Somewhere behind him, Hulk heard the buzz of flying army machines. Hulk pushed trees aside as he ran from them, just wanting to get away. Hulk didn't understand what had changed. He remembered Others: the metal man, the bright blue shield man, the woman with long red hair, the flying thunder man and the arrow man. He didn't see them for very long, but he remembered feeling things other than anger when he looked at them. They'd smiled at Hulk. They'd smashed things with Hulk.
Friends, a small voice from deep within Hulk supplied. Friends. Hulk liked the word friends.
He heard a high-pitched whine and ducked as a missile sailed over his head. It hit the ground and exploded, sending dirt and half a splintered tree flying into the air. Hulk caught the broken tree and whirled around, throwing it towards the nearest flying machine. The machine swerved out of the way, but couldn't stop the tree from clipping its tail, sending it spinning. The other machines had to move out of its way.
Hulk turned and ran again, needing to get away. He was angry. He clenched his fists as his body burned up with his anger. He wanted to smash the puny, annoying machines that were hunting him, but somewhere inside him a voice was yelling at him not to stop, to just run. So Hulk ran. He didn't want to make the Little Man sad; Hulk didn't like it when the Little Man inside him was sad. It made Hulk restless, made him want to smash things. And that made the Little Man sadder.
Something caught his attention and Hulk veered to the left. Two missiles sailed into the trees behind him and he heard them explode and tear up another piece of the forest.
The Little Man had been happy for a while and the Hulk had felt less angry. Hulk wasn't sure how much time had passed in that while, but he had felt fear from the Little Man and then sadness. He'd growled from within his darkness, because Hulk could feel but he couldn't see. And then the Little Man had been frightened and desperate and Hulk had felt danger. So Hulk had roared out in anger and opened his eyes to see the flying machines chasing him.
Where had the warm happiness gone? Where were friends?
Hulk was confused. Hulk hated being confused.
Another whine pierced through the air and then Hulk felt fire sear across his back as the impact made him stagger forward. He roared, anger colouring his vision, silencing all the little voices telling him to run, just run. He grabbed a tree and ripped it from the ground, hefting it easily over his shoulder as he turned to face the on-coming machines. There were five of them and Hulk watched as one fired two more missiles. Hulk swung the tree and one of the missiles impacted with it, shattering the wood and sending splinters in all directions. Hulk barely felt the splinters as they peppered his skin. The tree was burning now.
A different machine had flown lower and Hulk heard the sharp rhythm of bullet fire. Stings like a dozen metal bees rained over his arm. He took a step back and growled. Then he threw the burning tree at the flying machine.
He heard shouting and watched as the tree hit the machine across the front. Hulk heard glass shatter and people yell. He grinned. Then he picked up a large rock from the ground and threw it at another machine, aiming for the spinning propeller. The rock hit its target and the propeller slowed, the machine tilting to one side. The machines around it scattered to the sides to avoid it.
Satisfied, Hulk turned and ran.
Up ahead, he saw something sparkling from between the trees. Water. Good, Hulk was thirsty. Maybe he could use it to hide too.
Hulk ran ahead, pushing trees aside and feeling as roots and bushes were crushed beneath his feet. At last he came out of the trees and into a clearing. There was a lake in the centre of it and a small wooden house on the other side – the lake was too small for Hulk to hide in, but the water looked clear. Hulk knelt down at its bank and cupped his hand to bring some to his mouth. The water was cool and refreshing as it poured down his throat. He managed a second mouthful before the flying machines were once again too close.
He turned just in time to watch them appear over top of the trees. Hulk saw smoke come out of the sides of the one on his left and then heard the familiar whine... Hulk threw himself forward, into the water. The lake wasn't deep, but it was deep enough to cover him. He swam forward, letting the water cool him down. He felt the water shudder as missiles flew into it. Then a sharp fire exploded on his shoulder and Hulk screamed, sending waves out across the lake. Hulk grit his teeth and propelled himself to the right, altering his direction, but still moving forward.
It didn't take him long to reach the other side of the lake. There Hulk came crashing out of the water. He turned and roared into the sky, at the two machines hovering in the air above him. He saw the other two had landed and men were pouring out, with their things meant to hurt Hulk. The two machines in the air circled him carefully. He glared up at them and growled.
There was a loud bang and suddenly fire exploded along Hulk's side. He roared in pain and glared at the puny human soldiers on the ground. Behind the big guns, he saw a familiar face staring at him.
