Tony soon realized that there was no cheating on this test. He felt a light thrumming in the spots the electrodes were attached, the sensation spreading slightly, then a sharp pain. He told J.A.R.V.I.S. about it as truthfully as he could, although the longer the test went on the more certain he was that some of the sensations weren’t real. The AI made no comment but Tony knew he was listening and making notes more complex than a human mind could understand.
Well, most human minds anyway.
Next came noises over the headphones which had previously cancelled out any sounds other than his own breathing and the rush of blood in his ears; high and low beeps, pieces of Morse code, followed by an occasional and random nature sound that made Tony shake his head as he described them. He wondered if Bruce had chosen them, but since they had barely had time to set everything up in their excitement, this was probably J.A.R.V.I.S.’s own collection of audio clips he deemed useful for the test.
Last but not least the blank screen came to life, first with very simple shapes such as a square or a circle or a hexagon. Next it flashed with some scientific equations and strange blotches of ink.
“I don’t think this last part is entirely useful,” Tony mused. “Me describing that last blot as a donkey’s ass is probably not something Bruce has in mind. Were we supposed to answer in a similar fashion?”
Of course J.A.R.V.I.S. didn’t tell him.
The next one made him tilt his head and frown. At first he had no idea what it was, or should be, but when he looked at it long enough something came to his mind – and wasn’t he supposed to go with what came to his mind first? “Night-flowering Jasmine. Nyctanthes arbor-tristis. Huh. How did I know that?”
The screen went blank and after a while the door opened. Bruce stepped inside and looked at Tony for a long time while the latter took off his headphones. At length Bruce opened his mouth: “Night-flowering Jasmine is the state flower of West Bengal.”
“Where you spent time before S.H.I.E.L.D. picked you up,” Tony finished. “How did I know that? I’m not into plants unless they are somehow counter-productive to my life, like weed…”
“You knew it because I knew it, and that was my answer; the ink reminded me of the flower.” Bruce stared at the still-blank screen. “J.A.R.V.I.S., how did we do?”
“Ruling out errors, shadow sensations and lucky guesses, you both perceived 63 percent of what the other person was feeling, hearing or seeing when you were yourself subjected to none. May I add that your scores were elevated by the end of the test?”
“So either auditory and sight visual perceptions are stronger…” Bruce started.
“Or we simply got more tuned in to each other,” Tony completed his thought. “Am I the only one who finds that somewhat creepy?”
Bruce didn’t seem to hear him, a thoughtful look on his face as he began to step around the room. “I wonder if we should have tracked our brainwaves as we did the test – or something more detailed. I want to find out what is making this happen. There’s been no solid proof of the existence of telepathy –”
“Yet we come across mind-controlling villains every other Monday,” Tony interrupted him. “Come on, it isn’t so far-fetched!”
“You were the one panicking about this,” Bruce retorted.
“Creeping out, not panicking; there’s a very significant difference between the two.” Tony slid his hands across each other as he thought about it, then noticed what he was doing and separated his hands at once. Bruce had noticed, though, giving him a meaningful look. Tony attempted to look like he hadn’t done anything but knew he couldn’t exactly fool the other guy.
Not if their minds were inexplicably linked.
As much he had claimed that living inside Bruce Banner’s brain would be the hottest, sexiest experience ever, he now found any possible turn-on deflating rather spectacularly.
“Do you wish to continue with more tests, Dr. Banner?” J.A.R.V.I.S. asked helpfully.
“No, I think we’re done for the day,” Bruce told the AI, still gazing at Tony as if trying to solve some kind of puzzle. Well, he probably was, and as long as finding the answer didn’t include brain surgery or bombarding him with gamma rays, Tony was game.
They cleared out the tech in the rooms and walked back up to the living quarters. Bruce had a permanent frown on his face, as if he was suffering from a headache again, and Tony had a hard time not copying the expression; his face seemed keen on doing just that, which was unfair since he thought this thing went both ways. Maybe it was selective, somehow. They should find a test for that, too.
“Where have you been?” Steve asked, stepping in front of them as they stepped out of the stairwell. “You’ve been missing for hours and all J.A.R.V.I.S. told us was that you’re on premises but occupied and cannot be disturbed.”
“That was a very apt description of it,” Tony agreed. “I think you’re finally growing a spine, J.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Steve looked up towards the disembodied voice coming from the speakers then lowered his eyes on them again. “Is something wrong?”
“Oh, no,” Bruce was quick to deflect any concern which kind of surprised Tony. He was happy to go along with it, though. “We were just… doing science.”
Steve nodded. “Well, the food’s on the table. It got cold.”
“Thanks, we’ll warm it up,” Bruce smiled and stepped past the blond man, leaving Tony to follow.
Clint was on the couch with Natasha and Thor, feet kicked up on the table. He looked up as they walked by, giving Tony a quirky look. It wasn’t unusual that Tony and Bruce disappeared for hours, together or on their own, working in one of the labs, but usually J.A.R.V.I.S. would be willing enough to say that to anyone who asked – unless Tony was in one of his moods. He knew no one would make any comments about it while Bruce was here, though; the other guy was useful even when he wasn’t present.
Bruce threw a portion of food into the microwave, still frowning. Tony could almost feel his brain working and he wondered if he should be doing the same.
The test results were both intriguing and alarming. What had caused it to happen? Would it fade, or would it get stronger? How much stronger could it potentially become? Suddenly Tony realized that if they already shared sensations, their thoughts might be soon clashing on more than just an emotional level, and a few random internal conversations here and there.
While Bruce was possibly his number one choice should he be forced to share his mind with someone, Tony wasn’t quite prepared for that – and neither was Bruce. Sure, the other man’s excuse was probably big, green and angry, but there were so many other things a person never told another. Tony had plenty of issues he never put into words and wanted no one to get inside his head to find out about them.
Not even Bruce.
The microwave pinged, startling him out of his disturbing thoughts, and Bruce seemed equally surprised by it. He blinked, briefly tangled his hands, then pushed one palm across his face and fetched his food from the microwave, leaving the door open for Tony.
