Making his choice, Tony moved away from the door and tried to map the quickest route to the elevator. With pure, iron will, he forced himself towards it, leaning on walls, tables and doors as he went, to take the weight off his left leg. Finally he discovered an office chair with wheels and tugged it along, leaning his weight on it as he kept hopping forward, trying not to lose his balance. He was too far to hear if Bruce had already gotten out of the research room. Tony could do the math on a good day, but right now he was content with ‘probably’ and tried moving faster.
The chair eventually slipped from his grasp and he fell forward, hard, almost breaking his wrist as he collided with the hard floor. Swallowing a curse, his face still throbbing, he glared at the chair that rolled forward a bit before stopping, taunting him.
When Tony had first gotten to his feet at the lab, adrenaline had been drowning out the pain. Now, he was getting scared, could feel every little injury, and he was running out of time and strength.
With desperation, however, came a new epiphany: he saw a door on his left, a few doors down, labeled ‘generator room’. He might not get to the elevator, which was still painfully far away, but he could shut down the power, permanently, and lock them both down here.
Struggling onto one knee was absolute torture. Tony breathed heavily and had to admit that he wouldn’t hear Bruce running down the hall until the other man caught up with him. However, when he finally struggled his way up to his feet and limped over to the wayward chair, he could still see no sign of the other man.
Tony made his way to the generator room, finding the door ajar, and slipped inside. Clearly the S.H.I.E.L.D. technicians had been here, and Tony had no trouble locating where to shut off the main power. As darkness engulfed everything but the emergency lights marking the exits, Tony wrecked the control board beyond salvation. It took him longer than he would have liked, with no tools but his hands and a piece of metal he managed to pry off the side of one of the machines – which also made too much noise for his liking.
If anyone tried to get in or out of here, it was going to take a while.
Of course, it also meant Tony was stuck down here with Bruce, and wasn’t that a nice thought.
Belatedly he considered the possibility that there could have been some kind of landline operating here, to maintain communication with upstairs, seeing as the signal was nonexistent, but it was too late to try that option. Tony felt like knocking his head against the wall in frustration, but seeing as his jaw was still swinging back and forth on the edge of a bearable level of pain, he refrained from doing that.
Outside, Tony suddenly heard the chair he had been using as a crutch hit a wall. His breath caught in his throat and desperate fear took over him. Frantically, he squeezed in between large machines that usually controlled air ventilation in the facility, wondering if he could just hide there, unnoticed in the dark.
“Tony?” Bruce’s voice called out and the door to the generator room was slammed open, metal colliding against the wall. “I know what you’re doing. Doesn’t matter: it just makes it easier for me to find you when you can’t get out, either. Did you think of that? Is the pain clouding your judgment – or are you making the hero’s sacrifice? Must be feeling great, throwing your life away…”
Tony squeezed his eyes shut, forcing himself to breathe lightly, knowing that holding his breath would just lead to an involuntary gasp.
He could barely hear Bruce moving around the room, probably investigating the destroyed control board. Tony could imagine the man running his fingers over it, feeling the damage. Perhaps that same, lazy smile was etched on his lips as when he had looked down at Tony’s bleeding form on the floor of the lab…
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” Bruce taunted him softly, making a shiver run down Tony’s spine – a shiver that turned into a steady, tingling burn, as if someone had stuck a live wire inside him.
Fucking finally! Tony felt like screaming in relief, but instead he kept quiet and tried to cram himself a little deeper into his hiding place. He could see small patches of his skin lighting up with an orange glow as Extremis finally kicked in, attempting to heal his injuries.
“You know this is pointless, this game of hide and seek,” Bruce went on conversationally. “Eventually, I’ll find you, so how about you come out now so I can break your other leg for you?” He finished the statement by clanging something metallic against one of the machines, making Tony jump a little. The left side of his face was heating up, as was his left knee, and he tried turning his body so that if Bruce happened to pass by, the orange glow would be harder to spot.
For a long time, there was no other sound: no more words, no more striking of objects. Tony couldn’t tell whether Bruce was still in the room or if he had left. The rush of his own blood intensified in his ears, diminishing his hearing, and his eyes searched the darkness for any clue of the other man’s location.
Finally the burn subsided in his body, leaving only a tingling sensation, and Tony tested placing some of his weight on his damaged leg. It still hurt, but it was manageable; same with his jaw, which he could actually move again. Extremis would keep working on the injuries at a slower rate, having dealt with the worst of them, and Tony probably should check himself into a hospital once this was over.
When this was over.
Slowly, he crept out of his hiding place. The nearest exit light was by the open door; he could hardly see it. Clearly the emergency power was barely sufficient to keep those lights on, leaving the rest of the space in deep shadows. Taking a step, then another, Tony crept towards the door, looking this way and that, trying to spot Bruce. Perhaps the man had decided he was no longer in the generator room and had moved on. Perhaps he would methodically search the whole place, and Tony could keep eluding him while coming up with a way to snap Bruce out of it. Or, maybe whatever was in Bruce’s system would eventually run out of juice, and all Tony needed to do was play for time.
