“No,” Tony says, pushing the dossier back across the table. “I’m not doing it.”
General Ross glares at him. “We’re giving the Avengers a mission.”
Tony leans back in his chair, being deliberately annoying out of reflex more than anything else. “First, the Avengers don’t exist anymore.”
“Tony,” Ross begins.
“Because you locked them all up,” Tony adds. “Just so we get that straight.”
Ross smiles. “If they hadn’t broken the Accords, we wouldn’t have needed to lock them up.”
Tony matches his smile, although it’s an utterly insincere toothy grin. “And yet, I’ve read through the Accords, and nothing in there requires that I do your bidding. I might not be able to go on unauthorized missions, but that doesn’t mean I’m at your beck and call.”
“You can’t use the Iron Man armor without being authorized,” Ross snaps.
“Yeah, I got that,” Tony replies. “But it’s still my property, and I might be an employee, but I’m not a slave. And I don’t want this mission.”
Tony knows what this mission is about, flexing US muscles in a war-torn Afghan province with a high probability of civilian casualties. He’s not interested in being someone’s enforcer, not anymore.
Ross leans forward. “Have you made any progress in finding Thor or Dr. Banner?”
“Pretty sure they’re not on the planet,” Tony replies glibly, but his stomach is sinking. He’s not worried about Thor, but Bruce? Ross has wanted Bruce in custody for a long, long time, and he’s had plenty of time to prepare a holding cell for the Hulk.
Obviously, they know the cell on the helicarrier isn’t going to work, but that doesn’t mean they can’t improve on the design.
Other than Rhodey and Vision, Tony’s lost every friend he ever had, making enemies out of the other Avengers, and he doesn’t want to lose Bruce, too. He hasn’t looked for Bruce before, because he figured if the guy needs some alone time, it’s the least he can do.
Plus, it seemed safer not to look.
“Really?” Ross asks. “Well, I suppose we’ll know soon enough. The UN has agreed that finding Banner is a priority, and that Thor should answer for the mess in London.”
Thor can take care of himself, but Bruce—
Tony has to find him first.
He shrugs. “Good luck with that. Like I said, pretty sure he left the planet. He usually calls if he’s going to be gone for more than a month or so, you know.”
Ross’ eyes narrow. “Is that right?”
“Hadn’t you heard?” Tony asks. “We’re like this.” He crosses his fingers. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some actual work to do.”
He gets up and strolls out, faking insouciance. They’ll be watching him, of course. Tony knows he’s always being watched, but he has ways of going undetected.
And he still has that phone. Maybe, if he can save Bruce, he can recapture a bit of the magic that had made them such a good team to start with.
He can save someone. But he’s going to need help to do it.
“Are you sure you wish to go alone?”
Tony can hear the unspoken “sir” on the end of that question, and Tony feels a pang when he thinks about Jarvis. Friday is a perfectly adequate assistant, but she’s not Jarvis, and Jarvis is essentially dead—because Vision isn’t Jarvis either.
Still, he’s pretty decent company, all things considered.
“I don’t think you’re going to be inconspicuous,” Tony points out. “Besides, it’s Cap. I’ll be fine.”
Vision cocks his head. “Last time you were in Captain Rogers’ presence, you were not fine.”
Tony smiles. “Yeah, well, we’ll be in public and trying to fly under the radar today, and you being there would be conspicuous. Thanks, though.”
“When will Colonel Rhodes be returning?” he asks.
Tony glances at his watch. “Two days. He should know by then whether they’re going to let him come back.”
“There shouldn’t be any problem with your prosthetics,” Vision replies. “Colonel Rhodes has made tremendous progress.”
Privately, Tony thinks Vision is right about that. Rhodey is getting around a hell of a lot better these days, and in the suit, most would have no idea that he had a spinal cord injury. Besides, after Tony’s pointblank refusal to play ball, they’re going to want Rhodey back in the chain of command.
Not that Rhodey will follow illegal orders, or that he’ll follow orders blindly, but he will follow orders.
“If anybody asks, I’m heading to LA for a meeting with Pepper,” Tony says.
Pepper has been great about the whole thing, willingly providing Tony with an airtight alibi when necessary. He has a secure line set up where they can exchange encrypted communications, including making arrangements for things, and Tony waits until his jet is in the air before he presses the button that hurtles him out into space in his suit.
