Ororo spared him a brief glance. “It’s barely drizzling.”
“Looks like thunder,” Tony said, catching her around the waist as a photographer aimed his camera their way. He smiled. “I know how jealous gods can get.”
The corner of Ororo’s mouth twitched, amused. “I don’t think you do, actually.”
“Maybe not,” he admitted, linking his arm with hers as they travelled up the red carpet. “But don’t let it rain on me anyway. This suit costs more than one of those flying horses.”
“I’ll do my best,” she said, laughing. “What would you have done if the captain had accompanied you tonight, after all?”
“The shield wouldn’t make a half-bad umbrella,” Tony muttered. Ororo’s expression turned concerned.
“Is everything alright?” she asked in an undertone. “You only said there was a scheduling conflict.”
Ororo’s idea of a scheduling conflict was trying to decide whether the Avengers or the X-men needed her help saving the universe that weekend, and still she managed to make it sound ordinary. Tony waved her concern aside.
“It’s fine, Storm,” he said. “Steve just had something else come up.”
Which was fine, really, even if Steve only had something else come up because he’d forgotten and scheduled his monthly training session with the new SHIELD recruits over his date with Tony.
He really wasn’t making himself feel better.
“Mm,” Ororo said. “If you say so.” She paused, tilting her head to the side. “Do you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Tony said, but as soon as the words left his lips he heard the rumbling in the distance, like the subway or an earthquake. Tony turned towards it and Ororo lifted herself up off the ground, a sudden wind whipping her hair around.
“Is that--?” Tony started, squinting in the distance. Ororo’s eyes widened.
“Get back!” she shouted, right before the Hulk crashed into the sidewalk. The force of the impact knocked Tony off his feet. He lay there, dazed, for a moment, before the screams and the stampeding people forced him back on his feet. He squinted through the rising dust and the chaos – Ororo was making a beeline for the Hulk, soaring high above the crowd. Tony ran after her. He skidded to a stop at the edge of the crater the Hulk had created on impact, but his dress shoes weren’t meant for this kind of thing and he nearly toppled over.
“Hulk, buddy!” he shouted, cupping his hands around his mouth. “What’s the matter? I know you hate sad endings in movies, but this isn’t the right way to tell Hollywood!”
The Hulk roared and swatted a massive hand at Ororo. She narrowly dodged, shooting upwards.
“Hulk!” Tony shouted, alarmed. He scrambled forward through the wreckage, trying to reach his friend. “What’s wrong?”
The Hulk had been following Ororo’s darting form with his eyes, snorting, but he turned when Tony approached and his face made Tony stop in his tracks. His features were contorted with rage and his eyes almost seemed to glow. He growled low in his throat. There was a golden pendant dangling from his neck, too small for Tony to make out the details.
“Hulk?” Tony tried, and when the Hulk didn’t move he took a careful step forward. He tried to reach for his Avengers ID, but the slightest move of his hand towards his pockets made the Hulk’s nostrils flare, so he held them up in front of him instead. “It’s me, Tony. You know who I am, buddy?”
The Hulk’s nostrils flared again.
“Iron Man,” he said in his deep, gravelly voice. It sounded forced, like he was having trouble getting the words out. One hand twitched, the fingers curling into a fist, but otherwise he didn’t move.
Tony took it as a good sign and continued edging forward.
“How about we go back to the mansion, huh?” he said. “Get you checked out. I don’t like what’s going on with your eyes.”
He was close enough to touch the Hulk now, so he reached out and gently laid a hand on that giant green wrist. The Hulk recoiled like he’d been burned and let out a roar loud enough to make Tony’s ears ring.
He didn’t see the hit coming; the Hulk swatted him aside like a fly and sent him sprawling backwards. He landed, hard, and everything went a bit fuzzy for the next few minutes. He heard what he thought was a helicopter and the Hulk’s distant roar, but his head was spinning too much to focus.
When he came to, the Hulk was gone, the paparazzi were back and Storm had his head resting on her knees.
“I feel like I got hit by the Hulk,” he coughed. “Oh, wait.”
“Are you badly injured?” Ororo asked, frowning down at him.
“Only my pride,” Tony said, gingerly sitting up. “How many of them got that on camera?”
“Good to see it was only your body that was bruised and not your ego,” Ororo said. She gave him her hand and he took it, pulling himself to his feet. Cameras started flashing again; Tony looked forward to seeing himself battered and bruised on the cover of the Post the next day. Ororo closed one hand around his arm and leaned in close. “What was that?”
“I don’t know,” Tony shook his head. “He wasn’t… himself. More than usual.”
“Troubling,” Ororo said, nodding. “We’ll inform the rest of the Avengers.”
“Right,” Tony said, casting a glance back towards the Hulk-sized crater. He tried to swallow his worry, remembering how the Hulk had looked at him with those strange, glowing eyes – like he half didn’t know Tony. “So much for our night out.”
“Guys, somebody kidnapped the Hulk.”
