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Tony generally didn’t have much respect for robots as opponents, particularly large, heavily-armored, slow-moving robots like the one determinedly rumbling down the street, knocking cars out of the way like chess pieces off a board. First of all, he was quite confident that the new explosive cartridges that his suit could now fire at extended range could eventually handle the armor or at the very least cripple the thing’s tank treads. Second of all, large and slow-moving objects didn’t generally stand much of a chance of catching up with him. And third and probably most relevant, he knew the Hulk was currently pounding his way down 5th Avenue and would very shortly be picking the thing up and turning it a smoking heap of road debris.

“How far out is the Hulk?” he asked.

Clint’s voice came through the team’s headsets. “Less than two minutes. Assuming he doesn’t get distracted. The thing seems to be following you, though, so it’s not doing much harm besides smashing a hell of a lot of cars. At least everyone seems to have plenty of time to get out of the cars first. Just don’t get too far away, or it might lock on a new target it has a chance of catching.”

“What exactly was their plan with these things?” Natasha asked. “Because the one on the other end of town didn’t hold up to Thor’s hammer very well. It did fire some kind of flame thrower, but apparently if you play with lightning for a hobby, fire doesn’t do much. It did scorch his new cape, though. He’s very unhappy about that.”

“Where the hell is Bruce?” Tony demanded, turning around as he hovered to look down at the robot. “This thing is racking up a price tag, if nothing else, and we’re going to hear about it from…”

The thing made a booming belch of a noise, and Tony swerved in midair as something black and tarry splattered across the front of his suit, blocking his vision. He tried to steady himself, but the suit had become sluggish and unresponsive.

“JARVIS! What the hell is this?”

“I don’t know, sir, but it seems to contain an extremely heavy metal component and it’s putting considerable strain on the thrusters.”

“Fuck… I can’t see anything.”

“All the cameras are covered with…”

Suddenly, there was a much bigger problem, because through the black tarry film he could see a flash of red and realized it was attached to him. The stuff was on fire. The thing had fucking fired some kind of heavy-metal-doped napalm at him.

He had just enough time to realize this before the screen in front of him began flashing red warnings, and alarms began to ring in his ears. Whatever the stuff was, it was burning really, really hot, and even through the suit the heat was starting to become suffocating.

“Tony, why the hell are you on fire?” Clint’s voice demanded.

“Little help?” he called, but he could tell from the dead sound of his microphone that the electronics were shot, and a moment later he realized why, because now the heat wasn’t just suffocating; it was a searing pain that flared across his body, and his next breath would have been an emergency call that his suit was breached, but instead, it was a lungful of thick, heavy black smoke that instantly closed up his throat as it burned into his chest.

“Sir, we’re losing altitude rapidly…” JARVIS managed to warn, but then his voice was cut off as well.

There was a violent thud against his body and then another one that sounded like smashing concrete, and even fighting for air he recognized the near-crushing grip as the Hulk’s massive arms. At least the fall wasn’t going to kill him, he thought dizzily, just before the lack of air shut his brain off.

 

 

 

He woke to the feeling of choking and instinctively tried to grab for whatever was shoved down his throat, but the motion sent pain flaring up his arms, and at the same time, someone else’s hands caught his wrists.

“I think you need that,” a familiar voice said.

He realized he could breathe, although every breath felt like he was being stabbed in the chest, and he blinked and tried to rub his eyes, but there was that pain in his arms again, and the hands on his wrists again.

“Stop moving.”

He blinked a few more times and found himself looking up at a white ceiling and white walls, and as his eyes moved they found a metal IV stand with several bags hanging from it on one side, and Bruce on the other side, sitting in one chair with his feet propped on the other and a laptop on his lap. He tried to take stock of the situation; even through the fog of drugs his chest and arms were on fire, scalding through his thoughts with unrelenting pain, and the tube down his throat kept forcing air into his chest despite the jagged shards of agony that flared through him every time it did.

Bruce frowned as he watched him, then leaned over and jabbed his thumb into the red button beside the bed. A moment later, he heard a door open.

“Yes, Dr. Banner?”

“Mr. Stark is awake and I think he needs more pain medicine.”

Tony didn’t want to look at the nurse, so he looked at Bruce instead while the man did something with one of the bags on the IV stand.

“That should help. If he needs anything else, buzz us again.”

The door closed. Bruce chuckled. “Someone from S.H.I.E.L.D. came up with some bogus M.D. credits for me. They think I’m a medical doctor. I’m your personal physician. Does that make you nervous?”

Tony rolled his eyes, but then the drugs in the IV hit him like a brick, and suddenly the pain seemed just as intense, but much farther away, as if it belonged to somebody else. He flexed his fingers and found that they, at least, moved without too much discomfort; the gloves on the suit must have remained intact. He wondered if there was a pen somewhere, and tried to mime writing something. Bruce chuckled.

“Here…”

There was a pen in his hand.

“You can’t sit up, though. I’ll put the paper under the pen.”

Tony rolled his eyes again, since that seemed to be pretty much the only thing he could do at the moment; people had trouble reading his writing when he was sober and could see what he was doing. Nonetheless, he attempted to scribble something, which Bruce studied carefully.

“Three days, if you’re asking how long you’ve been here. The others have been in to see you, but they keep making them leave. I get to stay because nobody wants to argue with the guys from S.H.I.E.L.D. when they show up. That, and nobody wants to piss you off too much… something about you donating a couple of millions of dollars in imaging equipment last year…”

Tony scribbled something else.

“Have I been here for three days? Pretty much, yeah. JARVIS is accessing my laptop remotely and we’re working on some things. He’s supposed to be analyzing the molecular content of whatever that thing fired at you. There’s a chunk of it over there in the corner, by the way… not that you can tell, after what Thor and the Hulk did to it, but Thor thought it might cheer you up.”

Only Thor would think that would cheer him up, Tony thought. He scribbled again.

 “When are they letting you out? I think it’ll be a few more days at least,” Thor said. “They said your burns aren’t severe… the suit protected you… but your skin blistered enough to be vulnerable to infection until it starts to heal over, and you breathed in some toxic chemicals from whatever was in that stuff while it was burning, or from the actual suit burning… JARVIS is supposed to figure out whether any of the toxic components came from the suit material so we can make sure the next model…

Tony waved his hand; he got the idea. His skin was scalded and raw, and his lungs were a mess, and he was going to be stuck here for longer than he liked.

“Respiratory therapist and burn specialist who were here earlier said you should recover completely,” Bruce said.

I always do, Tony thought, staring at the ceiling.  

“You know, you’ve had a lot of hospital admissions,” Bruce said.

Tony glanced over at him and frowned.

“I wasn’t reading them. Just that S.H.I.E.L.D. uploaded me all your medical records when they set me in here and told me to play doctor. I didn’t read anything that isn’t from this particular hospital stay… but it was hard to miss the list of other ones.”

