Once upon a time there was a rich merchant who had joined together with a spy, an archer, a super soldier, and a demigod to protect the kingdoms from harm or, failing to do so, to avenge any harms which had befallen them. Though all within this team were most pleasing to the eye, the merchant was also exceedingly charming and clever, moreso than the rest, which inspired others to call him —
"Stark, you little prick!"
— Handsome just as often as they called him Tony, for the latter was his given name.
Tony was so admired that many throughout the lands sought his company, and Tony, being of a kind and generous nature, often spent days and nights entertaining these visitors and giving them the benefit of his wisdom.
"Did I just see three women leave your room?" Steve demanded. He looked at Tony with that pinched, annoyed expression that he always tended to use whenever he looked at Tony. "And two men?"
Tony would've sighed, but he didn't want to give Steve the satisfaction. Instead he crossed his arms over his chest, leaned against the door frame to his bedroom, and replied, "I dunno, Cap. I find it hard to keep count after the third bottle of booze."
"You're unbelievable," Steve told him. His tone made it clear that in no way did he mean it as a compliment.
The person charged with watching over the group went by the name of Coulson. He ensured that each member of the team could do their job, and in turn they looked upon him in a manner not unlike a beloved parent. Tony was no exception, and made sure to show his affection and appreciation whenever Coulson did things like ask what supplies Tony needed for his battles or experiments.
"I don't know, Mom, what do you think I need?" Tony didn't bother to look up when Coulson came into his lab. Looking up ran the risk of encouraging conversation.
Coulson sighed. "Stark, I'm leaving first thing in the morning. Either tell me what you need or suck it up and wait until next month like everyone else."
"Tell you what," Tony flipped his welder's mask up to make a show of batting his eyes at Coulson, "if it means that much to you why don't you get me a rose?"
Coulson, as always, had no patience for Tony's bullshit. "Right. Next month it is."
"Wait!" The timing of it all finally sunk into Tony's mind. He looked over at his supplies and realized he actually did need something, much though he hated to admit it. "Stinging nettles. They grow around the roads you'll be traveling on. Pick me up some of that."
"Why would you need - "
"You asked, I answered. We're done." Tony flipped his mask back down and resumed working.
Coulson knew that if Tony asked him for something that it meant a great deal for Tony to have it, for Tony didn't ask for help unless he had to. So when Coulson returned home after his journey to fetch supplies, he kept an eye out for the nettles that Tony requested.
Coulson found the plant growing on what appeared to be the remains of an old estate. Sadly, it was actually the land which held a castle, inside of which was a monstrous green creature by the name of the Hulk. The Hulk didn't care for Coulson being on his property, and made his displeasure known by attacking Coulson and making him his prisoner.
Of course the team found out about this and, minus the demigod who was visiting with his family at the time, they suited up with their bows and shields and arrows and, in Tony's case, the wondrous armor that allowed him to shoot fire and even fly, and set out to rescue their friend.
This only angered the Hulk further, and the team found themselves locked in a fierce battle with the creature who was far stronger than they.
"So," Tony said, conversationally, "on a scale of one to a whorehouse, how fucked are we?"
But really he hadn't needed to ask because Natasha, who had once figured out how to take down a dragon single-handedly, actually looked shaken. Tony had learned long ago that shaken for Natasha was kiss your ass goodbye for approximately everyone else in the world, so really that gave him a pretty good assessment of how bad things were.
The Hulk, on the other hand, had no problem making the point even clearer for them.
It wasn't just that the Hulk could fight. He could. Powerfully and painfully as even Steve with all his super soldier strength could attest to. It was that the Hulk didn't just fight. He wasn't only attacking them. He was lashing out at everything in reach, and they just happened to be a part of it. Trees, rocks, a building that had been someone's house at one time, everything. And he just kept coming.
It didn't help that Tony suspected - hell, kind of knew - that this was his fault. Coulson wouldn't have been anywhere near the area if he hadn't been doing a favor for Tony. Which was really Coulson's own damn fault since who the hell ever thought it was a smart idea to do favors for Tony? But that didn't stop Tony from feeling a little bit guilty. Which was easily one of his least favorite emotions, right up there with remorse, doubt, and desire to have sincere conversations. They made alcohol to help ensure Tony didn't ever have to be bothered with such feelings, which was one of many reasons why Tony tried to avoid dealing with life while sober.
