Title: The Silence
Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Fandom: The Avengers (MCU)
Genre: Hurt/comfort, drama, mild horror
Rating: M / FRM
Characters: Bruce Banner (Hulk), J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony Stark (Iron Man). (Mentioned: James “Rhodey” Rhodes (War Machine), other Avengers.)
Summary: Bruce is fairly certain he’s dreaming, but since this nightmare is a vision he’s imagined a hundred times over, it might as well be real – until he finds Tony, and the other man just won’t shut up. Bruce needs silence to center himself and to fully take in the horror his hands have wrought. Everything goes horribly wrong after that.
Written for: Death Big Bang’s (death_bigbang) round 1.
Also fills a square on my Hurt/Comfort Bingo’s (hc_bingo) round 4 card (square: “nightmares”).
Warnings: A nightmare sequence (contains: disturbing imagery, destruction & gore; heavily implied violence; murder and major character deaths on- and off-screen), language.
Disclaimer: Iron Man, Avengers and Marvel Cinematic Universe, including characters and everything else, belong to Marvel, Marvel Studios, Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Shane Black, Louis Leterrier, Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and Universal Pictures. In short: I own nothing; this is pure fiction created to entertain likeminded fans for no profit whatsoever.
Betas: Gamebird (game_byrd) & Mythra (mythras_fire)
Feedback: Very welcome
About The Silence: It’s a given that Bruce has a foreboding feeling about working with the Avengers and how it all will backfire, in the end. It’s also very likely he’s envisioned how all that will go, at least a few times.
This is one such time. (Tony should learn when to shut up, at least when he’s in Bruce’s nightmare.)
Story and status: Below you see the writing process of the story. If there is no text after the title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.
Written for Death Big Bang’s first round.
Also fills the “nightmares” square on my card on Hurt/Comfort Bingo’s round 4.
Bruce awakens to familiar sensations that always follow his transformation into the Hulk: his body is half-numb, coming back to itself with painful slowness; his insides hurt, as if someone’s been punching them repeatedly for the last hour; all five of his senses drift in and out of focus at unexpected intervals, as if his brain isn’t fully operational.
There have been days when he’s been forced to get on his feet and start running instantly, half-naked and covered in the remnants of whatever battle he fought – a fight he usually doesn’t remember, but which assaults him in fragments afterwards, without warning, drawing connections from the most random things.
This time, there are no flashes, and he just floats while at the same time feeling heavy. He observes the ceiling above him, finding it cracked, portions of it hanging down, swaying softly, almost lulling him back to sleep. He’s awake, though, and shouldn’t drift off again until he’s made sure where he is – and that everyone is okay.
A shadow moves in the back of his mind. He knows it may be only a memory, something related to his last time as a monster, but as no further clues appear, Bruce turns his head slightly to look around.
He can instantly tell he’s at the Avengers Tower – formerly known as Stark Tower. The room he’s in isn’t his, however. It takes him a while to place it, seeing as the entire space is wrecked, not just the ceiling. There’s a Hulk-sized expansion torn into the doorway, and Bruce is starting to feel a draft coming from somewhere.
Willing himself to move, he sits up. He’s on top of a large mattress. The bed itself has fallen flat on the floor, possibly under the weight of the Hulk, and the sheets are all torn and twisted, half of them pushed off the bed.
The sheer size of the bed helps Bruce reach a conclusion: he’s in Tony’s room, for some reason.
Pants cling to his waist – a new material designed by Tony, which can take the expansion of Bruce’s transformation, as well as the most basic wear and tear from a battle. Bruce has an urge to strip them off, fairly certain that some of the stains on the dark material are blood, but that would leave him naked and he’d rather hold onto the pants for now.
He gets to his feet, stepping carefully over the broken remnants of the room. He can feel that his bare feet are still numb as he steps on shattered glass or bent metal. Everything feels far away in a dream-like way, and Bruce wonders if this is actually a dream; sometimes he’s conscious that he’s dreaming, and can wander about for a bit before waking up.
