“Welcome back, big guy.”
The air was thick with dust, so thick his throat burned. Bruce coughed, turned, spat. His vision was too blurred to make out his surroundings, but that familiar voice kept on.
“You had me worried when you wouldn’t wake up, that maybe that last piece of debris - ”
Someone was close.
Bruce shook his head, squinted at the smear of a figure that sat in front of him. Something on him felt heavy. He wondered vaguely if he’d fallen through the floor of the old structure they’d been working on, or if an earthquake had taken the place down and buried him in cement and rebar. He felt iron and stone, could taste the devastation still hanging in the air.
He remembered a crash, metal skittering across the floor. And one huge flash. Suddenly, he wanted up.
“Uh-uh, big guy.” A hand pressed lightly on his bare chest, holding him in place. “No way you’re getting up - not yet.”
“Stark?” Bruce tried to wipe his eyes, but his hands wouldn’t move. “Tony?” His voice sounded choked, even to himself.
“In the flesh,” Tony replied, hand still and firm.
Bruce tried to remember what came before this moment. He’d been calibrating something in one of the outer rooms of the lab he and Tony had been slowly, quietly trying to put together. Why he’d been doing that escaped him, as did most everything else save that flash, that familiar surge, and -
Oh god, a bomb. Someone had thrown a bomb at them, and - The Other Guy -
“Tony,” Bruce started, trying to sit up, more forceful now.
A second hand joined the first, gently insistent. “Better sit tight, Bruce. Moving is - well - bad.”
It was apparent that their entry into this room hadn’t been voluntary. The two walls closest to Bruce were demolished, and a solid portion of the ceiling had collapsed. If there had been glass in the remaining windows, there was no sign of it now. There was a crater underneath where Bruce lay, pocked with holes beaten deeply into the foundation as the Other Guy tried to get up, get out, get away...
“Kinetic barrier,” Tony answered. “The more you fought, the more it pushed you down. Us, down. I couldn’t...” The suit lay crushed, only a foot away. Tony shrugged. “Good thing I built in a failsafe, or I’d be flattened with it. But there’s still a metric shit-ton of Hulk energy pent up in here with us, so just...stop trying to move.”
Bruce complied, and Tony nodded once. Silence reigned a while as they pondered the situation.
“Any idea who - “
“Ross, or someone working for him, I suppose,” Tony interrupted. “Sorry - I really thought I’d covered our tracks better.”
Bruce shrugged, immediately regretting it. “We have no way of knowing who Ross has on the payroll now.”
Tony glanced down at Bruce without moving his head. “Having second thoughts? Because you know, we could always go back to New York and set up shop there.”
“Great idea - then random mercenaries trying to kill me can blow up your buildings.”
Tony looked left to right at the rubble. “They already have.”
Oh, right. “Sorry.”
“No big,” Tony replied, patting Bruce’s chest lightly. The air, thick, rippled almost like water, down his body, and Bruce felt exposed.
“Uh - any chance I’m still wearing pants?”
Tony snorted. “You were standing on the bomb when it exploded. Pants didn’t exactly get a fair shake.” An eyebrow raised. “One hell of a sight, big guy.”
Bruce’s cheeks burned, and he fought the desire to try and cover himself - and, more importantly, the rather intense urge to squish Tony where he sat. Inside, the rage hadn’t settled; he could feel it, just under the surface, looking for release. No telling how much force any movement he made would have, and getting angry in this thing again would be really, really bad.
“If it helps, there’s a strategic draping of ceiling tile helping out now that you’re - “
“I mean, now that you’re no longer - “
“ - Supersized and - “
Tony lifted a single hand. “Hey, I’m just here to help.” Even that gesture added force, though, and the hand fell back to Bruce’s chest more heavily than before.
“Really. To help.”
“Really!” Tony looked anywhere but Bruce’s eyes. “I am, in my own way, trying...to help you.” His fingers drummed idly on Bruce’s chest, creating ripples of energy that moved outward in slow, thick circles. “It’s a - thing, I do, sometimes without thinking it all the way through.”
Bruce’s scowl told Tony he didn’t approve. “Fine,” Tony sniffed. “Serious. I can be serious.”
Bruce looked around. Cement dust still hung in the air, refusing to fall, or at least falling far more slowly than it should. “It’s slowing,” Tony responded to Bruce’s unasked question. “At a consistent rate, even after you fell unconscious. I suspect we’ve got an hour or so before it stops completely, which would mean - exactly what you’re thinking.”
Tony nodded, brushing a bit of dust away from where it hung just above Bruce’s chest. It floated idly away. “No air. I’d say it sucks, but since I’m supposed to be serious - ”
“Don’t force it, Tony.”
A smirk, and a cluck of the tongue. “Lame, Bruce. Blame the lack of oxygen?”
“Blame your influence,” Bruce replied, more terse than he’d intended. He glanced at the remains of the suit. “I don’t suppose you can make calls?”
“Equipment’s crushed. Not working.”
“What about the ones who threw -”
“One, Bruce. One, and he was strictly smash and dash. I don’t even think he knew I was here. You were out for an hour, Bruce, and nothing. Nothing.” Tony’s hand curled into Bruce’s chest, almost a fist.
“Okay. Okay.” Bruce tapped his fingers unconsciously, sending a nauseating wave of pressure through the trapped air. He fought back a cough, not wanting to add to the effect. “I don’t suppose anyone else knows where we are?”
“Nope, considering the hundred and one reasons we have to keep your whereabouts private. But we can talk about that later, when we’re not being crushed into supergoo. Good?”
Tony nodded once, almost immediately regretting the motion. “Then let’s figure out how to get out of this thing.”
“You’re a dick, Stark.”
“Come on. You know it’ll work.” Tony grunted as he fought the pressure to pull himself on top of Bruce. “And I can’t take the chance of being under you when it happens. Besides, it’s not like anyone is going to see us.”
Bruce raised an eyebrow, looking Tony straight in the eye from only inches away.
“Well, not immediately. I mean, if they had satellites on us, they’d have already shown...up...” Tony trailed off and finished his climb, laying fully atop Bruce. “Unless they’re deliberately avoiding you.”
Tony sighed. “Look, if you’ve got a better idea...” He waited until Bruce finally shook his head. “OK. Then I say it’s time to party.”
Before Bruce had woken up, Tony tried everything he could think of on his own to break through the kinetic barrier. He’d tested the boundaries, but they were firmly embedded in the earth, and if the Hulk hadn’t managed to break the seal, no one else could. He used glass, sharp bits of rebar and concrete, and the last laser on the suit before it fizzled to try and pierce or tear the damned thing, all without luck. And it wasn’t exactly like they had a plethora of equipment in there with them.
Tony had really started to wonder if he’d make it after that. He’d had an hour or more to accept that he was well and truly off the grid, being slowly crushed to death by some kind of new Hulk-trapping mechanism. It was his own fault, too - he’d been so damned certain that no one would find Bruce, or this place, that he’d gone off half-cocked - yeah yeah, again - but this time, with Bruce in tow, and with a few other people likely to be seriously pissed off if he ended up flattened.
But with Bruce awake, there was hope, and Tony couldn’t help but be excited about their plan. It involved completely untested scientific ideas, extreme danger, and the Hulk - pretty much the trifecta of awesome. What they needed, they had decided, was a sudden, strong burst of energy - something explosive, immediate, a force so sudden that the barrier couldn’t withstand it. And what better to provide that than the appearance of the Other Guy?
Bruce didn’t like it, but even he had to admit that the controlled change he had exhibited in New York would be too risky - they’d be crushed - and Bruce fighting it (which he would, instinctively - years of practice) might lead to the same problem. No, what they needed was something nearly instantaneous - the Hulk unleashed in a white-hot power that could burst open the barrier like an overfilled balloon.
And they’d get one chance, because once the extra mass of the Hulk was in here, either the barrier was gone, or they were.
“Right, now,” Tony started, wiggling his elbows under him on Tony’s chest. “Just gotta find what sets you off, Brucie boy.” Tony winked, and couldn’t help but grin as he got started. “This oughta be fun.”
“I hate your idea of fun,” Bruce responded.
Tony’s eyes glinted. “Ready? One, two...” His opening gambit made sense, but a solid knee to the balls only left Bruce grunting, curling and glowering at Tony as the air thickened even more. The knee that followed a half-second later didn’t do the trick, either - unless the trick was getting Bruce to curse out loud.
“Hm.” Tony considered, digging elbows into Bruce’s chest. The man below stayed still, only grunting and hissing as the pain increased. “Really? I must weigh a ton right now, Bruce. That’s gotta be a lot of pain, and nothing. I’m surprised.” He pressed harder, and Bruce let out a pained moan from between clenched teeth. “And this...well, what is this response, Bruce?” He chuckled, and pressed deeper. Bruce’s moan became a low growl.
Tony lifted pressure immediately. “Woah woah - hold on. You enjoying this?” The glower on Bruce’s face suggested otherwise, but Tony chuckled anyway, a light in his eyes. He dug in one more time for good measure, and Bruce bucked and twitched, eyes fixing on Tony in warning.
The air grew suddenly heavier. Both men groaned now, crushed together more fully than before. Something had shifted, even though Bruce was still Bruce; Tony’s hands were trapped under him on Bruce’s chest, the pressure making it nearly impossible to breathe. Time was almost up. Curled together in this terribly awkward position, they were going to die if they couldn’t find a way to pierce the shield now.
Eye to eye, the men could have considered their fate, said goodbye, thanked one another for a good run. They could have debated their strategy, used their last breaths to come up with something else.
Luckily, though, Bruce was right. Stark really was a dick.
Bruce saw Tony’s eyes light, felt as he wriggled his hands up into Bruce’s thick matte of chest hair. He pushed fingers into that tuft until he found both nipples. If he’d been able to move, Bruce would have shook his head; as it was, all he could do was open his eyes in astonishment, and not a little bit of fear.
“Oh, you’re gonna hate me for this,” Tony murmured, and couldn’t help but grin.
Then he twisted, hard, with all the might he could muster.
Tony felt it happen, all at once. Underneath him, there was a roar, and a sudden burst of power, rising and released. Tremendous pressure enveloped him, the kind of pressure you don’t survive. A huge hand pressed into his back, hard, and the world went white with pain, then dark.
“Don’t move too much,” Pepper said, and she was suddenly beside Tony, her hand reaching for his. Even that hurt.
Tony tried to turn his head, and sharp spikes of pain erupted in a dozen places. He moaned his displeasure, but gave up the effort. “Pepper...oh, ow. What happened? Where’s the green guy?” His head didn’t feel real; neither, for that matter, did any other part.
“Here.” Bruce stepped toward the bed, picking at his fingernails, looking anywhere but Tony’s face. “I’m here, still.” He picked at a lip with nervous fingers, turning away.
“Bruce...well, the Hulk...he brought you to the tower,” Pepper explained. “Jarvis called me the moment you both showed up on satellite. I called the doctors.” She stepped back, letting Tony see the row of lab coats not far behind. To a one, they all wore the same expression - relief.
“That bad, huh?” Tony swallowed, and glanced back toward Bruce, who caught his eye and nodded, once, before looking away. “How long - “
“Three days.” Pepper’s brow pursed. “Three very unpleasant days.”
One of the doctors broke off from the rest and approached Tony’s bed. Tony didn’t recognize him, and that only worried him more. “You’re a tough man, Mr. Stark. I didn’t expect we’d see you open your eyes for a week or more.”
Tony watched the doctor pick up a chart, check a monitor, write something down. He caught a glimpse of a cast that started at his hip and disappeared under sheets, and checked to see if he could feel anything. His head was so...full...he just couldn’t tell, not for sure. And when he tried to reach down to touch the cast, his entire right arm erupted in pain, though it didn’t even move an inch.
“Pepper....” Tony managed, and she was there, her fingers on his cheek, looking sad, worried, and worn. It might have been the scariest thing Tony had ever seen. He swallowed hard, remembering the huge hand, the pressure, the power unleashed.
“Oh, god, Pepper,” he asked, his voice nearly breaking. “Am I....am I....mushed?”
A few feet away, Bruce snorted and coughed, the smile that sprung to his face hidden behind one clenched fist. Pepper shot him a look, but the reaction had started, and no amount of irritation from her was going to stop it. “Mushed,” he murmured, covering his whole mouth with one twitching hand.
Then Tony laughed. It hurt so much that tears sprung from his eyes, but he couldn’t stop. It bubbled up and out of him along with several choice exclamations as tears streamed, as Pepper and the doctors looked on with astonishment. He laughed until it hurt too much, until his chest threatened to implode if he made one more sound. And then he simply listened until Bruce choked his own laughter to a halt.
Both men kept smiling, if only faintly. Bruce walked over to the bed, hands holding his elbows tight against his body as if to stave off another round. Tony watched the approach, winced as Bruce touched his shoulder, squeezed lightly.
“Thanks,” Tony managed. And though it hurt, he lifted his free hand to pat Bruce’s chest in just the right spot.
Tony smiled as Bruce’s face went bright red. “Secret’s safe with me, big guy,” he murmured, and decided it was high time for a bit more rest.
“Did you have to smash the sign?!?”
“The Other Guy was mad at you, Tony. Smashing it, you have to admit, was better than smashing you.”
Tony wheeled his chair over to the edge, looking down at the now weeks-old damage. Nearly every letter had been caved in, and the S had been compacted down into a mangled ball of glass and steel and wiring. “Aw - I just got that fixed.”
“Take the hint, Tony,” Pepper piped in from across the room. “The sign is doomed.”
“What? Come on! Third time’s a charm, right?”
Their voices faded into the background for Bruce as he picked his way through the damage. The rubble had been cleared, but huge craters still yawned on the floors and walls. In two places, holes went all the way through, and the floor below was visible. Plastic covered similar spaces in the outer walls, areas he vaguely remembered pummeling over and over in an attempt to avoid turning around and unleashing that force on anything softer. Anything living. He’d kept on smashing and smashing until the wall started to buckle, until Jarvis managed to pierce the sounds of destruction and let him know that Stark was no longer in the room, and he’d appreciate it ever so much if Mr. Banner would leave the remainder of the building intact.
Now, Jarvis was explaining the next steps in repairing the Hulk’s latest damage. “ - no more than a week or so. I’m afraid your interior designer, though, isn’t available until next month.”
“Pressure him, Jarvis. We pay him enough.”
“I’m afraid Branjolina’s wedding plans stand in the way.”
Tony tilted his head, considering. “Play the cripple angle?” He glanced at Pepper, who only smiled. “Yeah, wouldn’t work on me either.” He shrugged. “Okay, move the relaunch to July. And get me a drink.”
“I’m afraid no bottles remain intact on this floor, sir.”
“And we haven’t sent out for more?” Tony rolled his eyes. “I’m out for a few days, and everything goes to pot.” Pepper looked up. “Uh, no pun intended.”
Even now, Bruce could feel Tony pressed against his chest, hear bones crack as the kinetic shield burst apart. He gritted his teeth, fighting the memory, the electric pleasure that jolted through him with that first pop. He couldn’t understand the strength of this response, why it still resonated, weeks later, in both waking and sleeping moments.
Tony was beside him suddenly. Bruce pressed his fingers to his eyes, willing the memory away. “Aren’t -” he started, coughed, cleared his throat, pushing it down. “I mean, I thought you were going to -”
“Yup. The best orthopedic surgeons in the country will be here Friday. They’ve got some new treatments they want to try, based on...” He paused, tapping his chest. “They’re expecting full recovery in record time, so I should be out of this in eight or nine weeks.” Tony turned his eyes to the huge cast that covered him from pelvis to right toes, and Bruce’s eyes couldn’t help but follow.
Tony shifted, awkward under this kind of scrutiny. “Don’t do it, Bruce,” he murmured, quiet enough that Pepper wouldn’t overhear. He glanced over his shoulder, catching a momentary twitch at the edge of Bruce’s eye. “You’re just starting to shine. Don’t go making shadows.”
Bruce didn’t answer. Hands twining together, thumbs absently stroking his palms, he simply cleared his throat and looked away.
Tony scratched his head, thinking for only a brief moment before moving again, directing the chair toward the somehow-spared elevator. “Find us a floor with scotch, Jarvis,” he called, motioning Bruce to follow him. It took a moment for the other man to do so.
“You do like scotch, right?” Tony shot at Bruce, staring up at the man. “I, myself, am a big fan.”
Bruce blinked, tilted his head, scratched it. “I...I don’t really -”
“Because I’ve got a bottle I’ve been saving for this occasion, and I’d really rather not drink it alone.”
Another blink, and Bruce couldn’t help but look around for the person Tony must be addressing. His brow pursed in confusion. “O - Occasion?”
Tony smiled, eyes glinting. “You finally starting your research with me.”
A surprised laugh escaped Bruce. “Me - what? You still want to do research with me? After that?”
“But you were in the middle of -"
“But - Stark Industries is full of -"
“Scientists who aren’t. You.”
Bruce pressed a palm to his eyes, shaking his head. “Tony, come on. I can’t -"
Tony slammed a palm on the armrest of his chair. “Can’t what, Bruce? We’ve been here off and on for three weeks already, you hovering over me and avoiding me all at once. It’s depressing. It’s boring.”
The elevator dinged open. “And besides, I made you this.”
Tony threw his good arm wide, moving his chair directly to the center of the room. A table was already set with two tumblers and an open bottle. Tony swept up the glasses in one hand, managed the bottle with the bandaged other. “Come on in, big guy. I made it for you.”
Bruce found himself frozen in place, staring around at the equipment, all so familiar, so much of it almost identical to the pieces he’d been pulling together in the remote lab. One hand rose unbidden to his pocket, plucking up his glasses, unfolding them slowly. If all this was what he thought it was...
The door started to close as Tony poured two healthy glasses and set them in his lap. “Bake sale at one of your old labs, and a few presents from S.H.I.E.L.D’S Hulkbuster R&D unit for security’s sake. I pulled it all together to...Bruce?” The doors were halfway closed; Bruce was planted against the far wall of the elevator, eyeglasses dangling from one hand.
“Bruce?” Tony leaned to the right to keep his eyes on the other man as the elevator doors continued to close. “What - too much brushed steel?”
Bruce’s eyes met Tony’s, resolve - and something else - in them. He settled his glasses on his nose and put out a hand to stop the doors. They opened, and he stepped into the lab Tony had built - exactly the kind of lab needed to study what he’d become. What he was becoming.
But Tony...Bruce hadn’t told him. Not yet.
“I told them you were more a treated granite kind of guy,” Tony continued, holding out a glass that Bruce accepted unthinkingly. “What with you being more into radiation and computation than chemicals, but noooo...” He took a swallow of his drink, surprised to see Bruce follow suit - and finish it off. Bruce discarded the now-empty glass on a nearby countertop, passing Tony without noticing, already scrutinizing the nearest equipment.
“Um...You’re welcome?” Tony tried.
Bruce looked over his shoulder, eyes hard.
“Woah, there, big guy.” Tony’s hands went up in truce. “What happens in here is up to you. We play the games you want to play. I just collected the toys.” He waited, and eventually the edge in Bruce’s eyes softened. “Just figured, if you were going to be a fixture moping around my tower until I get better, we may as well do some science.”
Bruce’s mouth twitched, the edge of a smile. “Tony, I get more concerned about the state of your sanity with every interaction we have.” The smile spread, though, as he allowed his eyes to roam the lab once more.
“You and me both, pal,” Tony answered, and they shook hands.
“Bruce, I’m telling you, we should do this.” Tony gave the power on his chair a boost to catch up to Bruce’s side as he walked out of the lab, into the hallway. “No people or equipment for four floors up and down, quintuple reinforced walls, no windows.”
Bruce just kept walking, the hands at his sides tapping his legs incessantly. “I didn’t ask for all that. I didn’t intend for the Other Guy to get involved.”
“Come on, Bruce! I’ve got duplicates - hell, triplicates - of every single piece of lab equipment, and furniture enough to get us to the end of time! Jarvis finished setting up the auto-tranqs last week, inside and out. Besides, we’ve been staring at computer screens for weeks without running anything new, and it’s getting very, very tedious. I’m telling you, we’ve got enough information, and it’s time for observation. Bruce!”
Bruce stopped, shoulders slumping just slightly. He turned his head slowly in Tony’s direction, raising a hand to rub tired eyes. “What?”
Bruce sighed and leaned against the nearest wall. “Tony - I’m not going to give you the Other Guy just to alleviate your boredom.”
Tony blinked. “Bruce Banner, what an awful thing to accuse me of.” He covered his mouth with two light fingers. “Why, I never.”
Bruce pursed his lips, jaw working. “Tell me it’s not true, then.”
Tony sat up straighter. “It’s...mostly not true.” He nodded once in punctuation.
Bruce rolled his eyes and pushed off the wall, heading once again toward the apartment he’d been keeping the past couple of months. “You’ll be out of the cast in a week, Tony. Give it a rest till then.”
“Bruce, I - ” But Bruce put up a hand to stop him, shook his head. Tony sighed. “Okay, fine, for now. But we’re talking about this again when the latest samples are done.” The chair turned, and Tony whizzed away.
Great. So, a day’s respite.
Bruce closed the apartment door behind him. Dealing with Tony every day was becoming more and more difficult. He was brilliant, yes, and Bruce knew he’d moved much faster in his research with Stark’s help. But Tony was in it for the action - for the flying suit, the super-intelligent AI, the party, the thrill. He was looking for the next big fight.
And was the problem. Tony wanted something to happen to him. And more and more, Bruce was convinced that Iron Man was looking for a big green sidekick along on his adventures. That wasn’t going to happen. Couldn’t. Besides the fact that Bruce really didn’t want a life of crazy adventure, unleashing The Other Guy again could have...new consequences.
Bruce took off his glasses, setting them aside, and checked his face in the mirror. He was getting scruffy; his hair needed a cut, and salt-and-pepper stubble dotted his chin and cheeks. Tony was no younger, but so much more - full of life, still. Hungry for it. His enthusiasm had been infectious, at first, but the exuberance Bruce felt in those weeks soon gave way under Stark’s incessant pressure to do, do, do. And then there was that...other thing that was happening.
Some days, it was all Bruce could do not to punch the man. And that was becoming a problem.
Not for the first time, Bruce felt a sick twist of pleasure in the pit of his stomach at the memory of Tony pressed to his gargantuan chest, at the satisfying pop he felt under huge fingers when he’d squeezed the puny man too tight. Stark had screamed in pain before passing out, and all the Other Guy could think was how incredibly good it would feel to crush the rest of him, press him flat, throw him into the sky and watch him splatter. He’d wanted it then, to punish the man who’d brought him out and tried to hurt him.
He still wanted it now - to crush, flatten, destroy Stark. The desire was with him all the time, even in his dreams.
He just couldn’t figure out why.
Never before - never - had the Hulk come out, and gone away, and left such a lingering, primal hate. Something had shifted - and Bruce was truly afraid of what that might mean. He couldn’t leave; he needed to know if the mutations in his system were advancing as he suspected, needed to understand what that meant.
But every hour with Stark was driving Bruce closer to the edge, and he was all-too-well aware that the Hulk had already picked his next target.
For the first time in two months, Tony was on his feet - sort of.
Bones had healed enough that it was safe for Tony to use his legs again. He’d wanted the suit, but both Pepper and Jarvis had some reservations - and some meaningful things they were willing to withhold should Tony decide to act against their will. So he’d worked with R&D to put together some good braces instead, which he was testing in the newly-remodeled penthouse.
He took great pleasure in walking to the bar himself, bending down to get a glass, standing back up to fill it with celebratory scotch. “To me,” he toasted, alone. “And everything I can still do.” He lifted his glass in a random direction.
The speakers clicked on, and “Chariots of Fire” began to play, eliciting a chuckle from Tony. He didn’t lose the chance, though. Setting the braces to slow motion, he set about running from one side of the penthouse to the other, glass firmly in hand, singing inanely to himself. “Yes, Tony Stark’s walking...yes, he’s on the run...Yes, Tony Stark’s walking...he can’t be undone.” He downed the rest of the drink, setting down the glass on a table several feet from where he began, smiling harder than he had in weeks.
“See, Jarvis? I’m fine.”
“You have been recuperating at an advanced pace indeed, sir. Congratulations.”
“Bruce should see this - make him feel better.”
