Disclaimer: not my characters, not even my plot. This was inspired by a very old (in internet time) unfilled prompt here: avengerkink. Livejournal ?thread=8570501#t8570501
Anon, I hope you happen to see this, and I hope you enjoy!
Note: I have ridiculous amounts of love for the fics where all the Avengers are just randomly living together in the tower. And I can totally see this happening at some point. But in this fic, which isn't set too very long (maybe less than a year) after the movie ends, only Bruce and Steve are living with Tony.
Also, for those of you who don't know, there is a site called ratemyprofessor where students, well, rate their professors. Students can also give their professor chili peppers, indicating that they're attractive; this is what Tony means when he says that to Bruce.
Summary: Tony gets sick from prolonged exposure to Bruce Banner and his gamma rays. It all goes downhill from there. Heavy bromance and char death.
It starts slow, just a vague dizziness that's less vertigo and more disorientation. Like the world's been knocked a few tenths of a degree of its axis. It's annoying, and a bit inconvenient, but Tony lets it be. JARVIS hasn't mentioned it, and that's enough for him. Maybe he's finally reached an age where sleep is an actual necessity. Maybe he's finally reached an age where alcohol intake should be lessened. It's easy enough to ignore the dizziness.
The vomiting, less so. That starts a few weeks later.
JARVIS wants to scan him forthwith, but Tony- sounding maybe a bit less authoritative than usual from his position on the bathroom floor- orders him not to. It only lasts an hour or so- no big deal, honestly- before he's able to push himself up and go about his life. It's the same story on the second day, and the third.
On the fourth day, Steve finds him. Fucking Steve, it would be him. He knows Bruce has noticed his late arrivals to the lab, his grumpiness, and the apple-sized bruises that pass for dark circles around his eyes. But Bruce, being the good guy he is, has left it alone.
Maybe there was no bro code in the 40's. Maybe Steve's just going to be like this from now on, keeping this mama bear watch on "his" "team". Or maybe he's just an asshole.
In any case, Steve picks him up from the floor with one hand and guides him back to bed with an arm around his waist, which pisses Tony off, but not as much as he might have expected. He does everything but fluff the pillows- and Tony is pretty sure he contemplates it at least- before ordering Tony to stay in bed for the rest of the day. Tony wants to disagree, to disobey, simply on principle, but he's actually forgotten how soft his mattress is and how warm his sheets are, and okay, he stays in bed for the rest of the day.
On the fifth morning, Tony feels great. He eats a full breakfast, which he's hardly ever done, let alone recently, and hurries to the lab, worried Bruce cured cancer or something in his absence.
Bruce has only just caught him up on things- and no, no cure yet, Tony thinks he probably shouldn't be glad about that- when suddenly the dizziness is about fifty-seven times worse than it's ever been. When he comes-to, Bruce is very pale and blank-faced and oh yes, also cradling him in his arms.
"How long?" Tony groans, and even though he's pretty sure it comes out more like hwlnnn, Bruce- bless him- answers.
"Just over a minute. I, uh, was gonna give you til a minute-thirty before I went and got the Cap."
"Why the hell would you've gotten him?" Tony grouches, and Bruce gives a nervous smile.
"Heard he's good at taking care of you."
"Shit," Tony moans. "Remind me to feel betrayed when the urge to puke my guts up passes."
Tony's not sure who's hovering more- Bruce or JARVIS. JARVIS, of course, can't physically present the awkwardly lurking presence that Bruce does, but he's making up for it pretty damn well. Spread out on a work bench which had been hastily cleared of coffee mugs and spare metal bits, Tony's doing his best to ignore the man-to-machine chatter as Bruce and JARVIS determine what tests to run.
Tony wants to tell them to fuck off, really, he does. But opening his mouth is a questionable idea at the moment. And, when he finally works up the nerve to speak- to tell them he just needs some peace and quiet- he accidentally says "been dizzy lately" instead.
Bruce looks over at him and says "okay", with eyes like a kicked puppy and a voice like a robot from an ancient sci-fi flick.
"I consistently monitor all residents for all the standard illness," JARVIS frets, while Bruce brushes his hands through the air, turning the pages of a medical text onscreen. "Cancer of all types, arteriosclerotic heart disease, diabetes mellitus..."
"How about the flu?" Tony groans. "Did you try that?"
"Will you hush?" Bruce snips, and Tony does because that's about the most irritation Bruce can show before he starts to get down on himself. Instead he curls up on his side, ignoring JARVIS's insistence that the scans will function better with him on his back, and focuses on not throwing up.
