somewhere above the East Coast, USA
Blue eyes regarded the people gathered in the room. One side of Tony’s face was bruised where either Thor’s hammer or Captain’s shield had caught him.
“I’d really hoped cognitive recalibration would do it,” Natasha, still in her Black Widow suit, frowned.
Beside her, Clint seemed to share the same notion. “What are we going to do now?”
“We could try hitting him again,” Steve said, but there was hesitance in his voice. Bruce knew he would not strike Tony, even when the eerie blue eyes stared back at him with a smugness in them that was very much Tony.
“Are you afraid, Rogers?” Tony taunted him. “Afraid my blood on your hands will taint your precious honor?”
“I’m more afraid for you,” Steve said, a calm in his voice that didn’t quite convince anyone. “Do you have any idea what you have done? What you almost did to yourself?”
Tony frowned for a moment. Bruce had taken a look at his back, the long trails of burn-marks. “The suit was not ready,” Tony muttered, his eyes shifting, looking at something none of them could see. “I didn’t have enough time…”
“Well, whatever you tried to do, Mr. Stark, it was a bad idea,” Fury commented from the side, striding forward.
Tony lifted his head, looking at him. “Yes, you would know. How was it again you wanted to use the Cube?”
Fury did not reply, but he did look more like he was going to vote for trying to set Tony’s brain right the old-fashioned way.
“We’re not getting anywhere like this,” Bruce said. “We need to figure out what is going on in his body – how the Tesseract is affecting him – and then find a way to sever that bond.”
“You think that is the issue here, Doctor?” Fury looked at him.
Bruce shrugged. “That’s the simplest answer. All he’s said and done, his appearance, it matches what Barton went through when Loki turned him…”
“I wish we knew how that worked the first time,” Steve noted gravely. “We never quite got an answer to that.”
“No,” Bruce agreed. “Too busy trying to stop the alien invasion and get the Tesseract back where it belonged.”
Thor shifted. “Perhaps… we should seek counsel with someone who has knowledge of these things,” he suggested.
“And whom would that be?” Fury asked.
“My brother. Loki,” Thor said quietly.
“Yeah, I see that working out very well,” Clint noted, already tensing.
“We can’t trust him,” Natasha agreed.
“He has been imprisoned, and stripped of his powers, for our father was not pleased with his actions,” Thor continued. “He betrayed us all, but to redeem himself, perhaps he could be of assistance to us now.”
“And what if he lies?” Steve asked. “What if he is not willing to help us?”
Thor’s face was dark. “I shall make him tell us the truth of this. If he has ensnared Iron Man’s mind, we shall know of it.”
“We cannot risk it,” Fury said.
“We cannot risk Tony staying like this,” Bruce interjected. “Every moment…” They all looked at their prisoner, but none of them saw the dangers. Bruce wondered whether they would understand. “When the battle was over, Clint wrote in his report about what it felt like to be under the hold of the Tesseract. That he had knowledge he could have not had. Put Tony’s mind in the same place. He’s already frighteningly smart, he knows all of us, he knows how we operate, and if he is getting superior information from the outside, from whatever source, it is only a matter of time before we have a huge mess in our hands.”
Fury seemed to recognize that possibility at least. Steve, too, was frowning, looking uncomfortable with the idea of how much havoc Tony could wreak while turned against them.
“I shall return to Asgard,” Thor said, “and speak with the Allfather. If he deems Loki to be of assistance to us, then I shall return with all the information I can,” he concluded.
No one said ‘no’ to him this time. Loki might not be anyone’s favorite option for anything, but Bruce was willing to take that gamble, in order to save his friend.
He could always turn to Hulk and smash the god of trickery around a few more times if things went bad.
“Your mind is not your own,” Steve told Stark. Sitting in a chair, hands tied behind him, secured and not a threat to anyone, he still felt like Stark thought he had the upper hand. So much like Loki, which made him uncomfortable – especially when Loki had been able to play them.
Thor had left, taking the Tesseract, which he needed to get back home. Steve didn’t pretend to understand how that worked, but he knew they might need to take this risk in order to win.
Stark would have been happy to take the risk. He lived on them.
