Everything had seemed perfectly okay after the battle. Casualties had been kept to the enemy’s ranks, and the Avengers had walked away mostly unscathed. Clint had a sprained ankle, which he seemed rather pleased about. Natasha was less pleased and she let him know with a smack to the back of his head with her good arm. Steve was a bit dusty, but any bruises he’d obtained during the pitched battle were already fading into an ugly green-yellow color. By tomorrow, they wouldn’t even be able to tell that he’d taken a beating.
Iron Man had flown back towards the Avengers Tower on his own after a quick check that everybody was okay and an admonishment for Bruce to get home quickly so they could do science together. Thor had gone with him, taking advantage of their ability to fly unaided without having to rely on the Quinjet for transport. Bruce was secretly envious as he allowed himself to be shuffled onto the jet and settled comfortably, exhaustion already dragging at his limbs. He eyed the others wearily as they made their way to their own seats, Clint hobbling along with Natasha’s help, Steve dragging himself onto the jet and hanging up his shield before doing a quick check on the others.
Clint was allowed to pilot the Quinjet, with JARVIS acting as co-pilot. Tony had installed a rudimentary version of the AI on the jet, allowing him to navigate them when they weren’t in any shape to do it themselves, similar to piloting the Iron Legion. Bruce couldn’t find it in himself to be anything but grateful, and he allowed himself to doze after downing two protein bars that Natasha had shoved into his hands before moving to join Clint in the co-pilot’s seat.
Less than forty minutes later, the Quinjet landed at the tower, and they disembarked. Phil Coulson was waiting for them, and he quickly chivvied Clint and Natasha off to reassure himself that they were mostly okay. They wouldn’t even require stitches, just some ice and rest, most likely. Coulson looked inquiringly at Steve, but the Captain just waved him off, shuffling tiredly towards the elevators that would take him up to his floor. Bruce made a mental note to go check on him later, to make sure that he was okay. Steve was so used to taking care of all of them that he sometimes forgot to take care of himself.
“JARVIS, where’s Tony?” Bruce asked, wobbling on his feet.
“Sir is in the workshop,” JARVIS replied, but there was something off about it. Bruce blinked tiredly, feeling like his brain was wrapped in thick cotton.
“Is he okay?” he asked after a moment, already heading for the elevators, a headache slowly building behind his eyes.
“I believe sir could use your assistance, Doctor Banner,” the AI replied, and Bruce felt a small niggle of alarm. JARVIS never suggested that Bruce join Tony; usually, it was the engineer himself that came into Bruce’s lab to pester him.
The moment he stepped into the elevator, the doors slid shut and the box moved swiftly downwards, faster than was probably safe. Bruce bit his lip. “Do I need medical supplies?” he asked nervously, not sure if JARVIS would answer him. “Or to call someone?” Like Steve, or Phil, or even Natasha; anybody who was better prepared to handle a potential emergency than him.
The elevator slid to a smooth stop. “Please hurry, Doctor Banner,” JARVIS urged him, and Bruce moved as quickly as he could, adrenaline helping to fight off his exhaustion. He’d crash hard later.
He didn’t even have to enter his code into the lab doors; they slid open as he approached. Entering the lab, he looked around, frowning. “Tony?” he called, not seeing the other man.
At the sound of his voice, Dummy lifted his head from where it had been hovering, beeping urgently at him, his claw clicking in agitation. Bruce walked around the table, his heart rate doubling as he took in the prone form of Tony Stark, collapsed awkwardly on the floor. Dummy was trying to move him with little success, and Bruce knelt down next to the other man, gently pushing Dummy’s arm out of the way so he could press his fingers to Tony’s throat. Tony’s skin was cold and clammy, his pulse thready and quick, and Bruce’s eyes searched for injuries. Beyond some bruises, there was nothing. Which really only left one possibility.
Shoving Tony’s shirt up awkwardly – part of him mused on what Tony would say if he could see what was happening – he took in the arc reactor. It was glowing blue, mostly steady, but even as he watched, something sparked, jolting Tony’s whole body. There was something wrong inside, and Bruce swore quietly, taking several deep breaths before reaching down to feel around the arc reactor, grimacing when a sharp bolt of electricity shot through his fingers.