A solid hour passes; Tony watches Bruce skim for a while, but his speed-reading skills don't exactly make for a relaxing scene. Instead he closes his eyes and dozes. When he comes-to, he's not sure if he imaged Bruce's cry or not.
"JARVIS, do you monitor radiation levels here?"
"I do." The room lights up as read-outs flash across the screens.
"Do you"- Bruce's voice is thick, choked- "monitor levels of gamma radiation?"
JARVIS seems to pause. "I do not."
Bruce is sweating. Tony struggles to sit, ignoring the churning in his gut; calming Bruce has become an instinct more undeniable than any illness or lethargy.
"Scan for gamma radiation."
"I am detecting low levels of gamma radiation in this laboratory, emanating from the body of Doctor Bruce Banner."
"I do not detect gamma-"
"Lower your parameters," Bruce demands. "Gamma radiation affects humans at vastly lower levels than other types."
Another pause. Screens flash. The fingers of Bruce's left hand unconsciously adjust and readjust his shirt.
"Confirmed," JARVIS says. "Gamma radiation is present in minute qualities in the body of Tony Stark. This is almost certainly the cause of his recent illness."
Bruce's cheeks color green. For one wild moment, Tony's not sure if he's about to hulk out or about to throw up.
"I need a plane," he chokes.
"I need a plane with autopilot. I can't fly it."
"Let's talk about this-"
"Do you understand?" Bruce howls, the color deepening. "I'm poison! I poisoned you! I need to get out of here and I need to get out now."
There's no point in arguing or discussion, though that still needs to happen. "Okay," Tony soothes. "Take the elevator to the roof. JARVIS will fly you somewhere isolated. Isla Antonio, I think. JARVIS?"
Bruce is breathing deeply, but evenly; the panic on his face is the same that Tony feels running all the way from his head to his toes. This doesn't make sense, and usually when something doesn't make sense he and Bruce talk it through. But right now Bruce is at the center of it all, and the only thing Tony knows is that he's got to get out of there now.
"JARVIS will alert me when you've landed. Then I'll call you and we'll figure this out."
Bruce nods tightly. Tony pushes himself awkwardly to the floor, stumbling a bit as he reaches out to his friend-
"Stay AWAY!" Bruce bellows, fear and grief becoming visible anger as a flare of green goes off in his eyes.
It's not just the threat of an appearance by the Other Guy that Tony can see, though- along with the spike of gamma-fueled energy, there are tears, only seconds away from actual spillage.
"Okay," Tony murmurs, not because of how hard Bruce is trying not to hulk out, but because of how hard he's trying not to cry. "Okay." He takes a few steps backwards, hands raised.
"Sirs, the plane is ready," JARVIS interjects.
An hour later Tony has antibiotics and and antimicrobials pumping through his body and JARVIS has the best stem cell transplant researchers on speed dial, just in case. Tony's feeling better already though- physically, at least.
Emotionally, he feels like an atom bomb has gone off his in gallbladder.
Pepper's clean. Steve's clean. Apparently it takes pretty prolonged exposure to Bruce to build up any kind of toxic levels of his radiation- the kind of prolonged exposure that comes with being lab partners, at least where Bruce Banner and Tony Stark are concerned.
He's just gotten done explaining the situation to Pepper- in other words, he's been done for five minutes or so, and she's just now finished fussing- when JARVIS cuts in with an announcement that Bruce's plane has arrived safely on Tony's largest private island. After stocking the pantries, and cleaning staff has followed evacuation orders promptly.
"Put him on," Tony orders, and Pepper sneaks away; a ringing fills the air and a minute later Bruce's face appears on the nearest screen. His face is deeply lined and his eyes are droopy. Funny how in less than two hours a man can go from looking well-rested to looking like he hasn't slept in days.
"You look worse than I do," Tony quips, and Bruce just stares back haggardly. "This only happened, incidentally, because we spend so damn much time together," Tony goes on. He smirks. "Pepper was right after all. So don't go thinking this is a flyby situation. If the UPS guy comes and you chat it up for a few minutes, he's gonna be okay." Bruce doesn't seem amused. "Okay, I'll cancel the care package shipment. Jeez."
"Stop joking," Bruce says. It's not a plea or a command; it's just two words that Tony obeys faster than he's ever obeyed anything in his life. "I could've killed you."
"Kind of comes with the territory, being your friend."
"No." Bruce deflates. "I could have. Not the Other Guy- Bruce Banner."
"I don't suppose it's worth pointing out that, um, you didn't."