But it was hard to do that here, with enormous green fists swinging at everything, and the Hulk barreling at them in a direction that - shit - that was a village. Tony could see it from where he was, and if they didn't stop the Hulk here it didn't take a genius to figure out why the castle was surrounded by ruins and that the destroyed-by-rampaging-monster look was about to start trending in another town if someone didn't do something.
To say nothing of what was going to happen to Phil if they couldn't get him out of there, since the Hulk had beaten Phil up but good.
Tony rushed ahead and put himself in front of the Hulk. He held his palms out in what he hoped would be taken as a gesture to pause and not a threat to respond to. He flipped the front of his helmet up just to make it clear this wasn't about fighting.
"Hang on!" Tony said. "Let me offer you a deal."
The Hulk was determined that someone should suffer for Coulson's crime with life imprisonment inside of Hulk's castle. Tony could not abide the thought of Coulson or any other suffering such a fate. He insisted that he take Coulson's place. The others of the team protested, but Tony knew his own heart, and that it had to be him who volunteered and no other. The team was greatly moved by Tony's sacrifice, proclaiming it to be the finest example of what kind of man Tony was.
"Stark, of all the stupid, suicidal things you have done, this is easily the worst!" Steve said. "What were you thinking? No, wait, you never think, do you?"
Tony ignored him. It wasn't like he was going to let Steve change his mind. Instead he addressed the rest of the group. "Phil's hurt, he needs to go back home. Big green's not going to just let him walk away. We clearly can't defeat him in battle and if he gets pissed off he's just going to destroy another town. An exchange is the only option where nobody ends up dead."
"An exchange where you stay here forever," Clint pointed out.
"For the rest of my life," Tony said, making it sound like a confirmation of Clint's point even though it wasn't exactly. Tony looked at Fury, knowing that he, at least, knew what Tony was thinking. "I'd say it's a fair deal."
Fury smirked, or did as much as he ever showed actual emotion. Which confirmed to Tony that Fury knew damn well what Tony was doing. "Stark stays."
To his credit Steve looked pissed. "We're not leaving a man behind!"
"We're taking Coulson home," Fury reminded him. "We are avoiding civilian casualties. If you have another idea to achieve the same outcome I'd love to hear it but otherwise Stark stays."
"I'll stay," Steve replied, because he was just that much of a noble idiot.
"Too late, I already volunteered," Tony said. "Early bird gets the enormous green monster and all that. Run along now."
Steve shook his head. "I can't."
Tony gave serious thought to trying to hit Steve over the head with something heavy, possibly Steve's own shield, when Natasha spoke up.
"We need time and powers to regroup, and get Phil to safety," she pointed out. "We can't do that with Stark. We can do it with you."
Steve didn't look thrilled about being forced to admit that Natasha was right.
"We're coming back," Steve told Tony. "We'll get Thor and then get you."
"Please don't," Tony replied, but it wasn't like Steve ever listened to him anyway.
When the team had gone, Tony was left alone with the Hulk. Monstrous as the Hulk was, Tony knew that there was a way that the two of them could somehow get along.
Tony looked at the Hulk. The Hulk looked back at him.
"You'd better have a lot of alcohol," Tony said.
Tony was given a room of his own in the castle. Inside were clothes that were close to his size, though they were out of season by some years. After getting settled in his new space, Tony began exploring the castle. Though much of the castle was in ruins, Tony was surprised by what other comforts were available to him.
Tony opened a kitchen cupboard. Inside were plates upon plates of freshly made food, some with hot steam still wafting off of them, in all sorts of varieties of meats and breads and cheeses and fruits and pastries.
Tony closed the cupboard. "If this is magic I am so out of here."
After a few moments of thinking, Tony then added, "Unless I can get some booze out of this."
When he opened the cupboard doors again there was a bottle of wine where there hadn't been one before.
"It's a start," Tony said. He took the bottle with him as he continued exploring.
Though the Hulk did not let Tony go free, neither did he disturb Tony in his day to day living. Tony took this as a sign that he could be bolder in the freedoms he took within the castle and thus set about starting to repair what he could to help return the castle to its former glory.
