They really should have known better than to tamper with unknown, unstable alien technology. But Tony Stark had never really cared about conventional precautions, and had decided that it would be an awesome idea to blow up a super-powered Tesseract-based weapon with the Iron Man repulsors. Unfortunately, it backfired, literally.
Bruce had been in the lab as well, focused on the readings that JARVIS was feeding him, only half listening as Tony chattered on inanely, not giving any hint to what he was actually up to. The Tesseract really was an amazing piece of technology, and even with it being locked safely away in Asgard, the weapons that Hydra – and SHIELD – had created using its power were still fully functioning. Bruce would have thought that with them being cut off from their power source, they’d be useless, but somehow, they still had a connection to the cube.
He heard Tony yelling, followed by the sounds of an explosion, right before a wall of heat and debris slammed into him, knocking him off his feet and slamming into the wall behind him. The sudden shock was enough to jolt his control, and he felt his muscles shifting, his body transforming. His last thought before the Hulk took over was I need to find Tony!
Hulk opened bright gamma-green eyes with a snarl of rage, his nose burning with the stench of the fires that had sparked up in the lab, his ears ringing with the echo of the initial explosion. Glass crunched under his feet, and he roared, his head swinging from side to side, muscles flexing as he looked for the threat. There was fire; that usually meant soldiers, and Ross, pain and battle.
But nobody was shooting at him. An unfamiliar voice sounded around him. “Greetings, Mr. Hulk. If you don’t mind, would you please help Mr. Stark? He appears to be partially buried under the rubble.”
Hulk snarled at the invisible voice, looking around for its source. “Where?” he roared. “Not hide from Hulk! Hulk smash!”
“I would appreciate it if you did not smash me, Mr. Hulk. I have sounded the alarm and the rest of the Avengers should be here shortly. However, the lab is highly unstable, and I fear that it may collapse before help arrives. Please evacuate yourself and Mr. Stark as quickly as possible.” Hulk didn’t really understand the voice. It talked too much, like Tin Man.
Hulk blinked. Tin Man? Tony. Something niggled at the back of his mind. Stark. Tony Stark, Tin Man. Where was Tin Man?
He whirled around as something flickered at the corner of his vision. A shiny metal contraption was holding something in its claw, spraying white foam at one of the small fires. The fire went out, buried under the foam, and Hulk moved closer, then snarled, a huge fist swinging at the ceiling as it started raining on him.
“I apologize for the inconvenience, Mr. Hulk,” the disembodied voice said, “but I would ask again that you remove yourself and Mr. Stark from the situation.” A moment later, there was a rumble, and more debris dropped from the shelves. “I am afraid that the integrity of the lab is down to about twenty-three percent. I suggest that immediate action be taken.”
There was a soft groan from down on the ground somewhere, and Hulk followed the noise, stepping carefully around the lab. He saw the human lying on the ground, his eyes closed, covered in blood. Hulk blinked, then frowned. “Tin Man?” he asked, unsure. He had never seen the puny human outside of his metal armor, but the face looked familiar.
Carefully, he reached down, his large hands grasping Tony’s waist and chest, lifting him up and cradling him in one muscled arm. Brown eyes flickered open, dazed. “Big Guy?” Tony mumbled, and Hulk smiled widely. Tin Man remembered him.
“Puny Tony safe now,” he said decisively. “Hulk will protect.” The floor shook again, the small metal things whining and twirling around in a panic. Hulk growled at them; if they didn’t want to be smashed, they should be quiet.
“Heh. Knew I could count on you, Big Guy,” Tony murmured. “Get us out of here, yeah? ‘M jus’ gonna…sleep for a while, ‘k?” With that, his eyes closed again, and Hulk growled, the a low rumble that made the walls shake.
“Please evacuate the premises,” the voice asked again. “I have begun initiating safety protocols.” Hulk didn’t know what that meant, but he saw a part of the clear wall open, and he strode through it, cradling his precious burden as gently as he was able. The wall closed behind him again, and Hulk could hear various hisses and clanks as the voice did whatever it was supposed to do. Hulk didn’t really care.
Knowing that it wasn’t safe for Tony to be inside, where he could get hurt again, Hulk leapt through the nearest window, dropping nearly forty stories to land hard on the concrete, pavement breaking under his feet. In his arms, Tony gave a pained moan, but didn’t open his eyes. Carefully, his eyes watching for approaching danger, Hulk set Tony on the ground, much more carefully than he had done when he had caught Tin Man before. Puny Tony was weak, and Hulk could hurt him if he was too rough. He didn’t want that. Tony was a friend, and Hulk didn’t have many of those.
