a long, lonely while, part iv
knows a thing or two about being touch-starved.
The first year after the Other Guy had happened, he’d been shaky and ill near constantly. He was depressed, and caught everything and anything.
He’d known before his isolation that a lack of human contact could be detrimental, but it hadn’t prepared him. It was like trying to comprehend pain like a kidney stone or birth before experiencing it. Nothing could have conveyed its true awfulness.
Human contact had been a luxury he couldn’t afford and he had suffered for it.
When he’d honed his control and started trying to help and make up for the endless destruction he’d left behind him, he’d fluctuated between being repulsed by the slightest touch and over-lingering.
The casual touches had eventually become routine and he stopped having the adverse reactions. Longing for more had taken longer to deal with. Starting his work doing medicine had helped there. A steady stream of taking pulses and feeling foreheads had been a big relief.
The point is, when Tony breaks up with Pepper, Bruce recognizes the symptoms after just a few days. It’s also pretty apparent Tony’s more deeply affected by it than Bruce has ever been. He needs more than the casual touches of a friendship or acquaintance, which becomes particularly apparent after the fifth time Tony dodges the hand Bruce tries to put on his shoulder—even though he immediately looks like he regrets it.
It smacks of a problem with history older than Bruce’s.
These days Bruce is good at accepting and enjoying the touches bestowed on him, but instigating has never been his forte and he can’t quite make himself step out of that comfort zone, even for Tony.
The other Avengers are always around, coming and going from the communal kitchen or the communal gym—they’re all lonely, every one of them seeking out the presence of other people, if not direct contact—and he expects that they’ll see the need and fill it better than he can.
But one month turns into two, two months turns into three, and Tony looks more and more wretched with every passing day.
“Bless you,” Bruce murmurs when Tony sneezes one afternoon and swears under his breath, one hand moving to press against the arc reactor. He’s been nursing a cold for over two weeks and it’s starting to worry Bruce. The now-audible wheeze in his breathing is especially concerning.
“Thanks,” Tony mutters and puts his head in his hands.
Bruce sets aside his notes. “Have you had anyone look into that?”
Looking up at him with watery, red-rimmed eyes, Tony says wearily, “What, my sniffles?”
Bruce nods. He’s trying to tread carefully, but that’s not exactly his specialty.
“Why bother? Their advice is always the same—rest, drink fluids, pop a few Advil.” Tony shrugs.
“Do you— Would you mind if I had a look?” Bruce is surprised at himself for that and apparently so is Tony—he looks up, eyebrows raised.
“Knock yourself out,” Tony says with a smirk that has a shadow of his usual attitude behind it.
Bruce clears his throat, then gets to his feet and moves over to where Tony’s seated because he’s committed. Think of him as any other patient, he tells himself and that helps settle him. He reaches for Tony’s wrist first, curling his fingers around it to check his pulse. “How long have you been feeling under the weather?”
Tony’s skin is slightly clammy and his pulse is fast, so there’s that and—
“Headache, general aches, coughing, sneezing, chills on and off. Fatigue. You know. Sickness.”
Bruce lets go of Tony’s wrist, frowning slightly. He has a stethoscope around here somewhere and he’d like to hear Tony’s lungs. “Two weeks is a long time for a cold.”
“You’re telling me,” Tony mutters.
After looking in just two places, Bruce manages to find the stethoscope. He hooks it in his ears and gestures at Tony. “Can you lift your shirt?”
“Things don’t sound the same in there with my little attachment, you know that, right?” Tony says, but he lifts it up all the same. Bruce is careful to school his expression and not to stare, even though the sight of that hunk of metal embedded in Tony’s skin makes him feel a little nauseated.
“I’ll never know if I don’t try,” Bruce tells him and flashes him a little smile.
“I can see your biology boner, and, boy, it’s a doozy.”
“Shh,” Bruce murmurs, distracted by the noise of Tony’s chest. The arc reactor makes a steady thrumming noise that nearly drowns out the sound of Tony’s heartbeat and breathing, but after a minute or two of listening, Bruce is pretty sure he can make them out well enough. “Take a deep breath,” he asks.
Tony humors him and breathes in as deeply as he’s able—it makes him cough with a crackling sound that Bruce knows immediately is bronchitis.
The coughing doesn’t stop for nearly two minutes, and by the time it’s over, Tony is clutching Bruce’s arm, gasping frantically for breath. Bruce may not be a touchy guy, but he puts a hand on Tony’s back and rubs it, trying to provide what little comfort he can. “There you go,” he says as Tony finally wheezes his way back to a normal breathing pattern. He cups his hand around the back of Tony’s neck and Tony’s head sinks down to rest on Bruce’s chest like the mere weight of it is too much. “You need to be medicated,” Bruce says and Tony breathes, “Sure.”
He doesn’t move, and Bruce doesn’t make him.
It’s not a solution for Tony’s depressed immune system, but it’s something. Bruce doesn’t know how, but the touch starvation needs to be addressed.
Tony can't—and shouldn’t have—to go on like this.