It wasn't that Tony cared so much as he was annoyed by things that were so obviously inefficient. The heating, the miserable excuse for plumbing - sure there were the magical fires and baths and whatever, but those just sort of happened and, like all magic, couldn't be counted on. And so fucking help him he thought he heard a singing candlestick the other night and okay Tony had been drunk at the time so it was entirely possible it had been some sort of hallucination, but as far as Tony was concerned he was not chancing it.
So he was going to install proper heating and hot water and lighting. Because things that he built didn't sing unless he damn well told them to.
This had meant a lot of scavenging around the castle for materials, and finding what had once been the blacksmith's area. But Tony didn't mind figuring out how to improvise what he needed, and he'd always found working with metal to be relaxing. Soon enough he'd found and/or fashioned enough pipes to get started on the plumbing. He hauled all of them into the kitchen and got to work on installing what was needed for a sink with hot and cold running water on tap.
It had been a couple of hours of labor, the good, solid kind that Tony could feel deep down in his muscles, when he finally decided to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
Or, in his case, the Hulk.
"Look, I hate to break it to you but you're not exactly subtle." Tony pulled himself out from under the cabinet he was taking apart so he could fit the new pipes in. He looked up at the Hulk. Near as Tony could figure, the Hulk was trying to lurk in the shadows beyond the kitchen doorway. Which really didn't work out when you were nine feet tall and green. "A for effort and all that but you're pretty easy to spot. Plus why are you trying to hide anyway? Last I checked the captor to prisoner dynamics meant you could go anywhere you liked and do whatever you liked and I got exactly zero say in the matter.
"Not that I mind you trying to be - I dunno, polite or whatever this is." Tony gestured to indicate the whole of what the Hulk was doing there in the doorway. "So far you are easily beating the last guys who held me captive in terms of overall hospitality. And you know, why am I even bothering to explain myself? I am, of my own extreme generosity and free will, spending my time fixing up your home. What you should do is stop staring and help me."
Tony went back under the cabinet and resumed his efforts to separate the top from the sides. "Honestly, between the holes in the walls and the leaks in the roof it is no damn wonder you're so cranky all the time. Lucky for you you've got my brilliance working on it, all for the low low price of not killing anybody."
A large green hand suddenly came into view. Tony froze and wondered if he'd finally managed to piss off his captor. He braced for some sort of impact, but it turned out the Hulk wasn't aiming for him. Instead the hand gripped the top of the cabinet and, in one quick motion, tore it away from the sides.
Tony sat there with his tools and took in the sight of the cabinet which, while taken apart as Tony had wanted, was now more in broken pieces and splinters than he'd been hoping for.
"Okay, points for speed," Tony said, "if not what you might call accuracy. On the other hand, not all parts of this project actually need pinpoint accuracy. Tell me, how do you feel about smashing walls?"
Much as it seemed impossible, Tony could've sworn the Hulk replied with a grin.
Together, the Hulk and Tony managed to do more for the castle than either could have done alone. They worked quite well with one another, and Tony found himself marveling at how much the Hulk, for all his monstrous appearance, could contribute. Then one day Tony made a discovery.
Working in the castle was better than Tony would've hoped for. Hell, given the lack of anybody except the Hulk interrupting him, it was in some ways better than what he'd had before. Especially since the Hulk didn't interrupt so much as keep Tony company and lend a hand on moving the extra heavy objects or clearing entire rooms - literally, walls, roof, floor and all - out of the way.
Moreover the castle was stocked with more supplies than Tony would've given a ruin credit for. Sure he had to get things up and running again but the things had been there to get. Which at the time hadn't really surprised Tony. He was, after all, Tony Stark. When he wanted things they tended to be close at hand because he paid good money to not have to want things for very long.
It didn't occur to him that any of this was unusual until he saw the library. It was huge, as castle libraries tended to be, and it was filled from floor to several stories' high ceiling with books.
Science books. Books with names on them like Foster and Reed and Selvig and even Howard freaking Stark. Books that had obviously been read and kept in the castle long enough not to have simply appeared because Tony had wanted them to.
Books that had been used.
Tony grabbed one off of the shelf and went to find where the Hulk was hiding.
For Tony realized that he and the Hulk had far more in common than he had originally thought. He wasted no time in telling the Hulk of his appreciation of their new found bond.
"You asshole!" Tony flung the book at the Hulk's head. He missed, but he hadn't really been aiming either. "What the hell?"