Hulk looked up with a snarl as he heard footsteps running towards him. “Hulk!” Starman said, sounding surprised. Then he saw Tony, lying on the edge of the crater at Hulk’s feet. Hulk curled his shoulders in defensively, wondering if Starman would say that Hulk had hurt Tony. Because Hulk always hurt people. He hurt them and scared them.
But Starman smiled instead, and Hulk froze. “JARVIS said you saved Tony,” he said, his voice friendly and relieved. “He said you were a big help.”
Hulk blinked; he didn’t know who JARVIS was, but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t being blamed for hurting Tony. He was being thanked for saving him. He smiled back. “Hulk protect puny Tony,” he agreed proudly.
Starman wasn’t afraid as he approached the two of them, touching Tony’s neck before talking to somebody who wasn’t there. “We need medics at the front,” he said. Looking up at Hulk, he asked carefully, “May I please pick Tony up? He needs help.” Hulk thought about it for a moment, but he could smell the blood on Tony and knew that he needed help. Help like what puny Banner did.
He nodded. “Yes. Help Tony,” he ordered. Steve nodded, picking him up gently.
“Thank you, Hulk. You’re a hero, you know. I’m sure Tony will tell you so when he wakes up,” Steve said, then strode off, Tony cradled protectively in his arms.
Hulk watched him go.
Ross was stupid, Hulk decided, staring out at the pouring rain, crouched inside a cave that he’d found and taken shelter in. Hulk was stronger than Ross, stronger than the army’s weapons, stronger than anyone. So Ross had tried to hurt Tony. He had thought that hurting Hulk’s friend would make Hulk listen to him. Ross had been wrong.
Hulk had smashed the soldiers and their puny weapons. He had saved Tony, smashed the lab where they had been keeping him, and run. Hulk didn’t like running away. Ross would chase him. Ross always chased Hulk. Hulk should have smashed Ross, but Tony was more important. Tony was hurt again, and Hulk needed to protect the fragile human.
He had looked, but Hulk hadn’t seen Tony’s protective metal suit. Hulk had focused on escaping instead, taking Tony to a safe place. Ross would come, because he always came, but they had some time before Ross found them again. And if Ross tried to take Tony from Hulk, Hulk would smash Ross so he could never hurt Tony or Hulk or Banner again.
Hulk remembered Betty. Pretty Betty had tried to help Hulk and puny Banner. Ross was Betty’s father, so Hulk didn’t smash. But Tony was more important now. Hulk would smash Betty’s father to protect Tony, even if Betty would be sad, and wouldn’t like Hulk anymore.
There was a groan from further back in the cave, and Hulk turned around, watching as Tony stirred, dark eyes opening slowly. “Where?” he mumbled, obviously trying to get his bearings.
Hulk huffed, and Tony startled. Hulk frowned, but didn’t move closer. He didn’t want to scare Tony. “Hulk keep Tony safe. Tony stays here, with Hulk. Ross will come. Hulk will smash Ross so Tony is safe,” he reassured the human.
Tony was silent for a moment, and then he let out a low, rough chuckle, struggling to sit up. “Come here, Big Guy,” he invited, and Hulk accepted the invitation, moving closer. Tony held out his arms, and Hulk stared, unsure. The inventor waggled his hands impatiently, and Hulk reached out with one hand. Tony gripped two of his fingers with both hands and used Hulk to pull himself into a sitting position. “That’s better,” he smiled, and Hulk smiled back. Tony wasn’t scared of Hulk. He had only been scared because he didn’t know where he was.
Suddenly, Tony shivered. “Ugh. I don’t suppose you have any clothes handy, do you?” he asked, wrapping his arms around his legs and scooting back towards the cave wall. Hulk frowned; why would he have clothes? He just tore them anyhow. But puny Banner liked clothes, he remembered. Tony did, too. Tony had lots and lots of clothes, so he must like them even more than Banner did.
Hulk was still cautious, still waiting for Ross to come, so he looked at Tony one more time, then walked back to the mouth of the cave. “Hey, wait!” Tony called, and Hulk stopped. “Where are you going?”
