Thanks to Adellin_Cabbie for being a wonderful and supportive beta!
Bruce watched warily as Fury exited the room; leaving both the assassin and the thunder-god behind with both himself and Tony - the same Tony who was currently struggling with his bed sheet as if it was a straight-jacket.
The room was completely silent except for Tony's frantic rustling, and Bruce briefly wondered if the Other Guy could be brought forth by linen, or, if rather, the Other Guy found the particular predicament entertaining. Bruce's attention snapped back to the situation at hand when Natasha started to slowly approach Tony and himself.
She was eyeing them, and Bruce, well aware of her skills as a master interrogator, tried to remain as casual and as relaxed as he possibly could in the foreign skin he was currently trapped in. Tony had gone still beside him, and Bruce twitched slightly in apprehension, fearing that the unusual silence between the pair of scientists would increase the suspicion already cultivating within Natasha's mind.
It was, however, Thor who broke the tension, "My friends," He said, "We are only concerned for your well-being. Keeping us in the dark like this will only do more harm than good."
It was not the words themselves that shook Bruce's resolve. Though wise, they were nothing in comparison to the puppy eyes Thor was sending their way, and he heard Tony groan quietly from where he was sitting on the bed in, what was likely, defeat.
It was hard to say "no" to Thor during most circumstances anyway, simply due to his often childish nature and innocence. However, this time Bruce wasn't so sure if it was wise to tell the rest of the Avengers about their current situation.
It would more than likely send Tony back into the Hulk cage, and Bruce himself into some sort of testing facility while the others would go on a literal witch-hunt. In which they, most probably, would turn up empty handed.
Witches were tricky to find, especially when they did not want to be found, and that meant that it was possible that he and Tony would be locked away for a very long time.
Bruce knew what it was like, and he didn't want his best friend to go through the same.
"I..." Bruce started before the sentence caught in his throat, choking him upon hearing Tony's voice escaping rather than his own.
He coughed, using the opportunity to exchange a look with his friend – or himself, who was actually Tony – and boy was this freakishly confusing; who looked more uncomfortable than Bruce had ever seen him be before.
"Yes, Stark?" Natasha urged, trying to catch onto anything that might give her a hint into their situation; anything that might give them away.
Bruce took a deep breath, ready to deny everything, when Tony cut right in without, it seemed, his usual confidence. However, that might be a result of Bruce's own vocal cords, and Bruce had often been told by others that he was too soft-spoken, his voice too meek and without any real authority and strength... Bruce had never been one to believe in wild accusations like that though and thought nothing more of it as he listened as Tony spoke.
"It's kind of hard to explain... It's like Freaky Friday freaky, only freakier and with less embarrassment on Lindsay Lohan's part, and, of course, less Lindsay Lohan, which I suppose is a good thing; I don't think Cap's faith in humanity can take a blow like that,"
At the admission, a stunned look had flitted across Natasha's features so quickly that Bruce hadn't been sure whether he had imagined it or not.
In the time they had known each other, he had never seen the assassin really display any kind of surprise or shock. She always seemed so unfazed by everything happening around her; no matter how surreal or ridiculous the stimulus was, that when she let her mask slips even just a little, she looked like a vulnerable child, so innocent and exposed to the rest of the world. Then the cold walls were up again and Bruce when he realised that he had lost track of his thoughts and hadn't been paying attention to any of the people around him.
Natasha and Tony seemed to be having a non-verbal fight; although it was hard to tell. However judging from their rapidly hardening eyes, Bruce supposed it was just as well that they had kept the hostility to a minimum.
As Thor seemed to grow more concerned with every passing second, Bruce couldn't help but feel sorry for the thunder-god. Even he found his own patience dwindling by Tony's and Natasha's staring match.
Finally, after several minutes, Bruce had had enough. He stood from his seat beside Tony, drawing Natasha's attention onto himself and away from the confrontational stubborn billionaire.
"Listen, we don't really – " He started.