Tony scribbled on the paper. Bruce looked down at it.

“Kid stuff, huh? You know, I did notice that the cause of admission on one of them was listed as ‘spiral fracture of the humerus’. How’d you manage that?”

He tapped the paper.

“Kid stuff?” Bruce repeated, raising his eyebrows. “You know, a spiral fracture only occurs when an excessive amount of torsion is exerted on the bone. Usually only happens in children when someone yanks on or twists their arm. Had to yank or twist really hard, too… the humerus is the strongest bone in your arm. That type of fracture in a child is considered extremely suspicious of child abuse.”

Tony looked at the ceiling. Bruce shrugged.

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure that one out, Tony. Should I bother to guess how many of the rest of those ‘kid stuff’ hospital admissions were your dad’s handiwork?”

Tony fumbled for the pen, but couldn’t get a grasp on it with his hand shaking like it was. Suddenly there was a hand on top of his own, pressing it down gently.

“Don’t,” Bruce said. “I’m sorry. I’ll leave it alone. I promise. I just… it pissed me off. Reading that and knowing somebody hurt you that many times. I shouldn’t have said anything. I won’t mention it again, all right?”

Tony nodded, but moving his head just made the tube down his throat even more torturously uncomfortable, and he tapped Bruce’s arm and motioned to the tube. Bruce glanced at the monitor on the wall over Tony’s head.

“Your oxygen saturation has been good since you started waking up. Since you’re conscious, I don’t see why they couldn’t take it out and just try you on an oxygen mask instead… but I’m warning you, if I’m wrong and the oxygen mask isn’t enough, they’re going to sedate you and shove that tube back in there.”

Tony gave him a thumbs-up.

“All right,” Bruce said, not sounding tremendously sure of himself. He pushed the button again, and this time a different nurse came in. This one was older, with a warm face, and she smiled at Tony.

“It’s good to see you awake, Mr. Stark. Dr. Banner, what can I help with?”

“Mr. Stark’s oxygen saturation has been pretty consistently good since he woke up. Do the respiratory people think we could try extubating him?”

“I’ll ask them,” she said. “It would be a lot more comfortable, wouldn’t it?”

Her tone was sympathetic, and Tony thought to himself that she was one of the kind of nurses he had always hoped would come into the emergency room to take care of him when he was there, one of the ones who would be gentle with him and not ask him questions he couldn’t answer, even though her eyes said she already knew.

She returned a few minutes later with one of the respiratory specialists; apparently when someone paged a doctor with a question about Mr. Stark, they responded without delay. The younger woman in her white coat pulled her stethoscope out and pressed it to various spots on his chest, listening intently while her eyes watched the monitor.

“I’m not sure I’d want to extubate him yet… damaged lungs can take a bad turn unexpectedly if they start filling up with fluid… but he’s a pretty healthy guy overall and we’re keeping a pretty close eye on him, so it should be OK. You want me to do it?”

Bruce glanced at Tony, who tried to give him his most desperately pleading look. He knew what this part was like.

“Considering the burns to his throat, do you think we could give him something before we do this?”

“Sure. I can get something that’ll put him under for about five to ten minutes. It’s not a painkiller…. Just a short-acting anesthetic.”

“That should work,” Bruce said, glancing at Tony, who gave him a quick nod.

The young doctor was back shortly, followed by a nurse wheeling a tray of some sort of equipment Tony couldn’t get a proper look at without raising his head. He must have looked slightly panicked, because the doctor patted him on the shoulder.

“You won’t know anything that’s going on for about five or ten minutes. You won’t be completely asleep, but I’ll make sure you don’t know what we’re up to. When you wake up, hopefully, that tube will be gone. If it’s still there, it means you weren’t getting enough oxygen without it and we had to put it back in. Any questions?”

He shook his head.

He suddenly realized he did have a question… had Bruce just grabbed his hand? But it was too late to ask.

 

 

 

He got an answer to his question when he woke and yes, Bruce’s hand was still on his, and the stupid tube was gone, even though his throat was on fire, and there was a mask over his nose and mouth, but that was definitely better than the tube. Bruce was watching his face intently, and Tony almost reached for the pen before he remembered he could talk again.

“Hi.”

“You all right?” Bruce asked.

“Fantastic,” he rasped.

Bruce chuckled. “You’ve looked better. And that’s a pretty high concentration of oxygen, so don’t start taking off the mask.”

“Gotcha.”

“How do you feel?”

“Throat hurts.”

“Yeah, I’m sure it does. The nurse was going to bring some water and some ice chips. I’ll go see what happened to it… don’t go anywhere.”

“Ha ha.”

Bruce was back a minute later with two Styrofoam cups, one with a straw in it. He pushed the door closed with his elbow and sat back down in his chair.

“Hi.”

“This one’s your ice water. This one’s my coffee,” Bruce said.

“Can I get iced coffee?”

Bruce snorted. “You’re lucky you’re off the ventilator. Don’t push your luck.”

He lifted the mask long enough for Tony to get as much water as he could before Bruce took it away, then settled back down and picked up his laptop again, propping his feet back up on the spare chair.

“JARVIS says there wasn’t anything in the stuff they used on you that should have any long-term toxicity. That should make the real doctors feel better.”

He pulled out his cell phone and scowled at it. “What? Oh. Great. The rest of the team is downstairs and they’re asking to come up, but the front desk is throwing a hissy-fit because it’s not visiting hours and you’re not supposed to have four visitors at once. Do you want company or not?”

Tony considered it for a moment; the team might be a nice distraction as long as they weren’t here forever, and he’d learned long ago from previous hospital stays that if you pretended to fall asleep, the nurses would make your unwanted visitors go away.

“Sure.”

“Okay. Then I’ll just go use the phone at the nurses’ station and remind the front desk that Mr. Stark may not approve of them hassling his friends. It’s handy being a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, isn’t it?”

“Sometimes.”

Bruce set his laptop aside and stepped out into the hall. He was gone longer than Tony expected, and when the door opened again, it wasn’t Bruce, but Thor, followed by Steve and Natasha and Clint, who milled around for a moment and all said things at the same time before Natasha claimed one chair and Clint perched on the back of the other one and Steve settled on the windowsill and Thor continued wandering around the room and inspecting the medical equipment with obvious curiosity.

“Don’t let him touch anything,” Natasha said, poking Clint’s leg.

“Shit. If the god wants to touch stuff, I’m not stopping him. Hey, Tony. You look better without the machine.”

“How are you feeling?” Steve asked.

Tony shrugged. If they didn’t figure out he could talk again, he could get away without having to say anything.

“Enjoying the food?” Clint asked.

“How was he supposed to enjoy the food with a tube down his throat?” Natasha asked.