By the time he had put his own portion in to warm up, Bruce was gone, revealing that their shared condition wasn’t all that amusing or alluring to either of them.
As thrilling as the idea of a shared consciousness was, Bruce was suddenly becoming quite alarmed of their situation. To have actual proof that there was a connection between them – and that it was potentially getting stronger – was nothing short of dangerous. Picking up a habit here and there was harmless, but Tony’s moods triggering a possible Hulk-out?
He sought out the refuge of his room, knowing that the other Avengers wouldn’t come looking for him. Not even Tony, who seemed to be reaching the same conclusion as Bruce about their current predicament.
They needed to take another look at the machine and determine whether that had been the cause of this. After that they could reverse-engineer it to find out how to undo the effects. However, if the effects had been caused from the combination of the machine and Thor’s lightning, things might get a bit tricky. They might be talking about an unwanted, uncharted effect that not even the creator of the machine, Dr. Mora, could explain.
Getting their hands on the mad scientist seemed like a good idea, though.
Bruce finished his meal, putting his plate to the side and prepared himself for bed. He didn’t want to wander back to the kitchen in case someone else was still up. All the Avengers seemed to have their own idea of appropriate sleeping hours, which meant one of them was always likely to be wandering the halls in search of food, training or entertainment.
He lay down in bed once he had washed up and stripped down to his underwear, trying to fall asleep as fast as possible. For a moment it seemed easier than on most nights, especially in the aftermath of a battle: he slept like a baby after he had shrunk back to himself, but once he woke up and had stuffed himself with food, anxiety often took over – not to mention random flashes from the battle.
Tonight there was none of that and he was relaxed… until he felt an undertone of restless energy. Not quite there, but it made him itch for something nice and he reached down without actually thinking about it twice; he was in his own room, why should he not? It would make him unwind a little more and he had the luxury of his own bathroom right here.
His hand slid under the elastic of his underwear and his fingers wrapped around his flesh which hardened in anticipation. He pushed his underwear out of the way with his other hand and jerked off lazily at first, coaxing his flesh to harden, the slight jerks of pulsing blood comforting and reassuring. He traced the curve while his other hand moved down to roll his balls, the shape familiar –
Realization hit him on the head like Thor’s hammer; it wasn’t familiar. Not to him. He withdrew his hands from his raging hard-on, sitting up, fumbling for the lights. He could still feel the ghost of a touch, moving, firmer at times, barely there in the next second, and he was still…
Bruce panted, closing his eyes, trying to focus.
He could almost smell the arousal, but it was different, just slightly.
Forcing his eyes to open he cited formulas, equations and the periodic table. Anything to get his mind off the sexual release and how to get there; to rid his fingers of the sensation of a texture and curve that wasn’t his.
It didn’t work. His cock remained as interested as ever, almost painful, and with the remnants of his dignity in shreds he pulled on his underwear, tugged on his robe tightly on top of that, then proceeded out into the hallway and down the familiar path to Tony’s room. He stood behind the door for a moment, wondering how to broach the subject, then decided to just knock.
There was no reply, only silence.
His cock felt the ghost fingers stopping but it didn’t diminish his erection in the slightest.
“Tony?” he called out next.
A faint curse met his words and he could hear the other man moving around, then finally the door opened and Tony squinted at him. The arc reactor cast a blue glow between them. Tony was wearing underwear but it was clear the cloth hadn’t been there a moment ago. “Is something wrong?”
Bruce cleared his throat, still uncertain how to say what he needed to. “Could you, by any chance… stop doing what you were doing?”
Tony’s eyes narrowed slightly as he processed the words. “What was I doing?” he asked then.
Bruce licked his lips, wanting to say something witty – when did he ever say anything witty in a situation like this? – and absolutely failed. Especially when he could smell that very tang of arousal from before, which was kind of bizarre and poked at his lizard brain which wanted to make this very simple indeed; they were both hard, what was the problem?
By that time Tony’s brain must have put things together. “Uh, no offense, Doc, but I’m allowed to have a little me-time every once in a while.”
“I’m not saying you’re not, and that’s just fine and none of my business, but… Well, right now it kind of is my business, too,” Bruce felt like snapping.
“It is?” Tony frowned.
“I can feel your fingers,” Bruce finally hissed, “on my dick.”
What Tony did next shouldn’t have been a surprise at all – and perhaps that was why the other guy didn’t even twitch inside him; he reached out, fisted a hand on the front of Bruce’s robe and pulled him in for a kiss. Bruce heard the door shut behind him before he was pressed against it and damn, it had been a while. He hadn’t even realized… Well, he had, of course he had, but something about having his brain wired together with Tony Stark’s made him regard his lack of sexual life in a brand new light – and he felt a need to do something about it.
Tony pulled back, eyes dark and wide. “Tell me again about how you can feel my fingers on your dick,” he whispered, his words so dirty and intimate that there was no way Bruce’s cock was going down anytime soon.
He swallowed, allowing himself a moment to think about this and how much he shouldn’t want to be here, next to a half-naked Tony, his lips still wet and tender from the kiss. “I think I was tapping into what you were doing. I didn’t even realize it at first but… the shape was wrong,” he confessed, trying to get a scientific look on things, to make this professional, but there was nothing professional about the groan that escaped him when Tony tugged open his robe and pressed his fingers to his hot crotch.
To make matters worse, his own hands didn’t seem to have a problem with wandering over Tony’s hips, one of them resting there while the other moved to his front, and yes, there it was; the smell of him, the curve of his pulsing organ and Tony’s fingers slid in to tug on his in return.
It was heady and he felt like he was drunk or high, sensations mixing. He was breathless even before Tony kissed him again but he didn’t care, kissing him back, wanting that connection even as their hands moved on each other, and it strangely felt like jerking off although it was very much someone else’s grip on his flesh.