“How do you know?” Stark asked him conversationally. “Perhaps this is the real me.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever met the real you,” Steve replied. He had no idea what he was doing here, in this room, but he had had trouble sleeping, just like everyone else, and he couldn’t work in a lab like Banner, trying to unlock the mystery of Stark’s condition. He had tried exhausting himself with training, which seemed to be Barton and Romanoff’s way of dealing with inability to rest, and he had checked on his gear, making sure it was in perfect condition should it be needed, then resisted the itch to put it on; they were not moving anywhere until Thor returned, or Banner came up with an alternative.
Stark’s head cocked. “Ah, you wound me,” he spoke, answering Steve’s earlier claim. “I think we have been very open with each other, Cap. Likes and dislikes… Shall we have another go at that? I would love to put on the suit, just for you.”
“Not this time,” Steve told him. They stared at each other, blue on blue. “I wish I knew… how to break through to you.”
“Come a little closer, I didn’t catch that,” Stark whispered.
Steve wasn’t falling for that. Stark might not have been trained like the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, and he wasn’t a soldier, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t have a trick or two up his sleeve if someone made a mistake around him.
He seemed to realize Steve was going to stay safely away from him and leaned back in the chair, his body arching as far as it would go. “Why won’t you just finish it?” he asked.
Steve frowned. “Finish it?”
“Put a bullet in my skull,” Stark supplied. “All your problems taken care of.”
Steve blinked. “I would never do that,” he said, voice stiff.
“I know.” Stark smiled. “Still, it’s worth seeing that shocked look on your face. The horror.”
Steve turned and left; he had clearly overstayed his welcome. He headed out to the bridge, which was quiet at this time of the night, but several people were always there, monitoring the rows of screens, making sure the Helicarrier stayed in the air.
Unsurprisingly, Fury was also there.
“Trouble sleeping?” Steve called out to him.
Fury looked at him over his shoulder, a ghost of a smile on his lips. It hadn’t been so long since their places had been reversed. “You went to see him.”
Steve knew better than to deny it. “There has been no change.”
Fury nodded. “Doctor Banner is observing him. I fear we are running out of options.”
Steve wondered what that meant. Stark’s words came back to haunt him; what would S.H.I.E.L.D. do if they couldn’t release Stark from whatever was holding him prisoner in his own body and mind?
Lightning flashed outside the giant windows, bright and sudden, making them both look up.
“Could that be –?” Steve wondered.
Fury’s look was one of concentration. If Thor had returned so soon, mere hours after leaving, it could not be good.
They all gathered near one of the entrances, then as the air lock opened, Thor stood there, Mjolnir in one hand, Tesseract under his arm, and his other hand held a man by the shoulder who looked like a mere shadow next to him.
There was silence as Loki regarded them all.
“That did not take long,” Barton finally said. His fingers twitched, as if around an imaginary arrow.
“The meeting with our father was brief,” Thor announced, stepping further in, dragging Loki along.
“The Allfather was not overly fond of Thor’s demands,” the god of trickery supplied after a moment. His voice was the same, honey and lies.
Thor shrugged, then handed the Tesseract to Agent Hill, who moved to take it to a more secure location. Loki’s eyes followed the blue glow, then settled to look at all of them once again. “There must be a reason why I was brought here,” he said then.
“You didn’t tell him?” Romanoff raised an eyebrow.
Thor shrugged again.
Steve wondered what exactly had happened in Asgard, and how displeased Odin must have been with all this. Judging from the mixed look of delight and dread on Loki’s face, it probably hadn’t been good.
“Has anything changed in my absence?” Thor asked then.
“No,” Banner sighed. “He is… still the same.”
Loki looked at the doctor curiously.
Banner did not elaborate, simply turning and walking off towards Stark’s holding cell. The others followed, Thor marching Loki ahead of him, a firm hand on his shoulder the entire time, and Steve wondered if there was some kind of danger in Loki being here after all. If he had been stripped of his powers, what could he do? He decided not to let the Asgardian out of his sight if he could help it.
They stopped before the large observation windows, beyond which Stark still sat in his chair, staring off into space.
Loki looked at him a good two seconds before he made a sound. “Ah.”
“What can you tell us?” Thor demanded.
Loki arched an eyebrow, craning his neck to look at the people standing behind him. “What are you presuming I am able to make of this?”