This isn’t a familiar setting, though, and he exits through the damaged bedroom doorway to find himself in the large sitting area of Tony’s floor. He discovers the source of the draft instantly, and his fingers tighten where he’s been instinctively holding onto the waistline of his pants: there’s a hole in the wall, gaping and full of jagged edges. Beyond it, Bruce can see clouds of smoke, and where the familiar buildings of Manhattan should be standing, there’s only wide-spread destruction, as far as his eyes can see.
Fear grips his stomach. He looks around the room, finding that save for the hole in the wall and the obvious path the Hulk picked to reach the bedroom, the place looks mostly intact.
With a nervous lick of his lips, Bruce carefully walks to the hole and peers out, grabbing the edge of the wall with his free hand. It feels like his world tilts a little as he cranes his neck and looks about. The Chrysler Building, which should stand so near it sometimes feels like one can touch it while at the Tower, is gone. When Bruce looks down, he can see crushed stone, glass and metal, all in a huge pile hundreds of feet below.
South of the tower, the Midtown area is leveled. Only a few skeletal structures of buildings stand tall, most of them missing chunks of their forms. He cannot see the streets, which are now covered in debris.
Was there a battle? If so, why can’t he remember any of it? Not even the sight of ultimate destruction brings back any flashes, which is unusual.
Perhaps this is a dream.
Bruce backs away from the hole and goes to the elevator. Against all odds, it arrives with a soft ping, and Bruce rides it to ground level with tension coiling tight inside him.
He doesn’t meet anyone; the elevator doesn’t stop at any of the other floors, and once at the lobby, there’s no one there either. Only a few signs of battle – and to his horror, a few dead bodies on the floor and strewn across surfaces.
Bruce moves on, not taking a closer look at them. He’s afraid that instead of seeing gunshot wounds and other such signs of an attack, he’ll find torn limbs, crushed bones and pools of blood.
When he gets to the glass lobby doors, which are shattered, he has to climb over a pile of debris to get outside.
Dust gathers on his skin, numbing it against the desolation.
Bruce scrambles on, seeking higher ground, trying to find someone. Anyone. He walks aimlessly, every now and then startled by the sound of collapsing structures. In the distance, a rumble starts, and he stops to watch in numb awe as an entire high-rise crumbles beneath its own weight, leaving only a massive cloud of dust that spreads in all directions. Bruce isn’t far enough away to completely avoid it, and the veritable wall of small particles blowing towards him clogs up his nose, even when he tries to protect himself against it.
He cannot see for a while, walking into things, stumbling on.
The silence continues and it disturbs him because it’s never quiet in New York. Where is everyone?
Bruce gazes at the destruction and starts to find clues that may well suggest human remains. He doesn’t want to go digging for answers; the silence suggests that he cannot help any of them, and it fills him with desperation, suffocating the life out of him.
As he passes another block, he begins finding scorch marks on the buildings. They grow more intense as he walks on and Bruce feels like he’s nearing something. Fires burn here and there, smelling foul with dangerous toxins. Bruce’s eyes burn from the dust and the smoke, and he almost misses a figure sitting in a small clearing, the form huddled.
“Come on,” a voice reaches Bruce’s ears – the first sound since the building went down in the distance. “Don’t be like that. I’ll fix you. Just lie there; don’t stress about it.”
Bruce walks closer, side-steps something that might be the wreckage of a truck, and feels his chest tighten in anticipation. “Tony?”
The other man looks up and over his shoulder at Bruce. His face looks strange, covered in dirt and dried blood; rivulets of sweat and possibly tears have painted grotesque lines in the gray-and-copper layer.
“Oh, hey, Bruce,” Tony stutters. He’s sitting – kneeling – next to something. Bruce makes out something metallic; a figure lying on its back, encased in what looks like a variant of Tony’s Iron Man armor. “I think you hit him too hard,” Tony explains. He’s holding something in his hands, but Bruce is coming at him from an angle where he cannot see what it is.
Bruce makes a guess that Tony’s armor is broken and he’s talking to it. Tony sometimes does that, and Bruce has never found it as odd as it perhaps should be: Tony shares a bond with his armors and seeing as J.A.R.V.I.S., his AI, is installed into all of them, it’s almost like talking to a person.
Tony’s admission, however, brings one more clue into the mix of facts Bruce has been trying to piece together: the Hulk was involved. Why the monster would attack Tony’s armor, he doesn’t know, but he doesn’t dismiss it as a total impossibility.
