ve never asked about the suit outside of mechanics before. Getting a little robot suit envy?”
Bruce just laughed a little and held up his book. “Robots on the mind, I suppose.” He lie back down in the sun and shut his eyes, his hand hunting around for the bowl of grapes. Bruce could hear Tony settle back down into the chair, and eventually felt himself beginning to doze in the comfortable warmth and silence.
“You want to try it out?”
Bruce startled from his half-asleep state and opened one eye to peer at Tony, who was looking at him again over the back of the armchair with dancing eyes.
“Are you serious?”
“When am I not serious? You wound me.” Bruce just raised an eyebrow and tapped his own chest.
“Aren’t I missing an essential piece of machinery to wear a suit?”
“You know the later models have integrated reactors. C’mon, we’re about the same size, let’s do this.” Tony jumped out of the chair and grabbed Bruce’s wrist, who scrambled off the floor to follow.
“J, prep the Mark VIII in the workshop, and the Mark IX on the landing balcony.”
“As you wish, sir.”
“Wait, right now? Don’t… uh, don’t I need shoes or something? Training, maybe?” Bruce stood uncertainly by the window nearest the landing balcony, looking rather like a deer in headlights. His wide eyes followed Tony, who entered a series of commands into the keypad near the landing exit before jogging to the deployment line. As the whirring machines began their hypnotic ballet of assembling the suit around Tony, he called over his shoulder to Bruce.
“Nah, it’ll be easier the first time without shoes.” Tony reached up to unlatch and remove the helmet that had just been placed on his head, tucking it under his arm like a football. He sidestepped the assembly platform and stepped into the living room to take Bruce’s hand, when they were both startled by a crash and a shout at the elevator. Tony and Bruce whipped around to see Steve standing just inside the living room in battle-stance, wearing nothing but a towel, his shield, and a very surprised expression.
“Steve, what the fucking hell?” Tony said with an exasperated eye roll, lowering the palm repulsor that he instinctively aimed at the unknown threat. Bruce released a huge gust of air and clutched his chest against the sudden adrenaline rush.
“Dammit Steve, you can’t startle me like that, you know.”
“Are you all right? Why are you in the suit?” Steve looked appraisingly around the room, before straightening up with the appearance that he suddenly noticed what he was wearing. He conspicuously positioned his shield over the towel when Tony began to roar with laughter.
“Oh my God, you were coming up here to save us, weren’t you? In your towel? Jesus fucking Christ, tell me you’re kidding!” The whirring servos of the suit joined Tony’s laughter, as he doubled over and slapped his knee with a metallic clang. Steve blushed nearly as red as his shield and tried to put on a matter-of-fact tone.
“I just got out of the shower. I was standing by the window to look at the city and I saw you get the suit on and rush back inside. I thought there was trouble.” Steve held his chin high, but tucked the towel a little tighter around his waist.
“You realize that little scrap of terry would be long gone the minute you threw the shield, right? Oh the money I would pay to see you fight a battle naked!” Tony almost wheezed with laughter, before straightening and mock-wiping his eyes. “For your information, I’m about to take Bruce out for a joyride in one of the suits. You and your towel are welcome to come make fun of him as much as possible.” Bruce hid his face in his hand in mild embarrassment and muttered something about this being a really bad idea, which Tony brushed off the minute he saw Steve’s eyes light up.
“Really? I think I need to see this; I need some pants, though. See you in the workshop?” Steve didn’t wait for a reply before he was already behind the closing elevator door, an all-American grin stretching from ear to ear.
“Great Tony, did I really need an audience?” Bruce sighed, exasperated.
“Yes. You absolutely need an audience for this.” Tony punched the button for the workshop on the private elevator and held Bruce’s bare hand gently in his own gauntleted one, while relaying a steady stream of instructions to Jarvis even as they walked into the workshop.
“OK, up on the assembly platform.”
Bruce obeyed, stepping up warily, arms crossed in front of him. “Now what?”
Tony stepped up next to him, and pointed at the yellow markings on the floor in front of them.
