Bruce walked from one aisle to the next, trying to recall the list he had compiled in his head during the past few days, and adding other necessities to it whenever he came across an item that triggered an idea for something else they would need. He wanted to get this done fast – but not appear like he was in a hurry, because that might attract unwanted attention.
Not that he was too concerned, seeing as most interested parties probably didn’t even know he was back in the States, but he couldn’t be too careful. The sooner he got out of here, the sooner he’d be back at Tony’s house, making sure the other man was okay and proceeding with getting to the bottom of this entire thing.
“Bread,” he murmured. “We need…” He walked by the meat aisle and stopped to look at the rows of packed goods, wondering what Tony preferred. Did he like his meals raw and dripping with blood these days? Why hadn’t he asked Tony about that?! Bruce sighed, tempted to call J.A.R.V.I.S. and ask Tony, but he didn’t want to trigger some ugly memory when he wasn’t there to deal with the aftermath; Tony’s current tastes in food might be a dangerous subject. Tony had said there had been no heart-eating, but he had mentioned hunting, which meant eating something that used to have a pulse…
“Fancy meeting you here,” a voice called from behind him, and Bruce almost dropped the shopping basket. His eyes checked the reflection in the glass doors in front of them, making out the shape of a woman that matched the voice.
“Leave me alone,” Bruce warned.
“Can’t do that, Banner,” she went on, and Bruce turned, facing Natasha. She wasn’t dressed up as Black Widow, but there was a hint of uniform beneath the top layer of her rather ordinary clothes. Her stance suggested preparedness, and Bruce wondered if this was India all over again.
“Where is he?” a new voice joined in, and Bruce had to curl his fingers more firmly around the handle of the basket to keep it from slipping; Steve joined them, appearing almost out of nowhere, blue eyes intense.
“Who?” Bruce feigned confusion.
Steve, however, wasn’t confused: “Tony. Where is he?”
“You’re shopping for two,” Natasha pointed out.
“The other guy gets hungry, too, you know,” Bruce snapped.
“Yet you didn’t even flinch when he mentioned Tony,” Natasha shot back.
Bruce guessed that was true and looked at the man he used to call his leader. “If he’s back, which is unlikely by even our standards, I wouldn’t tell you.”
“This isn’t the time –” Steve started.
“For what? To leave him behind again? To abandon him on some godforsaken alien moon?”
Steve’s body tensed. “I’ve regretted what happened, day and night –”
“Not as much as he has,” Bruce said icily.
“He can’t be far,” Natasha noted. “You know we’ll find him. We’ll check the house first, and then comb the area.”
Bruce wasn’t going to betray he was getting desperate, running out of options. “So he’s the enemy now?” he challenged. “To be hunted down and locked away?”
“He might be unwell,” Steve stated. “And, he’s still one of us, and we take care of our own.”
“That can’t be said for everyone else,” Natasha added. “I’m sure a lot of people would be interested in locking him away to experiment on him.”
Bruce had no way of knowing how much they knew. Then again, if they believed even half the stuff Thor had said…
“We just want to help him,” Steve implored. “Let us help you – him.”
Bruce knew he didn’t exactly have a choice. They had him cornered, and even if he let the other guy out, it might take him hours to get back to Tony, and in that time the Avengers – or worse, S.H.I.E.L.D. – would already be there. While he didn’t doubt J.A.R.V.I.S. would try to protect Tony, it might not be enough. He needed the Avengers on his side, especially if it was common knowledge that Tony had been on the space ship that crashed. “Fine,” he sighed. “If he doesn’t want you there, though, you’ll have to leave. And I won’t be held responsible if he doesn’t offer a warm welcome to you,” he added.
“Agreed,” Steve nodded, then offered to take the basket from Bruce to help him pick up the items he still needed.
Bruce couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched and followed every step of the way. If he entertained the idea of slipping away, the Avengers made sure he had no chance of that. So, he picked all the items he thought they might need in the coming days, then paid at the register and allowed Steve to carry the groceries. He should have guessed the others would be near: Clint and Thor stood outside, flanking Bruce’s car. Bruce didn’t try to hide the look of animosity he reserved for Thor these days.