Tony looked around again, nearing the door. Soon he would have to risk open ground and make a run for it. If Bruce was still somewhere in the generator room, perhaps Tony could try and lock him in again.
With a few more steps, he cautiously poked his head out from between machines. He could see nothing and no one. His heart beat frantically in his chest. He leaned his weight forward to sprint into action, body shaking a little with the dread and anxiousness. Tony kept telling himself ‘go’, but his body wouldn’t move, knowing all too well that blowing his cover would lead to another chase, and he didn’t know the layout of the place, nor the places to hide, or the perfect escape route.
Air moved behind him and he froze for a half of a second before a hand fisted in his hair and wrenched his head to the side, hard against the side of one of the machines. The attack threw Tony off, and then hands reached around him, a solid, hard weight coming to press on his throat and yanking him backwards against his attacker’s body.
“Here you are,” Bruce’s soft words caressed Tony’s ear as the man pressed something – possibly the crowbar – harder against Tony’s neck, not holding back. “You should have ran while you had the chance, Tony. Now, it will get ugly – but I’m sure you knew that.”
Unable to breathe, to think, to escape, Tony did the only thing his body was hard-wired to do: he fought. Legs braced against the floor, his last thought was to dislocate Bruce’s hold on the object that was preventing him from drawing air by crushing his windpipe; his hand lashed out, grabbing at something it could reach, landing on Bruce’s wrist. Tony could feel his bare skin and the strain of muscles as the other man held him captive.
“Shh,” Bruce soothed him. “It will be over soo-argh!” His last word melted into a roar of pain as Tony felt uncontrolled heat course through his body; it wasn’t the lethargy of losing consciousness, which probably had been only seconds away, but Tony’s lizard brain activating Extremis.
Tony ignored the smell of burnt skin; he scrambled for freedom, elbowing Bruce and wrenching himself free, gulping in air and dashing for the door. He didn’t stop to throw it shut after him, didn’t dare waste the time it would take. His foot almost hit the chair he had used earlier as he sprinted past it, down the hallway and in the opposite direction from the elevator, not knowing where he was going but anything was better than where he was now.
Behind him, he could hear muted footsteps as Bruce came after him. It was hard to tell how close he was, but Tony knew Bruce was a fast runner – he had spent so many years running from the military’s best trained men. There was no way Tony was outrunning Bruce in his current condition when he couldn’t do it on a good day.
Ahead of him, Tony could see pitch black darkness where the hallway came to an end: no turns, no stairs – no exit. Dead end. His brain panicked, and he chose a door at random. It was firmly locked. “Fuck!” he swore, panicking, and tried another, then another, finally landing upon one that he could open and slipped inside, then turned to close it, to lock it – only to find the reason why the door wasn’t locked in the first place: the lock hung out of a hole in the door, clearly broken by force.
Bruce’s footsteps drew nearer, easing from a run into a walk. Tony closed the door, as softly as he could, then tried to look for something to block it with. A simple chair sat at a simple desk, and he reached for it, pulling it over and crammed it under the handle. Knowing it was only a temporary solution, Tony looked around in the darkness, trying to figure out where he was. There was a large sink in the room, on the far end, the table and the chair, and a metal shelving unit loaded with items he couldn’t make out in the dark. He moved over to it, frantically going over the canisters, boxes and containers.
A knock came from the door, almost making him drop the jar he had been looking at. “Everything okay in there?” Bruce asked. The handle moved before it was stopped by the chair. Tony could just hear Bruce’s sigh. “So, we’re doing this again? Just open the door and we’ll talk about it. I almost forgot about Extremis. I don’t think you told me you could utilize it like that, but you’ve always been inventive under the pressure. I’m sure, though, that you’re not going to be building a suit of armor in there.” Something slammed against the door, making it shiver.
Tony returned to checking the shelves, and finally came upon something with a familiar sign on it: a warning for corrosive substance. The label was faded and impossible to read in the dark, but Tony’s fingers clenched around the canister, his eyes falling on the door as something slammed against it for a second time.
It was entirely possible Bruce wasn’t coming out of this on his own. Tony was willing to bet that forcing him to Hulk-out was likely to snap Bruce out of it, seeing as any injury done to Bruce was instantly healed when the Hulk appeared. The gamma radiation in his blood should have already taken care of whatever it was, but a Hulk-out should finish the job.
In the calm state Bruce seemed to be in, completely unfazed by what he was doing, Tony didn’t think he could just talk him into letting the beast out.
The canister in his hands seemed heavy suddenly as he weighed his options.