“Would he were available, sir, but I’m afraid Dr. Banner has clearly marked himself out of office.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Jarvis, come on. Is he in the building?”
There was a pause. “Sir, if you wish me to remove privacy settings originally set, there are forms you should consider - “
“Is he in the building, Jarvis?” Tony snarled, getting his braces moving again toward the bar. “Ignore protocols, and just tell me.”
If Jarvis sighed, it would have come in that pregnant pause that followed. “Very well, sir,” came the eventual response. “Dr. Banner has been located on the premises. Shall I ask him to come to the penthouse?”
Stark finished his second pour. “No no, just - patch me in.”
Bruce jerked bolt upright from his doze. The display informed him that three experiments had completed, and he struggled to remember why they’d been set up. The readings on the screen didn’t jog his memory; he was just too tired and distracted.
“Banner! Big Guy! Whoever’s out there, I want you on 127. Come cheer the return of - well - me!”
Bruce groaned, tilting his head left and right to ease the tension. “Jarvis, I thought I told you I was -"
“You did, Dr. Banner, and I told him. But I’m afraid I’m not designed to refuse his wishes. Besides, as you are well aware, ignoring him will only delay the inevitable. Tony wants to see you.”
Bruce almost growled, rubbing his face with his hands. “Fine, fine. Tell him I’m coming.” He shoved back from the table and stalked out toward the bathroom.
How many days had it been since he’d actually slept in his bed - three? Five? Bruce really couldn’t remember. His mouth felt nearly glued shut, his back screamed for a good stretch, and his stomach seemed to have given up hope of food and simply curled up into a painful ball against his spine. He hadn’t been very kind to himself lately.
But for good reason.
Bruce sniffed, scowled. He reeked.
“Bruuuuuuce....oh, Bruuuuuuuuuuce...”came Tony’s voice in the hall. “You know I can see you, right? I mean, not that I’m snooping, but I could see you, if I wanted, and -"
“I’m coming, Tony,” Bruce nearly snarled, surprising even himself with the amount of irritation in his voice. He stopped, took a couple of deep breaths, and forced involuntary fists to unclench. “Just...let me shower. I’ve been...busy.”
“Yeah, you’ve been going gangbusters down there. Time for a break, doc. You’re not gonna want to miss this.”
Tony switched off the visual, frowning in consideration.
Bruce looked bad.
When Tony had left last week, Bruce seemed fine. A little on edge, sure, but then he’d seen several hypotheses about his condition fail, so that was to be expected. The two had spent a few hours going through what they had, coming up with alternate hypotheses, with Tony unsuccessfully trying to convince Bruce that observational studies would help. He’d left a somewhat dour Banner behind afterward, but a Banner that was, at least...well, clean.
Tony was starting to worry about Bruce. The man had become far more withdrawn in the past few weeks, and he seemed to almost never leave the lab. At this point, Banner’s scruff had scruff, and he hadn’t actually had a meal, Jarvis had informed him, in four days. He was rough, withdrawn, sour. And ever so slightly just plain pissed off.
Okay, Tony reminded himself, the pissed off part made sense. Staying angry, after all, was Banner’s secret to keeping the green guy at bay. The Avengers had seen what he could do by keeping his frustration at just the right level, and then, when ready, letting it take that one next step. New York - hell, the world - still stood, at least in part, because Bruce had figured out a way to make the Big Guy do good work.
That had been a one-off, though. Since then, Bruce hadn’t exactly been willing to test the control theory, and he was deeply resistant to the idea of letting the Big Guy out, even for practice. Two weeks after the attack, he’d made it clear to Tony and the others that his transformation was only available on an as-needed, world-is-gonna-end basis, and no one had argued, pretty much because no one wanted to push him.
Of course, the Hulk had paid a visit - two visits - since then. First, with the bomb, and later, in the barrier. He’d been different than in the fight in New York, but Tony had to admit that he seemed... focused. A monster with a purpose, a goal. Powerful, rage-hard, but still displaying thought.
Like in the barrier.
That memory required more alcohol, Tony decided. He poured another drink as it came to the fore - the kinetic barrier catching them both in air, slamming them to the ground. The Hulk was in a frenzy, pounding at the barrier even as the air seemed to cave, then pulverizing the ground into a great crater. All the while roaring while Tony screamed at him, shouted at him to stop, tried to explain that he was making it worse. The suit started groaning, then caving - god, he could feel it, until...
Tony blinked. Hell, what happened next?
The next Tony could remember, he was laying on the ground, out of the suit, still inside the barrier. The Hulk had been there, huge, horrifying - but he seemed worn; he sat, heavily, head hanging. A few moments later, he was unconscious, and Bruce had emerged. At least an hour passed before he woke up, and they worked out a plan to get free before they both died. Or, at least, before Tony did.
So how’d Tony gotten out of the suit?
Tony couldn’t believe he hadn’t considered that in the past two months. Okay, fair - he’d been a bit distracted, what with a pelvic fracture and eight other cracked bones to deal with. And the pain. And - well, the mass destruction, the lab, all the experiments.
Okay, okay, he’d gotten caught up. He hadn’t thought about what happened. He’d avoided thinking about it. He was...he was...
He was scared. And he didn’t know which he was more scared of: the Hulk, or Bruce.
He poured more scotch, and more. Enough to fill the glass.
“Jarvis, have we downloaded all the information available from the suit that got crushed?”
“Sir, we have 87% of the data that remained intact. Do remember, however, that the suit was cut out of the information loop for several hours, then blown to near bits. The data is minimal.”
“I know, I know. Pull up everything you have, though, and send it my way. I’ve got questions.”
Despite the shower, Bruce still looked rough when he entered the penthouse. Not that Tony noticed - he was into his fourth cup, and heavily invested in the data spread out before him.
“What’s so amazing, Tony?” Bruce asked, more-than-usual irritation in his voice. “New energy source? Sentient refrigerator? Suit weapons enhancement?”
“Braces that exercise my legs for me. Programmable to do exactly the movements the doctor ordered, with some nice neural control thrown in for good measure. It’s pretty awesome.” Tony didn’t look away from the half-dozen displays that hung in the air as he stood, and the devices started walking him toward the bar without his apparent notice.
Bruce actually smiled. “Tony, you’re walking!”
“The braces are walking,” Tony responded. “My muscles and bones are just along for the ride. It’s gonna be the next big thing in physical therapy. We’ll make millions. Drink?” He looked away from the displays long enough to glance in Bruce’s direction.
Bruce considered, longer than normal. “I’ll pass,” he finally answered.
Tony shrugged. “Your choice, big guy.” He gestured, and the displays that had hovered near the sofa slid over to the bar. “As long as you’re here, though, I’m hoping you can shed some light on...this.”
Tony reached into the display and pulled out a data table, enlarging it with a couple of gestures. Even near the elevator, Bruce could make out column labels - pounds per square inch, timestamp, areas impacted, and more. He reached into a pocket for glasses, squinting as he moved forward, unfolding them.
“Data on these braces?” Bruce asked, close enough now that he could make out the numbers.
“No - data on the suit, Bruce.” Tony replied, taking a solid gulp of the drink in hand. He turned to face Bruce fully. “The one you - or the Hulk - opened to get me out.”
Bruce stayed quiet, looking back.
Tony tilted his head, considered, and turned back to the data. “Everything that survives suggests a delicate operation, something I didn’t initiate. A series of system overrides that aren’t exactly obvious to the untrained eye, Bruce. Jarvis could have done it, but that barrier cut off access. The data’s far from complete, but enough is intact for me to think that, well - the help came from outside, but inside the barrier.
“Know anything about that, Bruce? Something you’re not telling me?”
Bruce’s lip twitched. Scary prospect. Had the Hulk been able to access Bruce’s own intellect without Bruce knowing it? He had no memory of the time in that kinetic barrier before he woke up with Tony nearby. Was there more going on than he realized? Did the Hulk...was he...
God - was he thinking? Planning?
Bruce swallowed, hard. “Show me what you have.”
Tony nodded, and moved the entire set of information back to the work table where he’d started. Bruce came to join him, and they studied the information together. In the end, they had to agree - nothing inside the suit had initiated Tony’s ejection, and Jarvis hadn’t had any means of control.
Something inside the kinetic barrier had triggered the response. Had saved Tony’s life. And the only other thing inside with Iron Man had been the Hulk.
“I’m thinking the Big Guy has more access to your brain than we realized, doc,” Tony stated, sweeping away the displays and letting the braces guide him to the new windows. He looked out across the city, the sunset. “Or that you’re more a part of him than...well...”
Tony trailed off as Bruce fell into the nearest chair, staring at that same sunset. It was dark before either said anything else.
Tony broke the silence. “It’s possible that this has always been the state of the mutation, that the line between you and the Hulk has been blurred from the beginning. Just - I don’t know -
“Maybe you’re growing into it?”
Bruce glowered. For a moment, he seriously contemplated planting a fist in Tony’s face. He could imagine the destruction now - the man’s head snapping back, body following, that "I’m the big smart guy" expression replaced by surprise, then pain. Did he really not understand what -
Bruce stopped the thought there, bringing a shaking hand up to cover his eyes. He forced himself to take two long, slow breaths. In the background, he noticed that the room had gone silent and still. Good.
One more breath, and he could feel his pulse slowing. He swallowed, ingesting the unbidden rage. “I - I really don’t think so. I think something’s changed.”
Tony had frozen in place, hand still reaching for his drink. He’d felt that reaction from here, and realized he had no idea what had triggered it. Eyes fixed on Bruce, he stated quietly, “Maybe we should take this to the lab. You think?”
“I think,” Bruce responded, rising and heading to the elevator without even glancing up. “You coming?”
“I’ll catch the next one, doc.”
After making a few arrangements with Jarvis around having the suit complete and totally available at even the slightest moment’s notice, Tony moved to the lab, where he found Bruce leaning into a display full of information.
Bruce spoke without looking up. “I can’t explain it, have no idea how it started, but -"
Bruce flicked a piece of data toward the closest display to Tony. “Here. That’s from two weeks ago. And this -" he flicked another table Tony’s direction, “- is three days ago.”
Tony looked. DNA analysis, simple stuff, but Bruce’s machines had been re-engineered to look for some specific mutations they’d found in one of the guanine-cytosine base pairs. And there it was, in the sample from two weeks ago - perhaps not as pronounced as in the first samples six weeks back, but still clear. Considering they hadn’t tried any treatments, that was to be expected.
What was surprising, though, was the second sample. The mutation was simply - gone.
“What the hell?” Tony opened the full data table, searching for a sign of what might have happened. “Did you -"
“No. No treatments, no suppression serums, nothing. I didn’t do anything to myself before taking that sample, Tony. Now here, take a look at seven days and 12 days ago...”
Bruce pulled up all the data, passing it to Tony, and sat back to let him take it in. He knew what Tony would see. Slowly, over the past weeks, the mutation they thought might be responsible for the transformation had simply vanished - been subsumed by the “normal” genes surrounding it. It was absolutely impossible, of course, but - there it was. It seemed, by all observations they had at the moment, that his genes were repairing themselves.
Which should be good news, but - then, yesterday, it had returned, in a completely new location, The same mutation, moving, as if working its way down his DNA. He’d never seen anything like it.
“I took regular blood and tissue samples when I was in Calcutta, though it was hard to get them analyzed. I thought they might be of use if I ever...well, you know. Be prepared and all that.”
“I find it hard to imagine you as a boy scout, Banner,” Tony murmured, not looking away from the screen before him.
“I wasn’t. But I read the manual.” He smirked, and appreciated the thin grin Tony gave him. “A lot of the samples were just too degraded for analysis, but the ones I could salvage are being analyzed now. We’ll know soon if this is...something new.”
“What do you think you’ll find?” Tony closed the windows, let the screen go blank.
Bruce shrugged, fighting another sudden flare of irritation, a desire to smear that stupid concerned expression off Stark’s face by wiping it across the concrete floor. A twitch of his shoulders, a cluck of his tongue, was all that showed, but he couldn’t keep the emotion out of his voice. “What do I think I’ll find, Tony?” He snorted. “Come on, don’t play stupid now.”
Tony looked up, surprised at the emotion in Bruce’s voice. “I - really, I haven’t seen enough to..” The look on Bruce’s face - teeth pressed together, jaw working, silenced him quickly.
Bruce grinned, appreciating the sudden worried look that sprang to Tony’s face. Stupid man, toying with him. He clenched fists without realizing it. “What I think I’ll find, Tony Stark, is that my life is about to get much, much worse. And maybe yours too.” That last bit brought the tiniest hint of a smile to the edges of Bruce’s lips, a smile he didn’t notice.
But Tony did. He blinked, involuntarily looking away from Bruce, afraid. For a moment, he hadn’t even realized he’d moved, but now he noticed he was several steps further back than he’d been before. Instinct had kicked in, and his mind had told the braces to get him further away. And for good reason - it was obvious that Bruce was starting to get angry.
Tony didn’t want to see him angry.
“Hey, uh, listen...how about we pick this up later?” Tony tried to sound cheerful, but his hands came up in front of him defensively, despite himself. It was hard to think. “Uh...Jarvis could order you up something oh, say, huge and bloody to chew on, you could have a nice relaxing bath...I’m sure we’ve got some Calgon around here somewhere -” Tony heard the panic in his voice rising, and cut off.
Bruce growled, and Tony actually yelped, the sound rising unbidden. His eyes flew back to Bruce, who was crouched now, shaking, eyes fixed on Tony with a mixture of fury and worry as they bled from brown to green.
“You should get out of here, Stark. Now.”
Tony nodded. “I’m gone.” He sprinted to the elevator, the doors of which were already opening for him. Behind him he heard Bruce hit the floor, but he didn’t turn, didn’t look. He wasn’t sure he wanted to see.
Only when the elevator doors closed did Bruce let himself collapse, roar. He curled hands into fists, twisting on the floor, fighting - oh, god, fighting just to relax, to breathe, to not be so - damned - angry - at -
That Stark. That puny, stupid man who laughed at him, who hurt him. Who kept coming day after day, poking him like a lab rat. Like a monster. Like it was fun. If he could get hold of that man, he’d bash him into the ground, smash him into walls, make him pay. Pay. PAY.
God, no! Bruce, calm down. You have to calm down. Tony is helping you, he’s -
- thinks too much of his stupid suit, his little thoughts. Thinks he’s funny man. Funny FLAT man...
“SHUT. UP. BANNER.”
Bruce heard the words coming from his own mouth, and he wanted to scream.
“Mr. Banner, sir, shall I initiate the auto-tranquilizer sys -”
For a moment, all was fury, and PUNY METAL MACHINES crushed under him. And then, too soon, all was dark.
Tony considered sleeping in the suit that night.
He’d already sent away everyone in the tower but the necessary security, told Pepper to stay in DC, and ensured that everyone knew that tomorrow was “spontaneous holiday!” at Stark Industries. He’d also triple-checked the security systems the Hulkbuster squad had helped him implement. Okay, maybe quadruple-checked.
He didn’t think that meant he was paranoid.
One of the many displays in his helmet showed the lab, where several pieces of equipment had been reduced to scraps in the few seconds the Hulk had been conscious. He’d torn a steel table in half like it was paper and thrown the pieces hard enough to crumple them accordion-style against the reinforced walls. He made an indentation nearly a foot deep in the ceiling by just jumping, and it hadn’t even slowed him down. He was The Incredible Hulk -
And he’s angry, Tony thought. At me.
“Come on, Big Guy - give me Bruce back...” the display counter told him that the huge creature on the floor had been tranquilized for nearly twelve minutes, and still no change. He was face down, but Tony could see the huge chest rise and fall, and the room monitors kept track of heart rate (well over 400 impossible beats a minute at its peak, 237 now). He tapped a metal foot on the penthouse floor, watching, wondering just what the hell he’d do if Hulk woke up, if the lab didn’t hold.
All of a sudden, Tony wasn’t so confident about those precautions. Not when it appeared that the Big Man had put a big gamma green crosshair on his chest.
“Come on, come on...” Pulse at 221. Still nothing. “Jarvis, what’s that magic number again?”
“200, sir. Or, at least, it was, over a year ago.”
Tony nodded. “Well, it’s all we have to go on. Let’s hope it still applies. But keep the tranq guns ready for full blast.”
Come on, Bruce. I don’t want to have to call in the cavalry.
Another slow minute passed - 207, 202. At 200, nothing happened. Or at 191, or 187. Tony seriously began contemplating full lock down when, even at 150, there was no change.
And then - there was.
Tony was in the elevator immediately, into the lab. He picked up a very limp Bruce Banner and quickly transferred him into the cell they’d agreed to use in case of an incident. It was nicely outfitted with bed, dresser, fridge - even a coffee maker. That, and the strongest walls that had ever been built by humankind triple-stacked around the interior. Careful not to bump him on anything (just in case), Tony lay the man - who looked, now, so thin and frail - on the bed.
“Sleep tight, Bruce. We’ll figure this out.”
The voice startled Bruce awake. He sat up too quickly, and the room swam. His stomach lurched, and it was all he could do to keep from retching.
He’d heard that voice. He knew he had.
Bruce’s head throbbed. He lay back down, not feeling strong enough to fight the pain and nausea. He still hadn’t opened his eyes, afraid of what he’d see, of where he’d find himself. He was aware, vaguely, that where he’d landed was, at least, soft.
No sirens, no sound or smell of fire. Nothing around him, to the edges of where he could feel with fingers and toes, felt damaged. Maybe - he’d stopped it? Controlled it?
Behind his eyes, images flashed. Metal crumpling against the lab walls. The cooler, ripped from its mooring and flattened. A table torn in half with great green hands. No - the Hulk had come, and he’d dealt some destruction.
Bruce groaned and curled up. He couldn’t go through this again, and again, and again. He’d had control for a year, more than that. He’d been okay. Maybe not happy, but at least - safe. All the turmoil he’d dealt with had been internal. Deliberate. He’d learned to keep his frustrations at a low boil, seeking out and finding things to irritate him - a too-tight watch band, a glass of water that was too warm to taste good, some grating sound in the background that just wouldn’t go away. He’d found what he thought was a balance, a truce. It had been....okay.
All that, it seemed, was gone. He couldn’t muster the energy to be angry, and when he did, it always found one target - a target he couldn’t, wouldn’t unleash upon.
Tony’s voice was modulated, coming through a speaker somewhere. Bruce dared to open his eyes just enough to look around for it. “Tony...”
“Wasn’t bad, little guy. A few smooshed pieces of equipment and a dent in the ceiling. Nothing we can’t fix.”
Bruce opened his eyes fully, and recognized his surroundings. Another memory struck - tranquilizer-tipped bullets, strong enough to pierce the Hulk’s skin. His muscles twitched with phantom sensation, and he could tell from even those slight motions that the damage had already healed.
“See? Defenses worked perfectly, Bruce. Nothing to worry about.”
Tony watched from a monitor forty floors above as Bruce nodded wearily and swung his legs over the side of the bed. Poor guy. Tony could almost see the confidence Bruce had been building over the past few months sapping away in this new development, could tell from Bruce’s expression that something big had changed since those first days after the unsuccessful alien invasion. Then, they’d spent long days and nights debating theories, developing ideas, talking the kind of shop that so very few other people could talk with Tony. They’d made good discussion partners, even on the more delicate subject of Bruce’s condition, and had had more than their share of out-and-out laughter. And Pepper liked him. Hell, Pepper wanted to hook him up with one of her friends.
Tony had to admit, he liked Bruce. And he didn’t really like a lot of people. It hurt him to see Bruce so drawn inward, so hesitant. So afraid.
Tony had to help him.
Bruce pulled on trousers, absently buttoned a shirt one button off. Tony watched it all, turning the situation over in his mind. There was obviously more going on than he knew, and it was time he found out what it was.
“Stay there, Bruce. I’m coming down.”
Bruce didn’t even have the energy to object. He just looked at the camera and sighed. “Really? You think that’s a good idea?”
Tony didn’t answer. At least, not until Bruce heard the locks on the door disengaging.
“I don’t think it matters,” Tony replied, standing there in nothing more than a t-shirt, jeans and the braces. “Gotta be here anyway.”
Bruce’s face crumpled. He swallowed hard, fighting tears. For a moment, it looked like he was going to speak, but nothing finally came out. Instead, he slumped back into a sitting position on the bed, eyes falling to the floor, hands limp in his lap. He choked back a sob, wanting nothing more than to just...disappear.
The silence stretched between them, unbroken.
“Well, fuck,” Tony finally managed. “This is depressing.”
“Tell me about it,” Bruce replied, not looking up.
“Wanna, maybe...do something else? Less depressing?” He shrugged his shoulders, tucking hands into pockets. “Plumb the ancient mysteries of Sumeria? Ponder a great work in its original language? Debate the applications of Feynman's view of quantum electrodynamics? Watch Big Bang Theory?”
Bruce lifted his head on the last one. Tony stopped, and waited, hopeful.
“That’s a...funny show,” Bruce finally replied hesitantly.
Tony smiled wide. “I’ll get the popcorn.”
When the popcorn was empty, the soda nearly gone, and their sides damn near busted from laughter, Bruce settled into divulging everything he knew about the current situation. He reviewed the findings from the DNA samples they’d already tested, shared other biochemical analyses he’d performed, and pulled up all the data he had on his own resting and active biological states.
And then, they talked about the other stuff.
“So....you’re still pissed about the titty twister.”
“No!” Bruce took a deep breath and sighed. “No, I’m not. And could we perhaps set aside the Stark trademark snark for just a bit, considering the rather delicate nature of this situation?”
“Comes with the territory. Apparently, even when it’s filled with potential landmines.” Tony shrugged. “Sorry, Bruce. I’m doing my best.”
“Your best pretty much sucks here, Tony.”
Tony didn’t disagree. “So if you’re not pissed, then what’s going on?”
Bruce shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s exceptionally irrational, and it just seems to bubble up when - well, anytime you’re around.”
Tony sat up a little straighter. “Like now?”
Bruce just nodded. “The whole time.”
Tony couldn’t help it. “What does it feel like? What are you thinking? Are you picturing smashing me to little bits? Planning tortures for me? Getting hot imagining me fighting back?”
“Pretty much just...picturing hammering you into a nondescript puddle of bones and blood.” Bruce’s voice was far, far too calm.
Tony blinked. “Right. I’m trying harder.”
Bruce nodded, and let the moment hang. He leaned forward as he continued. “One hypothesis I’ve been considering is that the Other Guy feels something...else.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “Else?”
“Other than rage, I mean.” Bruce finished. “Toward you.” He knitted fingers together, working up the courage to come to what was next.
Tony waited as Bruce cleared his throat, settled a pen in his pocket, folded and unfolded his glasses. “Well?”
Bruce twitched, glancing up to meet Tony’s eyes. “Well, I think maybe you... embarrassed...him. Made him feel...shame.”
“Made you feel shame,” Tony retorted, then jerked backward as Bruce’s fist slammed into the table between them.
“No! Not the same!” Bruce’s chest was suddenly heaving, and a faint green glow entered his eyes. Tony felt a shift, as he’d felt the night before - something more primal, more dangerous, in the air.
“Not the same, right,” he responded quietly. “I’m...sorry.”
Bruce’s breathing slowed, until he could take a deep breath and let it out. Only then did he look back up, meet Tony’s somewhat hesitant gaze. “And, there’s this.” He lifted his fist from the table, revealing a two-inch indentation in the solid wood surface.
Tony gasped. “Oh, shit, Bruce.” He studied the dent, and Bruce’s arm, and the dent again.
Bruce just nodded. “Yes. Shit.”
Both men sat back, letting the situation sink in, pondering.
Bruce broke the silence. “As I was saying, I have a hypothesis. The situation we were in, with the kinetic barrier...it was different than anything that had happened before. You goaded the Other Guy, taunted him, to get him to come out. I don’t mean that you intended to, but...that’s how it feels. That’s how he feels.
“And maybe that...that other feeling, other than rage...maybe it’s gotten something, I don’t know. Stuck.”
Tony was still exercising extreme caution. “Stuck?”
Bruce slumped back in his seat. “I know. It’s a long shot. But the feelings I get when - when you’re around, they’re...juvenile. That simmering hatred you had toward bullies who stole your money or made fun of your clothes. You know?”
