The voice echoed through the quiet laboratory startling Bruce. Almost a year since he'd started working at the newly christened Avengers Tower and he still wasn't used to it. Breaking his gaze from the screen in front of him, he stared up at the ceiling.
"Mr. Stark requires your assistance in his workshop," the A.I. replied.
Bruce took off his glasses and rubbed tiredly at his eyes. "He does, does he?"
Tony Stark's whims of maniacal genius knew no bounds. They came at all hours of the day and involved all areas of science both the useful and the insane. Occupying a lab in Stark's own building left Bruce at the mercy of those whims whenever Tony thought he needed a fellow genius to collaborate with, but Bruce really wasn't in the mood to play that day.
"Could you tell him I'm busy?" he said.
"He was quite insistent," said Jarvis.
Leaning back in his chair, Bruce briefly considered the unlikely possibility that Stark actually wanted him for something important. Sometimes he wanted Bruce's input on his latest project. Sometimes he just wanted someone to listen to him talk. Sometimes he wanted someone around who wouldn't be harmed when the thing he was working on blew up.
"I don't suppose he happened to mention what he wanted help with."
There was the slightest of pauses as if the A.I. were actually debating whether or not to tell him. There was no doubt Jarvis knew what it was. Jarvis knew everything.
"He did not elaborate upon his request."
It was on the tip of his tongue to refuse, but then Bruce gazed back down at the computer screen, at the data he'd been analyzing. It was the accumulation of months of research, all his latest efforts at finding a cure for his condition, and all completely useless.
"Fine," he said wiping the data from the screen."Tell him I'll be right there."
The trip from his laboratory to Tony's workshop, or inner sanctum as Clint liked to call it, had become a familiar one in the past months. It didn't take long, just a short walk through the various R&D laboratories and a quick elevator ride up to the right floor.
When the doors swished open, Bruce was surprised to find the normally chaotic place strangely quiet. There was no music blaring, no blow torch firing, no machines rumbling as they assembled the latest project.
And there was no sign of Tony.
"Tony?" he called out, a familiar feeling of frustration starting to crawl through him. If the man had decided this was a good time for a prank…
"Over here," a voice replied from a distant corner.
Bruce headed in the direction of the voice, manoeuvring around the various workbenches and automatic assembly machines, past the flashing screens and bright blue holograms until he finally found his friend.
Bruce's eyebrows drew together in a frown. "Why are you lying on the floor?"
Tony Stark was indeed sprawled on the workshop floor lying on his back amongst various pieces of Iron Man armour, hands resting on his stomach as if he'd just decided this was the perfect place for a nap. Two of his robots, Dum-E and U whom he'd recently hauled over from Malibu, stood on either side of his head gazing down at him and making the various whirring, chirping noises they used instead of speech.
Tony gazed up at Bruce, eyebrows raised, mouth grinning. "Why shouldn't I?" he said. "Have you ever realized just how underappreciated floors are? They're the least appreciated part of a room and yet without them the room wouldn't exist. Everything would just fall through."
"So…," Bruce said uncertainly, "you thought you'd do some floor appreciation?" Sometimes it felt as if the longer he knew Tony, the less he understood.
"There's a lot to be said for lying on the floor. It's good to just let go once and awhile, give in to gravity and trust the floor to support you. We spend much too much time sitting and standing. All that gravity focused right on top of your head can't be good for you."
"Tony…" He was seriously starting to wish he'd stayed in his lab.
"And the perspective it gives you," Tony continued ignoring him. "Looking at things from this angle helps me see all this stuff I've never seen before. I mean check out that ceiling." He flung an arm up towards it.
Bruce obediently glanced up noting the various dark stains. "You do have an impressive collection of scorch marks."
"I should donate it to a modern art gallery. I could call it The Side Effects of a Genius Mind. I think people would really… Would you stop that!"
The last statement was directed at one of the robots, Dum-E, which had leaned down, taken some of Tony's shirt in its pincers, and started tugging at him. It let go when Tony yelled at it, but then the other robot, U, began prodding him.
"Don't you start," Tony grumbled pushing the robotic arm away from him. "Honestly, you two. You're like a pair of pestering geese. Don't you have anything better to do like maybe clean this place up?"
The robots backed off slightly but didn't go far. The chirps they made sounded forlorn, and if Bruce wasn't imagining things, concerned.
"Tony…" Bruce began again. Something wasn't right. He should have realized it the moment he'd entered the overly quiet workshop. Unfortunately, getting a straight answer out of Tony Stark was never an easy thing.
"And the memories those scorch marks bring back," Tony said returning his attention to the ceiling and ignoring Bruce once more. "That small one over there." He pointed to a far corner. "That was when one of my new and improved repulsors misfired. And that one…" He pointed to a rather larger burn mark nearby. "That was when my instant toaster blew. Took out both my eyebrows and a good portion of my hair. Couldn't go out for weeks. And remember that one?" He pointed at a giant scorched circle almost directly overhead. "That was when we tried to merge that new energy source you found with the arc-reactor technology and we created that giant energy wave…"
"Cap said he heard the boom all the way in New Jersey. I don't believe him though."
Bruce forced himself to take a deep breath as he felt the Hulk in the back of his mind start to grow restless. Dealing with Tony Stark required a lot of patience. Thankfully, Bruce had had a lot of practice over the past year.
"Tony…" he tried for the fourth time.
"Not that I think he's a liar but why on Earth would he be in Jersey."
"I really think we should…"
"You can't get up, can you?" Bruce finally managed to blurt out.
That statement finally brought Tony's babbling to a stop but only for a brief second. "Of course, I can get up," he said adamantly. "I can get up any time I want to. I could even dance a jig, if I actually knew what a jig was. I just thought it was a good opportunity to lie here for a bit and appreciate…"
Bruce shook his head in disbelief. The man had an amazing capacity for denial. He'd known a few bad patients in his time but Tony was in the running for the worse.