It had gone quiet again. Perhaps Bruce had left to find a tool to open the door, and Tony could slip away. However, Bruce might just be waiting for him to come out again, and Tony wasn’t about to make himself into bait for a second time. So, he waited, searching the room for something else that might be of use, but finding very little. Some of the containers wouldn’t even open, having remained sealed for too long, and there was no other way out.
A slight scraping sound reached his ears and Tony looked towards the door. In the dark it was hard to see, but it looked like something straight and rigid was being pushed through the hole in the door where the lock was supposed to be. The object encountered the chair, prodded at it, then pushed at it. After a few tries, the chair tipped slightly, and the next time the handle of the door was pushed, the chair shifted further down, no longer forcing the door to remain shut.
Tony took an involuntary step back, feeling like a cornered animal.
The door was pushed open slowly and deliberately. Bruce clearly expected some kind of trap had been set for him, but nothing happened. Tony’s hand slowly unscrewed the lid of the container in his grip. The smell was somewhat familiar and he hoped his luck was finally turning.
Bruce shoved the door open the rest of the way, the chair falling to the side. He dropped the object he had used to the floor – the crowbar. Tony’s eyes followed it then returned to search Bruce’s face. “If you want to talk this out, this is your last chance,” Tony warned. “You’re not in your right mind, and I think it’s best for everyone if we work to get you back to normal.”
“You’re adorable,” Bruce almost cooed at him. “Come here and let me give you a hug.”
“So you can try and strangle me again?” Tony asked.
Bruce chuckled. “Caught me,” he said, lifting his hands as if in surrender. “What have you got there?” he asked, spotting the canister in Tony’s hands.
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Tony boasted, as if he held a great weapon of mass-destruction in his grip.
“Put it down and I promise I won’t try to break either of your legs,” Bruce offered.
“I have a lot of bones in my body that are not in my legs,” Tony countered. “I would rather you not break them, either.”
“You drive a hard bargain.”
“You’re not you,” Tony tried again. “Bruce, you need to listen to me. This isn’t… you would never do this!”
“Try to bash in your skull? Wanting you to drown in your own blood?” Bruce countered and took a step forward with each threat. “Oh, Tony. You have no idea of the things I want to do. Not to you – this is not personal – but you’re the only one here,” he said, gesturing at the room. “What else am I going to do?”
“Stop,” Tony suggested. He braced himself, tightening his hold on the canister, preparing himself. Once Bruce was close enough, he could not miss, and after that, he needed to get out because there was no telling how the Hulk would react to any of this.
There was also the small chance that whatever was affecting Bruce would affect the Hulk, but at least the big guy would end things quickly…
Tony wasn’t about to die just yet, though, and he watched Bruce weigh his options, his friend’s eyes looking at the canister again. In the dark, Bruce could not make out its contents any better than Tony had, and it seemed to bug him.
“Put it down,” Bruce repeated.
“Back off,” Tony countered. “We’ll lock you in the lab and see if we can’t straighten things out.”
“How are you going to do that?” Bruce asked, still conversational. “There’s just one of you, and one of that thing,” he nodded at the canister. “If whatever’s in it won’t do the trick, you’re all mine.”
“Then I won’t miss,” Tony gritted his teeth and lunged, thrusting the canister forward to spill the liquid inside it.
Bruce roared with pain almost instantly, hand coming up to cover his face. He doubled over in obvious agony and Tony dropped the canister, darting past the other man, taking the opportunity presented to him.
“Where do you think you’re going?!” Bruce screamed after him and Tony felt something grab his ankle, sending him down to the floor. He kicked back blindly, missing his target – all the while expecting to hear roars of rage, the popping of joints and the tearing of clothes. None of it came; Tony heard Bruce’s breathing, ragged and pained, and the grip on his ankle remained painfully tight.
Tony kicked again, catching something beneath his foot, and the fingers released him. Scrambling to his feet, Tony raced for the doorway, ignoring his sore palms or the fact that one of them was bleeding and possibly split open from hitting something on the floor. All that mattered was that he needed to get away, to give the Hulk time to get settled – or just hide somewhere until the monster was done raging and whatever was affecting Bruce had burned out.
He made it to the hallway, almost took the wrong turn towards the dead end, skidding around and towards the dark stretch ahead of him –
A weight collided against him from the side, throwing him down, and an arm reached around his throat, tightening quickly and pressing down on both sides of his throat. Spots began to appear in Tony’s field of vision in a matter of seconds and Tony twitched, raising a hand to claw at the arm holding him, but his body was no longer following his commands and his hand fell heavily onto the floor. He barely felt it.
“Easy,” Bruce said near his ear and the hallway grew darker until Tony could no longer see or feel…
Tony blinked, darkness heavy all around him. At first he wondered why the hell he was awake at a totally wrong hour, then a sound slowly reached his ears. It took him a while to place it: running water. His face was tingling a little, his body heavy but coming back to itself.
“Hey, sleeping beauty,” a familiar voice called out.