Bruce looked up, glowered. “Oh, right. I forgot who you were for a moment.” He forced his eyes away before that feeling he’d been describing could surface. “The point remains. The feeling is there, like a grudge, and it’s not going away. And I don’t feel like it’s...me...feeling it. Someone else is. Someone who wants out.
“Someone I’m starting to hear, Tony. And that scares the absolute hell out of me.”
Both men just stared at the security footage, equally agape. “Uh, one more time, Jarvis.”
The screen blinked. The scene began again, Bruce falling to the floor, obviously fighting for control, his grunting and panting audible. And then his body going suddenly still on hands and knees, face snarled in anger.
“SHUT. UP. BANNER,” he said, the voice not his own. Then his body trembled horribly, and he screamed.
Bruce wanted to scream again watching it. He remembered the feeling, as if something else was trying to tear itself out of his skin. It had been a sensation altogether different than any other time, any other transformation.
Before, when he lost control, Bruce had been aware every time the change happened. Every sense lit on fire, every muscle burned, and his body felt as if it would explode with energy. And then – it did, and his mind went away, and there was nothing but flashes of rage and destruction. He’d awaken some time later, quite unaware of what had happened, save that it was terrible and raw.
Then Bruce come to his realization that fighting the anger was only creating pent-up frustration, that he couldn’t keep the Hulk in check by being emotionless. He’d learned where the line was between anger and fury, and he’d practiced walking it. And for a year – more than a year – he’d managed without an incident. He’d pushed it a bit too far a couple of times, but had always managed to pull back. He’d started to let himself hope that he could live with his condition.
And then the Avengers came to be, and Bruce allowed himself to hope for more – for a chance that his condition could be of use in the most dire of circumstances, that the Hulk could actually help when the situation was right. In New York, he’d let the change come, and there was no explosion, just a growing sensation that this was right, that this should be. He’d felt the Hulk’s power, and it had felt really damned good. In that state, he’d held on to awareness just enough to recognize what was okay to smash and what wasn’t. Mostly.
Still, Bruce could feel that the Other Guy had acted mainly on instinct, and Bruce himself remembered little of what happened. Everything was a blur of pounding and pummeling that left a part of him thrumming with pleasure, another part curling still in horror. He wasn’t in a hurry to repeat the experience.
In the explosion a few months back, though, he’d felt nothing – no warning, no chance to fight, nothing. He wasn’t even aware that he’d changed until it was over. And then, when Tony brought the Other Guy out, it had been as if he just – slipped, and became. And Bruce had simply faded away, until he came to in the tower’s bomb shelter, half a dozen guards pointing big guns his direction, and he’d remembered that terrible crunch…
Two nights ago, the transformation was different yet again, coming with the feeling that he was being torn apart, that the Other Guy was ripping his way out. And –
“He spoke?” Tony turned wide eyes Bruce’s way.
Bruce just nodded. “Not for the first time, if we can believe the stories. But I think this is the first time he actually addressed anyone.”
“By name, Bruce. Your name.”
Bruce swallowed. “I know.”
“Bruce, this is…this is…”
Bruce narrowed his eyes. “If you say ‘awesome,’ Tony, I swear I will pick up this table and beat you with it.”
Tony paused, considering – or perhaps just fighting the urge to test that statement. “Okay, I won’t say it. But come on, Bruce, this is really something. It’s important.”
Bruce rubbed his eyes. “Maybe.” He paused, letting out a long sigh. “Okay, okay - yes. It’s a big deal, I know. I just don’t know what kind of big deal just yet. And I’m not completely sure I want to find out, or if I should.”
Tony nodded, understanding, and started to pat Bruce’s shoulder. The man’s sudden tension, though, reminded him that it might not be a good idea, and he pulled back. “Right. Sorry.” He waited until Bruce could take a couple of deep breaths, until he saw the man’s shoulders relax. “We have to find out, though, Bruce. You know that, right? If the Big Guy is somehow – I don’t know, infecting you – we have to know.”
Bruce looked up suddenly, meeting Tony’s gaze with hard eyes. “So we can know how much time before he takes over completely? So you can collect enough evidence to call in the superhero squad to put me down? Do you even think you could?” Bruce’s voice raised to a crescendo. “Do you think I’d give you the chance?”
Tony just sat, stunned into silence. Bruce’s voice, even now, had dropped – under it was the hint of something primal, growling. “Hey, now…” he tried, putting hands up as if in surrender, taking a couple of careful, slow steps away from his friend. “Bruce, you’re – “
“I KNOW!” Bruce shouted, and Tony saw the man’s hands clench into fists, completely crushing the ceramic coffee cup he’d been holding. Bruce panted, throwing his head back with a groan. “God, I know, Tony, I know. I’m losing control.”
Tony shook his head. “We don’t know that for certain, Bruce. There could be half a dozen explanations; a hundred. We’ve barely even scratched the surface with our research –"
“Exactly,” Bruce barked back. “We barely understand anything about all this, about…me, and what we do know changes in front of our eyes!” He stopped, realizing he’d raised his hands as if to slam them down on the table next to him, and took a moment to calm himself, curl his arms tightly against his chest. He reached in, and gathered the courage to say the thing he really didn’t want to say.
“Tony, I just don’t know if we have time to find a way to help. I think….I think…”
“What, that it’s too late? That we won’t be able to keep you around, and the Big Guy’s gonna take over? Oh, hell no, Bruce. You’re the most brilliant researcher I’ve worked with in a decade, and I’m Tony fucking Stark. Why, I’ll, I’ll…”
Tony paused, considering, then looked up with steel resolve. “I swear on the suit, Dr. Bruce Banner, I’ll wear Crocs in public before I let us fail in helping you out.”
Bruce snorted in surprise, lips twitching upward into a smile. “You - what? Crocs?!?” That smile broadened, followed by a chuckle and a shake of his head. “Wow, Tony. Wow.” He couldn’t help but laugh.
“It’s almost worth letting the Other Guy win to see that,” Bruce continued, his posture and expression finally those of Bruce Banner alone.
“No fair cheating,” Tony responded, and clapped his friend’s shoulder despite the twitch and potential snarl he knew would follow. “Come on, we’ve got work to do.”
By the time they started to get a handle on what was happening, Tony was already walking with just a cane, and Bruce had moved into the containment room – just in case. The sudden fits of fury, especially when Tony was around, had grown worse, and they’d had to replace additional equipment when Bruce punched or shoved it in reaction. The voice, too, had become more and more present.
At first, Bruce didn’t tell Tony that he was hearing the Hulk in his dreams, but then he’d awoken one morning to find every bit of furniture in his room demolished. The security cameras had caught him, in essence, sleep-talking to himself, his face changing expression often between anxiety and fury. The sound hadn’t been enabled, so they couldn’t hear what was said, but they could see Bruce’s lips moving – and couldn’t help but notice when Bruce seemed to go feral, pulling apart the solid wood bedroom set with his bare hands.
The security cameras in the hall picked up his roars – quieter than the Hulk, but otherwise indistinguishable.
So Bruce had moved into the containment room, and Tony had taken to sleeping with the suit set to auto-engage at the first sign of any damage within the tower. And they kept on with their work, Bruce spending time each morning capturing what he remembered of the conversation from his sleep the night before.
That morning, he’d captured very little, but it was enough to chill his blood.
“I can’t let you out. You’re dangerous, and obsessed with hurting Tony.”
A deep chuckle. “STUPID MAN. PUNY SUIT. HURT.”
“Exactly. That’s why I can’t let you out.”
“NO HELP, BANNER. HULK GET OUT. HULK COMING.”
“Hey in there!” Tony had hollered in Bruce’s face after he’d read the entry. “Whatever I did to piss you off, Big Guy, I’m really sorry!”
Bruce just winced and curled away.
“Apology not going to do it?”
Bruce shook his head.
Tony frowned and shrugged. “Well, worth a try.”
The display between them lit up with new data from their latest round of tests. It took them both several minutes to review, passing the data back and forth in silence as their frowns grew deeper, their thoughts more certain.
At last, Bruce cleared his throat, swallowed, worked his way up to speaking. “I…think it’s pretty clear, Tony.” He lifted glasses from his eyes, folding them slowly. “The mutation keeps appearing, disappearing, everywhere, at an accelerated rate, and it’s more pervasive every time we see it. We have to face the facts; time is running out.”
Tony was busy entering calculations and nodded absently, unthinkingly.
Bruce frowned, pressing lips together. He gritted his teeth. “Tony.”
No response but the clicking of his fingers on the display.
Tony held up a hand to silence him.
Tony startled, turning toward Bruce. “What?!?”
Bruce blinked; for once, it was Tony who sounded annoyed. He started to respond, but found no words.
Tony waited a few seconds, then turned back to what he had been doing. “Look, we’ve got data for every day you’ve been in the lab. We can compare all the samples, determine the average rate of acceleration in the mutation, and figure out how much time before –
The screen beeped, and a number blinked to life. “There. Three days. Give or take a few hours.” He looked up, and met Bruce’s eyes. Minds raced.
Without a word, they both suddenly broke. Bruce made a call; Tony made another. Their voices tripped over one another in the lab.
“ – we might have a slight problem in about 76.4 hours – “
“ – ask if we could borrow – “
“ – remember that little bit of tech you had your team on last April – “
“ – samples of anything you worked up – “
“ – yeah. Yeah, I know you don’t have any reason to – “
“ – but this is, well, pretty urgent.”
They finished, turning back to one another. “Did you get it?” Tony asked first.
Bruce nodded. “They don’t like it, and we’ve got to be damned careful to ensure that what they send isn’t bugged or tagged. But the general promised to leave it where we can pick it up.” Bruce smirked. “Besides, if we succeed, we help him. If we fail, he gets a Hulk to hunt all day, every day.”
Tony snorted. “Great man, that Stryker.”
Bruce just nodded. “Yeah. A gem. And how about you - you get what you asked for?”
Tony nodded. “Fury’s got more skin in this game. Shipment’s already being packed, and they’ll pick up the other dropoff…yes, and ensure it’s safe,” Tony added before Bruce could object. “They’re spies. They’ve had practice.”
Bruce nodded, tapping his fingers idly on his lips, running through scenarios in his head. Tony watched him pace, knowing that what was going through his friend’s mind was anything but pleasant. He didn’t interrupt – but he didn’t look away, either. He waited, certain of what would come next.
At last, Bruce slowed, stopped, and let his hands fall to his sides. Without looking at Tony, he responded quietly to the unanswered question hanging between them.
“If we’re going to figure this out, Tony, it’s time we started working with the Other Guy.”
Tony was equal parts excited and terrified - pretty much one of his favorite feelings.
He’d suited up half an hour ago and was somewhat impatiently waiting for Bruce to finish his configurations. Biting back comments like, “I checked that already,” and “You’ve calibrated that three times!” was getting a little more difficult, so he’d taken to the skies outside the tower to let off a little steam. It was the first time he’d really gone out since the whole getting mushed incident, and it felt great. It felt - free.
Tony hadn’t realized how trapped he’d felt these past couple of months. Inside the tower, walls that no one could see had been closing in for him and his friend, despite their best efforts. Out here, those walls fell away, and Tony felt as if he could breathe again, really breathe, for the first time in a while. He thought of Pepper, patient and understanding, waiting for him to finish this little obsession with Bruce, accepting of the one night a week they’d spent together, alone. He’d say he didn’t deserve her, but…
Well, you know.
Tony had already called her to let her know what he and Bruce planned to attempt. She’d nodded, put him on hold, and put in a call to Fury’s Hulkbuster squad to ensure that they were within reach should something go wrong, cutting through every captain that got on the phone until she got to the leader and got an affirmative.
Tony didn’t think she was happy with the plan. But she didn’t argue. And Tony readily agreed to her insistence that the weekend after this was done was theirs alone.
Bruce didn’t have anything like that. Couldn’t.
Tony thought about that as he flew up to the top of the tower. More than once, he’d pushed Bruce to call Betty and invite her to stay; every time, Bruce had refused. Tony had thought it was because he didn’t want to lose focus on his work, but he’d started to think differently about it during the push of the last few days. With the fury of the Hulk bearing down on him, threatening him all the time, Tony felt stifled. Even though he knew he could fight back, and knew his friend was fighting, too, Tony felt the rage directed at him, and part of him – some instinctive lizard brain part – wanted to run and hide, and never ever be found.
That same fury was, quite obviously, directed at Bruce himself. And Bruce lived with it every moment of every day.
No wonder he didn’t want to be found, didn’t want to be part of the world. Didn’t want a Betty in his life. Bruce had told him once that it felt like he was raw, like a nerve, and Tony had started to get just the tiniest picture of what that must be like to always be on guard, always be waiting, always be looking over your shoulder for the monster you know is coming for you. When you’re in that state, there’s no room for anything else. Anyone else.
“The system’s ready, Stark.” Bruce’s voice came over the intercom, tight.
“Gotcha. On my way.”
Good thing this is a prototype, Bruce thought, because this sucker is unwieldy as all hell.
“I mean, seriously - how could they set this up on a moment’s notice?” He was in the middle of getting strapped into one of the newest Hulkbuster R&D containment units. “And how would they get the Other Guy quiet enough? They’ve got a lot of work to do if they want this to be useful against me.”
Tony had been fighting wires and straps for well on fifteen minutes at this point. Bruce’s hands, strapped high above his head and covered completely in balls of what he’d come to understand were some kind of “unstable molecules,” had gone numb, and his feet were starting to do the same. He was spread-eagle, face up, in about the most awkward position he could imagine.
A flash came, of Tony wriggling his way onto Bruce’s chest in the devastation the Hulk had left behind. Okay, not quite the most awkward.
“Last connection established,” Tony called, his voice amplified by the suit. “We should be good to go.”
Bruce would have nodded, but now that the last connection was in place, he found his body surrounded by an energy field that felt uncomfortably close to the kinetic barrier he’d been trapped in with Tony months ago. “I think it works,” he managed through clenched teeth. “Moving is...bad.”
Tony appeared, his freshly-polished suit hovering about a foot above Bruce, close enough that Bruce could actually hear Jarvis providing calculations as Tony took measurements. “Looks about as solid as we can make it, big guy.” He paused, and Bruce had to think it was for dramatic effect. “You ready?”
Bruce closed his eyes. Nothing in him was ready for this. He didn’t want it. He didn’t know if he’d ever come back.
“Ready,” he sighed, and prepared.
They had agreed to let Bruce try first, which he did now. He let out a deep breath, then let that slow simmer that had been rising in him gather force. He deliberately tried to move, to build frustration. He thought about how Tony was free in that great suit of his, how people loved him, and how he was trapped and raw and hated and hunted. He tried to conjure the hatred that had boiled under the surface for weeks now to come forth, bubble over, bring the Hulk out.
Tony noticed and moved into the second phase. He readied a blast, sending it less than an inch above Bruce’s ear. The man didn’t so much as flinch, though Tony heard a hiss, saw Bruce’s eyes clench shut. They both waited a moment, until Bruce opened an eye just a sliver.
Tony tried another, this time closer to the chest, passing just underneath the prone man’s armpit. That got a grunt of pain from Bruce - Tony could smell hair burning. But still, no reaction.
Bruce opened his eyes, spoke through teeth pushed together. “Damnit, Tony, he knows you don’t intend to hurt me.”
That was a problem. They assumed that a threat would be enough, with the Hulk so close to the surface all the time. And one from Iron Man, whom the Other Guy ranted against so often, seemed the perfect impetus. But there was nothing - no sign, no response. If anything, the Hulk seemed far less present than he had been for a long time. Like he was deliberately not coming out.
Bruce felt it too, Tony saw. As if the Hulk was hiding.
Bruce continued to try and goad the Hulk to life. He pulled up images that had haunted his dreams - Tony, pressed to his chest, a loud pop followed by a scream. Tony’s head spun suddenly by a great fist, smug look replaced by surprise, then pain. The Stupid Suit grabbed, crushed, mangled...
Tony watched this strange struggle, hovering beside Bruce, just out of eyesight. He eyed the open elevator, calculating his odds should the Hulk break free. If he kept thrusters set at maximum and turned so he was aimed directly there...
“Screw it,” Tony said out loud, and slapped Bruce full-on.
Bruce’s eyes flew open, fixed on Tony for just a second, surprised. And then -
Tony saw it happen, right in front of his face, faster than he could thrust away. Something in Bruce’s eyes gave, and all other emotion was suddenly devoured by rage. His features twisted, teeth pressed together, a growl already emerging from deep in his chest. Every bit of the visible surface of his skin shuddered for just a moment, and then seemed to explode muscle and power, that growl becoming a feral roar.
Tony flew to the elevator, just in case. And also because he couldn’t have stopped that sudden, instinctual flight reaction if he tried.
Another roar shook the room, rattling the walls with its ferocity. Tony realized he was hiding behind the elevator panel, and forced himself to take a look. There’s no sounds of things breaking, nothing being tossed or torn apart, he reminded himself. Could be the containment was working. Come on, Tony - you can’t help Bruce from over here.
A few more moments of debating with his lizard brain, and Tony managed to get himself out of the elevator.
The Hulk was, indeed, still in the containment unit. As promised, the unstable molecules had easily stretched to match his size, and they were holding. Huge muscles strained against all barriers, but managed nothing more than to quiver. Another roar of frustration broke loose.
Tony hadn’t really seen the Hulk up close like this before. Every other time, he’d been a blur of action - or, of course, Tony had been waking from being nearly dead. Now, with the Hulk held, Tony could actually see how incredibly massive he was, marvel at the transformation Bruce’s mutation made possible. He couldn’t even fathom how it happened - not even with all the data they’d collected and pored over together. This - this was as close to true mystery as anything had ever been, for both of them.
Those features, twisted in rage and effort, were still Bruce’s....
Right. He was here to help Bruce.
Tony pulled himself out of his reverie just as the Hulk relaxed his efforts momentarily. The huge chest heaved as he panted. Since the Hulk couldn’t even turn his head, Tony had been out of his line of sight until he flew into view at that moment.
The Hulk’s eyes narrowed immediately, and Tony could hear those massive teeth grind together. He struggled to pull up that great quip he’d memorized for just this moment, but his mind was still a little rabbity. “Uh...just, give me one second...”
Another roar erupted from the Hulk’s mouth, actually pushing Tony a foot or so back with its power. The creature started struggling again to get loose.
Okay, forget the quip. Work fast.
“Hey there, Big Guy,” Tony started. Huge eyes rolled in their sockets until they fixed on Tony. Gulp. “Um - can we talk?”
The Hulk panted, snarled. “TONY STARK.” The voice was huge, booming, and filled the room, reverberating off the walls.
Tony really didn’t like the idea that the Hulk used his name. A rather sizable portion of his brain lit up with the desire to squeal and run like a little girl. He fought it. “Yeah, that’s me. Bruce tells me that you’re not too happy with me.”
“BANNER. STUPID BANNER.” Giant jaws clenched, and the creature kept straining against the invisible cage.
“Hey, Bruce is about the smartest guy I’ve ever met besides myself,” Tony retorted, unthinkingly. The look the Hulk shot his way silenced him, though. He struggled to think of how to speak to the creature in front of him. “Look, we brought you here to - “
“PUNY MAN, STUPID SUIT. BROUGHT HULK HERE!” The creature strained full-force again, muscles and sinews tensing for several seconds. He roared his frustration, and fell still once more, malicious eyes on Tony the whole time.
Tony swallowed hard. “Look, I don’t know what I did to make you so mad at me, Hulk, but whatever it is -”
“MAD?” The Hulk panted, hands starting to clench into fists.
Tony gulped. “Yes, mad. I’d like to know. Because I can tell you with all honesty, I really didn’t mean to piss you off, of all peo - well...things.”
Both of Hulk’s huge fists were clenched now, and the mighty jaw worked hard. Through gritted teeth, he spoke a bit more quietly. “STUPID SUIT. PUNY MAN INSIDE. CRUSH YOU.”
Oh, god. This wasn’t working. “Yeah, I know you want to crush me, but - “
“NO!” Again, the Hulk strained against the barrier that held him, growling and snarling. “STUPID TONY! HURT YOU! HURT YOU!!”
Tony pulled back, watching in horror. The barrier held, but the machine that created it was having trouble staying on the ground. The Hulk’s straining lifted one edge of the great thing from the earth, sending the machine trembling. For a brief moment, it looked as if it might break, but then it crashed down again as the Hulk gave up, howling in frustration and panting faster than ever.
“STUPID BANNER. STUPID TONY,” the creature panted, eyes rolling as he gasped for air. That last effort had obviously been huge.
Tony didn’t dare move any closer. At the same time, he didn’t dare give up. The mutation was spreading, and they had ample reason to believe the Hulk was soon going to be able to come as he pleased. If that was so, and the Hulk still had Tony in his sights, then Tony wasn’t at all sure he had much of a future.
Three days, he thought. I have three days to figure this out, or I lose my friend, and maybe my life.
And he still had no idea what had gone wrong.
“God...Hulk, look, I’m sorry. Honest. I’m really, really sorry.” He just didn’t know what else to say.
The Hulk snorted. “SORRY? SORRY DO NOTHING. HULK KNOWS.”
Tony snarled, “Damnit, listen - we need your help! Want me to make it up to you? Tell me how - I’ll do it. Flowers, candy, a night on the town...” He trailed off, thinking. “Okay, that last one is a bad idea. But anything else -”
Another growl erupted, and before Tony knew what happened, a giant arm came loose from the barrier. Tony tried to thrust away, but the Hulk was faster. Huge fingers clamped around the suit.
Tony panicked. “Everything in thrusters, everything in thrusters!” But he could tell that everything was already there, and still he was in Hulk’s grasp, being pulled toward that giant, snarling face.
“PUNY SUIT, STARK. GET OUT!” Hulk’s other arm strained against the barrier, and Tony saw it start to give.
The thrusters stopped, and all energy went to the unibeam without Tony asking. The shift pulled Tony out of his panic, and something in his mind clicked into place.
“Wait, Jarvis, I think -”
The unibeam erupted, and Tony was suddenly free of the Hulk’s grasp. He barreled into the wall behind him, smashing equipment on the way.
“Oh, shit,” Tony managed, before the roar that came from the other side of the room deafened him momentarily. He felt the thundering footsteps, tried desperately to get the thrusters pointed in the right direction before it was too late.
And then it was. A giant hand closed on him, threw him with more power than any thruster could counteract. Tony slammed into the back of the elevator with enough force to nearly pierce into the central structure of the tower.
“Close the doors, Jarvis. Close them now, now, now!”
“LEAVE HULK ALONE!!!” came the roar, and Tony caught a glimpse of the three-ton Hulk containment machine barreling his way before the doors closed and crumpled under its weight.
“I think you should take the alternate route, sir,” Jarvis noted, the escape hatch of the elevator opening. Tony took it, the sounds of destruction below following him all the way.
There was a storm outside, but Bruce didn’t mind. In here, things were comfortable and warm and peaceful. In here, he could relax and let go.
In here, he could just be.
Let the storm rage, Bruce thought. It’s not my problem.
It felt so good to simply relax and let the time take him wherever it went, to let the world pass without his involvement. As if Bruce Banner didn’t matter, didn’t exist, wasn’t a problem to be dealt with. For the first time in he didn’t know when - maybe for the first time ever - Bruce felt...he felt...
Yes, that was it. He felt safe here, for the first time in his life.
Of course, Bruce was no idiot. He knew something had gone horribly wrong in his mind if he was here in this blank space, still so aware, so awake. He recognized the metaphors - the storm, the blank slate. He knew, outside, that the Hulk had taken over, and that terrible things were happening.
He just wasn’t sure how much he cared.
This feeling was freeing, more so than he ever could have imagined. Bruce hadn’t realized how burdened he felt until he found himself in this place without it. If there had been a sky here, he was certain he would be able to fly straight into it. It felt intoxicating, this safety, this certainty that no one and nothing could reach him here unless he allowed it. And just now, he had no desire to do that.
The storm outside grew in strength; Bruce ignored it, sighing with relief, perhaps even joy. He could make a space for himself here, set up shop so to speak. There was space and time to ponder all the things that occupied his mind when it wasn’t occupied with keeping the beast at bay. In here, he had time with his thoughts - something that had always, in his life, been lacking. Home had, of course, not been a place for thinking (unless those thoughts revolved around how best to hide from Dad), and school, even college, had given him little room to consider the things that really caught his interest. Even work - before the accident - was a well-laid path upon which he was expected to walk, his thoughts leading to the discoveries they had wanted from him, the revelations they’d needed for their own missions to be accomplished. He’d spent his life fenced in, moving the world forward in the ways others had insisted upon.