Bruce is sweating again, trembling. He looks away, over his shoulder, and Tony has the sudden sensation that Bruce is stranded in the desert or the arctic or somewhere equally terrifying. Somehow, remembering that he's in a beachfront mansion on a tropical island detracts a bit from the situational gravitas.
"We'll figure this out," Tony says quietly.
"I can't believe I didn't think of this sooner."
"We'll figure this out," Tony says again, so sharply that Bruce looks back at the screen. "Bruce," Tony murmurs. "It's gonna be okay."
The glare is so intense Tony almost recoils. "I poisoned you," Bruce spits. "Just from spending time with you. God, I'm-"
"You're what?" Tony asks quietly, when Bruce breaks off, biting his lip.
"I'm just not su-" his words become a sigh, seemingly without his consent. "Not supposed to be around anyone. I get it now."
"Stop it," Tony orders. "If I say we're gonna figure this out, Doctor Banner, then we're gonna figure it out. The first thing I need to do is get some kind of containment room in the tower. Shouldn't take too long. Go skinny dip or make a virgin piña colada or something."
Bruce's laugh is shaky, nearly tearful, but he nods and signs off.
It's nearly five hours later, well past midnight, when Tony gets a text that reads other guy broke your jetski but i did end up skinny dipping.
He's pretty sure it actually breaks his heart.
The next weeks are a blur. Tony shuts himself in the lab, eating and sleeping only when he's about to drop, completely abandoning the twenty-four hour day. His calls to Bruce, because Bruce typically answers from the patio or the well-windowed kitchen, are the only glimpse he has into the world of morning-noon-night. Like when he calls Bruce to ask if his average body temp has changed since the incident, and the stars are bright in the sky behind him. Like when he calls Bruce to ask the exact gamma wavelengths used in his trials, and the sun is just beginning to set.
Pepper keeps herself busy, but SHIELD seems to have gotten wind of the radiation situation, because Steve has been assigned the sole task- apparently- of lurking around the tower asking if he can help. Finally, once Tony's decided which lab will become Bruce's, he enlists Steve's aid in setting up the living area that will also be enclosed. He gives Steve permission to pilfer from any room in the tower.
A day or two later he checks in to find that Steve has made the back corner of the lab actually livable. He's remembered amenities Tony himself would surely have forgotten. He doesn't tell Steve that Bruce won't expect this kind of thing any more than Tony would- any more than Steve himself would, honestly- but there's something oddly comforting about Steve smiling awkwardly, standing beside a full-sized bed, a tv, a fridge, and a modest chest of drawers. Something oddly comforting about the way the three pieces of art he's hung on the wall don't coordinate whatsoever. Something oddly comforting about the way Steve has arranged room dividers between the furniture and the rest of the area, because no, when it comes down to it, Bruce is not a fucking experiment and shouldn't have to live in a science lab.
As it happens, Steve finishes with that at just about the same time Tony is finally satisfied with his containment plan. Once the glass is shipped and properly treated, it only takes the two of them a week to fully line the lab.
Tony's in such a good mood he even lets Steve wave from the background as he makes the call to Bruce that it's time for him to come home.
Bruce looks tired, thinner, and laughably tan. His scruff isn't even a beard yet, so it seems he's kept up shaving at least occasionally, but his hair has been growing unhindered this whole time and now hangs nearly to his chin. He's wearing clothes that Tony remembers leaving on the island- sending Bruce some of his own outfits, that's something Steve should have reminded him to do! But they fit all right. The jeans are a little tight, but they're a good length; the t-shirt is the right size, although Tony would definitely wager money that Bruce doesn't actually know what Type O Negative means, at least in a musical context.
"You look like that one professor that all the girls give chili peppers," Tony comments, by way of greeting. They're standing on the roof and Tony's pretty sure it's the first fresh air he's breathed in weeks. Bruce almost seems like he wants to smile at that; instead, he inches backwards.
"Do you or do you not remember the UPS guy conversation?" Tony sighs. "Five minutes is not going to kill me."
Bruce tugs at his t-shirt hem, like the lack of buttons on his shirt is the real reason he's nervous. "I shouldn't have come back."
"I always feel that way leaving Isla Antonio."
"This is too big of a risk."
"Jeez, you're a downer," Tony whines. "C'mon. Who else can say they've got a state-of-the-art private lab in the middle of Manhattan that's built to contain a hot-tempered alter ego and is fully equipped to contain gamma radiation leakage? Oh, there's a bathroom too. We almost forgot that."
"Fully equipped?" It's Bruce's only reply.
