The one thing Tony never tells Bruce is how completely, exhilaratingly shit-scared he is of the Hulk.
It’s never a problem when Bruce is just Bruce. Bruce’s head is stuffed with bullshit theories about his alter ego--protection of a damaged child, a perverse kind of self-glorification, monsters from the id. When Bruce lets them drop in that offhand, disinterested way he has with anything that concerns his own suffering, Tony listens and nods and feels his opinion of psychology as a “science” drop another 10 points.
Bruce is the most genuinely kind person he’s ever met. Tony’s never regarded that as a strength, but he understands now how wrong he was. Among the other, more profound things, it’s magnetically appealing in a way that makes Tony a little jealous. But the rumpled chivalry, the shy hopefulness--any look that depends on selflessness and modesty is a look he’ll never be able to pull off.
But the Hulk, on the other hand, reminds Tony of the first time he saw a missile test. It was a birthday present from his dad, the chance to go out to Nevada and watch an H-bomb bloom in the desert. He’d been so excited, not able to conceive of anything beyond the world’s biggest boom, looking forward to that pure violent rush that’s fuel to little boys. And then he saw it, silent at first, ugly beyond belief, a ball of pure, white horror swelling to consume the world. He’d clutched at his father’s wool trouser leg, and his father had gripped his shoulder and whispered, “Isn’t it beautiful?”
The Hulk fills him with that same vibrating awe, an elemental horror that is, at its core, a desire to possess. Tony fights that impulse, because the Hulk isn’t a weapon, he’s a being--of what kind, Tony doesn’t know. Bruce treats the Other Guy as a balloon of unreasoning rage, but then among Bruce’s ridiculous theories is the idea that he’s some monster of anger himself. Tony knows that any random person he grabs off the streets of New York could be angrier than Bruce--at the person who elbowed her on the subway, the cabbie who wouldn’t take him to LaGuardia. For a guy who’s spent so much time studying himself and being studied, Bruce is pretty much an idiot when it comes to self knowledge. So why should Tony trust him when it comes to his other half?
Still, Tony stays away from the Hulk in the midst of battle, leaves the wrangling of the rage monster to gods and soldiers. It’s Bruce he looks after, when the green balloon pops and it’s just his friend, naked and sheepish inside a crater or on top of a pile of rubble. Tony’s pretty sure he’d be jumping up and down on that pile of rubble if it were him, yelling Look at me, look what I did. The naked part would be the icing. But there’s no destructive little boy inside of Bruce. He’s the one who should have the glowing heart, not Tony. And Tony could be a hell of a monster, he’s sure of it.
Bruce is wearing a cable-knit sweater, which is appropriate for the weather but ridiculous for a member of a superhero team. Tony offered, once, to have something made for him--easy when you know the world’s top industrial designers and supermodels. But Bruce had shrugged and smiled and said, “I like not having to watch what I eat,” and then, “besides, I have a great costume, and I never have to send it out to the cleaners.”
“Romanoff and Barton will lead the way; Stark, Rogers and Thor will stay close behind in case they encounter resistance while they’re disarming the security perimeter.” Nick Fury is in his stand-and-deliver stance, hands clasped behind his back, eye focusing on each of them in turn as if their attention could somehow wander in the close confines of a submarine. “Banner, you’ll be on standby. In case of the unexpected.”
“Sure,” Bruce says. “I fully expect it.”
Tony doesn’t understand why Fury is repeating all this, since they were all involved in the planning and have the attack sequence planned down to the microsecond. Maybe it’s plausible deniability, so that when things go inevitably and excitingly wrong, he can remind the generals that they were all fully briefed. He’s surprised that Fury doesn’t make them all sign a waiver.
What Tony does understand is that it’s fucking cold a thousand meters deep in the Amundsen Sea. He prefers the kind of supervillains who hole up in Vegas or L.A. The North Pole, even--it was good enough for bad guys in his father’s day. But no, this supervillain (who at least isn’t calling himself the Penguin, gracias a Dios) has set himself up in the Transantarctic mountains, forcing Tony to add an enhanced climate control system to the suit, along with hot chocolate pods for the espresso maker.