That is, until the storm came.
Bruce chuckled at himself, surprised at how readily he accepted the boundaries of this delusion, how unwilling he was to point out to himself what was truly happening. A base attempt to maintain what was obviously a budding psychosis. Something in him had broken, and rather than fighting it, he was feeding it. Even faced with insanity, he was maintaining decorum, staying within the bounds of what was dictated around him. He avoided conflict, at all costs. Fuck - he even bullied himself into compliance. What did that say about his mental state?
“Nothing that the rest of this delusion doesn’t already say,” Bruce stated aloud. His voice disappeared into the blankness, and Bruce decided to take a stroll.
Slowly, a world started to coalesce around him - his college campus, apparently late at night. Quietly, deliberately, he stepped off the path and began making his way into the center of a grove of trees, to the place where he’d found that small oak, split in half somehow. Fraternity stunt? Lightning strike? Rot? He hadn’t known, but he’d set about trying to heal the poor thing all those years ago, visiting it several times a week to check on the progress of one approach or to try a new one when the last failed. In the end, he’d saved it, and both sides pushed into the ground, began new shoots. It was as if the halves had started over, each creating a new root structure, even though the old one still existed and fed them, the tiny remaining trunk scarred and non growing, but alive. He headed toward that tree now, only vaguely aware, but enough so that the symbolism wasn’t lost.
Bruce hadn’t expected things to go like this. When the...the Other Guy...took over, he had expected to vanish, to simply be washed from existence. Apparently, he thought as he turned a corner, pushing aside wayward branches as his feet moved instinctively to the spot he knew so well, I’ve got a different message to send myself.
Or the Other Guy did. Bruce wasn’t completely certain who was running this show.
He stopped in front of the tree, which had obviously flourished in the years since Bruce had tended it. Two new trunks had emerged from the ground, each at least twenty feet tall, with two sets of foliage thick above. The original trunk still existed, fed by the branches of the two new trees, somehow having thickened and grown against all odds. Thin protrusions, somewhere between trunk and branch, connected the original tree to its two successors, and even these had grown bark and were sprouting slightly.
Bruce smiled. This, he thought, is good work. My work.
The sky above him suddenly churned, turning a sickly green, and a raging storm broke through - all wind and hail and freezing rain. Thunder crashed, and Bruce, buffeted wildly, had no choice but to run for shelter.
For nearly half a hour, the Hulk raged. They’d tried tranquilizing him again, but he’d ripped the guns from the walls and ceiling the moment they appeared, as if he remembered. Ten minutes later, every piece of equipment in the lab had been reduced to rubble. Ten minutes after that, he’d pounded a hole through every layer of the quadruple-thick walls, started tearing something large enough for him to get through, and roared at the Hulkbuster helicopter outside until it had to either move or get blown out of the sky.
And then, suddenly, he was done.
Tony watched outside as the great hand disappeared from the hole. An incredibly tense minute passed before he braved a closer look. Inside, the Hulk sat across from the hole, watching, breathing slower and slower.
“STARK,” the creature said, voice far quieter than before. His eyes seemed unfocused, even glassy.
“I’m here,” Tony responded, voice tinged with concern. “I’m here, Big Guy.” He didn’t enter, though, hovering outside as he spoke, considering carefully the thought he’d had earlier about the beast’s intentions, his actions. He worked up the courage to approach.
The Hulk snorted, one great hand dropping from his lap to the floor, leaving an indentation where it fell. “GOOD. SMART.” The beast’s eyes dropped.
Tony called off the Hulkbusters immediately, knowing their presence would only make things worse. Pepper called, likely for an explanation, but he didn’t answer. He had too much to think about, and couldn’t be distracted.
Tony forced himself to wait until the Hulk looked back up, waited for what seemed an exceptionally long time. When, finally, that giant head lifted, Tony swept inside, landing just out of arm’s reach.
Tony lifted the face guard of his suit to meet the tired eyes that sought him out. He took a deep breath, calming the jangly nerves that, even now, screamed at him to run. But he didn’t; he couldn’t.
It was the beast who broke the silence. “WANT. BANNER. BACK.”
Tony swallowed, nodded. “Yes. I need him, if I’m going to help you.”
The Hulk’s eyes never left Tony. “NO. I....WANT.”
Tony blinked in surprise. In front of him, the Hulk slumped, eyes glazing over, and began to disappear.
Pepper could see the hole in the tower from a block away - it was that big. “But he didn’t get out?”
“No, ma’am,” the gentleman on the other line repeated. “He breached the wall, but then just - stopped.”
“And Tony went in?”
“I’m afraid so, ma’am.”
Pepper fumed. It was one thing for Tony to put on a big iron suit and go gallivanting about trying to save the world from big scary dangerous things. It was quite another for him to bring them back to his home base - their home base - which had already seen so much destruction in the past six months that they’d nearly put out the cost of the building all over again for repairs.
And it was yet another for Tony to fly right on in to face the wrecking ball alone.
“Thank you,” she said tersely, and caught herself. “I’m sorry, I’m not mad at you. Thank you for the information.”
“Anytime, ma’am.” Pepper hung up.
She’d decided to come back to New York the moment Tony told her about what he and Bruce were planning to do and why. She knew there was no point arguing with Tony about it. Not for the first time, she wished Tony would just buy a big warehouse in the middle of nowhere and take Bruce there, rather than keeping him in the city. But she knew also that Tony wanted Bruce to have a taste of the high life, tempt him to staying and working with Stark Industries for while. It might even have been working, before...
Poor Bruce. He’s already been through so much, Pepper thought as her car pulled into the parking lot under the building. Now, to find himself changing again - she couldn’t imagine what he was feeling.
Ok - right now, actually, she could, if that feeling involved pent-up rage at a mad-with-power something he couldn’t control.
Pepper got out of the car and began walking toward the elevator. “Jarvis, how bad is it?”
“Welcome back, Miss Potts,” came the response. “I’m afraid the damage to 87 is quite severe, enough so that my sensors on that floor are not functioning. Sensors on 86 and 88, however, are undamaged, as are the floors themselves. I believe the incident was isolated to the laboratory, the floor around it, and the main elevator.”
Pepper paused. “Main elevator?”
“It’s been crushed into the wall behind it, I’m afraid.”
Pepper took a deep breath, eyes blazing. “Jarvis, I need to talk to Tony.”
“He’s turned off all communication, Miss Potts. I’m afraid I can’t reach him for you.”
“Then just get me up there.”
Two freight elevators and three flights of stairs later, Pepper stepped into the ruin of floor 87 and looked around carefully, listening for any sound of fighting. She had seen the kind of waste that the Hulk could lay before, but this was far beyond what she could have imagined. Nearly every wall had been torn down, and those that still stood bore marks of huge hands or fists. The floor had pockmarks up to a foot deep all around her. Every single piece of equipment had been mangled, torn, or crushed; several were embedded in the floor or ceiling. Stone and steel rubble lay in massive piles. Nothing - absolutely nothing - had been left undamaged. It was as if the Hulk had deliberately set out to destroy it utterly.
Pepper heard nothing, saw no movement. She braved a step forward, and another, watching her footing. “Tony, are you here? Tony?”
The anger she’d felt when she got there started to sap away in the utter silence that greeted her. Pepper started to worry.
She picked up the pace. “Tony? Tony, if you’re here, answer me!” Again, nothing. Worry settled heavy on her heart, threatening to become panic.
Pepper hurried now, eyes scanning all directions, looking for any sign of life. She searched under walls that had been pushed over, climbed atop destroyed machines, pushed enough rubble away from some piles to assure herself that Tony wasn’t under there. She called and called, concern exploding into panic as only her own echoing voice answered her.
And then she rounded one of the only walls still standing, felt the air rushing in from the hole in the outer structure, and saw them. The wind, silenced on the other side of the wall by the triple-thick layers of steel and concrete, howled here, cancelling out all other sound. Tony was there, in the suit, on both knees in front of Bruce.
Pepper rushed forward, emotions a storm. Angry, terrified, worried, joyful, she called out to Tony, unheard, and ran to them both. Tony must have felt something, because his shoulders raised a bit, and he turned just as she reached him.
“Oh, god, Tony, I thought - “ she started despite herself, well aware that she wouldn’t be heard. What she saw, though, when Tony lifted the face plate - sunken eyes, ashen skin - made her think of shards of metal piercing the suit, or huge objects crushing it in. She hurried over, terrified of what she might find, and started touching him all over, checking the suit for damage.
There was none.
Pepper looked into Tony’s eyes, confused. He motioned across from him, to where Bruce slumped a few feet away. The man’s hands hung limp by his sides and his mouth lay open, just slightly, almost as if he’d fallen asleep. But his eyes were open, unfocused, staring, unaware.
Tony dropped his gaze to the floor, and Pepper let him. She pressed a hand to her mouth, kneeling down next to Tony, taking his face in her hands. She wanted to ask what happened. She didn’t want to know.
“He’s not there,” Tony told her, his voice tight. “Pepper - he’s just not there.”
Despite the suit, Pepper wrapped her arms around Tony and let him hold her for a while.
An hour later, they had settled Bruce on the spare bed in the penthouse. Pepper had called the Hulkbuster unit - the wrong one, as Tony had already reminded her several times - for assistance as soon as she could get Tony to let her go. They’d sent several heavily armed and armored individuals, which had nearly led to firefight. But they’d also sent a medic, and Tony finally acquiesced and let him through. He’d examined Bruce thoroughly, but had to admit he had no idea what was wrong.
In the end, the squad had strapped the quite-compliant Banner to a stretcher and brought him up here, where he remained under heavy guard as the debate over what to do to help Bruce continued.
“Guys, he needs a hospital,” Pepper pleaded to both Tony and Sergeant Almsworth, the new Hulkbuster squad leader after Ross’s departure. “They have the emergency staff, diagnostic equipment, and - “
“And a lot of civilians that could be killed if he loses control again,” the sergeant interrupted, holding up a hand to silence Pepper. “It’s a bad plan. You should let us take him back to base.”
Tony seethed. “Like hell you’ll take him back to base,” he snarled, putting a finger in Almsworth’s face. “Bruce would eat ground glass before he agreed to let the military get hold of him again.”
“I’d like to remind you, Mr. Stark, that you called us.”
“No, not this time. This time was a mistake.” He shot a look at Pepper, withering; she took it, not looking away. That only made him more determined. “I called your unit four months ago because we needed a containment system if Bruce was ever going to work on his...condition. You know, the system that failed? That let all this happen?” Tony pulled himself to his full height, all-out angry now.
“We told you it was experimental, Mr. Stark -"
Pepper tried to intervene. “Guys, we can’t -"
Tony ignored her, eyes full on the sergeant. “Yeah, like you told me that the tranq guns could withstand 40,000 psi, and they gave under half that.”
“Listen, you two -"
“Oh, come on. It’s obvious your Stark Industry mounts caused the failure - “
“My mounts are all still in one piece!”
“STOP IT!” Pepper screamed. “For Christ’s sake, Bruce needs help!”
Tony pressed his lips together, jaw working. He managed to pull his eyes away from the sergeant, who continued to stand his ground, and stalked toward Pepper, taking her arm gently and leading her away. “Not from them, he doesn’t,” he murmured, barely loud enough for anyone to hear. “Just because Ross isn’t in the picture any more doesn’t mean these guys have any better intentions. We can’t let them take him - Bruce wouldn’t want that, even now.”
Pepper sighed, brushing her hair back with a hand that shook just a bit. “Okay, fine, I know, Tony, and I’m sorry. I panicked, and Rhodey’s number was there, and with Bruce like...” She trailed off, motioning toward the guarded door. “But...Tony, Bruce also wouldn’t be okay with putting anyone in danger, and right now, he might be doing just that. We don’t know. You don’t know.”
Tony nodded, softening a bit. “I know. I get it. We don’t know anything about what happened to get him in this state, or even what that state really is. And if we don’t know that, we don’t know anything - whether he’s dangerous, how to help him...what he’d want, if...”
Tony didn’t finish the thought as he let go of Pepper’s arm and turned back toward the sergeant, eyes hard. “But no matter what, he wouldn’t want your team involved with anything going on with him. Get out, Sergeant.”
The sergeant’s eyes hardened in turn. “Mr. Stark, this is not a stable situation - “
Tony waved his hand dismissively. “I know. And if we need the fucking army, we’ll call. But right now, I think your being here is going to cause far more harm than good, so - Just. Get. Out.” Tony’s eyes fixed on Almsworth with absolute malice.
Almsworth started to object again, but couldn’t get a word out before Tony whirled fully, aiming every weapon the suit had in the man’s direction. Guns rose from guards to point at Tony, and the room was suddenly thick with tension.
A moment passed, both men staring at each other, Pepper stunned silent. Almsworth broke the silence. “You’d really shoot a military officer?”
“If he continues to trespass on my property when I’ve asked him to leave, yeah. Now get out, and take your people with you.”
“We have our orders, Stark.”
Oh, for Christ’s sake!” Pepper cried, and pulled out her phone as she stormed out to stand between the two. Tony and Almsworth stared at her, confused.
Pepper held up a finger to them both, mouthing one sec, as she suddenly smiled, voice bright. “Hi, Leo, how are you and Jeanine?” She listened. “What? Oh, that’s fabulous - congratulations to you both. I knew it’d happen for you someday. A pause. “Well, lieutenant, I have a situation here...yes, the sergeant and Tony, just like you...right.”
She glanced Almsworth’s direction. “Oh, sure, of course.” She handed the phone to him, and Almsworth took it, blinking surprise.
As Almsworth talked to his lieutenant, Pepper took Tony’s arm and started gently leading him away. “Put away the toys, Tony. Let’s focus on Bruce.” Tony started to object, but something in Pepper’s eyes told him that doing so would lead to a world of hurt. He complied, glancing back toward the sergeant.
“Yes, sir,” he was saying. “Goodbye, sir.” He stared at Pepper with wide eyes as he handed her phone back.
Pepper smiled as she accepted it. “I make friends,” she said, answering the unspoken question. “It’s kind of a talent.”
“Apparently,” Almsworth replied, then motioned to the guards. “Come on, orders have changed. Move out.” And they did.
As the soldiers marched to the roof to meet their helicopter, Tony couldn’t help but smile. He patted the delicate hand that still held onto his arm. “When was the last time I told you - “
“Two days, three hours, 27 minutes ago,” she responded, smiling as well. “Give or take. I keep track, because you keep asking. And this,” she finished, waving a finger to indicate - everything, “doesn’t count.”
They stood there together, silent, until the helicopter had loaded and taken off. Then both suggested to Jarvis, at the same time, that he sweep the building - and Bruce - for any unknown tech the team might have left behind. Jarvis informed them that he already had.
Once they knew they weren’t being spied upon, Pepper started making calls. She and Tony agreed quickly that a hospital was out of the question, but they needed answers. So she set about calling in the best experts money could buy - neurosurgeons, psychiatrists, and all manner of doctors specializing in various forms of trauma. It took the better part of the night, then the remaining time before dawn was spent locating equipment.
Tony and Jarvis, meanwhile, went to work. Bruce’s condition over the past several weeks had changed, and all manner of metabolic and hormonal shifts had manifested. There was a lot of data, and there was no telling what would be important. Tony dedicated himself to becoming an expert on Bruce’s unique physiology, in the hopes that he might be able to help once they knew what was wrong.
In the night, Bruce twitched, once. And that was all.
The storm had closed and closed on Bruce until it was a hurricane barreling down on him. Trees uprooted and flew away; windows on the college dormitories behind him shattered. He ran for shelter, but all the doors were locked, and screaming and pounding at them did nothing.
He was alone, caught in the storm. No one was coming to help. No one could.
Bruce knew this was a panic he was causing himself, but understanding didn’t help. The thunder clapped and roared above, and he was afraid.
Bruce ran, remembering a place he’d gone when classes and expectations had been too much, when the pressure had overwhelmed him. He ran like mad, fighting the wind and rain, desperately seeking refuge.
The thunder came again and again, coalescing into something more. Bruce tried to ignore it, tried to push down the panic that was rising. It couldn’t be, and it wasn’t, and yet -
The sky roared, and Bruce clamped a hand over his mouth to keep from screaming. Screaming would do no good. He knew it as powerfully as he knew that voice, and the rage it contained.
He had to hide, now now now.
The world around him shifted, Bruce barely noticing. Everything around him was bigger than it should be; a bed he’d have to climb to get onto, a wardrobe with handles barely out of reach. An end table that used to have a door on the front and magazines inside. The door was gone now, torn off the last time Bruce had used it to hide from it. From Him.
“COME OUT, BANNER!” the voice roared. Bruce stayed where he was, tucked between the big chair and the wall, hand still clasped to his mouth. He wouldn’t scream.
He couldn’t. Or else he’d be next.
Footsteps came up the hall. Bruce held his breath, willing himself to be strong, to stay silent. To not let out so much as a whimper when those big feet, those huge hands, appeared at the doorway. Little Bruce willed himself to be as small and as quiet as a mouse.
The footsteps stopped, one door down. Bruce heard the door creak open, then closed. He could feel the footsteps on the other side of the wall as his father circled the room, his now deceptively soft voice calling for his son.
“Bruce? Brucie, come on out. I just want to talk to you about what happened.”
Bruce squeezed his eyes shut, willing down the memory, only a few minutes old. His back and arms ached where his father had grabbed him, shoved him to the garage floor, started beating him with fists big enough to pound nearly a quarter of his tiny body at a time. He had tried so, so hard to stay quiet, but his father had been screaming at him about how he was a Banner, and how he needed to, had to do better. Father’s voice, as loud as a lion’s roar, had brought Mom running and begging and screaming at Father to stop, and then...
Bruce clamped the other hand over his mouth and nose, muffling the cry that came to his throat, but completely unable to stop the tears. He didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to see, to remember.
He wanted to disappear.
The voice through the wall continued. “Bruce, come on, I need you out here. Please.” The tone had changed, softened, become almost worried. But this had happened before, and Bruce wasn’t going to fall for it. Not this time, not ever again. He’d hide forever rather than let his father get hold of him one more time. He’d find a place where no one could ever find him again.
The first of the experts arrived from DC just after noon. By then, Tony and Pepper had pulled together a reasonable facsimile of a hospital room for Bruce, complete with all the standard equipment (and a few not-so-standard), a nurse, two well-trained radiological assistants, and a line to a hospital pharmacy just a few blocks away. More sophisticated equipment was on its way, along with a host of “borrowed” staff to make sure everything worked for any tests required.
Though it pained him to do so, Tony decided to wait until the other doctors arrived, so he could provide the background, lay out the game plan, and answer questions just once. He knew time was of the essence; at the same time, he didn’t want to risk too much excitement around Bruce for too long. They still had no idea what was going on inside Bruce, and every bit of exposure anyone had to him was a calculated risk – one that Tony wasn’t intending to be completely forthcoming about. He knew Bruce valued – hell, required – his privacy, and he knew from experience that the kind of people you can find at a moment’s notice for the right amount of cash weren’t always the most scrupulous, even if (and sometimes because) they were geniuses.
At Bruce’s bedside, Tony studied the data he and Bruce had collected over the past few weeks along with a few choice medical textbooks Jarvis had located and pulled up from him. He hadn’t slept, couldn’t – there were too many variables, and far too little time to sort it all out. There was no one else who knew as much as he did about Bruce except Bruce himself, and Tony wasn’t willing to risk not finding a solution because he let someone else do the work. He’d just have to barrel through.
Dr. Padawara, the neuropsychiatrist, arrived just after two, and the endocrinologist, Dr. Yu, 45 minutes later. Jarvis introduced each of them, but Tony didn’t care. They were here, and it was time.
He left Pepper dozing in a chair by Bruce’s side with a hint of trepidation. “Any sign of change, Jarvis, and – “
“Yes, sir. I have everything at the ready, in case action is required.”
Tony nodded. It would do.
In the next room, his guests were talking quietly to one another, all obviously curious about what kind of strange medical mystery could bring them all together in one room, and at such short notice. His appearance quieted the conversation quickly, though, and Tony felt sure that his appearance – worn, still dirty from the devastation below, and far more serious than he was used to showing the world – probably had a lot to do with the three moving in silence to the table in the center of the room, where Tony was headed.
When they were all seated, Tony brought up the information he’d chosen to share on the invisible screens hovering before each of them. “We’ve got a lot to cover and little time to do it, folks, so let’s save questions until the end.
“This,” he said, punctuating his statement by shooting a file to all the screens, “is your patient. In the very recent past, he had a traumatic, possibly psychotic, episode, and nearly tore apart an entire room before falling into…well, where he is now.” He highlighted a few results of tests he’d already run, and spread those as well to the displays before each of the doctors. “We did all the testing we could before you got here, and we don’t have an answer. He appears catatonic, but the extreme activity we’re seeing…well. Speaks for itself.”
Tony gave the doctors a moment to absorb the information he’d provided, then began again as eyes began to turn to him, before anyone could ask it. “We can’t take the patient to a hospital, and before you ask, no, I’m not going to tell you why. I’m also not going to tell you who he is, and you’re not going to get to look at his face. He’s an exceptionally private man, and trust me when I say I wouldn’t bring a single soul in on this, much less lots of you, unless it was absolutely required for his – survival. And if it wasn’t damned important to me. Hence the absolutely astronomical fees I’m offering – for your expertise, your silence, and your willingness to work this in exactly the fashion I’m asking.
“Any objections?” Tony let the question hang, meeting the eyes of each person in the long silence.
“Good,” he finally replied. “Now, here’s how we’re going to do this.”
Tony was in the middle of explaining how he wanted things handled – one doctor at a time, no more than five minutes in the room, each test reviewed first by Tony before anyone else – when audio in the room switched on.
“I hate to interrupt, sir,” Jarvis apologized, “But something has happened in –“
Tony didn’t wait for Jarvis to finish. In fact, he didn’t even hear Jarvis finish as he clamored to his feet, running toward the door. Heart lurching with fear and hope, he skidded around the corner, catching himself on the doorway, barely aware that the startled doctors had followed. “Bruce? Pepper?” he called before he could catch himself, imagining all manner of horrific moments laid out before him: Pepper caught in a giant green hand, choked before she could make a sound; Bruce slumped over, no sign of life; Bruce in convulsions, the assistants trying to hold him still…
It was none of these things.
In his bed, still quiet, eyes still open and unfocused, Bruce was crying.
Or, at least, his eyes were. Though his respiration and heart rate showed absolutely no change, fat tears ran down Bruce’s cheeks, nearly into his ears. They flowed both freely and silently, and showed no signs of slowing.
The commotion woke Pepper, who was just as suddenly alert and anxious as Tony had been a moment before. She jerked upright in her chair, turning fearful eyes first to the door, then to Bruce, where they locked. Her hands rose slowly to cover her mouth, and Tony saw the glitter of tears at the edges of her eyes as well.
Tony cleared his throat, which was suddenly tight. “Well,” he managed, “I, for one, plan to take this as an extremely hopeful sign.” He looked to the doctors, who were still perhaps a little overwhelmed by the entire situation to express more than astonishment. He studied them all just long enough to assure himself that none of them actively disagreed with his assessment, and that was enough. He shooed the doctors, closed the door, and moved over to his friend, whispering, “Come on, Bruce, I need you out here. Please.” He patted Bruce’s shoulder, gave Pepper a kiss, then returned to the team, smiling for the first time in more than 24 hours.
“Right, so, considering this new and exciting development, which one of you wants to go first?”
Bruce’s terror eventually gave way to exhaustion, and the boy fell into a fitful darkness that lasted the longest and shortest time he could imagine. When he awoke, the world had shifted yet again. His eyes adjusted slowly, picking out familiar objects – dusty banks of knobs and dials, the labels long gone. An old computer, the kind that ran huge tape reels. The wall of file cabinets, all locked – he’d checked. And in the center of the room, one clean, polished steel desk, a cracked leather chair in front of it.
The lab hidden under Woton Hall. His hiding spot. So he’d made it to a safe place after all.