There weren’t any words exchanged: the groceries were put into the trunk and Steve joined Bruce while the others got into a car of their own, and then they started out towards Tony’s Malibu house. To think of it, the house was a rather obvious destination – but only if you believed Tony was back.
“How did you know?” Bruce asked. He needed to know, to make sure they hadn’t been sloppy.
“There were notes inside the ship that crashed,” Steve told him. “Clint said they looked like Tony’s. We ran with that.”
Bruce gave him a disbelieving look. “That’s all you have?”
“A hunch,” Steve admitted, looking back at him. “I just knew, in my gut… I guess you could say I wanted to believe it – and I’ve never been happier that I did.”
“You may still come to regret that,” Bruce murmured, focusing on the road again.
“Maybe,” Steve agreed. “But I need to see him. I need to…”
“I’m not sure he wants you apologies as much as he wants to rip your throat open,” Bruce noted. Of course he didn’t know that, for sure, because they had barely talked about the others, or the obvious betrayal. Maybe Bruce was projecting his own feelings and desires, instead of focusing on Tony’s.
“He’ll have my apologies anyway,” Steve said stubbornly. “We left him behind.” He said it like he couldn’t believe it had happened. Clearly the guilt still sat right where it had been the day they came back and told Bruce what had happened.
Well, all that guilt could have been avoided by saying ‘no’ to Thor and bringing Tony home, regardless of the risks… Maybe they could have helped him – or maybe Tony would have transformed uncontrollably and died because of it, because none of them would have known how to deal with it like the other werewolves did, and they may have not found a way to slow it down in time.
Bruce still had no idea of the mechanics of the transformation, of the virus or whatever was causing it, and he burned to study it, to understand it – just like he had studied and learned about gamma radiation over the years.
They arrived at the house and parked out of sight. Natasha and Clint looked around, as if checking the premises, but didn’t leave the rest of the group; perhaps they knew J.A.R.V.I.S. would be monitoring the area better than their eyes ever could.
“Let me go in first,” Bruce offered.
“Nay,” Thor shook his head. “He may be dangerous.”
“To you, maybe,” Bruce snapped at once, ire rising. “He has it under control. Not once has he tried to harm me, and he’s been upfront. Frankly, I think you only want to see a monster.”
Thor appeared somewhat chastened, yet he was too prideful to let it go. However, Steve motioned for him to remain quiet and nodded at Bruce. “Go ahead. We shall wait here.”
“Is that wise?” Natasha asked.
“They might bail,” Clint agreed.
“And waste such a sweet reunion? Please,” a voice reached them and everyone looked up. Tony was crouching on the roof, several feet above them, his eyes a little alien – those of the wolf. There were no other signs yet, but Bruce could tell it was simmering beneath the surface. Tony was dressed, finally, the arc reactor shining through the black tank top he was wearing.
“It is good to see you in such good health,” Thor started.
“You left me to die,” Tony hissed back at him. “Don’t think I don’t remember that, Odinson.” Venom dripped off every word and Bruce spied Tony’s fingers curling around the edge of the roof, beginning to change, nails growing thicker, darker.
Thor lifted his hammer in reply. “The creature that bit you –”
Tony growled, and Bruce knew that if something didn’t change where this was going, Tony and Thor would be going at each other in no time. Without the suit – even with the wolf in him – Bruce feared Tony wouldn’t stand a chance. Tony himself should know that, but perhaps his guilt was driving him, making death preferable.
Bruce had been there and knew what it felt like. He had also survived it, and stepped between them, looking up at Tony imploringly. “Stop. Please, come down.”
Tony huffed at him, his eyes still inhuman, pupils small and the white and brown turned into an almost yellow shade.
“Tony,” Bruce went on, voice soft and desperate. “You’re better than this. You’re better than them.”
No one argued, which meant they were smart. Even Thor.
