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Del Rion [userpic]

Compartmentalized (2/2)

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- - -

They kept walking after a pitifully meager breakfast that Tony only touched because he was starving. As he stared at Bruce’s back, Tony wondered – not for the first time – if Bruce had been this tireless back when he was running from Ross and the military – and his own bottled-up green demon. Bruce couldn’t outrun the Hulk, though, and perhaps that was why he had stopped running in the end, settling into a life Tony happily helped to provide.

Something must have happened. Up until the day Bruce asked Tony to come on this trip with him – a trip that was starting to seem a lot different from what had been advertised – Bruce had appeared completely happy with his life.

Tony wished he knew what had triggered this so that he could take care of it and return them to his comfort zone, but he was stuck here in between a million trees and Bruce’s unwillingness to explain.

Hours went by, mind-numbing and offering little deviation from Tony’s musings. The trees all began to look the same, no paths or signs suggesting that anyone else had ever been here, and that was disquieting. Was Bruce planning on walking them to death, to starve them out here in the wild?

They took a few breaks during their walk, once to test a small spring that Bruce deemed good for washing but not drinking, and then to get some rest and a little bit to eat. It seemed their diet was limited to things dried and labeled with extraordinarily far-off expiration dates, which didn’t inspire salivation.

“At least the beans were warm in the cave,” Tony muttered as he shoveled a spoonful into his mouth.

“We can’t risk making a fire,” was Bruce’s response. He did look apologetic, however, and Tony fed on that more than the cold beans.

As they set out again, Tony tried to devise ways to guilt Bruce into telling him why they were here and why it was so important Tony tagged along. It would have been convenient to ditch him at the start line, but for some reason Bruce had gotten him this far, and Tony felt a bit manipulated.

Perhaps if he fell and broke his leg… That would force them to stop walking, but it would also be incredibly painful. He could think of something else; it wasn’t as if he were busy doing anything else than thinking.

Dusk was closing in when they came across a tiny clearing and a shack sitting in the middle of it. The place looked dark and uninviting, but to Tony it was like a palace after the night sleeping on the tarp that would have been uncomfortably small had Bruce decided to lie down as well.

“A cabin in the woods,” Tony mused. “This place better not be haunted or sitting atop some holy burial ground,” he added and set off towards it.

He feared Bruce would insist that they move on, but surprisingly enough the other man followed him to the dingy little shack. It had certainly seen better days, but its roof seemed whole and there were four standing walls.

Tony rounded the building, leading the way for a change, Bruce following him. He checked the windows, most of which were boarded shut, dusty glass peeking through the narrow gaps. The walls seemed solid enough, no cracks or holes, and when he got to the door, there was a padlock keeping it shut. There were no signs of life, though, or any indication that anyone had been using the place.

“There’s a well,” Bruce noted, pointing at a heap of rocks set in a circular formation. “I’ll check if it works.”

Tony guessed that left him in charge of breaking into the shack; if there was a chance to sleep indoors, he was going to take it. His back had been aching all day from sleeping on the ground and the cold was seeping into his bones. As he set down his bag and inspected the padlock, he reminded himself of the reality of the situation: the inside of the shack could be a rodent-infested nest of horror, with an old bed frame falling apart and faded pictures and dusty animal heads depicting some long forgotten, macabre hunting tradition.

However, it was indoors and he was about to take a chance on it, because he had already tried sleeping on the forest floor and would rather not repeat the experience when he had an alternative. After all, seeing as Bruce seemed driven to take them further and further from civilization, Tony doubted he would get a roof over his head on most nights.

After testing the lock’s sturdiness, Tony looked around for tools to open it. He ended up tugging free a loose nail from the shack’s wall and using that as a makeshift lock pick to force the old lock to open, struggling for quite a bit and wishing, not for the first time, that he had a repulsor on him to blast the damn thing. Of course, one blast could also level the shack, which he didn’t want.

The lock eventually yielded to his furious desire to get inside, opening with a scraping whine, and Tony pulled the lock off the door triumphantly – then slid the nail back into its hole in the wall, not wanting to risk it if that was the only thing holding the shack together.

Giddy with expectant dread like a kid on Christmas morning, Tony looked over at Bruce. The other man was by the well, bent as far over it as he could without falling in. Judging by his expression, the well was not operational, but Tony wasn’t going to sleep in the well so he didn’t particularly care about that. “The door’s open!” he called out loudly, whirling the padlock around his finger.