All of his suits are stealth by now, and he flies to the meeting place of Steve’s choosing—northern Africa, of all places, in Togo, Nigeria. Tony doesn’t allow himself to think about whether Steve’s home base is anywhere nearby.
In point of fact, Wakanda is nearby, and after throwing his support behind the Sokovia Accords, T’Challa had retreated to his kingdom and his duties. If he provided sanctuary to the other Avengers, that’s none of Tony’s business.
Tony definitely doesn’t want to know.
He finds an out of the way place to park the armor and pulls a ball cap out of his back pocket and tugs it down over his face, slipping a pair of sunglasses on. Disguise in place, Tony slips into the crowd of locals and tourists and heads for the small café Steve selected as a meeting place.
Steve is already there, looking just as stalwart and righteous as ever, bareheaded and wearing a pair of aviators.
Tony sits down across from him. “Steve.”
“I got your message,” Steve replies. “Do you want something to drink?”
“Coffee would be great,” Tony says.
Steve nods. “Be right back.”
Tony shifts uncomfortably, looking around for anybody who might be out of place, but he doesn’t see anything that would give him pause.
Steve returns a few moments later with a small cup of very strong coffee and sets it in front of Tony. “Were you followed?”
“No,” Tony replies. “As far as anybody is concerned, I’m in Los Angeles, meeting with Pepper.”
Steve raises his eyebrows. “Are you two back together?”
“We still work together, and she’s willing to cover for me.” He has no intention of confiding in Steve, not yet. “I’m not giving Ross ammunition to use against me.”
Steve hitches a shoulder. “You’re taking quite the risk.”
“We need to find Bruce,” Tony replies.
Steve leans back in his chair. “Bruce is out of things. Why not leave him alone? If you’re working for Ross—”
Tony feels the anger, hot and bright. “Fuck you,” he hisses. “I didn’t sell you out, Steve. I made the decision I thought was right, and then I stood by the agreement I made. It was shitty, and I hated it, but I did the best I could.”
Steve’s expression is stony. “That wasn’t my question.”
“I didn’t want any of you in that place,” Tony snaps. “I didn’t put you there. I don’t want Bruce there; he hasn’t done anything wrong. So, yeah, maybe I want to find him before Ross does.”
Steve swallows. “You think the threat is imminent?”
“Yeah, I think it’s fucking imminent,” Tony whispers. “You think I’d be here if it wasn’t? You think I’d be asking for your help if I didn’t think that Ross had a cage and a means to put Bruce in it?”
Steve looks down at his hands. “I don’t know. Would you have left them there?”
“No,” Tony admits. “I’d have found a way to get them out.”
“That’s what I needed to know,” Steve replies. “I’ll help you find him.”
Tony nods. “I’ve done the math. From the data we have, he flew east, which means he had to land in one of the ‘stans, maybe Tibet, China, somewhere like that.”
“You have a plan?”
“I have a plan,” Tony replies. “Bruce still gives off a low level of gamma radiation. I’m looking for that signature. I may need your help bringing him in.”
Steve shakes his head. “If Bruce doesn’t want to come in from the cold—”
“Judging from what Ross said to me, his whole purpose was to put us in cages,” Tony interrupts. “And for that, I am sorry.”
Steve nods. “Yeah. I know.”
“He wants Bruce in a cage,” Tony continues. “You know it, I know it, and wherever we stash Bruce is going to be a hell of a lot more comfortable than one of Ross’ glass cubes.”
Steve sounds reluctant as he says, “Agreed,” but at least he’s listening to what Tony’s saying.
“Bruce is good at covering his tracks, but I have a couple of programs to track him,” Tony says. “I have to believe that Ross has some of the same tools; we just need to be faster. And I’m being watched too closely to do all of it myself.”
“You know we’ll do what we can for Bruce,” Steve says. “He’s one of us.”
Tony wishes he didn’t hear “and you’re not” at the end of that statement, but he lets it go. It’s no more than he deserves, because Ross had played him like a fucking piano, and Tony doesn’t have many friends left these days.
He thinks Bruce is still a friend, or would be if Tony finds him and avoids making the kind of mistakes he’d made with Steve and the others.