“Come down,” Bruce repeated, and Tony huffed again, then slowly braced himself and dropped down, more agile than an average human body. He was still changing, that much was obvious, and once the ears were there, Bruce reached out to caress the one closest to him. “I know you’re angry. They left you when they should have stayed – when you needed them the most.”
“I don’t need any of them,” Tony muttered darkly, cocking his head towards Bruce’s caresses.
“You sure didn’t need them to get back home,” Bruce praised.
Tony hummed in approval.
“Is that a tail?” Clint asked from the side.
Tony snapped his head towards him, snarling.
“Shut up,” Natasha hissed at the archer.
“A fucking tail, Tasha,” Clint went on, in a lower tone – as if they hadn’t seen Tony’s ears and pretended his hearing wasn’t, in all likelihood, increased.
“Is he going to… wolf out?” Steve asked carefully from beside the two agents.
Tony blinked – then almost doubled over with laughter. It made Bruce jumped with its suddenness, but he relaxed soon after. “Oh my god,” Tony gasped after a bit, holding his sides, and the tail and ears were gone, his eyes back to normal. “You did not just say that!”
Steve looked embarrassed, scratching the back of his neck.
Tony straightened up, looking at all of them. “I’m still fucking pissed,” he announced, pointing at all of them – even Natasha, although she hadn’t been there. “Make no mistake. You fucking left me.”
“We shouldn’t have,” Steve agreed swiftly. “I know I can’t take it back, and that no words can mend it, but I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have…” He didn’t finish, but he looked at Thor – not with accusation, but accepting that he hadn’t been in command that day. That he had allowed another to dictate what they would do, and that resulted in one of their own being lost.
Tony grumbled unhappily. “Fuck your apologies,” he muttered, then turned and stalked into the house, this time through the front door and not by whatever means he had exited to end up on the roof. “I hope you brought food,” he noted to Bruce.
“I did,” Bruce nodded and the others picked up the grocery bags before shuffling inside.
“Perimeter secure, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. announced once they were inside. “Doors locked.”
“Watch for any communications and block them,” Tony ordered, throwing the Avengers a look. “No secret calls to anyone.”
“There won’t be any,” Steve vowed.
“S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t know you’re here?” Bruce asked.
“No,” Steve replied, setting the bags he was carrying down on the kitchen counter. “We didn’t tell them of Clint’s thoughts on the markings inside the ship – nor did we feel like informing anyone of our belief that Tony might be alive.”
“Your belief,” Natasha clarified. “Not all of us shared it.” She glanced at Tony next. “I’m happy to be wrong, however.”
“Good for you,” Tony snapped and stepped over to the grocery bags, digging into them, tossing inedible things all over the counter before finding something he liked – which happened to be a carton of yoghurt, in this case. He tore the top open and lifted it to his lips, throat working. After a while his eyes moved to look at the others and he frowned and set the carton down. “What?” he asked, clearly annoyed, then licked the excess yoghurt from his lips. “I’m hungry.”
“Would you like something… meatier?” Bruce asked carefully.
Tony shrugged. “Sure.”
He was met with an arched eyebrow. “Maybe I’ll just cut one of you open and drink your warm blood? No, thank you. I’ve had enough of that for a lifetime. It was disgusting the first time. Grilled meat, crispy and burnt, please. And seasoned. You have no idea how much I missed spices.”
Bruce tried to decode the message that clearly existed in his words. Clint beat him to it: “You actually ate something that had just been alive a minute ago?”
Tony gave the archer another raised eyebrow. “I was with an alien werewolf pack on an alien planet. I was hungry. There was no buffet to choose from. Yes, I ate… horrible and disgusting things, and I’m not going to be able to look at images of slaughtered animals the same way ever again. However, most of our food consisted of plants, roots, and other disgusting green things which weren’t green at all.”
“Fascinating,” Clint shot back, but didn’t sound like he actually wanted to hear more.
Bruce wasn’t certain he wanted to handle the meat he had ended up buying.