“Jarvis is going to deploy the assembly one step at a time, so I can explain as it goes along. If you get twitchy, just say so and we’ll reverse the whole thing. Got it?”
“Jarvis, deploy boots.” The floor began to fold in on itself, and the bottoms of the two boots moved up towards Bruce. “Now step into the boots, OK, there you go. Now see how it feels like you’re standing on your heels, like there’s a hinge under your arch? When you want to get in the air-“
“Wait, have we missed anything?” Steve walked in the workshop in sweats and a t-shirt, with a sketchpad under his arm and Natasha in tow. She was relaxed in a tank top and shorts, with two beer bottles in her hand. She smiled at Bruce.
“The other one’s for you Doc, providing you survive this little adventure.” Bruce smiled weakly in return.
“All right, all right, you’ve distracted my pupil enough. So when you want in the air, you need to lean you weight forward and press down with your toes, just like the throttle on a motorcycle. The more force you use, the more thrust you get. Try it.” Bruce looked pointedly up at the ceiling, then back at Tony, who sighed.
“I had Jarvis disable the repulsors until we’re on the roof.” Bruce nodded, and leaned forward experimentally, immediately leaning back and almost startling himself backwards out of the boots when he heard the repulsor whine.
“I thought you said they were disabled?” He yelled at Tony, who rolled his eyes and leaned forward in his own suit in an exaggerated manner, making his boot repulsors whine loudly.
“They are. They won’t discharge the blast, but you’ll still hear them charging so you can gauge how much force you’re using. Try it again.” Bruce looked over at Natasha, who saluted him encouragingly with her beer. Squaring himself, he pressed his toes down again, finally getting comfortable and really letting the boots sing.
“There you go! All right, next the legs go on, but you have to put your hands in the gauntlets and hold on tight. It’ll stretch you up so all the pieces go in the right place. Don’t move around, or it’ll pinch.” Tony stepped back and gave the cue to Jarvis, and the assembly bots immediately presented the gauntlets, which Bruce gripped tightly. The pieces began to build up his arms and legs, each piece screwing down tightly before locking into place with a click. The flurry of robotic movement stopped when the pieces reached his hips and shoulders, and Bruce turned his head to look at Tony.
“I feel like I’m on the rack.”
“Think of it as a high-tech chiropractic adjustment. Feeling good? Ready for the torso?”
“OK, stand straight, it’ll feel like putting on a corset.”
“Why do I feel like you’re making that analogy out of informed experience?” Behind him, Steve choked a laugh, and a grin pulled at one corner of Bruce’s mouth at the telltale sound of Steve’s ever-present sketchbook falling to the floor.
“Hey, are we all getting suits now? Bruce, why isn’t yours green? I want purple and silver on mine, ‘K Tony?”
“Get in line, Clint.” Natasha moved closer to Steve on the couch to make room for Clint, who had just walked in with a mug of coffee and a sandwich. Tony and Bruce rolled their eyes in unison, eliciting laughter from the couch. Clint began to type furiously on his phone as he flopped on the couch, reaching around Natasha for Bruce’s beer and jostling Steve’s sketchbook.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me there was a show? And here I was, all bored and lonesome upstairs, when I could’ve been watching Bruce get his ass handed to him by a suit of armor.” Bruce finally twisted around as far as the bots let him to glare at the couch.
“You do realize that of all the people on this team who could get their asses handed to them by a robot suit, I’m not one of them?” Clint leaned forward in his seat, face splitting into a wide grin.
“That a challenge, Doc?”
“Keep talking, bird-brain.” Bruce turned back around to give Tony the go-ahead, when everyone’s heads turned toward the sound of the workshop door crashing open.
“My friends! I am told we are to experience the Iron Man suit in turns!” Thor met each of their faces with a sunny, delighted smile, before stepping onto the assembly platform beside the still-stretched out Bruce, looking him up and down doubtfully. “Tony, I am afraid that this one will be far too small for my stature. Have you another that is larger?”
“Oh for fuck’s sake! Clint, what’d you text him? Everyone go, go!” Tony pushed at Thor, who good-naturedly stepped off the podium and headed to the couch tony was pushing him toward. “No one’s trying on the suit but Bruce. You want to watch, fine. Don’t fuck it up for him and or I’ll fuck something up for you.” Tony stalked back to the platform and stood in front of Bruce.
