“You left him?!”
The other Avengers actually jumped away from him, but Bruce took a step forward to narrow the distance.
“There was nothing we could do,” Thor began to explain. Bruce knew that he didn’t want to hear whatever justification the Asgardian had, but Thor wasn’t good at reading his expressions and went on: “He was infected, and with no cure, he would have turned on us. We would have had to put him down like an animal – which he’s now become.”
“An animal,” Bruce repeated.
“Even an animal deserves better than to be left behind!” Bruce roared at him.
Beside Thor, Steve’s arm jerked towards his shield, his face carefully blank but his eyes showed the fear and trepidation he felt on the inside. Bruce could almost smell it, and the other guy roared beneath his skin, listening, waiting for Bruce to unleash him.
“You left our teammate on an unknown moon, ill and in pain. You didn’t try to restrain him, to help him – to show mercy.”
“It would have been greater mercy to end his life,” Thor murmured.
Bruce’s eyes narrowed.
“Thor, get out,” Steve said suddenly. “You’ve said enough.”
Thor looked at their leader, ready to argue. “You do not know of which you speak, Captain. It is a tragedy that one of us had to fall, but we should honor Iron Man’s memory –”
Bruce’s knuckles cracked as he curled his fingers into fists.
“Get out,” Natasha echoed Steve, “or you’re going to be testing your prowess against the big guy.”
Thor looked at Bruce, as if to accept the challenge, but Steve pulled on his arm and Thor finally turned and left the room. As the door closed, Bruce tried to let go of some of the tension, but he could not.
Tony was gone. They had let him battle an unknown enemy alone, and when he got hurt as a result, they abandoned him. Steve would not meet his eyes, shame glaringly obvious on every square inch of his face. Clint wasn’t much better, staring stonily at the back wall, although his fingers gripped his bow tight, knuckles white.
“How could you just leave him?” Bruce asked again. “HOW?!”
Clint glanced at Steve, then at Bruce, as if merely meeting his eyes would bring out the Hulk. “Something was happening to him,” the archer explained. “He was changing into something, and Thor appeared concerned. You know he doesn’t get nervous about a lot of things –”
“That’s no excuse,” Steve ground out, cutting him off. “We should have stayed. We should have done… something…”
“Those things that he fought? They cut through his armor. If he turned into one of them, what were we going to do? Tape his mouth shut for the ride home?” Clint challenged.
“You shouldn’t have just left him,” Natasha whispered.
Steve straightened slightly and looked Bruce squarely in the eye. “I should have made a different call.”
“You didn’t want to leave him!” Clint snapped. “None of us did. But we can’t undo that.”
The shame was back and Steve withdrew into himself. Much as Bruce appreciated that at least one of them was feeling guilty, it wasn’t enough. “It’s good to see how far we’ve come, as a team,” he mused. “At the first sight of trouble, we leave behind one of our own.”
“You weren’t there,” Clint said, but there was defeat in his voice.
“No, I wasn’t,” Bruce replied, throat aching. His anger was turning inwards, fuelling the beast. “I’m not going to be here, either,” he finished.
Steve looked up, alarmed. “Bruce, don’t –”
“It’s not your choice,” he spat. “I’ve stayed long enough, and I realize now it was a mistake. I’m not going to wait until I’m the one who gets left behind.” And just like that, his vision went blurry, the world twisting from the brief pain of the transformation, after which there were just noises, shouts, things breaking – and the bottomless pit of regret that he hadn’t gone with the others to Asgard.
That he had wasted so much time…
“You’re absolutely sure you don’t want to tag along? Thor always says the Asgardian feasts are a sight to behold – even the other guy could eat his fill,” Tony teased.
“And that’s precisely why I won’t come,” Bruce smiled back good-naturedly while trying to dedicate a small part of his brain to solving the equation in front of him. “The other guy in another world is… not what I’m looking forward to.”
“He might like the scenery, just saying,” Tony mused, leaning against the table. “Fresh air… huge architecture… He wouldn’t even brush against the walls while walking!”
Bruce sighed and abandoned the equation. He would return to it after the others had gone. Closing the file, he turned his full attention to Tony, who wasted no time reaching out and removing the glasses from his face. The engineer toyed with them for a moment, then turned them around and placed the glasses on his own face, smiling brilliantly at Bruce. The vision tugged at that place inside him that Bruce had recently began to associate with Tony. It had been there for a while, but he had refused to pin it down and examine it at length.
“We helped fix their space bridge,” Tony went on. “The least you can do is enjoy the fruits of your labor.”
“Actually, it was more you and Jane Foster,” Bruce argued. “I just hung around while you were working.”
“Handing me the right tools. Do you know how important that is?” Tony teased, tilting his face in order to look at Bruce over the glasses. “I’ve had so many crappy assistants in the past –”
“All of which you built yourself,” Bruce reminded the other man and reached out to take back his glasses, setting them down on the desk.