Tony picked up the carton of yoghurt again, then dug into the nearest bag and withdrew an egg carton. “Tell me when dinner’s ready,” he called out before leaving the room, disappearing downstairs.
Bruce didn’t want to know how he was going to eat the eggs.
“He seems like himself,” Natasha observed.
“He’s not,” Bruce told her, deciding to get on with the cooking. “But he’ll get there – if certain people lay off him,” he noted in Thor’s direction.
The Asgardian seemed thoughtful. “He is still dangerous,” he announced. “He may well infect –”
“We’ll deal with it,” Steve cut him off, looking at Bruce for confirmation. Bruce nodded and went back to selecting ingredients for a meal.
Bruce and Tony spent most of the next three days in Tony’s lab, either working on mapping out the changes in Tony’s physiology, or, when Tony grew bored with that, working on a project that currently intrigued the engineer’s mind.
Bruce knew working was mostly an attempt to distract Tony from the events he had left behind on that unknown planet. So far, only Bruce had been confided with the whole tale of what had occurred, but the other Avengers were slowly allowed into the loop.
Thor was still wary, but agreed that Tony was in control. “Perhaps because he has not truly transformed yet,” he pondered.
“Nor will I – and if I do, it won’t be a problem for anyone else afterward because it will kill me,” Tony shot back.
That formed a truce between them, yet Tony and Bruce agreed that they needed to figure out how infectious Tony was – and how to potentially block out the virus. Also, they needed to figure out when the lunar alignment would trigger a transformation, and a way to hinder it. Mere sedatives might help, but Bruce wasn’t going to hand-wave the issue before he was absolutely certain they could manage it.
The other Avengers took care of the food runs and also took turns watching the premises. J.A.R.V.I.S. assisted them, to make sure no one accidentally found out that Tony was indeed alive and back on Earth.
It took S.H.I.E.L.D. those three days to realize what was going on and get with the program. They had all known it was only a matter of time, what with the all Avengers going AWOL and not reporting back to Fury. They could have made contact, just to alleviate suspicion, but the risk of being traced was too great, even with Tony’s protective firewalls. They had chosen not to interact with the outside world until they were ready.
First indication of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s arrival was, of course, a warning from J.A.R.V.I.S.:
“Sir, I am currently tracking coded interaction between S.H.I.E.L.D. units; they are closing in on the estate.”
Tony’s head shot up from where he had been leaning over their newest readings on his white cells. “How long do we have?”
“Approximately sixteen minutes before the first vehicles arrive. However, they are gathering aerial support in the vicinity.”
Bruce got up from his chair. “Full lockdown on all the data. Copy it to a safe location and remove it from the hard-drives if there is a chance they’ll become compromised.”
Tony’s eyes followed him, alert, as if waiting for orders of his own.
“Get in the suit and get out,” Bruce told him next. “We’ll… find you.”
“I won’t leave you,” Tony said – and he clearly meant Bruce, not the entire team. Whether he was concerned about Fury’s response to the Avengers hiding Tony’s return, or whether Bruce had begun to replace his lost alien werewolf family and Tony feared a repeat of his mistakes, he didn’t know.
“I’ll be fine,” Bruce reassured. “They have nothing against us. However, if we can fool them a bit longer, deny that you’re back…”
“I didn’t come back to Earth to pretend I’m dead,” Tony stated. They hadn’t actually talked about that a whole lot, or the future: all of their time had been focused on containing the very real threat of the wolf, and learning all they could about it. There were things Tony didn’t know, nor could he explain, and that had left them a lot of blanks to fill.
Bruce hesitated. He thought it was too early for this, for Tony to come out, but if it was just S.H.I.E.L.D., they might be able to reason with Fury. After all, the Director had been the one in favor of the Avengers before they were even put together and pitted against Loki, which meant he might be able to see the added advantage of Tony’s condition; his strengths in a fight were no longer confined inside a suit of armor, if they managed to tame the beast and make sure it didn’t get out of hand.