The Hulk glared at Tony and roared loudly enough to shake the furniture in the great room.
Tony didn't care. "Don't give me that! You don't get to be pissed when you've been lying to me! You've been smart this whole time and didn't say a damn thing about it!"
That was clearly not the response the Hulk had been expecting on any level. The roar died off and large green eyes looked at Tony quizzically.
"Took me a while to get there, I'll grant you," Tony said. "But I've got it now. All the stuff here, the equipment, the books - it's yours. You're smart. Hell, if you understand even half of this you're fucking brilliant. But you don't understand half, do you? You understand it all. I have never in my entire life met anybody…"
Tony trailed off. He suddenly realized how sad that statement was, on far too many levels.
Amazingly, the Hulk seemed to understand some of the implications. Except no, it wasn't amazing. Because the Hulk was a genius and possibly even smarter than Tony about some things. Regardless, the Hulk picked up the thrown book and brought it back to Tony, looking at Tony with an expression that was apologetic and curious. Mostly curious.
Tony took the book back. "You realize I'm going to be expecting you to pull even more of your weight when we're doing science stuff now?"
A single green eyebrow quirked up, silently asking how Tony expected the Hulk to do that.
"We'll figure something out," Tony told him.
Now that he had a partner to aide him in his scientific pursuits, Tony once more began to create and invent things for the castle. Days and weeks passed as Tony worked, and the Hulk kept him company.
Tony had a theory about how he could build a power source which could take care of all the heat and light of the castle without the Hulk needing the finer motor control that human hands could bring. He had to work out the details, though, which meant he started scribbling notes on every surface possible while explaining his thoughts out loud. The Hulk helped by listening, and occasionally bringing books or tools to Tony that Tony hadn't known were in the castle. He also helped by bringing food so Tony didn't have to get it.
They would eat together, usually on the floor because the Hulk couldn't sit on furniture and Tony didn't much care. Food was usually eaten by hand since, again, the Hulk had no other option and Tony didn't really care.
All the while Tony would talk about his ideas, and theories, and what was working and what wasn't, and how he knew he could make it better. The Hulk couldn't offer much by way of a reply, but he listened. More than that, he understood.
Tony actually did care about that.
All the while Tony stayed there, he kept gathering the nettles that grew around the property and brewing them for his tea. The Hulk did not mind so long as Tony stayed on the Hulk's property. This arrangement suited them both fine, until Tony found himself alone, outside, and in danger.
In Tony's defense he hadn't been planning on getting into trouble. Quick trip out to the gardens for more nettles and then back, that was the plan.
It was hardly his fault that things were so overgrown that the line between gardens and dark and creepy forest got seriously blurred. Or that, once having crossed that line, the ability to find a path back to the castle became nearly impossible.
And it was absolutely not at all his fault that large, wolf-bear-ox type creatures were now surrounding him with the clear intent on eating him for dinner.
Why couldn't anything involving Hulk's castle be normal?
Tony didn't have a weapon. Not unless you counted the basket he'd brought with him for the plants. He was an any port in a storm kind of fellow but he suspected attempting to fight off these whatever the hells (wolves, Tony was just going to call them wolves and feel a bit saner for it) with wicker was going to quickly make things worse if only for the sheer insult to their honor.
Running was very much an option and one that Tony had no problem with. He took one step in the direction of anywhere not towards sharp teeth. This was apparently one step too many as the wolves immediately leapt forward with hungry howls.
Tony fell back - okay down but in his defense he'd slipped - just as a louder roar and a flash of green turned howls into sharp, pained whimpers.
Tony stared. It was the Hulk. Tony had no idea how the Hulk had known Tony was in trouble but at the moment neither did Tony care. All nine feet of sheer muscle was hitting and throwing and - okay there really wasn't a better word than smashing - the wolves to a pulp. Tony might've felt bad except hey - they'd started it.
The Hulk had them beat for strength and size, but the wolves had him outnumbered. For the most part this didn't matter, except Tony saw one of the wolves slip behind Hulk and try to attack him from behind. And probably this was nothing, no more than a mosquito bite to someone with Hulk's body. But that bit of logic somehow failed to make it to the part of Tony's brain that didn't like the idea of Hulk being sneak attacked at all. So Tony picked up a big heavy branch and swung it at the wolf's jaws before he even knew what he was doing.