“If I say no, will the interruptions at least stop?” Tony just smiled and cued Jarvis. The torso pieces lowered from above, and Bruce instinctively sucked in his gut and squeezed his eyes shut. The pieces pressed around him, and he could feel the connections on the entire suit simultaneously tightening until they locked home with a click. He opened his eyes to see the suit’s arc reactor disappear into his chest plating; when it finally locked into place, the suit began to hum softly and the assembly bots released his hands. Bruce slumped forward a little bit on the release, then straightened up and raised his hands experimentally. He was quiet a moment, then smiled at Tony.
“Neat? Neat?! You just had an armada of sentient robots dress you in a $1.9 billion suit of flying armor, and your first reaction is ‘neat?’ Who the hell are you? It’s like I don’t know you anymore.”
“Really neat. You slay me. How do you feel? Bend around, move some.” Bruce obeyed, twisting slowly and bending to reach for his toes, then hopping on one foot a couple times.
“Good. It’s tighter than I expected.”
“Well you don’t want a whole lot of room to get bumped around when you’re getting thrown into walls, you know.”
“It’s light, it doesn’t feel like I’m wearing anything.”
“Wait until you really push the limits. Think fast!” Tony stepped back, then tossed a steel bar to Bruce that he had picked up when Bruce wasn’t looking. Bruce’s hands shot up to catch it, whereupon it snapped in two with the force of his grip. Bruce immediately dropped the pieces, which were each crimped with his hand grip, then looked at his gauntleted hands in awe. He turned to Tony and the rest of the team when he heard Clint and Thor burst into applause.
“What a rush, huh?” Tony’s eyes were bright with excitement.
“You were just holding my hand in the elevator…”
“Well I have been wearing the suit a just little longer than you. I think I’ve managed to figure out how not to snap someone’s hand off between then and now.” Bruce bent to pick up one of the bars, then bent it easily and twisted the ends together. He held it up for the team to see, then tossed it to Clint, who held up his hands to catch it. Clint and Thor pulled at each end of the bar, and were unable to bend it until Thor pulled it out of Clint’s hands and slowly pried it apart with a grunt. He tossed it back to Bruce, who was able to catch it with minimal damage this time, and exchanged beaming smiles with Tony.
“Ok, lemme show you the palm repulsors, you’ll need them once you’re in the air. See that black mark on the wall over there? Call it target practice. Hold up your hand like this.” Tony held up his hand so his palm was pointed at the wall. “When you cock your hand back, you feel a little click and some resistance, then see the laser? That charges the repulsor and engages the laser sighting here and on the HUD, and if you snap it back the rest of the way, it fires.” Tony demonstrated, pointing the laser sight at the black mark, then pulling back his hand and firing a weak beam at the black mark, causing everyone in the room to jump and yell.
“Tony, for Pete’s sake! Warn a fella first, I almost messed up my sketch!”
“Jesus Christ, Stark!”
“Oh yeah, fuckin’ awesome, do it again!”
Tony mock-bowed to the couch, but went to Bruce instead, raising his arm to point at the wall. He walked Bruce through the steps again, reassuring him that Jarvis wasn’t going to let him blast a hole in the wall. Bruce aimed carefully, his brow furrowed and tongue poking out between his lips, then cocked his hand back sharply.
The blast fired right on target, but the kickback caused Bruce’s arm to windmill backward wildly, throwing him off balance. He tried to right himself, but stepped backward off the platform, misjudged the center of gravity of the suit, and fell to the workshop floor with an enormous crash and a shout. Immediately, Tony and the rest of the team stood over him, all of them with alternating expressions of amusement and concern on their faces.
“I’m going to wager a guess that you aren’t hurt.” Tony grinned down at Bruce, who was trying to look down at his armored chest.
“Did I break it?”
