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Del Rion [userpic]

Matryoshka

Story Info



Title: Matryoshka

Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)

Fandom: The Avengers, Iron Man & The Incredible Hulk (MCU)

Timeline: after ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’; before “Avengers: Age of Ultron’

Genre: Action, drama

Rating: T / FRT

Characters: Bruce Banner (Hulk), Tony Stark (Iron Man). Also: J.A.R.V.I.S., Emil Blonsky (Abomination), James “Rhodey” Rhodes (War Machine), Samuel Sterns (Leader), Glenn Talbot.

Summary: Bruce asks for Tony’s help in locating Emil Blonsky, aka the Abomination, after suspecting that the man might be on the loose in the aftermath of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s collapse. Turns out, Blonsky isn’t the only person from Bruce’s past they’re going to cross paths with.
Complete.

Written for: Science Bros Big Bang 2014-2015.

Warnings: Canonical violence, language.

Disclaimer: Iron Man, Avengers, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Marvel Cinematic Universe, including characters and everything else, belong to Marvel, Marvel Studios, Marvel Television, Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Shane Black, Louis Leterrier, Anthony & Joe Russo, Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Universal Pictures, and ABC & Mutant Enemy. In short: I own nothing; this is pure fiction created to entertain likeminded fans for no profit whatsoever.

Beta: Mythra (mythras_fire)


About Matryoshka: Seeing as ‘Age of Ultron’ wasn’t out yet during the creation of this story, anything and everything concerning Marks 43 and 44 is pure speculation – save for the ‘matryoshka’ reference, because if the suits operate anything like the author suspects they might, there’s no way that reference/running joke is inaccurate


Story and status: Below you see the writing process of the story. If there is no text after the title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.

Matryoshka



~ ~ ~




Matryoshka




Avengers Tower, NY

Bruce Banner entered the lab space he was sharing these days with the famous Tony Stark himself. The moment he stepped in, he could see the lights from a dozen holographic screens illuminating the room, and knowing how long Tony had been sitting in their midst, he must be getting a headache by now.

“I have coffee,” Bruce announced as he walked further inside, holding two mugs in his hands. They were warm under his grip, radiating heat into his skin.

Tony swiveled his chair around and sniffed the air as Bruce got closer. Two screens floated between them, but they slid out of the way before Bruce could walk straight through them. The screens kept retreating, pulling the others along as well, sliding backwards until they formed one virtual stack of screens, impossible to tell apart from one another in their current position.

Bruce dropped his eyes and offered Tony the coffee mug in his left hand. He saw the minute hesitation before the man grasped it – then leaned forward to sniff at the other one.

“Chai?” he asked.

“I like it,” Bruce shrugged.

Tony’s hand moved out and he tipped the mug without taking it from Bruce, placing his lips on the edge and taking a sip. “There’s no coffee in it,” he complained, retreating with his own beverage after clearly deciding he liked it better than Bruce’s.

Bruce just shrugged again.

“So, what’s the occasion?” Tony asked.

“There’s an occasion?” Bruce mused.

“You brought coffee.”

“I often bring us coffee.”

“Well, yes – and then get right back to work,” Tony pressed.

Bruce didn’t think he had been that obvious, but Tony liked to poke at him – even when there really wasn’t anything going on. It was the way they had worked together, since day one. Statistically speaking, Tony was bound to hit his mark eventually, and the other man had to know that, too.

“I have a favor to ask,” Bruce said.

“I’m listening,” Tony murmured as he took a sip of his coffee and let out a satisfied sigh to signal that he liked it.

“It’s important, and I can’t push it off any longer,” Bruce explained.

“I said I’m listening.”

“I know you’re busy with the information leak from S.H.I.E.L.D., but I need this to take precedence for a while. There aren’t many people I can ask for something like this, so I’m hoping you’ll agree.”

“Can’t agree if you don’t tell me what you need me to do, green bean.”

“About that…” Bruce started. He had gone over this conversation in his head multiple times over the last few days, after he stumbled upon a few of the files Tony was in the middle of reviewing. It had been pure luck, and Bruce was a bit mad at himself for not thinking of it earlier. Also, he was fairly certain Tony hadn’t actually taken notice of that file just yet, or he would have brought it up. There was no way he would dismiss it if Bruce knew him at all.

Tony made an impatient sound, lips glued to the rim of his mug, eyes on Bruce.

“The S.H.I.E.L.D. files indicated they had Emil Blonsky in cryo containment prior to their downfall. With what we know about HYDRA’s activities within S.H.I.E.L.D. even before the fallout, I need to find out what happened to him.”

Tony slowly lowered the mug to the table beside him. “Blonsky,” he repeated, gaze distant for a moment.

“I know you know about him,” Bruce said.

“I know you know that I know. I think you even know why I know,” Tony rolled his eyes, then looked at Bruce with a slight hint of uncertainty. “At least I hope you do. That’s not a conversation I look forward to having with you.”

“It’s okay,” Bruce offered. “I know. Besides, I’m glad I don’t have to explain the entire origin of…”

“The Abomination,” Tony finished for him.

Bruce raised an eyebrow. “Is that what they’re calling him?”

“I think so. Better than ‘Hulk Jr.’ or ‘Captain Green’, don’t you think?”

