"What are you doing? That logo - Tony, that looks like..."
"Ask me no questions, and I'll tell you no uncomfortable truths that make you stay up at night tossing and turning in your star-spangled onesie, Cap."
Tony gave an overdramatic sigh from where he sat surrounded by glowing, insubstantial screens that hovered around the rec-room sofa. "I'm hacking into top-secret DoD files. Did you know that the concrete caps on several nuclear test waste-sites are cracked? What do we pay our taxes for, I ask you?" He raised his eyebrows, pursed his lips, though his eyes never moved from the screen before him, fingers flying like a concert pianist. "Shoddy American craftsmanship these days, it makes you want to blow your nose on a bald eagle."
Steve crossed his arms over his chest, his mouth twitching. "Aren't they endangered? And I'm pretty sure that's defacing a national emblem."
"Not if you do it, Cap, have you seen how much your hair goes for on eBay? I could make another fortune by selling your toenail clippings. Snot would be, like, goopy gold."
Steve ignored that. "Why are you hacking into top-secret files meant to keep this country safe?"
Tony looked up with a fierce, shiny grin. "Well, if they didn't want people to look at them, they should have shelled out for better security."
"That's the DoD, Tony – the most protected building on earth."
"Like taking candy from a particularly belligerent baby," Tony said airily, turning back to his glass tablet and flicking yet another floating screen into the air. He enlarged it with a deft flick of his fingers, and then pinched a HammerTech logo from the page and threw it into the holographic garbage bin. "There's holes in this firewall I could get a tank through."
"So you're breaking into the DoD for revenge because they gave the security contract to someone else," Steve clarified with the same slightly disbelieving exasperation that came from any lengthy conversation with Stark. He supposed he should get angry about Tony's flagrant lawbreaking, but after five months of living in the same tower he had gradually become numb to the billionaire's outrageous behaviour. Pepper compared it to swimming in freezing water – it took some time to become desensitised.
Well, she'd said that before she moved out amid a flurry of shouts, thrown shoes and scotch.
His answer was a very disdainful snort. "Course not. I'm breaking in because it's my patriotic duty as an American citizen to pinpoint the weaknesses in the system. Seriously, this thing is a crap sandwich, I am ashamed something like this is called a Department of Defence and its idea of information defence is to say, 'look over there!' and run away."
Steve said nothing, his face expressionless.
Tony hitched a shoulder up in a weird little half-shrug. "Oh, and because I like secrets, secrets are awesome, but only when I'm in on them. Otherwise it's rude, is it rude? Yeah, rude. Plus people try and kill me."
"And okay, fine, a little bit of revenge – like, three percent revenge. Two point eight, even."
Steve pinched his nose, inhaled slowly, and then gave up and flopped onto the other couch. "Any more reasons?" he said wearily, peering at one of the floating screens covered in a sprawl of incomprehensible numbers and letters.
"Hey, if you're gonna do something, you might as well do it properly," Tony said, waving one hand airily as the other skidded over the glass tablet, too busy to follow. His eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "And then give it a personality - or lasers."
Bruce was confused. Everyone was acting extremely strangely.
Perhaps it was the weather. Thunderstorms always made people jumpy.
Natasha usually stayed away from him in either form, for reasons Bruce completely understood. He'd never held it against her; he'd avoid himself as well, if he had a choice. But that night she had stormed into his lab, grabbed his wrist and dragged him into the front room of her apartment where she made him Russian tea in an exquisite antique samovar made of chased silver. All the while she watched his face intently.
Her expression was nothing he'd ever seen before.
She leaned forward at one point, and said very clearly and without any inflection whatsoever, "You are the most courageous person I have ever met, Doctor Banner."
"Bruce," he said automatically, his mind spinning.
It might have been his imagination, but her eyes were slightly shiny and her mouth turned up the most infinitesimally tiny amount when she said simply, "Bruce."
The silence fell once more, but it was warm this time, a silence that made room for both of them.
The tea was very good.
Natasha was usually so perfectly put-together, with a glossy, manufactured finish. For some reason, her immaculate composure had been put to one side as she sat, natural and fractured and more human than he'd ever seen her, opposite him. Her hair was in her eyelashes when she turned back to the samovar and said in the most casual tone imaginable, "I'm not afraid anymore."
He looked down, studying his hands – large palms, strong, dextrous fingers. Pink, not green. "Natasha. You should be."
She poured him another cup. "No, I shouldn't."
The rest of the tea was drunk in that warm, close silence.
"What's that?" Clint asked, dropping down into the room from – somewhere, Steve found it was best not to ask.
"Top secret files, very hush-hush, not for your lowly peepers, William Tell," Tony said, leering victoriously over at Clint. The archer smirked.
"Funny, Robocop, real funny. You don't think that's sorta on the illegal side?"
"Says the assassin."
"Government-mandated assassin to you, Tonka-toy."
Tony grinned. "You're in top form today."
Clint perched one hip on the back of the sofa. "My wit brings all the boys to the yard," he said dryly.
"Stop," Steve groaned. Too many references had just flown over his head, and he hated it when that happened. Tony alone was bad enough – but Tony and Clint together were a headache that made him feel less connected than ever.
"Sorry Pops," Clint said, crossing his legs and balancing on the sofa's headrest with apparent ease. "Dad's getting angry, Threepio, we better play nice."
"I hate you," Steve growled.