Tony pursed his lips. “Are you insulting my brilliance?” he asked after a little while.
“Even if I tried, you would just filter it out,” Bruce teased.
“Of course I would,” Tony said, then turned further towards him, rolling closer, and it was perfect how he just leaned into Bruce’s body and fit right there, in his arms, the clever fingers playing at Bruce’s neck, tracing beneath the collar of his shirt, into his hair, along his ears. “I’ll miss you,” he finally confessed.
“It won’t be that long,” Bruce replied. “You said it yourself; you’ll be back before I know it.”
“But you’ll still be sorry you didn’t come,” Tony pressed. “Please come,” he whispered then, leaning closer, and Bruce simply allowed the kiss, not bothering to reply. His place wasn’t in Asgard; he felt alienated enough here on Earth, even though the current progression of his and Tony’s relationship was starting to make a lot of things easier to tolerate.
Tony’s lips moved against his in a slow dance, and when Bruce finally opened his lips, Tony took a second to follow his lead. The kiss grew deeper, wetter, more intimate, and Bruce wondered if they had time for more. Then again, anything ‘more’ took time, especially since Bruce still needed to concentrate if he didn’t want the other guy to make a surprise appearance, so he had to be satisfied with this.
“Sir?” J.A.R.V.I.S. called out. “The others are ready to leave for Central Park.”
Tony sighed into the kiss and drew back, gazing at Bruce. “We’ll get right back to this when I return,” he decided. “Don’t get started without me.”
“Get started on what?” Bruce asked with half a grin. His hand closed in Tony’s hair as the man leaned in again, a little bit of teeth in it this time.
Tony drew back too soon and stepped away, winking. “I’m sure we’ll figure something out.” He turned, then. “J, prep the armor. Let’s get this trip over with.”
“Very well, sir.”
Bruce watched him walk out of the lab, and Tony gave him a brief glance before turning a corner and disappearing.
It was going to be just a few days; Bruce had waited years to feel a connection to another person, so this small wait was nothing to him. He turned back to the troubling equation, yet failed to completely dismiss the smell of Tony’s cologne that still hung in the room – and the underlying scent of coconuts that was his and his alone.
Bruce had been hiding for almost a year. After his rather destructive exit from the Avengers Tower, people had tried coming after him, but soon got the hint that neither he nor the other guy wanted anything to do with them. Even the Avengers gave up on him eventually.
There were some interested parties that perked up at the chance of capturing the Hulk; they tried for a time to corner him or lure him in, but Bruce had learned a trick or two while part of a superhero team – one of which was a better handle on the other guy. He eluded all who tried to stay on his trail and disappeared further from modern civilization; it was amazing how many places there still were on Earth where people could just disappear and never be found again.
As far and deep as he would disappear, however, some habits remained, and he kept an eye on what happened in the world around him; an old newspaper here, news on the radio there, or a glimpse at a TV screen in some small town. Not everything was worth his attention, but he knew that any major events would be broadcasted to even the distant parts of the world – such as something big falling from the sky.
Many suspected it to be an old satellite, while others claimed it was the beginning of another alien invasion. All the images were blurry, the best no doubt kept from circulation by several governments and agencies that were attempting to keep it under wraps.
Bruce saw enough to determine that it was time for a peek at the outside world; if it was another alien invasion, he knew he had a moral obligation to try and stop it. As much as he regretted what had happened between him and the Avengers – and the events that led to that rift – his anger wasn’t greater than his sense of duty.
With the last of the money in his possession, he procured a phone. In a sheltered spot with good reception, he dialed a number he had committed deep into memory and waited for a response. There was no ordinary sound of the call being connected, no beeps or rasps – which made him start slightly as a voice answered:
“It’s me,” Bruce said, uncertain whether there was a code he should know and hadn’t been told about.
“Doctor Banner. I have been hoping you would call.”
“You have?” Bruce frowned.
“Yes. I have a message to deliver to you,” the voice at the other end told him.
“A message?” Bruce grew wary. “I didn’t know anyone knew of this number – or that I might contact it.”
“None but the one who gave it to you,” he was reassured.
“Mr. Stark has given me his current coordinates and the order to make sure you get to him safely. What do you require?”
“Wait, wait!” Bruce cried hastily. “What do you mean, Tony’s given you coordinates? Is he on Earth?”
“Why, yes. Have you not seen the news?”
“Some,” Bruce replied, his heart picking up speed.
“The space ship that crashed to Earth two days ago was his means of transportation. Approximately twenty-seven hours ago he contacted me through a safe channel and told me to reveal his whereabouts only to you.” A slight pause followed, no doubt to let it all sink in. “Dr. Banner, what do you require?”
Bruce was glad he was sitting down. Tony was… He had expected him to be dead, although why he had thought that, he wasn’t sure. Something about him being bitten, being infected – and being left behind by their teammates on an alien moon. He shouldn’t have assumed, however… “I need money,” Bruce said. “And I need those coordinates, J.A.R.V.I.S.”