Bruce had stumbled on this place, quite literally, after working in his own lab far too late one night. He’d closed his eyes for what he swore was just a second, but then suddenly found himself off-balance, falling over in his chair. He’d hit the floor and knocked a grating loose, sending it flying off in some random direction. When he’d gone to look for it, he’d stumbled over the damned thing, fell, and found himself face to face with the top of a door that peeked over where the floor began. Large and metal, it had long ago been welded shut, which had only piqued Bruce’s interest more.
A couple of weeks later, still perusing old university maps in his oh-so-ample spare time, he’d located it – an unlabeled lab that had been built in 1977, extending the basement of Woton Hall by another 400 square feet or so. He’d mapped it out and walked the perimeter above ground, which is how he’d found his entrance – an obviously long-forgotten ventilation shaft, mostly hidden now by bushes, a somewhat rickety but still functional service ladder bolted inside.
Bruce had nearly moved in.
It wasn’t the nicest of places; it was musty, since the ventilation shaft had been covered with a heavy metal lid and all other entries had been closed over, and there were plenty of mice and snakes and other vermin who’d taken a liking to it. But it was entirely secret, completely cut off from the rest of the campus. No phone reached here, no Internet was available, and no one could page him. It was dark and separate and safe and a place all his own, and it became his respite from all the pressures he felt to do more, and better, and faster.
Here, Bruce felt as close to at peace as he’d ever felt. Here, he was sure no one could ever find him again. No wonder it appeared for him as a respite from the storm.
Ah – he was back to the storm now.
Bruce tried to listen for it, to hear if it was still raging outside, but as always, the thick cement roof and walls made it hard to hear much of anything outside this place. No matter; he could while away the time here without trouble, and if he ended up needing to stay overnight, why, look, the cot was still – was –
Was someone on the cot?
A trick of the shadows, Bruce told himself, surely. His eyes had adjusted to the near-black so well only because he knew the entire space by heart, so things were probably darker in here than he realized. Lights from the library across the way shone weakly through the dirty vent windows that lined the top of the room – there’s just something between there and here that’s creating the illusion, he told himself. In the four years he’d been at the college, no one else had ever found this place, Bruce’s refuge, his hiding spot.
Surely no one else could be in here with him. A trick of light and shadow, he was sure of it. But somehow, he couldn’t make himself move to the desk, switch on the lamp he’d managed to plug into the power grid above, and take a closer look. Part of him just didn’t want to know.
A thunderclap sounded outside. If there had been lightning, Bruce hadn’t seen it. Ah, well - nothing for it but to sit and wait it out. Bruce began to relax, and soon enough found himself moving toward that battered old chair, imagining already how he’d settle into the creaky thing, pull open the bottom drawer on the right, and pull out whatever book happened to be sitting on top. As he’d done a hundred times, he’d lean forward just long enough to click on the light, then prop his feet on the desk and settle in for a nice night of light -
Something rattled the windows above.
Bruce jumped and froze, nearly startling a yelp out of himself. Soon after, he was chuckling at his own nonsense. Come on, Banner, he told himself, stop being such a big baby about everything. The windows were old, and even a faint wind could get them rattling; he knew that. What made the sound was nothing more than a natural phenomenon, a cold current of air coming into contact with a warmer one, creating a string of effects that led to (among other things) wind, rain, and yes – lightning. And the thunder that followed it. Entropy at work on an old building – and perhaps a little bit of work exhaustion in himself – filled in the rest of the blanks, and sent him into momentary panic. But there was nothing to fear; everything was in its place, and it all made sense.
Everything, that was, but Bruce’s sudden and irrational fear of turning on the light, of actually seeing what was in there with him. That feeling kept him frozen in place despite his rationalization, unable to do anything but listen to the thunder roll.
“Come on, Banner,” he said to himself out loud. “Calm down.”
Something in the darkness shifted, something big. Bruce’s heart lurched, thumping faster. Suddenly, he wasn’t at all sure he was alone in this hiding place, or safe.
“Who’s there?” Bruce called, suddenly able to move again. He began making his way slowly toward the wall of file cabinets, knowing instinctively where he’d want to go if someone was there. “Is someone in here with me?”
He heard, and felt, a massive footfall, heavy enough that the floor reverberated with it. The fear he’d been suppressing bloomed into action, and he ran the few remaining yards as more and more steps sounded, faster and closer and nearly next to him…
Bruce slid into the space between the two deepest cabinets, ignoring the cobwebs that caught, the tiny legs of insects that scattered over him. He shoved himself deep into that space, pushing for the wall.
Lightning struck outside, close. Bruce got a moment’s glimpse of the great green creature looming, face a mask of fury. He wriggled and pushed his way toward the wall, as far and as deep into that darkness as he could go, as the roar of the beast and the storm became one.
The voice boomed, echoing all around him, and Bruce felt something huge and heavy strike the cabinets on either side of him. They screeched and buckled in a few inches under the blows.
The Hulk! How could he -
Another blow, this one along the top of the cabinets. They caved in nearly half a foot, and Bruce ducked instinctively.
He remembered now, remembered the break, the blank space, the campus, the tree. Was he still dreaming, still somehow...lost?
And if so, why was the Hulk in here with him? Why wasn’t the Other Guy out there, wreaking havoc?
Massive fingers wriggled their way between the two cabinets, into the crevice where Bruce was hiding. They couldn’t reach him - and they didn’t try. Instead, they simply curled and squeezed. Metal screamed as it crumpled, tore, and the space widened. Bruce could do nothing but curl against the far wall, watching in horror as safety was torn away. The monster was going to get him, and there was nothing he could do about it.
Maybe this time, it would kill him.
In middle of the night, Bruce had suddenly spiked a fever. Soon after, his pulse starting increasing at an alarming rate, and Tony had insisted on clearing the room. He armored up - just in case - to return and cover Bruce in cooling blankets. That had stabilized his temperature at 102 and heart rate at a frighteningly high 194, but that was all.
Test results soon after - taken again by Tony, with the doctors and Pepper safely shooed ten floors down - showed a spike in Bruce’s thyroid hormone levels indicative of thyroid storm. Dr. Yu had ordered a half dozen different medications - beta blockers, hydrocortizone, a few different antipyretics, PTU. They’d come on an ambulance, but even ten times the normal dosage for a man Bruce’s size did little, as Tony had feared. Bruce’s metabolism just wasn’t like anyone else’s.
That was when all the doctors started arguing about how to help, when one (Tony didn’t know which; he hadn’t bothered to learn their names) had threatened to call the police if Tony didn’t take Bruce to a hospital that very instant. So Tony had kicked them all out, and Pepper had scrambled to ensure that the tower wasn’t suddenly overrun by authorities.
Better this way, Tony tried to convince himself. After all, Jarvis had uploaded the results of every single test the doctors had run and enough information about what each test indicated to help Tony decipher them. Besides, he couldn’t think with all those people around, babbling on inanely. Not a single one of them was a worthy discussion partner, and none of them would ever hold a candle to Bruce.
Damnit. And now Bruce might very well be dying, right in front of him, and Tony had no idea how to help. He needed to think, and think fast, or the best lab partner he’d ever had was going to die. Or something...worse.
“All of it, Jarvis. Give me all of it. Fill all displays. I want to see every bit of research we’ve done in the past six weeks right now.”
Every available display in the penthouse began to light up. “Processing, sir. This may take a moment.”
“Make sure it doesn’t take any more,” Tony responded, and dug in.
Nothing made sense about any of this. First, the mutation they’d zeroed in on in their research had disappeared, then it reappeared somewhere on one of the adenine-thymine clusters, where it started to grow. Then the mutation had reappeared again in the original location - well, sort of, because even that mutation had mutated - and the secondary mutation had started to fade. It happened again and again cascading down Bruce’s DNA, touching nearly every connection as it went, as if looking for something.
The samples Bruce had kept over his year of isolation suggested that similar changes had been occurring, in a much smaller fashion, throughout. This, though - this seemed like an explosion of the pattern, as if it had locked onto something to help it...
Tony paused that thought. Help it? Locked on? Was he assigning intention to this mutation?
Well, why not? The Hulk was a mutation, as far as they knew, and he certainly had intention, simple though it may be. In every instance of the Hulk’s appearance, he’d left rampant destruction in his wake - leveling buildings, tearing apart tanks, even...
Wait. Why? Tony had been under the assumption that it was because the Hulk was angry, as Bruce himself had noted many times that it was extreme agitation that set off the transformation. But correlation wasn’t the same as causation, and -
“Oh, Banner, I think I’m having a thought,” Tony said out loud, quickly tapping away at the displays in front of him now. “We may just be able to save you yet.”
Maybe this time, Bruce thought, he’ll kill me.
The boy was thankful he was pretty small, even for a six-year-old. A bigger kid might have been able to get into the crawlspace under the house, but would never have been able to make it past that bend in the pipe over there - the one that Father’s arm couldn’t get past. Giant fingers fumbled, but the arm couldn’t fit around the metal tube in its way.
“Don’t make me angry, Bruce!” that voice boomed above, fingers scrabbling in the dirt. “I will find you!”
Bruce knew it was true. Dad would find him, because Dad was smarter, and bigger, and good at everything. Dad was something; Bruce wasn’t. Or actually, the somethings that made him up were the bad ones: stupid, weak, sad, pathetic, little. Always in the way. Always making Mommy cry. Like today, when he’d come home from school all dirty, and Mommy had cried because Dad was going to be mad that the brand-new suit he’d bought for school picture day was ruined. It wasn’t his fault - those bullies followed him and shoved him around all the time - but Mommy told him that didn’t matter.
“Oh, Bruce, your father will kill you,” she’d said, and then the tears came. She didn’t even stop when Dad got home, and she always stopped then. That made Dad really angry; he didn’t like to see Mommy cry, which made sense, because Bruce didn’t like it either. And since it was all Bruce’s fault...
The fingers closed in a big fist that pounded the earth just a couple of feet away, and all Bruce could think was that maybe Mommy was right, that this time he’d gone too far.
Dad was going to kill him, and he deserved it.
“I’m sorry I made Mommy cry!” Bruce blurted out suddenly. “I’m sorry!”
“SORRY?” Dad roared, and Bruce clamped his hands over his mouth. He shouldn’t have said anything, because now - now Dad knew where he was.
Bruce scrambled to his hands and knees. He knew he should “stand his ground” and “take his punishment,” like Dad always told him, but he was just too afraid of dying, and just as afraid of hurting. Shame burned in him he as crawled away as fast as he could, shame for being weak and scared and not able to take it.
“You’re a BANNER, Bruce! You have to learn what that means! Come out and take your medicine!” Huge footsteps started pounding above him, rattling dust out of lodging places to rain down. Bruce held his breath so he wouldn’t cough, feeling desperately for another safe place to hide.
Ages passed as the footsteps thundered, as Bruce’s fingers sought out a space just big enough to hide him. At last, he found it - a gap between two pieces of metal, probably part of the cellar doors in the back yard. He squished himself in there, barely small enough, just as the footsteps above stopped.
The silence was just as scary as any noise could ever, ever be.
Bruce waited for a really long time, maybe even a whole hour. Sometimes when Dad was really mad, he left for a while and came back less mad, so maybe that happened? Bruce wasn’t sure; he hadn’t heard any doors slam, or the car start up. But then, he had been hearing his heart in his ears really, really loud - and that might be louder than anything outside his body. He wasn’t sure, because they hadn’t gotten there in school yet. So right now, that wasn’t anything more than conjecture - a word the school secretary had explained to him a few days ago, that meant a proposition that is unproven but is thought to be true. She’d called something his regular teacher said that word. Bruce had liked the sound of it, so she had helped him look it up in the big dictionary, and he had been waiting for a chance to use it.
So now, he had a conjecture - that Dad had left, and that Mom had stopped crying, and that maybe there would be dinner after all, and things would be okay. He could explain his conjecture to Mommy, and she’d smile in that way that made him feel like he was being hugged. And he could work off the cost of a new school picture suit by helping out Miss Ferrell with all those figs that kept falling off her tree. She paid him a dollar last time, so maybe five more times would -
The wood behind Bruce’s head suddenly caved in, and Bruce couldn’t help but scream as something hit the back of his head really hard.
“FOUND YOU!” Dad’s voice thundered as Bruce scrambled out of his hiding place. The world around him seemed fuzzy, and he couldn’t get his arms and legs to move together. He fell into the dirt, fighting hard to make himself get up.
Pale light streamed in from the gap in the wood now, and Bruce could see a sliver of his father’s face. Then it was gone, and big fingers pushed themselves into the gap, started ripping it open further.
Bruce really, really wanted to run away, but his arms and legs just wouldn’t work together. He tried rolling over on his belly and dragging himself, but his eyes wouldn’t make sense of where he was. He started to cry, because he couldn’t do anything else.
And then a giant hand ripped away a board, reached in, and snatched him up.
“Time for you to learn a lesson,” Dad said in his quiet, scary voice as he set Bruce on his feet, holding him by both arms. “About how to be a man.”
Bruce felt like his stomach was trying to crawl down to his feet. The scary voice meant Dad had a plan, and that always worse than when he didn’t. Despite himself, he started crying harder.
“Stop your whimpering!” Dad shouted, his huge hand smacking Bruce full across the face. The world for Bruce swam, and he suddenly couldn’t see anything out of the sides of his eyes. The world became a tunnel, and he was falling in.
Dad shook him. The tunnel fell away. The sky around had turned an ugly green, like it was going to get sick. Bruce thought he might get sick, too, but he managed to stop crying and choke out a “Yes, sir.”
“That’s better,” Dad answered, and shoved him toward the kitchen door. “Now, inside.”
Bruce screamed, loud and long.
Tony was on his feet and running half a second after it started, the tools he’d been using to adjust the palm repulsors on the suit rattling to the floor. He tore around the corner and into the room, where he found Bruce sitting upright, eyes wide and focused elsewhere.
The machine in the room blinked: heart rate 201, and his temperature was rising. Bruce screamed until the air ran out of his lungs, then gasped in a lungful and started to tremble all over.
Time’s up, Tony thought. Out loud, he said, “We’re gonna have to try this now, Jarvis.”
“Sir, the calibrations are not complete. The risk is significant.”
Tony strode out of the room purposefully, heading for the suit. “So’s leaving him in this condition. If his brain doesn’t fry, his heart will pop, or - something worse. Lots worse.” He didn’t even want to think about what kind of devastation a truly mindless Hulk could bring to bear.
Pepper ran into the room. “Tony, did I just hear a scream?”
Tony nodded, stepping into the suit, letting Jarvis strap him in for the third time that night. “You shouldn’t be in here, Pepper - his pulse, blood pressure, and temp are all spiking, and you know what that might lead to.” The helmet slid into place last, covering his face. Displays sprang to life.
That didn’t stop Pepper; she went immediately to Bruce’s room, making Tony’s heart lurch. “Pepper, no, you can’t -”
The sight stopped them both cold in their tracks. Bruce - their friend, Tony’s constant companion for the past months - was shuddering head to foot, pale as death. His teeth chattered in his skull loud enough to be audible; his hands were white-knuckle fisted around the sheets that surrounded him, soaked in his sweat. And his eyes, wide and staring, were glowing greenish-white.
“Out,” Tony nearly whispered, putting himself between Pepper and the bed. “Out, out out.”
Pepper nodded, unseen. Backing away, she managed a quiet, “Please be careful.”
“Careful as I can be,” Tony responded, and closed the door behind him.
Heart rate and blood pressure were still climbing, and even inside the suit, Tony felt that shift in his surroundings, the sudden urge to run. The flashing number on the screen next to the bed blinked up to 217.
Tony pulled the bed out with a little more force than he’d intended, dragging the headboard away from the wall. He moved to stand over Bruce’s head, looking down into the wide unseeing eyes - in fact, unable to look away from them as he set his hands on either side of the man’s head, about an inch away from each temple.
If I can get through for even a moment, Tony hoped.
“Ready when you are, Jarvis.”
“Electrical pulse charging, sir.”
Tony pressed his hands to Bruce’s head. “Three, two, one...”
They hadn’t had time to finish recalibrating the pulsors to act as insulators, so Tony got the same electric shock he delivered to to Bruce. Both men jerked and bucked as Tony delivered the lowest dose normally used in electroconvulsive therapy to break people out of catatonia. Through gritted teeth, Bruce groaned in pain, and the green-white eyes focused for one brief moment.
“HULK. COMING.” The voice was Bruce’s, but the rage that twisted his features belonged fully to the Other Guy. Tony jerked back instinctively, and Bruce fell unconscious.
The world around Bruce shuddered and split, almost like it was a piece of paper being torn. For a brief moment, he was out of the kitchen, seeing some other place that felt almost familiar. He felt twitchy, like he wanted to jump out of his skin.
There was a voice out there, but he couldn’t make it out. It was loud and booming, and at least as scary as Dad’s. He didn’t know if he wanted to hear it.
Soon, that didn’t matter; the tear was gone as immediately as it had appeared, and Bruce was once again trembling in front of his father, who had pulled out a kitchen chair and straddled it. His big, angry eyes were in motion, scanning Bruce, planning as he sat down fully and rested his arms and chin on the back of the chair.
Bruce didn’t dare say anything, and fought hard to keep his trembling, terrified middle from showing on the outside.
At last, the silence broke. “You can’t run from bullies, son. Run from one, two will pop up in his place.” The big eyes roamed over Bruce’s body once more. “But, considering how puny you are, not much sense in standing and fighting, now is there?” He punctuated the question by planting a hand in Bruce’s chest and pushing him backward.
Bruce fell hard on his butt, stayed there. “No, sir,” he managed, looking away.
“That’s what I thought - not a lick of fight in ya. Worthless shit.” Dad stood up, scooting the chair away. He sniffed, and tucked one hand into a trouser pocket, hovering over Bruce, who didn’t dare look up.
Dad walked around him in a slow circle, and all Bruce could think was how much he wished the floor could just open up and eat him right there. “I’m sorry,” was all he could think to say, and he was - truly, deeply sorry that he was so bad and worthless and not worth a shit. He was sorry he made things so hard.
“So,” the voice came from behind him. “Tell me, then. What happened? How’d these assholes treat you?”
Bruce glanced up. The question confused him. “They were...mean?”
“No, dimwit,” Dad nearly growled. Bruce curled away a bit without even realizing it. “Tell me what they did to you.”
Bruce swallowed. Remembering made his throat hurt, like it wanted to close up for good. “Oh.”
The kick surprised him; Bruce didn’t have time to curl up, so it struck him hard on his right side, pushing him a few inches across the kitchen floor. The boy grunted and bit his lip, knowing that crying out would just make it worse. “Oh? OH? I asked you a question, Banner, now answer it!”
Bruce bit down on his lip hard enough that he could ignore the pain in his side for a moment. Words spilled out. “I...they...they came up behind me, and one of them grabbed me - “
“Like this?” Bruce was suddenly pulled to his feet, and whirled so that he faced away. Dad grabbed him from behind, great arms encircling the little chest. Bruce gulped down fear, fought not to start shaking.
“Yea - I mean, yes sir.”
Bruce told his father the story - three boys from third grade had found him reading on the playground after school, still in his suit. They’d grabbed him and thrown the book into a puddle, then called him names. When Bruce begged them to leave his suit alone, they pushed him into the mud, holding him down on his back, then turning him over face down. One of the boys put a foot in Bruce’s back and rubbed him deep into the dirt. They ran away after that, calling him names over their shoulders.
The man laughed several times throughout, never letting go of Bruce. “I thought you told your mom that bullies got you, son.” He let go, and Bruce timidly took a step away from him, turned to look over his shoulder at the man towering above. The laughter brought a glimmer of hope that it was going to be okay, that there would be dinner and talking and figuring out how Bruce could pay Dad back...
Short lived. The man’s face twisted into a snarl, half rage, half pleasure. “There’s bullies, and then there’s bullies. Guess there’s one lesson I’ll have to teach you myself.”
“Again, Jarvis. Right now.”
“Sir, I have to point out that Dr. Banner’s pulse is still 217, and his blood pressure is on the rise, as well as yours. The potential damage - “
“Damnit, Jarvis, I know all that. Just do it!”
The electric jolt came again, and Bruce and Tony both jerked with the force of it. Tony steadfastly kept his hands in place on Bruce’s head for the full ten seconds, hissing and panting with the effort. He watched the face for something, anything, any kind of reaction. But though muscles twitched, those eyes never opened.
Bruce’s pulse spiked again, reaching 230. The man started coughing, hitching for air. This was a full-scale cardiac incident. They had minutes, at best. Seconds, more likely.
“Jarvis, try anything. Everything.”
“Readying all cardiac medications, sir. Try them in order of magnitude?”
Tony watched as Bruce’s pulse continued to rise. 232, 234. “No. Give them all at once.”
“Please, Daddy, stop!”
Bruce was pinned, chest down, on the floor under his father, whose huge hands wrapped around one naked leg. One hand twisted one way, one the other, until Bruce was sure his leg was on fire.
“Shut up and pay attention, boy! I’m teaching you something here!” Dad lifted one hand to smack Bruce on the back of his head.
The world swam again, and Bruce fought not to throw up. Unable to focus, Bruce could almost believe he was someplace else with someone else, someone else who was trying to...to...
For the second time, Bruce heard a voice - far away, but booming and loud. He strained to make out what the voice said, but it was just too far and too muffled. If he could just concentrate for a second...
Suddenly, Bruce was in the air. He saw the floor, then the ceiling, in a reeling second. His back slammed onto the ground, and his breath got knocked clean away.
Dad was standing over him, tearing his suit jacket, the nice shirt underneath. Bruce struggled to fight it off - he didn’t even really know why - but his little arms just kept getting batted away. Dirty tatters fell on either side, and Dad - smart, smart Dad - used them to pin Bruce’s arms to his sides.
When Dad knelt, he pulled the tatters under his knees; then Bruce couldn’t move at all. He was so, so scared, and he couldn’t understand why Mommy wasn’t coming to stop it. Why no one else was coming. And why the world refused to either go solid, or just - go away.
For the third time, a voice came from far away, and this time Bruce heard one word:
Then Dad slapped him, and his little heart fluttered in terror.
“Lessons one and two done. One more left, Brucie.” Dad’s face swam back into focus, and Bruce found himself longing for the dizziness again. It was better than this knowing and seeing. If he was going to die, he wished he could do it from someplace where he couldn’t feel it so much.
Instead, though, Bruce fought himself, trying to stay awake and aware of everything. Dad was right, Bruce knew; he was small and weak and stupid, and he needed to toughen up and stop crying about everything that happened. He had to be a Big Boy, and learn his lesson.
Tears dried as Bruce resolved to be that big boy, and try and make Dad proud. But if Dad noticed, he didn’t show it. Instead, he planted his hands firmly on either side of Bruce’s chest, and started curling them into fists.
Skin caught and pulled; Bruce whimpered and wriggled. He couldn’t help it. He clamped his eyes shut, squeezing them tight as fingernails dug in, leaving trails of pain that felt wet and hot. He squeezed his eyes shut harder and harder, trying to be a big boy as those fingers balled together around what little bit of flesh was on his chest, until they nearly touched. Little feet kicked unconsciously, fighting the pain.
Dad chuckled, low, and Bruce felt the man’s breath on his face, could smell the rum on it. “Why don’t you fight back, boy?”
The fingers squeezed, and Bruce let out a little wail despite himself. “It hurt, don’t it?” Bruce nodded, eyes still shut, not wanting to see whatever Dad was thinking.
Another squeeze, and tears burst from Bruce’s eyes despite his attempts to stop them. He gritted and bared his teeth, fighting them back.
Dad laughed in his face. “Ha! Yeah, now you’re getting it, Brucie! If you’re full-on face-to-face with a real bully,” he squeezed harder, making Bruce squirm and twist under him, “you gotta deal with him, however you can. In your case, apparently, it’s by taking it.”
The squeezing stopped for a moment, and Bruce gasped for air. He hadn’t realized he was holding his breath. He felt blood rushing to his head and to all the places where he’d been hurt, and wondered again why Mommy didn’t come, why someone else didn’t hear Daddy and make him stop. Wasn’t the kitchen door still open? Didn’t anyone hear him scream before?
And what was coming?
Another feeling was rising in him, welling up from deep inside, faster than he could comprehend it. It spilled over and out of the boy, a tidal wave of emotion that washed Bruce very nearly away. And then, at last, he could hear the voice that had risen from afar, that had been present, he now realized, since the beginning.