Bruce straightened and looked back at him, nodding. He picked up his bag and walked over, prompting Tony to turn and finally open the door to what could either be the best thing that had happened on this trip so far, or a horrible deathtrap of mold and critter droppings.

The shack was dark, the barred windows barely letting in any light. The lack of light was fortunate, seeing as light coming anywhere other than the open doorway and the gaps in the covered windows would have meant unwanted holes in the walls or the roof.

It felt almost like his luck was turning.

Tony cautiously stepped inside, waiting for the floor to cave in beneath him and dash his hopes. In that same instant he realized he was losing his optimism and becoming Bruce, which made him take another bold step, creaky floorboards be damned, and walk in like he owned the place.

“It’ll do,” he decided. The smell wasn’t horrible and there was an actual bed on the back wall, near a fireplace. The mattress was propped up against the bedframe, dirty looking and worn out but not littered with holes that would indicate something lived in it. There were a few shelves on the walls, dusty tools and dishes sitting on them.

Tony went to inspect the bed while Bruce moved around the shack, probably doing a more worthwhile investigation of the structure of the building.

“We should stay here tonight,” Bruce finally said.

Tony threw the mattress down onto the bed frame – then leaned away from the cloud of dust rising to attack his face. The springs protested but held the weight of the mattress. “I wasn’t going to leave even if you wanted me to,” he noted at Bruce and carefully sat down on the mattress. Nothing squeaked – not the springs or a mouse lurking inside.

Bruce didn’t tell him what he might have done if they had gotten into an argument about staying at the shack; Tony doubted that Bruce would have dragged him into the woods, kicking and screaming, but he had made Tony come this far so he didn’t put it past Bruce to devise a way to get him to leave the shack.

At least now Tony could save that fight for another day.

“I think I can find a stream nearby, to get us some water,” Bruce said.

“It’s getting pretty dark,” Tony noted.

“I’ll find my way back,” the other reassured.

Tony frowned. “What am I supposed to do while you’re gone?”

“You don’t have to do anything.”

“So I might as well come with you,” Tony volunteered and stood up.

Bruce shrugged, like it didn’t matter either way.

It wasn’t as if Tony feared Bruce might walk out and leave him here, in the middle of nowhere. The shack did have a certain creepiness factor to it, though, and Tony would rather go with Bruce than stay in there alone.

They grabbed the water containers and bottles, heading out. Dusk was falling and Tony looked back at the shack, a little worried that they wouldn’t find their way back to it. Bruce, however, took only a few looks round before choosing a direction, and Tony trailed behind him, fighting off the urge to inform the other man that it was getting dark; Bruce had eyes, he could see it for himself.

A mere five minutes later, Bruce led them to the edge of a small stream, as if he had known it was there. Tony guessed it was just his ability to read the terrain, and it was a relief one of them knew what they were doing.

At the same time it sat ill with him that he was totally at the other man’s mercy. Bruce was the one who knew why they were here and why they couldn’t go back. He had to have a reason for pressing on, for taking them this far, and Tony had to find out what that reason was – one way or another. Seeing as Bruce wasn’t willing to tell him, Tony would have to resort to other means of gaining that information.

- - -

It came as no surprise that Tony slept on the bed; Bruce didn’t put up a fight, satisfied to be indoors for the night, and the bed was too small and worn out for two grown men to sleep on it.

For a moment Tony had looked like he would suggest they share the bed anyway, but something had made him change his mind. Whatever it was, Bruce knew it was better Tony slept on it in the relative comfort of the bed.

At night, the temperature dropped rather suddenly, a foul wind beginning to blow and bringing torrents of rain upon them. The little cabin creaked and whined, water dripping in from various tiny leaks in the roof and the walls, but it didn’t sound like the building would fall apart around them.

The cold and the wind kept them up for most of the night, both men lying in the darkness without speaking yet keenly aware they were both awake.

Come morning, Bruce could tell the temperature was nearing on freezing. He dug into the bags and pulled out a change of warmer clothes for both of them, and Tony offered no protests. He still looked a little askance at the food, but the longer they were on the road the hungrier he got.

“I need to go outside for a bit,” Bruce said while Tony was still nibbling on his breakfast.