"And after I saved your lovely ass from that ravening slobbering space robo-worm? Cap, I'm hurt," Clint said, grinning merrily.
"Not yet, but you will be," promised Steve darkly.
"Ooooooh, watch it, the claws are out," Tony sing-songed, rotating the holographic screens to focus on another one.
Steve slumped further down the sofa.
"Hey, stop a moment, I think I saw something," Clint said suddenly.
People didn't touch Bruce. Even before the accident, he'd apparently radiated 'Keep Away: Contents Under Pressure' vibes. He supposed they'd only gotten – more. It wasn't like people were cueing up to touch a man who with one misplaced thought could rip their spines out, so he really couldn't blame them.
The only one who ever touched him without trepidation was Tony – and that was because Tony had absolutely no sense of self-preservation.
(He lived for it, those thoughtless moments when rough fingers wiped away the monster and left him human.)
So it was bewildering when he ran into Steve on his way back to the lab from Natasha's apartment, and Steve grabbed him and held him tightly. Huge arms, thick with ropy muscle, enfolded him around the shoulders, and he heard his back protest. His hands flailed, at a loss, before gingerly settling around Steve's bulky shoulders in return.
Captain America's heart was beating very, very fast, and his breathing was uneven and harsh.
Interest stirred in the dark green waters of his mind. Threat?
No, Bruce replied. Friend. Just... strange.
It felt less like a hug, and more like a promise. Like a reassurance. Like Steve was desperate to make sure that Bruce was still here.
"I've got you, soldier," Steve murmured, close to inaudible. "I've got your back. Don't you let go. Don't you dare let go."
"There," Clint pointed. "Wasn't that Bruce's name?"
Tony immediately leaned forward, a little too eagerly. "Where?"
"It is too," Steve said, leaning forward. "Doctor R. Bruce Banner, Lab Sessions 1-5, HGYHLK..."
"That sly dog, he never said he'd done more military labs," Tony said, a trifle sulkily as he leaned back against the sofa. "That's against the science bro code. Full sciencing disclosure. I'll bet he found something really cool and doesn't think I won't pinch it. Which I wouldn't. Much. Because he's Bruce."
"He tells you everything, then?" interjected Natasha from behind them. She opened the fridge, her hair wet from the pool, and took out the juice.
"Jesus!" Tony gasped. "Make a noise or something, god, man with a heart condition here!"
"I knew she was there," Clint said smugly.
"Children," Steve said imploringly.
"Apologies, Captain," Natasha said smoothly. "You've found some files regarding Bruce and the military? His relationship with them isn't the best."
"And the Russian candidate for Miss Understatement 2012, Natasha Romanoff," muttered Clint.
"We should make sure this isn't something that will compromise him," Natasha continued implacably. "We need to know that every one of us is on the level."
Steve frowned. "I'm sure Doctor Banner..."
Tony interrupted with a heated, "wait a minute here, La Femme Nikita, I know you don't trust his big green roomie, but where do you get off saying that Bruce would be compromised by a little DoD lab-funding?"
Natasha poured herself a glass of juice without looking at the glass at all. "I'm saying it would be a good idea to check, given his past relationship with the military. We don't want to find out that they're holding something over him that can be used in the future," she said in a level tone. "I'm not accusing him of anything."
"Next best thing," grumbled Tony, but he settled down.
"Are those video files?" Steve peered at the floating screen. "Is that what that file thingy – extension - means?"
"Yeah," Clint vaulted effortlessly over the back of the sofa to settle next to Steve. "C'mere, Tasha, stop needling the rich guy who's paying our bills."
"Thank you," Tony said with dignity. "I like him better than you, he's my favourite."
"My poor broken heart," she said, dry as a desert.
"Should we call Doctor Banner for this?" asked Steve as Natasha sat down beside Clint and swung her feet into the archer's lap.
"Mister Bashful? No way," Clint said. "He'll stammer through the whole thing, all 'it's no big deal, you guys,' or 'anyone would do that, it's just normal scientific methodology' – and when you put him next to the clanking wonder there, it's sciencebabble central."
"Nice, see if I make you my favourite again," Tony rolled his eyes, before enlarging the screen, and flicking it backwards so they could all see.
Natasha frowned, reading the filename. "Doctor R. Bruce Banner, Lab Sessions 1-5, HGYHLK."
"Huggyhulk," sniggered Tony. "It says Huggyhulk. Oh, he is never living this down. This I gotta see."
"Friends?" Thor said, peering into the rec-room. "Why do you all congregate here?"
"Yo, Thor," said Clint absently, sinking back into the sofa. "Pull up a pew and get comfy, we're gonna watch Banner get his genius on while Tony gets a science boner."
"Laugh it up, Barton," said Tony witheringly. "Big words from a guy whose chosen weapon predates the horse-collar."
"Agincourt was a huge victory, ask any historian," said Clint placidly. "The French all have nightmares about me due to ancestral memory."
"That's not the reason," Tony smirked. Natasha hit his elbow, and he hissed, rubbing it.
Thor flopped down next to Tony, taking up all the space and stretching out like a satisfied Great Dane. "Is it Movie Night already?" he asked, scratching at his stomach.
Bruce was carefully transferring a culture from one petri dish to another when he became aware of the eyes on the back of his head.
"Uh..." he said aloud, the icy fingers of fear creeping up his spine to clasp his neck in a familiar, chilling embrace. "Anyone there?"