Tony harrumphs. "By my calculations, it would take seven years, hindered by this glass, to transmit as much radiation as you did to me in less than a year. And that much didn't even kill me. And that's only if we stood directly on opposite sides for all seven years."
"You really think it'll take that long to figure this out?" Tony grins. "With both of us on the case?"
Bruce shifts awkwardly, playing with his shirt again. "I guess not, no."
"Good. Come on. You talk about being a radiation danger, and here you are hanging around outside." When Bruce almost winces at that, Tony quickly redirects. "Cap took care of the décor. You've got a Pollock next to a scandalous Courbet next to some fugly fruit still life Pepper likes."
Tony turns to go back inside; Bruce hangs back, seemingly afraid to get within twenty feet of him, which is actually kind of starting to piss him off by now. "UPS," he hisses loudly, like that's all that needs to be said.
Apparently it is. Half a second later he's got hairy man-arms flung around his neck. Bruce is clinging to Tony with a ferocity he's never seemed to allow himself before; his hands clench tightly around the muscle and flesh of Tony's back, holding on like only a man who hasn't been held in years can accomplish. Tony brings his own hands up, laying them flat against Bruce's shoulderblades as Bruce wedges his bicep under Tony's chin, smushing their chests together, like he's trying to climb on top of Tony, or maybe inside of him.
Then, with a cramp in his stomach that has nothing to do with radiation, Tony realizes that Bruce is counting. Counting down, and he's already at seven.
Something flares up in Tony's chest- panic? Despair?- but he doesn't react, just forces himself to breathe evenly as Bruce presses his face tighter against Tony's neck and whispers, "six, five, four"- sigh- "three, two. One."
Bruce doesn't drop him arms gently; he literally pushes Tony away from him. "What floor is the lab?"
"I'll show you-"
"You're not riding in an elevator with me! What floor is the lab?" Bruce demands.
"Thirty-first." Tony's surprised at how quiet his own voice is.
"Thanks." Then he's gone.
Tony gives him an hour or so to settle in before dropping by. It's a bit awkward, having to remember to turn the intercom on before announcing himself, but he's certainly done stranger things than have a conversation through a wall of lead-treated glass.
There's a small, open area between the elevator and the glass, enough for a few chairs and potted plants. It looks like a strange sort of reception room, like there should be a nurse's desk where the lab is, but it's not bad for short notice. Tony drags a chair to the glass and perches on its arm. Bruce is acquainting himself with the equipment; he looks calmer now that he's contained, now that he's changed into a pale blue button-down and brown slacks.
"I don't think Steve knows they're supposed to be prostitutes," Tony comments, gesturing to the Courbet in the living area. "I don't have the heart to tell him."
Bruce actually kind of smiles at that. "It's okay. I don't have the heart to tell him I hate Jackson Pollock." He closes the drawers of the table he's been examining and comes to the glass, crossing his arms and leaning against the nearest furniture, which happens to be a sink.
"You like the fugly fruit better than the Pollock?"
Now Bruce looks appalled. "The fruit's a Garzoni! Are you even aware of the art you own?"
Tony shrugs. "Pepper generally sees to that. I didn't realize you were an art lover."
Bruce gives a real smile now, half shy and slightly lopsided. "Once upon a time I was just another freshman taking Art History for the girls."
"How did that work out for you?"
"Well, I was fifteen, and I still looked twelve. So mostly they just wanted to mother me, but I was okay with that. You had some nice watercolors on the island-"
Bruce stops short in the middle of his own sentence, and Tony can see the exact moment that remembers why he was on the island to begin with.
"I should get started," he huffs. "I had some ideas while I was there."
"Yeah," Tony agrees hurriedly. "I have some ideas too. I'll come by later to compare notes."
"Okay," Bruce murmurs, and then Tony leaves him standing in the middle of a glass-enclosed lab on a windowless floor of Stark tower, all alone in the middle of Manhattan.
Tony and Bruce have pretty dramatically different ideas of the way they want to approach their hypothetical radiation blocker, so they fall quickly into the routine of working on their own projects, sharing only minimal data.
It's surprisingly hard working alone, after all those months with Bruce at his side; that's something Tony Stark would never have anticipated, but it seems true. He wonders if Bruce feels the same way. There's plenty to keep them both busy, though, and Tony doesn't go out of his way to visit Bruce's lab. At least not often. Because, you know, he's got shit to do- and okay, it hurts a little seeing Bruce caged like a lab rat.