“Oh my God. You’re kidding, right? Tell me you’re kidding.” Tony rolled his eyes and reached down to grasp Bruce’s gauntleted hand and hauled him up with effortless ease. “C’mon. We’re going up on the roof. The rest of you assholes should get some coats or something.” Bruce instantly blanched and backed up a little.
“Uh, Tony? I don’t think I’m quite ready to actually fly this thi-“
“Sure you are. What’s that I always say Jarvis? Gotta run before you can walk, et cetera?”
“That does rather seem the sort of pithy justification for irresponsible self-endangerment that you would come up with, sir.”
“That’s my boy!”
“No, but Tony, I don’t even know how to-“
“Nope. Not hearing it. You’ll be fine, Jarvis and I will be there, and the suit isn’t going to get hurt. Let’s go, you need to let loose a little.” Tony pulled Bruce by the hand into the elevator, tossing one of the helmets to Thor, and cradling the other under his arm, as they all pushed into the elevator. Bruce awkwardly tried to cross his arms on the ride up, but couldn’t because of the bulk of the suit. After some fumbling with trying to rest metal hands on metal hips, Tony finally reached for Bruce’s hand and held it reassuringly, never ceasing his cheerful whistling.
Steve was the only one who bothered getting off for a jacket (which he chivalrously draped over Natasha’s shoulders, who rolled her eyes but accepted it nonetheless), but eventually they all made it up to the chilly, breezy rooftop drenched in golden sunlight. Clint and Thor spent the majority of the elevator ride poking the helmet and trying to cram it on their heads. With no success, Clint yelled at Thor to go long as they stepped out of the elevator, and made to throw it across the rooftop. Tony was quicker though, jetting off the ground and plucking the helmet out of the air before landing gracefully near Bruce and flipping Clint off. He situated Bruce in the center of the helipad, and set the two helmets down next to them.
“Jarvis is going to keep a choke on the repulsors for now, so you don’t end up adding a skylight to the Chrysler building. We’re just going to hover a little. Watch.” Tony stood straight with his palms facing the ground, and leaned forward onto his toes. The whine of the repulsors grew, and he slowly lifted off, weight supported by the brilliantly glowing cloud of energy below his feet. He raised his voice over the roar of the boot jets. “See, you want to use your hands like this to create 4-point stabilization. Keep yourself upright. Once you’re in the air and moving at speed, the in-body thrusters take over to autocorrect your pitch, and the flaps deploy to act as rudders. You control big movements with your boots, medium movements with your hands, and small movements with your body thrusters, which you lean into. There are intuitive body sensors integrated throughout the interior, so your tiny movements inside the suit are mirrored on the outside. You don’t even have to think about it.” Tony cut power to the thrusters and dropped lightly back to the helipad.
“I know I’ve said it before, but Tony, this thing is really brilliant. You’re just so…” Bruce waved his hands vaguely in front of him. Tony just arched a brow and grinned.
“Go on. You know how much I like my ego stroked.” Bruce laughed and mocked-punched Tony on the shoulder.
“I was going to say something along the lines of ‘smart,’ but in this case, I think ‘smart-assed’ is more apt.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. You ready? I think it’s time to strut.” Tony assumed the flight position, then arched a brow and gestured for Bruce to do the same. Bruce’s eyes were bright with both apprehension and excitement as he checked his feet and held his palms flat. He took a deep breath, then smiled at Tony.
“Then let ‘er rip, doctor.” Bruce very slowly pressed his toes toward the ground, and flexed his hands until he felt vibrations humming trough his body from fingertips to toes. A little more pressure and a small click later, and he achieved lift. Bruce was lifted only a foot off the ground, but yelped in surprise and flailed, boots going out from under him and hands in the air, the thrust from the gauntlets throwing him to the ground a little harder than he might have landed otherwise. After a moment of shocked surprise, Bruce joined in laughing with the others, and had picked himself back up before Tony could even help him.
“That’s the spirit!”
Bruce tried again, this time with one hand holding Tony’s forearm for stabilization. As they hovered a few feet off the ground for ten, twenty seconds, then a minute, his furrowed brow became a grin, then a smile, then a beam, as he shouted to Tony over the jets.
“I’m doing it!”