“You hit him way too hard,” Tony murmurs, turning back to the armor in front of him.
Bruce walks closer, not saying anything yet, and catches sight of the armor’s chest and one shoulder from around the side of Tony’s body.
The metal is covered in blood.
Bruce stops, freezes. Tony’s out of the armor and not that badly hurt, he can see that, so why is there blood on the armor? He decides it might be someone else’s blood, perhaps some kind of villain, and he forces himself forward, to see the whole picture.
The armor isn’t one of Tony’s, Bruce finally recognizes. Not completely, anyway: it’s War Machine. Bulkier, more prominently armed. A military code is visible on its chest.
Bruce takes the last step, finally seeing the object in Tony’s hands, and the fact that he doesn’t throw up on the spot tells him this is, indeed, a dream: Tony’s holding War Machine’s helmet. His hands and half the helmet are covered in blood, just as the top of the armor. It’s clear there’s still a head inside the helmet.
Tony looks up at him, a disturbing expression on his face. “I keep telling Rhodey to chill. He’s such a hot-head sometimes.” He lets out a chuckle, which isn’t entirely healthy, and his frame shivers. Well, he’s holding his best friend’s head in his lap, so Bruce gets it.
“Tony, I think he’s dead,” Bruce says slowly, carefully.
“I know,” Tony says back. His eyes cloud a little. “You hit them all too hard, Bruce.”
“All…?” Bruce looks around, afraid of what he’ll find.
Tony points forward and little to the right. “Cap’s there. You cut him in half with his shield after pounding most of his bones into dust. Don’t worry: you crushed his skull pretty early on so he didn’t feel any of it,” Tony says, almost reassuring.
Bruce’s hands come up to his hair, tugging. He barely feels any pain. He prays this is a dream – but he cannot lie, he’s thought about this happening a hundred times by now, ever since joining the Avengers, and now it’s here, staring him in the face, just as Tony is.
At least he’s alive, Bruce decides, although why that is, he isn’t sure.
“What… what happened?” Bruce asks, moves over to Tony and gently pries his fingers from around the helmet, setting it aside. He tries to look at neither the helmet nor the place where it’s been torn off from the rest of the armor – the rest of James Rhodes’ body.
“You flipped,” Tony says, eyes wide. If he isn’t in shock, then he’s broken – so completely Bruce isn’t sure it’s fair to keep him alive. “You did all this,” Tony gestures at the destroyed city. “We tried to stop you, but you were so mad. I’ve never seen you so mad. What did we do, to make you so mad?” he asks, trying to stand, and Bruce helps him up, trying not to cringe as Tony’s blood-covered hands grab at the bare skin of his upper body, blunt fingernails digging into his skin. “I tried telling them it would be okay, that I could talk you out of it…”
Obviously, that hadn’t worked.
Bruce tries to think about it, to remember something, but he’s drawing a blank. Not a single flash, emotion or memory.
“I think this is a nightmare,” Bruce states.
“Sure is,” Tony says and gives another deranged laugh.
“Where are the others?” Bruce asks, because maybe some of them are still alive in this horror show. Thor, for one, is tough, and should be able to withstand the Hulk’s rage.
“Hawkeye’s somewhere in there,” Tony motions at the destroyed portion of the city. “He didn’t stand a chance. I tried to get to him in time, to pull him out before the buildings went down, but you tackled me out of the air and I lost sight of him. S.H.I.E.L.D. brought their Helicarrier over after the fight started to get out of hand; you crashed it into lower Manhattan; I haven’t heard from any of them since. Widow was with them.”
“What about Thor?” Bruce asks, anxious for some good news.
“What of Thor?” Tony frowns.
“Where is he?”
“Oh.” Tony looks away, as if trying to remember. “After you two leveled most of the city, I think you got tired of getting beat up by his hammer. You tore off his limbs. I wasn’t… I was here with Rhodey,” he explains, as if that’s the important part. “I guess Thor wasn’t all that immortal after all,” he finishes with a small shrug, then looks at Bruce’s face again. “Why wouldn’t you stop?”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember.” He really can’t, and it scares him. “I think I’m dreaming,” he adds.