"How?" Natasha demanded immediately, her eyes as slits as their gaze shifted between Bruce and Tony, trying to find some difference in behaviour and details perceived now from that before the incident.
Bruce knew that there were several in just their body-language alone, forgetting everything else.
Bruce shifted; once more uncomfortable as he felt his newfound confidence slipping away. It seemed, however, that Tony had finally found his.
"Usually there's an earthquake," Tony began, "but I wouldn't be able to tell as, you know, I was flying and had a god-knows-how-many-pounds green rage-monster slamming me into a brick building at the time," He shrugged nonchalantly and crossed his arms, giving Natasha a look.
Bruce wasn't exactly able to decipher Tony's looks, but whichever this one was, it didn't seem to be one that would bode well for the engineer if continued.
"Tony," Bruce sighed, "please stop making Freaky Friday references. I think she gets the point."
Tony shrugged in response, emitting a sense of complete ease… which only made Bruce even more conscious of their condition.
Bruce really wished he had Tony's confidence and easy-going nature.
Tony's behaviour, however, puzzled Bruce. The engineer had to be an incredible bluffer to act so nonchalant with the presence of the Other Guy, and his accompanying rage, persistent and continual at the back of his mind.
"So is this why the Hulk made an appearance earlier?" Natasha's tone was casual and disinterested, apparently recovered from her previous shock.
"I'm sorry, but I'm afraid that I do not understand," Thor interrupted before anyone had time to answer Natasha's question. He was frowning, his arms crossed – a defensive position he often took when he felt out of his depth – and Bruce felt bad for keeping Thor in the dark.
"No worries, Point Brake. Neither do we." Tony said with a flip of his hand, and recognition flashed in Thor's eyes before he merely arched an eyebrow.
And Bruce was impressed.
Despite what everyone thought of Thor, the man was smart. His only problem was that it was often being overshadowed by his Norse brutishness, and the fact that this world, and everything in it, was alien to him.
And while the god's reaction was strange, bordering onto bizarre, Bruce, after some thought, understood the reasoning. Thor was an alien and no stranger to magic and trickery. This was probably not even a fraction of some of the things he'd no doubt seen pulled on Asgard.
"I see you've gotten yourself into quite a predicament my friends," He remarked, his tone amused.
"I'm afraid so." Bruce cut in before Tony had the chance to come up with some sort offhanded offensive reply.
Thor leaned against the far wall, "At least my brother is not to blame for this disaster." He intoned with a sigh.
Everyone gave him a questioning look, which he only answered with a shrug.
"I must admit, I find this hard to believe," Natasha admitted, "but I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt. How, exactly, did this happen?"
"Your guess is as good as ours; but hey, if we're pointing fingers, I suggest you consult with Sabrina the teenage witch," Tony chimed, picking at the seams of the hospital gown some brave idiot had managed to force him into while unconscious.
"If we could find her, we would, but she's off our radar and not my main-priority at the moment," Natasha retorted, giving Tony another glare.
Bruce, fearing that this might result in another staring-match or something worse, was quick to intervene before anything got out of hand.
"I don't remember much." He was quick to input, drawing Natasha and Tony's attention away from each other, "In fact, I don't remember anything at all, if I'm to be honest; but doesn't it seem a bit strange? What could possibly have come out of this?"
"Confusion. Chaos. Or maybe the spell didn't work as she intended."
"You think it's a possibility that just Tony was the target?"
"Possibly." Natasha allowed, "Stark is an influential figure with multiple government and Wall Street organizations, and he has an excess of resources at his disposal: the suit, the tower, money, power."
"'Switching bodies' would also give access to SHIELD, SI, the Tower, the Avengers, and highly classified documents that would otherwise be completely unobtainable." Natasha realized quite suddenly what an excellent idea such a plot would be, and was quietly impressed by the initiative, if not the execution.
Tony's mouth twisted in a grimace, "I am actually in the room, Agent Romanoff, even if I don't look it."