There was a pause, and then Clint... appeared. There was no other way to say it. One minute there was no Clint, and then there he was, standing in front of him in his soft loose T-shirt and worn jeans as though such an occurrence was completely normal. And perhaps it was. "Hi."
Bruce blinked, and then raised an eyebrow. "Hey. Um. Can... can I help you?"
Clint made a wordless noise, half-exasperation, half- something that Bruce couldn't put a name to. His hand twitched as though he wanted to clasp Bruce's shoulder – or slap him, or something. Bruce watched his friend in growing puzzlement. "Clint? Are you okay?"
The archer turned away from Bruce, leaning his palms on the bench heavily and shaking his head. "Am I okay," he muttered.
He was beginning to get alarmed now. "Something's wrong, isn't it? Has something happened? Clint, you can tell me, no matter what, you know that, don't you?"
Clint laughed then, a short, ugly, raw sound. His hands bunched into fists against the steel surface, the heavy archery muscles of his arms tightening as he breathed slowly through his nose. "Bruce," he said after a moment. "You feel safe here, right?"
"Sure," Bruce said, now utterly lost.
Clint took another deep breath. And then another. "Good," he said. "Good."
The screen filled with a pale, fluorescent light. "Jeez, looks like an alien autopsy in there," joked Clint, squinting against the brightness.
"Hang on," Tony said, and made a few adjustments with elegant sweeps of his fingers. "Better?"
"Yeah," Steve said. "Wait, is that Doctor Banner there, in the lab coat?"
Bruce had decided to go back to his room. His teammates' behaviour was thoroughly freaking him out, and he was beginning to feel the need to re- centre himself in a place where people didn't act strangely and touch him and say oddly meaningful, heartfelt things.
Except Thor was sitting in the corridor outside his apartment, his back against the door, his head in his palm, and his long legs stretched before him. He looked up as Bruce approached.
His eyes were wet.
"Thor?" asked Bruce incredulously.
"Doctor Banner," Thor said. His deep voice was raspy and he hauled himself to his feet. The demigod towered over Bruce, but in that moment he seemed smaller than usual. He made no movement to wipe his eyes. The tears continued to trickle down his stubbled cheeks and Thor allowed them to with no trace of self-consciousness. For some reason, this seemed more alien than anything Thor had ever done before. "Bruce. I apologise for my presence and the manner in which you find me... but I felt the need to assure myself that you are safe and well. Now I have done so, I will depart. But first, if you will allow me..."
Bruce opened his mouth to say something, and found that he could say nothing at all as Thor clasped his head and brought their foreheads close together. Blue eyes, glossy and resolute, filled his vision.
"I will be here for you," Thor said, his voice a dark rumble. "You are a good man and a great one, Bruce, Bruce my brother whom I love, no matter which form you take. I will always defend you, and I will never abandon you. This I swear on the roots of the World Tree."
"Thor..." Bruce faltered. Those violently blue eyes, hard with memory, old with horror and soft with tears, eclipsed the whole world. He couldn't look away if he tried.
"I could not be prouder of you, my brother," Thor said hoarsely, before releasing him and stalking away. Thunder rumbled in the air.
"What the fuck is going on?" Bruce mumbled to himself.
"Test 4F results are inconclusive," said the labcoat dispassionately. "The subject's healing propensity defeats this method, as the muscle, adipose tissue and dermal layers heal around the intrusion."
Red, starkly vivid against the bright white lights, blossomed under gloved hands as the labcoat spoke.
"Suggest moving to Test series 5 and to remove antibiotics and painkillers from the IV, as subject's reactions should be studied in as natural a state as possible under laboratory conditions. Pain may be processed differently through the subject's altered nervous system. A control experiment should be set up, see my notes for Series 12.
"No sign of transmutation to other form, despite previously noted eye colour shifts and constant regenerative ability. We seem to have reached the optimal drug dosage, where the subject is not able to trigger transformative state, but equally unlikely to reach unconsciousness."
A burble, wet and obscene, rattled from behind the labcoat. The labcoat turned her head slightly, grimacing.
"Also," she said, her lip slightly twisting in disgust, "we need a bucket."
Bruce sat down heavily onto his bed and let out a long, drawn-out breath.
Meditation, he decided.
Steve knew about this sort of thing. Or at least, he thought he had.
He remembered Bucky, strapped to a cold table, his body covered in welts and scars that looked old but were new and his eyes bruised and hunted. Instruments had gleamed on tables and above him on racks. Zola had been a professional.
This was worse.
A lung bubbled and gushed, attempting to heal slowly around the metal shunt that slid between flayed ribs. Bone showed up shockingly white against the bloody meat of the chest. Bloodless white skin was peeled back like a delicate lace coverlet, held in place by metal clips. It twitched occasionally, unnaturally, trying to knit itself together.
A familiar face, usually so soft and wry and kind, was contorted with pain. White lips pulled back tightly away from teeth in a snarl of agony.
Worst were the eyes – green as poison, green as hatred.
"He's not as drugged as they think he is," Clint said in a voice colder than death. "If he was, he wouldn't be able to touch the Hulk at all."
"He's holding the Hulk back," said Steve, floating, shaking, feeling sick. "He's holding him back, while they make him heal around..."
"Why doesn't he scream?" whispered Natasha. Her face was her normal impassive mask, but her eyes were huge as she watched. "That's what they want. That would end it."