They peaked together – and without exaggerating it one bit it felt like a double orgasm hitting him at once – then tumbled down, sweaty, panting and leaning together, hands wet and still holding onto each other.
“Oh my god,” Tony managed against his cheek. “That was… the best handjob of my life.”
Bruce just blinked and leaned into Tony’s body. Some clarity was returning to him and he pushed away slightly, grabbing the hand Tony had used to bring him off. “You need to go wash,” he insisted.
Tony chuckled. “What, I can’t just lick it off?”
“No, seriously; gamma radiation, remember?”
Bruce’s heart was picking up speed, panic settling in his stomach. What had he just done? The excitement could have brought out the other guy and allowing Tony to touch him like that was beyond reckless! Where had his brain just gone?
“Hey,” Tony touched his shoulder, leaning in again. “Calm down. I can almost hear him roaring,” he whispered and didn’t need to clarify whom he meant. “You’re okay, I’m okay. Everything’s fine.”
“Please go wash,” Bruce managed.
“If you promise not to freak out while I’m gone,” Tony insisted and Bruce managed a nod.
While Tony stepped into his on en-suite bathroom, Bruce sighed, ready to fall over, and moved to sit on the edge of the bed. His robe was still open, his underwear tugged down, his cock finally soft. The panic had vanished and he didn’t want to bring it back, but the mere thought of how he had just let go of control and handed it over –
Tony stepped back in, underwear in place although a little wet at the front. He looked relieved to find Bruce there, then came to sit beside him. “Hey. Feeling better?”
“Not exactly,” Bruce admitted, staring at his hands. One of them was still sticky. He looked up from it, to banish the memory of touching Tony so intimately, then regarded the other man. “You know why this happened, right?”
“I don’t really care,” Tony started.
“You pushed me.”
Tony blinked then narrowed his eyes, yet this time it wasn’t in deep thought but in anger. “Pushed you? You’re the one who came into my room – nor did you tell me at any point to stop.”
“No, I didn’t,” Bruce replied, feeling Tony’s walls rising up, the intense burst of hurt that almost brought the monster in him roaring to the surface; he needed to get control of this discussion quickly. “But this… connection that we have, it influences my thinking. For a brief moment I think you were in my head, and I just… took it. I would have never allowed you to coax me into this before but obviously the link between us has replaced my misgivings with your enthusiasm for sex.”
Tony still looked like Bruce had wounded him deeply; the man looked away from him, arms crossed over his chest in a defensive posture. “Well, I guess I forced you into saving yourself from a case of giant blue balls. I’m sorry.” His voice was dark and low, his jaw working as he fought to not say anything else.
Bruce swallowed through the thickness in his throat. He could feel their friendship slipping down the drain and if he made one more insinuation that Tony had forced him – or even raped him – he knew it would be over. “Tony, look at me. Please,” he pleaded, and slowly the other man moved his head just enough to regard him from the corner of his eye. “Just because I don’t allow myself to have something doesn’t mean I don’t want it. That being said… I’m glad it was you. And no, I still wouldn’t have done it, seeing as there is too big of a risk of the other guy –”
“Let me stop you right there,” Tony snapped, turning to look at him fully, face deadly serious. “I didn’t see a hint of green during what we did. Didn’t feel him either – not until you started to work yourself into a frenzy by panicking about what had already happened. Man up, Banner; you can have this, and the only thing standing between you and human contact is your own fear.”
Bruce didn’t quite agree but during their encounter… It felt like Tony was a safe zone. He could get carried away by Tony’s casual relationship with sex and not worry about the other guy for a moment. Besides, Tony could feel the other guy coming out and as long as Tony wasn’t angry or afraid, maybe they were out of the danger zone.
He still wasn’t happy with the odds but he knew he had to make some kind of amends to Tony for pissing him off. “It might just be temporary, this mental connection we’re experiencing…”
“Do you want to seize that moment?” Tony asked. “Or would you rather just sit on your hands and not take the most perfect opportunity in your whole life to be with someone?”
For a moment Bruce nodded along, then shook himself out of it; Tony’s thinking was influencing him again, filling him with hope that wasn’t fully realistic. He opened his mouth to ask the man to stop doing that, then realized that would be the final straw after all the wrong things he had said tonight.
Instead he leaned in and gave Tony a rather chaste kiss, then drew back again. “Thank you, I suppose. For your confidence, anyway.”
Tony blinked at him then bit his lower lip. “Okay,” he muttered.
“And I didn’t meant it like that, before,” Bruce went on to make sure the misunderstanding didn’t prevail between them. “You may have… given my brain a few suggestions as to what should happen, but I could have pushed you away if I didn’t want it.”
A small smile began to tug Tony’s lips; he was pleased, Bruce could feel the emotion swelling in his own chest as well. “Yeah? Does that mean you wanted it?”
You have no idea, Bruce thought, wondering what to say out loud so that he wouldn’t mess things up even worse.
“Oh, I think I have a perfectly good idea,” Tony replied suddenly and it was Bruce’s turn to blink, wondering if he had said it out loud by accident. No, he was perfectly certain he hadn’t. Tony just smiled at him, probably knowing what had just happened – another thought transported directly from one mind to another – then shifted on the bed. “You want to sleep here or go back to your own room?”
Bruce was fully prepared to state that his own bed was fine, but a new feeling was worming its way into his gut; loneliness, a yearning for someone he trusted, and he knew they were Tony’s feelings, not his own, yet they were not too far off from things he sometimes wanted.
Things he was too afraid to fulfill.
“I’ll… wash up a little, then I think I’ll join you,” he said.
The warmth of happiness that suffused him while he was in the bathroom, and especially when he slid into bed with Tony, wasn’t his own – not completely anyway – but he had no problems accepting it.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. rudely woke him up, “Director Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. is requesting the Avengers’ presence on the Helicarrier.”
“Fuck that,” Tony muttered and started to turn over on the bed, certain that he would be able to fall right back to sleep if he did, then bumped into something solid.
“Maybe we should go,” Bruce’s words came from right next to him, which shoved some gears into action in his head.