Tony hands over a flash drive. “This will give you a secure line into Friday, and all of the other resources we have at our disposal. Friday will give you all the details. If you need anything, let her know, and I’ll get it to you.”
“Do you need anything, Tony?” Steve asks. “I don’t like thinking of you alone.”
Tony forces a smile. “I’m not alone. I’ve got my bots, I’ve got Pepper, and I’ve got Rhodey and Vision. I do okay.”
Steve nods. “You’d do better with Bruce, though.”
“Have you heard from Nat?” Tony asks.
Steve shakes his head. “As far as I know, she’s gone completely to ground. You know how she is.”
“Yeah, I know,” Tony replies. “Typical. I should get going.”
“Go,” Steve says gently. “And Tony—I’m sorry.”
Tony wonders what he’s sorry for: not signing the Accords, breaking up the team, not telling Tony that Steve’s boyhood BFF killed Tony’s parents, not backing down, leaving Tony in Siberia, nearly killing him…
While he doesn’t blame Steve, not exactly, he’s still angry, too. He’s kind of a mess, if he’s honest.
“Yeah, me too,” Tony mutters, because he’s sorry and pissed and a hundred other things.
For a guy who has everything, he’s sure lost a lot.
Finding Bruce turns out to be a lot easier said than done. His picture has been widely circulated, and Tony knows Ross has put a price on his head. Someone should have seen him, reported him, but there’s nothing. Bruce’s gamma signature is faint enough that it’s going to take time to track him down.
But that’s time Tony has to create something that can put Bruce down without hurting him. Not that Tony wants to knock him out, but he’s willing to go to just about any lengths to protect Bruce.
Even if it means protecting Bruce from himself.
He’s not the best chemist in the world—Bruce would be way better at this—but Tony is highly motivated, and he’s a genius. He stays in sporadic contact with Steve, communicating about potential leads and dead ends.
Tony isn’t sure things will ever be easy between him and Steve, but their communications do get easier.
Granted, they have to keep things short to avoid discovery, but there’s no acrimony, which is a huge step in the right direction as far as Tony is concerned.
“No one is this good at hiding,” Steve says, about two weeks before they finally get a lock on Bruce’s location. “I don’t care how much experience Bruce has, it’s like he’s actually invisible.”
Tony frowns. “If you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
“Sherlock Holmes?” Steve asks.
Tony actually smiles at that. “Yeah, or a bastardized version.”
“What are you thinking?” Steve asks.
“What if he is invisible?” Tony replies. “That would explain a lot, and this is Bruce. If he wanted to just—not be seen, he could probably figure it out.”
Steve is quiet for a moment. “Then how are we supposed to find him?”
“By building something that sees him when the naked eye can’t,” Tony says. “I’m going to work on it. I estimate ten to fourteen days before we have a lock on his general location from the gamma signature. I’ll have the right tools by then.”
Steve makes a thoughtful noise. “Where are you going to stash him?”
“Upstate New York,” Tony replies. “We have the facilities, including a safe room.”
“And if Ross gets wind of his presence?” Steve asks. “Maybe he should come with me.”
Tony bites his tongue against the immediate negative response. “If necessary, I’ll send him away, or I’ll make sure he gets away. I know Ross’ game now, and I won’t play it.”
“All right, Tony,” Steve says. “I believe you.”
“And I don’t want to know where you are,” Tony says peevishly. “I can make an educated guess, but I don’t want to know.”
“Good, because I wasn’t planning on telling you,” Steve replies, and Tony can hear the smile in his voice. “Are you still alone?”
“Vision is here,” Tony says. “Rhodey is visiting Walter Reed. I’m looking into making high-tech prosthetics, since I seem to be in the business already.”
Steve clears his throat. “That’s a really good thing to do.”
“Well, I have some karma to work off,” Tony replies. “Providing excellent prosthetics for soldiers is the least I can do.”
“Talk to you soon?” Steve asks.
“I’ll be in touch once I have his location,” Tony replies and ends the call.
Of course, now he has to build a device that will allow them to see an invisible man—and he would love to know how Bruce managed to do just that.
Tony can’t wait to ask him.
Tony makes sure he has business in Chennai when they finally get a lock on Bruce’s location. He knows that Ross is watching him, and he’s going to use that fact to their advantage. If Ross thinks he knows where Tony is at all times, and he has no idea that Tony has Bruce, Tony’s place in upstate New York will be the last place Ross looks for him.