The wolf fell back with a surprised bark, then lunged towards Tony. Tony saw a lot of teeth and felt hot wet breath on his face before there was more green, a pained yelp, and then no sound at all.
The remaining wolves ran off, leaving their fallen comrades behind.
Tony and Hulk looked at each other.
"Thanks," Tony said.
The Hulk nodded. Tony took it for the gratitude that it was.
The Hulk and Tony returned to the castle, and Tony attempted to take care of the Hulk's injuries for he could not bear to see the Hulk in pain.
The Hulk snarled at Tony.
Tony ignored him and kept wiping at Hulk's hand with a damp cloth. "I don't care if it stings! You got hurt and I'm fixing it, so shut up and sit - "
Tony frowned. He moved the cloth aside. There wasn't a single injury on Hulk's body. Rather, there had been, but they'd all since healed.
Hulk gave Tony a look of told you so.
Tony made a face at him. "Shut up, you needed to get clean anyway."
Months passed. As content as Tony was with the Hulk's company, his heart grew weaker the longer he was away from home. The weakness grew, seeping into Tony's body until not even the medicinal tea he drank could continue to keep it at bay.
The floor was nice. It was solid, and cool, and provided Tony with a perfect place to rest now that standing wasn't an attractive option anymore.
Tony only wished that was because of how much wine he'd drunk.
The Hulk found him there, pale and shivering and not nearly as close to the kitchen as Tony would've liked to be. Green eyes immediately looked at Tony with concern. Tony tried not to think about how many people had ever felt the urge to look at him that way.
"Need a favor," Tony managed to gasp out. He tried to keep it together, to not freak Hulk out in any way, because at that moment in time only one of them was allowed to have the shakes and Tony had drawn the short straw. "Kitchen. Tea. With nettles. Now."
Hulk, bless him, did not need to be told twice. Tony didn't even feel a twinge of his customary annoyance towards whatever magic supplied the hot water and the pot. Instead he focused on breathing and trying not to think about anything else up to and especially including the passage of time until the Hulk came back.
When the Hulk returned he was carrying an entire teapot. He looked at Tony apologetically because it wasn't like huge hands and tiny china teacups were a great combination. That was okay. Tony wasn't entirely certain that the teacups didn't move on their own so he was fine with them staying the hell away from him.
Tony struggled into a sitting position and took a sip of tea directly from the top of the pot. It was hot and tasted as nasty as it ever did, but it was dark green which was exactly what he needed.
Tony pushed himself back so that he was propped up against the wall and kept sipping. His bladder would be hating him soon enough, but hey: at least he'd be around long enough for his organs to have opinions on things.
The Hulk watched all of this with his full attention.
"So," Tony said, once the shaking had calmed down a bit, "You're probably wondering why I've got such a thing for drinks that match your skin color. Remember how I told you I'd been somebody's prisoner once before? Funny story."
Tony's heart had been damaged by a deep and personal betrayal by one who he had trusted like a father. Since then Tony had never truly trusted anyone. He'd locked his heart away inside of his armor and let no one come near it, nor even let anyone know how broken it was. There were some, like Fury, who had guessed, but none that Tony had told.
None until the Hulk.
Tony told the Hulk everything. Which was fascinating in and of itself because to date Tony hadn't told anyone everything. There were always bits and pieces of his previous captivity that he'd kept very tightly to himself. They were too much to share, they made him too vulnerable, they made him see things about himself that he didn't want to look at.
He didn't know if it was the understanding of how soon he was going to be dying, or because he was still technically the Hulk's prisoner even if Tony couldn't put his finger on the moment he'd stopped feeling like he was in a jail. Hell, maybe it was because the Hulk was a good listener.
Regardless, Tony gave him the whole story. The imprisonment, the injury, the shrapnel digging its way into his heart and only stopped by the glowing device inside of Tony's chest, and how said device was slowly poisoning him and putting him into an early grave.
Which could've been enough, but the words kept pouring out of him.
"I have tried everything I can to come up with a replacement but I just can't find anything." Tony gave a bark of laughter, aiming it at his life and also himself. "Smart as I am I can't do it. So instead of dying in a cave I'm doing it in a castle. Which you'd think would be just the sort of thing I'd try to arrange but not really. This wasn't about me. It wasn't even about you or - or lying to you, even though I did."