The scene changed. The labcoat adjusted her hair, conscious of being filmed.
"Test 5B," she said.
They watched as scalpels cut an equator around his wrist, and his flesh was tugged down. It pulled away from his bones like a glove.
Muscle and tendon slowly crept down from the drooling stump to wind around the bare bleached fingerbones, like reddened ivy.
Tony stumbled over to the kitchen, grabbed the garbage bin and threw up.
Bruce inhaled, slipping into a state of non-being.
"For pity's sake," Thor cried. He was weeping openly, and the skies outside began to roil with fat grey clouds.
"Scream, Bruce," Natasha breathed. "Just once. Please. End it."
His body was lashed tightly onto a leaning slab, and electrodes were applied all over his skin.
The current was raised slowly.
"I can't," Steve choked, and turned away.
Tony watched grimly, his beard and hair violently black against paper-pale skin. Two spots of colour burned on his cheeks. Bridges burned in his eyes.
"Why, why do they do this to a good man?" Thor demanded furiously as veins rose to the surface of bruised skin, cobwebbing the pale body in blood red as the electricity surged through him. Limbs began to shake, gently at first, then violently.
Clint's face was stone, to match his ice-cold voice. "Why is he holding him back? He could level the place in seconds."
Muscles jumped under skin. Fingers twitched. The head lolled uncontrollably on a noodle-limp neck.
"Turn it off," Steve said from a million miles away. "We shouldn't... he wouldn't want us to..."
With a violent jerk the naked man's head convulsed forward. In a bloody gush, he bit right through his tongue. Meat slapped to the ground before him. Eyes flashed green, flickered back to brown.
His trembling caused the gore to cascade over his chin and chest, red vivid against white.
"Oh, gross," said the labcoat in revulsion.
Bruce slid deep into the place where his breathing became the soundtrack of his existence. The dank green swamp at the back of his mind rippled and seethed, eager to take the fallen reins, but Bruce smoothed it over, calmed it, soothed it. Hulk was not needed, Hulk could be peaceful, Hulk should sleep.
The green swamp bubbled once, and then was still. Like any young child, Hulk responded to a lullaby.
Bruce sank below the waters, reaching for the place where they met and merged, where there was no Hulk, no Doctor Bruce Banner, just him that was them and peace.
There was a distant sound from the world.
"Test 10A," said the labcoat, bored. A man with military bearing, silver-dusted hair, came into shot to peer at the subject.
"Nothing more, huh?" he said gruffly, angrily. "Thought you were too proud for this, Banner."
In Avengers Tower, years later: "Ross," said Tony, a sudden guilty snarl.
"How'd the acid tests go?" the General said. He was tall and straight and unbending. Tony hated him absolutely.
"Test Series 6, sir. About the same as the bullet and blade tests," the labcoat said. "His skin's not immune in this form."
"And the desanguination?"
"You mean Series 3. Replenished itself within two hours. General, if you'd stand back please," said the labcoat. Her tone was routine, uninterested. The subject slumped in his bonds, held up by his wrists. His eyes were closed and his curls were reddish-brown with his own blood.
"Have we found out whether he can regenerate major organs yet?" the General asked, spinning back around to face the labcoat and the camera. His face was craggy and full of fierce pride. A dangerous face - an arrogant one, decided Steve, his outrage roaring deep inside him. A bully.
"Test Series 9, sir," said the labcoat with a barely-stifled tone of contempt. "Yes, he can. We took out, in order, liver, right lung, left lung, a section of his long intestine, both kidneys and lastly his pancreas. Of course, we let him heal between each operation."
"Didn't try two at once, didja?" The General folded his arms, challenge in the set of his mouth. "How about heart or brain?"
"We've been over this," said the labcoat in a long-suffering tone. "Brain and heart are too important, and even with his rate of regeneration I wouldn't risk it. You could kill the subject completely, and lose the opportunity to study him at all."
"Too important, hnh," the General grunted. He turned to the limp figure, and sneered, poking it with a finger. "Not that you need that big brain o' yours anymore, smart boy."
The body rocked back, lifeless as a hanging carcass.
He slapped the slack face lightly. "How's it feel, freak?" he said, a smirk on his lined face. "Knowin' that for all your genius, you're gonna go down in history as a mindless, senseless animal?"
One eye opened a crack, slow as a tectonic shift. It was brown, but no less full of hatred.
"General Ross," said Robert Bruce Banner (six PhDs, the fourth most intelligent man in the world, the Hulk, their friend), hanging thin and powerless in his chains. His voice was blurred around a tongue thickened with dehydration, and his teeth were red with his blood as he smiled. "I think I can speak for both of us when I say this."
And spat full in the General's face.
Drifting in the current, Bruce frowned.
The sound was a voice. Someone was calling.
"He's got to Hulk out," Clint said, over and over to himself. His eyes, the eyes that saw further than anyone else's, never deviated from the floating screen. "He's got to. He has to Hulk out. No way can he survive... He's got to Hulk out..."
The General had not taken kindly to Bruce's poisonous blood being spattered all over his face.
"Turn it off. Please," Steve commanded, but there was no power in it. His voice was small and weak, just as he had been. They had all retreated into their own small dark universes, and not one of them moved. They were all hypnotised by the pain and strength of will before them.