Bruce suppressed his initial grimace, then actually paid attention to what Tony was saying. “You really do know about him,” he decided. Emil Blonsky had been a Captain in the British Army, working in special-ops, before he was loaned out to General Thaddeus Ross in his attempts to catch up with Bruce while he was still on the run. Somewhere along the way Blonsky turned into what was now called ‘Abomination’, and Bruce had no doubts that it had something to do with him, hence Tony’s quip at ‘Hulk Jr.’. Those weren’t facts someone randomly browsing rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. files would pay attention to, which meant Tony had done his homework long before today.

It was Tony’s turn to shrug. “I was sent by S.H.I.E.L.D. to recruit him to the Avengers Initiative, although I suspect I was simply meant to piss off a certain General – on whose shit list we’re both currently residing, by the way,” he grinned. “As it turns out, Abomination wasn’t released for the Initiative, and we got you on board instead. A win-win, if you ask me.”

Bruce wasn’t so sure about that, but he wasn’t in the mood to have another lengthy debate about it with Tony; he had more important things to attend to. “Can you locate Blonsky?” he asked. “I would book a trip to Alaska and go see for myself, but if he’s not there anymore…”

“I’m sure I can do something to spare you the trouble of an unnecessary trip, should his containment have been cut short,” Tony said and started turning his chair towards the desk at his back. “J.A.R.V.I.S., time to go to work,” he called out to his AI.

“How would you like to proceed, sir?” the familiar voice responded, unfazed as always.

“We’ve got the gamma radiation signature on file, yes?”

“Indeed, sir.”

“Decrypt the Insight satellite shielding, put them to work. Prioritize with North America and expand from there.”

“On it,” the AI responded.

Bruce blinked. “The Insight satellites?”

Tony looked at him over his shoulder. “They’re still up there even though the Helicarriers went down.”

“And you have access to them?”

“Some of their programming is based on my work. Hell, some of their hardware is my design,” Tony boasted. “Just like with the Helicarriers, I had input. After what went down in D.C., I locked the satellites away from public use, if you will, but they’ll serve us nicely in our search for Blonsky.”

“That means they have radiation detectors…”

“Yup.”

Bruce was silent for a moment, swirling his chai latte blend in the mug in his hand. “Was it meant for me, originally?”

Tony didn’t respond at once, moving instead to wake up the physical screen in front of him and sliding things across it to organize for the impending search for gamma radiation. “It isn’t always about you,” he finally said, when so much time had passed that Bruce had almost forgotten he had asked a question.

He let out a weak chuckle. “When you’re in my shoes long enough… you’ll learn it’s always somehow about me.”

“A bit self-centered, isn’t it?” Tony challenged, eyes on the screen.

“More like the means to survive.”

“Well, feel free to enjoy the tranquility, because no one’s coming for you while you stay under my roof,” Tony promised in his usual fashion.

Bruce knew what he meant by it, though, and he stepped over, hesitating briefly before settling a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “Thank you. It… means a lot to me, Tony.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the other man said a bit distractedly, masking how pleased he was with himself.

Bruce smiled as he turned away and located a chair for himself, pulling it over and sitting down next to Tony. New screens had popped up on the large monitor in front of Tony: data from the satellites and search parameters that were being put together by J.A.R.V.I.S. in the background. Bruce knew that he could have done it by hand just as well as Tony, but there was a certain satisfaction in letting Tony’s AI do it instead. For Tony, it was the fruits of his tireless efforts over the years, and Bruce was happy to let him show it off. After all, Tony was the most subtle when it came to his AIs; he would parade around his armors, but J.A.R.V.I.S.’ omnipresence in his home as well as his armors often went beneath people’s notice, and for some reason Tony didn’t try to draw their attention to it, either.

It was a bit of a contrast from the project Tony and Bruce had been working on recently, but Bruce supposed there was something personal when it came to J.A.R.V.I.S. – as well as Tony’s two robots, DUM-E and U – and that was why they weren’t out on display like the rest of his work, even when they merited a place among his other inventions.

“Preparing to realign the satellites and uploading the data for a specified gamma radiation sweep,” J.A.R.V.I.S. announced.

“Initiate once ready,” Tony replied and finished his coffee while leaning back in his chair, looking like he was moments away from kicking up his feet instead of trying to locate one of the most dangerous people in the world.

The Hulk was bad enough, and Emil Blonsky – or whatever he was really called these days – wasn’t far behind.

As they waited, Bruce wondered whether he was comfortable with this kind of technology existing. On the other hand, if he wanted anyone to have access to it, it would be Tony. He had his doubts about whether this method of gamma radiation detection would work very well outside theory, but Tony had surprised him before. It sure beat taking a wasted trip to Alaska, that was for sure.

A new message window popped up, signaling the proper alignment of the satellites. One of them was out of range to be of any use at this time, but the others began the search based on the very narrow parameters set by J.A.R.V.I.S.

“Could be that won’t be enough to locate him,” Bruce commented.

“We’ll do the first sweep like this, see if it gets us any hits. Then we’ll broaden the search and eliminate unlikely findings,” Tony decided.

“And if we can’t detect him?”