Tony tilted his head back and looked up at the cobwebs that interlaced the boards along the ceiling. He wondered if he'd live long enough to see them cleared away.
"I accepted this deal because I'm dying and Coulson isn't - wasn't. I mean he would have if he'd stayed here but that's the point. So this was a trick and I am actually sorry about that, now that I've gotten to know you. But this way a good man lives instead of me, which I think makes a nice legacy, you know?"
There was silence, of course, and then the Hulk was gone. Tony supposed that meant he'd gotten lucky. The Hulk had every right to be pissed at him and to take it out on Tony or whatever the hell he wanted to. Simply leaving Tony alone to wallow in yet another of his fuck-ups was the least Tony deserved.
Then the Hulk came back.
Tony was so used to shutting himself away from others that he did not expect the Hulk to show him any particular kindness, even if the Hulk did know, now, why Tony did it. Tony was greatly surprised, then, when the Hulk not only showed him kindness, but did so by giving him a gift unlike any other.
Tony had no idea where the Hulk was taking him. This wasn't a part of the castle he'd gotten around to exploring. The hallways leading to it were too dark and unused. There was also a lot of rubble, like a cannon had blasted through the place or like -
Tony stared at the back of his large companion.
Right. Like a giant being made entirely of muscle had shouldered his way through it. That worked too.
They finally came to a thing that would've been a door if not for all the broken wood anywhere, so was now mostly a doorway with a few splintery souvenirs of its better days. Tony had half a second of wondering if maybe the Hulk was thinking of more repair work to the castle when he stepped through the doorway and saw the rest of it.
A lab. An honest-to-god lab. A slightly out of date lab, granted, but Tony could recognize the tools and supplies and materials and - he could work with this. He could very much work with this. He'd have to build up some things and take down others but he could do that in his sleep because this was a lab as big as the one he'd had back home and it was stocked by someone who knew what they were doing and Tony could work here and invent and maybe even -
Tony's hand moved to cover the glowing circle in his chest. He looked up at the Hulk and, for the first time in a while, smiled. "Thank you."
The Hulk replied by giving Tony a big smile back.
Having access to a proper lab allowed Tony to research his illness like never before. He dedicated himself to the task, determined that he and the Hulk would figure out how to solve this problem. Finally, after many days and nights, Tony was triumphant.
"This!" Tony looked from the circle of books surrounding him to his calculations and back again. "This! I think we can do this! I think this is it!"
The Hulk came forward. He looked over Tony's shoulders to see what Tony had been reading.
"Stop me if I'm wrong," Tony said. He pointed the way through the scribbles that represented his thought process. "My dad was brilliant but he didn't have access to the kinds of things that we do. Stuff you and I could work up in a lab he could only dream about. So he puts his ideas into his books but in code because leaving your only son a note is apparently too old fashioned but whatever because if I'm reading the code correctly what he's talking about is a new kind of material which could - if I've got the math right and I'm willing to entertain your point of view on this but usually I always have the math right - be just what I need to stop poisoning myself."
Tony looked up at the Hulk. The Hulk was nodding along. Tony clapped his hands together in triumph.
"Perfect! Yes! So Dad couldn't make this but - ha ha - I can! Now that I've got his notes all I have to do is get the supplies together and, in what is a great day for everyone, I have the supplies back at my lab so - "
Tony stopped as he realized what he was saying. His lab. Which he'd promised never to return to.
"Um - " Tony started to think of some kind of compromise. A delivery, a brief trade, maybe he could make what he needed using what was on hand except it would take longer and his time was short and -
And the Hulk wasn't standing in between him and the doorway.
Tony looked from the Hulk to the opening and back again. "Are you… letting me go?"
The Hulk nodded. He wasn't looking at Tony which was odd. Tony had gotten used to those green eyes watching him whenever they were together.
And that - that was just wrong. Like the wolf attacking the Hulk had been wrong. Tony couldn't say why he believed that but he did. He thought about the Hulk being alone in the castle with the ruined walls and cobwebs and the projects Tony hadn't had a chance to finish yet and Tony did not like it at all.
So, even though the Hulk hadn't asked and Tony never made a habit of offering more for a deal than was being requested, he found himself saying, "I will come back. Give me a week. That's all the time I need to make this thing and then I'm coming back here and the two of us can celebrate me being around to annoy you for a very long time. You got that? Seven days. Count on it."