Steve and Pepper, on the other hand, make good use of their so-called keener grasp on social graces. They check on them both often, and at odd hours- nobody in the Stark tower keeps to a real sleep schedule of any kind. But Tony just accepts their coffee (or kisses, when it comes to Pepper), and wordlessly sends them on their way. As near as he can tell, Bruce typically doesn't entertain guests either.
So Tony's not surprised when he goes to visit Bruce, and Steve's already there. He's not surprised that this is all happening at one in the morning. He is a bit surprised, though, to find them both cross-legged on opposite sides of the glass, deep in conversation. Bruce is explaining something with precise but dramatic hand gestures; his manner is unusually relaxed, his face calm and open. Steve's hair is an uncharacteristic mess. Leaning forward, nodding occasionally, he looks for once like the overeager twentysomething kid he is, instead of the ageless supersolider than he- well- also kind of is.
"Am I interrupting something?" Tony drawls. Bruce looks up with a small smile.
"I think our good captain actually almost understands cluster decay."
"Almost," Steve emphasizes, craning his head around to nod at Tony. His nose is wrinkled up; Tony can see his wheels grinding away. "I was okay with the atomic structure and the fission theory, but I'm not so sure about the tunneling bit."
"I think you can be excused for not fully understanding quantum mechanics the first time you hear it," Bruce tells him.
"First time?" Tony teases, though uncritically. "Cap, they had QM back in your day!" Steve chuckles and turns back to Bruce.
"Wasn't exactly a required course at art school."
"I'd have you in one of my classes any day," Bruce laughs.
"I'd just draw," Steve admits with a sigh. Bruce's lips quirk.
"Would it surprise you to know I'm not half-bad myself?" he blurts, then looks a bit surprised. "At drawing, I mean," he adds. "That's another class I took for the girls, Tony."
Steve leans back on his hands. "It wouldn't surprise me at all. You should show me your work one day."
"I'd like to." There's something in Bruce's voice- something Steve seems to miss and Tony doesn't quite understand either. Then it's gone. "I think it's about to get very geeky in the room, though."
"That's my cue, then." Steve pushes himself to his feet and flashes an easy, guileless smile at them both before making his way to the elevator. Bruce stares at the doors until they close, his expression almost wistful.
Tony's heart drops. He knows that face- he knows the catch in Bruce's voice now.
He knows how it looks when a man is saying goodbye.
"Shit," he whispers, drawing a sharp, deep breath.
Bruce climbs to his feet, achingly, like an old man. "I have something to show you," he says blandly.
"Did you have any luck with the argon idea?" Tony asks, although somehow he knows Bruce hasn't.
"I'd been thinking about this for a while," Bruce replies, though it isn't an actual answer. He retrieves a beaker from the nearest table and returns to the glass.
"Thinking about what?" Tony's got a feeling in his stomach that he doesn't like one bit.
"While I'm alive," Bruce explains slowly, "the gamma radiation is fueled by my metabolism."
"What?" Tony snaps. "What do you mean? What the hell have you been working on?"
"A solution." Bruce's laughter is strained. "Look, I made a pun."
"You're working on a radiation blocker."
"I wasn't having much luck."
"You're working on a radiation blocker, just like I am."
Bruce gives a sad, knowing little smile, and holds up a beaker for inspection. The liquid inside is flat, clear yellow- could be apple juice, but Tony knows by instinct that's it's very-fucking-much not apple juice.
"It takes effect almost instantly. Most poisons, the Other Guy would take be able to take over and metabolize in time. Not this stuff." He fights some sort of a grimace, then goes on. "Other poisons are fast enough, but they work on the nerves mostly, and mine seem be protected." He pauses, though Tony thinks for a minute that he just can't hear him anymore over the sound of the blood in his ears. "In northern Greenland," Bruce continues, "there's an abandoned containment facility, lead-lined. If I can get in there, my body should be well enough isolated during decomp. I've run some calculations, and it shouldn't be more than six years-"
"Stop," Tony hisses.
"Shouldn't be more than six years before my remains-"
"STOP," Tony shouts, slapping his hands against the glass. "Don't say that. Don't talk about yourself like you're a waste product, Banner. Just fucking don't."
Bruce smiles again, and shit fuck shit, he's crying, and Tony really really really can't take this. "Do you know how long it's taken me to come up with something that will work on me? Something the Other Guy can't save me from? This is the only way out of this, Tony." Tears are dripping from beneath his glasses, sliding down his jaw, falling onto his shirt. "I'm going to Greenland; I'm going to lock myself in that building. And then I'm gonna stick a needle of this in my arm. I just"- his voice breaks, for the first and only time, but it's horrible, it's so much terror and despair that it doesn't seem real- "can I just borrow that plane again?"