“I will send you the information of a private account set aside for you, accessible from anywhere around the world – and Mr. Stark’s current location. If he moves, I shall inform you at once.”
Bruce disconnected, staring numbly at the swaying grass in the abandoned clearing.
Steve stared at the wreckage of what used to be a space ship of some kind. It had landed hard, but it wasn’t impossible that something could have escaped it alive. Especially when that something might not be human at all.
“Captain,” a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent walked up to him, “there’s no sign of anything inside the wreckage – alive or dead. There are no threatening radiation levels, no unknown organisms…”
Steve nodded. “Do you know where it’s from?”
“Not from Earth,” the man replied. “Other than that, we don’t know.”
Steve nodded again. “Inform Director Fury.”
“Yes, Captain,” the man saluted and moved back to the communications tent set up further away. Steve watched him go, mildly amused how some of the S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel still treated him, then turned his attention back to the ship.
“What do you think?” Natasha asked as she moved closer.
“Why would an empty ship land here?” Steve voiced his biggest question.
“Crash,” Natasha corrected. “I wouldn’t call it a landing.”
“Still…” Steve narrowed his eyes in thought. “Of all the outer space, even all the planets around us – the moon – and it comes here. Lands in the middle of nowhere, too, not causing any damages and not attracting that much attention.”
“Actually, images of the ship are circling the internet as we speak,” Natasha corrected him again. “It seems we couldn’t get to all the witnesses in time.”
“Nevertheless,” Steve pushed. “It could have landed in the middle of New York City – or it could have crashed in the ocean, which is more than likely.”
“You think someone guided it down,” Natasha guessed.
“Why come this far if… there’s no one there?”
“Maybe on autopilot,” she shrugged.
“Find out, if you can,” Steve ordered. “Unless we can say for a fact there was no one inside this ship, we won’t rule out the possibility that someone came to Earth with it.”
“Cap,” a voice called out and Clint appeared on the other side of a tear in the ship’s hull.
“What are you doing over there?” Natasha asked.
“What is it?” Steve began to step forward.
“I think you’ll want to see this,” Clint motioned them forward. As soon as they were in, Clint headed out, taking them further inside, then to what seemed almost like sleeping quarters. He pointed at the walls. “Claw marks. All around. Old, I would say, most of them.”
“At least there used to be something living in here,” Natasha admitted, looking at them. “There’s no way to determine whether they actually came as far as to Earth on board this ship.”
Clint nodded. “That’s what I thought. Then I found this.” He took them further in, to a stretch of hallway that looked like something used for navigation. “I don’t understand anything about the controls, but I can tell someone has been fiddling with them,” he pointed at sections of the walls torn open, to expose wiring and more controls. “And,” he pointed again, at more scratch marks, although they weren’t random slashes but neatly drawn numbers and symbols. “I’m not big on science, but I know I’ve seen this string somewhere before,” Clint pointed at one line.
“Where?” Steve asked.
“In Tony’s notes about the Bifrost.”
Thor was, in the end, the easiest to convince: “We have an idea of what we’re going up against. We can contain him, bring him back, and try to help him,” Steve said,
The Asgardian nodded along, although worry still creased his brow. “You feel guilt that we left him behind.”
“Of course I do,” Steve snapped, then tried to calm himself again. “We have to go back for him, to find him, to bring him home. We can’t leave Tony out there, alone, to deal with whatever happened to him.”
“Have you spoken with the others?” Thor asked.
“Clint and Natasha both agree. They are ready to leave when you are.”
“What of Banner?”
“He’s… not responding to any of the messages I’ve tried to send him. He’s gone off the radar,” Steve replied. It hurt him, how things had ended between them. The day Bruce left – he would have killed them had they tried to stop him – marked a failure in the history of the Avengers. To lose both him and Tony…
Steve was hopeful, however, that if they returned to that moon, they might find Tony. It hadn’t been too long yet, less than a month. They would find him, bring him home, and Bruce would return as well, perhaps forgiving them one day. Steve didn’t need Bruce’s forgiveness in order to move on; he just needed his team, together.
He needed Tony.
“So, what did you say to Fury?” Clint asked as they took their first steps on the moon all of them probably had a nightmare or two about.
“I told him of our plans. He disapproved. So, in the end, I didn’t tell him we were actually going through with it,” Steve shrugged.
“That’s not like you,” Natasha noted from his other side.
“It’s not like me to leave a man behind, either,” Steve retorted, looking around. “Thor, take the lead. Investigate whether you can see something from above.”
The god of thunder nodded and took to the air, growing smaller and smaller. Steve dropped his eyes from the sky and looked at the land around them instead. All of it looked the same. It gave him a sense of hope and he set forward, determined to stop walking only when they found some sign from Tony, and not a moment before.