Tony blinked, leaning back a little, finding the other man already awake and ready to bolt out of the room – butt naked if need be – should Tony indicate his presence wasn’t welcome. Last night pieced itself together in his head while he forced his eyes to wake up as well. “Probably,” Tony finally agreed, knowing Fury wasn’t above sending someone to fetch him from his bed should he refuse to get up on his own.
Bruce nodded then sat up, looking entirely too much like one of Tony’s one-night stands trying to make a graceful exit – from his bedroom and his life.
“Hey,” Tony started although he had no idea how to complete that sentence and his brain seemed unwilling to supply him with ideas that usually came faster than he could choose from. Bruce looked at him, face more hopeful than cautious. Tony hated the possibility of letting him down, of not saying or doing the right thing. He knew Bruce wouldn’t wait indefinitely for him to make his move – which would make the situation even more awkward – and Tony tried to kick his brain into a higher gear. “Last night, uh…”
Bruce chuckled. “It’s amazing, right?” he mused, confusing Tony for a moment. “Compared to last night it’s like my brain is at a complete standstill – and clearly yours is as well.”
Tony blinked and could admit it felt just like that. “Do you think we fried something up there?” he asked.
“No, but… perhaps this connection puts an extra strain on the brain, and I think we both felt a bit delirious around the time we… well…” Now he looked uncomfortable and Tony didn’t want that.
Sitting up on the bed he looked at the scientist and tried to convey all the necessary emotions on his face. “It wasn’t a mistake, Bruce.”
The other man was silent, engaging the suggestion in his head, turning it over, cutting deep into it to analyze every last bit of data before offering a reply of his own. “No,” he said finally, looking a bit pained. “But it wasn’t smart either.”
“Something to work on, then,” Tony offered.
The look he received was perplexed and nervous, yet Bruce didn’t blow him off, nor did he turn green – both of which Tony took as a good sign.
“We should get ready to go,” Bruce said then. “Steve’s going to come looking for us, if he isn’t on his way over here already.”
Last night may not have been a mistake but neither of them was comfortable enough to let their team know about it just yet.
They took the Quinjet to the Helicarrier. Tony, of course, had wanted to suit up and fly solo but Steve had told him to just get in and sit down like a normal person. That had Tony muttering and sulking all the way up which provided Bruce some distraction while he tried not to get nervous from the short flight; he still got uneasy in closed, moving spaces – especially the ones with a military flavor – and kept a careful watch over the other guy.
Clint and Natasha were seated in front, piloting and speaking amongst themselves in low tones. Bruce couldn’t make out a word they said over the hum of the engines. Thor and Steve sat across from Tony and Bruce, their leader as awake as always and Thor looking like he might have enjoyed the morning more without a surprise trip to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s flying HQ. He had his hammer resting across his lap, as always, ready to be used should the need arise.
The Quinjet shivered slightly as they began their descent to the hangar bay and soon enough the hatch opened and everyone got up to hear whatever Fury couldn’t say over the phone – or the comm signal. Tony in particular had been pointing out that coming here in person was ridiculous since even most board meetings in the world were handled from several locations around the globe.
“All people attending such a meeting still need to be awake for it,” Bruce had pointed out to him.
Tony shot him a look as if it were on the tip of his tongue to say that Bruce had been with him in his bed and would have enjoyed a slow morning as well. No arguments there. That way they might have been able to talk about last night in depth and think of further tests to figure out their condition.
“Now that you’re all finally here, let’s get down to business,” Nick Fury stated as they arrived on the bridge and sat down around the table. Opaque walls rose around them, blocking out the crew and Maria Hill, leaving them in their separate space. “We have new intel on Dr. Mora and his people who managed to escape. Our surveillance suggests they’re working on another machine.”
Tony groaned. “Really? Can’t you just go and blow it to bits before one of us needs to disassemble it again? I swear I’m not crawling into another one of those things. Actually, it will make for wonderful target practice for the new and improved Unibeam.” And just like that he had dug out his phone and was sending J.A.R.V.I.S. data that he wanted to implement.
“We are not blowing up anything,” Fury barked. “We need intelligence –”
“How about you just go and capture the guy?” Bruce asked before Tony could.
Everyone looked at him, because yes, it came out just like Tony would have said it – only from his mouth.
Bruce sank back in his chair, hands restless, then he started snapping his fingers and looked at the ceiling.
Tony stopped tapping on his phone and cleared his throat. “I second that motion. We haven’t unveiled anything from the machine we got from New York and unless your science monkeys have come up with anything after our last update on the subject, asking the man in charge should be our top priority. He’s the one responsible for these things; if we get to him, it’s all over.”
“It… doesn’t sound like a bad plan, sir,” Steve agreed haltingly.
“We can’t let him escape again,” Fury stated.
“His hired super-thugs were more resilient than we expected,” Thor vowed. “Next time we won’t underestimate them and will get Dr. Mora before he escapes.”
“Or starts up the machine,” Clint added.
“It didn’t seem to work the first time,” Natasha pointed out. “Unless they’ve made improvements, all we need to do is get our hands on the Doctor.”
Bruce exchanged looks with Tony, brief and subtle, but it felt like Fury noticed. His one eye looked at them both, leaving the rest of the team outside his attention for the time being. “Gentlemen? Is there something you would like to share with the rest of us?”
“We would like to take another look at the machine,” Tony spoke up, unshaken. “Anything we learn from it now might help us the next time. Or at least I’ll know where to aim to blow it up,” he added.
Fury frowned. “Stark –”
“Should the machine pose a threat to those around it, destroying it might be the safest bet,” Bruce agreed.
“We need to understand what Dr. Mora has tried to accomplish, should someone try to replicate it later – and actually manage to make it work,” Fury was unrelenting.
“You’re welcome to go out there and haul it away, then.” Tony’s voice was rising and Bruce felt the telltale shift inside himself. “We have our hands full fighting off Dr. Mora’s henchmen. Protecting a piece of tech that may or may not work isn’t high on my list of priorities.”