“Watch it, or you’re going to lose your bal-“ Distracted, Bruce wobbled a little, and Tony’s other hand shot out to stabilize him. Bruce regained control, then after a few seconds, they both eased off the repulsors and landed back on the helipad, Tony decidedly more gracefully. Bruce looked at his hands, and looked around the roof at his friends, and looked at the sky, and finally looked at Tony.
“I think I’m a little speechless…”
Bruce fiddled with a piece on one of his forearms.
“Uh… so. Can we fly now?” Tony threw his head back and laughed, picking up both helmets and handing Bruce his.
“Sure thing, Ensign Eager. Look here. There’s your emergency release, you pull it like that. When you put the helmet on, it automatically closes and seals itself to the suit. You’ll be able to see through the HUD, and hear everything I’m saying through the earpiece. There’s a few commands on the HUD, and it uses integrated eye movement tracking algorhythms. If you want to execute a command, look directly at it and blink twice rapidly. Nudging the chin piece forward opens and closes the faceplate. Jarvis has disabled the weapons, so don’t worry about blowing anyone’s head off.” Tony put on his own helmet, and put his hands on his hips waiting for Bruce to do the same.
Bruce brushed his curls off his forehead, and pulled the helmet down over his face. It released a hiss as the pieces tightened down and locked into place. The HUD immediately flared to life, filling his vision with glowing blue building and suit schematics, flight paths and environmental reports, red outlines of human life both on the rooftop and in the surrounding buildings, tiny green triangles attached to long dotted lines in the sky where distant airplanes flew overhead, and a ribbon with weapons, suit, and bodily health statuses scrolling across the bottom. Every time he looked at something, the HUD displayed a selection of information about the subject, including potential threat, weak spots, orange-highlighted escape routes, suggestions of weapons to use against it, and casualty probabilities. Bruce marveled at the barrage of information the suit and HUD were able to convey, while simultaneously sobering at how acutely that information reinforced that the suit was indeed a weapon, not just another fancy toy of an eccentric billionaire engineer.
Bruce focused on a sidebar item titled “Rudder Deployment Assessment,” and blinked twice at it. He looked down at his suit through the HUD, and watched as flaps opened and closed all over his body; his back, calves, thighs, and forearms. When they were finished, Jarvis’ voice was the first he heard.
“Rudder Deployment Assessment complete, Doctor Banner, although I assure you that I will catch you should the ‘bough break and cradle fall,’ so to speak.” Bruce chuckled a little.
“Thanks Jarvis, good to know you’re rooting for me here.” Bruce heard Tony’s chuckle through his earpiece.
“If only I hadn’t been drunk when I programmed him with sarcasm. Don’t worry, he has the ability to take control of the suit in an emergency, provided the suit is still functional.” Tony raised his faceplate. “How ya feeling?” Bruce nudged his chin forward and raised his own faceplate.
“Excellent. Let’s start low again, then we’ll open the throttle whenever you’re ready.” They both positioned themselves and lowered the faceplates, and they hovered a few feet up, Bruce significantly more steady this time.
“I’m ready. Now what?”
“Give it hard gas and go straight up, ease off a little when you’re clear of the rooftops, then tilt your body toward Long Island Sound, and give it all you got. Once we’re over the water and out of the flight paths, you can play all you want.”
“Will we go sonic between here and there?”
Oh, definitely. But you won’t feel or hear anything. It’s only evident to people on the ground.”
“Ah. Ok, let’s do this.” Tony grinned behind his faceplate and Bruce squeezed his eyes shut behind his. Tony waved at the team, then counted down.
“Three, two, one, mark!” They both burst into the sky with a brilliant golden cloud at their feet, clearing the highest of skyscrapers within a fraction of a second. Leveling out, Tony demonstrated how to tilt his body toward the sound, and Bruce mimicked him, aiming for the pulsing yellow line on the HUD, showing his flight path, altitude, speed, and pitch. He heard Tony yelling in his earpiece.
“Let’s move it, doc!” With a roar of jets, they both shot away toward the sound, twin streaks of white-hot light (one straight and true, the other wobbly and a little unsure), leaving nothing but waving friends and the delighted echo of an exhilarated “WAHOOOO!” behind them.