Tony sighed. “Then I guess we’ll be taking that trip to Alaska and going from there.”

“You don’t have to come with me,” Bruce noted. “I appreciate you doing this much.”

“Mopping up after the mess HYDRA and S.H.I.E.L.D. made is all our responsibility,” Tony declared.

Bruce wasn’t sure whether that was guilt speaking or something else. After all, Tony had helped to design the new Helicarriers, and apparently the satellites used for their targeting as well – a technology that put several hundred thousand people on the planet at risk, the Avengers included. It was a heavy cross to bear, and Tony had to be beating himself up about it when he wasn’t too busy making plans for a future where such a thing would never happen again.

“We have a few hits,” J.A.R.V.I.S. stated.

“Already?” Bruce sat up in surprise, trying to control his excitement.

A map opened on one of the holographic screens. A couple hits were already crossed off, labeled as well-known laboratories or testing sites, but there was an uncrossed dot hovering over New York City.

“That’s me,” Bruce said, feeling a bit deflated. He should have just been happy it worked, but he had dared to hope for actual results.

“No,” Tony denied. “The Tower is shielded unless I say otherwise, so that can’t be you.” He made a motion with his hand, as if to pull the image towards him, and the picture zoomed in on the fittingly-colored green dot. It was small and located in Manhattan, deceptively close to the Tower’s location until Tony had zoomed all the way in.

“That’s Grayburn College, right?” Tony confirmed.

“It is,” Bruce agreed.

“Wonder why we’re getting a hit from there.”

Bruce had a few theories.

Tony looked at him. “Want to go check it out? Won’t take long, and by then J.A.R.V.I.S. will have run a full search.”

Bruce nodded his agreement, eyes lingering on the little green dot a while longer before they both got up and headed to their respective rooms to change and get going.



Grayburn College, NY

Tony pulled up at the campus’ parking lot and glanced at his phone sitting in a small stand attached to the car’s dashboard. The little green dot was still there.

“Can we zoom in on the location?” Bruce asked as he undid his seatbelt.

“A couple square miles is the best we’re going to get without some serious upgrades,” Tony lamented and looked out towards the buildings around them.

“Well, I have some ideas on where to start,” Bruce said and moved to get out of the car.

“I take it you’ve been here before,” Tony guessed as he followed his lead.

Bruce let out a sound of affirmation.

“On Hulk-related business?”

“You didn’t know that from before?”

“It’s not like I’ve read your biography from cover to cover,” Tony replied as they headed towards the building Bruce had visited the last time he was here. As they neared the main entrance, there was a sudden commotion as people started rushing out through the large, wooden doors. Bruce tensed and stopped long enough for Tony to move past him, then picked up the pace again, wary but trying to keep his nervousness in check; the way the people were moving indicated unease and possibly danger, but it wasn’t widespread panic just yet.

When they reached the bottom of the stairs leading to the doors, the crowd had thinned, students moving further away from the scene, and a lone man was left to exit the building, carrying a load of assorted books and files. At least Bruce thought it was a man, all the way until his eyes moved past his shoulders where even the large hood of the jacket he was wearing couldn’t hide the deformed shape of his head.

A faint curse reached his ears, the voice just as familiar as the general build of the man, and Bruce took a small step forward while Tony stayed still, clearly waiting for whatever came next. “Mr. Blue?” Bruce called out hesitantly, and the other man looked up from where his eyes had been fixed on his footing. Bruce saw a face he recognized – minus the forehead.

“Mr. Green!” the man called out, almost stumbling, the pile of books and files wobbling in his hold. “How unexpected. I wasn’t prepared to see a familiar face – least of all yours.” His eyes moved briefly to check out Bruce’s company, then did a double-take an instant later. “My, the company you keep. How is the lovely Dr. Ross, and how did you come to replace her with… him?” he asked, looking curiously at Tony.

“Who’s this clown?” Tony asked cautiously.

“Samuel Sterns,” Bruce introduced. “He… once tried to help me, with my… problem,” he said simply.

“Wait,” Tony raised a hand. “This is the guy who tried to cure you?”

“So you do know about it,” Bruce muttered.

“Just because I didn’t read every word doesn’t mean I didn’t skim through all the pages,” Tony told him and looked up at Sterns. “What’s wrong with his head?” he asked, blunt as ever.

Sterns huffed, like it was the most foolish question he had ever heard. “The ignorant fear what they cannot understand. I would have expected more from you, Mr. Stark.” He released one hand from supporting his load and cast back his hood, revealing what looked like an extremely swollen forehead.

Tony blinked, and Bruce found that he, too, had an extremely hard time not staring at it openly. “What happened to you?” he finally asked. “The last time we met…”

“A fateful night for us all,” Sterns nodded. “After the… uh… unfortunate chain of events, I was subjected to your blood. However,” he added, as if there were a bright side to it, “I should thank you.”

“For what?” Bruce asked, knowing that question was expected of him.

“For showing me my true purpose. For expanding my mind,” Sterns explained enthusiastically.

Tony snorted, unable to help himself.

Sterns gave him a disappointed look. “I hear you’re a genius, Stark, and as such I understand you feel threatened by someone such as I –”

“Really?” Tony cut him off. “That’s your take on the situation, bobble-head?”