Shrugging, Hulk answered him. “Hulk protect Tony. Hulk watch for Ross. Ross will follow, always. Wants Hulk. Wants to hurt Tony. Hulk not let Ross hurt Tony,” he growled, his voice deepening into a low snarl. He fell silent then, tensing, worried that his angry tone would make Tony afraid. Tony had never been afraid of Hulk, but everybody was afraid of him sometimes. He didn’t want Tony to be like Betty. Pretty, brave Betty, who was afraid, but so strong. Betty was afraid of Hulk, even if she tried to hide it. Tony didn’t hide anything; he didn’t fear Hulk.
“Uh, no, I don’t think so,” Tony muttered, and Hulk whirled around as the human cursed, seeing that he had tried standing and almost falling, stubbing his toe on a rock. Tony glared up at him, pointing a finger at his chest. “I’m cold. You don’t get to leave me here, without clothes or my armor, to freeze while you wait for puny humans to smash. Come here,” he insisted, pointing to the spot directly in front of him.
Hulk narrowed his eyes and considered refusing, but Tony’s teeth were starting to chatter, and Hulk felt a niggle of worry in the back of his mind. Cold was bad for humans. It would make Tony sick. If Tony got sick, Hulk wasn’t doing a very good job at protecting him.
So he lumbered towards the back of the cave, stopping right in front of Tony. This time, when Tony reached for him, Hulk picked him up with both hands, tucking him into one arm so that he rested against Hulk’s chest. Tony sighed immediately, his eyes closing as his body relaxed. “Oh, man. You’re so warm,” Tony said, obviously delighted as he snuggled against Hulk’s chest, his face tucked into the curve of Hulk’s neck.
“Have a seat. Take a load off. The rest of the team will be here soon,” Tony said. Hulk frowned; when had Tony called the others? He rumbled irritably, but did as Tony asked, settling down against the stone wall further in the cave. Back here, he could see out if a helicopter came closer, and he could hear the soldiers, but they wouldn’t see him right away. If Ross came, Hulk would smash before Tony could get hurt.
Hulk sat there quietly, just breathing, with Tony resting comfortably against him, dark hair falling into his eyes. For once, Tony’s mouth was quiet, and Hulk enjoyed the silence. He loved it when Tony talked, but he liked it when Tony was quiet, too. It meant that Tony felt safe.
It was nearly forty minutes later when Hulk heard the sounds of a Quinjet. The rest of the team had found them. They would be able to get Tony some clothes, to make him warm again.
Standing, careful not to jostle the sleeping human, Hulk stepped out of the cave and into the sunlight, waiting. Tony was safe now. They both were.
Hulk roared as he tore another leg off of the giant spider thing. Except instead of eight legs, it had sixteen, and it was bigger than any spider Hulk had ever seen. Vicious pinchers snapped at him, biting and stinging him, making him even angrier. His fist punched up into the soft underbelly of the monster, and it screeched as it was knocked onto its back.
Up in the air, the Tin Man was flying around, shooting his pretty lights at the spider monsters. “Ugh. Arachnids! I hate spiders, you have no idea,” he chattered as he blew a huge hole in the spider that Hulk had just been fighting. “They’re all small and hairy and make webs and are just gross. No offense, Widow,” he yelled cheerfully, ignoring his com unit completely.
Hulk laughed, happy that he got to work with Tin Man again. Tony was much safer inside the armor, so Hulk could just watch him while he flew and blew things up. He liked blowing things up as much as Hulk liked smashing, and they had great fun when they played together.
“What do you say, Big Guy?” Tin Man asked, hovering in front of Hulk and flipping up his face plate. “We done here?”
Hulk saw the shadow before he saw the new spider thing, and he yelled, his hand reaching for his friend, but it was too late. The spider grabbed Tin Man and leapt away, Tin Man’s arms trapped to his sides in its pinchers.
Hulk roared and leapt after them, his hands making large holes in the buildings as he leapt up, higher and higher, following the spider. The monster moved fast, but Hulk was quick, too, and he kept up, following the spider right to its nest. This is probably what the Starman had been asking about earlier, where all the spiders came from.
Tin Man fell to the ground and didn’t move, his eyes closed. There was blood there, too, and his armor looked bent, like it had been smashed. Hulk roared, and threw himself onto the spider, his large fists battering against its head, killing it.