Clint shrugged. “I dunno. Just seems like when you visit someone in the hospital you’re supposed to make some kind of comment about the food. Isn’t that the general rule?”

Steve chuckled. “I think that was a rule when I was a kid.”

“Is the food here unsatisfactory?” Thor asked, frowning. “We should go and procure some proper food for our friend...”

Somehow, Bruce had managed to slip in between the others without drawing any attention to himself until he was elbowing Clint off his chair and sitting down.

“Hi,” Tony said, then winced, realizing he’d given himself away. Fortunately, although Bruce gave him an odd look, the rest of the team seemed too busy discussing food-related issues to notice.

“How many times are you going to say ‘hi’ to me today?” he asked.

“Umm…”

“Never mind. You want some more water?”

“So, when does he get out of here?” Clint asked.

Bruce shrugged. “Few days. Not sure. Depends on whether he can behave himself when he gets home and rest like he’s supposed to instead of playing in his lab.”

“Well, you know that’s not going to happen,” Natasha said.

“You’d have to lock him in his room and convince JARVIS not to let him out,” Clint agreed.

Bruce glanced at Tony. “I don’t know. I think he might be willing to promise to behave, just to get out of here.”

“I would, if I were him,” Thor said, wrinkling his nose. “This place has a terrible smell.”

 “It smells like sick people,” Clint said, shifting uneasily on his feet, and Tony wondered exactly how many times Clint and Natasha had ended up where he was; he’d seen reports on missions where both of them had had to be “retrieved” from “compromised situations” and although he hadn’t read the details, he’d gotten the idea that this meant it had been a rescue operation. He could see the scars on Clint’s arms, but Clint was pretty well known for apparently trying to get hurt; Tony wondered if Natasha’s habit of wearing pants and long sleeves hid the kind of scars Clint didn’t mind displaying, or worse ones.

“Where are the presents?” Thor asked.

“Oh, right,” Steve said, holding up the paper grocery bag sitting by his feet. He reached in and pulled out Tony’s tablet and laptop. “We thought you might want these. And I brought you some books, although I’ve been informed…” (he shot a dirty look at Clint) “that people don’t actually read books anymore. And JARVIS loaded a bunch of movies on the tablet for you to watch. And Pepper sent this.”

He held out his hand, displaying a small bird figurine made of solid blue glass.

“She said you might like to have it.”

Bruce took it from him and set it on the table beside the bed.

“She said she would have come, but she’s too busy keeping the rest of us and your robots from destroying the building,” Thor said.

Tony smiled to himself and shook his head. The bird meant Pepper would show up later, when the room wasn’t full of noisy teammates, and she would smuggle in a big bag of assorted candy and treats, because she knew what really kept Tony happy, and she’d been playing this game with him for years now, and they had it basically down to a science, whether he was in the hospital or stuck inside one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s meeting or research or decontamination facilities or somewhere else he didn’t want to be. She was a professional at it, regardless of who she had to threaten, bribe, sweet-talk, or lie to in order to get it to him. Fury had finally given up and started letting him bring food to official meetings in violation of the rules, just because he knew Pepper would manage to get him some anyway.

Eventually, Bruce managed to quietly shoo the rest of the team out, muttering about germs and burn patients and Tony being supposed to be resting and whatever else he had to say to get them moving toward the door, and they drifted out, promising to come back tomorrow.

“That depends on whether you decide to let them,” Bruce said, closing the door behind them. “I can always call Fury and have him keep them all busy for a day or two with something.”

He settled back in his chair and retrieved his laptop.

“Hi,” Tony said, before he could not say it. Bruce just raised an eyebrow.

“Hi. Is this a habit, or are you developing a tic?”

Tony shrugged and looked at the ceiling again. “Is there more water?”

“Your cup is empty. I can go get you some more.”

“Please.”

“Only deal… you have to promise not to say ‘hi’ as soon as I sit back down.”

“Deal.”

Of course, he did it anyway. He didn’t mean to; his mouth had already put the word out before his brain reminded it to shut up. Bruce just smiled and held out the cup with the straw, lifting the oxygen mask.

“You’re nuts, you know that?”

Tony nodded. “I’ve been told that.”

Bruce made sure the mask was back in place before returning to whatever he’d been looking at on his laptop. Tony found himself yawning.

“What time is it?”

“Seven.”

“In the morning or the evening?”

“Evening.”

“Oh.”

“Go to sleep, Tony.”

“OK.”

He closed his eyes. Part of his brain registered the fact that Bruce had moved to rest his free hand over Tony’s where it lay on the bed and rub absent fingers soothingly over the unburned skin.

“Do you ever have nightmares about all the other times you were in the hospital? When you were a kid?” he asked quietly.

“Not as long as I have a few drinks before bed,” Tony murmured.

“Yeah, well… hopefully the pain medication will work too. But if you wake up and I’m sitting here snoring in the chair, just wake me up, all right?”

Tony nodded sleepily. “I will.”

Bruce’s fingers were still rubbing over the back of his hand. Tony flipped his wrist, and after a moment of hesitation, Bruce’s fingers slid across his palm and wrapped between his own, squeezing them lightly.

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“OK.”

“Well, I figure the only way to make you stop saying ‘hi’ to me is just not to leave.”

“Works for me,” Tony muttered.

He wasn’t sure if Bruce heard him, but he figured he did, because before he drifted off completely he felt him give his hand another quick squeeze.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

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.

“Tony, stop!”

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.”

“Fuck you.”

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?”

Tony nodded.

“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.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“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?”

“Six.”

“Fuck.”

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.”

“Oh.”

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.”

“Sorry.”

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?”

“No.”

“I know you said you didn’t like those people touching you…”

“That’s not… you’re different.”

“Why’s that?”

“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?”

“Umm…”

“The correct answer is ‘no’, Tony.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“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.

Chapter Text

 

 

Tony turned off the TV and flipped the remote across the room in disgust.

“What is this crap?”

“Basic cable,” Bruce said. “There’s movies on your tablet.”

“I can’t sit up straight enough to hold that stupid thing and watch movies on it,” he complained.

Bruce smiled as he typed, his face illuminated in the darkened room by the glow from his computer screen. “I can get whatever you want on my laptop. It’s a bigger screen and you don’t have to hold it. What do you want to watch?”

“I don’t know. Pick something. I’m bored out of my skull.”

Bruce shrugged and sent a message off to JARVIS to pick out a movie that the AI knew Tony liked and load it to his laptop. He pulled the rolling table over to the edge of the bed and arranged the laptop on it. Tony scowled.

“The bed doesn’t tilt up enough. And they didn’t give me any damn pillows.”

Bruce sighed. “I’m thinking about having them give you more pain medication just to shut you up. Here…”

His chair was already against the bed, so he grabbed the few flat pillows that were on the bed and propped them against his shoulder before hooking an arm behind Tony’s back and easing him over. Tony muttered, but leaned back and had to admit that this did put him in a much better position for watching the laptop screen. That, and Bruce’s arm was still resting lightly across his lower back.