Natasha swallowed a sob as the water cascaded once more, litres and litres of it with no escape and no mercy. The long line of raw bones that was Bruce on the screen spluttered and choked under the cloth. His ribcage was expanded in an obscene parody of breathing, his belly distended. Soon he would rupture. "Scream," she begged. "Please scream." Her facade had completely cracked.
"Tasha," Clint said harshly.
"I did!" she said, rounding on him with her wet hair plastered to her forehead. Her eyes were those of a hunted little girl. "I screamed and it stopped, it always stops when you scream..."
"Tasha!" Clint grabbed her forearms. She beat him away with three smooth, practiced moves – habit, instinct (built into her with careful and calculating hands) - before slumping over and wrapping her head in her arms. Her shoulders never shook, but only because she was forcing them not to.
Tony had contracted into a small ball of pain, his hands plastered flat over the disc of light in his chest. The roar of water sounded in his ears.
He could see Bruce superimposed over the horror show before him, his worn, bitter, wry face, so tired and so dear. Tony sucked in his breath between his teeth, and tasted the bile in the back of his throat from before.
Thor reached for him. Tony's head whipped up, wildness in his eyes.
"I believe you need comfort at this moment, my friend," Thor said. Then his heavy shoulders slumped, though he never wavered in his gaze. "As do I."
Tony stared at Thor for another moment, fight-or-flight carved in every line of his body, before he steeled himself and allowed Thor to pull him close.
"Sure do cry a lot, Fabio," he said shakily.
"I mourn for the good doctor," Thor said softly, lifting his golden head and meeting Steve's eyes. "For what he endured, and what he lost. I mourn for his bravery and his stubbornness and his strength, that it should be used in this way."
Steve took in a shuddering breath, still feeling slightly out-of-body. "Amen."
Clint watched the atrocities unfolding on the screen for another moment, his jaw clenching and unclenching. Water poured once more over the covered head, turning the visible curls into glossy seal-fur, surging into lungs and stomach. Then Clint (hard-faced, smart-assed, compact, deadly Clint) bent with his normal smooth efficiency, took Natasha's empty glass and threw it with his uncanny, unerring aim through the hologram.
Glass shattered against the opposite wall. It was a final sort of noise, a suitably violent end to the images they had seen.
The pictures of their friend being drowned flickered, and then the screen faded into the air.
Silence settled around them like thick, suffocating snow.
He wanted to stay in his meditative state. It was calm here.
"Bruce, you gotta be here, please tell me you're here..."
The calm rippled. His friend's voice was thick and hoarse.
"Oh, I see you're... uh... I'll see you later, yeah?"
He sounded unhappy.
Bruce breathed deeply and let go of the calm, embracing the complexity, the complications of life.
He opened his eyes. "Tony? Is everything okay?"
"Stark," Natasha said, her head lifting. Her eyes were red, but dry.
Tony made a noise that chased itself into a dark burrow and bared its teeth. The rush of water still echoed in his ears, voices barked in another tongue. Bruce, he thought in a sort of despair, even though somewhere in his mind he knew his friend was alive and well and two floors down. Bruce. Bruce.
Natasha paused, and then crouched down before the couch, slowly reaching for and then taking Tony's hand. He jerked, and then held on so tightly that he could feel the bones in her knuckles shifting against each other.
Steve looked up at Clint, who was still staring, hard-eyed, where the screen had disappeared beneath the glass. He raised his hand, palm-up, and after a moment Clint took it. The archer's hand was dry and warm and real, with scars and a huge callus on his index and middle fingers from plucking the bowstring. It brought Steve back to the world from that light-headed, queasy place he had been floating in.
"It doesn't seem..." he said, and then swallowed. "Real."
How did one draw a line between the cold-blooded obscenities, the visceral struggles he had just seen, and their Bruce, the one they knew? Their Bruce was a soft-edged, grey-speckled, rumpled man in thrift-store jackets, who liked croissants better than donuts, couldn't stand the corn syrup in everything in America, preferred cooking with ghee more than with olive oil. A neat man who went barefoot whenever he could, his feet and hands broad and big and always so precise, whose laugh was rusty, low and warm with a sour undertone, who found delight in the minute details and was an unexpected expert on old British radio comedies. A human man, a real man.
What Steve had just seen had the otherwordly quality of a story - the old kind, the ones full of snow and blood and monsters that looked like men.
Thor raised his head, closed his bright eyes. Outside the tower, lightning shattered. "Most of all I mourn that a good man should live through such things, and believe himself to be of such little importance that his friends would not care to know."
"Stupid self-effacing insecure ridiculously humble moron," Tony growled damply, and Thor tucked him closer against the god's solid, warm side. Then he rested his maned head upon Tony's, his tears trickling into dark black hair.
Natasha looked up at her partner perched stiff and unforgiving on the sofa, before laying her head against his knee. Clint's eyes glittered and softened. His free hand gently laid itself over her hair – a strangely tender gesture from the ruthlessly efficient, professional and sarcastic Hawkeye.
"He's never felt safe," Clint eventually said. His voice was still flat, but he wasn't fooling anyone. "But he always makes sure everyone else does, have you noticed? He always asks if you're okay."
"Did I hurt anyone," murmured Steve, gazing at his hand twined with Clint's.
"Can I help," Natasha said, her eyes far away.
"Is it all right if I take a fucking shit," Tony muttered.