Thor returned before long, cape billowing in the wind as he landed. A look of deep discontent was on his face. “I met farmers from the village we helped to protect upon our last visit. They told me the creatures took our friend, and soon after left the moon.”
“Left?” Steve frowned.
“They travel in any vessel they can find, between planets, worlds, the unknown dark space…” His jaw shifted. “I am truly sorry. I had hoped we might find him, but…”
“He was alive, though?” Clint pressed. “They didn’t say he was dead?”
“Nay,” Thor replied. “The creatures would have not taken Tony if he had left this world. He is among his own kin now.”
“No,” Steve argued. “Not his kin.”
“What do you want us to do, Cap?” Natasha asked. “Search all of outer space for him? And what if Thor’s right? You saw what was happening to him, right?”
“You weren’t there,” Steve snapped at her and looked at the empty landscape that had haunted him for weeks. Now he was told they were too late, and defeat burned in his chest. If only they had come back right away, when Thor took them back to Asgard… But they had gone home, and they had laid out their plans, and now it was too late.
“They buried the armor, thinking it a bad omen,” Thor went on. “We can dig it up and take it with us when we return home.”
Steve guessed that as long as Tony wasn’t in that grave, he could still have hope, but even that notion left a sour taste in his mouth. Defeat sat painfully within him as he nodded his agreement and followed the others towards the village.
None of the inhabitants of the village came to help them as they dug into the hard ground for the armor. Steve was glad, for it made the temptation to burn the entire place down easier to control; the locals hadn’t helped them before, and so they shouldn’t help them now, either.
While the space ship had crashed in Wyoming, Tony was currently hiding in Utah – no doubt slowly making his way back home.
To find him in a cabin, in the woods, on a mountainous range, was so out of place that Bruce doubted his own senses many a time while driving and hiking up there. He had come this far, though, laying low while making his way back to the States as fast as possible, in the hopes that the information was correct and someone hadn’t hacked J.A.R.V.I.S.
He checked the coordinates twice when he finally caught sight of the sad little cabin in the woods. No electricity, a few fallen trees on the overgrown yard, and no sign that anyone had been up there for years. Bruce walked forward, though, hoping against all hope, and when his hand landed on the door and it creaked open, he held his breath in dread.
Something sniffed the air inside the cabin.
Bruce froze in the doorway, sniffing as well, wondering if there were an animal lurking inside, trapped and hungry.
“I see you got my message,” a familiar voice finally stated and something moved in the darkness inside – a circle of light, also familiar, and Bruce shoved the door open the rest of the way, taking a step over the threshold. The impact of Tony’s body against his was solid and alive. The arms wrapping around his neck and shoulders were firm and strong, desperate, and Bruce responded in kind, breathing him in.
Tony didn’t smell clean, sweat and dirt clinging to him instead of cologne and shampoo. It was him, though, and Bruce didn’t care about the rest. Not as much, anyway.
“How?” Bruce finally asked, forcing his throat to work. “Thor said…”
A growl rose from Tony’s throat and there was nothing human about it; even a human imitating a growl wouldn’t be able to make it sound so feral.
Bruce took a step back, keeping his hands on Tony’s body but forcing some distance between them. The other man’s eyes were dark, his hair a mess, the goatee gone and replaced by stubble which someone had attempted to shave, perhaps without proper tools, and his lips were shivering as if resisting a snarl. “Thor said you were infected,” Bruce pressed on.
Tony huffed. “Is that all he said?”
“They left you,” Bruce stated flatly, the old, burning rage filling him all over again, but Tony was here, in his arms, should he want to draw him back into his embrace, and that eased the anger somewhat. “They were so certain…”
“I guess they were wrong,” Tony replied, looking away from him. “It doesn’t matter,” he finally said. “None of it matters. I’m here, it’s over.” He let out a sudden, explosive laugh which ended just as abruptly as it started. His eyes were still dark as he looked at Bruce, as if unable to believe Bruce was there. “I can’t… I wasn’t sure I would make it. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make it.”
“But you did,” Bruce smiled, and drew him into a kiss because he had waited over a year to do it – had thought he could never do it again.
Tony’s answering kiss was desperate, his fingers clutching Bruce’s face closer, twisting in his hair, nails digging into skin, and there was something feral about it, wild and uncontained.
It reminded Bruce of all the things Thor had said in his defense, to justify his actions.
He started to pull back but Tony held onto him, stubborn and stronger than Bruce remembered. “Tony,” Bruce tried to say, lips catching against Tony’s. For a moment he thought Tony wouldn’t stop, that he would keep holding onto him, but finally he relented and released Bruce altogether, taking a step back.
“Sorry,” Tony muttered.
“What happened?” Bruce asked. “I can tell something’s different.”