Tony replied in an understanding hum. “I really miss bathrooms – and toilet paper,” he said wistfully.

Bruce had gone without both plenty of times, but they were small luxuries one often ignored when not deprived of them. The fact that Tony hadn’t complained about that five minutes into their journey amazed Bruce, but Tony’s light jab at it told him that the man was aware of the comforts he was missing while out here.

He sighed as he walked out into the crisp air. The ground felt hard beneath his shoes, almost frosty, and he pulled up the collar of his jacket for extra warmth. It wasn’t unlikely they would get snow in this region at this time of year, but he had hoped they could avoid that for a little bit – until he had decided what to do.

After he had done his business and washed his hands in the freezing water of a tiny stream near the cabin, he didn’t hurry walking back, giving himself some time to think. Tony was growing restless, wanting to know what was happening, and it would soon become an issue Bruce could not just brush to the side. They were too far for Tony to simply walk out, which was probably the only reason why he was staying.

With another sigh, Bruce squared his shoulders and supposed he could placate Tony’s mood by offering that they stay at the cabin for at least another day. It was remote and no one had been there for a long while, so it should be safe.

When he entered, it looked like a miniature storm had struck inside the cabin; the contents of their two bags were half-strewn across the floor, as if someone had dug through them and hastily pushed them partially back in again. Bruce’s heartbeat picked up for a fraction of a second before he spotted Tony standing by one of the boarded-up windows. The spike of adrenaline settled a little bit, his brain assuring his body that Tony hadn’t been taken and that they were still safe.

“Were you looking for something?” Bruce asked, guessing Tony was the one who had gone through their belongings.

Tony looked at him, jaw flexing. “Where are you taking me, Bruce?” he asked, voice low.

The tension returned to Bruce’s shoulders. “I can’t tell you,” he replied.

“Why not?”

He couldn’t just say he didn’t know where they were headed; Tony had followed him this far, under the illusion that Bruce knew exactly where they were going. The truth was, Bruce was just running, further and further away from the threat that would be seeking them out, trying to buy himself time to form a plan. There was no plan yet, though. His only goal was safety, and he and Tony had very different views on what that word meant. “I just can’t,” was his final reply.

Tony’s eyes narrowed, making Bruce want to turn away from him and the obvious hostility in his demeanor. “What’s the big secret?” Tony pressed, taking a step towards him and simultaneously lifting his right hand. Between his index and middle finger was a piece of paper – a folded note.

Bruce’s hands instinctively went to the pockets of his pants, searching, and too late he recalled that he had changed clothes this morning.

“They made me wash clothes in Afghanistan,” Tony told him, an edge to his words that was so sharp Bruce knew he had never told anyone about that. “I would check their pockets, in hopes of finding something useful. I never did. Kept the habit, though.” His fingers shifted, still holding the paper pinned between them, making it catch a thin ray of light coming in from between the boards blocking the window. “Where did you get this?”

Lie, was Bruce’s first instinct. “That’s not important,” he said instead. Lying was a slippery slope with Tony.

“It’s not?” Tony raised an eyebrow again and moved his other hand to grab onto the note and open it wide, the simple words turned towards Bruce.


“Bring me where?” Tony pressed.

“I don’t know,” Bruce said – a response that was, actually, pure honesty. It just seemed to tick Tony off, though, and Bruce knew they were approaching extremely dangerous territory. “It was given to me.”

Tony’s fingers flexed, squeezing the note harder. “I was hoping you would say you intercepted it,” he stated, also honest. “Who gave it to you?”

“I didn’t know him. He didn’t know me, either – no more than a face and a name to recognize me in the crowd.” Bruce was feeling sweaty beneath his clothes. Tony was cornering him without physically moving any closer, and Bruce had never liked the feeling. Not since he learned that being in the corner either made him weak – or terribly dangerous. “I –”

“– need to explain,” Tony cut him off harshly. “Why would a stranger give you this message? What else was there?”

“Nothing else!” Bruce snapped, taking a couple steps to the side, taking himself fractionally further from Tony. In the limited space, it was not enough.

“Just a note telling you to bring me in.” Tony’s words were dripping with doubt. “Why are we here, Bruce? Why come all this way when a random little message told you to bring me somewhere? Was it even meant for you?”

