Bruce heard the first locks dis- and re-engage at the other end of the hall, the beginning of the long sequence down to his cell. Heard the ‘visitors’ arrive, yet again. He couldn’t help the first blip of his heart-rate, the first uptick at the sound of those distant tumblers, and the knowledge of what they meant. After all these weeks, he still couldn’t help that. But he could …
Breathe. Calmly, deliberately. Counting it out, slowly and steadily, inaudibly. Dropping his heart-rate down after that first spike, steadying his breathing, slowly loosening the automatic tensing of his muscles. Forcing calm across himself in a slow, smooth roll.
He didn’t have to. The collar would have taken care of it, the spells embedded in it taking hold as his panic built, locking him down under spelled calm. He could have let his fear run wild, and trusted to their device to take him in hand.
But no. Never. Nothing they made, could he trust. The spells made him … docile, unthinking. Malleable. No different, in their way, from the monster on the other side of his fear, from the cursed madness that took him, and rendered him nothing but a raging beast. Either, both. Spells and fear. They rendered him helpless, to hurt others, or be hurt.
Better his own calm. Better to hold it as long as he could, to learn and plan as long as he could, to be conscious as long as he could. Sooner or later, if they were bringing him out for tests, or missions, he would lose. To fear, for the first, because you could only keep yourself calm for so long, under … under the things they did. And for missions, to the beast, because that was what he was for, now. He would lose. Sooner or later. He would. But before then. He would have as long as possible. To try and think of something. To try and find … some way out.
They hadn’t noticed. Not yet. They couldn’t tell the difference between their spelled calm and his own manual one. And because of that … they were not careful. Because of that … he could learn.
The locks clicked into place. The end of the sequence, outside his door. Bruce raised his head, enough to catch the bottom of the door, and the incoming feet. Not higher. They got suspicious, if he looked higher, if he met their eyes.
“For the last time, Lord Stark! Allow me to reiterate that this is very unwise!”
Bruce … almost frowned, at that. Almost raised his head. That was the base commander, General Ross himself. And Stark …
“Yes, yes,” came a lazy, vaguely annoyed voice, as the door opened, and a pair of feet in very elegant shoes strode right in, barely even waiting for the door. “So you’ve said, so everyone has said. In fact, no-one has shut up about it. Can we take it as read that I understand the risks, and go from there?”
The shoes came right up to where Bruce stood bound, the flutter of a … frankly, a ridiculously extravagant mage’s cloak almost dragging the floor behind them, all but obscuring the heavier boots that followed them. Bruce felt himself twitch, felt it roll through him, and wrestled it back. Wrestled with something he hadn’t felt in too long to really remember how to fight.
And then there was a hand under his chin, reaching up gently, and he forced himself still, forced himself with the ease of long practice not to flinch. Trembling, faintly, as long fingers hesitated for a brief second, as though asking permission, and then lifted his head.
And there … There was Lord Anthony Stark. The Lord Engineer. One of the most powerful mages in the Empire. The holder, it was rumoured, of the slave-bond of a greater Djinn.
Not that Bruce could have told that, from the glimpse he got. A brief flash of dark eyes, curious and intent, and something else, caught in a brief flicker as Bruce let his eyes meet them for the barest second, before dropping his own. Dark eyes, and dark beard, and a ridiculous blue gem dangling from one ear. Bruce caught those, catalogued them quickly, before safety dictated he drop his eyes to the man’s chest.
The fingers tightened, lightly, on his chin. Not forceful, not correcting. Just … a spasm of thought, maybe. Bruce … felt a low, savage shot of alarm.
“Hmm,” Stark murmured, low and thoughtful, and Bruce thought he caught a flash of the gem at the man’s ear, a flash of something that … shouldn’t be allowed, this far into the base. Magic. Some touch of something, some activity.
Gone again, a second later, when the heavier boots moved deliberately to Stark’s side. “If you remove this … this beast from our custody, Stark, the results will be on your head. Do you really understand that?” Ross was belligerent, almost furious, and Bruce … fought, desperately, for calm. Fought, desperately, against the implications of that sentence.
Stark … turned, slowly, to face the man. His fingers still light, still careful under Bruce’s chin, tension only faintly detectable in them.
“I understand perfectly,” he said, and this wasn’t lazy, this wasn’t casual. This was cold, and controlled, and icily angry. “You’ve made yourself very clear, General. The question is, do you understand.” He released Bruce, to better face the man. Bruce dropped his chin hurriedly to his chest, not daring to look, fighting the curiosity, and the fear, and the first, vague tendrils of something that might have been hope. “Do you understand that you have no choice? That your … research, here, falls under the umbrella of my father’s legacy, and as such I may have any part of it I wish, as part of my settlement with your superiors?”
Bruce flinched, minutely. Hope, that had flared briefly, died again, fear taking over with long-practised motions.