Sterns sneered and promptly dropped the items he had been carrying, taking one angry step down the stairs. “The gamma radiation in Dr. Banner’s blood raised my intellectuality to a whole new level. If the agents from S.H.I.E.L.D. hadn’t gotten in the way, I could have explored my newfound abilities sooner. No matter,” he decided. “I have my freedom, and I have had so much time to put together my plans, which are so superior in nature that by the time I’m done –”

His monologue was cut off by a flash of blue and a pained gasp before Sterns doubled over, sliding down the stairs as he fell.

Bruce, startled by the sudden change of events, looked swiftly at Tony who stood beside him, one hand raised, a device that looked like a repulsor still glowing in the palm of his hand. “You shot him?” Bruce asked, disbelieving.

“Blasted him,” Tony corrected. “He was getting on my nerves.”

“But he didn’t tell us what he was planning,” Bruce frowned.

“If S.H.I.E.L.D. had him in custody, it was for a good reason,” Tony insisted and stepped over to the fallen man, toeing his ribcage, then moved over to the scattered pile of books and files, sifting through them.

Bruce supposed it was safe to assume that being subjected to his gamma-irradiated blood and then being incarcerated hadn’t made Sterns a more stable person. He had been over-excited and eccentric even when they last met, and had dangerous ideas for how to use Bruce’s blood.

“Anything of interest?” Bruce asked, still staring at Sterns but aware of Tony digging through the items Sterns had been about to take with him.

“Nothing I can determine, for sure, but there are a lot of notes on gamma radiation,” Tony replied.

“We better get him locked up, just in case,” Bruce decided.

“On it,” Tony replied and dug out his phone.

“We still need to locate Blonsky,” Bruce added.

Tony nodded and did something else with his phone. “J.A.R.V.I.S. has a few more results, and the most prominent one is in Alaska. Not in Barrow, mind you, but close enough.”

“So he might be on the loose,” Bruce said a bit uneasily. He had hoped Blonsky might still be in containment, locked away…

Campus security pulled up a moment later and Tony moved to deal with them while Bruce gathered Sterns’ notes and took a quick look through them. A few more vehicles pulled up before he could get too far into it, though, and he looked up as men that looked like military joined Tony and the campus security.

Tony approached Bruce, bringing two of the military men with him. “Don’t frown like that,” Tony told him as Bruce moved away a bit, watching them lift Sterns’ unconscious body and take it towards one of their cars. “We don’t exactly have a place to put him. I’ll be keeping tabs on him in his new home, should the military get it in their heads to start experimenting,” he added, addressing Bruce’s main concern.

“Thanks,” Bruce said, voice low, fully expecting the soldiers to take a look at him and decide there was room for him in their car, too. They didn’t, though, taking off without a fuss, and it seemed almost too easy. Didn’t they want to interview witnesses, or find out what Sterns had been after?

Tony helped him to gather the rest of the books and papers before they set out towards their car, and Bruce tried not to worry so much. He wasn’t sure what Tony’s deal with the Armed Forces was these days, seeing as S.H.I.E.L.D. had been compromised but Iron Man was still very much in the business of protecting the world.

“Now what?” Bruce asked.

“Now we get back to the Tower, grab a pair of long johns and fly out to Alaska,” Tony replied smoothly, opening the trunk and tossing in his armload of books and papers.

Bruce followed his lead, then walked to the passenger side door, opened it and got in, giving Grayburn College one more look before Tony started the engine and pulled out of the parking lot. “Can I ask you something?” he mused as they headed down towards the Tower.

“Sure.”

“Did you blast Sterns because he irritated you – or because you got intimidated by the head?”

Tony threw him a dirty look. “Shut up.”

Bruce chuckled, unable to help it – then quickly sobered as he considered their plans to find Blonsky. “Are you sure you want to come with me to Alaska?”

“Is there a reason why you don’t want me to come?”

“Aside from him being permanently stuck in his monster form and being fully capable of tearing you limb from limb?” Bruce listed. “If he’s on the loose, there’s only one way I can see it playing out once we come face to face.”

“Maybe that’s why I’m coming,” Tony shrugged. “To even the odds.”

“It’s not that I’m afraid he’s able to hurt me,” Bruce corrected. “I’m just afraid it will turn out to be another Harlem, and people might get trapped in the middle of it.”

“I’m not sure what you think Alaska is like, but the chances of that are pretty slim,” Tony noted. “Besides, that’s a perfectly good reason for me to accompany you: big green will hash it out with Abomination, and I’ll make sure things don’t get out of hand.”

Bruce nodded slowly, looking out into the traffic. They weren’t that far from Harlem, and seeing Sterns – even as he was now – reminded him of his last run-in with the Abomination. He was to blame for what Blonsky had become, no matter the man’s own obsession and General Ross’ misguided attempts to refine the super-soldier serum that had already backfired on Bruce. If Blonsky was on the loose and looking for revenge – or simply looking to get his hands dirty – it was Bruce’s responsibility to put an end to it.

Permanently, if he had to.

“You’re looking grim,” Tony observed.