The voice spilled out of Bruce’s own mouth. “STOP IT! I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU! LEAVE ME ALONE!!!” Bruce’s little legs started thrashing, and suddenly his whole body was fighting to be free, straining and bucking and pushing and screaming. “nononononononoNO - “
Two massive hands slammed down on Bruce’s chest, startling the boy’s eyes open. He was staring right into Dad’s face. “Hate me? Hate me?” The hands on his chest pushed down hard enough that Bruce couldn’t even breathe. All he could do was watch as his father snarled, angry enough that he was trembling.
Dad’s voice dropped to a whisper, and as he spoke, spittle dripped onto Bruce’s face. “Well, then, you’re really going to hate me for this.”
No, he couldn’t face it. He wouldn’t. Bruce fled the memory, retreating into anywhere else. Into darkness.
Bruce’s body had started convulsing before Jarvis could administer the medications. Bruce had already torn out his IV, and there was no time to work any straps, so Tony had straddled Bruce on the bed to hold him steady as Jarvis prepared the medications.
“Now, Jarvis!” Tony was shouting. “Do it now!”
Several syringes pierced Bruce immediately in half a dozen places. The body under Tony’s bucked, once, and Tony looked down at his friend’s face.
Bruce’s eyes were open, wide, looking straight through him. Then, eyelids fluttered, and his pulse plummeted.
“No no no!” Tony cried, watching as the display blinked 210, 180, 120, 85. Blood pressure, too, dropped precipitously, and Tony felt Bruce convulsing again.
There was a sudden spike in pulse, then...nothing. Bruce’s body went limp.
“Oh no. No no, Bruce, don’t do this...” Tony ripped off his face plate, planted his hands firmly in the center of Bruce’s chest. As machines blipped zero - breathing, pulse, blood pressure - Tony started compressions.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. In the background, he was vaguely aware that machines were howling. Eight, nine, ten. Was it right to breathe now? Tony couldn’t remember if it was right to breathe now. What was he supposed to do?
The machine next to Bruce kept on with its long, singular wail. Bruce kept on not moving. Tony, unable to remember, decided to keep on with compressions.
Eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve. He looked up at Bruce, unaware of the familiar face screaming at him from a nearby display. He couldn’t hear her; there was only the body under him, and that screaming machine.
Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. Nothing.
Help him breathe.
Tony clamped fingers over Bruce’s nose, closing his nostrils, and took a deep breath. He poured it all into Bruce, could see his lungs filling, then dropping.
“Shit shit shit shit shit!” Tony snarled, fists pounding the bed on either side of Bruce. Sounds came flooding back, and he could hear Pepper screaming to know what happened, the ever-calm Jarvis informing her that an ambulance was on its way.
And then, though nothing changed, Tony felt it. That shift in the air, and his hair on end.
The machine next to the bed blipped, once, and Tony knew what was coming before Bruce’s eyes even opened, before the heartbeat sprang to life again.
“NO MORE!” its voice howled from Bruce’s chest, and the Hulk broke loose.
Wherever he’d come to, it was dark, and safe, and quiet. Like a mausoleum, he thought, or a closed museum. Idly, he wondered if someone had managed to kill him. Idly, he wondered if he cared.
He had no desire to explore this new place. The other places had been full of horror, and he wanted nothing more than a respite, a safe haven, away from all that shame and pain and the people who created it. From everything that kept those feelings alive - failures in the laboratory, embarrassing social gaffes, fumbling attempts at intimacy, friendly or otherwise, and so much more. He didn’t want to go back to it, was happy to let it go, to be done, to let someone else handle the fight for a while.
Besides - wherever he was, it was comforting, and warm: a mother’s lap, a heated blanket on a cold night. A cup of cocoa with little marshmallows.
If he’d had a mouth, or lungs, he might have chuckled to think that he could remember such things. But as he was busy not-being, that didn’t happen. Would never happen.
He was sure an eternity passed. He wanted another.
Strange thoughts floated by, fleeting: Betty will worry, first. But, never mind; Betty was long gone, unavailable, forever. Then: they might need me. He started to try to know who “they” were, but that brought him dangerously close to being, so he stopped, and let the thoughts flutter on: I can’t give up; we learned so much; they’ll be so disappointed.
Tony will be upset.
That last thought was a spike into him, something solid and forming. He saw Tony, above him, screaming something. The darkness began to recede.
No - he needed this. Wanted it. Outside the darkness was pain, and he couldn’t take it.
But the Other Guy could. And did, all the time.
Let him have it, he thought, the world. I am done. I am gone.
The sheer force of the transformation, so sudden, was enough to knock Tony back - but not far enough. An instant later, two massive green hands clamped around him, pulling him toward that face, shaking with fury.
“Bruce, you - “
Before he could complete the sentence, Tony was hurtling through the air, smashing through the door, a wall, a glass display, and finally the great plate glass windows of the loft. The force of the throw was so great that he was nearly half a mile up before the thrusters could even engage to start slowing him down. And it hurt - oh, god, did it hurt, even inside protective armor, a reminder that Tony hadn’t completely recovered from those terrible injuries.
The roar that followed was audible even from this distance. That combined with his aching body made Tony desperately wish he could stay far, far away.
He couldn’t, though. Pepper was in there, and so was Bruce, somewhere. And no one else stood in the way of the raging beast but himself.
Maybe it wasn’t too late. Maybe he could get through.
“Everything to thrusters, Jarvis. Get me back in as fast as I went out.”
“Right away, sir,” Jarvis responded, calm as ever, as Tony sped back down. “Anyone you would like me to call to assist in this intervention?”
Tony considered just a moment, flying back through the hole he’d just made. “Well, if you can find a way to ring Thor, that might - oof!” He took the full force of a granite tabletop swung in his face, knocking him to the floor. Displays shuddered, settled, as Tony’s ears rang. He rolled onto his back and got his hands up just in time, the repulsors catching a giant fist just before it fell. The arm attached jerked backward, and the body followed a few stumbling steps.
Hulk howled his frustration, bringing fists down again and again with an earth-shattering crunch.
Tony got as far out of the creature’s range as the room allowed. “Bruce, you have to calm down and listen! I think I know what’s - “
“NO!” Hulk roared. Fingers curled around a broken piece of marble floor, picked it up, and hurled it at Tony’s head. “STUPID MAN! MADE THIS HAPPEN!” Other pieces followed in quick succession, Tony barely dodging them, one edge catching him hard enough to make him spin.
“I didn’t mean to!” Tony righted himself from the spin only to find the Hulk airborne, two huge fists pointed straight at his face. He flew straight up, curling his legs at the last moment as the creature whirled in mid-air and tried to catch him. Instead, the Hulk plowed into the bar and through it, dragging himself to a stop with hands and feet that dug six-inch valleys in the marble.
If the Hulk doesn’t kill me, Tony thought, looking at the damage, Pepper will. Then those great green eyes locked on him, and Tony readied himself for an assault.
A second passed, then another, and another. The Hulk’s chest heaved, seething eyes fixed on Tony. But though his hatred was almost palpable, the creature didn’t attack. He stayed where he was, hands planted in the holes they’d absently made when they landed, fingers working in and out of fists.
Tony waited ten long, tense seconds. Nothing changed. Another ten passed as he lowered himself slowly, carefully, to the floor, eyes never leaving where his friend, his adversary, crouched. In the quiet, damage settled audibly.
Tony worked up the courage. “Bruce - “
The roar was immediate, the Hulk pulling himself to his full height, a hand pounding his chest, once. Tony took involuntary steps back as the sound filled the room. When those eyes turned back to him, Tony froze in place.
“NO!” the Hulk responded, his voice rattling the windows, threatening to shatter them. The hand that had pounded his chest snatched for the nearest object, picked up one of the many work desks set around the penthouse as if it were a paperweight. He brandished it in Tony’s direction. “NOT BANNER!”
“Right - not Banner,” Tony responded quickly, nearly stumbling over the words as he put his hands up and out. “Sorry, not Banner.”
The Hulk’s jaw worked, and he seemed to consider the statement, hand crushing the desk almost absently, dropping the mangled mass to the side. At last, he nodded once, looking...satisfied. Eyes turned back to Tony, focusing, now more irritated than furious.
Tony took advantage of the moment, thinking fast. “So, uh, Hulk. Can I call you Hulk?”
A grunt, and a settling into a more slouched position, suggested assent, and Tony took a moment to marvel. He was actually having a conversation - with the fucking Hulk.
Better keep it going - better than him tearing the room down again. “Good. So, uh - Hulk,” he started, watching as the creature idly brushed the rubble around his feet, trying to think of something to say quickly. “I can’t help but notice that you’re not attacking me, and not exactly, well - smashing everything.”
The Hulk shook his head, eyes looking elsewhere now.
Tony took a deep breath, and braved a step closer, stopping when the eyes whirled back to him. Again, he put hands up in surrender. “Care to tell me why?”
The Hulk pondered that question, looking fully around the room before answering, brow furrowed. “NOTHING TO SMASH.” He sat down heavily, making the entire room shudder.
Tony hated himself before even saying it, but he had to. “Not even...me?”
The Hulk’s eyes scanned Tony, obviously considering the possibility, and with no small amount of potential pleasure glittering there. Finally, though, he shook that great head. “NO. NOT TONY. THOUGHT TONY, BUT NOT.” His voice dropped quieter, muttering: “STUPID TONY.”
Even then, biting comebacks leapt to Tony’s mind, and nearly to life. He pressed his lips together to keep them from erupting forth, settling instead with clearing his throat and straightening his spine. It didn’t help that he could tell the monster knew what was going on, could see from the small curl at the edges of those lips that he took pleasure in it.
When Tony was sure he wasn’t about to make the biggest mistake of his life, he responded. “I knew it. So in the lab, before, you threw me out of the way, didn’t you? So you wouldn’t hurt me?”
The Hulk just stared back.
Tony nodded, as much to himself as anyone else. “I thought so. You weren’t after me. So, what were you after?”
The green brow furrowed, and those giant fingers actually tapped the floor idly. Insane. Tony was reminded, once more, that inside this shell was a man, a real man, with (he suspected) human thoughts and emotions. And drivers - both good ones and bad. He waited, letting the Hulk consider.
At last, the answer came, deliberate. “NOT YOU.”
Tony sighed heavily, catching himself when he heard the beginnings of a growl. If Bruce could just hear him, this would be so much easier...
“Okay, okay,” Tony answered, starting to pace as he considered how to break through. His mind raced, tracing the past months, searching for a path to understanding. Bruce’s dreams, the voice that wasn’t his, the strength and anger that had bled through. The breakout fury, and before that, the situation that left Tony in a cast, very nearly broken beyond repair. The mutation, nonexistent then overwhelming, transforming. There was a pattern, and he could see the edges of it...but only the edges. He needed Bruce’s help to flesh out the rest, to...
“Find the trigger,” Tony muttered out loud, and stopped. That was it.
Tony turned back toward the Hulk, whose eyes had been following him the entire time. “Bru-“ The snarl that rose to the creature’s lips immediately stopped him. “Sorry. Hulk. Can you maybe...let me talk to Bruce?” Giant green eyes narrowed, and Tony hurried to explain. “Nothing personal, just - I’ve been working with him, trying to help him with something, and I think - “
A giant hand shot out, snatching Tony up before he could finish, startling him into silence. It squeezed just hard enough that the metal suit groaned under the pressure. The Hulk’s voice was careful, measured. “STOP HELPING. HELP HURTS.”
The creature let go, and Tony immediately jumped back out of reach, reeling from both the Hulk’s speed and his words. “Help hurts?”
The Hulk nodded. “HURTS BANNER.” The creature balled a hand into a first, raising it threateningly.
Tony put his arms up once more in surrender. “Hey, now, no need to get smashy. I didn’t mean to hurt Banner, and don’t want to now.”
Hulk snorted. “DID SO. TONY MEANT TO HURT. HULK REMEMBERS.”
Tony blinked, suddenly understanding. “Are you talking about what happened back in the kinetic barrier a few months back?”
The Hulk looked confused, so Tony clarified. “In that...heavy place, that got heavier?”
Hulk’s eyes met Tony’s, and something in that gaze hardened. Both green hands closed into fists, and teeth ground together.
Yup, the Hulk remembered all right.
“Look, I only hurt Bruce to get us out of there, Hulk. We were being crushed to death - or, at least, I was. We were out of time and low on ideas. I had to.”
“YOU LIKED.” The words were an accusation.
Tony furrowed his brow, putting a hand to his face plate. “It wasn’t like that - “ he started, coming to a halt as the Hulk lifted himself once more to his full height, a feral growl emanating from that huge chest. Tony didn’t wait this time; he thrust away from the floor, up and back.
The Hulk didn’t pursue, though eyes stayed locked on Tony. Instead, he lifted one hand to point a finger at Tony’s chest. “YOU LIKED!” he roared, eyes bleeding back to anger.
“Okay, so maybe I did!” Tony shot back, lifting his hands to point repulsors in the Hulk’s direction. Now that he’d started, he couldn’t shut up. “I was suffocating to death, and I saved us anyway! You should be thanking me!”
The Hulk seethed, chest heaving. “STUPID TONY! THINK THIS GOOD WORK? SAVED? HOW THIS GOOD?” He pounded his chest with one open hand. “HOW THIS GOOD?!?”
“I’m fucking alive, that’s how!” Tony yelled back, wanting desperately for the Hulk to make a move. At that moment, he wanted nothing more than to have an excuse to blast that sorry green ass through the wall behind him and into the night skies.
The Hulk howled frustration, swinging one great fist into the nearest wall, leaving a foot-deep indentation. The other fist planted firmly into the floor, wreaking more havoc there. His body shook with fury, but somehow, he didn’t unleash it.
The Hulk fought back the rage, and Tony watched, stunned out of his own anger by the sight.
At last, the Hulk slumped, sitting down heavily enough to knock books and glasses off shelves across the room. “NOT YOU,” the creature managed, but his voice was somehow different. Subdued - for a Hulk.
“Right,” Tony responded, still wary. “Not me.”
The Hulk just nodded, lifting eyes that looked weary now. “CAN’T TALK TO BANNER.”
Again, Tony was caught off guard. “What?”
Tony dropped to the floor with a clank as the creature turned his gaze away. “Hulk, I have to, or he may not be around much longer. Something’s happening to him, I think, that’s altering how...well, you....manifest, and I’m afraid it will tear him apart. So, please -”
For a third time, the Hulk said, “CAN’T.” But this time, his face twisted, and Tony thought, crazily enough, that the creature looked like he was going to cry. “BANNER GONE. WON’T COME OUT. WON’T WAKE. WON’T ANSWER.”
Tony swallowed hard. “Hulk - are you telling me Bruce is gone? For good?” He dreaded the answer.
The Hulk looked back, his expression mirroring Tony’s - fear, despair. “CAN’T TELL. JUST....” he said, voice trailing off, shoulders slumping.
Tony couldn’t help it. He crossed the distance between the two of them and set a hand on the Hulk’s arm. The Big Guy looked up, expression a mix of confusion and appreciation.
“Me, too, Big Guy,” Tony responded, patting, allowing the Hulk’s hand to cover his own. “But I’m not about to give up on Bruce now. You going to help me?”
A grunt, a nod. The Hulk pulled his shoulders back, lifting his head.
Tony smiled. “Good.”
Riding the freight elevator with the Hulk was a...unique experience.
Tony knew before he and Bruce started their work together that it was highly likely an incident might occur, so he’d had a second lab built deep in the earth, underneath his old work lab. For a brief time, he’d considered making it the main workspace for he and Bruce, but then he’d imagined the damage the Hulk could do to the foundation of Stark Tower and had demurred.
Now, though, he had no choice. The basement lab held the only equipment left, and he was going to need it if he had any chance of reaching Bruce.
The Hulk marveled at the elevator, pawing the steel walls gently, fingers brushing the controls, escape hatch, doors. He actually grinned at Tony when the elevator stopped and the doors opened - a grin that Tony couldn’t help but return, even if it was unseen behind the face mask. It was like watching a child learn something new, and enjoy the lesson.
As uncomfortable a thought as that was, it was still an apt description, Tony thought. The Hulk was childlike - all emotion and action, very little thinking. The creature was about experiencing, doing - something, Tony considered with no small amount of surprise, that they shared in common.
“First elevator ride, I’m taking it?”
“FIRST FOR HULK.” He stepped out of the elevator sideways, ducking carefully. Though he didn’t mean to, his feet left indentations in the floor, making Tony wince.
“Try...not to move around too much, Big Guy,” Tony asked. Hulk froze, looking over his shoulder at Tony, then down to the floor, perhaps a bit sheepishly.
Sheepish. Ha. That was never an expression Tony thought the Big Guy’s face could make. But there it was - impossible, huge, right there in front of him.
Right, enough marveling, Tony thought. Work to do. He asked Jarvis to transfer all the old lab data down to the new location, and started pacing as displays came to life, lost in his own thoughts.
First, he knew that Bruce couldn’t - or wouldn’t - respond. He’d seen that first hand when Bruce was lying in that hospital bed, and the Hulk had confirmed it just a few minutes ago. Tony had to assume that, somehow, the internal Bruce was just as non-responsive as the external one had been for the past day or so - and realized as well that this meant the Hulk was also aware of interacting with Bruce as a kind of separate entity. Scary thought.
Second, Tony knew that the Hulk didn’t want to hurt him, and had even actively fought not to hurt him at least twice. What the Hulk did want to smash, though, remained a mystery, as was the origin of the overwhelming anger Bruce/Hulk had felt toward Tony these past months. Bruce theorized that it began when they were trapped and Tony had taunted the monster out, which seemed sound, and Tony thought that the mutation was very likely related - that something had triggered it. And since the developments in these past two interactions with the Hulk suggested that the he understood that the anger was misplaced and could actively work to keep it in check, maybe he could help Tony find a way through, back to Bruce, even if he was still angry.
Tony paused, turned to find the Hulk still standing in the footmarks he’d made in the concrete. “Question, Big Guy: are you still mad at me?”
The Hulk let out a heaving breath, another. He grunted assent, nodding once.
“Can you tell me why?”
The Hulk actually rolled his eyes. “TOLD YOU WHY. STUPID MAN, MADE THIS HAPPEN.” He pounded a fist into his hand with each of the last three words, leaving Tony a little uneasy.
“Right, I made this happen,” he responded, breezing over the fact that “this” wasn’t exactly well-defined. “But how? Help me understand, Hulk - how did I make this happen?”
The Hulk lifted one great hand to scratch his head, and Tony saw Bruce’s thoughtful look settle on the monstrous face. Several seconds passed. Tony forced himself to remain silent.
At last, the hand fell back to the Hulk’s side with a loud slap. Obviously struggling with words, The Hulk answered “WITH...ALL THAT....HURT.”
“Ohh-kay,” Tony started, but stopped himself when the Hulk started to growl. He resumed pacing and thinking.
Stick to the facts, then:
One: Bruce couldn’t, or wouldn’t, wake up.
Two: The Hulk was mad at him for making something happen, but understood enough not to want to hurt him, and had enough control to help.
Three: The mutation they’d observed in Bruce was, likely, not an accident. Tony’s working theory placed it as a response to the extreme situation inside the kinetic barrier - triggered by trauma, perhaps, or by the Hulk straining to come up with a way to help Tony. One way or the other, the Hulk obviously laid the blame for it on Tony’s shoulders. Maybe rightly so.
Four: Bruce had been hearing the Hulk for a few weeks now, a new development. Wait, add to that - he’d be conversing with the Hulk.
In his dreams. Oh, excellent. There might be a clue there.
“Oh, Jarvis, please tell me Bruce kept his dream journals stored in -”
“I’m accessing them now, sir.”
Tony clapped his hands and smiled wide. “Put them on center screen.” He considered a moment. “And, uh - use the big type?” He glanced back at the creature still standing in his own footsteps, wondering if the green guy could read.
“Dr. Banner kept video journals, sir - recordings of his dream cycle when they were available, and replays of what he remembered when they were not.”
Tony smiled wider. “Even better.”
With a far more confident stride than he’d managed in months, Tony made his way into the center of the room. “Hey, Big Guy - you remember this?” He clicked play on the display directly in front of him, and Bruce’s face appeared, larger than life, in between him and Hulk.
“Third night in a row I’ve heard him - the Other Guy,” Bruce said on screen, running fingers through his dishevelled hair. “Considering that, I thought it might be important to start capturing what I remember of the discussions, and recording myself when I sleep.”
Bruce paused, letting out a deep breath. “OK, so. Last night. The Other Guy called my name, and told me to get out of the way. That he was coming. And I tried to tell him it was a bad idea, that he’d hurt someone he didn’t want to hurt, but he just laughed at me, said I didn’t know what he knew.
“It was a...short conversation. But it felt as clear and as real as any discussion I’ve ever had while awake.”
Tony stopped the playback. The Hulk’s expression was part surprise, part confusion. Finally, he strode forward, poking a finger through the display, making Bruce’s image shiver.
The creature actually took a startled step backward, then whirled, eyes suddenly full of anger, in Tony’s direction. “WHAT TONY DO TO BANNER?”
Tony’s eyes went wide as he suddenly realized how this must look to the Hulk - who, he guessed, had never actually seen a computer screen activated before. “Shit - I’m sorry, I should have warned you. Let me explain - “
But the Hulk’s anger continued to rise, enough so that Tony started feeling that almost palpable primal desire again - run, hide, get away. “GIVE BANNER BACK!” the creature roared, shoving aside the nearest object with enough force to send the machine crashing into the far wall.
“I’m trying, I’m trying!” Tony shouted in return, backing away. “This isn’t the real Bruce, Hulk - it’s a recording - an image he created! You know, like a memory, but that you can see?” He readied repulsors just in case, and prayed that they wouldn’t end up tearing apart yet another room.
The Hulk stopped, shaking fists held to his sides. He panted, grunting with each exhalation, and spoke through clenched teeth. “MEMORY.”
“Yes, memory - just, captured, so others can see it too. You understand?”
The huge fists unclenched slowly as the Hulk closed his eyes, taking a deliberate, deep breath. The sense of doom that had pervaded the room started to dissipate.
“UNDERSTAND,” the Hulk answered, and turned away from Tony to look back at the screen. “MEMORY, HULK HAS.”
Tony breathed a sigh of relief, letting his hands fall to his sides as well. Then the words the Hulk had uttered settled in. “So, you remember this conversation?”
“YES. TALKED TO BANNER. STUPID BANNER. WON’T HEAR.”
That got Tony’s full attention. “Hulk - were you trying to tell Bruce something that he wasn’t willing to hear?” He moved closer to the screen, careful still to give the creature a wide berth.
The Hulk nodded. “ALWAYS. BANNER NEVER HEARS.”
Tony stopped, several feet in front of the Hulk, but still facing him. He lifted his face plate to meet the Hulk’s eyes. “Well, if you’re willing to share that important message with me, I’ll sure as hell listen. Because I suspect that whatever you have to tell Bruce may very well help us both get him back.”
The Hulk snorted, smiled. And told him.
It took a little time for Tony to understand, and a few pieces of equipment paid the ultimate price as the Hulk’s frustration waxed and waned, but at last Tony found a decently solid means of communicating and got the Big Guy’s message. The Hulk’s language was exceptionally basic, but his thoughts were anything but. Once again, Tony marveled.
They were sitting across from each other now on the floor, the Hulk looking bored, Tony still fascinated.
“And you’re telling me Bruce never knew you were there?”
A heavy hand hit the floor, and the Hulk sighed. “BANNER KNEW. DIDN’T REMEMBER HE KNEW. HULK REMEMBER INSTEAD.”
Tony shook his head in disbelief. “That’s just...crazy.”
The Hulk shot him a look. “Bad choice of words,” Tony hurriedly explained. “I mean, it’s hard for me to get my head around.”
The Hulk tilted his head one way, then another, examining Tony’s head, eyes expressing his confusion.
“It. Is. Hard. To. Believe,” Tony enunciated carefully, and waited until the Hulk nodded before continuing. “I mean, we knew you were Bruce’s alter ego, so to speak, but he and I both assumed that you were a byproduct of the accident, not - well, someone who was with him before.”
The Hulk puffed out his chest. “HULK SAVE BANNER.”
Tony nodded, looking at the green guy with more appreciation than even before - and he’d really liked him before. “You most certainly did, Big Guy,” Tony murmured, getting to his feet and clapping his hands together.
