When I wake, it takes me much longer than it should to realize where I am, which is ironic, because it is right where I should be. I am in my bedchamber in Stark Tower, but something is different. I cannot place it...perhaps it is a sound, or a smell. Why can I not distinguish what is unique? And why do I suddenly feel so very weak? It is as though some unseen force is pressing me into the bed. How did I get here? I vaguely recall a battle, but the details are obscured. A battle! Where is he?
And suddenly he is there beside me, kneeling at my bedside and taking my hand and saying my name. He is alive, then. Thank the fates for that.
I hear my name, a fervent whisper, and his face, a paradox of relief and worry, swims before my eyes before I can focus again. I blink, and I realize that the action is painful. What has happened to bring me so low so suddenly? I open my mouth and try to speak, but he shushes me, squeezing my hand and carding his fingers through my hair. In place of the words, I swallow, and my throat feels rough and scratchy, as though water has not passed my lips in quite some time. Again, there are questions-questions that I do not have the strength to ask. But I can feel my brother's loving touch, and hear his voice murmuring that it is all right, that I am safe, and just now I am content with that. Just to know that he is there.
But the peace, however relative, does not last. Stark's computer system must have alerted Dr. Banner the moment I awoke, for he enters the room carrying a bag of medical equipment. His mouse-colored locks stick every which way, and his spectacles are slightly crooked, as though he has been running his hands over his face and through his hair, a habit to which I know he is prone. My brother is so fixated on me that he does not even seem to take note of Banner's entrance until the doctor places a hand on his forearm and, in his most gentle manner, bids him come away, just for a little while. My brother turns wide, injured eyes upon him, but Banner reassures him that it will only be for a few minutes, that he just needs to assess the damage now that I am awake.
Assess the damage. What damage? And how did I get damaged? I look longingly after my brother, who returns to the large armchair in the corner of my chamber. There, he sits on top of a mussed blanket which does not normally reside there, watching nervously. It is obvious that someone has tried and failed to sleep in the chair, and by the look of my poor brother, there is little doubt as to whom. Even as my vision blurs again, I can see how ill he looks. His normally bright eyes are dulled, and his hair is as unkempt as Banner's, although it is far more noteworthy in him than the perpetually nervous doctor. My brother always takes such pride in his appearance... But what really worries me are the dark circles beneath his eyes and his unhealthy pallor. His face is nearly completely devoid of color, and as he slowly lowers himself onto the chair, I can see his arms trembling, and he uses them to brace himself on the way down.
Banner is focusing his attention on me-why? I can care for myself, can he not see that my brother is unwell? He must be seen to...But why can I not form the words that I need?
The doctor's touch on my hand brings my wandering focus back to him. He says my name, and then asks,
"Do you know who I am?"
"Of course. You are Dr. Banner...Bruce. You get angry...green..." The slur and slowness of my own, abnormally rough voice unnerves and even scares me a little. There is a word for the angry, green thing, but I cannot remember it, even though I know that I should. It is worrisome, and when I glance at my brother I see written on his face the same fear, but Banner reassures me.
"Good. 'The Hulk' would be what you're looking for. I know it's probably frustrating to try to find the words right now. That's normal. Now, do you know where you are?"
"On Midgard. Stark Tower...New York."
"Good, good. And do you know what the Avengers are?"
I feel one corner of my mouth curve upward. "We are a group...seven...we fight evil. Defend Midgard." I blink heavily. It feels like someone has stuffed cotton balls into my mouth, and I cannot form complete sentences. And my head feels fuzzy but dangerous, as though if I try to turn or move in any way it will erupt in a firestorm of pain, like one of Clint Barton's exploding arrows.
Banner nods, the look of relief on his face growing. Then he asks, words slow and deliberate, "Do you remember what happened to you?"
That is a question I cannot answer. I had been hoping that he would tell me. I search my discombobulated memories and tell him what little I know.
"There...there was a battle...I cannot remember what happened." I shake my head in frustration, and immediately regret the action when a blinding pain sears through my skull and strikes me behind the eyes. The room spins, as though I am sitting inside one of the wooden tops I used to play with as a child, and had I had any food in my stomach, it more than likely would have come back up. I moan and shut my eyes, desperately hoping the vertigo will pass.
"Hey, just lie still. I'm going to give you some painkillers through your IV, so hopefully that should take the edge off. And it's okay if you can't remember the battle. People with head injuries often forget the events leading up to the trauma." I feel a needle slide into a tube that I did not realize was taped to the inside of my elbow.