“I’m just… preparing myself for what I might need to do to stop him,” Bruce admitted. “It’s my fault he is the way he is. Every life he takes is on me. I haven’t found a cure for myself, so I can’t exactly help him either, and if he can’t be contained… I might need to finish what I started the last time we fought.” His memories of that were extremely vague, but he was sure the other guy would remember it just fine. Just thinking of Blonsky – Abomination – made the beast stir in the back of his mind.

“You’re thinking you’ll have to kill him,” Tony said it out loud for him.

“Probably.”

“I see the logic in that,” Tony agreed, “but I don’t think you’ll do it.”

“I almost did it once already,” Bruce informed him.

“That’s not what I meant,” Tony snapped, eyes on the road, brow furrowed. “You’re not the type. I know you’ve killed people,” he added swiftly when Bruce started to protest, “but not on purpose. There’s a difference, believe me. I know you well enough to be able to say, for certain, that neither you nor the big guy are made of that stuff.”

“And you would know?” Bruce challenged, telling himself to be angry, to deny that Tony was right – even though it was possible that he was.

“Yes, I would,” Tony said, almost solemnly. “Of all the people who have crossed me since I escaped from my captivity in Afghanistan, only one man is still alive: Justin Hammer. All the others are dead. I’ve wiped out the Ten Rings and countless other terrorists, cell by cell; Stane and Vanko; Killian and his Extremis soldiers. My hands are soaked in the blood of my enemies, but people tend to forget that.” He let out a humorless chuckle. “Maybe there’s a certain kind of logic to it, coloring most of my armors red. Hides the stains…”

Bruce wasn’t sure what to say to that. People congratulated Iron Man on being a nuclear deterrent, and bringing some semblance of peace to the world, but no one ever talked about the body count he was racking up.

“Fine,” Bruce said eventually, as they were getting close to the Tower. “You’ll come with me, and we’ll aim to bring Blonsky in alive – but on one condition: you bring Matryoshka with you.”

“Bring what?” Tony asked, genuinely confused.

“The new suits.”

“Why would you call them…?”

“Matryoshka?” Bruce chuckled. “Because it fits.”

“No one’s calling them that,” Tony snorted.

“Well, I am – and so is J.A.R.V.I.S. He started it, actually; I just picked it up,” Bruce stated.

“There’s no way J.A.R.V.I.S. called my newest combo suit that!” Tony denied loudly. “Mark 44 has another designation – which you know, too.”

“I just think Matryoshka is so much more fitting, for the two suits as a whole,” Bruce shrugged.

Tony muttered something unintelligible as he pulled up into the Tower’s parking garage.



Northern Alaska

Tony wasn’t going to lie: when he landed the Quinjet on a godforsaken spit of land in a mining community that had seen its last residents back when there supposedly were precious metals to dig up under every damn stone in Alaska, he was nervous. Not only was the abandoned group of buildings spooky as hell, but Bruce was wearing an expression that made his skin crawl.

“This is it,” Tony said as he powered down the engines.

Bruce just nodded, eyes searching the land around them. “A perfect place to hide.”

“Don’t know why he bothered to leave the Barrow in the first place: this isn’t so different,” Tony commented as he spent a few more seconds tweaking various settings around the cockpit, buying himself time before things got really serious.

“You can just drop me off and fly to a safe distance if you want,” Bruce offered, seeing through the act.

“I came this far,” Tony said. “I’ll see it through.”

“Let’s get moving, then,” Bruce said briskly and released himself from his seatbelt, making a sure-footed exit from the cockpit. For someone who had doubted Tony’s flying abilities from the get-go, he was regaining his confidence awfully fast.

Maybe it was pure willpower and a sense of purpose; Bruce clearly felt this was something he needed to do, and Tony could identify with that train of thought. He had plenty left to answer for when it came to his own past; Bruce had his own cross to bear, in the form of Emil Blonsky.

Tony followed Bruce through the aircraft, reaching him just as Bruce started lowering the main hatch. Cold aid instantly blew inside, prompting Tony to pick up the thick jacket he had cast aside when they took off from New York.

Bruce, as if not feeling the cold, didn’t move until the hatch was down. Once it stopped moving, he set down the ramp, taking a look around. There was snow billowing in the wind, making visibility a challenge, but they could still make out the surrounding buildings and land formations.

“How do you propose we go about the search?” Tony asked, following Bruce to the snowy ground.

“Your suit should be able to track him, right?” Bruce asked.

“If he has a pulse, then yes,” Tony nodded. “He could be hiding underground, though. Lots of old mines in this place, I wager.” He looked around. “That will be harder to detect, considering the soil composition –”

The wind carried past them a sound much like a grunt. Tony stopped talking, wondering if he had heard wrong, but Bruce also shifted in alarm so clearly it wasn’t Tony’s imagination playing tricks on him. Before he could ask the other man’s opinion on the origin of the sound, however, a shape came flying through the snow: a rock the size of a truck smashed into the Quinjet, almost crushing the two of them in the process, too. Only quick reflexes and luck saved Tony from becoming a human pancake, and he rolled out onto the frozen earth with its fluffy snow coating, feeling the impact of the rock make even the permafrost ground tremble.

An ominous laugh was carried to them by the wind. Throaty and low, sounding only a couple notes away from becoming an animalistic growl, it wasn’t entirely human – but the word that followed was fully formed and only slightly distorted by the elements: “Banner!”