Tony scowled around the icepack. “That’s news to me.”
“No, really,” Clint said. “Tigra and I just went through his room. He’s gone.”
Tony exchanged a brief glance with Steve, a nonverbal you handle this one. Steve cleared his throat, squeezing Tony’s shoulder. Tony tried not to smile – it wasn’t a good match with the state of his face. But it was hard not to, when Steve had come rushing back from his training session with the SHIELD newbies as soon as he’d heard what happened. He’d even dug the icepack out of the freezer himself.
“We know about the Hulk, Clint,” he said, picking up the remote and switching on the TV. The footage was playing on the news again; there was something very strange about watching yourself get tossed around on the red carpet, Tony thought.
“Oh,” Clint said. “We, uh. We didn’t see that. Explains the icepack. Frozen peas are a good look on you.”
Tony scowled at him, then turned it on Steve instead when he reached over and readjusted the bag of frozen peas. Clint pulled out a chair from the table, then squawked when Tigra hopped into it before he could sit down.
“Ladies first,” she said, propped her chin on her palms and her elbows on the table. She furrowed her brow as she stared at the TV screen. “The Hulk did that to you? That’s not like him.”
“Tell me about it,” Tony said. “Something wasn’t right. You can’t see it, but I swear his eyes were glowing.”
“And you say he just – left?” Steve said. Tony nodded.
“Right,” he said. “He seemed distracted. Off. Almost like he was running away from something. Ororo took Spidey and went out looking for him, but if something spooked him, or he doesn’t want to be found…”
Steve squeezed his shoulder again. He picked up the remote and flicked the television off. “We’ll find him.”
“Right,” Clint said, kicking his feet up on the table and pushing his chair back so it balanced precariously on two legs. “How hard can it be to find one jade giant?”
Tony shot him a look. “Why were you two in Bruce’s room, anyway?”
“We weren’t in Bruce’s room,” Tigra hemmed. “We were in the Hulk’s. You know?”
“I used to know it as the gym, yes,” Tony said.
“Big green hoards stuff sometimes,” Clint said offhandedly. “It’s like that reality show. Found an old quiver in there once. We were looking for Tigra’s catnip mouse.”
Tigra bristled all over.
“We were not!” she hissed. Clint rolled his eyes.
“Right,” he said. “Okay. We were totally not looking for Tigra’s catnip mouse.”
Tigra reached over and gave his chair one hard shove; Clint toppled to the floor with a yelp. Wordlessly, Tony tossed him his icepack.
“We’ll get it sorted out,” Steve said, giving Clint a look as he climbed back to his feet. “Besides, who could kidnap the Hulk?”
“Stop that,” Steve said. He frowned. “This is trouble.”
Peter was hanging upside down, channel flipping. “Tell me about it – the Hulk’s never been gone this long before. I left his dinner out on the stoop and everything.”
Jarvis, dusting a nearby corner table, shot Peter a look that went blissfully ignored. Tony rubbed at his chin idly, squinting at the footage playing out on the television. Three days and there had only been one other Hulk sighting, hours after Tony’s run in with him. He’d appeared disoriented, staying just long enough to wreak minor havoc before pulling the disappearing act again.
Avengers had managed to get to the scene in time, but he’d reacted to them much the same way he had Tony, roaring and swatting them aside. The strange pendant still swung from his neck. Peter had nearly gotten close enough to touch it when the Hulk had grabbed him and flung him like a toy. Peter seemed more stung by the action than actually hurt, and Tony couldn’t blame him. Seeing the Hulk act this way was – disconcerting. A small part of him couldn’t help but wonder if this was the monster that had been lurking underneath the whole time.
No, he didn’t want to think about Bruce that way. The Hulk, either.
“I don’t like the Hulk’s new bling,” he said, pausing the television.
“Don’t say bling,” Peter told him. “But … me neither. Looks magic.”
“I have some errands in the village today,” Steve said, standing. “I’ll drop by Strange's place and see if I can’t get him to give us a consultation.”
“You’re leaving?” Tony said, frowning. Steve gave him a rueful smile.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’ll be back in a few hours. Hopefully with some answers.”
“And I need to get some groceries,” Peter said, scuttling across the ceiling.
That left Tony alone, then, with only his half-eaten breakfast and the footage to brood over. He braced his chin on one hand and tried not to sulk.
Tony looked up from his third cup of coffee and said, “No, Janet, I will not attend your second cousin thrice removed niece’s Bat Mitzvah with you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Jan said. “I’m making Hank go to that. Would you at least read it before you try and blow me off?”
She slid it across the table and, grudgingly, Tony picked it up and read the name at the top.
“Not that I don’t appreciate the thought, but is there a reason you’re giving me your dad’s mail?”
“He won’t miss it,” Jan replied flippantly. She tapped one magenta fingernail against the cardstock. “This is an invite to Charles Verdan’s annual garden party.”
“I have allergies,” Tony said.