“So - ready to do it again?”
The Hulk mirrored Tony’s movement, standing and clapping his hands together. The move created a wave of air that rippled across the room, knocking over microscopes and other equipment, sending papers fluttering in all directions, and even throwing Tony off-balance, despite the suit. They both froze for a moment, Tony’s eyes wide in surprise, the Hulk’s in delight.
Then, they both laughed together, the sound loud enough to rattle the walls.
Tony recognized his friend’s laugh lines in the Hulk’s face, and his heart twinged. “Come on, Big Guy. Let’s go get Bruce back.”
In the nothingness, memories flashed and passed. Betty’s hair, soft, still a little wet from the shower, lying across his chest. Tony laughing, punching him lightly on the shoulder - praise for a particularly good dig. The lab, pristine and shining, full of potential, ready for discovery. The accident, and that terrible power that pressed into, then through him.
He experienced them all from a distance, feeling nothing, letting them pass. He knew he was supposed to feel something...but he didn’t want to.
More flashes in the void: his mother’s quiet, sad eyes. His aunt, chastising him for breaking - something or other. He broke a lot of things there. Day one as a college freshman, full of wonder and anxiety His father...
The world shuddered, threatened to form. Dad.
“Stay here, stay here, stay here,” Bruce chanted to himself, pushing back at the memory threatening to form, break through. He thought instead of the tree, his tree, the one he’d saved from death. Separate, with the same roots. It was the only way the tree could survive; Bruce had known that instinctively, and hadn’t ever tried to pull the split pieces back into a single whole. And it had lived. They had thrived.
Bruce knew something now with that same certainty. He knew he wasn’t ready for this, that the memory he’d fled had to be avoided, or he’d -
This was too much thinking. Thinking led to feeling, and feeling to becoming. And if he became again, the memory would come, and the delicate balance he’d held for so long - for a lifetime - would crumble. So he fought the demon existence, willing himself back into blankness with a singularity of purpose.
He’d practiced this, in the years after the accident, this willful passivity. He’d practiced it because the only tactic he’d understood to hold back the rage was to suppress all feeling equally. He knew the nothing space well, knew how to get to it, how to stay in it, how to live there without living. And he resolved to stay as long as it took for the memory to disappear again, even if that was forever.
Bruce blipped to life again on the screen in the center of the room, repeating what both Tony and the Hulk had heard earlier. “The Other Guy called my name, and told me to get out of the way. That he was coming. And I tried to tell him it was a bad idea, that he’d hurt someone he didn’t want to hurt, but he just laughed at me, said I didn’t know what he knew.”
Tony paused playback and turned to the Hulk. “Okay, let’s try again. Do you remember this conversation?”
Hulk pondered, staring at Bruce’s paused image, unable to keep from pawing at it, creating ripples. He grunted assent, adding, “THINK SO.”
Tony signed a little relief. They’d been at this for hours - him playing back dream conversations Bruce had captured or video logs of what Bruce remembered, then painstakingly picking through each to question the Hulk about what he could recall. Somewhere, Tony had hoped, there would be a clue that pointed to what went wrong inside the barrier, what had triggered Bruce’s mutation springing back to life and changing the game on them all.
If he could grasp that, Tony surmised, he could figure out a way to get through to Bruce, wake him up again.
So far, there’d been nothing. Oh, Hulk remembered it all just fine, but every single dream conversation thus far had been little more than a back-and-forth, with Hulk insisting he was going to get out and Bruce demanding that he stay in and stay away. For a neurosis, it was frighteningly dull, and Tony had discovered a newfound respect for the depths of his friend’s sheer stubbornness.
Now, they were back to the first recording, and the Hulk’s hesitancy alone was an indicator something was different. “You think so?” Tony asked, hopeful.
Hulk considered, eyes distracted. “REMEMBER - HERE.” Hulk put a hand to his chest. “NOT - HERE.” The hand went to his head.
The edges of a smile played on Tony’s lips. “Good.” He allowed himself to hope that this would bring some different understanding. “So, can you recall what was behind what Bruce said you told him? What you knew that he didn’t know?”
Immediately, the Hulk nodded, and Tony’s heart leapt. “What was it? What did you know?”
The Hulk, catching Tony’s enthusiasm, pulled himself tall and declared his understanding loud enough for the whole block to hear, had they not been underground. “KNEW WASN’T TONY!” He punctuated every word with a fist on the nearest counter that buckled under the blows, and smiled, wide and scary. “KNEW IT!” He roared in pleasure. “SAW WHO!”
“Great!” Tony exclaimed. “So, who was it, then, if it wasn’t me?”
With that, the Hulk’s face twisted, curled. Confidence left his stance, and he stared through space, trying to see. Tony gave it a few seconds, then slouched.
Damnit. So close.
Tony wasn’t willing to give up, though. In that statement, at least, there was a kernel of understanding. If he could just discover who the not-himself was that haunted Bruce, he had a chance.
“Jarvis, do a scan of all the databases you can access to correlate Bruce Banner, or the Hulk, with any other proper name. I want pictures. Load results on screen as you receive them.” Tony knew that Jarvis didn’t have access to every database on the planet - but he could access plenty. If someone in Bruce’s past was haunting him enough to cause this kind of emotional trauma, Tony was sure he could unearth him or her.
Screens exploded to life all around him, filling with articles, stories, information. Tony groaned. It was going to be a long night.
Incredibly, the Hulk was patient.
Once Tony had taught him how to scan through images, the green guy had settled in front of the center screen, swiping pictures away once he’d studied them. Some elicited responses - he was none too fond of ex-General Ross, for example, and a picture of Betty caused him to pause for a solid three minutes - but most didn’t even register as he flipped through them, unaware.
Until that moment, Tony hadn’t realized how pervasive the Hulk’s presence had been in the last years, how much he’d become a subject of story, myth, supposition. And he understood why; despite the fact that he’d had hours to grow accustomed to the Hulk’s presence, he most decidedly hadn’t. Every time he looked, he marveled at this great green being before him, awed by the fact of its existence, by the mystery that surrounded how he was even possible. The Hulk was an effin’ miracle - a terrifying one, but no less of one for it.
Tony watched quietly as the Hulk considered face after face on the great screen before him, obviously recognizing only a few, and moved on quickly to the other anonymous faces that followed. Every now and then, Tony pulled up the story associated with one of the pictures the Hulk discarded. Most were minimal - a passerby, seeing a ruckus, stops long enough to see a great green-skinned man, far larger than humanly possible, do the kind of damage only a wrecking ball should manage. But a few - a few stood out.
Those, Tony considered.
In one: a blind student recalled how her apartment complex caught on fire when she was studying abroad in Arizona. “I was fighting for air, and then suddenly - wasn’t,” she stated. “And there was someone, huge, holding me. He set me down, right where they found me.”
In another, a janitor explained, “I was pinned. The furnace had blown. I couldn’t even see what was on top of me, but I was sure that was it. And then this guy, huge! Shows up, and pushes it all off me. I didn’t wait. I ran.”
A dozen stories along these lines appeared from media archives, then a dozen more. Many were from the kind of rags that reported alien abductions and LiLo love affairs. A lot were ridiculous, obviously made up: The Hulk stole my wife! The Hulk robs Fort Knox!
But there were enough...enough for Tony to suspect that Bruce had stuck around for a while in the states, trying to deal with his problem, failing each time. And helping out as much as smashing things up. Well, almost as much.
Tony pulled all the articles together, looked at the time stamps. Seven months, it seemed, that Bruce had wandered the states, leaving a trail of stories in his wake. And then, the stories just petered off, a little before the end of the year.
Something must have changed to make him leave. He’d been a fugitive for a long time, but his departure from his home country felt awfully sudden. Forced.
Tony considered that idea carefully. “Jarvis, focus results on my screen to between October last year and...well, let’s start with August.”
“Sending results now.”
The Hulk looked up as Tony had Jarvis shut off the data flow to the main screen. Huge green eyes immediately sought Tony out, caught him in mid-calibration.
“C’mere, Big Guy,” Tony called, not looking away from the machine where he tapped and clicked away. “I have an idea.”
As the Hulk stood and lumbered over, Tony finished setting up the photo feed. “Some event precipitated Bruce’s departure from - ” he started explaining. Hulk’s eyes narrowed in confusion.
Tony rubbed his face. Right. Not Banner.
“I think,” Tony started over, “that Banner ran away from home - for a reason. And that whatever it was, it happened sometime in this three-month window, give or take. If it was traumatic, it could be our trigger. So I’ve narrowed down the set of pictures I want you to review. OK?”
Hulk nodded, and Tony pressed a button to bring the images back to life.
Several of the first few elicited responses; the Hulk seemed to remember these interactions more clearly. One he even named - “SALLY...” Sally Atchison, a woman who, according to the story associated with her image, had been rescued from a burning cabin by the Big Guy, said the cabin collapsed on top of them, and he’d shielded her with his body. The Hulk smiled just a bit at that picture, and took his time to move to the next.
Could that be it? The pain of the kinetic barrier exploding, mirroring the pain of a burning building collapsing? The Hulk having to protect someone in both cases? It was worth a shot. Tony asked Jarvis to pull up all the information on the Sally incident - there was more than he expected - and settled in to look it over.
No surprise then that he was caught off guard when, only a moment later, the Hulk leapt to his feet and roared in fury. Instinctively, Tony thrust away immediately, heart pounding in fear, and looked for the source.
The Hulk roared again, great fists pounding the ground in front of him hard enough to shake the room. His eyes were fixed on the picture hovering before him, rippling as the floor underneath it caved.
“Turn it off, Jarvis, now!” Tony cried, and the image blinked out of existence. Hulk ripped a piece of concrete out of the floor and threw it at the projector anyway. It exploded into bits.
The Hulk’s chest heaved, and he curled fingers into the floor, obviously fighting not to destroy more. Tony waited - near the ceiling, in the opposite corner of the room, just in case - and asked Jarvis to get him information on whoever the hell that was.
Internal displays lit up, and Tony gasped in surprise at the name that appeared. Brian Banner. Bruce’s father.
The piece attached wasn’t a story; it was an obituary. Brian Banner, age 64, passed away suddenly on September 27. He is survived by a son, Bruce Banner, whereabouts currently unknown. There was a brief bit about his work at Los Alamos, but no mention of a memorial service or burial location, or how the man died.
The Hulk’s voice was quiet (for him), and absolutely seething with hatred. “NOT TONY.” He lifted one hand from the wreckage in front of him and pointed at where the image had appeared. Dusted concrete fell from his fingers as he repeated, “THAT. NOT TONY.”
Tony’s eyes went wide. “That’s the guy you wanted to hurt?”
“WANT!” Hulk howled, his rage nearly palpable. “BREAK HIM! SMASH HIM! HURT BANNER! MADE HULK HURT TONY!” Giant fists raised in the air, readying to crash down and destroy. Beneath them, the lab’s main interfaces and controls.
“NO!” Tony screamed, flying over instantly, despite his better judgment. He placed himself between those fists and the floor, fighting every impulse in his brain, steeling himself for an onslaught. “Hulk, please, stop! This is the only lab left!”
The Big Guy shook with rage, eyes full of malice. Great hands clenched and unclenched above Tony. “TONY SHOULD MOVE,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Tony won’t, Big Guy,” he answered. “If you’re going to destroy my last chance at helping Bruce, you’ll have to smash your way through me first.” He readied repulsors, standing his ground.
The Hulk threw back his head and roared, every muscle in his body tensing, popping. Glass shattered in a dozen places. And then he was in the air, fists pointed directly at the ceiling.
A shattering crack, and a hole the size of a semi truck opened. The Hulk was loose in the tower.
Tony dodged debris as he got Pepper on the phone. “Hon, get to the panic room, now,” he said, trying to sound calm, following the Hulk’s trail of destruction, trying to catch up.
“Exactly where do you think I’ve been for the last eighteen hours?!?” she responded tersely. “Tony, this is insane, and so dangerous. Can we please just...just...” She trailed off.
Tony’s repulsors caught a boulder-sized piece of debris as it fell, shoving it away before it could land on his head. “Just what, Pepper? If you’ve got alternatives, please, give them to me.”
“Okay, okay, let me think,” she came back. He could hear her pacing, heard a screen come to life where she was. She asked Jarvis to pull up the research he’d been doing just as Tony turned a corner and nearly got crushed under a wall still collapsing. The Hulk was close.
Tony paused to take stock of where he was. Two floors down from the lobby, and the trail led upwards. Oh, shit.
“Jarvis!” Tony yelled. “Have you got any footage of Bruce’s dad? Audio, video, anything?”
“Checking, sir,” came the calm reply. Tony waited, listening to the Hulk pound away above. “Ah, yes. There is one - “
“Project it in the room The Hulk’s in, right now. Full blast.”
From above him, a voice suddenly boomed to life. “ - in this facility. Why, I’d say this is one of the safest places to raise a family that -”
The voice was drowned out by a sudden howl, so full of fury that Tony, still at least two floors down, still cringed away. The sounds of destruction doubled.
“Sir, the Hulk is decimating the projector.”
“Keep it going, Jarvis! Jump that video to any projector near the Hulk, and let him smash away. Keep him in as confined a space as you can, and as far away from the outside walls as possible. I’ll get the tranq bullets.” He turned and hurried back to the lab.
“Oh, Tony - ” Pepper’s voice. “This is awful.”
“I know, and I’m sorry, Pep. But we’ll fix it, I promise.”
“No, no - not the tower, Tony. Not even the Hulk. This.”
A display opened just as Tony landed in the lab and tried to remember which cabinet held the tranquilizer bullets. He glanced at it, wanted to ignore it, but the headline caught his eye. A page one story from New Mexico, 1978:
LOCAL SCIENTIST ARRESTED IN MURDER INVESTIGATION
Dr. Brian Banner, a research scientist at the Los Alamos Institute for Nuclear Studies, was arrested yesterday as the investigation into his wife’s untimely death continues.
Rebecca Banner was discovered in the garage of her home on Sequoia Avenue on Tuesday morning after her son Bruce, age 8, flagged down a neighbor on the way to work and told him there had been an accident. When police arrived, Dr. Banner was discovered asleep in an upstairs room...
Tony stopped reading as Pepper continued. “Do you think he did it?”
The Hulk’s roar rattled the foundations of the tower. Tony snapped back into action. “Considering how the Big Guy’s responding...I think Bruce has got a really good reason to be mad at his father.” He snatched open cabinet after cabinet, hurrying, wondering how in the hell he’d gotten mixed up with that man in Bruce’s mind.
Pepper kept reading. “He was acquitted. Bruce told the police that he saw the accident, that his mother had been trying to run away from them both and tripped over the doorjamb.”
“Little boys lie for their fathers all the time,” Tony responded, swallowing hard. Now was not the time to get caught up in his own daddy issues, not when Bruce’s were threatening to tear his building apart. Again.
There. The bullets. Tony snatched them up, headed to the platform he’d had installed on all his working floors. “Get me loaded fast, Jarvis, before the green guy pounds his way into your primary core.”
“Moving swiftly, sir,” the AI responded, a little concern in its voice, and the platform sprang to life.
More and more, the memories came, and in quicker succession. They pressed toward him, the waters of a rising tide, lapping against his consciousness. He let them, knowing from experience that to fight them was to give them power, a place to perch and sing their songs that would bring him out of this place.
Sounds penetrated at times, momentary, fleeting. He thought he heard Tony once, saying something about pictures. There was music. His mother’s voice, soft and low, whispering about how everything was going to be all right. That one, briefly, he longed for.
It was enough to pierce through for a moment, and Bruce watched the world shudder and attempt to form around him.
Now the memories were clearer, sharper, piercing his carefully-sculpted refuge, creating tears that he couldn’t sew up fast enough. He glimpsed Eddie Boritski through one of them - the biggest six-year-old in class, who always seemed to take his greatest pleasure from dumping dirt on Bruce’s head in every way imaginable. Through another, his first biology professor, dressing him down in front of the entire class for succeeding, but not excelling. A third tear spilled out words in various voices, only some of which he remembered, all about how he wasn’t good enough, smart enough, big enough, careful enough. His cheeks burned with shame.
No. Fight it off, Bruce. You have to.
But fighting wasn’t working anymore - his refuge was being torn apart, and memories were flooding in, good and bad. He felt them tugging at him, begging him to look at his first girlfriend, his high school math teacher, the lady on the bus who’d given up her seat when he’d had a hurt knee. To hear the lullaby, the NPR show he liked best, the joke, the biting criticism. They were all around, molding him back into being, forging him into a whole. Bruce begged himself to let go, to stop them, but he couldn’t. He’d learned that lesson already, many times, in many hard ways - that once the peace has passed, there is nothing to do but face the storm that follows.
NO HELP, BANNER. HULK GET OUT. HULK COMING.
Inside, deeper inside than he’d ever been, Bruce woke to himself, and faced the storm.
The Hulk was using a marble pillar to smash the living hell out of a bank of computers when Tony arrived. Immediately, he brought every weapon with tranquilizer bullets online, pointing them at the Hulk’s back. Apparently, the Big Guy heard it, because he dropped the makeshift bat and whirled to face Tony.
“Fun times over, green guy. Reign it in. We’ve got work to do.”
Tony had never seen the Hulk this angry, and that was saying a lot. The creature was shaking with fury, every rapid pant coming out of that giant heaving chest ending in a growl, eyes rolling in his head as a massive battle seemed to wage inside them. He grabbed his head, balling hands into his hair, and roared his outrage in Tony’s direction.
“NO! STOP HELPING! HELP HURTS!!”
Tony fired several rounds, but the sheer mass of air behind those words had been strong enough to knock him backwards and off-center, and they missed their mark. Tony cursed, righting himself just in time to look right into the Hulk’s face as the monster charged, slamming a massive shoulder into Tony’s gut. Pain erupted, and Tony screamed as he flew backward, slamming through two solid concrete walls before a third one stopped him cold.
Oh, god, that hurt. Tony saw black sparkles at the edges of his vision and fought to remain conscious. He shook his head and tried to stand, but his legs refused to oblige. There were words he could use to get himself up and moving, he was sure of it, but his mind just wouldn’t surface them - too many nerves screamed for attention, and every one of them wanted to be heard first. The world spun around him, closing in, the sounds of mayhem growing faint.
Something made him jump - something in his left palm, and then in his right. He startled back to clarity, hands instinctively jerking away from the pain.
“Ow ow ow!”
“Apologies, sir.” The electrical shock to his palms shut off as Tony shook his hands, struggled to his feet. “But Pepper insisted I get you on your feet as quickly as possible. You see, the Hulk has left the building.”
Tony’s stomach fell.
“He jumped away,” Pepper’s voice interjected, “right after he hit you. God, are you okay? Your heart rate is - “
“I’m on my feet, Pepper. I’ll be fine.” He endured her worried and exasperated sigh, didn’t even try to pretend any further. “Just - tell me which way he went.”
“I can do better than that,” Pepper replied, her face appearing on the top left display. “I think I can tell you where he’s going.”
Two minutes later, Tony was racing through the dawning sky toward the coordinates Jarvis had provided, marvelling at how fast the Hulk could move when he wanted. Thrusters at max, he hoped beyond hope that the Big Guy had managed to focus his fury on the target Pepper suspected. Craters left on the landscape from time to time suggested they might be on the right track, that he could still find the Hulk in time.
The clock was ticking. Bruce had little time left. If Tony couldn’t get him back to the lab, then the mutation might well take over, and Bruce might never come back. He had yet another new thought on how to heal this growing split between Hulk and Bruce, but he couldn’t try it out without equipment, and he needed them back, of course, to even give it a shot.
Hurry, Tony. Hurry.
“We’ve got the jet ready and packed. We take off for Los Alamos in just a few minutes.” Pepper - beautiful, smart, smashingly brilliant Pepper - had remembered one dinner conversation when, in a rare sharing moment, Bruce had told them that his father wanted to retire in the same house in which Bruce had grown up. And she had surmised - correctly, Tony thought - that if Bruce had extreme daddy issues, the Hulk might well be headed there to try and fix them in his signature style. Jarvis located the address easily.
That man is lucky to be dead already, Tony thought. Brian Banner must’ve done something terrible to Bruce to cause all this trauma - maybe a lot of somethings. He gritted his teeth, fighting his own useless anger. Stay focused.
“Perfect, Pepper. Stay in touch; I’ll let you know if you need to reroute.”
“We will.” A bleep in the background caused Pepper to curse. “Perfect. Watch out, Tony: we just intercepted transmissions from Ross’s frequency - he’s on the Hulk’s trail.”
Shit - an altercation with Ross’ rogue Hulk capture squad was the last thing they needed.
Tony pushed the thrusters a little harder. He had his coordinates, and the Hulk was coming into view in the distance. There was nothing more Tony could do but fly, straight and true, until he caught up. He hurt, so much that he wanted to scream and tear at his own skin to rip away the nerves that wouldn’t shut up, and he was exhausted beyond thinking. Still, he flew; he couldn’t stop.
In the past five months, Tony had seen his world nearly collapse under an alien force. He’d faced a god, and threatened him. He’d lost a colleague - one who acted foolishly, like they all did at times, and paid the final price for it. He’d worked with humans and more-than-humans to forge an alliance that would damn well protect this Earth from anything that threatened it - be it alien scourge or human ignorance.
He’d nearly died, and the Hulk had saved him. Bruce had saved him, by facing the great green beast within and taming it - just enough so it could see Tony’s predicament and respond.
That fall had hurt Bruce, Tony remembered. The Hulk had already taken a great deal of damage, and he’d cushioned Tony’s metal-clad body to his own detriment. Oh, he’d tried to hide it, but the bruises had already bloomed by the time Bruce had emerged - deep, nearly black. Even with Bruce’s metabolism, they’d taken a couple of days to fade, about the same amount of time it took for Tony - awed as much by Bruce’s intellect as his condition - to convince Bruce to stick around for a bit, give them a shot at working on the Hulk together.
In the first few weeks, they’d tried to stick to that plan, but there were always just so many fascinating thing to discuss that they’d end up on one wildly important tangent or another. Together, they’d increased the efficiency of the arc reactor by 17%, put together a few new ideas for the suit (the cloaking ability was his favorite little stroke of genius), and sent Stark R&D off in a completely new direction that was more than a little responsible for the therapy braces for which he’d been the test subject. It had been fun, really fun, so the two just kept on spending more and more time together, until even pulling themselves away for sleep had been an effort.
The world surrounding Tony Stark offered plenty of adoration, love, attention...stuff. Only rarely, though, did it offer a chance at real friendship. Tony had Rhodey, Pepper...and now, Bruce. And there would be icicles in hell before Tony let anything happen to the people he cared about.
Fuck it - the people he loved.
A loud whistling snapped him out of his reverie. Tony slowed, scanning immediately for the source, and found a massive slab of concrete hurtling right at his head. Immediately, unthinkingly, he hit it with both repulsors, shoving it back the way it had come, and watched as a great green fist impacted with it, shattering it to dust.
The Hulk wanted his attention.
Tony stopped, hovering, letting him know he had it. He heard a helicopter in the distance, maybe two, and could just barely make out armored vehicles coming up over a hill. The terrain was familiar, triggering a memory that came in a bone-chilling rush - a huge flash where Bruce had stood, chaos, destruction...and a horrible heaviness that nearly crushed him, nearly crushed them both.
Thoughts cascaded suddenly, falling into place. The Hulk’s sudden departure when Tony refused to let him destroy the last lab. His thirty-minute rampage that left the first lab in ruins. The mutation, appearing and disappearing, cascading down Bruce’s DNA like it was trying to break free. Hulk’s continued insistence that Tony stop helping, that help was hurting Banner.
The last thing Hulk had said in Bruce’s sleep, before all hell broke loose: NO HELP, BANNER. HULK GET OUT. HULK COMING.
Finally, finally, Tony got it. He nodded, looking down at that impossible creature, heart swelling with appreciation.
I’ll buy you time, Big Guy, he thought. Do good work.
The Hulk gave him a single nod, and leapt away. Tony didn’t need to follow; he knew his destination now, and knew exactly what the Big Guy had in mind.
“Pepper, still on the ground?”
“We’re just taxiing -”
“Stop. Turn around. We were wrong, all of us - wonderfully, gloriously wrong.” Tony’s throat tightened, and for a moment he couldn’t speak as he took off, following the craters the Big Guy left in his wake, keeping the squad in sight. He cleared his throat, biting back tears.