"He always knows I'm there," Clint continued. "He can always tell, paranoia or something I guess. None of you other jokers ever notice, except for Tasha."
"He's brilliant and he never fucking believes it," Tony snarled. "As though an accident, one accident, wiped out a lifetime of fucking revolutionary work. We all have fucking accidents – that's fucking science!"
"Language," said Steve reflexively, before snorting. "Actually, go ahead. Sort of fits the mood."
"Thank you, I fucking will," Tony said, before they both chuckled. It was a thin, weak sound devoid of real humour, but it was at least alive.
Silence fell. The ghosts of white light and red blood hung in the air before them.
"He never screamed," Natasha said distantly. "He was holding the Hulk the whole time as they cut the flesh off his hand, and he never screamed."
"How did he hold the Hulk that whole time?" blurted Clint. The ice in his voice was cracking as fury built up inside him. Steve could feel his pulse racing under his fingers.
"He is a great man," Thor said quietly.
"Those fuckers," Clint said, his teeth biting into his lower lip on the F, flinging the word into the room like one of his arrows, sharp and brutal and accurate. "Those fuckers. They took him and they... those fuckers. He should have let the Hulk out."
"No wonder the guy's always angry," said Steve. He felt slightly fragile, like pottery, as though what he had seen had dried him out and hollowed out his centre.
"He could have finished it in seconds!" Clint practically shouted.
"Hulk..." Natasha said softly, "is different now. Bruce changed him, the world changed him - we've changed him."
"This was when Hulk was young," Tony said, understanding immediately. "No experience, no context, no understanding. Just rage."
"Shit," Clint said, slumping back. Steve squeezed his hand.
"He would have torn everything in his path into shreds," Natasha said matter-of-factly, as though it hadn't almost happened to her less than half a year ago. "Nothing could have stopped him, nothing."
"So not that different," Clint said sardonically, before wiping his eyes. "Jesus."
"Different enough," said Natasha, her eyes steady. "And we build on that."
"We build on that," agreed Steve.
Bruce blinked as his eyes adjusted. His room was darkened, the blinds shuttered. They were always like that. He didn't like the feeling of people staring in at him.
"Oh, hey, sorry to interrupt," Tony said, opening the door where he had begun to close it. He shut it behind him as quietly as he could, and stared at Bruce for a long moment.
He shifted uncomfortably under the gaze, conscious of his rumpled state: loose pants and a button-up that needed ironing, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, hair three weeks overdue for a haircut, barefoot and cross-legged on the bed. "Something up?"
Tony just kept staring at him, as though he were made of cellophane.
Bruce was beginning to get annoyed. "Look, what's going on? Everyone in this tower's been acting weird all day, and though it's been sort of good – I'm never going to pass up Natasha's tea – it's mostly been weird, as I said, so can I please get-"
"We found a video of you being tortured," Tony blurted.
Bruce's heart stopped.
The swamp roiled. THREAT! the Hulk howled.
"No!" Bruce barked, before scrubbing his face with the heels of his hands. He could feel the Hulk in the tips of his fingers, in the tingle of his teeth. The memory washed over him - of the way he had seen the world through straps and bars and observation screens: red-tinted, green-edged. Fear and fury quaked through him, and the monster followed in their wake like a tsunami.
He began to talk the Hulk down in his mind, coaxing it back. "No, no... it's all over, I promise, we're not there. We're not there. I promise. Calm down. It was long ago, no one to smash, no one to fight. We're not there. It's all over."
As he repeated the mantra over and over, he wondered which of them he was trying to convince.
"Bruce..." Tony said wretchedly.
"Under control," Bruce said, muffled by his hands. "Just... Give me a moment, just..."
Slowly the Hulk sank back under the water. Bruce breathed in slowly through his nose, out through his mouth. "Right," he mumbled to himself, pulling his equilibrium together.
Then he took his hands away from his face and pinned Tony with a glare. "You found a video - of me. When I was..."
"I'm sorry. Bruce, I'm so sorry," Tony said, and gingerly stepped into the room. "Can I...?"
"It's your house," Bruce said bitterly. "Suit yourself."
Tony walked on bare feet to sit on the bed beside him. His long, clever fingers twitched.
"I'm not going to break," Bruce snapped eventually. "Okay, that happened, sure, but you also had that..."
"Yeah, but I didn't have acid poured over my face or a metal pipe shoved into my lung..." Tony said, stung into speaking, but Bruce overrode him.
"No, you had one shoved into your sternum and part of your ribcage removed, and I'll bet I got more sanitary conditions," he said, his back stiff and his jaw set. "I'm fine. Most people don't get to walk away without a single scar. Don't feel sorry for me."
"Holy shit, that's where you're taking this?" Tony exploded.
Bruce rocked back a little, surprised at the vehemence. "Sorry?"
"Feel sorry for you? Jesus fuck, Bruce, are you some sort of bitterness fairy? Some sort of martyr?" Tony raged, before taking in a long, careful breath and visibly calming himself down. "Right. Right, okay, calmer heads, yadda yadda, you're an idiot, but I can work with that..."
Bruce closed his open mouth, before lifting his chin. "Well? Steve comes up and hugs me, hugs me, Tony – people don't hug me, people don't hug the Hulk, Tony! What am I supposed to think? Thor was crying! The hell, Tony?"
Tony shook his head in an apparent mixture of amazement and exasperation. "You are incredible, you know that?" he said hotly. "You are simply fucking incredible. I hate your self-esteem, by the way, it can fuck the hell right off."