Tony blinked at the darkness and finally made out a shape in it – a man, standing nearby.
The sound was still there, filling him with hard-wired unease.
Bruce moved closer and crouched beside his head. Tony’s eyes were still adjusting and it was hard to see in the lack of light, but he was certain the man was smiling. Well, half-grimacing, it turned out, seeing as the left side of Bruce’s face was full of chemical burns. His eye… “If I was mean, I would make you lick the rest of the acid off the floor,” the man told him, pleasantly, like he was complementing Tony’s haircut. Bruce pointed at his damaged eye. “You owe me an eye, Tony. How do you think we’re going to work this out?”
Tony tried to get his body moving, to follow the last thought he’d had before Bruce tackled him – which was to run; to run and hide and never come out.
A rattling noise replaced the flow of water and Bruce looked up. “Looks like I just used up the rest of the water in the pipes,” he mused conversationally and rose to his feet, moving over to the sink on the wall and twisting the knob to close the flow of water, which had slowed down to a tiny dribble.
Tony tried rolling his body to the side, to get to his knees and then to his feet. He was almost there, his head clearing up fast and the control of his limbs returning, when Bruce returned, fisting one hand in the back of his hair and the other at his shirt, near the small of his back, hauling him up. All Tony could do was scramble along, the tight hold making his scalp sizzle with hot pain. He tried to alleviate that by leaning towards the hand, to follow it to a degree – then had his face plunged down into cool water.
Shock seized him by the balls. His hands scrabbled for purchase along the edge of the sink, to release himself, but Bruce’s hold was vicious, tightening, and as Tony tried pushing up with his legs and arms, he drew in an involuntary snort of water.
His mind was instantly back in Afghanistan, panic pooling inside him, and his body no longer knew what to do.
Bruce’s hand yanked his head up. Tony snorted out water, coughing, breathing in desperately. Air had never been so sweet in his lungs. “The thing about wearing your weaknesses visibly on your chest is, people will eventually figure them out,” Bruce told him. “Remember when you told me about this, Tony? When you confided in me, with your deepest, darkest fear? It wasn’t your chest carved open, the shrapnel digging into your heart. It was this,” the man whispered, and Tony knew it was coming before Bruce thrust his head back under.
He tried holding his breath and waiting it out. Eventually, though, he had no air left, and Bruce still wasn’t letting him up. Tension grew in his chest. Animal fear that had made him promise to build the Jericho missile clawed at him, but there was nothing he could promise Bruce. His fingers tried reaching up, finding Bruce’s hand holding his head, but he was getting weak and he had to breathe in, couldn’t take it anymore. His fingers dug into Bruce’s skin, clawing and desperate. The relentless pressure stayed in his lungs and Tony’s resolve broke: he breathed in and his entire body convulsed as water entered his mouth, nose, throat… His throat seized, to prevent water from entering his lungs, forcing him to try and cough it up, but with nowhere to go, he ended up swallowing the rusty-tasting water instead.
Tony wasn’t fully conscious of his face being dragged out of the water. He couldn’t breathe – then felt a firm weight pressing against his chest, insanely hard, and soon Tony was coughing up water and vomit, every fiber of his being needing to breathe. After the water no longer clogged up his nose, leaving it feeling gouged raw along with his throat, he smelled the sharp odor of his own urine.
“Cut that a little close, did we?” Bruce’s voice swam in his ears. The arms withdrew, leaving Tony kneeling on the floor, struggling to breathe. “It’s not as easy as it looks,” the other man noted – then suddenly seized Tony by the hair again, forcing him up. His legs barely carried him, but it was either that or risk losing more than a few strands of hair. “Practice makes the master,” Bruce mused, sounding satisfied with that – and thrust Tony’s face down and forward again.
Tony managed to cry out before he found his face in the water again. He wasn’t ready for the submersion and pulled in an involuntary mouthful of water. He struggled frantically for a few seconds, wanting to scream, to shout, but all of that threatened to drown him on the spot.
This time, Bruce pulled him back up sooner. Tony coughed violently, stomach clenching. His entire body was shaking with the shock and fear.
“Had enough?” Bruce asked him.
“Please,” Tony gasped. “I’ll do anything.”
“I’m sure you will,” Bruce stated emphatically. “I can smell the fear on you – the desperation for this to end. Do you know what the sweetest part is?”
Tony would have shaken his head if he could have, but Bruce’s hold on his hair prevented him from doing that.
“It ends when I choose it to.”
Tony caught Bruce’s half smile just before he felt himself being thrust down again. He keened in fear before his lungs felt like clamping down against the looming threat of water – and Tony suddenly found himself hovering just above the surface, the tip of his nose touching the water.
For someone who had never been forced to face a mock execution, this was cutting pretty close.