“Why are…”

“Is this going to be one of those questions you really don’t need to ask right now?”

“Yes,” Tony said.

“Then be quiet and watch the movie. Do you want me to move my arm?”

“No. It’s comfortable.”

“Oh, something you’re not going to complain about?”

“I’m sure I can think of something else to complain about.”

“Just watch the movie and stop being a pain in the ass.”

 

 

The movie wasn’t halfway over before Tony had dozed off against Bruce’s shoulder. Bruce shut it off and went back to what he’d been working on, typing with one hand, since the other one was still stuck behind Tony and he didn’t think it was worth disturbing him just to get it back. He wasn’t sleeping quietly anyway; he shifted uneasily and moved his hands as if to push something away, but a muttered reassurance from Bruce settled him for a few minutes at a time.

Tony woke not knowing for sure if he was awake or still in a different nightmare, and he woke fighting a feeling of suffocation. His hand flew up and yanked at the thing stuck to his face, and he tried to shove himself away from the hands that were on him, more strangers’ hands, more hands that would hurt him.

One of the hands, though, came to rest against his cheek, and the other was against his back, pulling him closer. He felt someone’s forehead butt gently against his own in the darkness, felt curly hair brushing against his face, and when it clicked in his head who was with him, he stopped fighting, but the panic was still flowing and he realized he was shaking.

“Shh,” Bruce said quietly. “You’re fine. Everything’s fine.”

Tony tried to nod, but could only press his forehead back against Bruce’s and close his eyes, trying to regain some control. There was a hand rubbing slowly up and down his back in long, soothing strokes, and his other hand was still against Tony’s face, holding him where he was.

“Just breathe. I’ve got you.”

Without the oxygen mask, the air felt uncomfortably thin, but he managed to take a few deep but unsteady breaths, feeling the adrenaline start to drain away. He listened to Bruce’s voice, even and calm, and let himself lean into the hand that was resting against his face. He could feel Bruce’s breath on his other cheek as he spoke, felt the brush of his skin, and then, without warning, lips brushing lightly across his own.

He didn’t have time to contemplate how to react before Bruce’s hand tilted his head slightly and his mouth found Tony’s again, and this time it wasn’t just a quick touch; it was a full-on kiss, gentle but definite. Tony found himself thinking that he wouldn’t have expected a man’s mouth to be soft, and that there was something definitely interesting about the roughness of stubble against his skin, but then Bruce had drawn back and was slipping the oxygen mask back over his face. Tony blinked at him over the mask, bewildered, as Bruce concentrated on fixing the strap Tony had pulled loose.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

Tony shook his head. He wasn’t sure what he was, but he was fairly certain that “okay” wasn’t the right word for it. Bruce frowned and eased him back down onto the bed and propped the pillows behind his head.

“You’re all right. Your oxygen level is coming back up. Just lay back.”

Tony stared at him. Bruce ran his hands up his arms, stroking them gently, but it wasn’t quite having the calming effect that it had before.

“What’s wrong?”

“I have… a problem.”

Bruce looked concerned for a moment, till he caught the redness of Tony’s cheeks in the dark and glanced down his body to the obvious erection the thin hospital gown did absolutely nothing to hide.

“Is that a problem?” he asked, amused.

Tony frowned. “Well…”

Bruce chuckled and went back to what he’d been doing, but after his hands had finished their way up Tony’s arms, they slid across his shoulders and then downward, skirting the bandages over the burns on his chest, trailing across his sides and making him squirm. One warm palm brushed lightly over the bulge beneath the hospital gown, and Tony couldn’t help but shiver, and then Bruce’s fingers were stroking almost absently along the length of his cock through the thin fabric, stopping for a moment to rub a thumb over the head until he could feel dampness against his fingers. Bruce glanced up at him and watched him steadily as he tugged the edge of the hospital gown up, letting the cool air of the room hit Tony’s bare skin, and then slowly wrapped his hand around his cock.

Part of Tony’s brain told him to reach down and slap Bruce’s hand away; another part of it was marveling that this was actually happening; but most of it was rapidly shutting down altogether as Bruce stroked him slowly, steadily, just like his other touches. His hips bucked up into the contact, trying to increase the pace, the friction, but Bruce obviously didn’t intend to be rushed. He seemed quite intent upon his task and even Tony’s increasingly desperate pleas did nothing to distract him from his maddeningly deliberate work.

It turned out that it was worth being patient, though, because the end result was the kind of orgasm that, instead of just a quick wave of release, built up to an edge of desperate near-pain before finally breaking through into seemingly endless pulsing surges that left him gasping and stunned.

When he managed to compose himself enough to look over at Bruce, he was calmly tidying up the mess with a handful of tissues, a hint of a smile on his face, and pulling the sheet and blanket back up to Tony’s shoulders.

“Hi,” he said.

Bruce shook his head. “You’re mentally unstable.”

“Yeah… tell me something I don’t know.”

Bruce walked off to the bathroom and Tony could hear water running, and then he was back, settling back down in his chair and reaching for his laptop.

“You’re just going to…”

Bruce glanced at him. “Why?”

“Shit. I don’t know. I mean, you don’t…”

Bruce’s face flushed slightly. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll step off to the bathroom after you fall asleep again.”

Tony wasn’t quite sure what he was thinking, but some part of his brain seemed to be operating independently.

“That doesn’t seem quite fair.”

Bruce raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“You’ve seen mine. I should get to see yours.”

He heard the words coming out of his mouth and didn’t have time to consider where the hell they had come from, but Bruce chuckled.

“Are you serious?”

“Umm… I think so?”

Bruce shrugged and reached for the button of his pants, giving Tony a sideways glance. “One rule.”

“What?”

“You can’t say ‘hi’ to it.”

Tony snorted and raised his hands. “I swear I won’t.”

“Yeah. Because that would be weird. As opposed to the rest of this, which is completely not weird at all, right?”

His eyes met Tony’s.

“No part of my life isn’t weird,” Tony said. “At least this kind of weird doesn’t involve getting shot at by aliens. Or anything to do with S.H.I.E.L.D. Everything they get me involved in is weird. I mean…”

“Tony? You can stop talking, you know.”

“Oh. Right.”

Tony forced his mouth to stop making words come out of it, even though it was still trying, because Bruce had unzipped his pants and even in the darkness of the room Tony could see his hands on his cock, his skin pale against his dark clothes. He slumped down in the chair and leaned his head back, taking a firm grip on himself with one hand. He didn’t look at Tony, but his other hand seemed to drift out on its own and landed on the back of Tony’s wrist, fingers curling lightly around it as if seeking something to hold onto.