"Well, thanks," Bruce snapped, wondering what on earth the man was trying to say. "Mind clarifying? I've missed a step or two here - So it goes, we saw you get tortured, step two, step three, then hugs, then 'you're an idiot and I hate your self-esteem' - and I sort of have the feeling those steps might be necessary to the conversation, so if you don't mind giving me the Cliff Notes..."
"Cliff – Oh my god, you're an idiot," Tony said, throwing up his hands.
"You've covered that bit," Bruce said in a tight voice, turning away.
Tony made a strangled noise. "Oh what, you what, what the hell is this now," he growled.
Then he clambered over to sit directly in front of the smaller man and took Bruce's chin in hard, scarred hands, turning his face back to him. His fingers were long and rough, but his touch was soft. "You," he said, before his mouth snapped shut. His eyes grew dark and wide, and his lips were tight, nervous.
Bruce waited. Then he raised an eyebrow. "Me," he confirmed. "Yes? Any more to add?"
He could almost pinpoint the moment when Tony decided, 'to hell with it' in the large, dark eyes – and then a mouth was pressing hard, almost bruisingly hard against his own.
"Mmmmph!" Bruce managed, rocking back. Tony's forehead thumped his nose, and he also got out an, "Ow! Tony – that was my..." before the mouth was back on his, hard and insistent and furious and daring Bruce to reciprocate.
He tore his mouth away, spluttering in shock and confusion. "What the hell? Tony – okay, A, what the hell was that, B, why the hell did you do that, C, That was my nose, you bastard and D, if you're doing this because you saw me get..."
"Oh, for fuck's sake, Bruce," Tony breathed, and his rough, hard hands smoothed along Bruce's side, touched his hair, smoothed along his cheek as though it was precious. "Ready? A, that was a kiss, B, I really wanted to kiss you, Bruce – oh, B with a little... like, little I-thing, yeah, B-supplemental-the-first... you have an insanely sexy mind, the Jessica Rabbit of minds, holy crap your brain, I could hump it all day and please disregard any reality in which that sounds weird, where am I...
"Oh, B-two-little-i's: I fucking love your hair and your mouth and your big hands and your eyes and your ass and that thicket you call a chest, don't get me started on your glasses, and the way you use a pipette, which is admittedly ridiculously and scorchingly hot, don't judge me. B-three-little-i's, you get a wrinkle right there when you think I'm being more insane than usual... aaaaand, there it is. I'm calling it Wally."
Bruce sat, mute, as Tony fondly traced a finger between his brows. Then Tony scooted forward even closer, and the babble so familiar from a thousand experiments and drunken rants and battle commentaries resumed. But Bruce couldn't quite grasp the content with the fear and degradation and anger twisting inside him like rope.
"B-little-i-little-v: You are the most patient, kindest, most ridiculously understanding person ever, I mean, if you were around when Jesus was, he would have said hold on, that's going a bit far with the whole meek thing, and the weirdest bit is you're not naturally like that, you've taught yourself to be that way, because sometimes the real you underneath comes out and he's snarky and relaxed and arrogant as fuck and he can strut his big brain all around like a, well, like me. And that's hot. B - look, let's just take it as given that B is really long, right, aaaand moving on. C: what, I couldn't hear you over the sound of me kissing you, and D, I always see you, I always do, have you any idea, you gorgeous genius you-"
"No," Bruce interrupted the Stark-babble flatly, the knotted fear and fury inside him beginning to uncurl. "No, I don't. Explain."
"Pushy," Tony chuckled, and Bruce could feel his breath against his mouth. When he saw the hard set of Bruce's eyes, however, he sat back and sighed. "Okay, I'm only going to say this once, so pay attention."
He leaned forward and pronounced every word with the kind of clarity most people reserve for the very young or very old - the sort of tone used by tourists speaking English in other countries. "We. Care. About. You."
Then Tony grabbed his shoulders and shook them. "I. Care. About. You."
Releasing him, the engineer leaned back, satisfaction in the lines of his face. "Synthesise that, Doctor Sexy."
Bruce opened his mouth.
Opened it again. "I..."
Then he looked down at his hands. "I don't know how to take that. I don't know how to feel about you knowing what happened to me."
"You be happy, for once, because it finally got me off my ass and I kissed you, which means now you can kiss me back and we go on our merry way only with kissing and hugging and sex, please-please-please let there be sex." Tony said bluntly.
"But... there was Clint, and Steve, and Thor was crying, Tony..." Bruce waved a hand helplessly, and then dropped it into his lap, unable to express what he wanted to say.
"I know," Tony said, stripped of his veneer and his showmanship and his arrogance, brutally honest. Just a man of mid-height in a band t-shirt. "We all were, in our ways. We care about you, Bruce, and what you lived through was horrible. I threw up twice. We're all going to want to make sure you're here, and okay, and safe. For a little while."
Shame swept through Bruce and he swallowed. "I wish you hadn't seen me like that."
"Hey." Tony sat yet closer, scooted forward and gripped his hands. Bruce could feel the warmth radiating from him, the whispering whirr of the arc reactor underneath their voices. "I get it. Of all people, I get it. But the way I see it, you've got two choices. You can say fuck it, this happened to me and I'm going to deal with it and a giant fuck-you to anyone who thinks I should be ashamed, or you can hide under a rock - or for instance in a lab - and pretend none of us ever heard the word 'torture' while it eats you up at night. Your call."