Hulk dropped to the ground, reaching for Tin Man, but a loud chittering noise filled the forest near him, and Hulk stopped, looking up. There were more spider things watching them, moving closer to Hulk and Tin Man. Hulk roared in warning, but they didn’t stop. Instead, they moved faster, their pinchers clacking together in anticipation. They were hungry.
Hulk snatched up Tin Man and leapt. Behind him, the spiders followed, some of them climbing the trees while others ran fluidly over the ground. There were too many of them. Hulk needed to protect his friend, but they were fast, and Tin Man wasn’t moving.
Dropping to the ground, Hulk found a place where the roots of a tree grew above the ground, creating a nest. Carefully, he set the Tin Man in the nest, then turned around to face the approaching spiders. He screamed. “Monsters no hurt Tin Man! Hulk smash spiders!” With that, he threw himself into the fray, doing his best to stay close to his friend so he could protect him.
As hard as Hulk fought, there were simply too many of the spider-things, and he was eventually overwhelmed, forced back towards the tree where the Tin Man lay. Bracing himself, he dug grooves into the forest floor beneath him, coming to a stop at the very edge of the root system, his large body shielding the prone man on the ground.
There was a low mumble that Hulk didn’t really pay attention to, followed by a more alert, “Shit. Hang on, Big Guy.” Hulk heard the whine of the repulsors just before twin waves of light and heat blew past him, tearing into the spiders, sending them skittering away, screeching angrily. “Hah. Yeah, didn’t like that so much, did you?” Tin Man muttered, clanking slowly to his feet. “Ouch. That’s gonna leave a mark,” he muttered.
“Tin Man okay?” Hulk asked gruffly, inordinately pleased to see the red and gold suit standing, steady and strong.
“Yeah, Big Green, I’m good,” Tin Man nodded, his eyes glowing. He looked around at the spiders that were slowly creeping closer. “I think it’s time to end this. Let’s smash us some spiders, shall we?”
Hulk laughed, the roaring sound sending the spiders skittering back again. “Hulk and Tin Man smash!” he agreed eagerly. The repulsors charged again, and Hulk leapt, crashing down into a mass of monstrous spiders, trusting Tin Man to protect himself now that he was awake.
Twenty minutes later, when the rest of the Avengers arrived, having taken care of the giant spiders in the city, Hulk and Tin Man were high-fiving each other, the trampled forest littered with spider carcasses.
“Incoming!” Tin Man laughed from behind Hulk, just before he slammed bodily into him. Hulk just grunted at the impact, twisting around so he could see his friend, who was currently clinging to his back, his arms wrapped around his neck. They were doing something that Starman called a training exercise. Hulk didn’t know what that meant, but since he was allowed to come out and smash things as much as he wanted, he was okay with it.
“Tin Man training?” he asked curiously. So far, he had watched as the others ran in various directions. He had chosen a different one from the others, and had quickly found pretend humans and real tanks, which he had proceeded to rapidly dismantle. He had ignored the pretend humans, though. They weren’t shooting at him, and were just standing there, so he didn’t care about them. He wondered afterwards if he was supposed to have smashed the tanks, but then decided that if they were put there, then they must be there for smashing.
The faceplate opened up, and Tony grinned widely at him. “Yeah, Tin Man’s training, too,” he agreed. “But Tin Man got bored, so he came to find Hulk to train with. You wanna team up, Big Guy?” he asked.
Hulk didn’t know what ‘team up’ meant, but he knew that he was an Avenger, and that the others called them a team, so Tony must be asking him if he wanted to play together. He nodded, and Tony slapped him on one broad shoulder. It didn’t hurt, and Hulk knew it was Tony’s way of being friendly, so he just rumbled lazily, waiting to see what Tony wanted to do.
Dropping to the ground, Tony rubbed his gloved hands together. “Perfect!” he exclaimed, his eyes bright. “So here’s what we’re gonna do, Big Guy. Cap and Thor are working together. So are Widow and Birdbrain. So that leaves me and you. We’ve gotta catch the others, okay? If we catch them, we win, and the game’s over. Think you can do that?” he asked.
Hulk thought about it for a moment. “Hulk smash?” he asked hopefully.
Tony laughed again, and Hulk smiled; he liked hearing Tony laugh. “Yeah, Hulk can smash as much as he wants. Especially if we find Thor first. You like smashing Thor, right?” Hulk nodded; the Asgardian wasn’t soft like the humans. He was strong, and Hulk liked playing with him, because he could smash, and the Thundering man would just laugh.