They pile into the Triops sub-launched helicopter (courtesy of Stark Industries, another lucrative government contract, and another robust quarter of double-digit growth). Bruce helps them load equipment like the good team player that he is, even though he’s likely to be stuck carrying the Gatorade this time around. They’ve got a map of the lair that’s detailed to the level of the villain’s hair follicles, thanks to a friend of Fury’s with X-ray vision. In and out, that’s the way Tony likes it, and says so often enough to make Steve blush and Thor puzzled.
“It’s lucky we don’t need you this time around,” Natasha says, giving a sideways glance at Bruce, who’s in his socks, for God’s sake. “This isn’t exactly shorts weather.”
Then the sub breaches and there’s a lot of noise and cold that goes right to Tony’s teeth before he can pull his visor down. That last thing he sees as the chopper ascends is Bruce giving him a little ta-ta for now wave, the way his mom used to when he went riding. He’d always felt a bit guilty, knowing what he was about to get up to. He feels the same way now.
It turns out that Fury’s X-ray friend can only see living beings as blobs, which is a reasonable explanation for why the “guard dogs” on the map turn out to be mutant albino superwolves. One of them manages to take a bite out of Clint before Tony and Thor start blasting and clobbering, respectively, but there are a lot of them, snarly and horrifying but also kind of fun to fire at, like a video game. That may be why Tony doesn’t notice the other thing, the thing that casts a shadow like the Matterhorn and moves with the slow, deliberate pace of a forest on the march.
It’s barely humanoid, identifiable only by the vaguest of outlines, a body and limbs and a head like a snow shelf ready to be let loose in an avalanche. Instead of eyes it has a single, probing searchlight, and where the searchlight sweeps an icy blast of destruction follows.
“Fall back to entry point, retreat Alpha six.” Natasha says inside his helmet. Tony’s still not completely down with the military code but it sounds cooler than “Run away.”
“Good idea,” he says, really, really looking forward to getting some speed and distance and altitude on this thing that’s barrelling behind them like a ski slope that wants to ski him. “While we’re at it, can we call Bruce and tell him to suit up?”
“Already on it,” she calls back. He likes that about Natasha; she doesn’t waste words. They’re all getting the fuck out of there by various means, Steve carrying Clint, Natasha running and dodging, Tony under his own power, and when they burst out of the tunnel, Tony’s never been so happy to see icy cold nothing, and--
A tower of green, barely visible in the twilight. A big, green, scary, crazy monster, but he’s their scary, crazy monster. And he’s an unstoppable force that Tony will put against any immovable object, although the mutant yeti seems to move pretty well.
“All yours, big guy,” Tony yells, and clears out of the way just in time not to get buried as the yeti crashes into the open air.
He coughs some snow out of his windpipe and is just settling in for the best monster battle ever when he notices a weird radiation reading coming off the yeti. It’s not all that strange that a mutant monster would come with bonus radioactivity. But it is strange that there would be that much, and concentrated in--
“It’s a bomb!” he yells to nobody and everybody. “There’s a bomb inside that creature! It’s--” The yeti is a boobytrapped teddy bear designed to take out the Big Guy, he’s sure of it. Just as sure as he is that the Big Guy is eating this up, blood running hot at the chance to take on something his own size.
Tony wonders, briefly, if Bruce got a chance to take off the sweater before he transformed. He kind of liked the sweater.
Natasha’s set a couple of Cryolight flares so that they can see the battlefield. The two creatures are circling each other, the Hulk clenching his fists and baring his teeth in that weirdly morphed version of Bruce’s lopsided smile. The second they make contact there’s going to be monster blood and fur everywhere, and nothing will be able to stop them.
Thor’s already in there, doing the special effects show, trying to distract the yeti. Steve’s gone, probably taking Clint back to the boat. If Thor can’t bring the creature down--and he can’t--then it’s only a matter of time before the Hulk gets impatient and takes matters into his own hands.
Tony decides to beat him to it. He slides his visor down and accelerates to the edge of the blazing white circle.