“Charles Verdan has a cult,” Jan said. “Very into the whole ultra-masculine manly muscle men thing. Everyone who goes to his parties either wants to be a big manly man, or wants to be on one – or both. He wrote like, a whole thing on the Hulk as the ideal masculine figure last year. It was skeevy.” She gave a little shiver. “And look, see, where he promises his guests that he has an enormous showstopper at the end of the night? I think he’s the one who took the Hulk. He got into artifacts recently – magical ones. I’d bet anything that amulet around the Hulk’s neck is one of his.”
“How do you know all of this?” Tony asked her. She shrugged.
“We sort of went out,” she said. “One time. In high school. It was pretty awful. But now that I’m a big time superhero, well, he likes to call up my dad and bother him.”
“So, you want to crash his party?” Tony asked. Jan nodded.
“I know this guy, Tony – he’s totally the kind of jerk who thinks kidnapping the Hulk is a good idea.”
“I was actually already sold on that,” Tony said, turning the invitation to face her. “A green tie event? That’s not subtle.”
“Stephen, I’m telling you, I think this is older than you give it credit for,” he was saying when Jarvis let them into the lobby. “Ancient things have power.”
“Is that your explanation for the Ancient One?” Strange asked, cape swirling around his ankles. “He’s powerful because he’s old?”
“Stephen,” Wong said pointedly, shaking his head.
Once the situation had been fully explained to them, Strange rubbed at his goatee (and personally, Tony had always felt a little copied, there) and said, “Odds are it’s part of a set. One controls the Hulk, and the other should be close on hand. The other end of the leash, so to speak.”
“The Hulk does not belong on a leash,” Steve said sternly. Strange held his hands up.
“Pardon my phrasing,” he said. He produced a thin chain from the folds of his cloak. “We enchanted this to respond to the Hulk’s unique aura. It will grow warmer in his presence, or in the presence of those who have been in his company recently.”
“Oh, like hot and cold!” Peter chimed in helpfully from the ceiling. Tony shot him a look.
“It’s an energy signature, not an aura,” he said, taking the chain from Strange. He added, “I could have done that,” and didn’t even blink when Steve discreetly elbowed him in the ribs.
“Well,” Strange said, with the kind of smile Tony was sure was much more charming when it was on his own face, “time is of the essence. Now for the last matter… who will be attending the party?”
They’d discussed it, briefly. Jan had claimed that, glamor or no, there was no way she’d be able to look at Verdan with a straight face. Hank couldn’t act, and Peter had a hobby of stuffing dinner rolls into his pockets that would have given him away in an instant. Ororo’s poster was up on the half the world’s wall, and no amount of magic would disguise her regal bearing, that particular way she held her head up high.
(“No offense,” Tony told her.
“None taken,” she replied, letting her own personal breeze toss her hair for her.)
They’d all looked at Logan, but he’d had a slice of pizza impaled on each of his claws, so he was out for sure.
That left Steve and Tony, more or less. Tony would have been lying if he’d said he wasn’t looking forward to a night out with Steve, even if it was just a guise for their rescue mission. They’d had barely any time lately – the premier hadn’t been the first of their dates Steve had cancelled. Tony wanted to be worried, but aside from that Steve seemed completely normal, and besides.
He had the Hulk to worry about. He could worry about his relationship after Bruce was safe.
Strange’s magic tickled, like a feather being waved under Tony’s nose. He’d expected to feel different, but mostly he just wanted to sneeze. He opened his eyes and came face to face with a stranger. A blink, and the stranger smiled, and he was Steve again.
“I like it,” he said, reaching up to palm Tony’s cheek. Strange’s magic had given him dark hair and a hawkish nose and the broody eyebrows of a cartoon villain. “It suits you.”
A glance in the mirror told Tony that Strange had left him with auburn hair and a smattering of freckles. His beard was gone. He made a face at his new reflection.
“I look like Pepper’s cousin,” he said. He stroked his chin and found he couldn’t even feel the hair. “The beard will be back at midnight, right?”
“I am not your fairy godmother,” Strange intoned. "But... yes. It will be back at midnight."
“I don’t like it,” Jan said, squinting at his face. “Put it back.”
“Can’t,” he said.
“I’m getting a marker,” Jan said. “It just looks wrong.”
Hank nodded, snagging Jan by the elbow as she whirled around on her heels.
“If I didn’t know it was you, well,” he said. “That’s impressive.”
“We accept Visa and Mastercard,” Wong said, nailing them with a look. “And no, I’m not kidding.”
Luke, their bodyguard for the evening, sported a pair of black shades and a sleek new suit. He let Strange magic him up some hair, but refused any other changes. Jan would be monitoring them over the comms, and Peter, Clint and Storm would be on the grounds in case they needed backup.
The armor was never more than a shout away. It should have made Tony feel better than he did.
Once Strange and Wong had left (with a chunk out of Tony’s bank account and no small amount of magic smugness) Hank, their emergency backup, shrank down until Jan could scoop him up in the palm of her hand.