Ironically, it was what Bruce had been trying to do with the other guy for a long time. Perhaps this could be considered some form of therapy, especially if they succeeded.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. prompted again, no doubt to gain further orders from Tony or Bruce.
“Have you informed the others?” Tony asked.
“Tell them,” Tony ordered. “No need to spook anyone, and if we can keep damages to a minimum, that would be nice.”
“Very well, sir,” the AI responded, the latter part a hint that Tony didn’t want some kind of S.H.I.E.L.D. equivalent of a S.W.A.T. team smashing down his front door.
They left the lab, the doors locking behind them and lights going out. Bruce knew their data would be safe, whether Tony exposed himself today or not. There were various ways for this to play out: one was to simply admit that Tony was back. Another was to reveal what he had become, and the two were completely separate things, for a very different audience; Bruce knew they shouldn’t tell everyone they came across about Tony’s condition.
When they got up to ground floor, the other Avengers had already gathered near the front door, in full gear, ready for action.
“I’m pretty sure we can head them off,” Clint started.
“I want to talk to Fury,” Tony stated before anyone else could offer a solution.
“Might have been easier to call him than wait for him to send people over,” Clint raised an eyebrow, his facial expression unchanged. “I’m not sure they came down here in numbers to ask nicely.”
“Would they court war with us?” Thor asked, frowning.
“They want answers,” Steve replied, pulling his cowl over his face. “We’ll tell them we want to see Fury.”
“Assuming he’s here,” Natasha cut in.
“J?” Tony called out.
“Director Fury is with the convoy which will reach the grounds within four minutes.”
“Problem solved,” Tony noted.
“Ms. Potts is with him, sir.”
Bruce looked at Tony in time to see him pale a fraction and twitch nervously. “Couldn’t you have told me that earlier?” Tony hissed at the AI. “I don’t have enough time to put on the suit!”
“Why would you greet Lady Pepper in such a fashion?” Thor asked.
“Because she’s going to bust my balls for not telling her I was back,” Tony replied, still twitching a bit. “If she doesn’t kill me first.”
“Drama queen,” Clint muttered and opened the door, stepping out, bow in hand.
“You knew she would be mad,” Natasha informed Tony. “Why didn’t you tell her you were back?”
“I… wasn’t ready,” Tony replied uncomfortably.
Bruce laid a hand against the small of Tony’s back, feeling the tremors ease a little. Tony gave him a quick look of thanks, leaning just slightly into the touch, allowing it to ground him. “Well, let’s go out and meet them, then. I’m sure she’ll like it better if you don’t try and hide behind the couch.”
Natasha smiled at his words and walked out ahead of them.
Tony merely rolled his eyes but didn’t argue with Bruce’s statement.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up suddenly, “Colonel Rhodes is going to touch down in forty seconds.”
“Rhodey’s here?” Tony blinked. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“He was flying very fast, sir.”
“You’ve been hanging out with the bots too much,” Tony complained and strode out – and soon enough there was a roar of air and War Machine came soaring down from the sky, landing in front of the half-circle of Avengers. The faceplate snapped up almost angrily and James Rhodes’ dark eyes narrowed.
“You,” he snapped, pointing at Tony. “What the fuck, Tony?! How long have you been back? Everyone told us you were lost on some alien planet and that you were probably dead –”
“Not dead!” Tony shouted and pointed at himself as if that was proof enough. “Got back about a… week ago, and needed to get my bearings. So sorry, Rhodey-bear.”
“Don’t call me that,” Rhodes snapped, still looking angry. “Do you know how Pepper felt when Director Fury called her? That it had to come from the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. that you’re probably alive and crash landed to Earth on some alien ship.”
“You’re blowing this way out of proportion,” Tony attempted to cut in again. “I was going to call, or maybe send an email.”
Rhodey glared at him. “I should knock some sense into your head, right now,” he threatened, and seeing as he was wearing the suit, it might become more than just an ordinary knock on the head.
“Please don’t,” Tony said, his voice dropping a bit. “You might not enjoy that.”