“I thought you were interested in finding out how it worked the first time we encountered the machine,” Fury reminded him. “That was why you and Banner were on the ground working on it.”
“And got almost blown up as a result!”
“Tony,” Bruce gasped, grasping his arm. “Emotions.”
Tony looked at him, a quick jerk of his head, and took a deep, angry breath. He leaned back in his chair, his ire still piqued but somewhat contained. “Fine, keep your machine. But if it starts beeping the wrong way, I’m flying out of there and leaving you to deal with the consequences.”
Of course Tony would never do that; he talked big but was more likely to end up crawling inside the machine again to find a way to switch it off, no matter what happened the first time. Bruce took some comfort in that knowledge as he pushed the other guy back into the recesses of his mind.
“Get prepared,” Fury announced then. “Be ready to leave after our surveillance team gives us the green light. Until then,” he nodded in Bruce and Tony’s direction, “you’re free to test the first machine.” If he had noticed Bruce’s close-call with the other guy or the link to Tony’s mood, he didn’t show it. The others, on the other hand, gave him worried looks.
“That’s the second time you almost lost it when Tony and Fury were at each others’ throats,” Clint pointed out.
“Is something wrong?” Steve echoed the archer.
“We’re fine,” Tony snapped, leading them towards the room where the machine parts were still held.
Natasha gave Tony a piercing look. “You talk for Bruce as well these days?”
Tony stopped, body rigid, temper still flaring. Bruce kept walking until he bumped into the other man and then clutched his shirt fiercely to get his attention. Tony bit back any comment he might have thrown at Natasha and sucked in some extra air. The pressure lifted a little and Bruce instinctively leaned his head on Tony’s shoulder, allowing the knot in his stomach to unwind itself.
When he opened his eyes again, Steve was staring at them. The others had left, either on their own or under their leader’s order. “Okay, guys, I know something’s going on. If I need to I will bench you from this mission because I feel whatever is going on might compromise the team’s safety.”
Bruce swallowed and stepped back a bit, looking at the super-soldier. “It’s fine. Tony’s just feeling a little emotional.”
Steve wasn’t swayed so easily: “His moods haven’t affected you until very recently.”
Tony’s eyes narrowed, his walls coming up, yet for the first time Bruce felt like he was locked inside with the other man instead of standing outside with the rest of the world. In a strange way he felt safer – and far more vulnerable. The other guy deemed it as another trigger to lash out. “It’s none of your business,” Tony started.
“If it affects the team, or the mission, it is my business, Stark.”
“If you all would just lay off –”
“How are we supposed to do that when there’s clearly something going on?”
“Look the other way!”
“Yeah, you would love that, wouldn’t you? If it were just you, I might do that, but Bruce deserves more than that.”
“Oh, please. As if you know what he deserves –”
“A hell of a lot more than you!”
Bruce growled, body twitching.
“Bruce?” Steve’s tone immediately changed but to his ears it wasn’t comforting or even familiar. It upset him, kept pushing him further and further, and while on some level he knew it was Tony’s annoyance that kept shoving him back, he couldn’t tell the difference between the two of them right now.
The other guy was coming to the surface with a pounding of blood in his ears and fabric tearing from the pressure under his skin.
“Holy shit… Hey, big guy. Calm down.”
A whisper, quick and familiar. Calmer, not in danger yet somewhat agitated.
“You gotta listen to me, Bruce. Okay? I’m sorry for pushing you again. We’re not in danger. We’re not really angry.”
The words began to drown out but the emotion stayed; regret and an apology, a need to stop, to breathe, to halt; to just sit down and relax. It was a myriad of emotions and feelings, swirling around as if someone had put him inside a washing machine and selected the spin cycle on high. Through it all, though, one familiar threat persisted, firm and taut, allowing him to hold on, to follow it back out, and eventually Bruce found himself sitting on the floor, Tony’s arms around him.
His clothes were torn in places, suggesting that he had gotten at least mid-transformation before coming back. Steve had backed away, looking alert and rather amazed. Tony was trembling just a little but he was calm, coming down from a bit of an adrenaline rush.
“You stopped it,” Bruce murmured once he found his voice. He leaned his head to the side, resting it against Tony’s.
“It was like I got locked inside your head but I tried not to panic when the other guy came clawing out… and you were still there. I didn’t let you slip away,” Tony admitted. He was quiet for a long moment. “I never understood what it’s like when it happens. That no matter how much you fight, once it takes hold…”
“But you made it stop,” Bruce reminded him.
“Yeah, I guess. Or you really do have a lid on it.”
“Trust me: once it starts, the control goes flying out the window.”
They chuckled weakly, then looked up as Steve moved closer. “You’re still insisting that something isn’t going on?” he asked, voice strained from the scare that the Hulk might come out to smash the Helicarrier to pieces – again.
Tony was looking at the screens, J.A.R.V.I.S. running the calculations again, matching up data and trying to turn it into something that might work. The team was gathered in the same room, doors tightly shut, communication to the outside world blocked by Tony; he didn’t want Fury or S.H.I.E.L.D. to know just yet.
“So,” Clint started, sitting perched on some crates, “you are mind-controlling each other?”
“It’s more like… two minds clashing, meshing and occasionally pushing,” Bruce stated. He still looked a little pale from the near-incident with the Hulk, after which it seemed they had to tell the team of their little special situation.
“That explains the habits you have been picking from each other recently,” Natasha nodded. “You think the machine caused it?”
“The machine, the machine malfunctioning, those things combined with Thor’s attack – take your pick,” Tony said unhappily, moving away from the displays that were as unhelpful as ever when it came to figuring out how the machine had been meant to operate in the first place.
“Dr. Mora wanted to control the minds of others with this machine,” Thor said with a frown. “Yet you are linked, not controlled.”
“Could be it wasn’t working properly,” Steve noted, walking around the pieces of the machine as if that would provide him an answer the others hadn’t found by digging into it. “Do you think the effects are going to last for much longer?”