The part of Tony’s brain that had been telling him he wasn’t supposed to be enjoying any part of this was still clamoring away, but it was somewhere in a corner, being mostly ignored. He found his eyes moving from Bruce’s hand on his cock to his face, his features just outlines in the dark, but Tony could still see his mouth move as he started to breathe harder, his eyes squeezing shut, curls falling across his forehead. Something about it made his own cock stir slightly under the sheets, particularly when he could hear Bruce’s hand moving faster and then he bit his lip and tipped his head back and couldn’t quite silence the rough groan low in his throat as he came.

After a long moment, he quietly took his hand back from Tony’s wrist and disappeared into the bathroom again. When he came back, his shirt was tucked back in and the escaped curls shoved back out of his face.

“You want me to go away for a little while?” he asked, shifting his feet uncertainly.

“What? No. Sit down.”

Bruce slid back into his chair. “You’re not…”

“Don’t you know me well enough to know I don’t have enough social grace to be embarrassed even when I should be?”

Bruce chuckled. “I had noticed that.”

“I think I’ll sleep pretty well for the rest of the night.”

“Good. They can always give you more pain medication…”

“That chair doesn’t look very comfortable. You’ve been sleeping in it the last three nights?”

“Yeah.”

Tony carefully shifted over as far as he could. The hospital bed wasn’t very wide, but it was bigger than they usually were; someone (probably Bruce) had made sure at some point that he got the best bed they were willing to give him under the circumstances.

“There’s room. You can squeeze in.”

“No… I might accidentally hurt you. Besides, the nurses will have all kinds of things to say about it when they show up in the morning…”

“Fuck it,” Tony said. “You know they’re already saying it. Nobody’s personal doctor is committed enough to refuse to leave for four days. Just get over here.”

Bruce looked uncertain, but he kicked off his shoes and very carefully climbed onto the bed, trying not to bump against Tony.

“You’re not going to hurt me. Just don’t elbow me in the chest. Other than that, I’m good.”

Bruce let himself relax slightly, laying his head down. “This is better than the chair.”

“Move over. Your ass is hanging off the bed.”

Bruce grinned and shifted closer, rolling so that he could watch Tony’s face while he slept and pulling the blanket over both of them. His hand slid between their bodies and found Tony’s, twining their fingers loosely together.

“The nurses are going to throw a fit,” Bruce murmured.

“Good,” Tony said sleepily. “I like when people throw fits about things I do. Makes me feel important.”

“Oh? When does the great Tony Stark not feel important?”

Tony glanced over at him. “When I wake up in the dark and I’m six or seven years old again and I’m back in some little room on the pediatric unit and I’m wondering if my father even remembers that I’m still in the hospital and whether he’s even going to send someone to come get me.”

Bruce squeezed his hand. “Get some sleep. You’ll get out of here faster if you rest. And if you don’t, the staff will start saying I’m a distraction and I’m keeping you from sleeping enough.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll tell them that if you weren’t here I wouldn’t be sleeping at all.”

He settled back and closed his eyes. He felt Bruce move and then felt a quick kiss pressed to his cheek, and he smiled.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Yes, I know what ‘AMA’ stands for,” Tony snapped, snatching the pen from the doctor.

“Well, I just have to make sure you understand that you’re leaving the hospital against medical advice. We’d like to keep you on oxygen for a few more days and have the burn care unit keep an eye on…”

“The burn care team said the burns are healing just fine,” Bruce said. “I had them show me what to do with changing the bandages.”

“And I’ve been breathing without the oxygen all day,” Tony added, not mentioning that getting to the bathroom and back had left him exhausted and gasping like he’d been climbing mountains; at least at home he’d be comfortable.

“We can’t force you to stay,” the doctor said, handing over the clipboard. “I suggest you read…”

Tony scribbled his name at the bottom and handed it back without even glancing at it. “How long till the discharge paperwork is done?”

“It should be done by this evening…”

“You have any hour,” Tony said. “That’s plenty of time for JARVIS to send one of my drivers over here to get us.”

“Mr. Stark…”

Tony crossed his arms. The doctor looked at Bruce, who shrugged.

“What do I look like, his babysitter? He’s a grown-up.”

“I’m a very wealthy grown-up,” Tony said. “And I’m leaving here in an hour.”

The doctor shrugged and walked out.

“For a grown-up, you sound an awful lot like a three-year-old sometimes,” Bruce said.

“Look, I’ve played this game before,” Tony said, scowling. “They’re afraid I’ll sue them if something goes wrong so they’re going to keep me here and keep every monitor and everything else on me until I’m perfectly healthy, even when they’d have sent any normal guy without a highly paid legal team home to recover in peace.”

“And you’re assuming I’ve got nothing better to do than hang around and take care of you while you recover in peace?” Bruce asked.

Tony opened his mouth to say something, but didn’t seem to know what to say. His expression, though, was so genuinely hurt that Bruce immediately relented and rubbed his shoulder.

“You know perfectly well I don’t have anything better to do,” he said quietly. “I want you home too. You’re not sleeping well here and I think the stress is affecting your recovery. Besides, sleeping in this chair sucks and sleeping in that little bed with another person already in it isn’t much better.”

“I have a king-sized bed…” Tony started, then realized that if they were at home, Bruce could sleep in his own bed and just have JARVIS keep an eye on him and call him if needed, and that there wasn’t really any good reason…

“I know,” Bruce said, running a hand through Tony’s hair. “That way I won’t have to worry about accidentally elbowing you. Or you kicking me all night.”

Tony lowered his head and let the fingers stroking through his hair continue to chase all the other thoughts away.

“I’m with you as long as you need me,” Bruce murmured. “You didn’t figure that out yet?”

Tony heard his own voice sleepily reply, “Don’t say that… you might get tired of me needing you.”

Bruce chuckled. “I don’t know… I think I like it.”

Tony looked up at him, startled, but Bruce just grinned and rubbed his head one more time.

“I’d better start packing up all this crap the team has brought in and left here. And my stuff. Lay back down and relax… I’ll wake you up when the car gets here.”

 

 

 

Bruce hadn’t expected a handful of news reporters to be already waiting outside the hospital when he and Tony walked out, but Tony apparently had, because he just rolled his eyes.

“Fucking vultures.”

“You love the media.”

“It’s a love-hate relationship,” Tony said, but after walking through the lobby from the elevator he was out of breath and could barely get the words out.

“Mr. Stark! Any comment on your injuries or the…”

“Mr. Stark! What can you tell us about…”

“Mr. Stark! Is it true you’re checking yourself out of the hospital against medical advice?”

Bruce had been making his way toward the car, and apparently enough of the reporters recognized him as the Hulk’s alter-ego to get out of his way when he glared at them. At the last question, though, he stopped and looked over his shoulder at the man who’d asked it.