“I always wanted a boyfriend I could keep in my purse!” she said, giggling.
Hank sighed in his tiny voice. The comms picked him up loud and clear as he said, “Too bad I’m going in Tony’s pocket.”
“People would pay good money to get where you’re going, buddy,” Tony replied, taking Hank from Jan. He was smaller than a mouse and weighed next to nothing. Tony was pretty sure he was rolling his eyes.
“Alright,” Steve said, clapping his hands. “Is everyone ready?”
“Operation: Rescue the Hulkster is a-go!” Peter chimed when the group nodded. Tony offered his arm to Steve.
“My gentleman,” he said. The corner of Steve’s mouth twitched and together they walked from the mansion.
Steve whistled as they drove up.
“Not impressed,” Tony told him, and added, “Ours is nicer,” just to make Steve chuckle.
Logan, wearing a chauffeur’s cap, opened the car door and said, “You’re gonna pay for this one later, bub,” in an undertone as Steve exited.
“I always seem to,” Tony replied. “Probably because none of the rest of you have money.”
“I have money,” Jan said, reclining in the front seat.
“Then you can bail Wolverine out of some foreign prison next time,” he said as he slid out of the backseat, taking Steve’s proffered hand. She stuck out her tongue.
“Tony,” Steve said in his ear, faintly amused. “Stay on track. We’re about to walk into the lion’s den.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Tony told him in a quiet aside. “Won’t be the last.”
Tony hadn’t actually been 100% sure they had the right place, not up until he saw the giant ice sculpture of the Hulk.
“Huh,” he said. “Well… there’s that.”
“That?” Jan repeated back to him, voice clear over the comms. “Something wrong?”
“Not wrong,” Steve assured her. “Just…”
“Tacky,” Tony supplied for him.
Behind them, Luke snorted. “That’s a word for it.”
A passing couple shot them a nasty look.
“Ooh, I don’t think they liked that,” Tony said. He curled a hand around Steve’s elbow. “Come on, I think we need to mingle. Watch our backs, Luke?”
“You got it,” Luke replied, and he did, right up until halfway through their second turn around the gardens, when he made friends with a bunch of other bodyguards standing around the hedges with a miniature television tuned into a football game.
“At least he looks natural,” Tony said, frowning. He’d wrapped Strange’s chain underneath his showiest, most ostentatious watch, but it hadn’t changed temperature in the slightest. If the Hulk was on the grounds, then they were nowhere near his location. They’d been inside nearly half an hour already, and ice sculptures aside they were no closer to their goal.
“I think I see a couple of fresh faces in our midst,” a man’s smooth, oily voice said. Tony turned to find himself face-to-face with Charles Verdan himself. He wore a smirk and a dark green suit, exquisitely tailored to his gym-perfect body. Everything about him left a bad taste in Tony’s mouth.
Tony’s chain suddenly flared to life, hot against his wrist. He surreptitiously adjusted his sleeve before extending his hand.
“Be careful,” Jan said in his ear. “He’s a real slimeball, but he was never an idiot.”
“Virgil Rhodes,” he said. Verdan had a grip like a fish; Tony saw Steve frown when it was his turn to shake hands. “This is my companion, Jeff Mace.”
“Charles Verdan,” he said. “Forgive me, but I don’t recall your names on our guest list.”
“Vernon Van Dyne is my cousin. He extended his invitation to us,” Tony said, which was more or less the truth. “Vernon thought that your event might run more towards my – shall we say interests? Than his.”
Verdan raked his eyes up and down Steve, then flicked his gaze back to Tony. He smirked. “I’m sure.”
Tony didn’t let himself look at Steve, but he could feel him besides him and he knew he was biting down on a scowl. Steve’s hand came to rest, proprietary, at the small of Tony’s back. He met Verdan’s gaze evenly.
“You have a lovely home,” he said. “We’re very happy to be here tonight.”
“Thank you,” Verdan said. “I hope you’ll enjoy the main attraction. And please, tell Vernon and his lovely daughter that I’m sorry they couldn’t be here. I do miss dear Janet’s presence.”
“Oh, ew, gross,” Jan said in Tony’s ear.
“Seconded,” Hank muttered. “What did you ever see in that guy?”
“It was one date,” Jan said with an audible eyeroll. “He had one glass of champagne and cried during our private showing of Titanic, then tried to get his bodyguards to drive us to the docks so we could reenact the king of the world scene. He kept calling me Rose.”
“Cut the chatter,” Steve said once Verdan’s back was turned. His hand was still at Tony’s back. “Hank, are you ready?”
“Ready, Cap,” Hank said, and Tony felt him jump from his pocket. “I’ll hitch a ride and trail him, see if we can get a good lead back to the Hulk.”
“Be careful. Stay out of the sight until one of us gives you the go ahead,” Jan told him, “and stay in touch.”
“Will do,” Hank said.