At least that’s the plan.
Predictably, Bruce is in the slums, and he and Steve meet up as the sun goes down right at the edge. Tony hands Steve a pair of goggles.
“You want me to wear these?” Steve asks.
“Why did you think I insisted on doing this after dark?” Tony asks. “Not only do the goggles work better at night, but we’re less likely to be seen.”
“Not that anybody around here is going to care,” Steve mutters, but he puts the goggles on gamely. “So, how does this work?”
Tony holds up the locator. “This will light up the closer we get, and once we’re in sight, Bruce will show up through the goggles as bright green.”
“Did you have a choice on the color?” Steve asks.
Tony shrugs. “Sure, but why mess with the classics?”
He can’t see much of their surroundings with the goggles on, but he sees enough to know that this place is a shithole. It kills him a little bit to think of Bruce living here, but maybe Bruce has work here; Tony knows that Bruce had enjoyed his time as a doctor in India previously.
Still, if Bruce is invisible, Tony wonders what he’s doing for work, for food, or for anything else. How is he surviving?
“Left here,” Tony says, following the faint whir of the tracker. The tracker whirs again, and he says, “We’re getting closer.”
“How do you know?” Steve asks.
And Tony grins triumphantly when a green figure appears before him, huddled on the ground, unmoving.
Tony suspects that Bruce is playing possum, and Steve is looking in the opposite direction, watching Tony’s back, so he says, “Because I can see him, Captain.”
They round the corner and Tony can see Bruce’s head come up. He’s got his head cocked, and Tony knows Bruce, so he says, “Radiation, actually.”
Bruce moves to a half-crouch, and then Steve says, “Dr. Banner, Bruce,” and Bruce starts to move.
He’s not moving all that fast, though, and Steve easily catches him, holding him in a grip that looks gentle and implacable, all at the same time. Bruce’s green form struggles wildly in Steve’s grip, and Tony says, “Shit, I knew this was going to happen.”
He pulls out the syringe he’d brought with him, yanks off the cap on the needle with his teeth, and plunges it into Bruce’s thigh, the easiest place to reach.
Turns out, Tony is a better chemist than he thought, because Bruce goes limp in Steve’s grip.
Tony pulls off the goggles and sees Steve holding nothing. It’s weird as hell, and Tony puts the goggles back on. “Okay, we need to get him out of here.”
Steve lifts him easily and makes a disappointed sound. “He’s so thin.”
“Yeah,” Tony agrees, and doesn’t mention how bad he smells.
“How long is he going to be out?” Steve asks. “Is it going to be long enough?”
Tony grimaces. “Let’s hope so. I have another dose, but I have no idea how dangerous it would be to give him back to back injections.”
“I didn’t think anything could kill him,” Steve says.
“Yeah, well, I would have said becoming and staying invisible for this long would be impossible, too,” Tony replies. “I don’t want to take the chance if I can avoid it.”
Steve helps Tony bundle Bruce into Tony’s jet, and while the smell is pretty bad, no one can see Bruce’s still form in the seat.
“Are you going to be okay?” Steve asks. “I could come with you.”
“That would defeat the purpose of flying under the radar,” Tony says. “But I’ll call you if I need you.”
Steve nods, then holds out a hand. “This one felt good.”
Tony shakes his hand. “Yeah, it did. I’ll keep you in the loop.”
“I’ll talk to you soon.” Steve claps Tony on the shoulder. “Let me know if you need any help.”
He pays his crew well not to ask any questions, and so while he can see the questions drift across the flight crew’s faces, no one actually asks the question of why there’s a stench.
And seriously, Tony’s first job is going to be getting Bruce into a shower. They can figure out the invisibility thing later, if it’s not under Bruce’s control.
He’s expanded the New York headquarters a bit since Bruce was there, and there are a couple of Quinjets plus Tony’s personal jet, and there’s a safe room developed by SHIELD.
It won’t hold the Hulk, but Tony trusts Bruce’s control, and it’s designed to hold most enhanced persons. Tony carries Bruce inside himself, feeling incredibly weird about having Bruce’s deadweight tossed over his shoulder.