“Then let’s go!” Tony cheered, shooting back into the air and hovering in front of Hulk’s face. “Oh, and Hulk? One more thing,” he said, when Hulk looked at him impatiently, wanting to get on with the smashing. “You’ve gotta protect me, and I’ll protect you, okay? Because we’re a team.”
Hulk nodded easily; he always protected Tony anyhow. But he didn’t want there to be any misunderstandings. “Hulk strong. Not need Tin Man to protect,” he grumbled roughly.
Tony gave him a small pout, then flipped his faceplate back down. “Yeah, I know, buddy,” the metallic voice agreed. Hulk grumbled, but loped after his friend as the armor flew away.
They found Birdbrain and Red Liar first, and Hulk had to catch Tin Man when an arrow struck him, shorting out his armor for a moment. “Ah, dammit. Reboot, JARVIS!” Tin Man snapped, and the suit hummed quietly while it rebooted its systems. “Hulk, can you get us up there?” he asked, indicating the roof of the partially reconstructed building.
Hulk answered him by leaping, his fingers gripping easily onto exposed beams as he swung them both upwards. Tin Man’s eyes started glowing again, and Hulk let him go, just in time to have another human body wrap around him, legs around his throat. Hulk reached up, careful not to accidentally crush Red Liar as she clung to him, her eyes only slightly worried. Hulk remembered chasing her in the metallic flying thing, but he was angry, and she wasn’t a friend. Now, Red Liar was, if not a friend, then at least not an enemy, either.
Tin Man knocked an arrow down before it could hit Hulk, and grabbed up Birdbrain. “Oh, no you don’t, Katniss,” he said cheerfully. Hulk ignored them, concentrating on catching the tiny female. Red Liar was fast, and Hulk had to be careful so he didn’t hurt her.
He heard Tin Man swear, and Red Liar was laughing as the red and gold armor streaked past them, over the side of the building. Hulk roared, and the beams under him trembled. There was a loud crashing noise above him, and Red Liar’s eyes grew wide. “Clint! Tony! Watch out!” she screamed, and Hulk looked to see what she was worried about.
In the air above them was a crane, holding a load of steel beams. As Hulk watched, the beams shifted, and then slid out of their harness. Hulk grabbed Red Liar and dodged the first two as they slammed into the crossbeam he was standing on. The other four missed, but Red Liar was struggling, screaming for Birdbrain.
Hulk realized that Tin Man hadn’t come flown back up after he had followed Birdbrain – who had apparently managed to wriggle out of his hold – back up. Dropping Red Liar onto a steadier beam, Hulk heaved himself over the edge of the building, dropping nearly seventeen stories to land in the street below.
“Tin Man?!” he bellowed, looking around at the destroyed area. The beams were laying in a pile of wreckage, but Hulk didn’t smell any blood coming from underneath, so he knew Tin Man wasn’t there.
“Ah, up here, Big Guy,” came the familiar voice, muffled and pained. Hulk looked up, and saw one of their missing teammates peering down at him, then glancing backwards before talking quickly into his mic. Hulk leapt upwards with a growl, coming to land on the same beam where Birdbrain was currently perched.
Without a word, the human pointed, and Hulk looked over at the pile of rubble. A partially constructed wall and several floors of scaffolding had collapsed into the building when the beams had struck them, and Hulk could see Tin Man half-buried under the wreckage.
Moving quickly, Hulk pulled some of the wreckage away, throwing it out the large hole in the wall. The archer just got out of his way, coming around to stand near Tin Man’s head, talking to him in a low voice. “You all right there, Stark?” he asked quietly. “That was really, really stupid.”
Tin Man scoffed, not lifting his faceplate. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Barton,” he muttered. “Next time, I’ll just let the wall squish you.” Hulk wanted to smile; Tin Man was trying to be funny. But his breath was loud and harsh, rattling in his chest, and Hulk could smell the blood on him. Tin Man was hurt.
The archer smiled, raising his hands, palms facing outwards. “Hey, man, I’m not complaining. I appreciate not being crushed by a falling building. But couldn’t you have maybe dodged a bit better?” Tin Man didn’t answer, and Hulk grunted as he lifted up a large slab of concrete.
“Birdbrain get Tin Man,” Hulk ordered sharply.