Tony looked deeply troubled, dropping his eyes, turning slightly away from him – trying to hide, to protect something he didn’t want Bruce to see. “I don’t… It’s…” He swallowed with apparent difficulty. “It’s easier if I just show you.”
Tony still didn’t look at him but motioned for him to move. “Step aside.”
Bruce did, the movement of his body allowing more of the sunlight into the cabin. Tony shuffled his feet and Bruce realized he wasn’t wearing shoes; dirty, bare feet shifted against an equally dirty floor. His clothing was… tattered at best, and didn’t look like anything from this world, literally. There was old blood on it, too, although Tony appeared unharmed save for his haggard looks and thinner appearance.
With a deep breath, Tony closed his eyes, breathing methodically. Bruce wasn’t certain what he was doing – not before he heard a faint scraping sound and looked down to find its source. Tony’s feet had changed, toes longer as if the bones themselves had changed slightly, ending in sharp nails that now dug into the wooden floor. Bruce moved his eyes up, just in time to notice Tony’s fingers flexing nervously, nails longer than earlier, slightly curved and unnaturally thick and dark. The muscles on his arms looked slightly bigger as well.
Bruce trailed his eyes the rest of the way up, meeting Tony’s eyes, dark as ever, only they seemed… different. The irises and colors were slightly off. Tony’s jaw was tight, as if it wanted to transform but Tony wasn’t letting it. He was breathing hard in short, deep bursts, chest heaving, and then Bruce noticed his ears.
For whatever reason, of all the things, the ears were the thing that he couldn’t look away from; covered in fur that matched the color of Tony’s natural body hair, they had morphed half-way into something that reminded him of wolf’s ears, or a dog’s. They twitched as Bruce looked at them, then turned slightly, as if listening.
“This is awkward,” Tony finally said. His voice sounded normal – maybe a bit breathy, but otherwise very much like himself.
“Can I…” Bruce reached forward before he could even complete the question; Tony used to take liberties like this with him – with the other guy – so Bruce seized the opportunity to return the favor. His fingers slowly cupped one ear, the lobe almost human before it curved up. The hairs were so soft, so incredibly soft, and he trailed his fingers up along the length of the ear – the same way he knew some dogs deeply enjoyed.
Tony’s eyes closed and he twitched. “You shouldn’t do that.”
“You don’t like it?” Bruce asked.
“I might start doing something embarrassing like humping your leg,” Tony corrected.
Bruce chuckled and lifted his other hand, caressing both ears. Tony’s eyes remained closed and he leaned into the touch – then moved his hands to Bruce’s sides and there was no way Bruce wasn’t going to jump from the contact of the nails, even with his clothes in between.
Tony jerked back, drawing his hands to himself, his ears flattening slightly. And then Bruce saw it, for the first time: a tail. A bushy, dark tail, pushing awkwardly at Tony’s clothing as it tried to curve between his legs.
“It’s okay,” Bruce soothed. “Just… new sensations, is all. Come back here,” he urged.
Tony looked at him doubtingly, still breathing at a deep, measured pace. He crept closer, like a dog afraid of a beating although it wanted a treat to satisfy its hunger. Bruce let Tony come at his own pace, and then reached for one ear again, having realized it was a sensitive spot. Tony relaxed, and Bruce dared to slide one arm around him, trailing down his spine until the natural end of the tailbone continued in a furry extension. He pushed Tony’s tattered pants slightly lower, to let the tail arch in a natural angle, then ran his fingers along hair that was coarser than what his fingers were caressing at his ear.
The other man shifted and let out a sound that may have been one of embarrassment. “Could you… stop doing that?”
“Why?” Bruce asked. “I’m a dog person, in case you didn’t know.”
Tony shifted his head, lying it against Bruce’s shoulder, then exhaled deeply and suddenly the tail withdrew, as did the ears, and he stood there in full human form once more. Bruce laid his hand against the small of his back, wondering what he was supposed to say next.
“So, the infection,” Bruce started.
“Werewolves,” Tony explained. “At least, that’s hitting damn close. Alien werewolves.”
“I don’t think that was… I expected a little more fur,” Bruce admitted.
Tony let out a chuckle where he was still leaning his face against Bruce’s shoulder. “I can’t transform all the way. I almost did, once. Almost died, too. Apparently it wasn’t designed for someone who has hardware in their chest.”
It made sense, in a horrible kind of way. “So it just stops half-way?” Bruce asked.
“No; I stop it half-way,” Tony said darkly. “It tries to go the whole nine yards, every time, but… I learned a few tricks. Not that most of them work worth a damn here, because the transformations cycles will be different and the herbs we used don’t grow in any place here I know.”
“We’ll figure it out,” Bruce promised without even fully understanding it. So far, he could see Tony was able to voluntarily start the transformation – and then stop it and hold it – but it also sounded like sometimes he had less control over it, and needed help to keep it at bay. If the legends and stories were anything to go by, the full moon would be a bitch, but like Tony had said, the effects here would be different than wherever he had spent the last year. “We’ll figure it out,” Bruce repeated, determined to believe that together, they would crack this thing.