The Hulk looked at Tony, studying his face for the truth of his words or maybe just looking at his face to memorize it.
"Seven days," Tony promised. "Honest."
Tony returned home as quickly as he could. Though his teammates were overjoyed to see him, he paid them no mind. Instead he dedicated himself to the task of fixing his heart, using what he would not have had without the Hulk's help.
The others were uncertain of what to do but Fury, who knew what was wrong, encouraged them to be patient. Everyone was rewarded when Tony found his success, and the team hoped that this meant that Tony was home for good.
Tony felt good. Tony felt wonderful. Who knew not being steadily poisoned by the thing that kept your heart beating would vastly improve a body's overall outlook on life?
Sure he'd had to do it at the expense of telling everyone on the team to fuck off and not interrupt him - and then needed to follow up on that by actually barricading his lab door and ignoring their attempts to get his attention. But now - now everything was perfect. He was fixed and everything was fine -
- and only six and a half days had passed so - ha - he'd even managed to do it faster than predicted -
- which meant he had more than enough time to get back to Hulk just as he'd promised and -
Tony finally realized that Fury was yelling at him. Also that Fury was in his lab, having gotten Steve to break down the door.
"Uh, I'm busy," Tony told the both of them. "Also, by the way? Not dying anymore, so yay me and all that."
"You were dying?" Steve asked.
"The team's been called in to save a village from a hydra attack," Fury said. "There's at least three and some dumbass knights have already cut off enough heads that each one now counts for twelve. We could use all hands, if you're back in the game."
Tony hesitated. He'd promised Hulk but on the other hand killing a hydra or two would be a great test to make sure everything was working. Plus he was running early and surely helping to save people was a good reason to make a quick stop along the way, right?
Tony's return, and the team's subsequent trip to save a village, attracted enough attention that it reached the ears of an army general by the name of Ross. Ross was familiar with the Hulk. In fact, he thought the Hulk was a monster who deserved to die, but he had lost track of the Hulk and could not find him. Ross had almost given up his chase when he heard about the creature who had held Tony captive and knew from the description that it was the Hulk who had done it.
Ross set his men upon the task of finding out where Tony had been held, then marched his army towards the Hulk's castle just as Tony and the team focused their attention on the village being attacked by hydra.
"At least three" turned out to be more accurate if Fury had meant fixing things would take at least three days because by the time the team got to the village there were hydras everywhere. The team split up to attack the monsters on all fronts, but it wasn't easy, and heads kept getting chopped off, and more hydras had shown up and soon enough all Tony could remember was shooting and fighting and never ever wanting to see another animal come out of a body of water unless there was a hook involved and melted butter at the end.
But they won, finally, and gathered around to breathe and take in the damage to both the village and themselves and - hey, everyone and thing seemed to be still standing so good effort all around.
"Nice to have you back," Steve told Tony.
"Indeed," Thor added, clapping Tony on the shoulder. "I am most glad to hear that you are no longer bound by your captivity. Though it would have been my honor to slay any beast who dared to hold one of my shield brothers prisoner."
"I'm not - he's not - " Tony started to say, but trailed off when he realized he was looking in the direction of Hulk's castle, and that there was a plume of black smoke coming from it. Also some rather familiar flags clustered around the building.
The Hulk had known that Tony might not return after being let go. However Tony's promise had been so sincere that the Hulk dared let himself believe that Tony had meant it.
When seven days passed and Tony did not return the Hulk began to worry. As still more days passed the Hulk's worry turned into despair. He roared and smashed the walls of the castle, not knowing how else to express his sorrow.
When Ross and his men showed the Hulk gave them no fight. His strength came from his anger, and he felt nothing but sadness. He let Ross and his men attack him, their swords and arrows striking him and drawing blood, until the Hulk's great body collapsed upon the ground and lay there utterly still. Ross and his men gave cries of victory, and set about destroying the castle to finish the Hulk's defeat.
Clint saw where Tony was staring and looked that way himself. "What's the army doing in these parts?"
"Nothing good," Tony said. He flipped his mask down and tried to ignore the suddenly cold feeling in his gut. "Follow after me but don't attack anybody unless I tell you to!"
Tony didn't wait to see if his teammates listened before he flew off.