Tony sobbed, fingers curling around the edge of the sink. “Please,” he begged again. “Bruce, for fuck’s sake –”
Water covered his face as Bruce thrust him back down, this time for a bit longer, leaving Tony utterly helpless as he inhaled, coughed, and was pulled back again just on the brink of blacking out. Once again Bruce forced the water out of his system, and Tony didn’t even try to hold himself up anymore, hyperventilating and sobbing.
Bruce crouched beside him again and tilted Tony’s face towards him. “You’re the type of person who likes encores, right? One last time, with feeling.” He rose and his hand moved from Tony’s jaw to his hair.
“No, please,” Tony managed as he was hauled up like a rag doll. He tried to fight, to put his every limb between himself and the sink, but Bruce kicked his legs from under him and made him dive head-first into the water, holding his head down against the bottom.
Tony was certain this was it. He was tempted to just breathe in, to make it stop.
His fingers scraped the bottom of the sink, then encountered something. The stopper. In a mad effort to save himself, he pried the rubber object loose and felt a slight current against his fingers. The water wasn’t being drained fast enough, but Bruce suddenly yanked him up and threw him backwards across the room. Tony fell in an uncontrolled heap, the stopper still clutched in his fist.
“Clever boy,” Bruce mused, watching the water drain from the sink. “Did it take you this long to come up with that? Lucky for you, the pumps won’t work without power, so we’ll have to come up with something else to entertain ourselves.”
Tony tried crawling away and backed himself into the shelving unit, knocking over various things that fell on top of him. A few of the glass containers shattered on the floor.
“Where’s my courageous hero now?” Bruce asked, prowling closer, taking his time.
Tony’s hand released the stopper, shaking madly, and tried to find something else – anything – to defend himself with. Bruce watched him with something bordering to amusement, like he was watching his favorite child playing with a new toy. Suddenly his smile dropped, as Tony’s fingers closed around something: a screwdriver.
Their eyes met, and Bruce strode forward, clearly aiming to kick Tony’s arm and force him to let go of the tool. Tony dodged, rolling to the side, then swung half-blindly, with all the strength he could muster. Post-survival, he was desperate rather than accurate, and the screwdriver hit Bruce in the thigh, sinking in.
The other man roared in pain and grabbed at the screwdriver. Tony let it go, getting up, not really feeling his legs but content that he was running and moving away from the danger. As he got to the door, he caught a quick glance at Bruce yanking the tool out of his thigh and blood running down freely, staining his borrowed pants. “Lucky shot, Stark!” he shouted after Tony. “When I find you, I’m going to shove this thing through your eye-socket!”
Tony didn’t doubt that, and it motivated him to move faster. Also, it was possible Extremis was triggered once again, pushing back the shock of drowning. Soon, it was clear Tony had no idea where he was going. He had no idea where he was, all the hallways looked the same, and at every turn he imagined he heard Bruce approaching, his leg miraculously healed.
“No,” he sputtered, stopping in a crossing of two hallways. He knew where he had come from, of course, but he had no idea which way to go – which way would be the least likely for Bruce to follow. He looked this way and that, feeling dizzy, then picked a direction at random because it was as good as any of the other choices.
Soon, he found himself at another dead end, and absolute defeat washed over him. He wanted to curl up in the last corner, sink down against the wall and have it all be over. It was tempting, his body running on fumes, but when he heard a sound of a slamming door somewhere further down the hall, his pounding heart forced him back into the game. Slowly, he turned, walking away from the dead end and chose another direction – not the one he had originally come from, he was fairly certain.
Tension kept his back straight, forced his legs from buckling. His fingers were curled into tight fists and he could still taste the water in his mouth. He could smell nothing, and his hearing was playing tricks on him.
He kept walking in a half daze until his foot hit something, almost toppling him over, and Tony looked down to see something that at first had to be an illusion: a gun case. Who would leave a gun case in the middle of the hallway?!
His mind grew suspicious. Perhaps it was a trap set by Bruce. If he opened it, something horrible would happen. His mind jumped back to the sink and the water in his nose. It was a surreal image, considering there was no more water and the gun case could in no possible way lead to that, but it made him shake all over again and almost continue walking in a frantic need to get away from it.
“Tony?” Bruce’s voice called from somewhere further off – from behind him, which meant Bruce hadn’t come by here. Which meant the gun case wasn’t a trap. Which meant…
Tony sank down on his knees, fingers attempting to find the locking mechanism. He traced a familiar eagle emblem of S.H.I.E.L.D. at the lid, then moved to the sides, and for a few second he feared there was a lock, a combination – something that would keep him from gaining access to the only hope he had left.
Bruce rounded a corner, face still calm. He was limping. “There you are,” he greeted the sight of Tony. “Now, see what you’ve done here? You hit an artery, you little bitch. It might not kill me, but I just decided how to end you,” he added and gave a dramatic pause.
Tony’s fingers finally found the opening mechanism of the case and yanked the lid open, finding four pistols and extra mags inside.