“So that makes this okay?” Tony demands. “Just because this is your dream it’s okay to kill half a million people – your teammates included?”
“If I’m dreaming, then none of this really happened,” Bruce tries to explain.
“It happened to me!” Tony shouts.
“No, it didn’t!” Bruce shouts right back. “God, I’ve told you this would happen, a dozen times. All of you. I told Nick Fury that, and he still wanted me on his team. Why couldn’t any of you listen?!”
“We had faith in you,” Tony mumbles. “We trusted you.”
“I told you not to.”
“That’s not how it works.”
“Oh, and you know how it works? You’re the least trustworthy person I’ve met,” Bruce snaps. “You’re self-centered and egoistical when it serves you best, and then in the next heartbeat you lay down on the wire for the rest of us. How can anyone trust you?”
“I didn’t level the city! I didn’t kill all my friends!”
“Yeah, but you’re the only one who survived,” Bruce points out. “How is that?”
Tony’s face darkens.
Bruce wonders about it. Knowing Tony, he would have been the first one to go, in some stupid sacrificial manner.
“This isn’t about me,” Tony says belligerently.
“It’s always about you,” Bruce counters.
“How is it my fault the other guy didn’t tear me to pieces?” Tony shouts in his face, shoving at Bruce’s chest, hard. “Why is it my fault he just held me down under one foot when he… he…” His eyes fly back to Rhodey, and Bruce can suddenly see it in his head – not like a memory, but like a scene from a movie he’s seen: Tony on the ground, the Hulk’s weight pressing down on him as War Machine attacks – only to be beheaded and dropped to the ground like an abandoned toy.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?!” Tony screams at him suddenly, shoving at him again, and Bruce is suddenly longing for the dead silence of the city.
“You know what. Back off,” Bruce tries telling him – grabbing at him, to stop Tony from pushing at him again. “Calm down. I have to think.”
“What’s there to think about? Huh? Bruce? Answer me!”
“I need you to be quiet,” Bruce murmurs. His thoughts are spinning out of control. Tension is growing in his chest. He isn’t sure whether the monster’s coming back, so soon, but an invisible force is pressing at him from all sides and Tony doesn’t fall silent.
“We can talk this out, right? Like sane people – sane people who kill everyone. You can’t just shut me out. You just killed everyone we know – our friends and teammates. You can’t just shut me out!”
“Shut up!” Bruce barks. “I can’t think!”
“Thinking’s good,” Tony agrees in a heartbeat. His eyes are going wild, and Bruce has never seen it, but he thinks this is what happens when people finally lose it. “Maybe we can think of how to put Rhodey back together?”
“We can’t,” Bruce tells him tiredly. “Would you just stop talking about Rhodey? He’s dead! They’re all dead!”
“Because you made them so,” Tony almost pouts. “But maybe I can fix it.”
“You can’t fix people. No one can fix dead people. Besides, you’ve never been good at helping people out of the armor,” he adds, just for the hell of it, hoping the harshness of his words will make Tony stew quietly for a moment.
The silence lasts for about five seconds before Tony’s coming at him again, pushing, shoving, trying to punch him, but clearly he’s out of sorts because he keeps missing. “Why would you do it?” he asks again. “I thought we had something. A rapport. A working relationship. We were finally a team. I had something special with these people, and you had to tear it all apart!”
Bruce needs him to stop talking, to stop making it worse. He’s not really thinking when he slams his hand out, catching Tony around the throat. “I need to think, and I need you to be quiet while I do that,” Bruce explains and squeezes, fingers firm around Tony’s throat while another hand covers Tony’s mouth. “Okay?” he asks, trying to meet the wide, bloodshot, shining eyes. “Just, be quiet. The silence is better, and you just don’t get it…”
Tony struggles feebly and Bruce squeezes more tightly around his throat.
“Shh,” he hisses, trying not to be angry at Tony. The other man’s legs start to give and Bruce lets him crumble to the ground, following him there. Tony’s making small, choked noises, and Bruce looks away from him, trying to wait it out. “Just, be quiet,” he pleads, squeezing tighter because Tony’s struggling; he presses his hand more firmly on his throat, getting blood smeared on his hand, which is annoying – and suddenly there’s a faint crunch and Tony twitches and stops moving altogether.
