The nightmare was a familiar one and he woke groping at the skin of his shoulders and chest, or at least trying to. This time there were hands gripping both his arms, and two voices talking at him, and he realized after a moment they were telling him to stop. For a moment it felt like the mask on his face was suffocating him, and he wanted to reach for it and pull it off, but the two pairs of hands on his wrists had a good grip.
It was Pepper’s voice, and she sounded alarmed, and he realized that was who had hold of his right wrist, and if Pepper was telling him to do something, he should try to listen.
“If you don’t start breathing, they’re going to come in here and put you back on the ventilator,” Bruce warned, and Tony realized that even though his grip was as tight as Pepper’s, one thumb was still rubbing soothing strokes along the inside of his wrist.
He took a shaky, painful breath and opened his eyes to find Bruce’s face over his, watching him intently.
“You’re going to set off the alarms on the monitors if your oxygen saturation gets any lower,” he said quietly, his voice steady. “Take some nice, deep breaths. Calm down.”
Pepper let go of his wrist. Bruce’s grip loosened, but his fingers were still resting against Tony’s skin. Tony glanced over at Pepper; she was still in her business suit from work.
“I brought you your goodies,” she said.
He nodded and attempted a thumbs-up.
“You okay now?”
He took another deep breath; it burned his lungs and throat but it calmed the panicked feeling of not enough air.
“Yeah. I’m okay.”
Bruce had the Styrofoam cup with the straw and was holding it up, lifting the mask to let him have a drink. The cold water felt blissfully fresh against his raw throat and he gave Bruce a dirty look when he pulled the cup away and replaced the mask.
“Don’t glare at me like that. You do need to breathe, you know.”
Pepper scowled. “That’s no way to talk to the guy that’s been sitting in that chair for the better part of four days now and won’t leave you except to get a shower and change clothes once a day.”
Tony looked over at Bruce, who shrugged and ran his fingers down Tony’s wrist and across the palm of his hand.
“Don’t worry about it. What was that? Nightmare?”
“Yeah. The usual. Don’t worry about it.”
Pepper shook her head. “Tony, if he’s going to try to take care of you and get you out of here, you might as well at least let him know what he’s dealing with. I think he has some idea anyway. Was this one of the usual ones?”
“Well, you’re going to keep having them as long as you’re here, because you know hospitals trigger them, so at least tell him so he can help calm you down. I can’t stay… unfortunately, Stark Industries will run itself without you, but not without me.”
He made a face at her. She smiled and kissed him on the forehead.
“There’s a whole bag of candy and snacks. Bruce has it hidden in his stuff. If you’re nice, he might give you some. I’ll come back tomorrow after work, okay?”
Tony waited, hearing the door close behind her and expecting Bruce to say something.
“You’re not going to ask?”
“I figure you’ll tell me if you want to,” Bruce said, leaning back in his chair and absently tracing Tony’s fingers with his own as if he didn’t realize he was doing it. “Pepper said ‘one of the usual ones’.”
“Yeah. Pops up occasionally.”
“You’re not going to ask.”
“Do you want me to?”
Tony looked away. “Maybe.”
Bruce shook his head. “You’re a pain in the ass. Start talking.”
“My dad was drunk and he was on his way back to the lab with a big pot of coffee. Probably trying to sober up enough to finish a project on schedule, or just… you know. Being like I am sometimes. With the whole not-sleeping-thing.”
“Yeah. I’d noticed that.”
“Well, I got under his feet and he got pissed and he poured the whole pot of coffee on me.”
“Hot enough to burn you.”
“Second-degree burns all over my shoulders and my chest and my back. That’s not the part that shows up in the nightmare, though.”
“What part is that?”
“The part where I was in the emergency room, and the nurse had left and I was alone, sitting on the bed, and they’d given me something for pain, so I was sort of in and out of it.”
“Where was your father?”
“Probably upstairs writing a couple of very large checks,” Tony muttered. “Funny enough… my childhood misfortunes always seemed to coincide with my father’s large charitable donations to the hospital.”
“Paying them off not to report it to Child Protective Services.”
“Like Child Protective Services would’ve done anything anyway. You think they wanted to take on my dad’s team of lawyers?”
“You were in the emergency room.”