Tony watched Verdan wind his way through the crowd and imagined Hank trailing after him. “Don’t get stepped on,” he said. Steve started walking, leading Tony. Tony cast a curious look his way, but Steve was scanning the crowd and he didn’t seem to notice.
“What, one discussion with our charming host and you need a drink?” Tony joked. Steve blinked, then glanced at him. He withdrew his hand.
“Hardly,” he said. “With Hank keeping an eye on Verdan, I think it’s time we started our own investigation. Let's see if we can get this wrapped up quick.”
“Where does somebody keep a jolly green giant in their giant green mansion?” he asked under his breath as he and Steve picked their way down the hall.
“Don’t know,” Steve said. “Guess we’d better start opening doors.”
Tony snorted when Steve suddenly stilled and said, out of the corner of his mouth, “Footsteps. One man.”
Tony strained his ears and after a second he picked up on them too: footsteps coming down the hall. He looked for a quick exit, but there weren’t any – just a long stretch of hallway and a small table holding a bouquet of flowers that neither he nor Steve could have hidden under anyway.
Steve suddenly caught him up tight and held him there, braced against the wall.
“What’re you –” Tony started to say, right before Steve planted one on him. It was a real movie moment of a kiss, one of Steve’s hands on his waist and the other on his neck, his callused thumb brushing Tony’s pulse point. He pressed Tony back against the wall, and Tony reached up and grabbed handfuls of Steve’s jacket for support.
Steve tilted his head and bit Tony’s lip. He made a noise and Steve pulled back the tiniest bit so he could kiss the corner of Tony’s mouth, maybe an apology.
Someone coughed and stammered an apology. Tony looked over Steve’s shoulder to find a guard. He arched an eyebrow as best as he could with Steve’s lips at his jaw.
“I’m sorry, sirs, but the main house is off limits,” the guard said, looking embarrassed. Tony grinned at him, reaching up so he could curve one hand around the back of Steve’s neck, keeping him in place as Steve mouthed at the spot just below Tony’s ear.
“Sure, buddy,” he said. “Give us a sec, would you?”
The guard fled down the hallway without a second glance. Steve waited until the count of ten then relaxed against Tony, huffing a laugh against his neck.
“So,” he said, “remember the time you told me I was no good at distractions?”
“Dirty tricks from Captain America,” Tony replied, quashing his disappointment when Steve took two steps backwards. He pushed himself away from the wall. “I’m not sure I like it.”
“I’m not used to kissing you on missions without your helmet,” Steve said, shaking his head.
“Do not knock the helmet,” Tony said, and Steve lifted a hand and rapped it, gently, against Tony’s head, raising a challenging eyebrow. Tony shot him a look.
“Very cute,” he said. “Which way now?”
“Well, there’s two directions,” Steve said, “and two of us. I guess we split up.”
Tony grabbed him by the wrist as he turned to go, then cleared his throat when Steve glanced curiously at him.
“Be careful,” Tony said, hand still locked around Steve’s wrist. Steve stared at their hands with fondness.
“Aren’t I always?” he asked, smiling. Tony snorted.
“Sure,” he said, “and I’ll let Logan fly the quinjet next time.”
Steve chuckled. “I’ll be careful,” he said. “You do the same, Shellhead.”
“Promise,” Tony said, and with one last lingering brush released Steve’s wrist. Steve cocked an eyebrow, shaking his head.
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” he said, starting off down the long hall. Tony rolled his eyes and tossed him a sarcastic salute and only thrilled a little bit in the way it made Steve laugh. “That’s not the Avengers motto.”
Tony watched him go, lingering in the doorway, until Peter took the opportunity to ruin the moment by saying, “If it’s not the Avengers motto, then why do you guys say it to me all the time?”
“Because you promise to stay off the ceilings after Jarvis cleans them and then we find footprints,” Tony said. “And don’t interrupt private conversations.”
“Dude? Private? We’re all on the comms,” Peter said. “Just because everyone else is eavesdropping…”
“Shh!” Jan hissed, high enough to make the comm crackle, alongside Clint’s snickering and Ororo’s fond sigh. If Steve was listening in, too, at least he had the good grace to ignore how Tony’s moment was being ruined.
“Silence on the lines,” Tony said, “and keep an eye out for suspicious activity, all of you.”
“Oh, yeah, lots of suspicious birds up in this tree,” Peter said. “It’s all on you and Cap, Tony.”
“Big, green guy,” Tony said, edging the door open and slipping through it into another long dark hallway. The house was like a maze, but then so was the one he’d grown up in. Nothing like retracing your footsteps. “How hard can he be to find?”
There was a picture of a picture of Jan on Verdan’s desk, clipped from a magazine article about Giant Girl.
“You get the weirdest stalkers, GG,” he said to her over the comms.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” she snorted.
Tony pulled out a drawer and the bookshelf to his left swung out to reveal a staircase.
“Huh,” he said. “Think I found something here, guys.”