“Ross,” he growled, angry, so unbelievably angry, at the man for making the Little Man afraid again. Hulk wondered if he'd done anything to friends and that made him angrier.
Then came a second bang, but it didn't hit Hulk. Instead it flew past him.
The wooden house exploded.
Hulk turned to run away from the weapons, but the flying machines were in his way. There was a brief whine and then four points of fire hit Hulk. He staggered back as pain flared up along his torso and left shoulder. Hulk roared, glaring up at the flying machines. They were lower now. Hulk bent his knees and leapt into the air, grabbing one of them by the tail. The second quickly flew away. Small sharp bursts of staccatto fire peppered his shoulders and upper arms, but Hulk didn't let go. He hit the ground still holding the flying machine's tail and tore it off. He threw the bigger part of the machine into the lake and its tail at the guns on the other side.
He turned to run.
“Cassie! Cassie, can you hear me? Cassandra Fraiser don't you dare die on me! Just hold on, I'm on my way!”
Hulk paused and looked to the wooden house. There was a man there now, trying with all his puny strength to lift away chunks of debris. Not far from him, fire burned. Hulk could see him hurrying desperately, but he was small.
What he wouldn't give for his Kevlar vest and gloves right now. It was an odd thing to think when all he could see was debris in front of him, but the wood kept slipping in his hands and he couldn't get a good grip on it. Around him he smelt gunpower and burning wood. He felt heat from the fire. It was spreading towards him. He needed to work faster.
Daniel was used to missions going from milk-run to FUBAR in the blink of an eye. But this wasn't a mission. This was middle of nowhere Minnesota. He'd been gathering herbs and wild mushrooms for stew.
He'd froze. For long, precious minutes, shock and disbelief had froze him to the spot when he'd heard the distinct, unforgettable sound of missile-fire. He hadn't even registered the strangeness of the roars that followed the explosions at first: it was all so wrong. Scrambling through his pockets, he finally found his binoculars. Helicopters. He saw helicopters above the trees: US military.
They were heading towards the cabin. And he was nearly a mile away.
“Cassie,” he whispered, his eyes widening in horror.
Terror finally granted him the ability to move. He dropped the bag of herbs and ran. Years of running full-tilt over uneven terrain made his steps sure as he automatically side-stepped or leaped over obstacles.
He vaguely remembered taking a call from a panicked Cassie, remembered telling her to take the shotgun and get down into the cold cellar. There might've been a panicked call to Jack, telling him to move his elderly ass back to the cabin. He wasn't even sure he'd made sense. He didn't care; nothing else made sense.
This was Minnesota. There weren't any Goa'uld or Ori in Minnesota. It was supposed to be safe.
Daniel managed to get another plank loose and pushed it aside. The cold cellar was still far below. He glanced to his left: the fire was spreading. He had to work faster. Couldn't think about the moment the rocket had hit the cabin. Couldn't let his breath leave him like that again; couldn't let himself freeze again. Shock wasn't going to help anyone. Cassie was counting on him.
He pulled another plank loose.
A shadow fell over him. Daniel grabbed for the knife in his belt and swung around. The large green giant the army had been chasing stood above him, looking angry and remarkably unharmed by the missiles Daniel had seen impacting him. The giant saw Daniel's knife and scoffed.
Daniel shrugged and put it back into its holster.
“Yeah, probably wouldn't have helped me against the soldiers armed with rocket launchers either,” he muttered under his breath. His eyes slipped towards the flames that were inching closer. “And normally I'd be happy to make friends, but I've got a friend trapped under here so unless you're going to help, you should probably-”
The green giant brushed past him (he looked familiar, Daniel knew he did, but his brain wasn't supplying information past the mental image of Cassie trembling in fear in the dark beneath the destroyed cabin). Daniel turned and watched in amazement as the giant grabbed an armful of debris and tossed it to the side as easily as a pile of leaves. It only took two armfuls for Daniel to see the opening to the cold cellar.
“Cassie!” he called and ran forward.
“Uncle Daniel?” he heard followed by a bought of coughing. Smoke inhalation, his mind supplied. He was going to need oxygen. Hopefully the soldiers had a medic with them. He couldn't remembered what Jack had in his truck's first aid kit.
Daniel slipped on a loose floorboard as he scrambled to get to the opening to the cellar. Cassie wasn't climbing out on her own. That wasn't good. He could barely make out her form when he stared down into the glorified hole in the ground that counted as Jack's cold cellar.