As Banner finishes speaking, the pain and nausea and dizziness finally recede enough for me to open my eyes. He steadies my head by placing a hand on my cheek and shines a small light into my eyes. It makes me see spots and my head throb some more, but he seems pleased with what he sees. I feel a bit more steady now, so I risk asking questions.
"What...what happened? The others...are they all...?"
"Everyone else is just fine, except for being worried about you." He chuckles slightly. "And you know I only remember bits and pieces of what happens while I'm Hulked out, but Tony tells me you took on two dozen aliens by yourself. You were doing okay until the big one snuck up behind you and tossed you nearly half a mile into a brick building. You're lucky you just have a concussion and not broken bones or internal bleeding."
I breathe out hard through my nose, the closest I wish to try to get to a snort of self-derision. "It sounds like something I would do." I allow myself to take a little comfort in the fact that I managed to get the whole sentence out without stopping or stammering.
"It was really brave. We wouldn't have won the battle if you hadn't distracted all those aliens. You did well, buddy. But now you need to rest. You have a hell of a concussion, and the best thing for it is sleep, okay?"
I give him a quick half-smile to say that I understand, and he pats my arm before picking up his bag. Before he leaves, he turns to my brother, who is still slumped in the armchair.
"I know you two have some...catching up to do, but try not to let him stay awake for more than about ten more minutes. He really needs to sleep-you both do." Banner looks at him meaningfully, and my brother nods, lowering his gaze to the ground. Banner squeezes his shoulder once, and then he is gone, leaving the two of us alone in a silence so heavy I feel as though my shoulders are bending beneath the weight. I close my eyes for a moment, taking the opportunity to rest.
Then I hear him get to his feet and come to sit in the chair next to the bed that Banner has vacated, and I feel his hand clasp my own once again. His thumb begins to stroke my knuckles, obviously in an intended gesture of comfort, but the purpose is circumvented by the fact that his fingers are trembling. I open my eyes and realize that it's not just his hands that are shaking-it is all of him. My mind seems to only be able to focus on one thing at a time-I had been so worried about him when Banner first entered the room, but when the doctor had begun to talk to me, I had forgotten my brother's condition. The realization brings me much chagrin-I have always looked out for him, been his protector. Now I almost want to call the doctor back, but something tells me that Banner's is not the voice my brother needs to hear at this moment.
I swallow and murmur his name. He looks even more attentively at me, his green eyes wide with concern and fear and love. It as though he has been through some grisly nightmare-I do not know if I have ever seen him so exhausted or upset, at least not while he has been in his right mind. And then I realize that he has been through a nightmare, one of the worst kind. The real kind. And I...I have not been there for him. My heart breaks, and I reach up to cup my free hand to his cheek, calling upon words that I have used so many times as part of our centuries-old ritual for mollifying the fear caused by my brother's frequent nightmares.
I can feel him swallowing next to my hand, and then he reaches up and removes it from his cheek and lays it on his lap, so that he his holding both of my hands in his own. I feel him shudder as he draws a breath, and I know that he is holding on by a mere thread.
"Speak to me, brother-dear. Please."
He shuts his eyes, furrowing his brow and fighting so hard against the tears. I know that it is not his pride or vanity or dignity making him do so, although all of those things are quite important to him. It is the fact that he suddenly feels the need to be strong for me. For me, his protector, his confidant, the one person who he should never need to put on a facade for.
"I am here now," I whisper, and I realize that I feel better when I can speak words of comfort to him. They make me forget about my own pain and my frustration at my sluggish mind and tongue.
"You...you were asleep for three days. For three days I did not know if you would ever open your eyes again, or speak to me, or..." He breaks off, breath hitching, and I feel sick in my stomach again, although this time it is not the concussion that brings on the uncomfortable feeling. It is the thought of him spending three entire days in that chair, frightened and grief-stricken and exhausted, and all without me to comfort him. He had been alone. No doubt Banner and Rogers and the others had spoken comfort to him, and he might even have allowed them to embrace him, but I know that I am the only one who can truly chase away his worries and turn his insecurities to ash. Once we were reconciled after everything that had happened in our pasts, I had vowed never to leave him alone again. And I had failed.
"Oh, my sweet brother...I am so sorry..." I whisper, and this time it is my turn to caress his knuckles with my thumb. It is a gesture of comfort we have used all our lives, a way of reassuring the other of our presence and support, both physical and emotional. I risk a slight movement of my head to look into his eyes, trying to ignore the lightning bolts (how ironic) of pain that result from the action. Although I am the one apologizing, it is he who looks guilty. His eyes are wide with terrible memories and self-loathing.