Ross growled. “Listen, you arrogant little shit.” The boots moved close, right into Stark’s space, and Ross’ hand appeared in Bruce’s line of vision, pressing savagely into the man’s chest. Stark … flinched. Almost no larger than Bruce’s, barely visible, but definitely there. “You are messing with things you don’t understand, here, and I don’t give a flying fuck who your Daddy was, I care that you are taking my weapon. A weapon you cannot hope to control, and since I don’t think you have the first clue what the hell you’re doing, I am gonna end up cleaning up the mess. And I am not looking forward to that.”
Stark reached up. Coldly, calmly. He reached up, took hold of the General’s wrist, and pointedly removed the hand from his chest. “Well then,” he said, soft and easy, as though he wasn’t trembling faintly with rage. “I suppose you’ll just have to be ready, won’t you? To … clean up my messes, as you say. Because, and I really cannot make this any clearer, I am not leaving without him. So. Shall we, yet again, take your concerns as read, and get on with it?”
Ross … snarled. Turning in place, brushing roughly past the mage as he stormed towards the door. “Help yourself,” he growled. “Just don’t expect any help from me, or any of my staff. If you’re going to put all of us in danger, you can do it without our help.”
Bruce breathed. Slow, steady. He breathed through the long interval as Ross left, and the guards with him, by the sounds of things. He breathed, slow and calm, as silence slowly settled over his cell, and he was left with … his new owner, apparently. His new owner, and the soft, unspoken threat in Ross’ voice.
Because no-one should be in danger. No matter what Stark did, no-one should be in danger from him. Unless Ross … planned to disable the collar, or turn it to its other use. Unless he planned … to use Bruce against this man.
“Well,” Stark said, at last. Low, and rueful. “That went well.”
Bruce, almost against his will, snorted at the understatement. And then froze, fighting back the raw panic, as Stark went still at the sound, and turned back his way.
“Ah,” the mage murmured, low and amused. “So you are in there somewhere.” He moved in close, until even with his eyes lowered, Bruce was looking at his bearded chin rather than his chest. “You want to try looking at me a little bit, make this easier?”
Bruce closed his eyes, for a second. Shut them long enough for a slow count, long enough to steady the spiralling terror, the patter of his heart. He closed his eyes for a slow count, and then … raised his head. And opened them.
Stark was watching him. Something dark and terrible in his eyes, something that had Bruce’s control wavering sharply. A small, savage smile on his lips. Stark was watching him, and Bruce had the sudden impression that if the man had looked at Ross like this, even a fraction like this, then maybe the General had felt the need for a weapon, in the face of it.
“Pleased to finally meet you, Dr Banner,” the man said, lightly for all the rage in his eyes. “How do you feel about getting out of here?”
Bruce swallowed. Heavily. Fear a soft, timpani beat inside him, and something else, something that he associated almost exclusively with the other guy, their weapon, their beast, rising with it. “I …” he tried, softly. “I’m not sure ….that would be wise.”
Stark raised an eyebrow. “You don’t want to leave?” he asked. Like that was actually an important consideration. Bruce … shook his head.
“No,” he rasped. “But I’m almost positive they mean for me to kill you, once we’re at …” He felt the smile, small and twisted. “At minimum safe distance.”
Stark smiled. If that was … even remotely the right word for it. “Oh, I have no doubts,” he said, soft and savage. “Absolutely none at all.” A smaller smile, a little more real. Looking at Bruce. “Do you want to come with me anyway?”
And Bruce did, he did, he had no idea who this man was or what he wanted, he had no idea what this man could do to him, but … He wanted out. He wanted away. If for nothing more than the change, if for nothing better than something different to be afraid of. He wanted. He did. But.
“I’m not going to be your suicide,” he said, very softly. Knowing, even as he did, what he was saying. Knowing, in intimate detail, what he was remanding himself to, should this man leave without him. Knowing. Even knowing.
Stark’s eyes creased. Softening, gentling. Dark and knowing, too, in their way. “No,” he agreed, with serene and savage confidence. “You are not. So. One more time. You want to come with me, and say goodbye to this shithole?” A small smile. “I promise you, whatever else happens, living quarters at my place are much better.”
Bruce stared at him. Looked at him, long and heavy. His breathing still steady, his breathing still holding, but something more than fear straining at it now. Something more than anger. He looked, long and hard, at the Lord Stark.
And then, hesitantly, warily … he nodded.
The mage grinned, a flare of fierce satisfaction in his eyes, and the gem at his ear flared blue, the jewel shining like a small, fierce star at the side of his face. “Jarvis,” Stark murmured, low and fierce. “How about we get on that, hmm?”
“Your wish is my command, sir,” the jewel murmured, while Bruce blinked at it desperately, while the word djinn flared briefly in his mind. “I’ve cut off the aetheric signals to the collar. There’ll be no remote triggering of Master Bruce’s … condition. I’ve also taken the time to baffle any listening ears in our vicinity. The wards and bonds themselves should pose you no trouble, sir.”
Stark grinned, light and easy. “That’s what I like to hear, old friend,” he said, flicking his fingers at Bruce. Before Bruce could do more than blink at him, before he could do anything save remember, vaguely, that the man specialised in metals and raw magic, the locks on the metal straps that bound him clicked home, with almost casual ease, and Bruce ... was tumbling forwards, muscles forced into looseness unable to react in time.