“Far as we know, it could be permanent,” Bruce shrugged. He didn’t sound distraught by the idea but Tony could feel a hint of nervousness that came with the words. He bit the inside of his cheek and wanted to make a joke of some kind, to ease the tension – then noticed Bruce’s jaw twitching as if he had a sudden twinge of pain in his mouth and realized the other man must have felt it.
“Sorry,” he muttered.
The others looked at him and Bruce gave him a brief smile. “It could be worse,” the scientist reassured him.
“Worse than sharing a brain with Tony Stark?” Clint started.
“There are a few worse options,” Natasha mused.
“I don’t find this amusing,” Steve interrupted their fun, looking at Bruce and Tony again. “We will find Dr. Mora and question him. The machine was his creation, he should know how to… turn off its effects.”
“Or he will take this opportunity and enslave them both,” Clint suggested.
“I trust you to do all you can to stop that from happening,” Tony pointed a finger at him, “because none of us want some mad-man controlling the Hulk.”
Bruce cringed but that only underlined his statement.
Clint’s face froze and he nodded along with everyone else.
“Avengers, you’re clear to engage,” a man from the ground surveillance unit spoke over the comm.
“Roger that,” Steve replied, cowl and Cap-expression in place, fingers flexing as he adjusted the shield at his arm.
“Stark, I expect you to proceed as previously agreed,” Fury’s words carried over to them next.
Everyone looked at Tony, newly aware of why exactly he wasn’t that fond of the machine or following Fury’s cautious road to success. “We’ll see,” he replied, the face plate open for now. They were positioned on higher ground, staring down at a group of warehouses where Dr. Mora had moved his business after the failed attempt at world domination in New York City. Men patrolled the area, heavily armed. The compound was brightly lit in the darkness, leaving the surrounding world pitch-black.
“We can get pretty close undetected,” Clint noted, donning his quiver of arrows. “Well, most of us,” he amended, looking at the Iron Man armor and its glowing arc reactor.
“When I go in, it doesn’t matter whether they see me or not,” Tony replied. He was on edge, no denying it. There was no way he would let Dr. Mora slip away this time and they had confirmed the big man himself was present – as well as another machine, looking exactly like the first one that now lay in pieces in the lab on the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier.
“Let us proceed first,” Steve told him. “You take care of the perimeter and fly in if we need you.” That meant Steve knew Tony wouldn’t let their adversary slip away if the others failed to contain him. “Bruce…” he halted uncertainly as if wondering if his orders would go against what Bruce wanted to do.
“I’ll stay here,” the scientist offered, “unless you really need me. We don’t know if my transformation to the other guy will have an impact on Tony, and your chances at success are better with him.”
Tony gave him a look, wanting to reassure him somehow, but after the Hulk almost came out on the Helicarrier he wasn’t certain what would happen. Maybe he had just been too close to Bruce, or maybe he would be locked inside the Hulk’s raging mind and released only when the beast was done.
“J.A.R.V.I.S., are those new safety protocols up and running?” he asked the AI.
“Indeed, sir,” the familiar voice responded inside the helmet. “Should you become unresponsive at any point in the battle, I will take over the controls of the suit.”
Tony would be damned if he would just lie there prone and unconscious in the middle of the battlefield, fair game to anyone who wanted to take a shot at him. J.A.R.V.I.S. could at least remotely fly the suit back to a safe location until he came to again.
“Alright, we are ready to move,” Steve announced. “Thor, we’ll keep a low profile for as long as we can.”
The demigod nodded. “Let us take them by surprise.” Clearly he would have been happier with a direct announcement that he was present, but getting close to Dr. Mora and the machine was more important than his impenetrable warrior’s pride.
Natasha and Clint, of course, didn’t need to be told why breaching the enemy territory unnoticed was so important and the two of them moved out after Captain America stepped downhill to the forest that would shelter their approach perfectly.
Tony and Bruce remained at the Quinjet, Tony’s suit keeping track of where the others were. “You know, if you want to come out and play,” Tony started.
“It’s not like that,” Bruce told him. “I’m fine with hanging back, especially after what happened.” He looked at Tony in the darkness which was penetrated only by the low lighting of the Quinjet and the arc reactor. “I need you clear-headed on this one.”
“I’m feeling fine,” Tony insisted.
“So let’s keep it that way.” Bruce lifted a hand, probably to touch his shoulder or something, then recalled he couldn’t feel it in the suit. Tony caught the movement, lifted his hand, gently closing the mechanized fingers around the other man’s hand and brought it up to his face. Bruce’s fingers settled across his cheek and Tony smiled. Bruce’s face betrayed very little but he felt the response to his smile in the back of his mind.
An explosion jerked them out of it and they gazed down towards the well-lit area. It seemed their team had engaged the guards. The super-powered villains that hadn’t been caught earlier came running and flying out of the warehouses to meet the Avengers.
“You better get down there, watch that perimeter,” Bruce urged.
“Yeah,” Tony agreed, the face plate snapping shut. He looked at Bruce. “Stay safe.”
“You too,” Bruce replied.
Tony took off, rising high and circling the warehouse area, scanning the situation beneath him. It seemed the team was faring well compared to the last time; they went in with the big guns, knowing what to expect, away from civilians and damages to private property. Thor was engaging most of the thugs with Captain while Widow and Hawkeye had disappeared inside, probably hunting down what they really came for, covert, quick and efficient about it.
“I have a visual on Dr. Mora,” Natasha announced after a moment.
“And he’s a runner,” Clint chorused.
“Coming out through the back,” Natasha informed, clearly meaning for Tony to hear it.
“I’ll intercept him,” Tony confirmed and moved down, spotting a lone man rushing out of one of the buildings and trying to get to a parked vehicle hidden in the shadows. He swooped down, aimed his hands and sent down a blast that made the car fly up in the air and end up on its roof in front of the man.