“Hey!” he yells, waving his arms, the way you do to make yourself look big in front of a bear. “Over here! Listen to me!”
Hulk is admittedly not too good with the multitasking. He looks away from the creature--currently semi-visible inside a pretty nifty tornado--and cocks his head, listening (or so Tony hopes).
“That’s right, that’s good, Big Guy. You’ve got to trust me on this--that yeti thing? I know it looks like chocolate ice cream to you--vanilla--whatever. There’s a bomb inside. You hear me? A bomb, as in, kaboom. So we’re going to have to walk away from this one. Got it?”
The answer seems to be no. He frowns at Tony, eyebrows like industrial-sized caterpillars, trying to understand. Somewhere inside this tank of green muscle is Bruce’s brain, but Tony’s never been sure where, or how much, and the speed of the neurons is bounded by the speed of light--or, put another way, the Hulk is unlikely to ever finish a New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle.
Just then, the yeti makes a lunge from under its personal weather system, its claws raking against the Hulk’s tough hide, not enough to pierce the skin, but apparently enough to hurt.
Pain is something the Big Guy understands very well. Betrayal is another. Like what he might feel in that highly reactive nervous system if he rubbed two thoughts together, and those thoughts were Puny man distract Hulk and Big Monster take tactical advantage of distraction. In other words, really pissed.
For once, Tony and the Hulk seem to be thinking in sync as easily as Tony and Bruce usually do. It takes the commands longer to reach the Big Guy’s limbs, but then, when he raises a giant hand to swat Tony back to the ground as he tries to fly away, it has the same effect as when a human swats a moth. Speed isn’t always an advantage. An advantage is an advantage, and by any measure of Hulk’s advantages, Tony is well and truly fucked.
The body slam into the ground isn’t really a problem, not with a billion little nanites doing their anti-grav thing. Tony plays dead in the snow, hoping the Big Guy will get back to monster business, but then he feels an iron hand close around both ankles, and he’s hoisted in the air, dangling head down like a very expensive Peking duck.
There are a few moves he could try--would try, if they were in the lab or training center--but he decides to stick with what’s worked in the past, which is to let the Hulk shake him around like a rag doll to see if he’ll do something interesting. He doesn’t take it personally; most of the team, at some point, have been swatted away like pesky insects or inspected as if they might be edible. Bruce usually compares the Hulk to a furious toddler, but Tony considers him more like a badly trained dog, grasping the broad outlines of right and wrong but not sure how to apply them.
That fine theory disappears in a rush of wind as the Hulk swings him around like a club and uses him to clobber the yeti. The first few whacks have no real effect other than to give Tony a few seconds to admire the Hulk’s commendable problem solving in combatting an annoyance and an enemy at the same time.
Then the retinal display decides to pass along some interesting information about the composition of the yeti’s “fur.” It’s actually long, thin tubes of lonsdaleite, one of the three known substances stronger than diamond. Tony didn’t know that it could be made so fine and flexible, or that it could shred the surface of the suit, though he probably could have guessed. The impact is throwing warnings up left, right, and center, quality programming work but otherwise useless.
Five, eight, ten good whacks upside the yeti and Tony is feeling like a coconut ready to crack. As the Hulk whips Tony over his shoulder, winding up, Tony sees the red of Thor’s cape streaming through the green and white, but it’s too late. With the next blow, the suit shivers and falls away, the nanites sifting away like coal dust.
Tony feels skin and bone destroyed at the same time, one from the impact of the blow and the other from the diamond-like needles of the yeti’s fur. They drag like a million tiny rakes across the skin of his back and shoulders, Tony having been quick enough (just) to cover his face. His scream blends with the creature’s; they’re both in terrible trouble, though the yeti is some robot-mutant and Tony is (at the last) a being of soft flesh and blood.
And the Hulk? Whatever else he may be, the Hulk is Bruce. Now, in the last moment of his life, Tony still remembers.
He opens his eyes a couple of times after that, not in the the good thank God that’s over way but in the bad something went seriously wrong in my life and still isn’t any better way.