“Cassie, how are you?” he called down. “Can you move?”
He heard a strangled sob and then “Something fell on my leg and my arm hurts... I think. I can't move it. I-I'm cold, I can't...”
Shock. “Hold on, Cassie, I'm coming down.”
He didn't dare look at how close the fire had gotten; the heat was beating on his skin enough to remind him of the fires in Sokar's prison. Daniel quickly climbed down the ladder steps into the cellar. He was half-way down when he heard automatic weapon's fire. He grit his teeth.
A staff weapon. He really, really wished he had a staff weapon right now. Or the Odyssey. Actually, he'd prefer the Odyssey: it had medical facilities.
He jumped down the last couple of steps and crouched next to Cassie.
“Uncle Daniel!” she sobbed with relief and held her hand out.
Daniel squeezed it. “We don't have much time, the blast set the cabin on fire. So, I'm sorry, but this won't be gentle.”
Cassie took a deep breath and he could see her nod in the darkness. “I understand.”
There was a familiar high-pitched squeal from above them. Rocket-launcher, Daniel's mind automatically supplied. There was the blast of an impact and a roar as the earth around them shook. Daniel threw himself over Cassie and felt as some small debris hit his back. He grit his teeth.
“Who are they?” Cassie whispered, fear making her voice shake.
“United States Army,” Daniel said bitterly.
She snorted. “Of course it's the army; only the army employs idiots who fire haphazardly on civilian targets.”
Daniel maneuvered to the side and slipped an arm around her back as he braced himself. “Okay, on three: one, two, three!” He heard Cassie suppress a scream as she helped him drag her to her feet. Once upright he have her a few seconds to recover.
“Is that air force snobbery I hear?” he asked her as he tried to get look at the injury on her arm – there was something sticking out of it. It wasn't a long something, so he decided to leave it until he could get a better look at it.
She chuckled in-between wheezing breaths. “I come by it honestly.”
“I'm sure your mother would be proud.” He took a deep breath. “Okay, there's only one way to do this. Grab onto my shoulders with your arms and my hips with your legs and hold on. It's going to hurt, but I'm going to need my arms to climb up that ladder.”
It wasn't easy and he was fairly certain Jack would've told him he only managed out of sheer stubbornness. The stair ladder up wasn't very tall, but Cassie was heavy and her hold rigid with fear and pain. He could hear her gasping and whimpering into his ear the entire way up and the closer they got to the top, the worse the air became as smoke from the fire reached them. Daniel ignored the burn in his muscles, ignored the sweat that poured down his brow and into his eyes.
Ignored the roaring and weapon's fire outside.
Why was the giant still there?!
Eventually he dragged them both out into burning heat and thick smoke. Exhausted, he collapsed onto his side as soon as he could, but he couldn't stop. No time to rest, the fire was almost licking at them now. He dragged himself to his knees and put an arm around Cassie.
“C'mon Cassie, we've got to move!”
Cassie cried out in pain as the movements aggravated her wounds, but she grit her teeth and leaned on him. Daniel took as much of her weight as he could as they made their way through the uneven rubble. He nearly stumbled once when the piece of flooring he stepped on broke under his weight, but he regained his footing and continued on. He felt the fire behind him, but didn't dare look back. Only forward, always forward.
They found solid ground and Daniel didn't stop. He hauled them further away from the house, only stopping when they reached the well. It wouldn't provide much cover, but the trees wouldn't be much protection from missiles either. He collapsed onto the ground beside her and panted.
In the background, he heard the sharp staccato of automatic weapon's fire and a furious roar.
“Oh my god, is that the Hulk?!” Cassie whispered incredulously, her voice raspy from the smoke.
Daniel looked up to where the green giant was straining against some invisible force. He was standing between two wheeled contraptions with flat panels and some sort of satellite behind them. The Hulk... right, New York, the Chittauri... Daniel had read about that. Once they'd been allowed to know about it – no, there was no point in dwelling on something that didn't matter right now.
“He helped defend New York, didn't he?” Daniel asked instead.
Cassie nodded. “Yeah, he's a hero. One of the Avengers, I thought.”
“So why the hell is the army hunting him? No, you know what, I don't actually care why they're hunting him.” Suddenly, Daniel was furious. He'd worked with enough military people to know that you didn't just ignore civilians. Daniel himself had risked his life more than once to save civilians caught in the crossfire.