“Yeah,” Tony said. “And I was pretty out of it… and I reached up and there was a strip of white skin just sort of hanging off my shoulder from where the blisters had started to peel, and I picked at it for a minute, and a big strip of the blister just peeled right off. And I freaked. Completely freaked. I thought my skin was coming off. I thought it was all going to come off and I was going to be this pink skinless monster. I guess I screamed… until the nurses came in and I got more medication and when I woke up I was in the burn unit and I was all nice and bandaged up.”
“How long did you spend in the hospital that time?” Bruce asked.
“I don’t remember. Kids heal fast.”
Bruce sighed and pressed his fingertips firmly against Tony’s palm.
“How old were you?”
Tony felt Bruce’s hand clench into a fist and glanced up at him. “You’re not going to start turning green, are you?”
“If your father was somewhere around here, I might,” Bruce muttered. “No, I’m not. I’m fine. Are you okay? You need some more pain medication? It’d help you go back to sleep.”
“I don’t think I want to go back to sleep quite yet,” Tony said. “You know, S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t have any right to order you to sit there for days at a time.”
“They didn’t. They just ordered me to monitor your medical treatment and keep them updated.”
“So who ordered you to stay here with me?”
The corner of Bruce’s mouth turned up. “Nobody. I just… didn’t want you to be alone, and they’re all too afraid to throw me out.”
Bruce’s hand uncurled and his fingers ran up Tony’s wrist to the edge of the bandages. “How do your arms feel? They said they weren’t too bad. It looks like the suit breached at one of the torso joints…”
Tony lifted and flexed his arms. “Actually, they feel pretty good. My chest hurts like hell.”
“Well, that’s where the worst burn is.”
“I want the bandages off my arms.”
Bruce frowned. “I don’t think…”
“Look, just take them off, and if anyone yells you can tell them I did it and you were afraid to stop me.”
Bruce chuckled and leaned over, finding the edge of the gauze and gently unwinding it, his motions slow and steady. Tony held his breath, but although the skin under the gauze prickled as it was pulled away and then felt a sudden chill from the exposure to the air, it didn’t hurt. He glanced down at his right arm as Bruce moved to the other side of the bed and started unwrapping his left one.
“They look pretty good,” Tony said.
“How do they feel?”
“No pain. Skin’s just really sensitive.”
Bruce nodded as he returned to his chair. “It’s still probably a little raw. Is this…”
He very carefully ran a finger over the pink skin on the back of Tony’s arm. Tony shivered, but didn’t wince.
“Doesn’t hurt. Just… like I said. Sensitive. No… I didn’t mean you should stop.”
Bruce smiled and sat back and continued tracing over Tony’s exposed arm with his fingertips.
“You don’t have to keep…”
“Every time I touch you, your oxygen saturation goes up and your heart rate goes down,” Bruce said, glancing up at the monitor. “So I’m assuming that means you don’t mind.”
“No. I don’t mind. It’s…”
“I know. If you’re not going to go back to sleep, at least lay back and try to rest a little, okay? The burn team is going to be here bright and early and they’re going to haul you off for a while and they won’t let me go with you because I’m not a burn specialist, so get some rest while you can.”
“They won’t let you go with me?”
“No, but I promise I’ll be sitting right here when they bring you back. That’s the best I can do, okay?”
Tony nodded. He didn’t plan to close his eyes but they seemed to slide closed anyway, and he found himself lulled by the steady stroking of Bruce’s fingers over his skin into a dreamless, quiet doze.
His sleep was abruptly interrupted by a pair of nurses who arrived at what seemed an ungodly early hour of morning and informed him they were taking him to the burn treatment center to examine and clean and re-dress his injuries. He tried to protest and be difficult and insist that Bruce come with him or that they come back later or that he would pay them to go away, but both of them steadfastly ignored him and wheeled him away, still arguing. Bruce didn’t even bother to try; this wasn’t the first time he’d seen these two and he already knew they didn’t want to hear anything he had to say. Besides, they were technically right… not only was he not a burn specialist; he wasn’t even a medical doctor, so he didn’t really have a very strong ground to argue on.
He occupied himself with typing back and forth to JARVIS about suit design and whether the scans of the suit to determine which materials had allowed the breach in its protective integrity. The two nurses returned later (he wasn’t sure how much later; he was trying not to look at the clock), seeming pleased as they hoisted Tony back into his bed with professional ease that came from endless practice, smooth motions intended to disturb the person as little as possible. One of them occupied himself with hooking everything back up to the room monitors while the other talked in Bruce’s general direction while checking the fresh white bandages over Tony’s chest and torso.