“JARVIS, please bring up the schematics for the reactor, code Bismuth-Bromine-Nine-Nine-Cesium-Seven. Dummy, please retrieve a spare reactor.” A blue-tinted three-dimensional image of the arc reactor appeared nearby, with sections highlighted indicating detachment points. Dummy whizzed off across the lab now that he had a task to perform.
Bruce’s fingers were gentle as they detached the reactor’s casing. He’d really prefer to do this somewhere other than on the cold floor, but he wasn’t sure that moving Tony was the best plan right now. Without knowing what was causing the sparks, he was worried that any movement might just make things worse.
“Give me his vitals,” he murmured, and they showed up in a brilliant red on is other side. Bruce shivered. “Blue, please,” he murmured, and the numbers instantly changed color. “Thanks,” he muttered, focused on removing the reactor without causing any further problems. Dummy chirped demandingly, having returned with a new reactor clutched carefully in his claws.
Bruce grimaced as the arc reactor came loose, the problem immediately apparent. Beneath the casing, the underside of the reactor had been dented inwards, and a loose wire was strafing across it, occasionally rubbing against the reactor’s wall, resulting in an electrical discharge.
The moment the arc reactor was detached, Tony spasmed, his mouth opening up in a soundless gasp. He remained unconscious, though, his body shuddering as he began to go into cardiac arrest, the numbers that JARVIS was displaying flashing erratically, though thankfully without sound. Moving quickly now, and praying that he didn’t screw this up, Bruce snapped the new reactor into place, making sure nothing was tangled before allowing it to settle. He ignored the trembling in his hands, concerned only with replacing the reactor. Fortunately, Tony had improved upon the original reactor, and connecting the new one was simple and fast.
Once the arc reactor was in, Bruce hovered anxiously, his hands flexing in the air just above Tony’s chest, ready to move if JARVIS told him it wasn’t working. The AI didn’t speak up, which he took as a good sign, though he couldn’t bring himself to stop hovering, not just yet.
It took an indeterminable, painstakingly long time before Tony’s breathing eased, his heart rate subsiding back to normal parameters. Bruce settled onto the floor, but didn’t leave his side, even knowing that he should get the other man on oxygen – his compromised lungs could use the boost right now – afraid that if he turned his back, Tony would never wake up.
One of the bots – Butterfingers, or maybe it was You – nudged him, a couple of blankets thrown haphazardly over its arm, and Bruce took them gratefully, using one to prop Tony’s head up, another to cushion him from the cold floor of the lab, and draped the rest over his legs and stomach, unwilling to cover up the unblinking blue light in Tony’s chest.
He knew that he should probably get up, have JARVIS call one of the others to help him get Tony off the cold floor, but right now, Tony looked small and vulnerable, and Bruce wasn’t sure he could handle anybody else touching the unconscious genius. He compromised by promising himself that he’d call for help if Tony took an unexpected turn for the worse.
“Vitals continue to improve, Doctor Banner,” JARVIS spoke up, his tone modulated so as to not startle Bruce. He jumped anyhow, tense as one of Clint’s bowstrings as he waited for Tony to wake up, or shift, or do something other than lie there helplessly, his skin pale and bloodless and his breathing soft but steady.
It was probably only twenty minutes – though it seemed like much, much longer – before dark eyes were blinking open, staring blankly upwards at the lab’s ceilings. “’M alive,” he mumbled, his throat scratchy. He swallowed hard, then twisted over onto one side as he started coughing, the sound horrible and grating.
Bruce reached out and touched his shoulder, not entirely surprised when Tony twisted away from him, his legs easily kicking off the blankets as he struggled to catch his breath, his hand covering the arc reactor in his chest protectively. He blinked owlishly at Bruce, who stayed where he was, his hands resting easily on his legs. “I’m going to get you some water, okay?” he asked.
Tony nodded, struggling to sit up, grimacing. Clearing his throat, he spoke up. “Please tell me nobody kissed me,” he joked weakly. Bruce hummed noncommittally as he filled an empty coffee mug with tap water, gently pushing Dummy’s arm out of the way when the bot tried to help by dumping in used coffee grounds from somewhere. “Thank you, Dummy,” he said quietly, taking the grounds from the bot when he persisted, “but Tony needs just plain water right now. You can make him a smoothie later, okay?” he promised.