He turned to Cassie and quickly inspected her wounds, using his knife to tear away the fabric of her shirt. “The Hulk helped me get to you. I-I don't think I would've been able to clear it all on my own...” He took a deep breath. Later. “They were shooting rocket launchers at him and instead of running, he stopped and cleared the rubble for me so that I could get to you.”
“And they took advantage of that in order to trap him,” said Cassie. Daniel looked up from examining her arm and saw the anger he'd thought he heard burning in her eyes.
“Then go.” Daniel blinked, surprised. Cassie coughed and then forced a small smile onto her face. “You have to help him, Uncle Daniel. I'll be fine. Go.”
Daniel paused, looking back to the wound on her shoulder. There was a wooden shard embedded in her upper arm: it wasn't large, but it looked like it was in deep. An infection waiting to happen, but Daniel knew better than to take it out. He pulled his cellphone out of his pocket, amazed it was still there, and placed it in her hand.
“Call Jack, make sure they're sending an ambulance,” he said. “I'm going to get the first aid kit out of the car.”
“-Cassie, right now the Hulk is fine. You, however, are bleeding. Besides, what exactly do you figure I'm going to be able to do unarmed right now?”
“According to Uncle Jack, that's never stopped you bef-” A coughing fit interrupted Cassie's words.
Daniel rolled his eyes. “I'll be right back,” he told her and ran for his car.
It'd been far enough away from the cabin that it didn't get caught in the explosion, but he was going to have to move it further away from the fire. As he ran to the car, he noticed the fire had completely overwhelmed the space above the cellar. He shivered. He'd come so close to loosing another person.
Somehow, he still had his car keys in his pocket which made opening the trunk easier. The first thing that caught his eye was the large white box in the corner of the trunk. It was supposed to be a surprise for this evening; he'd forgotten to move it into the cold cellar. Too late now. He grabbed the first aid kit and a bottle of water and ran back to Cassie.
He looked back to the Hulk. The soldiers had stopped shooting at him, but he was still trapped between the two... sonic beams? Sam would probably know. There was movement by one of the helicopters and Daniel saw several soldiers hauling out what looked like long metal rods. One of them sparked.
He cursed under his breath just like Skaara had taught him (except Skaara never cursed under his breath unless his father or sister were around).
He knelt next to Cassie trying very hard not to think about car batteries. Or Jaffa pain sticks.
“Daniel? Daniel, what are they doing?”
Apparently, Cassie had noticed them too. Her eyes were wide, her face was pale and she trembling. Dammit, this was going to give her enough nightmares already. She didn't need more nightmares. He wished he could just bundle her up into the car and drive away...
The car. Huh, maybe he did have a weapon after all.
He didn't pause, couldn't afford to, as he routed through the kit for painkillers. Bottle in hand, he took Cassie's hand and shook two pills onto it. He was prone to migraines, so at least these were the good, prescription-only kind of painkillers.
“Swallow,” he ordered, opening the bottle of water and placing it next to her.
This part, this was second nature. Disinfectant, cotton swabs, gauze, wait for Cassie to swallow down the pain killers.
“Sorry, this'll probably hurt,” he said just before pouring the iodine solution over her wound.
Behind them, the Hulk roared in pain.
Daniel grit his teeth and used a cotton swab to dab at some of the new blood that began to pour from the wound. It took him three seconds to assess and realize he wasn't going to be able to wrap the wound. At least they didn't need to race across any countryside.
“This is the best I'll be able to do until Sam or professional help gets here,” he said. Then he met her eyes. “Are you sure you'll be okay?”
She nodded. “I-I'll be fine. Go.”
He took a deep breath. “Call Jack.”
And then he was off, racing towards the car. The Hulk roared again and Daniel let the anger and pain in the sound fuel his own anger. There was no hesitation, no second-guessing, no thought for an actual plan. He threw himself into the driver's seat and started the motor.
The wheels screeched as he floored the pedal and turned towards the commotion. He aimed for the farthest one, the one with less soldiers surrounding it, less people to stop him. If anyone tried shooting at the car, they missed.
Daniel didn't. And he didn't take his foot off the gas pedal until the front of his car had hit the strange satellite sonic projector beam thing and knocked it to the side. The airbag burst out from the steering wheel and Daniel pushed it to the side as he scrambled out of the car.
Keep moving, don't stand still, don't make yourself a target.
The Hulk roared. The ground shook. Daniel made it out of the car in time to watch as the Hulk straightened, the second projector thing a pile of smashed rubble at his feet. Daniel grinned.