“I’m going to drown you in my blood. Now, we both know my blood is poisonous, so I think we’ll just have to wait and see which kills you first,” Bruce stated, moving closer.
Tony reached for one of the guns, slid the magazine inside, then loaded it on automatic. He wasn’t the best shot in the world – not with a gun like this – but his brain was beyond thinking and rationalizing, kicked into a full survival mode, and he lifted the gun towards Bruce.
The other man spotted the weapon and offered Tony a smile. “What are you going to do with the gun, Tony? Shoot me?”
Tony didn’t answer, jaw clenched. His arm shook, finger curling against the trigger.
“You’re not going to do that,” Bruce told him, moving steadily closer. “Give me the gun and I won’t shoot you with it.”
“I don’t want to do this,” Tony managed. He really didn’t. Bruce was his friend – but not this Bruce. Not the monster with a calm demeanor, soft voice and a smile that promised more of the water trying to enter his lungs. “I’m sorry,” Tony whispered, closed his eyes briefly, then opened them, aimed, and shot Bruce in the head. It was perhaps the best shot of his life, even from a close range, and Bruce dropped almost instantly – a marionette with its strings cut.
Tony sat there, gun in his hand, hiccupping slightly. His eyes were nailed on Bruce’s body, dreading his next movement.
Was he dead – or would he get back on his feet and come up with a new way to torture Tony?
His finger tightened against the trigger, ready to shoot again. Again and again until Bruce couldn’t get up and thrust his face under water.
When Bruce’s body twitched, Tony jumped as if someone had slapped him in the face, and without thinking he emptied the entire magazine into the other man’s body, panic making his entire body convulse.
The twitching stopped – then got worse as Bruce’s body expanded in all directions, growing greener. The sounds that followed were painful to listen to, but finally the Hulk groaned and knelt on the floor, looking disoriented. Tony’s hand squeezed around the gun, knowing that he wouldn’t have time to reload – knowing how fast the Hulk was.
Poisonous, green eyes regarded him.
“Please,” Tony whispered.
The eyes narrowed and a deep growl made the walls around them vibrate. Tony would have pissed his pants again if he had anything left in his bladder. As it was, he simply dropped the gun and sagged a little.
The Hulk got to his feet, barely able to stand up straight in the confined space. “Where?” the beast demanded, looking this way and that. “Where is enemy?” he demanded.
Tony blinked in confusion. “What?” he managed.
The Hulk stepped closer to him, poking one finger forward, but at the last second the monster halted, the finger never making contact with Tony’s body. “Someone hurt Tony,” the Hulk growled and looked up and down the hallway again.
Relief, Tony found, was the greatest drug in the world. He hoped he could bottle it and sell it, and he would never have to work another second in his life. Well, not that he had to now, either, but that was beside the point. “Enemy’s gone,” Tony told the rage monster and tried to stand up, failing miserably.
The Hulk frowned at him, looking up and down the hallway again as if doubting his word, then moved forward. Large, gentle hands gathered Tony from the floor, and he found himself pressed against the wide, green chest, in a protective cradle of one arm.
“We leave here now,” the Hulk decided, and all Tony could do was try and tell him there was an elevator shaft somewhere that they could climb to the surface. It took them a while to find it, the Hulk punching through several doors on the way there. It was obvious the rage monster wanted to smash something, but Tony was tight-lipped about who had attacked him: he knew the big guy and Bruce didn’t get along on the best of days, and this incident wasn’t going to help that.
Once they found the elevator, the Hulk put him down carefully, then ripped the doors protecting the shaft open and peered up. Deciding that was the way out, the Hulk came back and picked Tony up again, and the tattered remains of Tony’s pride didn’t even think to protest at being handled like a helpless dame.
The climb up was a blur; Tony kept clinging to the Hulk’s neck and shoulder, knowing that if he slipped, the big guy might not realize he had to catch Tony before he fell to his death. Whenever he could, the Hulk spared a hand to make sure that Tony was secure, though, and eventually they reached the top of the shaft – with the elevator sitting on top of them.
With a display of amazing acrobatics, the Hulk balanced himself in the shaft while tearing the bottom of the elevator wide open. It was a lucky thing no one was inside it.
Tony debated reaching up and climbing to safety, but the Hulk held onto him fast and tore the rest of the elevator free, pounding it into pieces and letting them fall down the shaft before easing his way up to the second set of doors and kicking them in – or out, Tony didn’t even know which was which at this point.
S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were greeting them on the outside, weapons trained at the Hulk the moment he appeared from the shaft. Tony could see his salvation stolen from him, and anger bubbled inside him. “Don’t shoot, you fucking morons! Just…” He was so exhausted he didn’t know how to insult them for sitting up here, all this time, while he fought for his life.
The agents hesitated, then someone stepped forward – Agent Hill. “Took you long enough,” she snapped at first, then froze. “What happened?”