“Yes,” Bruce said shortly. Of what he was certain, like he had already told Tony.

“What are we running from?” Tony pressed, taking a step towards him. He should have known better, but then, Tony had never been afraid of the other guy.

Bruce’s skin was beginning to feel tighter than it had any right to be, ants crawling in his veins. Much more of this and he would lose the thread of control, the stress of the situation knocking over the confidence he had been building up in the aftermath of the Battle of New York.

Tony did, however, know how to read the signs – when he wanted to – and must have seen something green on his face because his demeanor changed abruptly, a tightly pressed exhalation of air leaving his lungs. His words were more patient and calmer when he spoke next: “Was it possible the person who gave you this was from S.H.I.E.L.D.?”

The hot rush of blood in Bruce’s ears turned icy cold. “No,” he heard himself say, “he was not from S.H.I.E.L.D.”

“How do you know?”

“He said something to me, in parting.” This was it. He had to tell Tony; had to make him believe that there was a very real danger looming over them both.

“What did he say?” Tony questioned anxiously. “If I didn’t know better I would think you like the twenty questions game – although clearly you don’t know the rules because you said there was nothing else to the message.” He sounded a little pissed off, and Bruce knew he needed to work on that before telling him.

“If I tell you –”

“You’re going to tell me,” Tony informed him.

“I need you to be calm. I need you to listen to me.”

“I’m listening,” came an insistent, impatient reply.

“You are not calm.”

“I’m not the one with anxiety issues… Fine,” Tony sighed and moved over to a rickety chair next to an equally rickety table. He sat down slowly, making a gesture that was supposedly conveying his inner calm had been restored. “Please continue,” he urged then. “I’m dying to hear the end of this tale.”

Bruce bet he was. However, he was not looking forward to the big reveal. He had been dodging it all this time, but it was like ignoring one’s own shadow: you could never outrun it, but depending on the position of the sun, you could lie to yourself that you were gaining the upper hand. “He said nothing but two words after identifying me by name and saying he had a message for me – then handed me the note.”

Tony nodded and made an encouraging sound, leaning forward on the chair. The note was still in his grasp, the words turned towards the floor but Bruce could not forget them, not when he knew what the whole message meant.

What it meant for him, and Tony.

“Two words,” Tony said as a reminder to break the silence that had fallen between them.

Bruce looked at him, meeting the sharp eyes he had spent hours gazing into as they talked. He wasn’t sure he had looked anyone in the eye as much as he had Tony – not after the Hulk, most certainly, because eye-contact was dangerous for so many reasons.

He wondered if he could look him in the eye once those words were out there, between them – if Tony would ever look him in the eye even if Bruce tried.

“You promise me you won’t flip out?” Bruce asked.

Tony frowned again. “Why would I flip out? Granted, I’ll be pissed if the guy whispered something like ‘seven days’ in your ear and that is why you brought us all this way to the middle of fucking nowhere.”

Bruce nodded slowly, his hands twisting together in the agitated, self-conscious way he used to practice before he returned from his exile and began to act like a real person again. A part of him wished he had never accepted Fury’s request to join the search for the Tesseract – or got into that car in Central Park with Tony, getting mixed up in his life.

I should have just ran, he told himself again.

He hadn’t run.

He had elected to stay, to risk everything – to save Tony.

“Hail HYDRA.”

The chair creaked as Tony’s entire body stiffened.

Bruce’s fingers tightened around one another, joints aching at the pressure. “That is what the man whispered –”

“No!” Tony shouted and sprung up, so fast that Bruce took a quick step back and hit his spine on the old fireplace behind him. “I trusted you!” Tony went on, eyes ablaze, expression wounded with such deep hurt that it had to be coming from somewhere else, from another betrayal.

“I brought you here to –”

Bruce never got to finish because he was slammed back harder, his head colliding with the stones of the fireplace. Pain was sudden at the back of his skull but not overwhelming, yet it caught him off-guard and made him stumble, a cloud of dust raining down on him at the impact.

The front door slammed open and he heard rapid footsteps increasing into a run.

“Tony,” Bruce called out, voice cracking as he fought off the instinct to transform. He raised a hand to the back of his head but couldn’t detect blood, and that was when the silence around him truly sank in. Looking up, Bruce got his feet under him and sprang to the open door, gaze searching the surroundings of the cabin. “Tony!” he shouted, as loudly as he could. “I brought you here to protect you!”