“Well, that must be pretty satisfying,” he said.
The Hulk whirled around to look at him. Slowly, a toothy grin spread across his face. Then he backhanded the soldiers trying to sneak up on him with the metal rods, sending them flying through the air.
Daniel stepped away from the car and wobbled as his head spun. Okay, so maybe he wasn't as unscathed by everything as he'd though. Dammit, he really didn't need his adrenalin to crash just yet. He looked to Cassie and nearly stumbled with relief as he saw a familiar truck pull up next to the well.
A shadow fell over him. This time he didn't reach for his knife. Instead, he looked up to the Hulk and smiled.
“Thank you for helping me save Cassie,” he said, his eyes darted to where the soldiers were regrouping, gathering their weapons.
A stern-looking man with a bushy blond mustache was glaring at Daniel. Daniel's eyes narrowed at him. He saw the stars on his lapels: a general, two, maybe three star. Probably didn't expect a civilian to give him trouble. He looked back up to the Hulk.
“We'll take it from here,” he said. “You should go.” He held his hand out. “I'm Doctor Daniel Jackson. If you're ever around Colorado Springs and need help, come find me.”
The Hulk blinked, looking confused. Whatever he would've done in response was lost in the sound of weapon's fire. Daniel automatically ducked down, covering his face with his arm, but the bullets were all aimed at the Hulk. The green giant growled angrily, eyes flashing. A bullet hit the ground just in front of Daniel. That got him moving.
He kept down as he made his way along the side of the car and along the trunk. The trunk. A flash of inspiration hit Daniel and in moments he had the trunk open and was rooting in its depths. He pulled out a canvas bag and eyed his stash of bottled water. There were four left; he grabbed three and threw them into the bottom of the bag. Then he took the white box and shoved it as gently as he could into the bag.
He waited until the gunfire had momentarily ceased. The Hulk roared and Daniel ran out from behind the car. “Hulk!”
The Hulk whirled angrily to Daniel as the man stepped towards him, holding out the canvas bag. It looked so small compared to the Hulk's massive bulk, but it was all Daniel had.
“Here, I don't know how much this'll do, but it's better than nothing.” The Hulk frowned and stepped towards Daniel, carefully accepting the bag. Daniel pointed past the cabin. “South-west from here there's some hills and a cave system. It'll be more difficult for them to track you there.”
The Hulk looked in the direction Daniel pointed, then looked back to Daniel.
“Th'nk you,” he grunted and then took off at a run that shook the ground. Then, with a mighty leap, he jumped over Cassie, Sam and the truck, landing at the treeline. He didn't look back even once before disappearing into the forest.
For several moments, the clearing was silent. Then the general began yelling out orders for pursuit. Daniel pushed himself away from the car. Now the adrenalin was definitely leaving him – he swayed for a moment and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. When he opened his eyes there was a seething mad general standing less than a step in front of him, glaring with all his years of intimidation and authority behind him.
As if any of that could compare with a goa'uld or their First Prime.
“What did you tell him?” the general demanded. Daniel glanced to his insignia: yup, three star. Pity. It would've been nice if Jack had out-ranked him.
Daniel raised an unimpressed eyebrow at him and crossed his arms. “I thanked him for saving my niece's life.”
The man bristled. “You pointed him somewhere! That-that thing is a monster and a danger to others so long as it's loose. It's my job to find it and make sure it's no longer a threat and you had better not try standing in my way.”
“Or you'll do what? Court-martial me? Because I'm starting to wonder who the threat here really is. In fact, I seem to be coming back to the point where the Hulk saved my niece's life while you and your men didn't appear to care that there were civilians in the area.”
“Son, this is a military operation; we don't have time to watch out for civilians.”
Daniel's thin tendrils of patience snapped.
“My name is Doctor Daniel Jackson. I am a high-ranking civilian consultant with the US Air Force and I've worked worked with both the air force, marines and navy. Believe me, I am fully aware of what a military operation entails and SOP is to first of all clear the area of any potential civilian casualties when at all possible. That cabin was hit with a surface weapon which means you were already on the ground when you fired on it. There is no reason why you couldn't have sent one of your men to make sure it was clear – something you should have known was a possibility given that you arrived in helicopters and therefore during your initial assessment of the area would've noticed the car parked near the cabin indicating the presence of people.”
The general growled and his hand shot forward, grabbing Daniel by the front of his shirt.