The human grabbed the armor under the arms and dragged Tin Man free of the wreckage. Once he was out, Hulk let the slab drop back down. The floor shook as it hit, and Hulk grimaced. “Hulk sorry,” he said contritely to Tin Man. “Hulk not mean to make building fall.”
There was a moment of silence, and then Tin Man started shaking, his arms curling around his stomach as he guffawed. “You did that?” he demanded through his giggles. “And here I was thinking it was just shoddy workmanship. Then again, those beams shouldn’t have been in the damn crane if there was nobody working here. I’m so going to have a talk with the manager. Maybe I’ll have him fired.”
Hulk didn’t really care about anything Tin Man was talking about, so instead, he scooped the other man up and started tugging on his armor. “Hey, wait, what? No, stop!” Tin Man protested, tugging at his fingers.
Hulk just huffed at him, his grip tightening firmly. Tin Man went still. “Tin Man hurt,” Hulk informed him, his eyes narrowed.
“Ah,” Tin Man said. “Barton, make yourself useful and get this helmet off of me. Then go reassure Widow that you’re still alive, thanks to me.”
Hulk watched the archer carefully as he felt along the helmet, finding the manual releases and detaching the helmet from the rest of the armor. Tony took a deep breath as the helmet came off. “Oh, thank god,” he muttered. There was a cut on the side of his face, but his eyes were clear, and he gave Hulk an easy smile. “Hey, there. I’m all right, really. It was just a little hard to breathe under there,” Tin Man admitted.
Red Liar landed on their floor, having obviously climbed down on her own, but Hulk wasn’t paying attention to her as she checked over her partner, scolding him in a low voice. Birdbrain was in trouble with Red Liar.
Hulk sniffed at Tony, turning him over carefully, but the human had been telling the truth. Hulk didn’t smell blood anywhere else, and although Tony complained of a headache, he didn’t seem to be in any significant danger.
There was the sharp smell of electricity, and the man that created thunder landed near them. Thor. Starman was with him, his eyes taking in the damage. He sighed. “I guess this training is a bust, huh?” he asked ruefully.
Tony shrugged. “I don’t know about you, Cap, but I’ve had about enough for today. I say we all go home and watch a movie. Preferably one with lots of explosions and smashing,” he added, with a grin. Hulk rumbled in agreement.
“That sounds like a wondrous plan, my friend!” Thunder Man exclaimed, walking over to them, his hammer at his side. Hulk couldn’t resist; as soon as Thor was in range, he snapped out his fist, sending the blonde out through the gaping hole in the wall.
Tony laughed. “You totally earned that, Big Guy,” he said, patting Hulk’s chest.
Hulk grumbled, irritated. All around him were pieces of steel, cement, and giant robots, most of them no longer functioning. He shook his head, knocking glass out of his hair, his knees and hands braced firmly on the ground and his body hovering over a dazed Tony Stark.
The billionaire wasn’t in his armor, since this was supposed to have just been a simple press conference for Stark Industries, to reassure the general populace that the company was utilizing all of its resources to help repair New York City after the most recent attack by Doctor Doom’s Doombots. Stark Industries was typically at the front of any clean-up that resulted from a battle requiring the Avengers. After all, if the Avengers were needed, then collateral damages were pretty much a given.
Fortunately for Stark Industries – and for Tony, because otherwise Pepper would kill him for bankrupting the company – the damages were actually paid for mostly by SHIELD and the United States government. Stark Industries helped here and there, sure, but mostly, it was used a front because SHIELD couldn’t very well just come out and declare their own existence. That would defeat the purpose of it being a shady, super-secret spy organization.
Hence the press conference, which had been going fine until some idiot had decided that it would be a good idea to unleash a bunch of giant wannabe robots on the gathered press. Tony’s suitcase armor had been too far away for him to grab, tucked into the back corner of the stage. Steve hadn’t wanted him to bring the armor with him, but Tony had been adamant, pointing out that having access to even a lightweight suit was better than not having anything at all, just in case.
Bruce had been attending the conference as well, Tony’s only concession to having a bodyguard. He had refused any of the SHIELD agents, the two spies didn’t need their cover and identities blown, and if Steve came, all the press would be able to focus on would be Captain America. That had only left Bruce, who was both their strongest fighter and unobtrusive in a quiet, dorky sort of way.