There was no answer and no sneak-attack when he rounded the small building. Tony was on the run and Bruce could only blame himself for believing that Tony could take the news without freaking out like this.

“Shit,” he hissed to himself, his skull throbbing, a bump forming there, reminding him of how off-guard he had been against Tony’s attack. Had he really believed Tony wouldn’t react to those words, especially after all the hours he had spent wading through the files from S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA?

He rounded the building again, more purposefully, and finally found signs of where Tony had taken off to. Bruce lifted his gaze, searched the trees, then set out after him, knowing that Tony wouldn’t be hiding his trail; he would run until he couldn’t anymore, as fast as he could, putting distance between himself and the cabin. Bruce wasn’t the best tracker in the world but avoiding capture had taught him many things, and in the relative silence of the woods he could now and then catch a sound of a snapping twig that came from the direction where Tony was headed, giving him a boost of confidence that he was on the right trail to follow him.

What was he going to do once he caught up with him, though?

Bruce guessed he would have to figure that out by the time they came face-to-face again.

- - -

For the first fifteen minutes, Tony ran like his life depended on it.

In the ten minutes after that he began to realize the adrenaline was fading and he was in a real danger of hurting himself – underlined by the fact that he actually ran into a tree when his foot slipped on a smooth stone.

With multiple scrapes on the right side of his face, from forehead to jaw, he slowed down and tried to get his bearings.

“Trees, trees, trees…” He spun in a circle – then stopped, afraid that he would lose track of where he had come from and accidentally start heading back towards the shack.

‘Hail HYDRA.’

The catchphrase kept repeating in his brain, over and over. Most of the time he couldn’t even hear Bruce’s voice uttering those words, like they didn’t belong there.

‘Bring in Tony Stark.’

“Fuck!” he yelled and kicked a tree stump, almost breaking a toe. The pain shot through him, meeting the radiating ache from his face somewhere in the middle of his chest where the arc reactor used to sit. The way it felt was a hollow reminder of a betrayal from years before, when Obadiah Stane stole the device that kept him alive and left him to die.

Breathing sharply, Tony reined in the memories and the feelings still associated with them. Bruce wasn’t Stane; he hadn’t known him since he was a baby, trusting him like he trusted family.

It was the same, though. In the short time they had known each other, Bruce had become like a brother to him. What was worse, Tony had begun to trust him and rely on him, as a teammate and a friend. This is why Tony didn’t play well with others: it always came back to bite him in the ass.

Part of him wished he hadn’t gone digging around in the bags while Bruce was gone. If Bruce hadn’t told him, Tony could have still been sitting in the shelter of the pitiful little shack instead of being lost in the woods somewhere in northern Maine – a fact he only knew because Bruce had told him.

Had it been a lie? Had it always been a lie?

‘Hail HYDRA…’

Tony started jogging again, to keep himself moving. The air was much colder than the previous days and he was not dressed for it – a fact he regretted in hindsight. He should have grabbed one of the bags, which had mostly contained food and clothes. With some of those, he would have stood a chance, but he had nothing on him but the clothes on his back and the note clutched in his fist, serving as a constant reminder of Bruce’s betrayal.

Bruce Banner was a member of HYDRA.

Even now, when many thought HYDRA had kicked the bucket in D.C., they were out there, making trouble – sending messages to their undercover agents to eliminate their enemies one by one.

Tony knew he was at the top of practically every hit list any villainous person or organization had, mostly because Iron Man wasn’t picky about whom he took down. It had been only a matter of time, but for some reason he had never considered one of his fellow Avengers would stab him in the back – and if he’d had to pick one, it wouldn’t have been Bruce.

“He’s HYDRA,” he said out loud, to make it more real. The words formed a faint cloud in front of his face, reminding him just how cold it was, and how much colder it would get once the sun began to go down.

Better freezing to death than cozying up to a HYDRA agent.

For some reason, that thought didn’t bring him as much warmth as he had thought.

He slowed down to a walk again after a bit, trying to see any familiar signs in the distance that he could follow. If only he could find a path or a road and he could follow it. There were none, however, and the only parting in the trees he eventually found was when he almost toppled over a steep river bed and into the water a good fifteen feet below.