"What is it?" he questioned, eyes roaming over Tony searching for injuries. "Vertigo? Did you throw out your back? Is it your knee? Your ankle?"
At the mention of the last one, Tony huffed and threw an arm over his face.
Bruce might not be able to fully understand Tony but he was starting to learn how to read between the lines. "Ankle it is then. Left or right?"
Tony remained stubbornly silent for a couple more seconds before finally confessing. "Right."
Crouching down, Bruce gently lifted up Tony's right foot and carefully removed the shoe and sock. The ankle was dark red and very swollen. He manoeuvred it about testing the range of motion. Tony gave a hiss of pain.
"I don't think it's broken but you should get an x-ray to be sure," he said. Pulling over the nearest convenient object, which turned out to be a leg of one of Tony's many armours, he used it to keep the foot elevated. "How the hell did you manage to wrench it so badly?"
Face still hidden under his arm, Tony mumbled something Bruce didn't catch.
Sighing, Tony emerged from under his arm and propped himself up on his elbows. "It's all Dum-E's fault," he began glaring at the aforementioned robot
Dum-E gave a large blare in protest.
"Was so," Tony snapped back. "You're lucky I don't sell you to an automobile manufacturer. How'd you like to spend the rest of your life on an assembling line making SUVs?"
Somehow despite being not much more than a mechanical arm, Dum-E still managed to achieve a very hangdog look.
"Don't give me that. You know what you did."
While the man and robot argued, Bruce went to fetch a tensor bandage and an icepack. This being Tony's workshop there was an ample supply on hand.
"If you'd just paid attention to what you were doing," Tony was saying when he got back, "this wouldn't have happened. I'd never have gotten stuck here on the floor or needed to call old Brucie boy for help."
Bruce placed the icepack on the swollen foot causing Tony to flinch. He suspected Tony was actually in a lot more pain than he was letting on and made a note to grab some of the good painkillers.
"What would you have done if I hadn't come?" he asked remembering how he almost hadn't.
Tony waved a hand nonchalantly, or at least, as nonchalantly as you could while lying on the floor. "Oh, probably just lain around all day until Pepper came home."
"Ms Potts is currently at a conference in Sidney," Jarvis helpfully reminded him.
Tony winced. "Or all week," he amended.
"You know there are other people in this building who would have been willing to help," Bruce said.
Tony gave a dismissive snort lying back down and returning his gaze to the ceiling.
Bruce felt something twist in his heart then and he wondered just how long it had taken Tony to call him, how many times he'd tried to get up and failed before he'd relayed the request to Jarvis. Something must have shown in his expression because Tony suddenly became defensive once more.
"I'd have managed on my own somehow," he insisted. "I usually do. Built myself a repulsor powered wheelchair or something. And it's not like I would've starved to death. Dum-E would've brought me food."
Dum-E, who along with U was still hovering nearby, stretched upward at Tony's statement, gave a loud, high-pitched chirp, and sped off in the direction of the workshop's tiny kitchenette.
"No, I didn't mean…" Tony started to call after the robot but it was too late. Drawing his hand across his face, he let out a long exasperated sigh.
An involuntary smile started creeping across Bruce's mouth.
Dum-E soon returned bearing his gift proudly aloft. He dropped it onto Tony's stomach.
Tony picked it up. It was a nice, fresh, juicy lemon.
"Thanks, Dum-E," he said with a grimace. "That's great, really. Just great."
Dum-E chirped happily.
"Yeah, love you too," Tony replied. "Now go play with your little brother."
Contently whirring, Dum-E and U wheeled off to another corner of the workshop.
"Kids, huh," Bruce said his smile becoming a smirk.
"Oh, shut up."
Removing the icepack, Bruce began winding the tensor bandage around Tony's ankle. "You know you're going to have to learn to trust people to help you one of these days. People other than me, Pepper, and your robots, that is."
"I will if you will," Tony replied.
Bruce's fingers stopped momentarily in their work. It wasn't as if he could deny it. Spending so many years on his own, he'd learned only to count on himself and some habits were hard to break. Maybe if he'd asked for help he wouldn't be spending his days alone in his lab staring at piles of useless data. Maybe they both had a lot to learn.
"So what actual happened?" Bruce asked as he finished his work clipping the bandage in place.
Tony sighed. "Dum-E was trying to clean up one of my workbenches, badly at that. He was about to knock over the new hyper-energy conversion unit I'd been working on, so I rushed over to stop him before he ruined all my work, but I wasn't really looking where I was going and I… I… I kind of tripped over my armour."
"You…" Bruce snorted, a grin spreading wide across his face. "You tripped over your armour?"
"Don't you dare, Banner," Tony exclaimed sending him a glare which would have made Natasha proud.
"Tony Stark, genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, the man of iron, tripped over his own armour?" Bruce felt his shoulders begin to tremble as an uncontrollable force seemed to push its way up through his diaphragm.
"Don't you dare," Tony repeated. "If you utter so much as a single teehee, I swear I'll make your life miserable, I'll tell Jarvis to play heavy metal around you twenty-four seven, I'll paint everything in your lab green, I'll… I'll…"
But it was too late. As much as Bruce tried to hold it back, he couldn't do it. The image in his head of Tony falling over his armour and the mortification in his voice as he made his reluctant confession was too much.
Bruce fell back with full belly-aching, body-shaking laughter. He fell until he was on his back lying beside Tony on the workshop floor.
"Well," Tony said as Bruce rolled around gasping for air. "It seems I'm not the only one around here who appreciates floors."
Somehow despite being nearly deprived of oxygen, Bruce managed to laugh even harder.