The first time is the worst, because he’s being moved, and he wants to scream for fuck’s sake leave me alone to the people attached to the boots carrying him across the snowy waste. He is screaming, and with good reason, because it feels like he’s opened up from neck to waist, every nerve ending exposed to the air. The cold feels good for the first few seconds and then it’s like a second wave of violence, this one on a molecular level, determined not to stop until he’s been ground to dust like his suit. It not only doesn’t stop, it gets worse, because the secret of life is that it can always get worse, and if he could form a sentence it would be I know one of you assholes has a sidearm, please use it. But he can’t, and so it’s like the mind-crushing agony version of being seasick, no ambition save what his body wants: to be put out of its misery, by drug or death.
About a thousand years later, he gets the drug. It sweeps through his body like a warm wave, a sweet, rolling, Caribbean tide. The pain doesn’t just stop, it transmutes into something beautiful: a cloudless sunset, a bed with crisp white sheets, pale curtains swelling in the breeze. The air itself is like a pillow he can rest on, the way he’s never been happy just resting in his whole life--
There’s a pinch on his arm, easy to ignore. Then the dappled shade turns into bright, white light and noise, a hard chop chop chop and there’s a surge of energy going through his veins, the veins that apparently still exist along with the rest of his body, and on some level he knows the damage is still there but he feels amazing, blood like molten gold, brain whirling into overdrive like when he’s on one of his benders in the lab, except that he can’t get any thoughts to stick around for more than a millisecond. They spin around his head like supercharged fireflies, and then he’s rising--no, ascending, feeling the pull against gravity the way he can’t in the suit, but the blaze is so familiar--
This is the way death should be--Tony Stark’s death, anyway: amazing, transcendent, the Valkyrie sweeping him up to Valhalla just the way Thor told him they would because Tony is a warrior, a baller to the end, and his Valkyrie have metal bikinis. Fuck crashing into the ground, fuck wasting away in a hospital bed, fuck quiet desperation and the taste of metal in your mouth, because this--this is speed and antigravity, this is tracer comets and cheerleaders--this is motherfucking Death, a Tony Stark Production.
When he wakes up again, his first thought is surprise and the second is profound disappointment. He’s still lying face down because apparently lying on his back is a thing of the past, but at least his head is turned to the side, so that he can see, left to right, a plain white wall, Nick Fury, and a metal nightstand holding a plastic water pitcher. All those things seem equally tedious, so he closes his eyes again, hoping to maybe catch a stray Valkyrie waiting for the bus home.
“Stark,” Fury says, with uncharacteristic quietness. “You awake?”
“I’m dead,” Tony says, keeping his eyes closed. “Can’t you tell the difference?”
“You feeling like you are? Because I can get one of the docs in here to give you something--”
“No,” Tony says with a sigh. It’s tempting, because Tony’s got some heavy though mundane aches and pains, plus the prospect of days (maybe weeks or months) of serious boredom, but he knows he’s got some weaknesses in that direction. “Some water would be good, though.”
He sounds weird to himself, like a duck that’s been smoking. “No, don’t pour it, call a nurse,” he says, as Fury moves with undue haste toward the water pitcher. He doesn’t like the image, it’s--too solicitous, or apologetic, or something; too latent with bad news. “Hey, where are my fucking flowers? Something like this happens, and the team doesn’t even send flowers?”
“Have they told you what ‘this’ is?” Fury says, getting straight to the point as usual.
Tony feels a childish desire not to know, because then it will be real. As it is, he’s got nothing--no sense of time, or of the extent of his injuries, and only a blurry smear of what happened--something involving an ice monster and the Hulk and a lot of smashing and Not Good.
“Go ahead,” he says finally. “You know you want to.”
“Twelve broken bones, including six ribs and your back. No spinal cord damage, no brain damage, nothing neural. But your skin--” Fury rubs his hands together like he’s limbering up for surgery. “It’s a good thing you know people who know people who know a lot about tissue cloning.”