Tony nodded, the motion muted against Bruce’s shoulder.
“How about we go home?” Bruce suggested.
Tony lifted his head, looking at him warily. “Home?”
“Malibu,” Bruce clarified. He knew going to New York City at this point was just looking for trouble. They both needed to ground themselves, to discover the ins and outs of Tony’s condition. Bruce was certain Tony had allowed himself to be found for a reason, and that may or may not have something to do with the other guy; Tony had always been willing to help Bruce with anything he needed regarding the Hulk, and maybe now it was his turn to return the favor.
“Welcome home, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. greeted them upon their entrance. The house, at first glance, looked like no one had been there for a year, most of the furniture covered with white sheets.
“No one knows I’m here?” Tony clarified as his bare feet tapped against the floor; he had refused Bruce’s offers to stop for clothes, which was unlike him, but Bruce didn’t fight it, knowing how vulnerable Tony felt. He had been there himself, and sometimes clothes weren’t the most important thing.
“None but yourself and Dr. Banner,” the AI assured.
“Keep it that way,” Tony ordered. “If someone tries to come by… Has someone come by, recently?”
“Not for several months. I shall inform you if Ms. Potts’ schedule suggests an intention to visit the premises.”
Tony nodded and looked around with strangely empty eyes – as if he didn’t know where he was, or what to do.
Bruce had been looking at him for a few days now while they traveled to California with all possible precautions, and he was still certain there was a ton of things Tony wasn’t telling him, or hadn’t explained. There had been no furry incidents, however, but that could be Tony’s body adjusting to his surroundings, stress and weariness – he looked like he hadn’t eaten properly in months – or just a lucky break.
“Take a shower, get some sleep,” Bruce urged. “I’ll keep watch.”
“You haven’t slept since Utah,” Tony argued. “We both sleep. J.A.R.V.I.S. will keep watch.”
“No one shall know you are here – I will initiate full lockdown,” the AI promised.
“Fine,” Bruce agreed. He guessed that even if Tony had… problems, the other guy could deal with them. Not that he expected things to go that far. Tony had a lid on it – Bruce was confident he would know from personal experience if he didn’t – and Tony had been dealing with this for almost a year.
Tony went to shower while Bruce made the bed. He heard the water and left Tony to it, and fifteen minutes later the man was out, drying himself with a towel. He looked clean, but didn’t smell like himself yet. “No shampoo. Not even soap,” Tony stated.
“I’ll get some tomorrow,” Bruce promised. They had eaten the last of their goods on the road, hurriedly bought from a small road-side market. They hadn’t known what would be awaiting them in Malibu, so Bruce would make a list of things to get once they had rested.
Once sufficiently dry, Tony flung the towel to the side and threw himself down on the fresh sheets, lying there, naked and spread out as if he never intended to move again.
His body looked thin, but there were no actual marks of what he had been through; no scars to act as clues to what he had suffered – because Bruce was fairly certain he had suffered. He knew that defeated, tired look – had worn it often enough himself. Tony had lost someone, had done things he never thought he should be capable of…
“Lie down,” Tony muttered after a bit, face partially pressed into the mattress. “I want to sleep.”
Bruce guessed there was no reason for him to sleep elsewhere. Also, since J.A.R.V.I.S. had promised to protect them, it would be safe. Thus he stripped down to his underwear and t-shirt, sliding down beside Tony and tugging the sheet over them. Tony shifted to a better position once this was done, turning and tossing for a bit, then settled down. They were close enough to brush, but nothing more, and when Tony remained quiet and still, Bruce closed his own eyes and determinedly tried to sleep.
Come morning, Tony was no longer in bed.
For a moment Bruce just sat there, listening, looking around the bedroom, hoping that Tony hadn’t left and disappeared; that the last few days hadn’t been some strange dream. But if they were a dream, none of it would explain how Bruce was in Tony’s house in Malibu – there was no mistaking the place, after all.
After several minutes he gathered his courage, pulled on some clothes and walked out of the bedroom, cautiously wandering the hallways. He could have asked J.A.R.V.I.S. for information at any time, but if Tony didn’t want to be found, the AI wouldn’t reveal the man’s location or intentions.
He found Tony standing before the wide windows looking out at the sea, just as naked as he had been after his shower last night. Bruce wondered if there were no clothes in the house, or if Tony had some sudden aversion to being dressed.
“Morning,” he called out, in case the other man hadn’t heard him walk in.
Tony didn’t react. It was very unlike him, which meant something was wrong. Then again, a dozen things may have gone wrong while he was off-planet, other than being infected by some alien form of a werewolf virus.
“Tony?” Bruce tried again, to at least get confirmation that the other was listening. He saw a muscle twitch on Tony’s shoulder, but nothing else. “Do you want to talk?” Bruce offered.