“True,” Thor joined in unexpectedly. “Our friend’s condition has yet to be determined.”
“Condition?” Rhodey asked, just as several black SUVs pulled into the driveway. Doors opened and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents spread out around them, all of them tense and ready for trouble, but they weren’t holding guns, which was smart.
“I’m kind of a werewolf these days,” Tony muttered and Rhodey tilted his head slightly, probably not catching the words.
“Tony!” a cry cut through the air like a physical thing and suddenly Pepper Potts was there, in one of her immaculate suits and heels that definitely garnered respect from anyone around her. She strode forward, an angry flush on her face – and yet she was trembling, probably on the verge of collapse. “You have ten second to explain to me why I didn’t know you were back.”
“Ten seconds is awfully little time –” Tony started.
“Eight seconds,” she snapped back.
“I needed to handle things.”
“Handle things?!” Pepper shouted and actually swung out with her purse, hitting Tony’s shoulder with it. “For the last year, I’ve been a nervous wreck. We didn’t know whether to have a burial, say you’re missing or that you were coming back! I handled everything – the company, our friends, the investors – trying to soften the blow, and you just decide not tell me you’re back!?”
Tony cringed back, nostrils flaring. “Can we go inside and leave the shouting out of this?”
“I’m not done!” Pepper screamed at him, and she looked closer to turning into some half-animal beast than Tony probably felt.
“Ms. Potts,” a familiar voice called out, “if I may interrupt.” Fury walked over to them, in his customary clothing that had to be insanely hot in the Malibu sun.
“You may not,” Pepper pointed a finger at him, and Bruce was a little surprised the purse didn’t go flying again. “If you knew there was a chance he was back, why didn’t you call me before today?”
“We didn’t have confirmation,” Fury started.
“You told me he was dead!”
“That was a strong possibility,” Fury replied, then gave Tony a look as if he blamed him for coming back and being alive while doing so.
“Maybe we should step inside,” Steve cleared his throat. “We have iced tea,” he offered next.
“I’ll have a drink,” Pepper snapped and strode in past them, not failing to smack Tony with her purse again.
“That was pleasant,” Rhodey commented from the side and began to follow Pepper, a bit awkward in the suit.
“I was going to tell you, eventually,” Tony informed the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. as if that gave him absolution.
“And when would that have been?” Fury asked as he followed them in.
“When we were ready,” Bruce replied for Tony.
Fury gave him a look – a long, searching one – then looked around the living room as Clint came in last, closing the door, leaving the agents outside. “Alright,” Fury went on then, “there better be an explanation.”
“He is infected,” Thor began.
“Can we not use that word?” Tony complained. “It sounds like I’m full of parasites.”
“Well, for lack of a better term,” Bruce started, but softened the jibe with a brush of his hand against Tony’s backside as he settled to stand beside him.
“Infected?” Rhodey asked.
Tony shrugged, looking around the room. “For reasons you all can probably understand, since you’re not stupid, this information can’t leave this room.”
Pepper’s eyes narrowed from where she was opening one of the expensive looking bottles of scotch and poured herself a drink.
Tony cleared his throat. “You may have heard that we ran into alien werewolves on that cozy little moon,” he began, then looked at Pepper and Rhodey. “Or not. Well, that’s what happened, and I got scratched – which leaves us where we are.”
“Which is?” Rhodey pressed.
“Me being a little hairier occasionally,” Tony shrugged, but the motion was hardly as nonchalant as it was meant to be.
“Just come out and say it,” Fury demanded.
Tony sighed deeply, dramatically, although it hid the nervous exhale perfectly. “I’m a werewolf,” he stated. “Not… like in the films or books, but pretty close, and we needed to ascertain certain facts before I was willing to step into the midst of the general public. Or tell the world I’m back.”
“You’re joking, right?” Rhodes let out a short, nervous laugh, looking at the other people in the room. Save for Pepper, who appeared frozen in a state of shock, everyone else was grim-faced. “A werewolf,” he repeated. “Seriously?”