Dr. Mora looked up and backed away as Tony made his standard landing on one knee, eyes on the man, not giving him a chance to escape. “You can’t stop me!” the man shouted at him.
“Watch me,” Tony snapped, straightening up.
The man’s hand went inside his jacket and he brought out a gun that looked straight out of some early Star Trek episode. During his time fighting supervillains Tony had learned to distrust any odd-looking weapons.
“Put it down,” he ordered, lifting one arm, repulsors ready; it would hurt the man more than him.
“Oh no; you’re the one going down,” Dr. Mora announced, eyes a little wild as he fired.
The suit wasn’t fast enough to dodge while on the ground and his repulsor blast did nothing to stop the beam. For a fraction of a second Tony’s brain recognized that whatever he was being shot with was on a different frequency, then it hit him in the head and it felt like his brain was exploding.
“Ha-haa!” Dr. Mora cried out in victory as Tony’s knees buckled and he barely had the presence of mind to keep the armor from following the instinct to fall on his knees. “You will be an example to your friends that you will all bow before me!”
“Sir?” J.A.R.V.I.S. piped up but Tony couldn’t speak. His brain felt like it was being fried from the inside and if this was the mad scientist’s plan to rule the world, it totally sucked.
Then he felt something else; a dark, hot rage pushing forward. Perhaps the comm signal picked up the sound, or it was all in his head, but he felt a violent shove and his ears began ringing. “Oh shit,” he muttered, tears in his eyes as the pain kept radiating through his skull.
“The great Iron Man,” Dr. Mora kept taunting him. “I will control your mind!”
“I’m not the one you should be worried about,” Tony managed to ground out. “You moron…”
“No one understood my intellect, but I will show them all,” Dr. Mora kept lecturing him, clearly not understanding that this was his perfect moment to flee before one of the other Avengers caught up with him – or worse, the source of the roaring in the back of Tony’s mind.
Tony finally gave up and ended up on his knees on the ground, armored hands clutching his helmet. The pain was almost unbearable at this point. He faintly heard the others call for him over the comm, asking what was going on, perhaps informing him of what he already knew, but he wasn’t so far gone that J.A.R.V.I.S. would take over.
He lifted his head, watching the idiot prance before him, then focused on the movement behind him; shifting trees, thundering steps, the electric fence being twisted and torn down with a few violent sparks. Only then did Dr. Mora turn to look and if he pissed his pants, Tony didn’t blame him; seeing the Hulk emerging from the dark, furious and roaring, was a sight to behold.
Dr. Mora lifted the hand still holding the gun, foolishly aiming at the green monster, but an enormous, powerful strike sent him flying to the side and into the fence, with enough force to make several poles give beneath the impact. The air was filled with the crackle of electricity and brief bursts of light.
“Man hurt Hulk!” the Hulk roared, standing there, watching the threat, waiting for Dr. Mora to get up and face him again but Tony knew there was no way in hell the man would do that if he was even alive anymore. When nothing happened the Hulk huffed and turned, stomping over to Tony. For a brief moment Tony thought he was going to get hurled into the fence as well, but instead the huge hands gripped him and lifted him up like a big toy, bringing him on eye-level with the Hulk. “Man hurt Tony,” the rage monster breathed, “and puny Banner,” he added a little less passionately. “Hulk not like pain in his head!”
Tony twitched a little, the pain still very much there, but now that he had something to focus on it was easier to think – or maybe it was just wearing off. “Thanks, big guy. You can put me down now.”
Hulk set him down and Tony almost fell on his ass. Apparently his head wasn’t that much in the game yet. A green hand steadied him clumsily then scooped him up firmly against the wide chest. “Tony safe,” the Hulk announced. “Pain goes away or Hulk smash pain!”
Tony smiled, chuckling softly, feeling like he should complain when the Hulk started walking and carried him in a rather undignified manner but with his brain still trying to stab itself to death, he didn’t feel like complaining.
The next gathering around the table at the Helicarrier was quiet and tense. Fury was pacing, which was never a good start to a meeting. Tony was still clutching his head, an ice-pack almost a constant presence in his grip after the disastrous mission to capture Dr. Mora and the machine. Well, they had the machine, Dr. Mora’s men and his plans, but the man himself…
All Bruce really remembered about it was a sudden pain trying to split his skull and the knowledge that Tony was in danger, at which point there was no way in hell he wasn’t going to Hulk out. The instinct to stop the pain and to protect his friend and teammate over-powered any issues of safety for the others and the other guy came tearing out of his skin.
He had woken up much later, arms clutching the Iron Man suit and the weight of it pressing into his naked skin. Not the best – or worst – way to wake up. Tony had been equally unconscious inside the suit but J.A.R.V.I.S. had been keeping a close watch on him and would have ejected him had it become alarming. As it was, Tony had the headache of the century and Bruce felt the distant pulsing of pain against his own mind. However, maybe he was imagining it or it was getting less painful as the hours went by.
“Does anyone have a cohesive idea of what went wrong?” Fury finally asked.
“I think the mission was a resounding success,” Tony argued. “We caught the bad guys, we have the machine…”
“Dr. Mora is on life support and likely to die within the next day,” Fury informed him coldly.
“But I’m right on the other points,” Tony quipped, shifting the ice pack and leaning heavily on his propped-up arm.
Fury gave him a tired glare.
“After the Hulk entered the game, there was nothing we could have done,” Clint pointed out.
“And he did save Tony,” Steve added. “Well, kind of.”
Tony raised an eyebrow at Steve but made no comment. After two seconds he simply closed his eyes and seemed to be praying, yet again, that the pain in his head would stop soon.
Silence filled the enclosed space. Bruce offered no apologies that his unfortunate transformation had practically killed the man who had hurt Tony and tried to enslave the minds of the entire world. Having felt the echo of the pain Tony was still dealing with, he knew the remorse he usually felt no matter who was on the receiving end of the rage monster’s attack wasn’t going to come haunting him in this particular case. Fury probably saw it on his face because he didn’t bring it up.