Tony and the team quickly subdued Ross's men. The team was confused as to why Tony insisted on leading the attack until they saw the Hulk lying prone on the ground, and Tony desperately trying to revive him.
This wasn't good. This was very much not good. The Hulk was still and there was blood everywhere and none of it was human and this was not supposed to happen.
"No." Tony ripped off his helmet and gloves and threw them aside. He knelt down next to the Hulk and frantically looked for signs of life. "No, no no no no no. This wasn't the plan. I'm late, I know, I'm sorry. But you're not supposed to die! That was me, remember?"
There was no response. Tony put his hands on the Hulk's cheeks and tried to get the Hulk to look at him even though his green eyes remained closed. "C'mon. I'm all better. It worked. We did it. Wake up and I'll show you. We'll do science and have a party to celebrate or have no party at all if you still want to do your hermit thing. Only you're not going to do that because you can't be a hermit if I'm around and I am, you hear me? I'm not going anywhere and neither are you and god damn it why won't you heal?"
Coulson stepped forward. When he spoke his tone was sympathetic. "Stark - "
"Shut up, he's fine!" Tony snapped. He knew he was taking his emotions out on Coulson unfairly but he couldn't stop himself. He ran his fingertips along the Hulk's face - eyebrows, cheekbones, jaw - and tried to will some kind of response into him. "Right, big guy? You're okay. You have to be okay. I can't do this thing where I'm fine and you're not. It's not going to work out well. Plus don't even get me started on all the discoveries you've yet to make because you're going to make them because you're brilliant and wonderful and - "
Tony trailed off. He could swear there was a glimmer of something behind those dark green lashes. Maybe the Hulk was looking at him. Maybe it was an illusion. Tony didn't care.
"Don't leave me," Tony said. He spoke softly, looking right into the Hulk's eyes as though he could make the Hulk look back at him. "Please. I need you. I - "
Words suddenly seemed pointless. Tony abandoned all attempts to talk. He leaned forward and pressed his mouth to the Hulk's, letting that be the way he spoke the words he couldn't say.
It is known throughout the lands that true love's kiss will break any curse, and it was just such a kiss that Tony gave in that moment. When he did, the castle sparkled with lights, fireworks went off, instruments began to play, and it was clear that an event of great importance was taking place.
Tony paid it no mind. He cared only for the Hulk, and looked to be sure that the Hulk was okay. He was taken aback to discover the Hulk gone, and in his place was a handsome prince named Bruce who tried to thank Tony for breaking the curse which kept him forever trapped in the Hulk's form. Though the prince was quite pleasing to the eye, Tony could not stop himself from asking where Hulk had gone.
"Who the fuck are you and what did you do with my Hulk?" Tony demanded.
"Am I the only one hearing music?" Clint asked. "Don't get me wrong, it's nice and all, but also a little creepy when you don't know where it's coming from."
"This sort of thing is quite common in Asgard," Thor told him. "There are many beings which are not visible to the eye but are skilled in song."
"Are suddenly appearing naked guys common too?" Natasha asked.
"Actually yes," Thor replied.
"Can we stop caring about the orchestra and Natasha's vacation plans and focus on how this asshole took my Hulk away?" Tony said, gesturing towards the naked man in question.
"I didn't!" Bruce tried to pull the remnants of the Hulk's pants towards him. "Tony, it's me, I swear."
"Look, Bruce," Tony said, glaring at him, "I'm sure you're a fabulous guy and all but the one person you aren't is - "
And just then one of Ross's men tried to shove forward in an attack. Steve quickly subdued him but not before Bruce's eyes turned green and he half stood, ready to defend Tony.
Tony grabbed Bruce by the arm and pulled him back. He stared as he saw that familiar green looking at him. "Holy - it really is you."
"It's really me," Bruce confirmed. He gave a self-deprecating shrug. "I know I look different but I'm the same guy, I swear."
Tony moved his hand up to Bruce's cheek. "I thought I lost you again."
"Not lost," Bruce told him. "If anything, you found more of me than you started with. Think you can be okay with that?"
"I'll find a way to handle it," Tony said. Then he leaned in and kissed Bruce again, and again, and a few more times after that.
Tony and Bruce pledged then and there to spend the rest of their lives together. And so they did, and they lived happily ever after.