Tony looked up, eyes locking with Bruce’s.

“You need to get the suits out,” Bruce told him.

“Yeah,” Tony agreed and sat up, looking towards the Quinjet, then muttered a heartfelt ‘fuck’: the destruction wasn’t total, but the aircraft was mangled, with the giant rock still sitting on top of it, and there was no way he was extracting the container which contained his suits from the wreck.

A sound like the stomping of running feet approached, and Tony whipped his head around just in time to see a shadow emerge from the snow, towering over them both.

The Abomination was even more terrifying than in the pictures Tony had seen of him. Taller than the Hulk and possessing jagged edges and sharply displayed bone formations, he was the stuff of nightmares. Certainly enough to drive Tony to his feet and move out of the way, especially when Bruce made a beeline to get between them, his form already expanding in every direction as the Hulk started to make an appearance.

As fast as Bruce’s transformation was when he was allowing it to happen, it wasn’t swift enough to finish by the time the Abomination was upon them: the larger monster punched the Hulk so hard that Tony could feel the wind temporarily change direction, and he instinctively ducked down as the Hulk went flying past him, crashing into the Quinjet with enough force to make the aircraft bounce to the side and the rock on top of it crack in half.

The Abomination’s next chuckle was clear in Tony’s ears, now approaching at walking speed. “Stark,” the hulking figure said. “What a surprise. Did you bring any of your toys to take me down? The ones you built for the Hulk?” he asked, still approaching, forcing Tony to move away if he didn’t want to chance being trampled. “Let me tell you something before we get started,” the Abomination added with a snarl and bent over Tony even as he backed away, trying to keep some distance between them. “Your weapons didn’t work on him, and they won’t work on me, either!” the monster shouted in his face and hauled back his right arm, probably to swat him across the clearing like an annoying fly.

“Don’t!” came a less articulate – but just as powerful – shout, and the Hulk charged up to them, tackling the Abomination clear through the nearest building.

“You got this?” Tony asked loudly.

The Hulk snarled and rushed the enemy as Abomination began to rise from the pile of broken wood and stone. The grin on Abomination’s face may have been a trick of the light and snow, and as the two of them met, it was like battering rams clashing at full strength, creating whirls of snow around them.

For a moment Tony could only watch – and duck – as the two goliaths tried to beat each other senseless. The raw power was mind-blowing and as green-tinted blood was drawn, it just got more vicious. Tony had hoped the Hulk would swiftly gain the upper hand, but where the big guy had raw power, Abomination clearly possessed Blonsky’s training – and it wasn’t as if the Abomination was lacking for destructive power, either.

To be honest, Tony began to fear his teammate might lose, which prompted him to recall that he was supposed to be the back-up in case things didn’t go so well.

Turning towards the Quinjet and going against the instinct that kept screaming at him to keep his eyes on the threat that was the battle between two gamma monsters, he approached the Quinjet and tried to make sense of the twisted metal. The Hulk landing on it hadn’t lessened the damage one bit, and Tony cursed, slamming his fist against the twisted ramp.

“J.A.R.V.I.S.,” he called out, thumping the earpiece deep in his ear canal, “can you force the assembly unit to open?”

“There seems to be something jamming the door,” the AI responded.

“You think?” Tony shouted. “The Quinjet is bust and the suits are still inside. Get them out!”

“Please hold,” was J.A.R.V.I.S.’s response, and Tony gritted his teeth and moved back from the Quinjet, just in case it fell apart from whatever his AI had planned.

He looked out towards the battle which was swiftly leveling the entire town. Not that there had been many structures standing, but whatever was left of them were being used as crude weapons. Tony winced as the Abomination whacked the Hulk with an iron bar; the force of it would have been enough to kill a normal person instantly, but the Hulk merely stumbled and came back swinging, his growls angrier than Tony had ever heard before.

Bravado aside, he was starting to feel like maybe it wasn’t in his best interest to get in the middle of that…

A repulsor blast cut out through the mangled Quinjet, making him jump back in alarm. Another blast soon followed, and another – then a clear-cutting ray from a laser, cleaving the Quinjet neatly in half before a bulky frame crawled out of the destruction.

“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said over the speakers, acknowledging him as Mark 44 finished climbing out and settled in front of him.

“Open sesame,” Tony motioned hastily, and the suit unlocked, revealing a more standard-sized Mark 43 inside. The smaller suit extracted itself from the larger one, climbing out and opening up without a follow-up command.

In that moment, Tony’s brain finally admitted that the nickname Bruce had used to refer to the suits was oddly fitting.

“It has a name,” he muttered and turned around, discarding the jacket before leaning into the suit, feeling it instantly close around his body, snug and warm compared to the cold air outside.

“Sir?” J.A.R.V.I.S. questioned, not catching the drift.

“Never mind,” Tony said tensely and turned around, gazing upon Mark 44 before detecting another crash and a pained yell from the Hulk, which prompted him to action: with a tiny boost from the thrusters, he maneuvered himself in front of the bigger suit and slipped inside it, less agile in the smaller suit than without it but getting into place in record time. “Lock and load,” Tony ordered, and Mark 44 began to close around him and the suit he was already in.