“What is wrong with him,” Banner snapped, surprisingly impatient. “How can we… make him back to the way he was. To release him from whatever has taken hold of him.”
“Well, I cannot help you with that,” Loki answered.
Thor looked ready to put him through the wall. “You will not lie to us! You put a spell like this on many people.”
“That I did,” Loki said, in a tone that had probably soothed the God of Thunder many a time. “But this is not my doing.”
“It looks awfully like it,” Barton commented.
“I no longer have the scepter,” Loki went on, raising his empty hands to further make his point. “How would I be able to do this to Mr. Stark from my cell far away in Asgard?”
“You tried to ensnare him before,” Thor shook him. “We all saw it from a recording at his home!”
Loki stopped at that, truly hesitating before speaking again: “It did not work.”
“Are you sure?” Banner asked. “Are you sure this is not related to your actions?”
Loki looked at Stark again. “No. It cannot be. The power of the Tesseract does not work that way – unless someone else wielded its power recently and managed to do what I could not.”
“Who would have wielded its power when the Tesseract was safely in Asgard?” Fury asked. He had been surprisingly quiet until now, which meant he wasn’t happy with the way things were going.
“That I cannot tell you,” Loki said, almost sweetly.
“Who gave you the scepter?” Thor almost roared. “Who was it that set you to find the Tesseract in the first place? You will answer me –”
“Thor, he’s no use to us dead,” Romanoff intervened when Thor’s fist was dangerously tight around Loki’s throat.
Thor backed off, muttered something, throwing dark looks at Loki who took his time to breathe and cough.
“Could there have been someone else who used the same power you had?” Steve asked, wanting answers, feeling like Loki was playing them all over again.
“Can I speak to him?” Loki asked. “I might be able to uncover something you did not…”
“Good luck with that,” Barton muttered, but they let Loki in, following him into the room; there was no knowing what he would do, and if he was the one controlling Stark, by some means, then Steve was going to be here to stop anything from happening.
Stark regarded them all, then looked at Loki. “The Chitauri want your head,” he commented, no provocation needed. “You did not deliver what you promised them.”
Loki’s face fell, his eyes guarded. “And you are here to finish what I started?” he enquired.
Stark smiled but didn’t speak.
Loki looked around uncertainly.
“Well?” Fury asked impatiently. “You wanted to talk to him.”
“I believe you are familiar with the phrase, ‘end of the line’? I can do no more here. Please, take me back to Asgard.” Loki sounded almost frightened. Steve decided that whatever had taken over Stark made him nervous – or that he was still playing them into thinking that.
“You haven’t even tried,” Steve interrupted whatever Fury had been about to say. “Does he frighten you so much?”
“Whoever is holding his mind, I have no desire to meet,” Loki noted. “I cannot stress that enough.”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass about what you want,” Steve snapped, making the others jump at his tone – and the fact that he was cursing. “How do we undo it? Do we need to build another scepter? Use the one you had?”
“It all depends on how he came to be this way, and that I do not know,” Loki replied just as bitingly. “Have you not found out that much?”
“We have not seen that he would have had any contact with the Tesseract or anyone who seems to be… using it. Not after he confronted you,” Banner stepped in.
“You confused mice,” Stark drawled from beside them. “You cannot begin to understand… This cannot be undone!”
“I think we should move this discussion elsewhere,” Fury commented.
“I agree,” Steve replied.
Loki looked relieved to be out of the room, the thunder cloud that was his brother following him as they moved out. Stark stared at them, his blue eyes hard, a small smile on his lips. As if he truly knew something none of them did. Steve promised him quietly that they would make things right again, but knew better than to say it out loud.
Bruce escaped the meeting that was getting louder by the moment. His nerves couldn’t take it, and he felt restless as it was. Drawn thin, too thin, about to snap… and no one liked him when he snapped.
No one wanted a repeat performance of the other guy in the Helicarrier, either, so they didn’t stop him.
Instead of going to his small room, or even the lab, Bruce headed down to where they kept Tony. He looked much the same as when they left, somewhat amused, hiding something.
“Bruce,” Tony whispered as he entered. “I hoped it would be you.”