Dummy seemed to consider that for a moment before beeping in agreement and heading over to the blender. Bruce grimaced in sympathy, retreating back across the lab towards Tony, who had managed to haul himself up onto a lab stool and was resting his head on his arms, watching him.
“Well?” he demanded, even as he accepted the glass of water from Bruce and took several careful swallows.
A slow, tired grin tugged at Bruce’s lips. “Well, what?” he asked lightly. Tony was okay; there would be plenty of time for scolding him later.
Tony pouted at him. “You know what,” he insisted, twisting around on his stool and presenting Bruce with his back. It could have been seen as a brush-off – and probably would have been by anybody else – but Bruce had hung around Tony often enough to know that it was just as much an invitation as a dismissal. Shuffling forward, he leaned his weight against Tony’s back, his forehead pressed between the other man’s shoulders.
“You scared me, Tony,” he admitted. “I had to ask where you were, and JARVIS couldn’t tell me, only that you needed my help.”
The muscles in Tony’s back shifted as he sketched out vague images on the surface of the work table. “I’m sorry,” he offered up quietly after a moment.
Bruce sighed, his eyes closing. “I know you are, Tony,” he replied wearily. The other words hung unspoken between them, and Bruce let the silence drawn out for several moments before sighing and moving away, snagging a nearby stool and moving it so that he could sit next to Tony. “What happened?” he asked at last, wondering if Tony would give him a straight answer. He’d never seen anybody as skilled at deflection as the man sitting next to him. Even Natasha was impressed, though she’d never admit it.
Tony frowned, looking down at his hands. “A spark,” he mumbled. Bruce just waited, and eventually, brown eyes lifted to meet his. “It wasn’t a big deal,” he shrugged. “I mean, I knew the connection was having problems, and I was going to fix it, but then we got called out, and there just wasn’t time. And even then, it was mostly just an annoyance, but one of those stupid bots got in a lucky shot.”
Over in corner, You and Butterfingers raised their heads, and Tony rolled his eyes. “Not you two,” he told them. “Shouldn’t you be cleaning or something?” he demanded. Butterfingers gave a whir of agreement and trundled over to another workspace. You rolled over to Dummy, the two bots talking to each other out loud. Bruce wondered idly if they had to talk that way, or if they did it for Tony’s benefit, but he dismissed it as unimportant. He’d ask later, maybe.
“So it got in a lucky shot,” Bruce supplied, bringing them both back on track. “And when did you realize it was serious?” He could feel the Hulk shifting in the back of his mind, angry at Tony for taking stupid risks with his life. If he had just told somebody, they could have at least had a replacement ready on site.
Tony sighed. “Not until I made it back here and removed the armor,” he admitted. “I didn’t even know what hit me.” He glanced at Bruce with a chagrined grimace. “I’m sorry?” he offered up, though it was more question than statement.
Bruce just sighed, holding his hands out expectantly. Tony stared at them for a moment, and then dropped his own hands, allowing Bruce to check on the reactor. When he was satisfied that it was settled and sealed properly, Bruce sat back, though he kept his hand on the reactor, as if to feel the sharp sting of the reactor if it sparked again.
“Don’t scare me like that, all right?” he asked.
Tony’s hand reached up, lacing their fingers together so that their hands were linked over the reactor that protected his heart.
“If I promise not to, will you kiss me?” Tony asked teasingly.
Bruce considered that for a moment, then pulled his hand away. Tony let him, and he headed for the door, intent on sleeping for the next twelve hours or so.
Pausing at the doorway, he glanced back. “Who’s to say I didn’t?” he asked as lightly as he was able. “After all, it’s not like you were awake to know any different, now were you?”
He walked away, leaving a dumbfounded Tony staring after him. As the elevator closed behind him, Tony’s startled, “Banner!!!!!” echoed down the hall after him.
Maybe next time, Tony would reconsider flying off on his own.
And today, maybe was good enough.