“I don’t know. Is it true that Mr. Stark’s legal team intends to immediately initiate a full-scale investigation into every member of the hospital staff who had access to Mr. Stark’s records and to pursue health information privacy violations and termination of licensure against anyone who decided to share it inappropriately? Oh, and is it true that Mr. Stark’s legal team is also going to bring legal action against any news agency that reports any information regarding Mr. Stark’s health records in order to force them to reveal their sources so they can be prosecuted?”

Tony didn’t know if he’d ever seen a group of reporters shut up as abruptly as this one did. He also had to grin at the expressions on the faces of the two doctors watching the scene from the doorway, and when he waved at them, they went pale and bolted back inside.

“That was pretty good,” Tony said, as Bruce slid into the car beside him and closed the door.

The driver glanced at them in the rearview mirror. “Are we going straight home, Mr. Stark?”

“Yes,” Bruce said, before Tony could come up with any other ideas.

 

 

 

 

If the media knew Tony was on his way home, Bruce expected that the rest of the team would have gotten wind of it, so he was surprised when they were able to sneak into one of the side doors of the tower and into the elevator without anyone noticing them, and even more surprised when they stepped out on Tony’s floor and there was no one waiting.

“Looks like you slipped under the radar,” Bruce said.

Tony nodded. Bruce looked him over.

“You look exhausted.”

“Little bit.”

Bruce took him by the arm and steered him toward his room.

He’d only been in Tony’s bedroom once before, when the team had gotten a bit worried when no one had seen him for a while and JARVIS couldn’t locate him and everyone had gone looking for him (it had turned out he was asleep under one of the lab benches for some reason). Bruce had been sent to check his room, and had expected it to be chaotic and overflowing with half-finished ideas and projects and books and manuals and computers. He’d been surprised to find that except for a large bed with plain blue sheets, a pair of dressers, and a bedside table with a lamp, it was as bare; it was as impersonal as a hotel room. It had taken him a moment to realize that Tony didn’t spend much time in his room and that he only went there when he was forced to by pure exhaustion, and that by the time he’d reached that point, he needed to be somewhere that wasn’t full of everything Tony.

He sat Tony down on the bed and rummaged through the dressers until he found a pair of shorts. Tony realized he ought to be protesting that he was a big boy and could handle undressing himself, but he was so out of breath from the exertion so far that his chest hurt, so he sat and let Bruce pull his shirt over his head, then kneel down to take off his shoes and socks. And even struggling to get his breath back, having Bruce on his knees in front of him like that wasn’t exactly the kind of thing he could ignore; he had to force himself not to reach out and run a hand through the dark curls. Bruce looked up and grinned.

“Problem?”

“Umm…”

Bruce laughed and tugged him to his feet. “Jeans off. Shorts on. Then you can lay down and rest for a while. You look like you need it. And whatever you’ve got going on in your head, it can wait till later.”

Tony obeyed, thinking that if Bruce had suspected what was going on in his head and used the word “later” in the same sentence, it might be an interesting day. Right now, though, Bruce was unfortunately right; he didn’t have the energy to even properly appreciate such a thing even if it was going to happen. He hauled himself up to the pillows and flopped down.

“Oh… my pillows. I love my pillows. I fucking hate hospital pillows.”

He heard Bruce chuckle and then felt the blankets being pulled out from under him and tucked over him. He let himself sink into the blissful, familiar comfort of his own bed and sighed.

“Happy now?”

“Definitely happier than I was.”

Bruce was quiet for a moment.

“Do you want me to stay?”

“You don’t have to. I’m sure you have other things you’d rather be doing…”

“No, Tony, I don’t. But if you’d like some privacy I’ll go away.”

“I don’t want you to go away,” Tony said, and he was fairly sure that wasn’t what he meant to say, but it was fine, really, because Bruce just smiled.

“There’s no chair in here.”

“I can scoot over.”

“You don’t have to. There’s plenty of room.”

He felt the bed shift as Bruce sat down, then stretched out next to him, and suddenly Tony wanted very much to roll over and press against him and feel the warmth of his body. The thought had just finished working its way through his head before he felt a hand on his shoulder, and a quiet voice close to his ear.

“You can come a little closer, if you want.”

And yes, he did want, and he slid back and let Bruce wrap an arm around him, mindful of the bandages, and gently pull him in, his chest warm against Tony’s back even through his shirt, and Tony realized he was under the blankets, even if he was, unfortunately, still wearing his clothes. Oh, well. It wasn’t like he was in any shape to do anything about it right now anyway, except be slightly shocked in the back of his mind at how good it felt to have Bruce’s arm wrapped around him and to realize that without even meaning to, he had snuggled down into the warmth of the body next to him.

“You okay like this?”

“Mmm-hmm,” Tony managed, and then the exhaustion caught up with him and he was asleep before he could think of anything else to say.

“JARVIS?” Bruce said, keeping his voice low. “Would you lock the door and turn the lights down? And let the rest of the team know that yes, Mr. Stark is home, and no, they cannot come and see him right now, and yes, I will let them know when he’s awake and feels up to having company.”

“I will do that, Dr. Banner.”

 

 

 

JARVIS woke them a few hours later, with evening sun filtering through the curtains.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, but the other team members are becoming rather impatient and continue to ask me when they can come and see Mr. Stark.”

Bruce muttered something under his breath and sat up. “They’re like a bunch of three-year-olds.”

“I believe that they are concerned about Mr. Stark’s well-being, Dr. Banner, and would like to reassure themselves that he is in acceptable health.”

“I know, I know. Tell them they can come up, but to give me a minute to wake Tony up.”

“Of course.”

Bruce untangled himself from the blankets. Tony grumbled and rolled over.

“Couldn’t you make them go away?”

“They just want to see you. And they’re going to harass JARVIS till I let them.”

“JARVIS is a computer. He has infinite patience.”

“Yeah, but I’ll run out eventually. Besides, you should probably wake up at least long enough to eat some dinner.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“JARVIS, lights, please.”

“Ugh!” Tony protested, as the lights brightened. “Give me a shirt.”

Bruce opened a few drawers, found a T-shirt, and tossed it to him. Tony had just finished pulling it over his head before the door started to rattle with what was either several people pounding on it at once or, as Bruce found when he opened the door, just Thor knocking on it with his big fist. He stepped aside and watched as Thor stepped in, followed by Natasha and Steve.

“Where’s Clint?” he asked.

Natasha glanced at Thor, who gave her a sheepish smile.

“We had an ice cream cake in the freezer for whenever Tony got to come home,” she said. “When we heard earlier that he was here, Thor wanted to know why the cake was still in the freezer, and Clint decided to be a smartass and told him it was because we hadn’t baked it yet.”

“I was trying to help,” Thor said, embarrassed.

“Thor thought it would be helpful if he took the ice cream cake out of the freezer and stuck it in the oven to bake,” Natasha explained. “So, Clint is downstairs cleaning melted ice cream out of the oven.”