“Yeah?” he replied absentmindedly. He was checking Tony’s vitals, to see if there was any change. J.A.R.V.I.S. was keeping an eye on him around the clock, monitoring him, but there had been nothing at all. Well, perhaps a small glitch when Thor had left, and again when he returned, but if his condition was linked to the Tesseract, that could be it.
“Come closer. I don’t bite,” Tony crooned.
“I think I’ll stay right here,” Bruce replied.
“You’re so boring.”
“You should know that by now.”
“You should strut…”
Bruce looked up at that. “What did you say?”
Tony’s face twisted for a moment, as if he fought himself somehow. Bruce stepped closer. The blue eyes blinked at him, almost angry. “You cannot win!” Tony insisted.
“We don’t even know what will happen if we lose,” Bruce pointed out. “Could you tell us that much? What do you want?”
Again, a twist, as if there were an internal struggle going on. “I… cannot tell you that. But I could… whisper it in your ear.”
“How is that the same as not telling me?” Bruce asked.
Tony looked up at him, a smile on his lips. “Clever. So clever, Doctor. You keep playing me into a corner.”
“You are making it easy.”
“Not too easy, I hope.”
“Nothing’s ever easy with you, Tony.”
“Wouldn’t want to disappoint the fans…” But there was something there, as he said it; a flicker, behind the eyes. Bruce wasn’t sure, but for a moment, it was as if… Then Tony’s whole body jerked, as if from a seizure, then stopped, leaving him panting, and a moment later he lifted his head again, and his eyes were the dark brown color.
“Tony?” Bruce asked, surprised.
“Bruce…” Tony blinked, frowning, then shifted, and seemed to notice his bound hands, and the room. “What is going on?”
Bruce stepped over to him, knelt in front of him. He had no idea what had just happened, what he had done. “Is it really you?”
“Is there someone else?” Tony asked, a little playful.
“You have no idea… can you remember anything? How do you feel?”
“Like someone placed my head between an anvil and Thor’s hammer,” Tony answered, cringing. “Why am I tied up? If someone told you I’m into it, I will admit to no such thing.”
Bruce let out a sigh of relief, and moved his hand to undo the restraints. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”
Tony rubbed his wrists, then looked at him, a soft smile on his lips. “Thank you, Bruce. So much.”
Bruce smiled at him, then frowned. “For what?”
“For making it so easy.”
Tony was on his feet before Bruce could get his bearings, and the brown was gone from his eyes in a blink, as if it had never been there. Bruce doubted it had. Tony reached for him, sudden and violent, a fist in his hair at the nape of his neck, and it fucking hurt, then Bruce felt his balance fail, Tony turning them around, and slamming Bruce face first into the nearest wall.
The other guy was coming out by the time he tasted blood in his mouth, and the hold of Tony’s hand, warm yet vicious, was gone.
The alarm sounded, cutting off Fury’s words which had made Loki sink a few inches deeper into his chair. For someone who had tried to take over the entire planet, he was very subdued and tried to look small. Thor kept pulling him up every time he sank too deep, as if preventing him from escaping through some unseen portal under the table.
Steve looked up, frowning. “What’s going on?”
Agent Hill rushed to the door. “The Hulk is tearing up the detention level.”
“What?!” Fury was already moving for the door.
“We are not sure what happened, but Stark is gone. Banner freed him, for whatever reason, and then Stark attacked him, escaping in the commotion.”
“There’s no way he’s gotten off the ship yet,” Fury said. “Find him – and contain the Hulk.”
“How are we going to do that?” Steve asked. If Stark had brought the Hulk out, there was little chance at talking the green giant out of his temper.
“By any means necessary,” Fury replied. He didn’t sound too positive about their chances, but considering the alternative, he didn’t really have a choice but to try.
“I will go after Banner,” Thor volunteered, then positively slammed his brother against the wall, stopping Loki from moving another inch. “When this is over, I shall come and find you. For your own sake, brother, do not leave this ship.”
“I would not dream of it,” Loki replied, and moved back to the meeting room they had just left.
Steve wanted to secure him, but they didn’t have the time. So, he headed up to the armory, slipped into his suit in record time, then asked for confirmation as to where Stark had last been seen.