Bruce starts, removing his hands. Tony’s eyes are wide open, staring lifelessly at Bruce. “Tony?” Bruce asks, panic tightening his chest. “I’m sorry,” he hurries to say, touches the man’s chest, but it isn’t moving. “I just… I just needed you to be quiet for a moment,” he explains, but Tony doesn’t stir, doesn’t move.
A hum fills the air behind Bruce and he looks up just as a gold-and-red Iron Man armor weaves across the sky, then flies lower, turning into a vertical position to hover above them. The armor’s right arm is missing, an errand spittle of sparks erupting from the broken metal and wiring every now and then.
The armor’s head cocks, looking at the scene. Bruce braces himself, gets up on his feet, meets the armor’s glowing eyes. He knows exactly how this looks, and it’s exactly what it is.
Whether this is a dream or not, it doesn’t matter.
“Finish it,” he tells the armor.
“Goodbye, Dr. Banner,” J.A.R.V.I.S.’s voice comes from the speakers, and the armor fires.
Hot pain flared through his chest. It felt like blood boiling, filled with acid, but instead of an instantaneous transformation into the Hulk, Bruce gasped and woke up with a jolt, embraced from all sides by darkness.
He scrambled to find the bedside lamp, hand colliding with it, finding the switch, pushing it over to the floor just as it came to life. Light filled the darkness and Bruce found himself in his own room in the Avengers Tower. The ceiling wasn’t broken. The mattress was whole, and there was no draft from anywhere.
Bruce steadied his breathing, continuing until his heart-rate was no longer painful. His fingers clenched, then unclenched.
A dream, then.
It didn’t make him feel better, and a sudden urge to pack his things and leave was almost overwhelming. He had money, clothes, necessities – all set aside in case he needed to leave quickly. He even had safe accounts and a couple of fake passports and identities courtesy of Tony.
It was that last thought that tore him from his bed.
Pulling on a sweatshirt and pants, Bruce left his room, took the elevator up and entered Tony’s floor with a code of his own.
“Is everything alright, Dr. Banner?” J.A.R.V.I.S. asked when he entered the sitting room from his nightmare. The AI wasn’t telling him to leave, but merely inquired after his health.
“Fine,” Bruce asked, crossing over to the bedroom door. “Is Tony here?” he asked as he opened the door – finding the bed empty.
“Mr. Stark is in his workshop.”
Bruce wasn’t sure which was better. He had hoped to find Tony fast asleep, to perhaps stand in the doorway for a bit, staring at him, but now he could talk to him. Not that he knew what to say, exactly.
‘Sorry for killing your friend in my nightmare’?
‘I didn’t mean to kill you, too’?
He took the back stairs to Tony’s private shop, entering once again with his code. Music was playing, relatively muted for Tony’s usual tastes, and the man was bent over an Iron Man armor, small blow-torch in hand. It was the armor from Bruce’s dream. Its right arm was currently missing, seated on a separate table.
Tony turned off the torch and glanced at him. “Hey, Banner. Trouble sleeping?”
“How’d you guess?” Bruce asked, stepping further inside.
“You have the look.” Tony spoke like he knew the look from experience – which he did. Just about everyone slept better at night than Tony Stark – Bruce included.
Bruce nodded slowly and walked over to the separate arm of the suit, sliding his hand over it. The metal was cool, concrete. It grounded him more than the silence of the dream had.
“Want to talk about it?” Tony asked, still looking at him.
Bruce glanced at him, wondering. “Not really,” he admitted.
“That bad, huh?”
“A lot of death,” Bruce admitted. “All death, actually,” he went on, despite himself. “Even the last few living things… I managed to kill them. Squeeze the light out of them.” He looked at Tony, eyes filling with tears, the memory of the dream too real in his mind. “I’m so sorry, Tony.”
With a cautiously perplexed look on his face, Tony put down his tools, slid off his safety glasses and moved over to Bruce. “Whatever it was, it was a dream,” he said, sliding a hand to Bruce’s shoulder. “Whatever you did, to anyone…”
“I…” Bruce started, eyes straying to Tony’s throat. “I killed you. After the other guy had killed everyone else.”