“I don't care who the hell you think you are. You work for the military? Good. That's better than good. I can have you run out faster than you can say 'hallelujah' if you don't tell me where you sent the Hulk right now. I know people outside the military too, important people. Your name, your reputation will be mud by the time I'm done with you.”
Daniel snorted. Was he seriously threatening his reputation outside the military?
“Daniel, I see you're making friends as per usual.”
Daniel looked to the left and tried not to make his relief to the three-star general in front of him too obvious. One glance was all it took to realize that the clipped tone of voice wasn't just his imagination. Though outwardly calm, Daniel could tell that Jack was splitting mad right now.
“Heya Jack,” he said with false cheer. “In my defense, this vacation definitely wasn't my idea.”
Jack snorted with amusement, but his eyes bore into the army general. “General Ross, I assume you have a good reason for threatening an important government asset? One that you wouldn't mind repeating to the president and Joint Chief's?”
Daniel felt Ross stiffen. After a moment's pause he let go of Daniel and took a step back. “Who are you?” he asked with narrow, calculating eyes.
“Leuitenant General Jack O'Neill, USAF.” Jack's eyes darted to the side and he nodded slightly. “Now, General, I suggest you and your men lay down your weapons and surrender peacefully.”
Ross' eyes flashed. “You are in no position to give me orders! This operation is under army jurisdiction.”
Which was when SG-3, SG-9 and SG-12 made their presence known by loudly arming their weapons and coming out from their hiding spots in the trees. Ross grit his teeth, but after a few tense minutes, barked the order to surrender. Less than five minutes later, after Jack gave the order to SG-12 to see if they could fish out any survivors from the helicopter in his lake, the medical evac chopper flew in over the treetops.
“So, what was that you gave the big green guy?” Jack asked casually as the two of them made their way back to Cassie and Sam.
“Hm, oh that was supposed to be desert,” Daniel answered. “I had intended it to be a surprise.”
“What? You gave him our desert?!”
“Jack, he'd just helped save Cassie's life: the least I could do was send him off with some food and water.”
“Yeah, but desert?”
“It was all I had, sorry.”
A few moments passed in silence as Jack stewed in annoyance.
“Was it pie?”
Daniel rolled his eyes.
Bruce sipped his coffee, trying to appear as casual, nonchalant as possible while he waited for the waitress to bring him his food. It was yet another out-of-the-way diner in the middle of nowhere that looked about as old and lifeless as most of its patrons. This one was clean at least, even if the greenery surrounding him was obviously plastic and the burgundy faux-leather seats were faded, the material cracked in quite a few visible places. There were scratch marks on the wooden table he was seated at that Bruce wasn't even going to try and identify. The place smelt of bacon grease and stale cigarette smoke despite the no-smoking sign just inside the entrance.
He didn't look up when the bell above the door jingled.
Someone entered the diner with light, confident steps accompanied with the slight creek of leather. In a place where workboots seemed to be the continual, undying trend, that was odd. Bruce wasn't even surprised when the newcomer slid into the booth across from him.
Bruce sighed and looked up at the grinning face of his companion.
“You are a difficult man to track down, Brusselsprout,” said Tony, his designer sunglasses, charcoal, impeccably tailored suit, and bright red silk tie looking about as inconspicuous as a golden retriever at a cat show.
“That was the idea yes,” Bruce replied. “And yet you managed, which means I clearly wasn't doing a good enough job of it.”
“Oh trust me it wasn't you, it was totally me. And JARVIS. If I hadn't had JARVIS scouring everything I could think of I wouldn't have managed it. When you go off-grid you sure do it in style.” He looked around. “Or lack of. You know, I think this place might actually be older than Capsicle.”
Bruce leveled an even look at Tony and resisted the urge to sigh. “Tony, after SHIELD fell apart, the deals Fury had in place to protect me did too. Which means Ross is free to come after me and he will bury anyone who tries to stand in his way and protect me, including Stark Industries, and you have too many people, families, depending on you to risk playing his game.”
He took a deep breath to calm himself. His ever-simmering anger was controlled, but closer to erupting than ever these days. “We've been through all this, you said you understood. So why are you here?”
There was glimmer in Tony's eyes that Bruce wasn't entirely sure he trusted. It was part mischievous, part malicious and a whole lot of amused. That didn't bode well for someone. Tony reached into his jacket and pulled out a Starkpad. He typed on it while he spoke.