There was an on-going chaos when he slipped down a few more levels and ran, shield in hand, towards the cargo bay. A security camera had spotted Stark heading that way, using Hulk as a distraction with masterful ease. It made Steve sick; Banner had always trusted Stark, and this kind of betrayal had to hurt deep. He wondered if such distrust could ever be mended.
There was no time to think. He knew Hawkeye and Black Widow were on their way, being no match for the Hulk, leaving that to Thor, and as electricity crackled in the air, Steve knew Thor had found his opponent. He wondered if Fury had any ideas besides Thor’s powers to subdue the raging monster.
“Stark!” he called out when he reached the right level. It was quiet; people had cleared out after the alarm to take stations more important in the other parts of the ship. Crates were secured all around him, and he could only guess what Stark was looking for down here. Then it hit him, just as fast as he spotted the man, casually walking out of one hallway formed by huge containers. “Stark!” he called out again.
He got the man’s attention, the blue eyes almost shining in the semi-darkness, then there was that unmistakable smile, and Stark began to run. Steve took after him, knowing he was faster. He lost sight of him for a moment, turning a corner, but he could hear Stark, feet heavy on the floor, and moved to follow.
“Widow, Hawkeye, how far off are you? I have a visual on Stark,” he called into the radio.
“We’re entering the cargo bay now,” Black Widow responded.
Steve picked up the pace to catch a glimpse of Stark again, turning a corner, body already moving towards the way he knew the man must have taken – then almost ran into him. He came to a full, jarring stop, Stark standing but a few feet before him. His back was turned to him, and Steve wondered if this was a trick.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Steve said, to buy himself some time until the others got there. “Unleashing the Hulk –”
Stark turned to look at him, face passive, the eyes regarding him like an entity of their own. “You think I miscalculated this, Captain?” he asked, cocking his head, sniffing – so much like Stark. “You think I made a mistake?”
“Anyone who pisses off the Hulk makes a pretty big mistake,” Steve noted needlessly.
Stark almost grimaced. “Yeah, I kind of hoped I wouldn’t need to do that, but he played right into my hand. How could I not take the chance?”
“He is your friend. He trusts you,” Steve went on, lowering his shield a little.
“Does he now?” Stark replied.
“You know he does. Deep inside… you’re hurting from all the things you’ve done, all the people you’ve hurt.”
A smile appeared on his lips. “Are you going to make me cry now, tell me all about how I dropped Pepper to her death?”
Steve was momentarily shocked into silence. Somehow, he had thought that memory would at least jar Stark a little. Perhaps he wasn’t in control, at all. Whatever was driving him…
“Okay, chatting time is over,” Stark said suddenly, lifting his head. “J.A.R.V.I.S., initiate the start-up sequence.”
There was no reply. Steve wondered if he had gone mad, if they had hit him one too many times. “J.A.R.V.I.S. knows you’re not yourself. He won’t help you,” Steve said, trying to sound confident.
Stark actually laughed. “He is an AI designed by me. Just because he helped you find me before doesn’t mean I cannot get him to work exactly as I want. And tell me, Captain Rogers… did it ever occur to you that perhaps getting caught worked to my advantage?”
A whirring noise rose from behind Stark, from a dark corner, and one of the crates began to unfold. Steve knew he wasn’t going to like this. A blue light shone where a suit began to move, although it was much bigger than Stark’s usual Iron Man suits.
“J.A.R.V.I.S., blow this soldier to kingdom come,” Stark ordered.
What Steve recalled of it before the robot rising behind Stark fired was the smile playing on the man’s lips and a cold disregard for his teammate’s safety in his eyes.
The shot hit him square in the chest, missing his shield by inches, sending him back through the air until he hit another crate, the world blacking out for a moment. He knew it was more time than Stark had needed. They had played this into his hands, somehow, not even knowing it.
One of the best features of being Tony Stark was that you made the plan up as you went – unlike Captain America who always had to have one in advance. That was why the national icon was now lying in a collapsed crate while the bigger suit behind Tony opened up, revealing his usual armor within it, and he climbed in to suit up.
He had stored this unit in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Helicarrier in case of emergency. The robot would protect his suit if need be and bring it to him should they run into problems. A proto-type, nothing more – not something he had bothered to send Fury a memo about – but he had recalled its very useful existence after making Bruce lose control.