"No!" It's supposed to be a command but it's really much more of a sob. "No, you cannot borrow a fucking plane so you can fly to fucking Greenland and fucking kill yourself!" Tony's never felt more utterly incapable of handling the situation presented to him.
"The effects will be evident in seven-point-three seconds," Bruce informs him dispassionately; tears keep pouring down. "I should be unconscious within a minute and dead within six. Even if the Other Guy comes out, this should still work on him. And if it happens there, I don't have to worry. I'll be alone."
"Do you wanna die?" Tony shrieks, hitting the base of his palm against the glass. "Is that what this is about?"
Bruce shakes his head. "It's complicated."
"It's actually really not," Tony counters, with a sick, hard laugh. "Do you. Want. To die?"
Bruce sighs. He sets the poison down on the lab table and digs his thumbs into his streaming eyes. "No. Not anymore. But- I need to."
"You need to?" Tony echos mockingly.
"Yes. Why shouldn't I?" Bruce scoffs. "What the hell am I good for? I've always been a danger to everyone- now I'm a danger even if I don't lose control. Th-there's nothing I can do about this. I can't protect a-anyone from this. I-I only have- one friend. One real friend." Bruce blinks; Tony's heart pounds. "And I went and almost m-murdered him with radiation poisoning, just for hanging around me."
"I'm your friend?" Tony howls, hitting the glass again. "I'm your friend, Banner? Then why are you asking me to help you kill yourself? That's not a very friendly thing to do!"
"You're making this hard," Bruce replies, not plaintively, but flatly.
"There's nothing hard about it. It's not happening."
"You're not doing it."
"Is that box sound-proof or something?" Tony spits. "You're not listening to me. I'm not letting you kill yourself."
"I could do it right now," Bruce counters suddenly, a harsh and not entirely stable look in his eyes. "I'm trying not to inconvenience anyone by leaving a radioactive corpse in the middle of your tower, but I- I could- d-do it." The hardness of his tear-streaked face falters, and for a moment Tony thinks he can see Bruce- Bruce before any of this happened, Bruce from ten years ago, sad and scared and strangely hopeful. "Let me do this," he sobs. He bows his head for a minute before visibly regaining control and looking back up, scrubbing his eyes.
Tony puts his hand against the glass and waits; slowly, timidly, Bruce does the same, lining them up. Tony's fingers just barely extend beyond the tips of Bruce's. He's is momentarily shocked by the visual proof of just how thick the barrier between them really is, and he wonders if his friend is too. Despite this, he feels suddenly very close to him- literally- like this is more important than any kiss or hug or handshake could ever be.
"Don't do it tonight," Tony rasps. "Give me a little more time. Work with me on it. If you can figure that out, we can figure this out, easy peasy."
Bruce chuckles. Their eyes and hands are still locked through the glass. "Easy peasy?"
"Lemon squeezy," Tony vows, and then they're both giggling, hysterically, and all Tony can think of is please god please don't let this be the last time I hear him laugh.
He should've realized: Bruce never actually agreed.
In the blue light of the lab computer screens, Tony watches Bruce toss and turn in his bed. He himself falls asleep on the chair, still pushed up against the glass. Maybe it's the utter exhaustion of actually emoting- maybe it's the utter exhaustion of the past few months combined- but Tony doesn't think he'll ever know for sure why he doesn't wake up on his own, why it takes JARVIS rousing him to realize that Bruce is gone.
"Sir, I'm afraid Doctor Banner has overridden your lock on the aircraft," the computer informs him in its typical dry drone, and Tony is stumbling to the elevator before he even finishes the sentence.
This is why he designed the suit to go on quickly. This moment- right here, at this point in time.
Iron Man is in flight less than five minutes later.
The suit is fast, Tony reminds himself. The suit will intercept the plane, or at the very least not get there any later than it.
He should've realized: he designed the plane too.
It's already grounded by the time Tony slams into the snowy ground, breathing like he's run the whole distance instead of flown. Bruce wasn't kidding- the place is abandoned, creepy, just a big industrial building with the front door cracked a few inches open.
It looks like a tomb.
Bruce is sitting cross-legged on the floor, in the middle of the space. He doesn't seem surprised to see Tony.
"I brought the blocker!" Tony cries, pulling his helmet off and letting it fall to the floor. He pulls the needle full of blocker from its compartment and holds it aloft.
"You said it wasn't ready," Bruce replies suspiciously.
"I didn't test it yet. But I think I know a guy."
Bruce chuckles. Tony's heart won't stop racing.