“I’m sorry about your cake,” Thor said, holding out his hands apologetically to Tony.

“Forget the cake. That’s better than cake,” Tony said. “How exactly did you get Clint to clean the oven?”

“I told him either he cleaned it up or I’d have Steve and Thor use him as a punching bag for their next workout.”

Having discovered that specially designed workout equipment had been required for the training room after those particular team members came to join them in Stark Tower, Tony was aware of exactly what Steve and Thor did to ordinary punching bags.

“He actually thought they’d do that?” Bruce asked.

Natasha shrugged. “I think he was a little concerned about Thor being so unhappy about the cake…”

“I think he’s more afraid of you than either of them,” Tony said.

“I think he should be,” she said. “Someone’s got to keep him in line. Anyway… I’m sorry we don’t have any cake, Tony, but we’re glad you’re okay and we’re glad you’re home.”

“Yeah, well… the hospital was nice and all, but…”

“You’re supposed to tell them it’s good to see them too,” Bruce said.

Natasha coughed in an ineffective attempt to cover a laugh.

“Oh, right,” Tony said. “Yes, it’s good to see you all too. Is that better?”

“Apparently the hospital didn’t have a treatment for social obliviousness,” Natasha chuckled.

“They don’t treat pre-existing conditions,” Bruce said.

 

 

 

The others hung around, talking about hospitals and cakes and other things Tony wasn’t interested in listening to, and he eventually started giving Bruce slightly desperate looks. Bruce ignored him for a few more minutes before relenting.

“All right, guys. It’s back to sleep time for our patient here. Don’t want the doctors to end up deciding he needs to go back to the hospital because he’s not getting enough rest here.”

Natasha rubbed Tony’s hair briefly, an unusual gesture of fondness. “Get some rest, then. We want you back to normal soon, so we can harass and torment you like we’re used to doing.”

“I’ll work on it,” he said.

 

 

 

Bruce had just successfully shooed everyone else out of the room when his cell phone, sitting on one of the dressers, started to vibrate. He scowled and glanced at the screen.

“Fuck. It’s Fury. And this is the third time he’s called. Guess I’d better answer it.”

He picked up the phone, and Tony watched as Bruce had the kind of conversation one generally had with Fury when he was pissed about something; the other person listened and Fury reprimanded and gave orders. Bruce leaned against the dresser and listened with a patiently weary expression.

“Yessir,” he said, eventually. “I’ll go have a look at it right now and I’ll have JARVIS send you the images and the mass spectrometry results on the stuff.”

He stuffed the phone in his pocket.

“What’s up his ass?” Tony asked.

“He wants to know why I haven’t done what he told me to do days ago… take apart the damaged suit and take a look at where it breached and what kind of materials that part of the suit was using that might have broken down at that temperature… oh, and he wants the mass spectrometry results off the stuff that thing fired at you, but JARVIS already did those.”

“Well, I guess you’d better go do it and get him off your ass.”

Bruce frowned. “I was going to stay here in case you needed anything.”

“I’m fine. Just give me one of those protein bars out of the drawer over there… I eat those for breakfast, lunch, and dinner some days, so don’t complain… and I’ll eat it and go back to sleep.”

“You sure?”

“It won’t take you that long to throw some results together to shut Fury up. I can have JARVIS call you if I need anything.”

“All right,” Bruce said, not sounding very certain. “But if you need anything…”

“I told you, I’ll have JARVIS call you.”

“Okay. I’ll be back…”

“Just go do it before Fury starts calling me.”

 

 

 

 

The protein bar didn’t really taste like much, but at least it filled up his stomach, and he settled back down and closed his eyes and told himself that he was tired and he’d be asleep in a minute.

He wasn’t.

He was tired; that part was true. But sleep wasn’t happening. He was wide awake behind his closed eyelids. He tried to think about the most boring things he could think of, but that didn’t work either. He knew there was a bottle of pain medication on the nightstand and that one or two of those would probably make sure he fell asleep pretty solidly, but he didn’t really want the fuzzy, confused feeling they would leave him with. The room sounded very large and very empty and very silent around him, with only the soft noise of the ventilation system above the ceiling.

He slid out of bed and found his slippers under the bed, although retrieving them left him wincing; apparently his burns weren’t healed completely enough to appreciate him bending over that way. Still, once he straightened up, the pain eased, and he made his way out into the hall and toward the elevator.

“Sir, are you supposed to be out of bed?” JARVIS’s voice asked.

“Yes.”

“That’s not what I was told.”

“Well, I just told you.”

“Would you like me to notify Dr. Banner?”

“No. He’s working. Leave him alone.”

“Sir, I believe…”

“I’m fine. Everything is fine. Go away.”

He realized with some annoyance that the argument with the AI had stolen away most of the air he had, and in the elevator he had to lean against the wall to keep himself steady until he started to get his breath back. Then there was the hallway to the lab, which normally didn’t seem terribly long, but tonight it felt endless, and by the time he reached the lab doors he was fighting for breath again.

Bruce looked up when the doors opened, and his face immediately registered alarm as he shoved back his chair from the table where the disassembled suit lay in scorched pieces.

“Tony, what the hell are you doing here?”

“Visiting,” Tony said, or tried to.

Bruce grabbed him and steered him toward the nearest chair, but before they could get there, Tony’s legs apparently decided they were going to go on strike until they got some proper air supply, and they dropped out from under him.

“Shit,” Bruce muttered, kneeling. “Are you okay?”

“Just… out of breath.”

“Stay right there.”

He wasn’t sure he could do anything else at the moment, so he closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on getting more air into his lungs. After a minute of that, he started to feel slightly more functional, and opened his eyes just as Bruce came back and hooked his arms under Tony’s and pulled him to his feet.

“Come here.”

He half directed and half dragged him toward the table where he’d been working on the suit, and Tony realized that besides the chair, there was now also one of the soft rubber mats they put underneath things they didn’t want falling and breaking. Bruce lowered Tony onto the mat.

“Just sit.”

“Here?”

“Yes, there. Sit.”

“Okay.”

Bruce sat down in his chair and pulled the piece he’d been working on back toward him. Then, as he slid it under the magnifier with one hand, his other hand reached over without looking and landed lightly on Tony’s head. Fingers began stroking through his hair, and Tony felt his eyes start to drift closed. After a few minutes, he realized that his head was resting against something, and that something was Bruce’s leg, but the hand was still moving lightly over his head and down the back of his neck and over his shoulders.

“JARVIS, lock the lab doors, please,” Bruce said absently. “And lower the lights… the magnifier has its own backlight.”

Tony tried to figure out how exactly he’d ended where he was at the moment, but it didn’t really matter, and in almost no time he was asleep.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Someone was shaking Tony’s shoulder gently, and a voice was saying something that was probably directed at him, so he forced himself to wake up. He was puzzled for a moment as to what he was doing sitting on the floor of the lab until he remembered how he’d gotten there.