Tony gave him a rueful smile. “Some people consider the idea of killing me a fantasy.”
“I didn’t like it,” Bruce insisted. “I just needed you to be quiet for a bit.”
Tony blinked at that. “Uh… So, is that a really subtle way to say I talk too much?”
“No,” Bruce said at once. “Keep talking. I would… prefer it, right now.”
“Because you killed me for talking too much – in your dream,” Tony added, belatedly, to make a distinction between the two.
“I wasn’t trying to kill you.” Bruce felt deflated and empty. Tired. As if he had Hulked-out recently and was lacking the strength to do even the most basic things.
“Accidents happen,” Tony brushed it off and moved his hand from Bruce’s shoulder to ruffle his hair, then stilled his hand and dug his fingers in, making small tingles move down Bruce’s body as the nerve endings were stimulated. “But, just for the record: you’re not one day going to kill me for talking too much, right? I would like a heads-up on that.”
Bruce chuckled and leaned forward, placing his head on Tony’s chest, face down where his arc reactor used to be. “No.”
“Okay. Good,” Tony said, and Bruce could feel his every word, every breath, and Tony’s hand continued a lazy pattern on his scalp.
“Do you think I’m a monster?” Bruce asked next.
“We’re all monsters,” Tony replied. “That’s pretty much the footnote on every person’s life, at some point. You just… show it a bit more openly than most.” His fingers tightened in Bruce’s hair and drew his face up so that Tony could look at him properly. “Look, Bruce, I know you’ve partaken in horrible things as the Hulk. Killed people who got in your way by accident. One day, one of us might be one of those people, but we know who and what you are, and what you can do, and frankly, if we can’t save our own assess when that happens, we deserve what’s coming to us.”
“Even if I end up killing someone dear to you?” Bruce asked. “Someone who isn’t an Avenger?”
Tony’s eyes narrowed. “Is this about the dream? I’m trying to talk harsh reality here.”
“I wasn’t sure whether it was real or not, while I was asleep. I suspected it to be a dream, but it might have happened just as well. Tony, I could have done it all: left Hawkeye in a crumbling building, dropped the Helicarrier, hacked Steve and Thor into pieces…”
Tony took a moment to consider his words. It was like their places were reversed from the dream: Bruce was relaying the information and Tony was just trying to take it in. “Those are all Avengers,” the genius finally pointed out. “Where do my loved ones come in?”
“I tore Rhodey’s head off,” Bruce admitted, “while he was still wearing the suit. When I found you, you were sitting by him, holding his head in your lap.”
Tony cocked an eyebrow and his gaze seemed to turn inwards for a bit. “Okay, that makes for a disturbing image. Do you want some hot milk?” he asked out of the blue. “Or hot chocolate? J.A.R.V.I.S., do we have hot chocolate?”
“Indeed sir. Shall I prepare a cup for each of you?”
“No, it’s fine,” Bruce started, but Tony gave him an insulted, almost venomous look, and Bruce drew back his protests. “I would love a cup, thanks. A large one, if you have any.”
“Of course, Dr. Banner.”
“See, it’s all going to be better soon,” Tony told him, tugging at his hair one last time before drawing back. “I’ll finish this thing here and then we’ll sit down and work on your repressed urges to hurt armored superheroes who aren’t me.”
“I don’t have ‘repressed urges’ to hurt people,” Bruce tried to explain, and once again looked at the armor Tony was working on. “How long have you been in the middle of this project?” he asked.
“A couple hours, why? Are you going to preach me about the importance of breaks?” Tony asked, flashing him a quick smile.
“I saw this armor in my dream,” Bruce stated, touching the loose arm again.
“Well, I’m sure you’ve seen the specs.”
“It was missing its right arm.”
Tony stopped for a couple seconds, then resumed doing… whatever he was doing near the armor’s crotch area. “Maybe you came down here and saw it?”
“You said you’ve been working on it only for a few hours,” Bruce reminded him.
Tony drew back from the armor and stared at him. “Are you purposefully trying to creep me out? Because you’re being very successful.”
“Hot chocolate is ready, gentlemen,” J.A.R.V.I.S. announced.
Bruce waited for Tony to start migrating towards the truly impressive coffee machine. Tony handed him a large cup of thick, brown beverage, and then took his own, equally large and rich.