"Such would be impossible to forget, Stark; and your inputs would be so greatly appreciated if they weren't laced with badly concealed sarcasm." Natasha countered with a roll of her eyes before giving Tony her deadliest 'don't mess with me' glare.
Thor's laugh echoed throughout the room thereby completely ruining the effect.
"So," Natasha turned back to Bruce, brushing Tony from her mind, "What precisely happened to you when you woke up? Was there anything at all unusual?"
He smiled humorlessly, "You mean except waking up as Tony? No. No, I woke up, realized what had happened, and then ran straight to your location... and Tony," Bruce directed back to the pouting billionaire, twisting his fingers nervously, "Pepper called. You should probably talk to her before she has a heart-attack."
Bruce barely heard Tony's groan as he remembered back to his waking earlier that day. His explanation had been incredibly simplified, but the details of his awakening were boring and maybe slightly embarrassing.
Bruce didn't mention that after he had woken up - finding himself on a bed, completely alone, in an unfamiliar medical bay - and after had taken his usual deep calming breaths to quell the post-Hulk emotions, the shock of concern at finding them blaringly absent, and the moment of panic when he realized that so was the Other Guy.
Bruce tried to calm down using the breathing exercises he had learned years ago, when he'd still had very minimal control of Hulk, and after a few minutes, just when his racing heart had steadied, a phone sounded off. The tune of Black Sabbath's 'Iron Man' echoed loudly in the empty room.
Quickly jumping into action, Bruce grabbed the cell from the nightstand placed near the bed. Without checking the caller ID, he flipped it open and immediately regretted his rash decision as a woman's voice began screeching loudly and rapidly at the other end.
"Oh my god, Tony! Are you alright? No, wait. Don't answer that. Steve told me what happened. You could have died! Do you know how worried I've been?" Pepper, Bruce realized belatedly, snorted and continued, "Of course you do, you just don't care."
Bruce blinked, trying to collect himself for an appropriate answer to the conversation, but came up blank.
He squirmed a bit on the top of his bed, feeling like he was intruding on something private as Tony's girlfriend continued to yell at him about how worried she'd been, how Tony was only human but an idiot, how Tony could very well die to his carelessness, how Pepper had been fielding reporters all day since the accident, why Tony couldn't just call her, and she had to go now and clean up messes made by childish billionaires, but try not to get into anymore trouble, Tony.
"But Ms. Potts, I'm-"
"And stay alive, and be careful, you have a meeting on Friday – don't forget, and the relevant paperwork is in your workshop waiting to be signed, and I'll see you as soon I can, okay? Bye. And don't forget to eat something."
"But, I'm no-"
And then there was a dial tone in Bruce's ear and the line went dead.
Bruce blinked, pulled the phone from his ear, and stared, perplexed, at the little device in his hands for several seconds before he realized that Pepper had not once stopped to ask who it was she was talking to.
With a sigh he put the phone back on the nightstand.
It was strange, but he didn't give it much thought as his mind returned back to the Other Guy and what had happened to him. Now that he wasn't in a state of panic or in the presence of an overly anxious woman, he was able to reassess the situation and his surroundings.
Bruce had to know why he was no longer sharing thinking-space with Hulk; but perhaps he should first figure out where he was, and where, exactly, the others were.
Usually he woke up with at least one or two of his team-mates nearby so that they could release him from the Cage as soon as possible; and maybe try to help him calm down if there was any need for such. This time, however, he was alone and though that was strange, waking up in a bed, for once, was a welcoming change.
Sitting up was painful. His muscles were sore, and he could have sworn that at least one rib was cracked; even if he knew such was impossible as the Other Guy prevented any kind of injury that might have been inflicted unto him.
Bruce stretched, his arms high above his head, but the aching twinge in his chest wouldn't go away. Puzzled, Bruce looked down and felt his breath hitch.
His mind went into overdrive for any possible explanation, but his emotions, which he usually kept under a tight leash, got the better of him. Bruce started to hyperventilate.
There, protruding from his chest, was the arc reactor. Its blue light illuminated clearly through the thin white shirt he was wearing.