"It's too big a risk," Bruce sighs. "Honestly, it's not worth it."
"Yes- it fucking- IS!"
Bruce looks at him. Then he closes his eyes and jabs the needle of poison in his arm.
Tony doesn't shout. He doesn't scream. He doesn't dash at Bruce or take him into his arms. Instead he goes to his side and sits down next to him.
"Shit," he says, deflated. His voice echoes in the empty space.
"'m sorry." Bruce's is so quiet and breathy that it becomes no more than a whisper breezing back to them. Then a spasm jerks through him and he groans, dropping the needle. "Oh- my stomach hurts."
Tony feels safer in the suit- he always does- but suddenly he wishes he weren't wearing it. All he can think of is how cold, how inhuman it must feel as he wraps his fingers around Bruce's wrist.
"Maybe you should lie down," he suggests hoarsely.
"Yeah." Suddenly Bruce is shivering, hard. He stretches his legs out- they twitch with every movement- and Tony doesn't think twice before pulling Bruce's upper body into his lap.
"Don't be a-angry," Bruce murmurs.
"Of course I'm angry, asshole," Tony snaps, holding Bruce tighter.
"I-" Bruce begins, before another cramp rolls through his body, worse than the first. "I'm not," he finishes, and it sounds like a revelation.
"I should've just bowled you over the second I got here."
"Death by Iron Man is better than this?" Bruce teases.
"I only would've knocked you out."
"If wishes... were fishes," Bruce breathes, his voice beginning to break apart.
"This is taking longer than a minute," Tony chokes, and Bruce chuckles.
"My last... miscalculation," he wheezes. "You... really that... eager?"
"You're hurting," Tony blurts, as through Bruce didn't know. Bruce laughs in response, and stops holding his head up- willfully or not, Tony isn't sure. He slips a hand under the base of Bruce's neck, though he knows he makes a terrible cushion.
"Thank you," Bruce whispers.
"Why the hell are you thanking me?" Tony bawls. "Five minutes sooner and you'd be fine. Five minutes sooner, and I'd let you thank me."
Tears slip down Bruce's temples, lingering like dew in his silvering hair. His hand trembles as he lifts it, but there is strength left in him to grasp Tony's arm. "You don't know... how much it means... that someone's gonna miss me."
"Don't die," Tony sobs dumbly, shaking Bruce, like he's a sieve with sand slipping out of it.
"Tony," Bruce smiles. "'sokay."
"How is this okay? How can you fucking call this okay?"
Bruce catches his gaze, though Tony wants to look away, wants to hide, wants to drown in the ocean of his own utter disbelief. Bruce's half-closed eyes are gentle and wistful and one hundred percent brown. "'cause. I'm dying... as myself."
And those are the last words of Bruce Banner. Tony brings his friend's toxic body to his chest and listens as his breathing slows.
There isn't a way out of this one.
And Tony knows what he's going to do about it.
He lays Bruce down gently. His knees tremble but his hands are steady as he jabs the needle of blocker into Bruce's heart and empties it of all its contents. He rises, presses both hand's to Bruce's chest, and pumps, praying it will be enough, along with his own weakening circulation, to deposit the chemical throughout his body.
Beneath his palms, he is aware of the shuddering and stopping of his friend's heart.
It worked. It has to have worked, because if Tony has to bring Bruce's body back out here, bury it in the middle of nowhere- well, if he has to do that, it might just be a one-way trip for both of them.
The plane pilots itself; good thing because Tony hasn't let Bruce go. They're sitting together on the floor of the cabin, whipping through the pink Atlantic sunrise, back to the smog of Manhattan. Somehow, though it seems impossible, it's been less than six hours since Tony found Bruce laughing, absolutely animated, teaching Steve Rogers advanced physics.
Pepper and Steve are standing on the roof. Pepper gasps when she sees them; Steve looks like he might be sick. Out of the plane, Tony takes one step, two steps, before his knees buckle.
"Bruce-" Steve murmurs.
"Tony?" Pepper begins, hesitantly.
"I- I gave him the blocker-" Suddenly Bruce's body is in Steve's arms instead of Tony's, and Tony is on his knees, and Pepper is at his side, stroking his hair. "I wanted to- bring him back. I didn't want- to leave him there." He's pretty sure he's going to throw up sometime within the next minute, or maybe pass out, or maybe burst into tears. Before anything, though, he's got to make sure.
"JARVIS," Tony gasps. "JARVIS, is he safe? Is his body safe?"
"Radiation levels of Doctor Banner's body are within acceptable limits," JARVIS replies.