Tony shrugged again, arms crossed over his chest – a sign that he wanted to shrink and hide. Most days Tony couldn’t say the words; couldn’t admit to himself what he had become, regardless of the acceptance that had been forced down his throat during his time away. Here, on Earth, he was Tony Stark, and to bring the wolf here with him while he adjusted back to his old life was like trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.
“Are you… okay?” Pepper finally asked, her composure now completely wiped of anger and replaced by concern. She had taken care of Tony for years, seen him struggle as Iron Man, so it was easy to fall back to that instead of holding onto the newer feelings of anger.
“I will be,” Tony reassured, and gave Bruce a brief look. “We’re working on understanding the mechanics of the wolf, and… in time…” He didn’t finish, looking uncertain.
“You’re contagious, though, right?” Fury clarified.
“Don’t make me bite you,” Tony shot back at him, the walls coming up around him, to shelter him from a possible threat.
“Just making sure,” Fury mused. “For the time being, we’ll be able to hold off most interested parties. It isn’t common knowledge that you’re back. When the time comes, however…”
“We’ll deal with it,” Bruce said before anyone else could. “One way or another.”
“He’s still an Avenger,” Steve spoke up from the opposite side of the room. He was still in full uniform, shield on his arm, and there was no doubt this was Captain America speaking. “He’s still Iron Man, and he’ll take his place next to us when he’s ready. Anyone who wants a piece of him – a piece of the wolf – has to come through the rest of us first.”
Rhodey nodded, and it may have been odd that he agreed, since he wasn’t an Avenger himself, if not for the armor he was wearing. It may have not been official, but War Machine was a reserve-Avenger at best, after all his collaboration with Tony and wearing one of his suits.
Pepper let out a sniffle from her place on the couch, and Tony slowly walked over to her, sitting down and taking her in his arms. Pepper turned into the embrace and held him tightly, getting the long months of doubt and confusion out of her system. “I’m still mad at you,” she finally said as she straightened up and finished the rest of her drink
“I know,” Tony admitted. “But I still would have done the same.”
“Of course you would have,” Pepper huffed and slowly got to her feet. “Check your messages. I’ll be sending over a lot of work. You owe me.” Then she looked at Fury pointedly. “I need a ride back to the office. I have a meeting in two hours.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Fury nodded and gave the rest of the people a quick look. “I expect you to be in contact soon,” he said to no one in particular.
“Yes, sir,” Steve replied.
As the door closed, Rhodey shifted slightly, looking at Tony who was currently pouring himself a drink in Pepper’s abandoned glass. “What are they going to call you in the future?” he mused. “Iron Claws?”
Tony shot him a glare. His left hand suddenly began to morph and when he raised a middle finger in Rhodey’s direction, while drinking calmly, there was one very intimidating looking claw pointing towards the ceiling.
That cut off Rhodey’s commentary pretty effectively.
In their world, you didn’t bat an eye at a lot of things.
Not after a while.
“I’ve lost eyes on target,” Clint called out through the comm.
“Stark’s on him,” Natasha’s reply came in fast.
Steve kept running down the alley parallel to the direction he thought their criminal of the evening was headed – the last member of a group they had stopped in the middle of some new bio-chem weapon exchange. Further ahead, he heard a clatter of metal; probably a trash can falling over. He sped up.
Somewhere above, on the roof of the building next to him, he heard the distinctive scratch of nails.
Just then Steve caught a glimpse of the runner on the ground, and a flash of clothed fur and muscle coming down the building wall, small chunks of the brick falling like dust in the aftermath of Tony’s descent to street level.
“Big guy’s getting closer,” Clint reported, meaning the Hulk.
Steve slowed down, shield ready, but he wanted to see how this played out.
The runner shouted, throwing a rock at the advancing beast; Tony’s bone and muscle structure was slightly different in this form, unrecognizable unless you spent time looking at him. Between the eyes, teeth, and claws, you didn’t stop looking for familiar, human features. The clothing he was wearing, specifically designed for this, hid the arc reactor from view.