The staircase wound down for what felt like miles. Tony wished he was doing in this in the armor. It was some comfort, at least, to think of it waiting out there, just the press of a button away, but the air was getting colder and colder and he shivered in a way he never did when he wore the suit.
He could hear something from down below, a low rumble. The chain around his wrist flared up, white hot.
“Think I might have found our guy,” he whispered.
“Want to wait for backup there?” Steve’s voice crackled in his ear.
“Let me make sure I’m not walking into the world’s creepiest wine cellar first,” Tony said. Steve said something in reply, but the comms started crackling, distorting the words until Tony couldn’t make them out. “Cap? Hey, Steve?”
Nothing. Tony continued down the stairs. It was pitch black at the bottom; he reached out a hand, groping at the wall until he found a switch. He flipped it and had to close his eyes when light flooded the room. He blinked back the sparks from his eyes and came face-to-face with the Hulk, chained in the middle of the room with his head bowed nearly to the ground.
“Oh, buddy,” Tony said. The Hulk snorted, a melancholy sound. His eyes were fixed on the ground; Tony wasn’t entirely sure the Hulk knew he was there. Tony edged his way forward. The Hulk was anchored to the ground with thick chains, but Tony wasn’t stupid enough to think he couldn’t break them if given the incentive. “Can you hear me? Hulk?”
No answer. Tony rocked back on his heels, inspecting the chains. Nothing the armor couldn’t break, given time, but he wasn’t sure how much of that he had. Steve’s shield might do the trick, but there was still no answer from him. The comms hummed in Tony ears, crackling from time to time.
Simplest solution, then, was to see if he could get the Hulk to free himself. The amulet still hung heavy around the Hulk’s neck. Tony bent his head to get a good look at it; the Hulk’s hot breath ruffled his hair.
“Hold still,” Tony told him, unsure if the Hulk could even hear him. “And whatever you do… don’t smash me.”
He touched the amulet with careful fingers, then hissed and snatched his hand back when it burned. He glanced up at the Hulk and saw mostly the underside of his chin.
“This thing burn you too?” he asked, not expecting an answer. “No wonder you’ve been in that mood. Don’t worry. We’ll get you out of here. Sorry it took us this long.”
The Hulk grumbled. Tony sucked in a breath, stripping off his jacket. He wrapped it around his hand, then made another grab for the amulet. No use; it burned, straight through the fabric, and he only managed to yank once before he had to let go.
The amulet stayed where it was. Tony placed his hand against the Hulk’s arm and squeezed.
“Sorry, big guy,” he said. “Guess I’m going to have to try something else.”
The Hulk growled low in his throat.
“You can try whatever you like, it won’t free the monster.”
Tony turned on his heel and found Verdan standing there at the foot of the stairs. He was alone. Tony stiffened, pushing the button on his watch that would send his armor flying. Seeing as it was in the trunk of Jan’s limo, odds were it would take minutes to reach him, but he could hold his own against one guy until then.
“He’s not a monster,” Tony said. He was careful to keep himself in front of the Hulk, small gesture though it was. How many times had the Hulk done it for him? He’d lost count a long time ago.
Verdan was walking, slow, leisurely steps, winding his way around the room, never within range. Tony would have to leave the Hulk’s side to go after him. He settled himself into a ready stance and waited, watching the man’s every move.
Verdan had sharp, snake-like eyes and broad shoulders. He looked like a man who knew how to throw a punch.
Tony wanted his armor.
“Not a monster?” Verdan repeated. “No, I suppose not. Look at him, that perfect specimen. All that power, and he uses it to chase pigs around at county fairs and tell people to pay their taxes. It’s wasteful.”
“Being kind isn’t a waste,” Tony defended, shoulders tensing every time Verdan took one of his little sliding steps forward. “What, he should wreck cities just because he can?”
The Hulk made a mournful sound behind him. Tony hoped Bruce wouldn’t remember this later.
“To have all that power at your fingertips? The pinnacle of masculinity? And to do nothing with it?” Verdan said, raising one sharp grey eyebrow. He bared his teeth in a grin, then tugged at his green tie, then started to unbutton his shirt. An amulet matching the one the Hulk wore swung free.
Tony got the feeling he wasn’t going to like what happened next.
“When I said I hoped you would enjoy the evening’s main event,” Verdan said, “well, to be honest, I lied.”
The pendant glowed against his crisp white shirt. Tony took one step back towards the Hulk and, sparing the briefest of glances over his shoulder, found the Hulk’s own amulet shining brightly against his green chest. The Hulk’s face was contorted in pain.
“Ant Man!” Tony said. “I could use a little help here!”
Watching Hank spring out of thin air was old hat to Tony, but the surprise on Verdan’s face was satisfying.
That was about all any of them got, though, as the Hulk suddenly reared forward.