“A little contamination and decontamination,” Tony explained, still holding onto the Hulk because he was convinced the big guy was his ticket out of this mess.
“Is it safe for you to –”
“Hill, I swear, if the next words out of your mouth include ‘quarantine’ or ‘examination’, I’ll personally tear your head from your shoulders. Or have the Hulk do it,” Tony threatened.
Hill’s face was unreadable for a moment, then she motioned for the other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to stand down. “I expect a full report on the events underground,” she told him.
“Keep on expecting it until the world ends,” Tony muttered. “Are you going to get us a ride home, or do I need to take care of that, too?”
“There’s a Quinjet ready for you,” Hill replied, clearly unhappy about all this. However, Tony knew no one was going to say ‘no’ to him when the Hulk was holding him like his beloved pet; no one took anything from the Hulk, ever.
“Glad we had this discussion,” Tony said dryly, then tapped the Hulk’s shoulder and the monster walked past the agents – completely naked, not that Tony took notice of such a trivial thing – and got them to the Quinjet.
When Tony got home – or more precisely, to the state-of-the-art safe-house Bruce was staying in – he crashed in bed and refused to get out of it even though he couldn’t sleep for more than a few minutes at a time. The idea of showering almost drove him into a panic attack, and Extremis was still acting up, which was the last nail in the coffin.
The Hulk kept pacing outside the bedroom door, growling and muttering to himself, but eventually things eased up and Tony managed to get some sleep.
When he woke up, he got out of bed unsteadily, disoriented and famished. Outside the bedroom door, the living room was a mess. Furniture had been tipped over, leaving the floor in a chaos of things that had fallen off said pieces of furniture, and the house was quiet. Too quiet.
“Big guy?” Tony called out hesitantly. “Hulk?”
There was no answer. Also, he noted, there was no Hulk-sized hole anywhere, but the rage monster usually wasn’t good at opening doors, so he couldn’t have just left through the extra wide back door Tony had installed just in case Bruce got big.
Tony’s throat tightened. He couldn’t breathe for a minute, but he told himself a simple truth in a steady mantra: Bruce got affected, he wasn’t himself; if Bruce was still a monster when he de-Hulked, Tony wouldn’t be standing there.
It wasn’t a comforting mantra, but it did the trick. Rationally, he knew Bruce hadn’t done any of those things to him, but wiping his brain clean of the images would be another matter entirely.
Tony checked the house, just to be sure he was alone, then stopped by a full-body mirror in one of the hallways. Something didn’t fit the picture there: the mirror was shattered, parts of the glass lying on the floor. The impact height, when Tony tested it, was on the same height as if he’d punched it, which meant the Hulk hadn’t done it. Also, there were balled-up tissues on the floor, stained with red, and the monstrosity that had worn Bruce’s face hadn’t bothered to clean up his own blood. Rather, he would have come over to the bedroom and drowned Tony in it, as promised.
“Fuck,” Tony murmured, closing his eyes, which didn’t help, but he returned to the bedroom and pulled on some clothes. He and Bruce were roughly the same size, so they fit. It seemed the crappy night of sleep had mostly healed Tony’s injuries, and he moved around with relative ease: he located his phone in the pocket of his jeans, abandoned on the bedroom floor. Tony didn’t linger on the clothes but checked the device, finding that it was still working, miraculously.
He made a call, looking around the room for the last time before leaving it.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied almost instantly.
“I need you to locate Bruce for me.”
“A moment, please.”
“I’ll hold,” Tony said pointlessly and walked out of the house, rounding it to get to the garage where his car was waiting – or should have been waiting, but it was now gone. “J,” he said to the phone, “track my car. I have a feeling we’ll find our wayward scientist that way.”
“Very well, sir.”
“And get me my suit.”
“Deploying Mark 43.”
Tony leaned against the wall, closing his eyes. He knew there was an inevitable shit-storm coming from S.H.I.E.L.D. he needed to deal with, somehow. He wasn’t sure whether they would believe him if he said Bruce was harmless now – especially when Tony wasn’t sure he believed it.
A faint roar from the sky heralded the arrival of his newest suit. It wasn’t complete yet, but J.A.R.V.I.S. had done a nice job at putting together the last pieces in Tony’s absence. The armor landed a few feet in front of him and opened up, allowing Tony to slip inside. It closed around him, tight but not suffocating, and the HUD came up with a location marked on it.
“The current location of your car, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. noted unnecessarily. It wasn’t too far away – certainly not behind the Mexican or Canadian border, which would have been Tony’s first and second guesses. “Satellite imagery pinpoints Dr. Banner on location.”
“If he moves, keep me posted,” Tony ordered, then took off at a rather slow speed. It took him seven minutes to reach Bruce, almost fifty miles away from the house – an entirely too short of a time, if someone asked Tony, because he had no idea what to do once he was face to face with the man again.