"No. It is I who should be sorry. You should not have been unconscious for more than a few minutes. If only I had gotten there sooner, or pushed myself just a little bit more..."
"What?" I interrupt. I manage to put more substance behind my voice this time, although I can almost physically feel the strength draining out of me. "Did you...you tried to heal me?" He swallows and does not respond, but the love and pain that dance together in his eyes tell me everything. No. He knows better than this. The more exhausted, injured, or ill my brother gets, the more it taxes his strength to use his powers. And from the way I feel now and the way Banner spoke, it would have taken a large amount of magic to heal me, and after such a long and intense battle, my brother would not have had the strength.
"You should not have..."
"But I could not do nothing!" His voice shakes with emotion yet bites with anger, though whether it is at me or at himself I cannot tell. "You were just lying there...I had never seen you so still and when I called your name and you did not answer, I thought...for a moment I thought..." He stops his rapidly quickening speech and takes a deep, steadying breath before beginning again, more slowly. "I could feel the source of the injury, it was there, just beneath my fingertips, and I thought I could..."
There are tears shining on his cheeks. I reach up to wipe them away, but the movement of my arm does not exactly follow my line of vision, and I lay it back down weakly. He runs the back of his hand over his face. When he looks at me again, his eyes are rimmed with red, the pain of the past mirrored in the present through his transparent tears. There is a faraway look in his eyes, and his voice is much steadier, almost hauntingly so.
"I would have kept going," he murmurs, seemingly entranced by his recollection of the past. "If Stark and Rogers had not pulled me away from you, I would have kept going until I lost consciousness. But I do not blame them-even if they had not interfered, I know I would not have had the strength to fix you. After that, I have not slept for more than a couple of hours at a time for my worry over you. I have not had the strength to try to heal you again." He swallows, and when he speaks again, his voice has regained its weakness and its trembling timbre. "You have always been there for me, and I failed you when you needed me the most..."
"No." Speaking is becoming more costly by the moment, but I refuse to give in to my need for rest now, not when the person who I love more than any other is teetering so close to the edge of despair. I need...I need to say something to him, but I cannot find the words. He is so far away. Maybe if he comes closer to me, I will be better able to communicate with him.
I lift my hand a little and beckon him with my finger. "Come here. Come and lie next to me."
He draws and disjunct breath and shakes his head fervently.
"No, I do not want to jostle you..."
"I want you here. With me." There is the authority that I am used to hearing in my own voice, but I know it is not my commanding tone to which he responds. It is the fact that, in his feelings of inadequacy, he so desperately needs to do something.
He rises and walks around to the other side of the bed, where he pulls back the blankets and, as slowly and gently as a spring breeze, lowers himself into the bed beside me. Then he rolls over and tucks his knees up as close as he can to his chest, mirroring the action of a cat curling up for a nap. For a moment, he positions himself so that I think that he is going to press closely to me, but then he draws back and just lies there, his wet gaze fixed on me. Biting back the pain and wincing, I roll over just enough so that I can see his eyes. He is closer to me now, and my hand reaches its target without a problem this time as I cup it to his cheek. I choke down the dryness and the lump in my throat. There is so much I wish to say to him-how uncharacteristically foolish his actions were, and how he should have gone to his own room and slept for a proper amount of time instead of trying to rest in the armchair in my chamber. I want to tell him how proud I am of him. But my strength is failing rapidly, and I say all that I can manage.
"You have not failed me, brother. You were so incredibly brave, even though you were all alone."
"But I was not brave at all! I was so frightened..." He sobs softly, and for the briefest of moments, I see him as a little boy again, hiding in my bed for comfort and help in chasing away his bad dreams. But now, I know that he has grown. He has grown up so much...
"Bravery is not the absence of fear, my love. You were willing to give all of yourself to save me, to sacrifice..." But where would that have left me? No. Do not even consider that. "But it is over now. It does not bear dwelling on. We are both alive, and we have each other. That is all we must think about for now. Do you not agree with me?"
He sniffles and then I see him nod just a little before he finally gives in to his tumultuous emotions and buries his face in my shirt and weeps and weeps. This, too, is a part of our childhood ritual for dealing with nightmares. But the nightmare is over now. I long to reassure him, to murmur comforting irrelevancies into his ear as I always do, but just now I cannot think of anything to say. And even if I could, I doubt I could find the strength. So instead, I just lean into him and whisper,
"Sleep now, dear brother, and find rest and peace at last. We are safe, and we are together."
The last thing I see before sleep takes me is his watery smile, and I feel his hand press my own as the blackness presses in on me. But I take comfort in the knowledge that when I wake once more, he will still be there.