“Oh, sh-” was all Tony got out before the Hulk, chains shrieking with the strain, thrashed back down, pounding his fists against the ground. The whole room shook, lights flickering, throwing Tony, Hank and Verdan to the floor. Tony struggled to his feet, cursing under his breath. He needed his armor if he wanted to talk the Hulk down without getting smashed.
“I’m gonna try and calm him back down!” Hank said, shrinking back down and heading directly for the Hulk.
“What are you doing to him?” Tony shouted at Verdan. Verdan was gripping his chest, face a twisted grimace. Sweat dripped down his forehead; it shone faintly green.
Realization dawned on Tony.
“You didn’t,” he said. Verdan bared his teeth.
“No pain,” he said, gasping to get the words out, “no gain.”
Some days Tony really couldn’t believe the losers who managed to become halfway competent supervillains.
He couldn’t wait for the armor any longer – he barreled forward, throwing himself at Verdan and fighting for that burning, glowing amulet, trying to rip it from his neck. There was an aura around Verdan, a sickly green glow that Tony didn’t even want to think about.
Verdan heaved him off with his stolen strength, gasping and groaning the whole time. There was a vein throbbing at his temple and his arms and chest strained at his expensive clothes. Tony hit the opposite wall with a grunt. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a punch heading straight for his face, so he threw himself out of the way, rolling with the motion.
Work with your opponent’s next move, Steve’s voice echoed in his head. Anticipate it and turn it against them.
Verdan was prowling like a caged animal, clearly in pain. He seemed unfocused and confused, eyes roaming from one end of the room to the other. However he was doing it, the transfer was clearly taking its toll. Tony wasn’t sure he would survive if it continued.
The Hulk started to roar in earnest, thrashing back and forth with a ferocity Tony had rarely seen. He hoped Hank was holding on tight. One chain snapped and he reared to the side, pounding his huge fists on the floor. The whole room shook. Something high up gave an ominous creak, then a groan.
“You need to stop,” Tony said, throwing himself forward and grabbing Verdan by the shoulders. “However you’re doing this, you need to hit the “off” button before he brings the house down on all of us.”
If Verdan could hear him, he didn’t show it. He was howling in earnest now, arms expanding beneath Tony’s grip. The seams of his jacket popped at the same moment the Hulk’s second chain snapped. Tony had only a split-second to pull them both out of the way before the Hulk lunged at them, blind with rage and pain.
Tony knew what was going to happen a split second before it did and braced himself, trying to get himself and Verdan out of the way, but Verdan struggled and broke free, stumbling as much as he ran for the stairs. Then the Hulk leaped, straight up through the ceiling. Dust and chunks of ceiling rained down upon Tony as he braced for impact –
-- only to be surprised when it did not come. He opened his eyes and found Steve crouched above him, shield hefted high. He gave Tony a rueful grin.
“Almost too late for a rescue, there,” Tony said.
“I always did have a flair for the dramatic,” Steve said, extending a hand. He must have come down the stairs at the same moment Verdan was going up them, Tony realized dully.
"You should have grabbed Verdan instead of me," Tony said, taking Steve's hand. Steve hauled him to his feet. He was surprised, when Steve caught him up in a tight embrace, fisting one hand in the back of Tony’s shirt.
"When I can, I'll always come after you," he said, softly. “When your comm went offline – well. And then I couldn’t find you.”
“Worried about me?” Tony said, only it came out less like a joke than he’d intended. He pressed his nose against Steve’s shoulder, breathing him in, just for a moment. He smelled like the aftershave he’d borrowed from Tony for the night. “How’d you find me?”
“That a trick question?” Steve asked, letting go. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder and Tony followed it to find his armor hovering in the stairway. “I was lucky enough to see it zoom by. I followed it down here.”
“Aw, baby,” Tony said, palming the armor’s shoulder. Steve snorted.
“I really don’t want to know whether you’re talking to it or me,” he said. “Suit up and let’s go. It’s chaos up there. Verdan’s little stunt doesn’t seem to have ended with him.”
“I think whatever that amulet’s doing, it’s not contained to just Verdan,” Jan shouted as Tony joined the fray, punching a party guest in the face. Hank was behind her, full-sized and cradling his head in one hand, but other than that he seemed no worse for the wear. “They all just suddenly got all growly and rage-y!”
Luke was taking on a group of bodyguards with glowing green eyes. “I thought you guys were cool!” he shouted, gritting his teeth as one of them hit him with the portable television. “C’mon! Couldn’t even wait until half-time?!”
Overhead, Spider-Man spun by, the chandelier swaying in his wake.
“Freeze, you mooks!” he shouted.
“Mooks?” Jan said, shooting up a good twenty feet. The mooks in question scattered around her huge but still fashionable boots. Tony took one out with a quick repulsor blast; he fell backward with an undignified squawk. “Did you seriously just say mooks?”
“What?” Spider-Man asked. He webbed one man to the wall, then snatched the hat off his head and set it jauntily atop his own. It made the eyes of his mask look even larger and more alien. “Are we not allowed to call guys what they are now?”