“Everything looks really good. We left the bandages off his arms, since he wouldn’t let us put them back on… these other ones are healing well. They weren’t as bad as they looked when he came in… a few more days and we can probably discharge him from burn care. The respiratory specialists will have to give their OK on his lungs before he can go anywhere, though.”
“Yeah,” Bruce said absently. He was half listening and half watching Tony, whose face was white and expressionless and focused on the ceiling. “Good. Thanks. You guys can go now.”
The two nurses glanced at each other, shrugged, and departed. The door had barely shut behind them when Tony’s hand shot out and closed tightly around Bruce’s. Bruce squeezed back, frowning.
“You okay? I was waiting for them to get out of here.”
Tony’s eyes drifted from the ceiling toward Bruce’s face. “I really, really don’t like all these people touching me. I don’t like it at all. It’s… fucked up.”
“Hey. It’s okay. Nobody likes it. Well, maybe a few people with weird medical kinks, but other than that…”
“I knew a girl who liked enemas once,” Tony said.
“Is this a true story or the beginning of a joke?”
“Neither. Do you know any good jokes about girls who like enemas?”
“No. I don’t think I know any good jokes, period,” Bruce said. Tony still had a solid grip on one hand, but the other was running steadily from his shoulder to his wrist and back, very lightly over the still-healing skin, and Tony breathed and shifted into the touch as some of the color started to come back to his face.
“What do you need?”
“Some really cold water. And… do you think you could make the other guys not show up today?”
“I’ll be back in two minutes.”
He was back in his chair in two minutes, although he was still one-handed texting someone, probably Fury, as he sat down with a cup of ice water in his other hand.
“Hi,” Tony said.
Bruce raised an eyebrow. “Do you do this to everyone?”
“Umm… no, actually. Seems to just be you.”
“I see. How’s your breathing?”
“Not too bad, actually. I mean, it hurts, but other than when I woke up earlier… it’s okay.”
“I’m going to turn down the percentage of oxygen you’re getting,” he said. “It’s at 100% right now and the sooner you can get back to room air, the sooner you can go home.”
“Room air’s 22%.”
“Yes, I know that, Tony.”
Bruce adjusted something behind his head. “Tell me if you start to feel out of breath. I only turned it down a little.”
“I promise I’ll start complaining immediately.”
“I’m sure you will.”
They sat quietly for a long time, since nothing seemed to require discussion. Bruce was typing away at his laptop with one hand, and Tony was absently trying to decide whether he liked Bruce’s fingertips or the backs of his knuckles or the palm of his hand running over his arm and his hand.
“What did Pepper bring me?” he asked finally.
“Every kind of snack on the planet. What do you want?”
“Are there any mints?”
“Yeah. The red and white ones. You want one?”
“I want about ten of them.”
“You can have one,” Bruce said, reaching into his bag. “If you choke on it, I’m pretending I have no idea where you got it.”
“How’d you get rid of the others for the day?”
“I told Fury you needed to sleep and they tend to be disruptive. So he called them all into some kind of training session… I’m sure it’s something about paperwork, since he’s always bitching about ours… although it’s funny; no one ever makes Thor fill out any paperwork.”
“So they’re busy for the day,” Tony said, savoring the hard candy against the inside of his cheek.
“Yup. Although I’m sure they’ll insist on coming in tomorrow.”
Tony turned his head to watch the fingers that were stroking the back of his hand. Bruce glanced at him.
“You want me to stop?”
“I know you said you didn’t like those people touching you…”
“That’s not… you’re different.”
“Because it feels nice when you touch me. I mean… umm, consider that the painkillers talking, right? Because…”
Bruce rolled his eyes. “If it didn’t feel nice touching you, do you think I’d still be doing it?”
“The correct answer is ‘no’, Tony.”
“I think you need more pain medication.”
Tony frowned. “Why? I’m doing all right. I’m behaving myself.”
“Yeah, but if they give you more pain medication you’ll stop asking me stupid questions and making things difficult when they don’t have to be.”
“I can do that without more pain medication.”
“Well, then, do that.”
Tony slumped back into his pillow and decided he’d just listen to Bruce and not make things difficult when they didn’t have to be. At least at this exact moment, despite where he was and how much he didn’t want to be there, everything had oddly become very simple.