Stark caught him. Wrapped arms around Bruce’s chest as he fell, caught his weight on knees and shoulder, and steadied him. Bruce fell stiff instantly, instinctive response to the touch of hands against him, waiting. For the hands to grow hard, invasive. Or, for the disgust to show, anger, fear, for them to snap back and let him fall. He fell immediately still, waiting for that.
It never came. Stark grunted faintly under his weight, hands skittering for a second over Bruce’s back, trying to get a grip. And then, the man just … held him. Held him up, held onto him, not hard, not demanding. The kind of touch Bruce … simply couldn’t process, anymore, neither invading, like the alchemists and their experiments, nor terrified, enraged, like the guards. Just … there. Warm. Calm. Human. Just … just there.
“Hey,” the man’s voice came, softly, in Bruce’s ear. “You alright, there?” Bruce, swallowing around a nameless lump in his throat, scrambled for a reply.
“Muscles,” he managed, eventually. “I haven’t … I’m not usually … under my own power. I’m sorry, I …”
“Ah,” Stark interrupted, soft, and humming with faint rage. “Ah, no. Got it. You need a minute?”
Bruce smiled, tremulously. His face was buried mostly in the man’s shoulder. He could afford to. “I’m not sure we’ll have time,” he murmured, with a vague thrill at the realisation that this … didn’t feel like a transfer to a new prison, not anymore. The realisation that this, if it felt like anything, felt like an escape. “And, by the way? How did you get your djinn in here? There are wards preventing slave-bonded servants from entry.”
Stark laughed. Bruce felt the vibrations of it through his chest. Stark laughed, and tucked him tight. “Don’t worry,” he murmured. “We have all the time in the world. And what makes you think Jarvis is a slave? Or, for that matter … what makes you think he’s a djinn?”
“I …” Bruce frowned, not knowing what to make of that, and as he did ... he managed to get his feet under him. Managed at last to stand. Under his own power. Unbound. Without the spelled influence of the collar to keep him docile, not yet. He managed to stand, and Stark guided him gently back, Stark steadied him as he stood back, and when Bruce met the man’s eyes, that dark and terrible thing was there once more. That black thing was shining there, and Bruce had an idea, suddenly, that that dark thing might be what his monster looked like, if it had no green alchemical form to come to.
“This is the plan,” Stark told him, softly. “We are going to walk out of here. Just walk, right on out. We’re going to stay calm, stay frosty, right? Because no-one knows any better, and no-one has the right to stop us, and if anyone tries, regardless …” He paused, while that dark monster flared, briefly, and surged. “Then you still stay calm, got it? Because me and Jarvis, we’ll deal with that.”
And there were things, in that, the soft hum of threatening, and Bruce knew, now. That whatever Ross had seen, in this man’s eyes, whatever he’d heard in the soft rage of Stark’s voice, he had, in fact, felt the need for a weapon.
And he had not, Bruce thought, been wrong.
“And if I slip,” he asked, softly. “If the monster slips free?”
Stark smiled. Black and fierce and determined. “Then let him,” he said, looking right into the howling thing in Bruce’s eyes. “Let him out, and point him at me, and tell him to follow me home, and go through anything, everything, that gets in his way.”
Bruce … fell still. Trembled, near shook, with that. “He will kill you,” he warned, low and terrified. “Ross was right, there. He’ll kill you.”
Stark looked at him. That blue gem shining at his ear, and that dark thing shining in his eyes. Stark met his eyes, head on. And Bruce … wondered, suddenly. If the monster would. If the monster could.
“No he won’t,” Stark said, quietly, with that small, savage smile. “Because you don’t want to, do you? And he … Why would he need to?”
… Yes. Why, indeed?
Bruce took a breath. Took a second. The long click of tumblers, the long sequence of locks. Heading out, not coming in. He stood still, for a second, Stark’s hands still cupped under his elbows, his hands still resting on the man’s arms. He took a long, slow breath, steadied himself. Forced calm over himself in that long, slow roll. Over hope, now. Over fear, still. And over a slow, ready determination, a rising, savage satisfaction. He steadied that, and poured calm across it.
He was doing this. There was a collar around his throat, and weakness in his limbs, and all those doors, all those locks, all that fear, between him and the gate. There was all that, in the way. But he was doing this. And it would be … as himself. Under his own power. Neither spelled docility, nor his monster’s rage. If he was doing this, it would be as him, with the calm none of them had thought to realise was not theirs to control. If he was doing this. And he was.
He met Stark’s eyes. When his pulse was steady, when his breathing was calm and easy. When his determination was clear, in his eyes. He met Stark’s gaze, head on, and nodded, trembling, into the man’s fierce grin.
“Shall we?” he asked, quietly, and was faintly surprised at the soft curl of humour through it.
Stark grinned, dark and casual, and shifted to offer him an arm, linking them solidly.
“We shall,” he answered, and, for that second, it was all the promise in the world. For that second, it was all Bruce needed. To breathe. To move.
And, finally, to find his way out.