Chapter 10: Tony and Bruce Get Some Very Bad News
Bruce makes a new and sobering discovery about just how much his aging process has slowed.
Bruce peered at himself in the bathroom mirror, squinting at his reflection with a frown. He ruffled his hair, holding it back here and there to inspect for grays, then pulled critically at crinkles around his eyes. He was pinching his jowls when he called into the bedroom.
“C’mere a minute.” Tony walked into the bathroom, a towel still around his waist. Bruce pulled him over towards the light, and began to ruffle through Tony’s hair and poke at the sparse scattering of white hairs in his trademark goatee. Tony looked at Bruce, bemused.
“And to what do I owe this unexpected grooming session?”
“You’ve aged,” Bruce muttered. Tony feigned offense.
“Thanks. You’re looking youthful and virile yourself there, Fabio.” Bruce shook his head.
“No, I mean, you’ve aged. Normally.” He removed his glasses and gestured at his face. “I haven’t.” Tony considered Bruce’s words more seriously now.
“Yeah, well you said the gamma slowed your aging process by about 20 years. We knew this, right?”
“Well, that’s what the initial blood tests showed, but it’s been a good decade since the accident. We’ve been together for years now, we’re both middle-aged, and we both have what you could call a very stressful job. Even with the slowed processes, I should still be showing signs of aging. Some gray hairs, wrinkles, something.” Tony scratched his chin thoughtfully while surveying Bruce’s disconcerted face.
“You’re right. You really haven’t changed at all, have you?”
“I need to run more tests. How could I have become so complacent?” Bruce sighed and ran his hands through his wild curls, the furrow in his brow deepening. He turned to leave the bathroom, and Tony reached out and caught his arm.
“Now wait a minute. Just… just don’t go looking for things to worry about, OK?” Tony dropped Bruce’s arm, but Bruce reached for his hand.
“C’mon, Tony. You know I have to keep track of these things. If things have... changed, I need to know how so I can be prepared.”
“I know. You just tend to…” Tony trailed off, and squeezed Bruce’s hand and pulled the towel off with a flourish and a smile that didn’t quite meet his eyes. “Hey, c’mon. Let’s have some breakfast, huh? Donuts? I’m feeling up to a big-ass plate of bacon myself. Then we’ll go run some tests. I’m taking the day off.” Bruce smiled.
“You don’t have to do that, and I know what you were getting ready to say. You were going to say that I’m a Chicken Little about every little thing.” Tony raised his eyebrows.
“Nope. Way off base. I was going to suggest that you should consider a side career in the adult film industry, and I know some people if you’re interested.”
“I hear that chest hair is making a comeback. You’ll be a real hit with the… uh, ladies.”
“Yep. Lots of traction.” Bruce pulled on a pair of loose, comfortable linen trousers and a Stark Industries t-shirt, Tony his usual band t-shirt and jeans, and they held each other’s hands all the way down to the kitchen.
Bruce squinted at the cell sampling through the microscope for what seemed like the hundredth time, and compared the results to the series of complicated equations on the screen. Each time he read through them, his heart beat faster and the metallic taste in his mouth grew stronger.
“Jarvis, corroborate the results in files Banner-Theta-2A, 2B, 4F, and 5F.”
“Right away, Doctor. I will display the results on your main screen as they are completed.” Bruce leaned back in his chair, pulling off his glasses and wiping a shaking hand across his face. Tony was working quietly across the workshop, for once without his usual background rock. The silence was tense, but Bruce appreciated the uninterrupted focus. Tony looked up at the sound of Bruce’s voice.
“Still doing OK over there?”
“I don’t know.”
The crease between Tony’s brows deepened, but he left Bruce to his work. Bruce sat back up and picked up a pencil and started scratching out equations while he waited for Jarvis.
“Doctor Banner, the corroboration is complete.” Bruce’s head snapped up, and he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose while his eyes flashed across the information on the screen. The more he read, the deeper his heart sank and the tighter his stomach twisted.