Bruce looked like hell, seated on the bare ground a dozen feet from the car in the middle of nowhere, a couple miles from the nearest decent road. He looked up and over his shoulder at Tony’s arrival, expression disappointed. “You shouldn’t be here,” he stated and looked away again.
“What can I say: you stole my ride,” Tony told him, forcing himself to step out of the suit. It was a comforting thought it would be standing there, waiting, in case something happened. Nothing is going to happen, Tony told himself adamantly.
“You got yourself another one, I see.”
“My options were kind of limited.”
“I thought you were in-between suits,” Bruce reminded him.
“Well, this one is still missing the decorative paint,” Tony shrugged and took a step closer, then halted. “Are you just going to sit there, moping, or are we going to talk about this?”
Bruce’s back tensed. He was wearing what Tony liked to call his ‘runaway wardrobe’ – the kind that was meant to make him blend in. Not that he would blend in anywhere driving one of Tony’s cars. “I can remember it, you know,” Bruce mused, sounding like he didn’t want to speak at all but couldn’t help himself. “The urge to… break you, for no reason. Just because you were there. The thrill of the hunt, chasing you like you were an animal… I remember holding you under the water.”
That made Tony shudder, but he forced himself to stay still, to not back off into the armor.
“I remember you asking me to stop. I remember not wanting to, because I knew I could go on forever – even past when you would break.” Bruce’s voice had turned hollow but it was still nothing like the sweet promises of pain, agony and horror he’d made just a few hours ago in the underground base.
“It wasn’t you,” Tony told him, willing himself to believe it.
“Not this time,” Bruce corrected, standing up quickly – too quickly, making Tony jump and back off. The armor opened up at his proximity but Tony caught himself, stopping, not entering the cocoon that would have protected him had it been available to him down there. Bruce watched him, eyes still alert and seeing everything. That same calmness was there, although it was fractured now, frayed at the edges. Then, his expression turned pained, like he wanted to get physically ill. “They keep saying the other guy is the monster, but they never think of where all that rage comes from. All that violence.”
“That wasn’t the Hulk I saw in there,” Tony told him, flatly. That much he knew, for sure.
“No, but there’s this dark place in me where…” Bruce didn’t finish, but he did double over, looking like he was going to throw up after all. “I can’t get it out of my head,” he finally confessed, voice choked. “I’m afraid if I dwell on it, the next thing I know I’ll be on you again, and this time, I won’t stop.”
“You won’t,” Tony told him, but he wasn’t sure who he was trying to convince – himself or Bruce. “I know it wasn’t you – neither of you. Just because you’ve got a little angst crammed in that head of yours doesn’t mean you’re going to go crazy on me without a little extra boost from some mad scientist’s home lab.”
Bruce slowly straightened, swallowing convulsively. “I’m going to leave,” he said.
“Run away, you mean.”
“Doesn’t matter what you call it.”
“You think you’re doing me a favor, but you’re not,” Tony told him. “I’ll come after you. I’ll find you. No matter where you run, no matter how deep you dig yourself. The world needs the Hulk to be one of the Avengers, and in order for that to happen, you need to be here.”
Bruce gave him a tight, empty smile. “And when you give S.H.I.E.L.D. the report of what happened down there? Or when they figure it out on their own?”
“It wasn’t you, and nothing you say can convince me otherwise. Besides, if you do go bat-shit crazy one day, I think you owe it to me to let me finish you off, once and for all.” Tony still remembered pulling the trigger, over and over. He wanted to get sick at the memory. He had tried to kill the monster – had killed the monster – but it had still felt like he had killed his friend, too. “In the meanwhile, I need you to be here, Robert Bruce Banner; you’re indirectly responsible for the worst experience of my entire fucking life and there’s no excuse in the world that’s going to let you escape sitting down in a chair and listening to me pour my heart out about it.”
There were, possibly, tears in Tony’s eyes. Relief and fear were still clear in his mind, warring over the control of his body.
Bruce’s expression shattered, briefly, and he nodded jerkily, looking away. “You’re going to regret this. I’m not…”
“That kind of doctor, I know,” Tony confessed. “But you’re a good listener.”
Bruce smiled ruefully, still not looking at Tony. There had to be something really interesting on the horizon and Tony looked in the same direction, yet found nothing at all; just a blank canvas with a few scattered clouds. Tony wished his life was more like that, wiped clean of all the smudges, tears and damage. He had thought he had managed that, blowing up the suits, not being Iron Man for a while, but he couldn’t flush all the accumulated crap down the drain, apparently, so this was what they had left.
“Let’s go,” Tony urged.
Bruce nodded, tearing his eyes off the sky and meeting Tony’s gaze hesitantly. “You know you’re the most insane person I’ve ever met, right? Keeping me in your life after all this.”
“Keep your friends close,” Tony cited the first part of an old truth, but he really didn’t mean it.
Or maybe he did.