“Maybe I saw the armor specs,” Bruce finally admitted.
“I’m pretty sure you did. I tried to show you this cool new weapon system a few days ago,” Tony agreed.
It was probably true, and Bruce shouldn’t dwell on any of it. He didn’t have premonitions. Torn-off limbs had been a recurrent theme in his dream, so it was probably nothing more magical or horrific than that.
“This is good,” he commented on the hot chocolate, which burned his tongue as he sipped on it.
“The best,” Tony agreed.
Silence stretched between them. At some point, J.A.R.V.I.S. or Tony had switched off the music, leaving the workshop in a hush that was starting to bother Bruce a little.
“So…” he started, trying to come up with something to talk about.
“What?” Tony asked – not snapping, not scared. Not close to losing his mind.
“Should we talk about something?”
“I don’t know. You could tell me about that new weapon system,” Bruce suggested.
“If this is about you feeling guilty for killing me in a nightmare for not being able to shut up –”
“Just talk, Tony. Okay? Humor me.”
So Tony did talk, going very specifically over each and every nuance of the new and improved targeting and delivery system of the weapons, not to mention the power distribution and smaller material costs. Bruce zoned out pretty soon, focusing on Tony’s voice rather than his words. He was fairly certain Tony realized that, if the furtive glances were anything to go by, but he didn’t stop talking and that was all Bruce cared about at the moment.
Nightmare or reality, all roads inevitably led in the same direction. It was all a matter of luck and fighting the tide. Bruce could do it on his own in some third world country, surrounded by strangers and surviving with minimal provisions from one day to the next.
Or, he could do it here, surrounded by people he might one day call a family – people who were his teammates and friends – supported, cared for and given the opportunities to build his life a bit closer to what it had once been, before the Hulk forced him to go on the run.
If he stayed, he endangered all the people he cared for, but even if he left and lost control, the Avengers would come after him and the separation would mean nothing at all.
“Another?” Tony asked after Bruce had finished his drink.
Bruce nodded, handed the cup to him, and Tony went to the coffee machine to fill the cups again. He glanced back at Bruce as he waited, face clear of blood and horror, filled with trust and confidence instead, and Bruce let it wash over him, seep into his skin and bones, and settle deep within his gut to replace the lingering anxiousness from the dream.
One day, all of the hopes and trust Tony had poured into him might not matter, but as long as that day wasn’t today, Bruce should find a way to live with his ill conscience of things he hadn’t yet done. Things he might never do, if they got really, really lucky.
He had never been that lucky in his life.
Tony returned with the cups, handed Bruce his and then clinked them together.
“What are we drinking for?” Bruce asked.
“I think you know,” Tony said cryptically and refused to elaborate.
The silence that followed wasn’t as stifling as before, and Tony soon filled it with another lecture about his plans for the new and improved Quinjet, which eventually lulled Bruce into an easy sleep on the workshop’s couch.
Tony reached out and carefully tugged the empty cup from Bruce’s limp hold. The man had finally fallen asleep, and after taking the cups to the sink and letting some water run into them, Tony returned and took a blanket to cover the other man. He even went as far as sliding a small pillow beneath Bruce’s head because he had suffered from a painful neck often enough to not wish it upon his friend.
As he stepped back, he took a look at the armor – and the right arm he had removed for repairs and upgrading. He refused to dwell too deeply on Bruce’s words. They all had nightmares, Tony’s more past-oriented than imagining some horrible new event, but they all had their crosses to bear and Bruce’s, obviously, was the fear of losing control and destroying the things he was hard-pressed not to enjoy, like friends and a home to come back to.
Tony knew the fear wasn’t without basis, but he also trusted the Hulk, and what the monster and Bruce could accomplish together. Any of them could go off the deep end on any given day, and what happened after that…
Giving Bruce one last look, Tony got back to work, trying not to make too much noise. Every once in a while he would steal a glance at the sleeping man, though, trying to put himself in Bruce’s shoes, then eventually decided it wouldn’t do him any good. All Tony could do was be there for Bruce, like Bruce would hopefully be there for Tony, and perhaps when the shit finally hit the fan… they could work things out.