Tony could still remember the moment he realized his deception had worked, that Bruce was going to let him go – and the moment he smashed him into the wall, the kind of hit a normal man couldn’t have taken without falling down and not getting up… The Hulk had smashed the room, trying to get him, but Tony knew him by now, had learned to see the attacks coming, and soon enough all he needed to do was move away from the huge green rage monster and find his way down here.
“Sir, the suit has completed configurations and is ready to –”
An explosion against his shoulder interrupted J.A.R.V.I.S., and Tony turned his head to look.
Hawkeye was fitting another arrow into his bow, which meant Black Widow wasn’t far behind.
“Party time,” he announced. “Big guy,” he told the robot, “set to detonate in one minute.”
The robot sat down, folding into itself, and a couple lights flickered. Tony turned to look at Hawkeye again, while his system scanned the cargo bay.
“Give it up, Stark,” Hawkeye told him.
“While I’m winning? Not a chance,” he smiled in the suit, and Iron Man raised his hands. He was about to fire when someone landed on top of him – who else but the Widow? – and he struggled to shake her off, knowing that if she had another one of those annoying S.H.I.E.L.D. EMPs…
“Flares,” Tony commanded. Black Widow fell off him with a small yell, but was smoothly rolling to her feet an instant later, ready to advance. Tony didn’t wait. “J.A.R.V.I.S., shut down engines 1 and 4 for me.”
The Helicarrier shuddered, teetering in the sky like a bird learning to fly, and the two agents looked around in alarm. “S.H.I.E.L.D. should really find their contractors somewhere else,” Tony told them through the suit. “I upgraded their system after the last battle. Seems like that is going to work for me just fine…”
“It’s not over yet,” Black Widow said, Hawkeye’s reply being lifting his bow, sharp eyes fixated on him.
Tony took flight before they could shoot, because at that exact moment, the robot ten feet from him exploded. He heard shouts and yells through the communication frequency, heard Rogers call them all together, to make them leave the area. Elsewhere, S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel were torn between restraining the Hulk and trying to keep their sinking ship in the air.
Not wanting to be caught in the way of either, Tony blew his way through the hull, circling in the air, then decided things were moving just a tad too slow and flew over to engine 3 – for old times’ sake – and aimed his repulsors at it. The engine exploded with glorious colors, sending the Helicarrier plummeting. They were safely over water, he knew that, and they had already been at a lower altitude than normal. Still, it was a fantastic belly flop into the water, stirring something inside him.
No time for that.
He soared down, watching the Helicarrier smoke and sink partially under the water like a broken toy. “J.A.R.V.I.S., be a good boy and locate the Tesseract for me,” he ordered. It was time to stop playing games.
His ears were ringing.
“Banner! We need to…”
His skull was about to split, and his entire body was on fire.
“If you can hear me, my friend, let me know.”
“What?” Bruce said – or yelled, he wasn’t sure.
“He’s fine. We have to go, this section is sinking fast.”
“Lead the way, warrior of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Someone was tugging him along, forcefully, almost setting off the other guy again. “Wait, I have to. God…”
“There is no time. Our flying fortress has fallen,” Thor explained to him. “We must seek higher ground.”
Bruce felt like asking what the hell he was talking about, then felt something lapping at his ankles, and saw water everywhere, rising – or were they sinking? It was like watching the movie Titanic all over again. He hadn’t liked it the first time.
It looked like a tornado had ripped its way through the hallway, and Bruce could make a guess it had to do with something green and a hammer of gods. His face still hurt, perhaps with the memory of Tony’s attack.
“Where’s Tony?” he asked, despite their dire situation.
“The Captain and the others went after him. I assume it went poorly,” Thor told him.
“Where is he?” Bruce asked, but didn’t expect anyone to care enough to answer.
A female S.H.I.E.L.D. agent was leading them along, and when they came to an entrance blocked by what looked like the overhead level collapsed onto theirs, Thor let go of him to remove the rubble and find a way through. Bruce leaned against a wall, the water reaching his calves now.
“Are you alright?” the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent asked him, concern in her voice, but Bruce knew it wasn’t directed at him, really, but the safety of herself and the entire crew.