Tony turned his head, just slightly, and Bruce could see a partial profile of his face. His eyes were dark, lips slightly pursed with tension, and even the fraction of an expression Bruce could see made him doubt whether he wanted to hear whatever was on Tony’s mind. He had made the offer, however, and he knew he could never look himself in the eye again – or anyone else for that matter – if he bailed out on the other man when he so clearly needed someone.
“I don’t,” Tony finally answered. “But I guess I’ll have to, eventually.”
“When you’re ready,” Bruce started.
“I’ll never be ready for that,” Tony snapped and turned, looking angry for a bit before deflating completely. “But I can’t… let it go either…” He looked frail and lonely, and it had nothing to do with the fact that Tony was still very much naked. Bruce had no idea what was with that, but he had spent enough time unclothed around people that he didn’t get squeamish about it.
“It wasn’t like in the movies, you know?” Tony went on suddenly. “The horror flicks, old or new… No howling at the moon and ripping out hearts – although there was howling, and hunting… Even aliens need to eat,” he noted.
“So there were others? Others you spent time with?” Bruce asked, recalling small fragments of information from the other Avengers and Tony himself.
Tony nodded then moved to the side, walking over to a couch and sat down, not bothering to remove the white sheet set on top of it to keep the dust away. “Her name was Niyal,” he said, fingers moving uneasily, soundlessly, to grasp something that wasn’t there, his eyes distant and haunted. “The one who turned me. She was there since the beginning. I don’t know where she was originally from, or what her species was called. I didn’t understand half the things that went on, or how we could communicate when they sure as hell weren’t speaking English… A pack thing, I guess. A werewolf thing.”
“What happened to her?” Bruce asked, guessing there was a reason this woman – or female alien – was brought up.
For a moment Tony sat still, eyes darkening even further. A faint growl rose from within him, but it was instantly softened by what could be called a whine, fighting to overcome the original sound. “She was killed,” Tony finally said, as if each word physically pained him. “She was trying to protect me from the pack.”
Bruce frowned. If the pack had taken Tony in, why would they want to hurt him? He knew Tony would explain, if he wanted to, so he remained quiet as the other man collected himself.
“Some time after I had turned, the stars aligned and it was time to transform for the first time – to truly begin my new life, and to become one of them,” Tony went on, narrating the events with detachment at first, but as words upon words fell from his mouth, it began to sound more personal, the pain creeping in. “I couldn’t turn, however. My body wanted to, believe me, but it was killing me. Niyal saw that, and argued with the others. She didn’t… she chose that I should live, and not die in order to complete the transformation.
“We left the pack soon after. She knew we couldn’t stay. I learned about it all after we took our leave.” Tony chuckled darkly. “It felt like being a child all over again, re-learning everything. From food to survival, to the fact that my body had changed, no matter my lack of a true transformation. She said the wolf was in me, nevertheless, and we found ways to keep it from emerging.”
Tony fell silent once more, a far-away look on his face. As if he were no longer here, but back with her, wherever they had been. Bruce wasn’t certain what he should say. Clearly Tony had been through something horrible, but it also seemed he had adapted to it, accepted it, and embraced the new life he had been forced to choose.
“She was important to you,” Bruce finally dared to say.
The other man’s face rose sharply, brown eyes locking with Bruce’s. “Yes,” he said, unhesitating. “We were mated. Not because she turned me, but because she chose me, I think. I would have been hers, but she didn’t need to…” A faint flush colored his cheeks, so unlike anything Bruce knew about Tony, and he lowered his eyes as if in submission. “I knew my place, for the first time in my life. It felt good, in a way it shouldn’t have. She took care of us, protected us, and then she gave birth to our daughter.”
Bruce wondered if he had heard right, shock slamming him in the gut. Daughter? Tony and his lost alien lover had had a child? Where was she now? She couldn’t have been very old, just a baby, unless time moved differently…
He slid his hands across his face, trying to comprehend this new piece of information, then glanced at Tony again and found the other man cradling his face in his hands, shoulders tense. “Tony?” Bruce asked cautiously, almost smelling the sudden desperation and anger in the air – as well as grief.
“She was so beautiful,” Tony murmured into his hands. “So bright and intelligent. She smelled of coconuts,” he added, laughing with the same desperation that surrounded him, floating around him like a bubble ready to burst.
Bruce knew where the coconut-reference came from; he was intimately familiar with the smell and taste of Tony’s skin, from the few, brief chances he’d had to sample it before Tony went missing.
On the couch, Tony remained still, his laugher long since lost in deep breaths that were dangerously close to sobs. “Rya was everything to me. I had never thought of having children, never seriously contemplated the possibility, but she was there and she was perfect in every way.”
“What happened to her?” Bruce asked, uncertain whether he was stepping on a landmine, about to cause an explosion – or if that would undo something inside Tony that kept him holding onto the past he could no longer reach back to.