Steve could see the ears, flat along the head, tail tense, and then Tony lunged, seizing the man by the throat and lifting him up as if he weighed nothing. The claws didn’t draw blood, however, despite the struggling of their villain.
In his attempt to escape, the man kicked Tony in the gut. With an annoyed snarl, Tony flung the guy to the side, scratching at his lower ribs to remove the ache. The man, in the meanwhile, struggled against disorientation to get up to his feet, managing a half crawl.
Steve decided it was time to step in and walked over. “End of the line, mister,” he told the villain.
“Please,” the man croaked, crawling over and latching onto his legs as if Captain America were a safe haven. “Save me.”
Steve raised an eyebrow – an expression lost beneath the cowl – then glanced up at Tony. For lack of a better word, he could call him a werewolf, although the transformation wasn’t complete. All the hints were there, though, and the wolf’s eyes stared back at him before Tony snorted derisively.
Their S.H.I.E.L.D. back-up arrived soon to take away the last of the criminals. The man knew how fortunate he was, babbling his thanks that he didn’t become the beast’s next dinner.
“That’s almost cute,” Clint noted as he arrived on the scene with Natasha. “Soon they won’t want to leave the safety of the prison for fear of becoming the Wolfman’s next meal.”
Tony growled, clearly not liking the nickname. However, he needed some kind of name if he planned on joining the ranks of the Avengers in this form more often, but Steve had decided to give him time for that decision. For now, it was a matter of exercise: to see how far his restraint went and where the wolf began to take over. So far, things had been good.
A crash further down the alley heralded the approach of the Hulk, and soon enough the green beast shoved his way over to them, banging his fists on garbage cans and against building walls. When he saw them – or rather, Tony – the Hulk grinned. “Good Puppy,” he praised, moving over to pet Tony’s head.
Tony growled even lower, shoving at the large green hand. He hated it when the Hulk insisted on calling him that, but Steve suspected he didn’t mind it all that much, seeing as he didn’t threaten to bite the rage monster. Clint, however, had received many such threats whenever he came up with a suitable name for the wolf.
“The criminals have all been contained,” J.A.R.V.I.S. announced through their comm signal. “There is, however, some kind of robbery going on in New Jersey, including high-tech gear.”
Tony’s ears twitched and he began to shrink visibly: first, to a more human-like version of the wolf, which he sometimes used when relaxing to let Bruce caress his ears or tail – a sight which was oddly domestic whenever someone stumbled upon them – and then to a completely human shape. Once that was accomplished, he stretched his neck and shoulders and adjusted the specifically designed earpiece. “Bring in the suit,” he ordered, and soon enough an Iron Man armor soared above them, landing in front of Tony with surprising grace, considering that the AI was doing the driving. “Let’s go catch some baddies,” Tony told the others and turned around, stepping inside the suit as it opened at the front to allow him in, locking around Tony’s body once he was in position.
“You heard the guy,” Steve ordered after a bit.
“Hulk is still faster than metal man,” the Hulk proclaimed.
“Oh yeah? Game on, then, big guy,” Tony challenged and took off into the air, the Hulk following with a mighty jump.
“Captain,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said in Steve’s ear, “Mr. Odinson will join you at the robbery site. He has once again managed to render his communication device inoperable and was held up while stopping an auto theft a few blocks away.”
“How did you get a hold of him?” Steve asked.
“I called the phone nearest to him and asked the person in possession of said phone to hand it over to Mr. Odinson,” the AI explained.
Steve shook his head and moved to strap his shield on his back. This was an average ‘slow night’ in the life of the Avengers. They might not fight supervillains every day, but there was still a chance for disaster if Tony forgot what a sore loser the Hulk was. That crisis could be averted if Tony let the Hulk beat him to the New Jersey crime scene – or allowed the sulky rage monster to pet his ‘Puppy’ on the way home. He wasn’t certain which was more likely to take place, but Tony was a genius and likely to figure it out on his own.