“Seems the Hulk managed to make a friend out in Minnesota.”
“A friend in Minnesota...” Yes, Bruce remembered waking up in Minnesota. It had been rather memorable. “Is that where I got the chocolate cake from?”
Tony paused. Blinked. Looked up. “Chocolate cake?”
“Uh, yes, I woke up in a large cave in the middle of the forest. I could remember Ross finding me and then... well, nothing. And sitting next to me there was a canvas bag from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science with three bottles of water and a giant chocolate cake.”
“Was it good chocolate cake?”
“Oh excellent, one of the best I've ever had. Moist, with a chocolate mocha mousse filling and dark chocolate ganache: it was exquisite. Also not something I would've expected to find myself with in the middle of a forest.”
“Well, as thank-you-for-saving-my-deceased-friend's-adopted-daughter presents go, that's not bad.”
“Yup, Lieutenant General – sorry, Brigadier General – Ross reeeaally screwed up this time.”
“Brigadier General– Ross was demoted?!” Bruce took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. He liked Tony most of the time, he really did, but sometimes the man could be positively infuriating. “Tony, start from the beginning. What happened exactly?”
Tony smiled, looking over his glasses at Bruce. “Ross blew up an air force general's cabin while his adopted sort-of niece was inside. Then Hulk lost his chance to escape in order to clear debris away so that a close friend of said general could rescue her. At no point during this whole thing did Ross do anything to help, or order anyone else to help. I mention this because it's important, kept getting repeated at his hearing.”
Tony turned his tablet around to face Bruce. It showed a picture of a man: sun-bleached hair, tanned skin, blue eyes, thick glasses and a pleasant, though slightly shy smile. He didn't exactly look familiar, but when Bruce looked at the face he felt...
“Picture's about ten years old, but this is... uh, Bruce?”
Bruce looked up slowly. Odd, it seemed to take more effort than it should to move his head. He blinked at Tony's wide-eyed expression. He saw him clearly, but it felt as though he was seeing him clearly twice. Tony's hand shot out and fumbled with the napkin holder. The frantic look in his friend's eyes had him glancing at the shiny silver side Tony and turned to face him.
His reflection was distorted, but the bright green eyes staring back at him were perfectly clear. Bruce's eyes widened and then he closed them, taking several deep calming breaths as he pushed the Other Guy back, trying not to think of how terrifying it was that the Hulk had managed to sneak up on him like that. Bruce always felt the Other Guy when he came out.
When he opened his eyes again, it was to the smell of food being set before him and the sounds of Tony charming the elderly waitress and her bubble-gum pink hair. After she'd left, Tony's eyes became concerned.
“Everything alright there, Big Guy?”
Bruce nodded. “Yes, I don't really know what that was about to be honest. I didn't even notice the Other Guy coming out. And he didn't feel particularly angry the way he usually does... although he has felt closer to the surface ever since I left New York... Maybe he simply recognized Daniel?”
There was a pause as Bruce picked up his utensils (he was hungry, after all). “Uh, Bruce? You do realize I never told you the guy's name was Daniel?”
Bruce froze and swallowed. “Is his name Daniel?”
“Uh, well, yeah: Doctor Daniel Jackson, a civilian consultant for the US Air Force. And an important one at that. As in, the guy knew exactly which hoops to jump through and which people to file his complaint against Ross with. From what I've been able to figure out he works for some sort of classified project at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs as a language specialist. Three days after this happened, he and his buddy – as in the three-star general whose cabin Ross blew up – were up in arms over this. Then the Russian and Chinese ambassadors somehow got involved, and to top it all off, the President apparently loves the guy. Ross didn't stand a chance. I mean, it's not a court-martial, but considering how untouchable the guy usually is, it's way more than a slap on the wrist.”
Bruce smiled. It felt like a long time since he'd had reason to smile. “And the Hulkbusters?”
“Disbanded for good.” Tony grinned. “I'd say Big Green did pretty good for himself. Come back to New York with me, I'll show you the full report. No, actually, scratch that. I have a better idea. We can make popcorn and watch the hacked feed of the hearing itself. Seriously, it was brilliant. Jackson was brilliant, talked circles around Ross. And he did it without pissing off half the room like I usually do. It was like a cautionary tale: never start a verbal argument with a linguist. I was actually a little bit in awe.”
Bruce's smile widened. “I think that sounds like a great idea, Tony. Thank you.”
“For once, it's not me you have to thank.”