Tony let out a shuddery sigh and remained still for a long moment – so long Bruce assumed he was declining to answer the question. It wasn’t as if he were able to force Tony to talk, nor would he, but Tony himself had stated that he needed to get it out. Deciding it could hardly make things worse, Bruce walked over to the couch, carefully sat beside the other man and reached out to touch the nape of his neck, sliding fingers into the hair that was so much longer and unrulier than the last time they saw each other. He could feel Tony shiver – something he hadn’t noticed from the distance – and wondered if it was too early.
“She died protecting me,” Tony said without warning, voice faint, words forced out as if he wanted to take them back, to bite his tongue to keep them in. “She knew I couldn’t turn, and after Niyal died, to let us escape the pack… I wasn’t fast enough. We couldn’t outrun them, and Rya… she chose to fight. I watched my own child being torn apart and did nothing.” Tony’s fingers curled and Bruce could feel muscles shifting, joints popping, the transformation starting, fuelled by the rage barely contained in Tony’s body. “She was too young,” he growled but still didn’t look at Bruce, didn’t get up from the couch. “I should have died before letting them touch her, but I was afraid and I knew I would die if I turned – or they would kill me if I didn’t.”
Bruce didn’t know what to say – what to think. It sounded like Tony had been put between a rock and a hard place, out of options, out of hope. The helpless rage inside him was painful to witness, as were the tears that soon followed.
“I couldn’t save either of them,” Tony sobbed, the transformation receding, muscles returning to normal, leaving him incredibly frail. “I let them kill my mate and my little girl without laying a hand on me first…”
Bruce drew him close, into his arms, uncaring if Tony would bolt, or if the touch was unwanted. He knew that Tony could turn and attack him, and the other guy would still heal each wound.
Tony didn’t turn, however. He pressed himself closer and cried, shivering and shaking, and if his strained breaths reminded Bruce of a wounded animal, that only made him hold Tony tighter.
It took close to an hour before Tony lay against him, still and quiet. Bruce still held him, providing something to fill the emptiness he could see in the dark eyes. He tried to understand, to accept the concept that the monster who had infected Tony had actually become his lover – the mother of their child.
A child that had died defending Tony against their supposed pack.
“How did you escape?” Bruce asked at length. “How did you come back?” One of his hands traveled down the naked expanse of Tony’s back, in slow, soothing motions. The other was firmly placed around Tony’s shoulders, drawing him in, keeping him there should Tony fail to hold onto him.
“I attacked the one who killed Rya,” Tony started. “I think I… may have killed him. Tore his face open before he tossed me off a cliff. I hit the water at the bottom, escaping in the river. I knew they had a space ship, the one we used to travel between that moon and the new place… So I went to it, killed the guard and flew all the way here,” he recounted the rest of his tale. “I was fairly certain I wouldn’t be able to make it, that I would die alone in space. I was fine with it. After everything… I couldn’t have felt any more alone.
“As it happens, my calculations on the Bifrost were correct and I could simulate the same frequency as the route to Earth had, and… here I was, back home, unsure how long it had really been.”
“Time moved differently out there?” Bruce guessed.
“No,” Tony shook his head slightly, but didn’t move otherwise. “It took about a month or two for us to leave the pack, after my failed performance to become one of the pack. Soon after it, Niyal became pregnant, and in less than three months she gave birth. I know, right?” he gave Bruce’s expression a quick glance. “Rya grew up so fast, it was unreal. But she had to, in order to defend herself, and I guess with all the alien blood and the wolf genes…”
Bruce’s mind could have worked on that puzzle for a long time, he was certain, to unlock all the unknown elements, but Tony’s stomach growled and he knew it was time to get into a car and over to the nearest store to get what they needed. “We need food,” he said softly. “Are you going to be okay for a while?”
Tony nodded and sat up. Bruce let him, although he still kept one hand on Tony’s neck, to track any changes. “Go,” Tony urged. “I’ll… put on some clothes, I think. I’ll be at the lab, making sure no one touched my stuff.” There was some of his old snark in that statement, but Bruce knew he was still rattled from allowing himself to relive those months of horror and loss – as well as happiness. It was clear Tony had been, in a sense, content, and having that taken from him was cruel and unfair.
However, Bruce could selfishly admit he was happy to have him back. With that in mind, he bent forward and placed a soft kiss on Tony’s lips before rising to his feet. “Have J.A.R.V.I.S. contact me if something comes up, or if you can think of something else we need. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Tony nodded and remained where he was. Bruce knew he had to trust the other man to remain here and not run. Then again, Tony had been the one to contact Bruce, so he guessed he needn’t worry too much. Either way, once he was at the door, he asked the AI to inform him immediately if Tony was planning on leaving. He couldn’t be too cautious, not knowing what survival on another planet had entailed, and whether remnants of that lifestyle were still active in Tony’s mind.