“Yes,” Bruce managed. He was still reeling. He wasn’t used to moving so much and so fast after waking up.
Thor managed to pull aside enough broken metal to let them crawl through, and Bruce cringed at every sharp edge pressing into his bare skin. He had some poor resemblance of pants clinging to his hips, covering most of him, now that he took enough time to notice, but nothing else was left of his clothes. He wondered if anyone could loan him some once they got out of here.
They kept moving, away from the water, somewhere higher, and finally climbed two levels higher and met more people. The S.H.I.E.L.D. agents gave them a wide berth, not wanting to stir the other guy, and they were pointed forward.
The bridge, as Bruce calculated, was probably submerged by now, and it was some kind of back-up room they finally walked into to find Fury and Agent Hill. They looked at them, noting Bruce, then turned back to a cacophony of voices shouting status updates.
“Are we going under?” Bruce asked.
“No, but we are taking in water and have closed off many sections of the carrier to keep us afloat,” Agent Hill replied.
“Where are our comrades?” Thor asked.
“We reached Captain Rogers a moment ago. It seems Stark has escaped, and they are making their way back here.” The agent turned back to the consoles beside her, barking commands, looking ragged and tired.
“Thor,” Fury spoke up, “could you go and find your brother before he finds himself in any kind of trouble?”
Thor nodded grimly and walked off.
“You good, Doctor?” Fury asked him next.
Bruce was leaning against the wall, feeling battered and tired. He blinked. “Yeah… yes, thank you.” He hesitated for a moment. “I’m sorry about all this.”
“Stark knew what he was doing,” Fury said by way of reply.
“He played me,” Bruce agreed. “I thought, for a moment… but it was just a ruse. And it worked.” It twisted his gut unpleasantly, the fact that this was all his fault.
“Sir,” an agent spoke up from the side. “We have tracked down Iron Man.”
Fury glanced towards the screen. “Where is he?”
“It would seem he never left; he’s hovering just above the Helicarrier, and seems to be…” The soldier narrowed his eyes, looking at his screen. “I think he’s searching for something.”
“The Tesseract,” Bruce said. Of course. Tony wouldn’t leave without it. “Where did you place it?”
“In a vault beneath the armory, but that level is currently under water,” Fury told him.
Bruce turned it over in his head. “His suit can manage that. He’ll get to it faster than we are able to get ourselves moving.”
He could almost hear Fury’s teeth grinding against each other. “Damn it,” he swore finally, beneath his breath, his hands tightly holding onto a railing that looked a bit bent, as if something had crashed against it not so long ago. Seeing as there were numerous objects lying all over the floor, pushed out of the way, it could have been any of those, or a person.
“Are any of the weapon systems working?” Fury asked next.
“I’m sorry, sir. It would seem Iron Man has completely disabled our weapons and communications to the outside. It’s lucky we even caught sight of him.”
“He did design a lot of things for you,” Bruce said needlessly. It wouldn’t be a problem for Tony to gain the upper hand, especially now that he was in his suit again. Guilt gnawed at his mind, steadier than ever. When Tony got to the Tesseract, they would be back to where they started, looking for him, and this time they shouldn’t hope for J.A.R.V.I.S. to point them in the right direction.
They had to intercept him now, or it would be too late. In a way, it felt like if they didn’t do this, they might lose him forever, and Bruce wasn’t ready for that to happen.
“I’ll stop him,” he said then.
Fury looked at him. “While I appreciate the sentiment –”
“No,” Bruce shook his head. “I set him free. I’m going to get him back. He’s not going to escape, with or without the Tesseract.”
“I have to decline your offer,” Fury told him. “This ship can’t take another rampage from the Hulk. Enough lives have been lost and endangered.”
“You would rather let him go?”
“We will find him again.”
“I’m not that optimistic,” Bruce said, turning. His body ached, but it was vanishing. “Tony isn’t an idiot, and whatever… knowledge the one controlling him has given him, it’s going to make him even harder to catch. This is our last chance at that, and I’m not going to blow it.”
“Banner –” Fury started, but Bruce had already turned, moving down the hallway, and no one stopped him. Maybe he was looking a bit green, who knew, and he could feel the other guy rearing his head, listening.