Fury’s not the sugar-coating type, so Tony figures that this information plus the fact that he’s alive (albeit in some kind of high-tech traction) are in fact the extent of the bad news, at least as far as it concerns him.
“Am I still pretty? Will girls still like me?” Tony asks, and Fury’s face changes from nominal sympathy to you’re-a-wiseass scowl. “Never mind, I’m still rich. How is everybody?”
“The team is fine. Everybody made it back in one piece--except you, of course. And the mission was successful.”
“Yay, us.” Tony could strain a muscle trying to care about the mission, but that would just extend his recovery time.
“How much do you remember?”
“Well, if I don’t remember, I don’t know, do I?” Now that he knows nothing’s blowing up, he feels annoyed and peevish. The skin on his back itches, the nurse hasn’t shown up with water, and he’d give one of his Cezannes to be able to shift position.
“Think,” Fury says, like it’s an order.
He remembers snow. He remembers a bad guy and a typically convoluted plan to take him out. He remembers guard dogs and things going quickly and dramatically to hell. He remembers--
There’s a long silence during which Fury holds his gaze steady, as Tony’s brain replays the battle, as if it were an old movie with blips and skipped frames: the yeti creature attacking, Tony pissing off the Hulk, the Hulk using Tony as a club to tee off on the yeti, and then a lot of major league pain and probably blood and screaming as well. There’s a lot that’s wrong with the picture, a lot that will probably give Tony nightmares once he’s allowed to have them. There are a lot of gaps and questions, too, but one stands out in the crowd.
Fury nods tightly, like he’s been expecting it. “He’s unharmed.”
Tony’s stomach does a queasy roll, and not because of the hospital food. “He’s unharmed” isn’t something you say about a regular person, a friend; it’s something you say about a hostage.
“Where is he?”
Now Fury’s good eye is looking everywhere but at Tony. “We had to put him somewhere secure until we can figure out why the Hulk turned on you. We’ve got human and animal behaviorists, psychologists, you name it--”
“God damn it.” Tony’s anger burns suddenly hot, and his muscles clench enough to pop a few stitches. “Where do you have him, in one of those supervillain fishbowls? Guards ‘round the clock, year-old magazines, no contact with the outside world?”
“It’s not that bad,” Fury says, looking like he’s prepared to physically restrain Tony if necessary, which given the situation is a laugh. “We had a containment facility built after Banner joined the team. It’s perfectly humane, there’s even a computer--”
“Yeah, I get it, it’s a jail. With a bunch of numbnuts ‘researchers’ hooking him up to E-meters and asking him to think about--” Tony stops, and sucks in a little air, because he knows immediately what Bruce is thinking about in his adamantine holding tank. He’s thinking about how he hurt Tony--how the Hulk hurt Tony--and internalizing the guilt in the way that only someone with the brain of a genius and the conscience of a Buddhist monk could. The Hulk does Bruce’s damage or takes it, depending on the situation, and Bruce is left in the smoking crater to clean up the physical and metaphysical damage. “How soon can I see him?” Tony asks finally.
“As soon as you’re mobile. A few weeks, maybe? I don’t know, you should ask your doc. But really, he’s all right. People have been visiting him. He’s in good spirits.”
Fury knows about every technology ever invented to break things, but he knows shit about Bruce Banner. The Hulk is a weapon that happens to live inside Bruce’s body, and Bruce deals with that because he has no choice. He’s not throwing his metal trays of meatloaf and two veg at the wall because he knows it won’t do any good, but the frustration is still building. Construing that as being in “good spirits” is so wrong that it makes Tony’s skin itch ten times worse than before.
“Right. Sure. And hey, at least we put an end to the horrifying reign of--what was that guy’s name?”
“He called himself ‘Ice Age’.”
“Jesus, what a stupid villain name. He deserved to go down just for that.” Suddenly Tony is very tired, in general and of having Fury in the room. “Please go away now, and send in someone prettier with some freaking water.”
Fury nods and departs, leaving Tony alone with a blank wall and a deep wish not to think for a while. Unfortunately, thinking is the only thing he has to do. He and Bruce have at least that much in common.