“Oh my God.” Bruce stood abruptly when he reached the end of the last file, knocking over his chair and startling Tony, who immediately came to his side.
“What? Bruce, tell me.”
“Oh my God, Tony…” Bruce blanched, his skin taking on a green tinge that had nothing to do with the other guy. He felt a bead of cold sweat trail down his spine, and ran to the nearest trashcan, where he vomited for what seemed like hours. Tony was at his side with water and a towel, and helped him over to the couch when he was done. Tony’s voice had a panicked edge to it.
“Bruce. You have to tell me.” Bruce passed his hand over his eyes, and his voice was a strangled whisper.
“It’s slowed even further. A lot further.”
“Less than one percent of normal.” Tony inhaled sharply.
“At the current rate, expected lifespan is approximately-“ Bruce’s voice trailed off. Tony squeezed his hand.
Neither of them could say anything. Tony finally took a deep, shuddering breath.
“Wait, what do you mean ‘at the current rate’?”
“The aging process appears to have asymptotic properties. Continually slowing, never quite reaching zero. The other guy’s regenerative abilities see my getting older as a compounding injury to repair, so the older I get, the more aggressively regeneration sequences will occur, until the sequence begins to preempt the process and aging stops altogether.” Tony gripped Bruce’s shoulders, his eyes wide.
“Fuck, Bruce, are you… are you telling me you’re fucking immortal?” Bruce’s reply was laced with bitterness.
“Everyone’s fondest wish. Live forever, right?”
“Oh my God.”
“Yeah, my thoughts exactly.” Bruce’s face crumpled, and he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands.
“Tony, the implications of this… It’s not just that I can’t die, it’s that I can’t be killed…” Bruce stood suddenly, hugging his arms tightly around himself and pacing anxiously, eyes wide and pinpricked with green. “He won’t let me die! So what? What now? I get to live literally for eternity, and watch everyone I’ve ever cared about die? Watch you die? Live so long that your entire existence in my life becomes such a fleeting memory that I… I hardly even remember you? Can’t even recall the sound of your voice? Because I can’t kill myself! I can’t live out a normal life and end it when there’s nothing left to live for! No, that would be too merciful for someone like me!” Bruce’s voice had become a hysterical sob, and he fell to his knees in front of the couch with haunted eyes.
“What if the human species continues to evolve, and I don’t? What if the world ends and I’m just left floating in space? What if I end up so jaded that every moment we have together for the rest of our- no, your life, ends up slipping away until they’re all gone? And… and I’m alone and I don’t even have good memories left because I was too preoccupied with the future to enjoy the present? What if… what if after all that time, I end up-” Bruce shook his head and buried his face in Tony’s lap, who carded his fingers through Bruce’s hair.
“Bruce, you’re not going to end up the bad guy.” Bruce’s reply was muffled.
“You don’t know that.”
“No, I don’t. But that’s not who you are.” Tony tipped Bruce’s chin up. “We’ll… I don’t know. We’ll figure something out...” Bruce jerked his chin out of Tony’s hand, and sat back on his heels with a bitter smirk on his face.
“’Figure something out?’ What, you’re going to help me figure out how to commit suicide?” He spat the words out. “Come up with some parameters on how to fucking sneak up behind the other guy and murder him? How do you propose we test your goddamned hypotheses, Tony? I have the feeling you’ll only get one try!” Tony slid to the floor so he was on his knees in front of Bruce, and held Bruce’s face in his own shaking hands.
“I don’t know, OK? I don’t know! But you’re not doing this alone, OK?” Bruce deflated, and fell into Tony’s embrace.
“But I will be.”
“No. You won’t. Ok, maybe I’m just an ordinary human after all, but you’ve got Steve. We already know the serum’s fucked up his aging process. And Thor! He’s immortal for all intents and purposes. So there’s your two best friends, not to mention the rest of the Aesir!” Bruce pulled back, and looked at Tony with tears in his eyes.
“But they’re not you.” Tony sighed, and pulled Bruce back into his arms.
The weight of Bruce’s discovery settled over them like a dark cloud of noxious gas. Neither of them knew what to do, but they both knew how it had to end.