The director sighed, leaning on the table, looking down at it before raising his eye to look at the team. “Our scientists are trying to unlock the secrets of the machine and determine whether it’s operational or not. Since we don’t want to turn it on by accident, however, we are most likely going to leave it be and hope it doesn’t come back to haunt us. You’re dismissed – although I expect full reports on what went on during the mission.”
“Yes, sir,” Steve replied for all of them and they rose, the dark opaque walls sliding into the floor. As they walked out towards the door, Agent Hill watched them go with that little frown of displeasure she often wore these days, more so when they were giving Fury a hard time.
“Ready to head back to the Tower?” Steve asked.
“Hell yeah,” Clint replied. He and Natasha took the lead, Thor following them.
Steve fell into step with Bruce and Tony, giving the latter a worried look. “Are you certain the doctors can’t do anything about that?`”
“They scanned my head, gave me meds, and it’s not getting any better,” Tony ground out, shifting the pack of ice and then throwing it into a bin that may or may not be used for trash. “I just want to lie down and sleep for a year.”
Steve nodded and walked up the ramp of the Quinjet ahead of them.
Bruce stayed by Tony’s side should he need help, then sat with him as the engines roared to life and lifted them into the sky. Tony grimaced then closed his eyes again, and at some point he leaned against Bruce. Not thinking about it, Bruce lifted an arm and placed it around the other’s body, holding him close until they landed – only to find Tony asleep.
He looked up at the others as they prepared to exit, and, after Steve strapped his shield to his back, he picked Tony up without any visible effort. Luckily Tony remained asleep the whole time or none of them would have heard the end of it.
Seated inside the already familiar, bleak room, Bruce waited as J.A.R.V.I.S. put together the latest test results. Knowing that Tony was just across the hall, probably just as giddy as Bruce himself, didn’t ease his anxiety one bit.
“I have compiled the analysis of our latest tests. Comparing the results of the first one, to the ones we did yesterday and the day before, it is safe to conclude that the effects of the machine are wearing off.”
Once Tony’s headache had disappeared, caused by the unidentified ray Dr. Mora shot at him – the other guy had stepped on the gun, crushing it beyond any reliable testing – Bruce could almost feel the space between them again. It was one of those things you didn’t think existed before you had a chance to experience an alternative – and then lost said alternative.
Picking himself up from his seat, allowing J.A.R.V.I.S. to compile the rest of the results into a form he could study later, he exited the room and then opened the door opposite from it. Tony was still seated, a far-away look on his face. It was safe to assume J.A.R.V.I.S. had given him the news as well.
“Seems like we’re cured,” Bruce spoke up.
Tony jerked his head towards him then nodded grimly. “I heard.” He paused, expression distant as if he was looking at some invisible equation representing his life. “As much as I hated the idea of being open to someone, I think I’m going to miss it,” he confessed finally.
“I’m glad it’s over,” Bruce threw in, too hastily to mask the fact that only part of him thought that. “Subjecting you to the other guy –”
“But that was probably the best thing to come out of it!” Tony disagreed, standing up, walking over to him. There was no screen between them this time, nothing to distract themselves with. “For once, you didn’t have to deal with it alone.”
Bruce swallowed. “Yes, well… It was nice to have a thread to follow for once. A sense that I wasn’t just… gone.” He looked Tony in the eye. “It was still dangerous. Locked inside my head when the other guy was coming out… it could have seriously injured your psyche.”
“Yes, because my psyche is such a fragile thing,” Tony snorted dismissively. “I felt him, Bruce, and for those microseconds when I wasn’t totally freaking out, it felt like I had never been closer to understanding exactly who the big guy is – and what you mean to each other.”
Tony had always been interested in the other guy. They had a bit of a rapport, Bruce could tell, ever since their first battle together, and he allowed himself a moment to envision a world where Tony might be able to affect the monster and minimize the destruction. Well, as long as Tony wasn’t in danger, or lost his temper; then it would be worse than anything anyone had ever seen. Bruce had no doubts about that.
He looked Tony in the eye again, not feeling the usual need to avoid such a direct connection to another person. They had had more than that – still did, although it was fading fast. He wanted to seize the moment, to not let it slip away unused or unattended. “Perhaps we –” Bruce started.
“– should do something about it? Throw a farewell party?” Tony latched onto the idea before it traveled from his brain to his mouth.
Bruce chuckled. “Would be a shame to waste it…”
“… seeing as we might never get another chance.”
Tony took a minor step forward – or did he just lean in? – and Bruce was right there with him, meeting his lips, feeling their minds melt together. Well, it wasn’t that overwhelming but he could feel a subtle change and his excitement was no longer alone. Tony trembled against him which was a clear signal he felt it too. Mouths opened, tongues met, and it was slick, slimy and a little too squicky. A moment later Tony pulled back since he couldn’t stop laughing. “Okay, on the list of bizarre things… that wasn’t as hot as I imagined.”
Bruce licked his lips self-consciously. “We might have to try a different approach –”
J.A.R.V.I.S. interrupted them before they could agree on an alternative: “I am sorry to interrupt, sir, but the Avengers are requested to assemble. Apparently there is some form of crisis taking place on an oil rig; a terrorist cell hidden within a Greenpeace unit has taken the rig staff and protesters hostage and threatens to blow up the facility.”
Tony groaned. “I just donned the suit and we were in the middle of something here, too.”
Bruce gave him a sad smile. “We can always get back to this when the mission’s over,” he suggested.
Tony gifted him with an approving look. “I like the way you think, Dr. Banner.”
After all, even with the mental link missing between them it didn’t mean they should ignore the newfound depth in their relationship. With certain precautions and safety measures, of course; perhaps Bruce would be able to put his foot down on those once Tony wasn’t messing around inside his head.
Then again, it could just as well have to do with what he wanted, deep inside, desiring the freedom he hadn’t allowed himself for a long time, and it would be just as exciting to find out about that. Of all people, Tony would probably enjoy the process the most.