The heads-up display flickered, the reload barely detectable to his eyes, added information from Mark 44 and its linkup to Mark 43 appearing on it. Everything was in synch and there seemed to be no damage sustained from the Quinjet, which was a small relief.

“Let’s get to it,” Tony murmured and took his first step. He felt tense, seeing as he was about to tango with two gamma-boosted partners; there was no knowing whether the Hulk recognized him as a friend, no matter their testing and long conversation about the subject.

Steadily, he made his way past the Quinjet and out into the open, immediately locating the Hulk and the Abomination. It wasn’t hard, really – nor was it hard for them to spot him.

Sending a brief prayer out that his own calculations of the structural strength of the suit had been correct, Tony halted fifteen feet from the action. “Yeah, I did bring a toy, Blonsky,” he called out. “Wanna know what it’s called?”

The Abomination growled and took a step towards him, fingers clenching and unclenching.

“Hulkbuster,” Tony snarled and leaned in to attack, meeting the Abomination head-on when the monster crashed into him. The first punch Tony delivered felt like hitting bedrock with his fist, but there was a hint of give nonetheless, and the grunt the Abomination let out was satisfying.

“A bigger suit won’t make a difference,” the Abomination declared and attacked, delivering a solid punch to his midriff despite Tony’s attempts to block it. He grunted, certainly feeling it, but the fist didn’t break through and he could still breathe afterwards.

“Maybe not alone,” Tony ground out, “but I’m not alone, am I?”

The Hulk yelled and landed on the Abomination’s other side. For a second his eyes were off the target, looking out towards Tony, and it felt like he was looking for some kind of a connection. Then there was a flash of a grin and a quick punch at the Abomination before the monster between them could decide whom to attack, and Tony reflexively raised his arm, punching as well, sending the Abomination back at the Hulk.

It was like a game of ping pong for a few seconds before the Abomination caught himself and barely dodged Tony’s blow, taking hold of his extended arm and sending him flying at the Hulk. The green mass that Tony hit caught him with a grunt, set him down on his feet with more consideration than Tony could have expected, then shot forward, meeting the Abomination head-on in another fist fight that ended only when Tony got close enough to deliver a punch of his own, sending their enemy staggering back.

The Abomination shook his head, snarled, then came at Tony again, fingers prying at the head of the armor that was purposefully round and flat to avoid just this kind of attack. Tony felt like laughing in triumph, especially when the Hulk caught the Abomination in a choke-hold, pulling him back from Tony.

A few decisive punches winded their opponent, and the Hulk delivered the last blows with satisfied grunts and huffs, knocking out the Abomination with an amazing right hook.

“KO!” Tony declared, a little out of breath and definitely feeling bruised from the hits he had taken, but blissfully alive and without any real damage done to the armor. Of course, he hadn’t taken on Abomination alone, and he knew that was a decisive factor in turning the tide of the battle.

The Hulk huffed one last time and then turned to look at him, his wide chest heaving as he breathed. Blood was evident on his skin, from many cuts, but most of them were already healing.

“Good job,” Tony offered. “We make a good team, yeah?”

All he got by way of an answer was a grunt. At least it wasn’t accompanied by a punch, as he recalled had been Thor’s fate in the midst of the Battle of New York…

The Hulk took a step to the side and looked around, brow furrowing. The green eyes landed on the wreck of the Quinjet. A thoughtful half-growl followed, and a questioning look towards Tony.

“I’ll get us a ride home,” Tony promised. “If you want to… you know, relax and de-Hulk, I’ll get you some clothes.”

His offer was initially met by a snarl and a glance at Abomination, but it looked like the Hulk was considering his words nonetheless.

“If you want, you can wait until our transport arrives; that could be a while,” Tony offered.

The Hulk nodded – at least Tony pretended that it was a nod – and went to sit down on a rock near their unconscious foe.

Tony took one more look at the scene and then asked J.A.R.V.I.S. to connect a call for him.

- - -

It was almost four long hours later when two large Air Force cargo helicopters landed. The Hulk had remained big and green, and had punched the Abomination twice during their wait to keep him under; Tony was fairly certain the second time had been unnecessary, but he wasn’t about to argue about that with the big guy.

Tony made sure to put himself in between the military and the Hulk, just in case someone decided to get the wrong idea despite his explanation of the situation.

“Took you long enough,” he called out when he spotted Rhodey pushing himself to the head of the group.

His friend’s eyes were wide as he took in the Hulkbuster armor. “The hell is that, Tony?”

“A new suit,” Tony made to shrug, then wondered whether the motion translated at all through the two suits.

“Hulkbuster?” Rhodey repeated, a note of nervousness creeping into his voice as he took in the Hulk’s green presence at Tony’s back.

The Hulk grunted, as if knowing they were implying something that had to do with him.

“Not important right now,” Tony dismissed it with a sweep of his hand. “It’s freezing out here, if you haven’t noticed, and we’ve been waiting a long time for you to arrive. How about we get to transporting this guy,” he motioned towards the unconscious Abomination, “to another cryo cell, and head home?”

“Would you care to explain how he got out of his previous cell in the first place?” a new voice joined in, and a man with a truly distinctive mustache walked up to Rhodey, challenging eyes aimed at Tony.