Tony lets out a heaving, gusting sigh. "Brought 'im home, Pepper," he slurs, leaning into her body and letting her hold him up. His voice is five percent proud and ninety-five percent broken to pieces. "I brought him home."
The funeral isn't much, but at least they can have one. The Avengers, well, assemble, one man short of a full line up.
Steve, in dress uniform, cries quietly. Thor- and how they hell did they get word to him anyway? Interdimensional facebook?- stands beside him with a hand on Steve's shoulder and a bemused, somewhat lost expression on his own face. Clint, Natasha, and Fury lurk like sentinels on the sidelines.
Tony stands between Pepper and Rhodey, and doesn't so much as sigh.
He lets the two of them hug him, and lets a very red-eyed Steve get in an awkward, one-armed back-slap, but he cuts off the comfort parade after that. He's pretty sure if he let it, it could become an honest-to-god onslaught- he's being treated as the widow here, the principal mourner.
It makes sense, in a weird way. His friendship with Bruce was the most honest, straightforward relationship he's had in years. Maybe ever. He's got Pepper, and Rhodey, and okay, he's got Steve too, but with all of them everything is complicated and nuanced and a little bit mean sometimes. Not with Bruce. With Bruce it was simple, with Bruce it was two science-loving guys working in a lab together and relishing every second of just being around somebody else who knew how lonely you were, but didn't try to make you do anything about it. Bruce'd had a shitty childhood and had escaped into science and self-loathing; Tony'd had a shitty childhood and had escaped into science and self-worship. They'd been two sides of the same coin, two outcomes of a specific set of givens. Two solutions to the same equation.
And so, fuck it, Tony doesn't want the pity or the sympathy or the puppy-eyed stares, and he certainly fucking doesn't want a hug from Nick Fury or anything like that. But yeah, principal mourner sounds about right. That's his best friend in that casket.
There are good days and there are bad days. On good days, Tony knows that at least he brought Bruce home, at least he gave him the dignity of an actual burial and didn't leave him rotting somewhere in Greenland.
On bad days, Tony knows that Bruce is still dead either way.
It's a bad day when Pepper finds him on the party deck of the tower, seventy stories up in the air, sitting with his lower legs dangling rhythmically over the ledge.
"I've been talking to JARVIS," she says quietly, sliding down beside him. Tony feels her tense as vertigo teases her, but he can't bring himself to move his arm, to hold her. She can go back inside if she can't take it.
"Do you know what he told me?" Pepper prompts, worming an arm around his waist.
With herculean effort, Tony grunts in response.
"The serum," she murmurs. "The radiation-blocking agent. When Bruce took the plane, there was still only an eight percent chance of survival after injection. Even if you'd given it to him, there was more than a nine out of ten chance he'd have died anyway."
Another grunt. It's all he can muster. What he really wants to say is leave me the fuck alone, but that's an awful lot of phonemes and morphemes and stuff.
"Tony," Pepper whispers. "You did everything you could. The decision was Bruce's. Even if you'd gotten there sooner, you know he wasn't going to come home without injecting himself with one of those chemicals. Either one would have killed him."
Maybe, maybe not, Tony wants to say. Or, you know, fucking Banner could have waited a few goddamn days. They'd've gotten the blocker right eventually. There was no need for martyrdom.
"I don't-" Pepper swallows thickly. "I don't like you out on this balcony, Tony. Just- for me. You want to be alone, I get it, but please come inside. For me."
She waits through seven minutes and twelve seconds of silence before standing and turning to go.
"Bruce Banner tried to kill himself three years ago, all alone, in the middle of nowhere." Pepper is standing, not looking down; her voice is nearly lost in the wind. "Because of you- because of you, he spent this last year feeling worthwhile. Nothing can change that. He didn't die because he wanted to. And maybe in your mind, he didn't need to, but he- he still died for something. He died to keep us all safe."
Her heels click on the concrete; she's almost to the door when his voice comes back to him.
He can hear her turn, click back to the edge. Slowly, dizzily, Tony pushes himself to his feet and shuffles to her.
Pepper's arms accept him, tugging him back towards the building; he goes, led to safety like a child, blind and numb and disoriented.
It's all he can do to keep breathing.
"Shh," Pepper soothes, and warm fingers thread into his hair. "I'm here, Tony." Something is frighteningly tight in his chest and frighteningly hot on his cheeks, and Pepper holds him as a horrible sound bursts out of him, feral and vicious and utterly plaintive. "I've got you," she swears, as the tears and the sobs rip their way out of him- violently, like demons finally seeing light.