“Jarvis, I’m sending you new coordinates - when you get them, send someone in the chopper, and make sure it’s got medical equipment and a whole lot of ammo. Pepper - go back to the tower and call Fury, tell him that this time, the Avengers need him. Fill him in on the basics, and have him send some firepower my way. I’m hoping threats will be enough, but better safe than sorry.”
“And you’ll not be needing the jet, sir?”
“Not yet. We’ll save it for our victory celebration when Bruce comes back to us all safe and sound here in just a few.” Pepper squealed and clapped in joy, and Tony loved her even more for not asking how. Enjoy the moment, babe.
Tony tore through the sky, ready to take down General Ross and a whole fucking invading army of mercenaries if that’s what it took to get Bruce back.
“Oh, and Jarvis - there’s one more thing I need you to send.”
Hulk knew. Hulk remembered. The big place, where everything heavy. Broken now. OK to smash. Hulk knew it best to smash there - safe, strong. No puny people.
Banner, inside. Screamed. Hurt. Hurt!
The Hulk stopped, pounding the earth, howling his pain into the sky.
“STUPID BANNER! LET HULK COME!”
He heard the helicopters, saw the puny metal machines coming his way. Knew he would need help.
Hulk looked up, found the little suit in the sky, tore off a piece of road and aimed it straight at the metal man’s head. When metal man pushed it back, Hulk smiled, reared back, and SMASHED it out of the sky.
Hulk waited, watched, until Tony got it.
Good Tony. Smart.
Hulk leapt, hard. Time to save Banner.
“Tony, heads up!”
The warehouse Tony and Bruce had been renovating for Bruce’s research still lay in ruins after the anonymous attack and the subsequent kinetic barrier explosion. The outer structure was intact on three sides, though, and only a yawning hole in the fourth wall provided a way into the building. Tony stood directly in front of it, Clint above him on the wall. Natasha had disappeared into one of the tanks, and it was her voice on a loudspeaker that cried the warning.
Tony looked up. A missile from the helicopter Clint was taking down had fired directly toward the roof, heading for the Hulk inside. A repulsor blast sent it veering off wildly, exploding mid-air.
“Close one, thanks! How did you see - ” Tony trailed off, not bothering to finish, as he could hear she was busy. Her microphone was picking up a lot of grunts, oofs, and moans of pain.
The second helicopter tilted in the air and came down on top of the fallen first. People came piling out; Clint took down each one with arrows that exploded into wide electric nets, pinning them to the ground.
“This is Ross’s best?!” Clint whirled, another arrow at the ready, seeking out a weak spot on the nearest tank. He let the arrow fly, and it slid neatly into the drive sprocket. Something clanged, and the tank seized, smoked, stopped moving. A taser arrow knocked the tank pilot out as he emerged. “I’m not impressed.”
“Me either,” Natasha said, emerging from the remaining tank, which had also stopped moving. She dusted her hands off on her sleeves. “That’s the last of them.”
Nearly two dozen men and women, all unconscious or otherwise taken out of commission, littered the broken ground. Three tanks sat idle, and a fourth lay in several pieces. Two helicopters lay together in a crumpled heap.
It hadn’t been much of a fight, Tony had to admit. He’d really expected more out of the man who’d made it his life’s mission to take down the Hulk. But then, maybe walking out on the army and having to build his own squad hadn’t paid off as well as Ross had hoped. It’s not easy to find people willing to face down the Hulk for nothing more than a paycheck.
Clint hopped down from his vantage point and walked Tony’s direction. “Thought you said this guy was tough. Fury sure thought he would be.”
Tony shrugged. “Maybe there’s more bluster there than we realized.”
“Or maybe we haven’t seen all his moves yet.” That from Natasha as she joined them. “Don’t assume this is over.”
From the shadows behind Tony came a raging howl of fury, and the earth shook and bounced as gigantic fists pounded down. Both Clint and Natasha took a couple of steps back, turning questioning eyes toward Tony.
Clint spoke first. “So, going to fill us in?”
“It’s personal,” Tony replied flatly. “Don’t ask.”
Another roar, and this time the wall to Tony’s left shuddered and buckled, but held. Natasha visibly flinched. “How can you be so sure he’s going to stay in there?” she asked, eyes darting between the buckling wall and the hole right next to it.
Tony listened to the Hulk’s panting for a few seconds before responding. “Because he knows he has to, or we’re all royally screwed.”
“He knows? Tony, don’t you think it would be safer if we just -”
“I can’t, Clint. Don’t you think I would have knocked him out already if I could?”
Natasha looked confused. “But Fury gave you the formula for the tranqing agent. I was there.”
“Not that kind of can’t, Natasha.” Tony’s voice held an unpleasant edge, and both agents narrowed their eyes in response.
Tony let out a deep, audible sigh. “Look, guys, I appreciate your help here, and I’m sorry I’m being dodgy about all this. But this is something that the Hulk has to do himself, and -“
Inside the building, something exploded, and even Tony flinched and backed away. “What the hell? There shouldn’t be anything left in there that....oh, shit.”
Both S.H.I.E.L.D agents were already through the hole by the time Tony finished his thought, readying themselves for Ross’s next move.
Inside, deeper inside than he’d ever been, Bruce woke to himself - small, afraid, pinned to the kitchen floor. The sky outside the window had turned an ugly green, as if the world was sick, and Bruce was afraid he would be, too. He couldn’t breathe, and his head hurt like it was going to explode.
Dad was hovering over him, shouting something in his face, but he couldn’t make out the words. His ears were screaming all on their own. Bruce prayed - prayed hard that Mom would come, or someone on the street like Mr. Stef -
Dad slapped him, and Bruce’s little heart fluttered in terror, bringing the world back to a terrible clarity.
“Lessons one and two done. One more left, Brucie.” Dad’s smile was too broad, too eager. It scared Bruce even more.
Two giant hands planted themselves on Bruce’s chest, and fingers curled into his flesh. Bruce clamped his eyes shut and pressed his lips tight tight tight, knowing that crying out would only make it worse. He felt his skin tearing, and suddenly pictured his father’s fingers digging in until they were buried in his chest, wriggling their way to squeeze his heart shut. He wanted to scream, but there was no air to do it.
“Why don’t you fight back, boy?” Dad growled. He squeezed, and Bruce let out a wail without meaning to. “It hurt, don’t it?”
Bruce kept his eyes shut, not wanting to see how much Daddy liked this. He remembered standing just a week ago in the lab, cameras rolling, as his father explained what life was like at Los Alamos. “In fact, my family comes to visit me often, right here in this facility. Why, I’d say this is one of the safest places to raise a family that exists in the United States, and they love it. Don’t ya, pal?” Bruce had only nodded, afraid that Daddy might break his little hand if he disagreed. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Dad laughed, bringing Bruce back to the moment. “Ha! Now you’re getting it, Brucie! If you’re full-on face-to-face with a real bully, you gotta deal with him, however you can. In your case, apparently, it’s by taking it.”
Suddenly, he could breathe again. Bruce gasped for air, eyes flying open, looking everywhere for an escape route. His arms were pinned by the tattered remains of his suit jacket that Dad had knelt upon, and the man was sitting on his hips and legs. Some feeble wiggling on his part only made Dad press down harder.
Dad’s words rang in his ears, and he burned with shame.
He didn’t want to be the boy who just took it, who told the people at school that everything was okay and who told Mommy it didn’t hurt all that bad. He didn’t want to be small, and stupid, and puny, with not a lick of fight in him. He didn’t want to let the bullies dump dirt on his head and kick him down and ruin his special suit! If he could make the world the way he wanted it, make himself the way he wanted to be, he’d be bigger than Dad and stronger than all the bullies at school put together, and he’d beat all their faces in for even thinking about hurting Bruce again!
A feeling welled up inside Bruce’s chest, coalescing all that pain and shame and fear and want together. They fed each other, growing, building a pressure like nothing the boy had ever felt before - hot and red, like blood, but so big his little chest couldn’t hold it. It was coming out, whether he liked it or not.
He put one word to it. Hate. And out it spilled.
“NO MORE!” He screamed, as loud as his lungs could make it. Bruce looked his father full in the face. “BULLY! I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU!! LEAVE ME ALONE!!!” He started flailing wildly, desperate to get away, more desperate still to get just one chance to unleash that hatred on something, anything.
Massive hands slammed down on his chest, trying to hold Bruce still. He looked up in his father’s eyes, watched the man froth at the mouth with his fury. “Hate me? Hate me?” He smiled his terrible wide smile. “Then you’re really going to hate this.”
Fists slammed into Bruce’s chest. Every cell in his body erupted in pain, and he’d never hated anyone or anything so much in his life. He could feel his chest collapsing, saw his blood on Dad’s hands, and knew with absolute certainly he was going to die.
Behind him, in him - suddenly - the storm came. Lightning struck, the rain poured, and something in Bruce splintered away, screaming with rage as it threw itself into the fight.
It lifted hands that it imagined were bigger than the man’s head, pouring its fury into them. They balled into fists, pulled back, and landed, each one, squarely in its attacker’s eyes. The man howled and fell back, and it knew enough to get its legs free, make its body get up on its feet. It imagined itself bigger than the room, with feet wide enough to crush that stupid puny man who had hurt him. HURT HIM!
Again, fists rose and fell on the man’s puny face, and blood spurted from his nose. The new creature howled in pleasure, pulled back to do it again. But this time, something hurt in its chest, really hurt, and it somehow knew something was very wrong. So it ran, into the night, into the storm, as fast as its legs would go. It imagined leaving great big craters in its wake, making the whole world shake with fear. It ran until something hurt so much that knees buckled and it fell, collapsed, coughing red spray into the air.
In the distance, he heard the beast howling a name:
NO, he thought. NOT BANNER. SAVED BANNER.
The world went greenish gray everywhere, fading into rubble and dust and a big metal red and gold suit hovering somewhere in the distance. “SAVED BANNER...” he managed, then the world went dark.
Tony was flying through the air before he could register he’d been hit. There were mechanical sounds all around - hydraulics, engines - and he caught a glimpse of a huge camouflaged robotic hand, balled into a fist, coming right for his face. He hit the back wall, hard, and turned off all thrusters, letting gravity pull him down.
The fist, at least as big as Tony himself, struck not two inches above him, raining down rubble on him as he fell.
Natasha was yelling something he couldn’t make out, didn’t have time. The fist was on its way down.
Tony threw everything into thrusters. scraping across the floor, eyes on that massive hand and the rather sizeable robot attached to it.
Robots? Who the fuck gave someone like Thunderbolt Ross combat robots?
Something exploded on his left, sending him careening and bouncing off the floor, and Natasha was yelling something at him again. He struggled to get arms and legs underneath him, steady himself.
Natasha voice broke through, already in the middle of something: “ - crushed! Tony, over there, now!”
The careening stopped with Tony on hands and knees. He looked for Natasha, found her gesturing wildly behind him, saw Clint in a dead sprint that direction, arrows flying. He whirled.
On the floor, fifty feet away according to his displays, lay Bruce, curled, naked, shivering. His skin was pockmarked with tranquilizer rounds, and his eyelids fluttered, trying desperately to open. He lay in the shadow of a huge robot that was still pulling itself through a massive hole in the floor. It had paused, lifting one huge fist to hover over Bruce’s body.
The fist came crashing down.
“No!” Tony shouted, aiming everything he had at the robot, powering the unibeam as fast as he could, knowing it wouldn’t be fast enough. Arrows caught, locked, exploded, but they couldn’t do enough damage, and the hand just kept descending.
The hand slammed down with a terrible smash, rattling the walls with its force. Then the world inside the warehouse went white and everything in the beam’s path exploded, melted, and was destroyed.
Too late. He’d been too late.
Still blinded by the white-hot light, Tony ran in the direction of the destruction, determined not to give another robot - or anything else that might be coming - a chance. He heard the fighting behind him and knew the others were in danger, but that didn’t matter - they could take care of themselves. Bruce, though, had looked so shaken...
The fist was still embedded easily two feet deep in the concrete floor, but the rest of the robot was nothing but melted slag. Tony skidded to a halt, heart lurching as he fought back thoughts of what might be underneath.
No way, Tony - not now. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to look away from the fist and around, seeking the weak spots. There - the massive hole in the floor, only partially sealed with robot remains. Close it.
He grabbed that fist, that fucking monster of a fist, and wrenched it out of the ground, shoving it deep into the hole from which it came, lodging it there, then blasting it again and again until it melted and fused with the rest of the remains on the floor all around.
It wasn’t over.
He whirled toward the sounds of battle and started firing away, on the edge of fury. Part of him just didn’t care who or what he hit; he wanted the damage, the destruction, the fucking devastation. He blasted away, hoping to fucking God that these assholes could feel it, that somewhere under the robot bodies were some puny little human ones that were being crushed and mangled and torn to ribbons. He fired and fired, losing track of how many he fought, how many fell, until Natasha was at his side telling him to stop, that it was over, that nothing was left.
Nothing was left.
Tony stopped, finding himself on his knees beside the crater the fist had left, Natasha on one side of him, Clint on the other. He didn’t know when the suit helmet had come off, or when he’d taken a blow that had nearly crushed in the unibeam, had shattered the protective glass. He just knew, suddenly, that the battle was over, and that nothing - nothing after that first great fist - had gotten through.
He pulled himself to his feet quickly, shoving away from the others harder than he’d intended, and turned toward that crater. He saw nothing but rubble and dust - no body, no blood.
Without thinking, Tony scrambled down into the hole and started digging, frantically shoving aside concrete, dust, metal, everything. He had to be there, had to. If things had gone wrong, god, Tony so didn’t want to see, and his part of his mind was yelling at him to stop, but his arms kept digging anyway until they hit something solid, unyielding, and grabbed on.
It twitched. Tony’s heart exploded.
“Guys, GUYS!” he yelled, scrambling back out of the crater as what had seemed to be the floor started trembling and softening. They all watched in wonder as a Hulk-sized hole was created, rubble settling slowly, and Bruce’s trembling body appeared within it. His eyes were open, greenish-white, unfocused.
Tony leapt down and knelt next to Bruce, unable to speak or touch or think or do anything else but just stare into those eyes, those beautiful scary wonderful ohmygodhowdoyouexist Hulk eyes, with all the gratitude and joy that he could muster welling up and out.
The Hulk’s voice emanated, once again, from that small chest. “SAVED BANNER...” it managed, and was gone.
A week passed before Bruce was fully coherent. His body had suffered terribly, despite (or perhaps before) the Hulk’s intervention, so Tony and Pepper kept him on the good painkillers until that impressive metabolism could do enough mending to stave off the worst. He did heal incredibly fast - what took Tony’s body two months to accomplish in the broken bone department, Bruce’s body surpassed in six days.
His mind, though, wasn’t bouncing back as quickly. Tony knew it, felt it as Bruce dodged all discussion. Stark did his best not to press, though he desperately wanted to know.
Once Bruce was awake and able to move about without too much trouble, he and Tony locked themselves in the last remaining lab and re-ran every test they’d ever done on Bruce. Early on, it became obvious that the mutation had settled, once more, into a kind of dormant state, similar (but not the same) as the states they’d found in the earliest viable samples Bruce had kept. The dream conversations, too, were gone, Bruce informed him, as was the overwhelming anger Bruce had felt in the past months. It was almost like none of it had ever happened - except, of course, the damage remained.
As Bruce healed, he withdrew, spending most days nearly silent, not working in the lab so much as...wandering it, lost in his own thoughts. He quietly subjected himself to examinations in the name of science, but wasn’t really involved. He spent a lot of time with an open moleskin and a pen, writing nothing. He slept, a lot, and ate very little.
Nine days after the incident, Natasha and Clint came by for a visit. Bruce smiled wanly, accepted Clint’s handshake, Natasha’s hug. Tony watched with sad eyes as Bruce meandered away as soon as he could dodge conversation.
At three a.m. that night, still wide awake, Tony decided he’d had enough. Hadn’t he helped save Bruce’s life? Didn’t he deserve more than this? And damnit, what had finally happened? He got out of bed, threw on a set of pajama pants, and stormed down to Bruce’s room, a bottle of whiskey and two glasses in tow, determined to get some answers one way or another.
Tony lifted his hand to bang on the door, fulling intending to have Jarvis open it if Bruce wouldn’t; readying himself, in fact, for just such a confrontation. Just before his hand landed, though, he heard it - that voice, Hulk’s voice, loud and clear and strong.
“BETTER, BANNER...” it said with a snort.
Tony backed away, quickly, remembering how long it had taken Bruce to open up to him about the problems the first time. Had Bruce retreated that far? Was he being less than truthful now? Or maybe...maybe...he wasn’t aware?
“Jarvis,” Tony whispered, a few feet from the door now. “What’s going on? Is Bruce dream-chatting with the Hulk again?”
“No, sir,” Jarvis whispered back. “Dr. Banner is very much awake, and coming to the door now.”
Tony blinked. The door opened, and he jerked back from it, putting the arm holding the bottle up in a protective stance. Bruce stood just inside and studied Tony’s pose, head tilted just an inch. “Hi, Tony.” He smirked ever-so-slightly, bemused.
Tony dropped the arm to his side, trying to shrug off the reaction. Act casual. He flashed his signature smile. “Hey there, Bruce,” he said, with a little more enthusiasm than he’d been trying for. “I was just getting a nightcap for me and, uh, Clint...” he trailed off, gesturing upstairs. “You...want to...?”
Bruce crossed his arms over his chest and dropped his chin, raising an eyebrow a smidge. Tony, caught, dropped both hands to his sides and sighed. “Fine. You got me.”
Bruce’s expression softened just a bit, and he moved out of the doorway. “Come on in, Tony."
Tony hesitated. “Is it...safe?”
Bruce’s brow pursed a bit at that, but he nodded, once, and headed back inside. After a moment, Tony followed.
“Yes, please,” Bruce said, motioning to the bottle in Tony’s hand. “I’ll get ice.” He padded over to the room’s little fridge as Tony, confused and (if he was being honest with himself) a little irritated by Bruce’s behavior, settled onto the ottoman at the end of the bed. He pulled the cork, poured; Bruce brought over a single ice cube for each glass and dropped them in. He accepted the one Tony offered him, settling on the edge of the bed to stare into it a moment, rolling the glass between both hands.
As Tony was trying to figure out a way to start the conversation - so sue him, he was caught off guard - Bruce lifted the whiskey to his lips and downed the liquid in one gulp. Winced. He held out the glass for more without looking in Tony’s direction.
That did it. Angry now, Tony lifted the the bottle and started to pour hastily, ready to demand answers. “Now look, Bruce, I’ve - “
The bottle’s neck hit the edge of the glass with a clank, and Tony’s hand, rattled by the unexpected impact, lost control of it. The bottle fell from his hands to land between them, spilling whiskey all over them both. Hands, pajamas, bed - all soaked, in seconds.
“Oh, god, shit, Bruce, all over your - god, I’m sorry - “ Tony’s cheeks actually burned as he snatched up the half-empty bottle and started looking for a towel. But a muffled sound brought Tony’s eyes back to Bruce, who’d lifted one fist to press against his smiling mouth, trying to hold it back.
Bruce was laughing. For the first time in months, Bruce was laughing.
“I’m sorry,” Bruce managed, lifting his hand from his mouth just long enough to let the words out. He looked right at Tony, eyes happy and apologetic and contrite all at once.
Screw it. Cleanup could wait.
Tony laughed, too, setting the bottle aside to clap his arms around Bruce, slapping his back a few times before just holding him there. Bruce oofed, and laughed, and hugged him just as tightly back.
They stayed there, holding each other tight and laughing, until both had to reach up and wipe their eyes, clear their throats, take a moment to get some air. They refilled their glasses, settling side by side on the ottoman as they raised them in an unspoken toast. After taking hearty swigs each, they finally began to talk.
Early morning passed as they shared experiences, the tale of those terrible hours when Bruce was gone. Bruce remembered Tony slapping him, and the rage, and that sensation that something was tearing its way out, but then nothing more until he woke back at the tower, a somewhat battered Tony snoring on a sofa near his bedside. So Tony filled in the blanks, and Bruce listened, working up the courage to do the same when it was his turn.
Tony was finishing both his story and the bottle, shaking his head. “The Big Guy kept kept telling me, too - leave Hulk alone, help hurts - hell, even smashing the lab to absolute bits. He was trying to communicate the whole time, Bruce, and I was just so fixated on helping you myself that I didn’t see it.” He took a sip, snorting in the middle of it, catching himself. “Heh - well, until he threw a huge honking rock at my head. Oh, the metaphor.”
Bruce was swirling his drink with a finger, listening, pondering, working on getting to that just tipsy enough stage to do what he’d promised himself he’d do next. “Well,” he posited quietly, “none of us have exactly thought of the Other Guy as much of a helper before.”
“Not true,” Tony said, words slurring just the tiniest amount. He pointed a finger Bruce’s direction. “Not true. I told you before I thought the Hulk saved your life.”
Bruce nodded, smile faint, eyes distant. “You did.”
Tony waited, expectantly, but the silence dragged on. When Bruce lifted his glass to sip instead of speak, Tony groaned, “Oh, come on! He did, Bruce! I was fucking witness to it! And when he was out, he told me - it wasn’t the first time. It wasn’t, was it?”
Bruce met Tony’s eyes and took another long, burning gulp. What he saw there - Tony’s earnestness, his hunger, his powerful will to know - god, Bruce loved that, and he hated it. It bled into every part of Tony’s life, that hunger. He ate, drank, studied, learned, lived with such fierce abandon that Bruce, like everyone else on the planet, was always halfway in awe of it. Part of Bruce desperately wanted to be like that.
Part of him was.
Bruce’s hand shook as he set aside his glass, swallowing hard. Oh, god, he didn’t want to do this, but he needed to, he had to. This was going to have to be tipsy enough.
“The Other Guy wants you to know his...um...origins, Tony,” he started, and couldn’t help but turn away from the question in Tony’s eyes. He took a deep breath, reminding himself that this was Tony Stark he was talking to - who’d believed in Bruce from the beginning, who’d shown him he didn’t have to be afraid, who saved his life, and his mind, and...and and and. He was stalling.
Already, Bruce’s hands were shaking. He twined fingers together, pressed his thumbs deep into his palms to try and will them to stop, wanted to ball them into fists and beat the fear away. But he couldn’t, and he knew it; this was his storm, and he was the one that had to face it.
Tony’s hand appeared, hovering a few inches from Bruce’s own, lingering there, tentative. Bruce stared at it a moment, then glanced up at Tony, met eyes that held both worry and resolve.
Bruce nodded once, then looked away. Tony settled his hand on Bruce’s, squeezing. Bruce accepted that for a moment, then opened his own hands to wrap around Tony’ as he found the courage to continue.
Bruce cleared his throat, holding Tony’s hand tight in his own. “And though I admit to being fucking terrified of sharing something this big with....with anyone...I think that I,” Bruce paused, swallowed, dared a glance up. “I need you to know, too.”
The story poured out, memories following one another like a flood. Bruce shook as it did, hating reliving it, loving being rid of it. He felt purged, emptied, as it came to a close: a broken rib, a pierced lung, a mother who’d called it a terrible accident. He’d died, for a little while. He’d come back.
Bruce remembered nothing. Hulk - Hulk remembered. And in the barrier, breaking free, Tony’s final words and actions were an echo of that memory: incomplete, incoherent, and intensely threatening. No wonder Bruce ran.
No wonder Hulk came.
Tony shook as well, so full of emotion that he felt it leaking out his pores, spilling over his skin in a fever that swept away all thought. Good, because all thinking hurt after that. His part...god, bringing that back...
The hands - Bruce’s hands - were trembling and cold. Tony remembered his friend’s words on the helicarrier: I’m exposed, like a nerve. It’s a nightmare.
Instinctively, Tony put out his free arm to cover Bruce, unable to leave him that exposed a moment longer. Bruce resisted for a moment, but only that, then let himself be pulled in, curling his hands tight into his own belly. And when the sobs came, great hitching things as much screams as cries, Tony pressed Bruce’s face tight against his chest, daring anyone or anything to threaten that moment, that release.
Inside, deeper inside than he’d ever been, the Hulk - all memory, fury, pride - allowed himself, for the first time, to rest.