“Who’s this clown?” Tony asked, pointing a finger at the newcomer.

Rhodey shifted uncomfortably. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said towards Mustache Guy. “This is Brigadier General Glenn Talbot.”

Tony hummed. “I’ve heard of you. Spent a lot of time on TV, lately, preaching the evils of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

“He’s here to take Blonsky in,” Rhodey informed him.

“And make vague insinuations that I am somehow responsible for him being on the loose in the first place, I take it?” Tony snapped.

“No one said –” Talbot started.

“Well, that’s good,” Tony cut him off, “’cause I had nothing to do with it. I’m just cleaning up someone else’s mess. Maybe give General Ross a call, ask who’s been snoozing on the job.”

The Hulk snorted derisively, as if he could name a few names.

“There will be a full inquiry,” Talbot promised. “In the meantime, I will be handling Captain Blonsky’s detention.”

“And I’ll be keeping an eye on your little operation,” Tony made a promise of his own. “Too often guys like you don’t know what you’re dealing with, and I need to swoop in to save the day.”

Rhodey made another one of his noises that suggested Tony was getting himself into trouble, but Tony didn’t care: he wanted to get out of the suit and into a hot tub, and they were wasting time.

“Are we done here?” Tony asked. “I would love to get moving.”

Talbot motioned for his men, who moved forward a few steps before stopping, regarding the Hulk. The Hulk stared right back at them, and Tony decided it was time to abandon his own comfort and get the Hulk to de-Hulk. He opened up Mark 44 and climbed out, making a few stretches before opening up Mark 43 as well, the cold air attacking him at once.

Hissing, he stepped out of the suit and turned towards the Hulk. “We’re gonna head home, now. These guys are going to take the Abomination and make sure he doesn’t get to run around again anytime soon. That sound good to you, big guy?” he asked, teeth chattering from the cold.

“Yeah,” the Hulk grunted. “Cold.”

“Yes, it is too fucking cold,” Tony agreed.

Rhodey brought him an air force jacket that was a bit on the large side for him, and while Tony tried to get warm, he noticed the Hulk was steadily shrinking until he was a decidedly smaller, pinker shade of dazed Bruce Banner.

“Hey,” Tony greeted and walked over.

Bruce blinked, then promptly started shivering. It was no wonder, seeing as he was naked if you didn’t count the torn shorts that had held together pretty well despite the battle. Of course, this latest model had been designed by Tony, so Bruce could thank him for that later.

Rhodey brought over a blanket and Tony helped Bruce wrap himself in it, then began guiding him towards one of the choppers. Before they were inside, Tony glanced back at the Abomination and noticed their rescuers had come somewhat unprepared: they had nothing to move the Abomination’s considerable mass with.

“Need help?” Tony called out.

Rhodey gave him a shrug, then glanced at Talbot who was frowning.

Tony rolled his eyes and tapped his ear. “J, help them out, will ya?”

“Of course, sir,” the AI responded and Tony watched with some glee as Mark 43 independently climbed inside the Hulkbuster, startling the men around it, and then the big armor turned to reach down, grabbed one of Abomination’s ankles and began to drag the unconscious monster towards the other cargo helicopter.

Tony smiled, then took Bruce to sit inside their plane and wait for everything to be in order. Mark 44 showed up at the aircraft Tony had selected and walked inside, selecting a spot where cargo was usually secured and stopped there, partially powering down.

Rhodey walked in a moment later, lowering the hood of his jacket and brushing snow off his shoulders. His eyes checked out the large armor once more, then landed on where Tony and Bruce were seated. “You comfy?”

“Maybe find Bruce some clothes, if you have some,” Tony requested.

“Sure,” Rhodey nodded and walked off, then returned with pants, a long-sleeved undershirt and socks.

Tony nudged Bruce, who looked ready to fall asleep. “Get dressed.”

Bruce hummed but didn’t make a move, so Tony shrugged and moved to clothe him to the best of his ability, then wrapped the blanket around him again. By the time he was done, the aircraft’s engines were running and they took off soon after.

“Talbot sitting proudly on top of his newest acquisition?” Tony asked Rhodey once it was clear it was going to be just the three of them in the passenger area of the large helicopter.

“He’s not a man you want to make an enemy of,” Rhodey warned. “You have enough of them as it is.”

“I’ve also got friends,” Tony reminded him.

Beside him, Bruce started snoring softly, his body slumping more heavily against Tony.

Rhodey watched them, face thoughtful. “Friends…” he mused. “You build an armor explicitly to fight one of them, and expect him to remain your friend?”

“Is that a question?” Tony asked.

“Kind of, yeah.”

“Well, if it helps, Bruce helped me with some of the configurations. He knew I was building it. Hell, he told me to.”

“And he’s really okay with that?”

“You clearly don’t know him,” Tony stated. “If you did, you wouldn’t have to ask.”

Rhodey nodded slowly and leaned back in his seat, then looked out towards the armor again. “You know what it reminds me of, this whole man-in-a-suit-inside-another-suit thing?”

“Shut up,” Tony ordered before he could say it.

Bruce either wasn’t really asleep or was an extremely light sleeper because he smiled in response to their exchange.





The End