Bruce looked down at him and chuckled. “I’m done with the stuff Fury wanted. Just uploaded all of it for him to do whatever he wants with. You ready to go back to bed instead of using me as a pillow?”

Tony rubbed his face sleepily. “Umm.”

Bruce stood up and offered him a hand, tugging him to his feet. “Come on. You don’t even have to wake up all the way.”

He was still half-asleep when they reached the elevator, and found himself starting to doze on his feet with Bruce’s shoulder holding him up.

“This is why you were supposed to stay in bed,” Bruce said.

“Yeah. Probably.”

He had some vague awareness of Bruce hauling him into his room and arranging him on the bed before climbing in next to him and pulling the blankets up over both of them. He was thinking to himself that it was a shame the bed wasn’t just a little narrower and Bruce didn’t have to be just a little bit closer, but at that moment a warm hand came to rest in the hollow of his lower back, rubbing lightly.

“Relax. Everything’s fine. Go back to sleep.”

So he did.

 

 

He hadn’t really expected the nightmares to come calling for him that night; usually if he was exhausted enough they either left him alone or couldn’t pierce his awareness enough to wake him. Tonight, it was only the tail end of one that dragged him into full, shaking consciousness, and he wasn’t even completely sure which one, but he sat up gasping for breath in the dark and realized he was clutching at the side of his face with his hand. He pulled it away and looked at it; he knew which nightmare this was now, and in the moments before full lucidity he always expected his hand to have a streak of blood across it, even though it never did.

Bruce was sitting up, shaking off sleep. “Tony?”

“It’s… it’s fine. I’m fine,” he muttered, raising his hand to his face again just to reassure himself that the sting across his cheekbone was just a leftover from the nightmare.

He felt the bed shift and realized Bruce was gone, and for a moment he desperately needed to know where he was, but then he heard water running in the bathroom, and then Bruce’s weight shifted the bed again, except that this time he had hooked a hand behind Tony’s head to steady him, and with his other hand he was pressing a cool wash cloth against his cheek.

“Shh. Breathe.”

Tony tried to think, because there was no possible way that the cool cloth could soothe the pain from a blow so long ago he could barely remember what it had been for, but somehow it did anyway.

“What are you doing?” he asked, leaning into the touch.

“You were covering your face. I sort of figured I could probably guess what you were dreaming about.”

Tony nodded, because he found himself unable to put words together without tears starting to burn his eyes, and he wasn’t going to let them fall.

“You’re okay,” Bruce said quietly. “I’m pretty sure the Hulk will show up and kill anyone who tries to hurt you again. Are you all right?”

Tony shook his head and raised his hand to brush over Bruce’s fingers holding the cloth against his face. “This…”

Bruce sighed. “I know. How many decades too late, right?”

“No,” he said. “Actually… I think you’re right on time.”

“How does that work?” Bruce asked, as the cloth moved to catch the few tears that had managed to escape unnoticed. “There should have been someone there to help you when you needed it.”

“Someone is now.”

Bruce ran his fingers through Tony’s hair. “Yeah.”

“But… I don’t get it. How…”

“How what?”

“How do you know…”

“I just watch. And I listen.”

Tony shook his head. “You’re not the first person who’s tried to figure me out.”

“The rest of them started in the wrong place,” Bruce said, smiling slightly.

“What?”

“The rest of them… they tried to start figuring you out here,” Bruce said, tapping Tony’s forehead. “If they’d paid attention, they would have known to start somewhere around here.”

He tapped Tony’s chest just above the hard curve of the arc reactor.

“Why?”

“Because if all they see when they meet you is the genius with the smartass attitude, they think that’s all you are.”

“Ummm… the first time I met you, I made smartass remarks and then I poked you with things.”

Bruce smiled at the memory. “Yeah. But since the Other Guy… nobody treated me like that. Everybody treated me like I was a grenade with the pin ready to fall out. They looked at me and saw a monster. You looked at me…”

“Yeah, I looked at you, and I wondered where the hell the scary monster was,” Tony said. “I was a little disappointed I didn’t get to see it.”

“You’re an idiot sometimes.”

“I suppose I’d have to agree with that.”

Bruce’s fingers were still in Tony’s hair, and something flashed through Tony’s head along the lines of the realization that if he was going to be an idiot sometimes, now might as well be one of those times, and he reached up and pulled Bruce in and kissed him hard.

Bruce made a small, surprised noise, but no attempt to resist. They slumped back against the pillows, Tony’s hands finding Bruce’s face and tracing the unfamiliar feeling of the rough cheek and jaw. Somehow legs had begun to get involved in the matter as if of their own accord, wrapping around each other, and Tony had to break the kiss to catch his breath.

“Tony…” Bruce said, gently prying himself free.

Tony felt his face redden. “Shit. Okay. I’m sorry. I…”

“No, no, no… it’s not that. But you can’t be doing this stuff now.”

“Why not?” he protested.

“Because you’re supposed to be healing, not… umm, putting extra stress on your body.”

“Fuck,” Tony muttered. “I’m fine.”

“You’re breathing like you just ran sprints.”

Tony scowled. “Just give me a minute…”

Bruce laughed and rubbed his head affectionately. “Stop. I’m not going to let you hurt yourself. We have time.”

“Not likely,” Tony said, under his breath.

“Why not?”

“Because no one ever sticks around that long. Not this close, anyway.”

“Maybe not,” Bruce said, kissing him gently, “but that was their fault.”

“How’s that?”

“Because they expected you to stop being Tony for them.”

“That’s because nobody can put up with Tony.”

“No… that’s because you can’t stop being you,” Bruce said. “The thing is, I like you being you.”

“That’s impossible. Nobody actually likes me.”

“See? Things like that are why you’re an idiot sometimes. Now, we’re going to be good boys and go to sleep and get some rest, right?”

“Fuck…” Tony whined.

“Sleep,” Bruce corrected.

“This really isn’t fair.”

“It really won’t be fair if you end up back in the hospital,” Bruce said. “One of us has to have a little bit of sense.”

“Well, I suppose it’d better be you, then,” Tony sighed, resigning himself to rolling onto his back and trying to go to sleep. “It’s sure as fuck not going to be me.”

“I know. Think you’ll have any more nightmares tonight?”

“Wish I knew. They sort of make their own schedule.”

Bruce reached out and pulled him closer. “Well, stay right here, then, and if they show up, just give the Other Guy a yell and he’ll beat them to a bloody pulp.”

“Good.”

“Now go back to sleep, or the Other Guy will have to knock you unconscious.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not recommended by the doctors…”

“Go back to sleep, Tony.”

“Fine,” he grumbled, but didn’t have too much time to sulk before he was dozing off again.