Also, Bruce definitely needs a new set of clothes, because Tony can feel how ragged the fabric is. There’s a pallet in the corner of the safe room, and Tony puts Bruce down, arranging him as gently as possible.
He closes the door but doesn’t lock it, and then he sets up the monitoring system so he can track Bruce’s vitals. He’ll know when Bruce starts to wake up, because as soon as he sees those white walls, his heart rate is going to spike.
Tony’s mind races as he watches the monitors. The room appears empty, and he just can’t figure out how Bruce did this. How did he manage to become invisible for so long? Tony hadn’t felt any devices on him that would sustain this kind of effect.
He’s not sure how long the drug will last—its entire purpose is to make Bruce safe, to knock him out long enough to calm down.
So far, it’s lasted long enough to fly back to New York, which is hella impressive and might have been a bit of overkill, all things considered.
Then again, Tony had estimated the dosage based on Bruce’s weight when he’d been at the Tower, and he’s probably lost about 25 pounds. It could be that the sedative just hit him harder because he’s underweight and not in the best of health.
Tony doesn’t have to wait long, only a couple of hours, when the alarm buzzes to let him know that Bruce’s vitals indicate he’s waking up.
He moves quickly, and he just manages to catch Bruce as the door slides open, grabbing him by what feels like his upper arms. “Hey, easy,” Tony says. “Bruce, it’s okay. You’re safe, I swear. The room was a precaution, and we were monitoring your vital signs and knew you were waking up. I was coming to get you!”
Tony doesn’t try to hold Bruce when he wrenches away, although he can hear scuffling sounds that indicate Bruce has moved into the far corner.
He’s not sure what he expected. He didn’t think Bruce would fall over himself in gratitude, but they’d been friends, anyway. He doesn’t understand why Bruce would want to put so much distance between them.
“Okay, wow, this went way better in my head,” Tony says, sitting down in the doorway. He doesn’t want Bruce to feel trapped, but at the same time, he can’t see Bruce, and sitting in the doorway is the only way he’ll know Bruce is still in the room.
Tony knows he probably looks about as tired and rumpled as he feels; he hasn’t slept since landing in Chennai, and he hasn’t had the chance to change clothes either.
“Talk to me, Bruce,” Tony says softly. “Just—say something. Tell me who did this to you, and I promise I’ll help you fix it.”
The laughter makes Bruce sound more than a little on edge. “Who did this to me?” he manages, voice rusty. “I did, Stark. I needed to not be seen, so I wasn’t.”
Tony runs a hand over his face, thinking quickly. He needs to see Bruce, to make sure he’s okay for himself, with his own eyes. “Okay, what process did you use? Because I’m assuming that you can’t reverse it, or—”
“I wished real hard not to be seen,” Bruce snaps. “And I’d planned on staying gone.”
“For how long?” Tony asks, hurt at the implications. “Forever? I thought we were friends at least!”
Bruce sounds a little less vehement when he says, “There was a fucking manhunt on.”
“Okay, yes,” Tony admits after a moment, knowing that was at least partially his fault. “There are a lot of people looking for you, including Steve and me, and we were hoping to find you first. I didn’t help them, but they have some smart guys on their side, and they were honing in on your gamma signature. It was only a matter of time, and they didn’t have a secret weapon, and I did.”
“You drugged me,” Bruce accuses, but without heat.
“And they would have shot you,” Tony counters. “And you would have racked up more bodies, and they would have used that against you, even if it was their own fault, the bastards.”
Bruce makes a noise that Tony can’t quite parse, not without seeing Bruce’s face. Clearly, action is needed. If he can’t make Bruce visible, he can at least solve the more immediate problems.
“Okay, this is what we’re going to do,” Tony says. “You’re going to get cleaned up, and get something to eat, and then we’re going to work on a way for you to at least be in control of whether or not you’re visible.”
Bruce frowns. “Why?”
“Why what?” Tony asks impatiently.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because you’re my friend!” Tony shouts, trying not to think about how few and far between his friends are these days. Or what Bruce might say when he hears the whole story, if he doesn’t know it already. “Because even if I don’t always listen, you’re usually the only voice of reason I do listen to! Because maybe if you’d been here, I would have…” He stops. “And I just want to see you again and make sure you’re okay, which you are clearly fucking not.”