Hulk snorted in annoyance as Tony pushed ineffectively at his chest, refusing to move. When the robots had attacked, Bruce hadn’t even tried to stop Hulk from coming out. Hulk had taken on the nearest robot, grabbing it and slamming it into the two behind it. After that, it had been mayhem, and buildings had been damaged with every newly destroyed robot.
Then the last robot had managed to take out the stage that Tony was standing on, and Tony had dropped with it. Hulk had torn out the robot’s circuits in a rage, shutting it down, and it had toppled, right into one of the pillars that had been holding up the pavilions roof. Hulk had leapt, shielding Tony with his body as the entire structure collapsed around them.
There was no way for Hulk to move the wreckage lying across his back and shoulders without risking Tony getting hurt. The suitcase armor was out of his immediate reach, and so he stayed put, growling in frustration while he waited for the rest of the Avengers to come and free them. Hulk hated having to rely on other people, but Tony was the most important person to him. To him and puny Banner both, he admitted, however reluctantly. He hadn’t missed what those two got up to in the lab and their bedrooms, though he had ignored it for the most part, knowing that Tony wouldn’t be mean to puny Banner, like he wasn’t mean to Hulk.
“Tony stay,” he huffed impatiently at the prone human, who was scowling up at him. “Not safe. Will crush if Hulk moves. So Hulk stays. Tony stays.” His tone was decisive and brooked no arguments.
Tony sighed, slumping back into the ground. His head craned around, looking for his armor, and he groaned when he found it, half buried under what used to be the podium.
“Fantastic. My armor is probably busted, the conference is completely hopeless now, and I’m being babysat by the freaking Hulk. Awesome.” Hulk gave a low warning rumble, but Tony just flapped a hand at him. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll behave like a good little Avenger,” he promised sarcastically. But he didn’t try to wriggle out from under Hulk again.
When the rest of the team arrived, Hulk let Tony direct them to their location. He stayed where he was until all the pressure was removed from his back and shoulders, and then carefully sat up. Tony was on his feet immediately, brushing off his grey suit, though it was probably a lost cause by this point, covered in debris and dirt as it was.
“Are you okay, Stark?” Steve asked, approaching carefully. Hulk watched Starman warily, but made no move to interfere. Starman was just worried about Tony, like Hulk was.
Tony nodded. “Oh, yes, I’m just fine. Big and Green here just babysat me – quite impressively, I might add – and my armor is probably dented six ways to hell, but other than that, everything’s just peachy. Oh, and by the way? Next time I do a press conference, I’m wearing the goddamn armor!” Hulk rumbled in agreement; Tony would be safer if he always wore the suit everywhere that wasn’t home. “See? Hulk agrees with me,” Tony said, satisfied. He patted Hulk lightly on the arm before moving off to the side, climbing the debris to get to the case.
Hulk felt a tug in his mind and frowned. Puny Banner wanted out. Huffing a sigh, he took one last long look at Tony’s back, then retreated, letting the scientist have control. The last thing he heard before he faded was Tony’s voice, chattering away.
“Oh, hey, Bruce! That was some conference, huh? Umm….oops. Hang on a sec, I’ll find you some pants.”
It hadn’t been a particularly rough battle, or a particularly long one. The Avengers had been called to the New Jersey shoreline to deal with a pod of giant, mutated sharks. SHIELD agents had it mostly under control when they arrived, but there were several of them further out to sea, lower than the agents could get to and still be able to fight. So it had been left up to those who could. Namely, Iron Man, who had a suit of armor specifically designed for underwater battles.
He had done his job, and the carcasses had floated to the top of the ocean, where they were hauled aboard the ship by Thor and Steve, SHIELD agents swarming around them, trying to get enough information to figure out where the hell they had come from. They appeared to be a mesh of bionic and organic parts, which had narrowed down the field of known villains considerably.
When Tony had come back up, Bruce released a harsh sigh of relief, watching as the red and gold armor shot out of the water…then promptly dropped gracelessly to the deck of the ship, where Tony curled up, his hands clawing deep groves into the ship’s deck. Something was wrong.
Bruce was across the deck and crouching beside Tony before the others even realized what was happening, and they all crowded around them as Bruce fumbled for the manual release. The helmet came loose, and Bruce stared down in horror at his friend. Tony’s face was pale, his eyes dark and terrified, wider than Bruce had ever seen him. He gasped like he was drowning, and even through the suit’s thickness, Bruce could tell that Tony was shaking.