"Oh my god," Bruce managed between breaths. "Oh god."
He started to feel lightheaded as his breathing got progressively worse, and he keeled forward to rest his head in his hands…. which was when Bruce actually noticed his hands.
They were full of blemishes and scars, much like his own hands actually; but they were smaller, more petite. It wasn't a word he had ever associated with himself before now.
Taking a deep breath which rattled his whole frame, he ran his hands over his face, noticing for the first time the well-shaped goatee and the different shapes and angles which had replaced his own features.
"Oh no. No, no, no, no, no." He moaned and grabbed his hair, which was shorter and rougher.
Everything was off. His face, his hair, his hands, his body...
In a panic, Bruce stumbled out of bed, but didn't get more than two steps before he fell over himself. He forced himself to take a deep breath, trying to calm down just enough to be rational about this. After a few seconds just lying there, on the floor, breathing, he picked himself up, but this time he grabbed onto the bed frame for support.
It was the legs, Bruce noticed. He wasn't used to legs so short.
Bruce managed to get into the bathroom without too much stumbling, and he let out a relieved breath when he finally reached his destination.
It would take time getting used to all these changes.
He hoped he wouldn't have to though.
Steadying himself, Bruce made his way over to the small mirror above the sink. He feared what he might find there, even though he already suspected what he might see reflected. The evidence was blindingly obvious after all, and Bruce was no idiot.
Nonetheless, when he finally reached the mirror and got a proper look, it was like the world around him crumbled, and Bruce's stomach was flopping violently as he stared at the wide-eyed reflection of Tony Stark.
Things were a bit of a blur after that.
He remembered running past Clint and Steve as he escaped the small room he had woken up in. Bruce didn't doubt for a second that they were on their way to see Tony, but he didn't have time to explain when he didn't even really understand it himself.
So Bruce just flew past them at a speed he didn't even know the engineer was capable of.
Their protests were barely heard as he flung himself into the next right corridor and down the hallway which would lead towards the Hulk's cage.
He remembered bristling with tension as the doors slid open, revealing the chaotic scene before him as if in slow-motion. Natasha and Thor stood by the cage, but Bruce didn't pay them any mind as he stared at the person behind the Hulk-proof glass.
It was him. But it wasn't.
And the person who was in control of his body seemed to have very little control over the Hulk.
He stood frozen as he watched the horrid transformation that he had so often had undergone, but had never witnessed. He could hear bones breaking and resetting themselves. He could see light brown skin turn green and get stretched as muscles grew and bulged under ripping clothes.
The Hulk roared in uncontrolled fury and rage. The sound was beyond inhumanity, and Bruce had only heard of something similar just once, with the Abomination. It rattled his bones, and snapped him out of his frozen state.
His voice, now so unfamiliar and strange, echoed throughout the room, but was still drowned out by angry thrashing and shouts as the Hulk raged, leaving Tony dead to the world.
Bruce had refused to leave Tony, even as the Hulk, alone after that; and left no explanation to either Natasha or Fury as they questioned him about it later. Soon enough, they, along with Thor, left him with Tony; who, after an hour and a half, had finally de-Hulked.
Bruce had Tony transferred to a different room than the Hulk-cage. There were objections, of course, about leaving Tony, who they thought was Bruce, unsupervised, in a normal room, and alone with Bruce, who they thought was Tony; but after much discussion and convincing, Bruce had managed to sway Fury.
"Because placing him back into the cage is going to make him such a bundle of joy when he wakes, don't you think?" He'd snarked, playing up his best Tony impression.
And Bruce had wanted to tell them the truth. He had wanted to feel the anger he hadn't let himself feel properly for years, and use it to shout that he wasn't Tony and this was all some sort of cheap magic-trick and a big misunderstanding.
But he'd feared the outcome of such an action, and though Natasha and Thor may believe him now, and might've even back then; when he'd stumbled into the room like some sort of madman, it was really everyone else he was worried about.
That's why they had to keep it a secret.