Humiliation and anger flooded him just as surely as water once had. "I didn't want anyone to know I could - that I was-" His throat closed. Rage shifted under his skin, sad and afraid and alone.
"Are you high? What I saw wasn't weak, Bruce. It was amazing. You are amazing," Tony said, his grip tightening around Bruce's wrists. "You never broke. The whole time. Natasha begged you to scream, and you spat in the fucker's face."
Bruce's head swam. "He..."
"So, uh, word to the wise?" Tony said, conversationally, easily. "I wouldn't worry too much about certain generals any more. If Robin of Loxley doesn't get him, what Cap and I have planned will." That famous smirk. "Military corruption is such an ugly phrase, isn't it?"
Inside him, hurt and childish and unstoppable as the seasons, the Hulk roared in triumph - and Bruce knew his eyes were green. He dropped his eyelids, his chin.
Tony, who threw his life around as though it was worth nothing, laughed and squeezed his hands once more. "Hey. Stop that, Oscar the Grouch, I like it. It's like mood-rings but with radiation and occasional public nudity - of which, may I say, I approve? Anyway, Operation Revenge on General Douchebag is a go. Thor sort of prefers the simple approach - and I have to say it does have a certain, direct, extremely final charm. Of course, that's assuming that anyone on this rotating rock can escape Natasha and her Thighs of Doom, and oh god I wish I hadn't said that, does that bring up gross images or sexy ones? Grossexy ones?"
"I'm not..." Bruce began, and then he broke off once more, tearing his hands out of Tony's grip and scrubbing roughly at his face again, trying to control himself.
"I could kiss you again, I have it on the highest authority that it helps, and when I say highest authority I mean me," Tony offered, and Bruce huffed a laugh through his shaking fingers.
"In a bit," he said, trying for a lighter tone. It emerged as a tremor instead.
Tony sat beside him, and carefully took his hand again, thumbing the roughened pads, the broad, lined palms. "Nightmares?" he asked the wall opposite them.
Bruce studied the hand in his. Smaller than his own, narrow and nimble, with solder burns, nicks from a slipping screwdriver, a wedge of flesh ripped from the palm when a gauntlet was lost during a battle, leaving a starbust of puckered skin. "Always. You?"
"We're a mess."
"At least we're in good company. Natasha fell apart, it was sort of spectacular to watch – kinda like a glacier calving. She hit Clint and went foetal for five minutes. She wants to give you some sort of bravery medal."
Bruce chuckled, and was amazed to find it was real. "I gathered."
"Katniss is furious. Don't go near him for a few days, not unless you're looking for high blood pressure and a nice green paintjob. I think Cap wants to wrap you in lambswool and never let you out. O say can you see his abandonment issues."
"Tony. Pot, kettle. Anyway, replace lambswool with lab and he's got a deal – though the Other Guy might not ratify it."
"Join the Avengers, they said," Tony declared with a grandiose wave of his other arm. "Mandatory qualifications include withstanding torture and a shitty home life."
That got Bruce to snort. "Desired but not necessary: Death wish and/or no sense of self-worth."
"Brainwashing or mind-control also regarded favourably," Tony added.
"Is the alien the best-adjusted out of all of us? Really?" Bruce said wryly.
Tony smiled, before dropping a closed-mouth kiss on Bruce's lips. "Probably. Except for the whole Springer-In-Space family debacle. So maybe the 90-year-old with PTSD is. Mmm, did you have cheese for lunch?"
"Look, Tony," Bruce began.
"Shut up, Kermit. I don't care, you don't have to be ashamed, you don't have to hide or run, and we're not going away. I'm not going away," Tony breathed and kissed him again.
Every reason Bruce should walk away flitted across his mind. Shame perched in his throat, anger in his belly. His fear and sorrow pricked behind his eyes.
Tony smoothed his hair again, and the scratch of his beard rasped around his mouth, and Bruce thought about bravery, about survival and safety and loss. He thought about dark caves and bright white examination rooms and puzzle pieces that were all broken but still fitted together.
Bruce kissed back.
During the next battle, Hulk is surprised when the Star-Man talks to him again, telling Hulk that Star-Man likes Hulk, that Star-Man is a friend. Hulk knew that. Hulk not stupid.
Shooty bird gives him thumbs-sign as he passes. Hulk catches Shooty bird when he falls without a rope. Shooty bird always up too high.
Shooty bird tells Hulk that thumbs-sign means good job. Hulk proud. Hulk loves smash. Hulk very good at smashing.
Shouty long-hair not as good as Hulk at smashing. Shouty long-hair claps Hulk on back, and says Hulk the best smasher he has ever seen.
Maybe Shouty long-hair is okay.
Metal Man gives Hulk a hug, before flying away. Hulk... has never had a hug before.
Hugs are good. Hulk wouldn't object to more.
The very-big surprise is red-black woman. She kisses Hulk's cheek with fear and sadness in her eyes, before pointing him in the direction of more smash.
Hulk sorry he tried to smash red-black woman before, and tells her so. Glad he did not smash her. Red-black woman looks startled, but then happy.
Hulk glad fear and sadness gone from her eyes. Enough of that. Hulk is sick of it.
The clear green stream at the back of his mind bubbles merrily, almost as though Banner is laughing.