Making the quickest diagnosis he could, and hoping that he was right, Bruce ordered the others back. “Give him some space!” he snapped, and the others obeyed, backing up several paces. They hovered there worriedly, but Bruce ignored them, his full attention back on Tony. He needed to get him out of the suit, but to do that, he’d have to get him to uncurl first.
“Tony! Tony! It’s me, Bruce. You’re on the ship, you’re safe.” He remembered something that had happened several months earlier. While he had thought nothing of it at the time, he now realized that it might have something to do with Tony’s current condition. “It’s Monday, October twenty-third. It’s two fifty-six in the afternoon. You’re on the deck of a SHIELD ship off the New Jersey shore. You’re safe. You’re okay. I need you to breathe for me.”
He repeated the litany several times, and slowly, agonizingly slowly, Tony calmed down, his breathing evening out. He uncurled a little bit, looking sick, dark eyes pinning Bruce in place. “Bruce?” he rasped.
Bruce nodded, offering the other man a reassuring smile. “Yes, it’s me. I’m here. I need to get you out of the suit. Can you straighten out so I can help you?” he asked, keeping his voice even, calm. This was familiar to him, the struggle to keep a panicking person calm, to keep himself steady while he tried to save them, to heal them, to reassure their families that they’d be all right.
Tony just continued to gasp for a moment, and if there were tears sliding down his cheeks, neither of them mentioned it. Slowly, carefully, Tony unfolded. Bruce reached for him immediately, his fingers finding all the tiny depressions that would help him to remove the suit.
As each piece of armor came off, Tony breathed a little easier, though his eyes were still glazed and unfocused. Finally, Bruce tossed the last piece away and settled himself behind Tony, forcing the man to sit up and lean against him, Tony’s back pressed to his chest.
Wrapping his arms around the other man, Bruce tightened his hold, forcing Tony to exhale. Carefully, he loosened his hold again after a moment, letting Tony breathe back in. Then more pressure, and Tony choked, squirming, but Bruce didn’t relent. Several times, he repeated the motions, until Tony was breathing properly on his own, his breaths deep and steady.
Tony’s head tipped backwards against Bruce’s shoulder, his eyes closed. “Thanks, Bruce. I really, really hate water. More than magic,” he muttered thickly, and Bruce remembered his file, the one that SHIELD had given him on the other man. He had gotten a file for each of his new teammates, but only Tony’s had really interested him. Stark Industries weapons, the Hulkbuster units, the Jericho missile, his captivity and probable torture in Afghanistan, the arc reactor. So much pain and darkness, compacted into a single thin packet of information.
“Afghanistan?” he asked softly. He wouldn’t push if Tony didn’t want to answer him, especially while on a SHIELD vessel surrounded by agents and the rest of the team. Tony didn’t like anybody to see him as being weak.
There was a brief hesitation, but then Tony nodded. “Yeah,” he sighed. “Water boarding. But I was hooked up to a car battery at the time, and the water kept hitting the wires.” Bruce winced, biting back his anger at the thought of the Ten Rings carelessly electrocuting Tony every time they forced his head back under water.
Bruce caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and turned to look at Steve, who just nodded at him, gesturing the others away. Quietly, the others left the area, wandering over to help the SHIELD agents move the retrieved carcasses. Soon, Bruce and Tony were left alone in a small bubble of privacy, neither one speaking.
It was Tony who’d broken the silence, as they’d both known he would. The genius billionaire wasn’t very good at keeping quiet. “Thanks,” he muttered quietly. “I mean, it’s happened before, but it’s never been this bad before. I thought I was going to really die this time.” He bowed his head as he spoke, as if ashamed, his hair falling to cover his eyes.
Bruce just shrugged. “Yeah, well, it was about time I actually got to do something to help you for a change,” he replied wryly. Tony gave a quick snort of laughter, flashing Bruce a grateful smile.
“Yeah. You totally saved me this time, Bruce,” he murmured, twisting around in Bruce’s hold so that he was facing the other man. Carefully cradling Bruce’s chin in his warm hands, Tony leaned in and gave his lover a small, chaste kiss. When he pulled back a moment later, they were both breathless, but in a good way.
From somewhere deep inside him, Hulk gave an approving rumble. Banner had done a good job and protected their Tony.