“We’re not allowed to say mooks,” Tony told him, mildly bemused as a party guest tried (and failed) to shouldercheck the armor. A groaning creak alerted him to the fact that a small group was now trying to crush him under the Hulk ice sculpture; Tony repulsored it before anyone could get hurt. “New Avengers rule.”
“I thought only Cap and Storm got to make the rules,” Peter complained.
“Cap and Storm are out in the gardens, trying to keep the Hulk from running,” Steve’s voice buzzed over the comms. “Verdan’s lurking around and he’s –” a grunt “--surprisingly strong. We could use backup.”
“On my way,” Tony told him. He looked at Luke, Jan and Peter. “You three can handle things here?”
Jan had spared the Pym Partciles to wield a giant punch bowl. Tony figured that was answer enough.
He was currently trying to take a bite out of Steve’s shield. So, there was that.
“Storm’s trying to contain the Hulk,” Steve ground out, keeping the shield carefully between himself and Verdan. He had his feet planted in what looked like a very expensive flowerbed. “Hawkeye’s up in the trees.”
That explained the netting with the arrow shaft in it, uselessly tangled and ripped and hanging from Verdan’s elbow.
“We need to get the amulet off the Hulk,” Steve said.
“Tried it,” Tony said. “Couldn’t get it off. Verdan’s either.”
“I’m having difficulty myself,” Storm confessed, voice harried over the comms. “It’s impervious to lightning.”
“That’s not good,” Steve said, understatement of the century.
“What if we hit both at the same time?” Tony asked. Verdan’s nails screeched across the surface of Steve’s shield. Steve gave one good heave and sent him flying into a nearby topiary. He turned to look at Tony.
“At the same time?” he said.
“Hawkeye,” Tony said, waiting until he got a salute from a nearby tree branch before he continued, “You’re always going on about how you can shoot an apple off the head of a man doing a fox trot on a moving train. Ready to put that bow where your mouth is?”
“You know I hate it when you doubt me, Iron Man,” Clint said, smirk in his voice. “Tell me what you want done.”
Tony laid out the plan quickly, then took off as soon as he was sure everyone knew their part. Verdan took a swipe at his heel that missed by a foot; honestly, he was just getting sadder by the minute.
He flew up high, hovering for a moment against the sky. He could see New York all around him, lit up bright against the sky, and he waited for Storm’s nod and the familiar crackle of lightning before he dived down, aiming a repulsor blast that would miss the Hulk, but just barely. The flash of light made the Hulk shield his eyes, just for a second, roaring in pain.
Lightning split the sky at the same moment, heading straight for the amulet. Across the garden, Steve tackled Verdan, holding him still for the split second it took Clint to line up his shot.
Both amulets shattered with a flash of green light and enough force to send everyone flying back through the air. Tony righted himself at the last possible moment, a hair’s breadth away from smacking faceplate first into a tree.
Verdan was lying in an unconscious heap on the ground. Steve was nearby, already staggering to his feet, and Clint was dangling upside-down from a tree branch.
Tony’s heart caught in his throat. He couldn’t see the Hulk.
Then Ororo swooped down, cape fluttering in the breeze, with Bruce caught up in a bridal carry.
“Looking for someone?” she asked.
Tony let out a relieved breath, flipping his faceplate open. He grinned at Bruce. “Hey, big guy. Welcome back.”
“Thanks,” Bruce said, glancing around the garden. He raised one eyebrow. “So, you've got freckles and we've wrecked a mansion. What kind of party did I miss this time?”
“It’s okay,” Luke said with a sigh, picking at the remains of his dress shirt. “I’m used to it.”
“So,” Steve said lightly to Tony as they picked their way over the party guests. There were sirens in the distance, and Jan was bustling her way to the front, doubtlessly ready to direct them. “I didn’t get a chance to say it before. Happy anniversary.”
Tony turned to stare at him. “It’s not our anniversary,” he said. “I would know if – you know I actually use that calendar you bought me, right?”
Steve huffed a fond sigh. He bent down and transferred Verdan into a chair; the man gave a terrific snore.
“Not – our anniversary, exactly,” he said. “Or, not the anniversary of our relationship, anyway. The first day we met.”
“Oh,” Tony said, surprised. “Steve, I…”
Steve shrugged, smiling at his shoes.
“That’s why I told you I had another commitment, that day at the premier. And why I had all those errands to run. Jan and I were discussing party ideas,” he said. “I wanted to celebrate it. You gave me a home.”
“Right,” Tony told him, amused and a little in love all over again and relieved down to his bones. “A home filled with a bunch of delinquents masquerading as superheroes, where we fight monsters and aliens and the occasional really poorly thought-out cult and where we can’t keep an appliance in one piece for longer than a week.”
“You forgot Logan,” Steve said. “Logan’s a category of his own.”
Tony laughed, shaking his head. Steve reached for his hand. He squeezed and Tony felt it through the armor, carefully interlocking his own fingers with Steve’s. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”