Bruce’s voice is wondering, like he’s finally understanding the lengths to which Tony has gone. “You made a better Veronica.”
“Well, yeah,” Tony replies. “I thought I might be able to convince you not to run again if I was the one who could make you safe.”
And suddenly, Bruce is just there. He’s wearing a pair of khakis and a t-shirt that are holey and caked with dirt, his hair is long and wild, and his beard is thick and liberally streaked with gray. He’s too thin and deeply tanned, and Tony has no idea what to do with him.
He has no idea how to make this better.
Tony’s poker face is gone, and he knows he’s not hiding his shock. “You really need a haircut, Big Guy.”
Bruce laughs and runs a hand over his beard. “I need more than that.”
“Whatever you want,” Tony promises recklessly. “I’ll give you whatever you want.”
“Yeah, sure, this way,” Tony says. “I, um, cleared everybody out. I figured it would be safer just in case, and—I wasn’t sure.”
There aren’t many people to clear out, just Vision, since Rhodey is back at Walter Reed right now. SHIELD keeps some of their clandestine shit there, on the down low. Tony figures it’s not forever, and if he can keep Bruce hidden, it adds another layer of safety from Ross.
“I thought SHIELD had packed it in,” Bruce says
“That’s a long story in itself,” Tony replies, leading him through what looks like a locker room to a set of private showers. “Look, there are sweats, toiletries, whatever. I’m going to get something for you to eat.”
The truth is, Tony remodeled this place for the team he envisaged for the future, which clearly isn’t going to happen any time soon. For right now, it’s just him and Bruce, and Tony doesn’t mind that a bit.
And he really does mean to get Bruce something to eat, but he’s so tired, and he’s half afraid that Bruce will disappear again.
Tony leans against the wall outside the bathroom and closes his eyes. He can keep Bruce safe, and in some small way, he can make this one thing right.
Bruce emerges from the steamy bathroom. “Hey.”
Tony opens his eyes, noting that Bruce hasn’t trimmed his hair or beard. He looks a little wild, but his smile reaches his eyes. “Going for the mountain man look, huh?” Tony asks, trying to make a joke out of it, trying not to think about how badly he’s failed.
Bruce shrugs. “It works as a disguise.”
“Yeah, you could say that,” Tony mutters and kind of wishes he could reach out and touch, just to assure himself that it’s really Bruce. “You hungry?”
Bruce nods silently, his smile fading, his dark eyes a little lost.
Tony leans in, and then puts a tentative hand on Bruce’s shoulder. “You okay?”
“Tony—” Bruce chokes out, turning his face away.
Tony hauls him in for a hug, giving into the impulse to touch. “It’s okay,” he promises. “I’ve got you. We’ll figure it out. We will.”
Bruce shakes his head, but not in negation of Tony’s words. It’s more like he’s in disbelief that he’s actually here.
“So, I think it’s only right to warn you that I still haven’t learned how to cook,” Tony murmurs.
Bruce manages a laugh. “You’re a genius, and you can’t cook.”
“It’s harder than it looks,” Tony protests, and he pulls back to get a good look at Bruce. “I think there might be a frozen pizza somewhere, though.”
Bruce smiles. “That works. Where’s everybody else?”
Tony sighs. “Let me get the food started, and I’ll tell you. How much do you know about what happened with the Sokovia Accords?”
“You signed, Steve didn’t, and there was some big fight,” Bruce says, following him up to the kitchen. “I didn’t have the opportunity to do much research.”
“Promise me something,” Tony says as he pulls the pizza out of the freezer, not looking at Bruce as he turns the oven on.
There’s a pause, and Bruce says, “If I can.”
Tony stiffens, and then he says, “Promise me that you won’t hate me when I tell you exactly how badly I fucked things up.”
He can feel Bruce move closer, right up next to him, and a broad, callused hand squeezes his neck. “Tony. It’s me. I’m never going to hate you, not when—not after—not after everything.”
Some of the tension drains out of him then, and Tony smiles crookedly. “Thanks.”
“Besides,” Bruce says, “even if you turned me over to Ross, it wouldn’t be without cause.”
Tony glares at him. “Never gonna happen, Bruce.”
“Then we’ll make things right,” Bruce promises.
Tony has no idea how they’re going to do that, but with Bruce here, he’s starting to feel hopeful for the first time in a long time.