“This one time,” Bruce spoke to himself, “you have to listen. You have to do what I’m telling you to. You know how I feel… you know this is important.” There were no longer people as he rushed forward, bare feet beating against the cold floors. It was just him, and the monster inside him – the monster that hopefully was listening and understanding what he was saying.
He wrenched one blast-door open, slipping through, and there was water again, lapping against his legs, cold and uncomfortable, then another closed door, and he knew this was going to take too long.
“We need to get to the Cube and stop Iron Man from escaping. I know you… saved Tony once before, and I need us to do it again.”
There was no confirmation, just like he knew there wouldn’t be, and when he closed his eyes he prayed, then started to feel the change, and allowed it to take over as smoothly and painlessly as possible.
The water around his feet wasn’t so cold anymore.
The Tesseract was close, he could feel it, a warmth spreading through his entire being. Like wading through chest-deep snow and seeing the lights of your home, the safety and comfort of it waiting, just outside your reach.
He was going to reach it.
Scanning the wreckage of the Helicarrier, Tony prepared the suit, then dove beneath the surface, cutting the hull with a laser, slipping inside. The walls were thicker around the vault, but he could penetrate them. It might take a little longer, but just on the other side he could feel it calling to him. Everything had fallen into place perfectly, and the Avengers would not stand a chance at stopping him –
The wall shook, momentarily interrupting his thoughts. The entire hallway around him seemed to shiver. Perhaps an explosion somewhere, giving his enemies something else to think about.
A fist tore through the ceiling, the roar muffled by water, but Tony had to admit, none of those shark movies he had seen compared to the moment of terror when Hulk grabbed him firmly around the chest plate; no teeth, just superhuman strength and resolve.
Tony fired at the green beast to get loose, then felt himself being smashed through several walls, the water taking some of the impact, slowing him down, not giving Hulk his usual leverage. For a moment he thought he had lost him, because one of them had air to breathe while the other did not. There were many things Hulk could withstand, but Tony knew he needed air in his lungs.
The wall beside him bent and split, green fists clawing at it, and Tony slipped away, fast like a fish, his repulsors working just fine under water. No one could say, however, that Hulk wasn’t determined once he got something on his mind, because the beast tore after him, through walls rather than past them, eventually blocking Tony with no way out.
Tony tried to calibrate his system, to see which way was up, too focused on escaping to pay attention to which direction he had been going.
Perhaps that was why he lost the chase; Hulk didn’t stop to think, to observe his surroundings. He came at Tony, grappling the suit, this time holding tight, too tight, and then smashed them both through a wall, and another, and all the flares in the world didn’t make him let go. Tony was trying to get a hold of something, then was pummeled through water and suddenly he was at the surface again, outside the Helicarrier, smashing back down against the hull.
One of his legs felt like it may be broken, where the Hulk had grabbed it to drag him through the ship. The boot jet was useless, and he was uncertain whether he could fly without it. “J.A.R.V.I.S., status report?” he requested, trying to get up.
“Sir, I’m afraid your suit has taken damage and flight properties are heavily influenced by said damage.”
Tony was in the process of bypassing that, somehow, when Hulk emerged from the water, climbing along the hull as if it were a slide in a water park. Tony lifted an arm to fire. Hulk growled then roared, lunging at him, and the impact of the repulsor beam didn’t seem to have any kind of effect.
That was all the time he had before the Hulk was on him, grabbing the suit, smashing him against the hull of the Helicarrier, and J.A.R.V.I.S. kept telling him in a growing litany what kind of damage the beast was doing. Tony thought it shouldn’t be this easy, that his head wasn’t in the game… why was that?
Tony fired the chest RT, blasting the Hulk in the face. He tried wriggling free, but the Hulk roared, holding his left arm, and as he was wrenched off the ground it actually hurt, like the limb was going to be torn off, armor and all. He was smashed down again, this time in the water, and a huge hand pawed at him, crunching the helmet.
“Sir, there has been a breach,” J.A.R.V.I.S. told him when he felt cold water flooding the inside of the suit. He couldn’t feel his left arm anymore. He could smell salt, and as he breathed in, there was water in his nose. He jerked, reflexively, wondering if it was in fact worse drowning inside the suit than without one.