The river was wide enough that he could not jump across it, nor did it look like there was a crossing nearby. Tony knew he would sign his own death sentence if he tried to swim across, so his only real option was to follow the water downstream and hope it came out some place populated.

His plan was excellent, inspiring hope that he might yet survive this. It was likely people were already looking for him – J.A.R.V.I.S. knew better than to take it in stride if he vanished off the face of the earth – and he would be found like he was found wandering the Afghan desert.

Thing was, he had expected to die in the desert, and the only reason why he was found was his explosive departure from the terrorist camp. Out here… what was he going to blow up to get attention?

He looked at the trees, wondering if he could make a bonfire – then froze like a deer caught in the headlights: Bruce had just stepped out of the tree line into the relatively open riverside.

Tony backed away until there was barely a step between him and the drop into the water. He hadn’t heard the other man approach – hadn’t thought he could be so easily found in the forest, but there he was, moving slowly closer. “Don’t,” Tony warned and stuck his hand into his pocket, retrieving a capsule he had found in one of the bags. He thumbed it open, revealing an injector inside.

Bruce’s eyes checked the device. “You know that’s not enough to subdue me,” he noted coolly, then raised his hands as if surrendering. “I just want to talk.”

“Yeah?” Tony shifted his hold on the injector. “About what?”

“I’m not HYDRA,” Bruce stated. “I realize I should have led with that fact.”

“Then why would a member of HYDRA walk up to you with orders to bring me in?” Tony challenged. “Did he think he could scare the Hulk into handing me over to them?”

Bruce hesitated, looking like he was about to talk and continuously deciding against it.

Tony waited. He didn’t think he could actually outrun Bruce, who was quicker on his feet than people gave him credit for. Bruce was also right in saying that the injector’s contents would not be enough to stop him, but Tony was getting into a mindset where he would rather tango with the Hulk and see whether he was part of HYDRA, too.

He doubted it.

“Let’s go back to the cabin and talk,” Bruce offered.

“We can talk here.”

“You look like you’re about to bolt. We’ve already wasted most of the daylight running around the woods, without supplies –”

“No one told you to come after me,” Tony snapped.

“I brought us here to protect you!” Bruce retorted sharply. “I could have turned tail in New York and ran, leaving you behind without ever knowing HYDRA was gunning for you next, but here we are.” He spread his arms, gesturing at the vast nothingness that was the Maine woodland.

“Did it ever occur you to tell me from the start – and trust me to protect myself the way I usually do?” Tony asked. “Clearly not, and that’s my first clue that you’re not being honest with me – that you never were.”

“I’m not the enemy,” Bruce told him, taking a step forward. Tony inched backwards, but he had nowhere to go and he wasn’t mad enough to take his chances in the water. “I’m not HYDRA,” Bruce repeated.

“Then why did they approach you?”

“Because they think I’m one of them.”

“How did that happen?” Tony knew not to believe a word that came out of Bruce’s mouth. He had trusted Stane for years, and that left him with a chest full of shrapnel and blood on his hands once he was done with him – not to mention a shitload of trust issues.

“I’ll tell you when I know you’ve calmed down,” Bruce said, taking another step. “If I wanted to hurt you, I could have done that days ago.”

“Unless you are taking me to your HYDRA friends and they need me alive.”

“If that were the case, I would have prepared for this trip – and kept you sedated the entire way,” came a sharp retort. “Do you really think it was natural you slept almost the entire drive up here?”

Tony’s mind bounced back to that early stretch of their trip: the stop at the gas station after they switched cars; the coffee; waking up in Maine, feeling really strange. “You drugged me,” he said in accusation, fingers again tightening around the injector that would do him little to no good. “You spiked my coffee.”

“I did,” Bruce nodded. “I knew you would start protesting the further from home we got. The point is,” he added as Tony opened his mouth to give him a piece of his mind, “if I had wanted to hand you over to someone, I would have kept your under. I didn’t. Instead, I did all in my power to make us vanish.”

Tony shifted, restless and uncertain. Part of him still wanted to believe Bruce, to have his faith in him restored because he didn’t want them to be enemies.

“Let’s get back to the cabin,” Bruce pleaded. “It’s getting cold, you’re shivering –”

“I’m fine,” Tony growled. He was cold, but right now that didn’t matter. “There was no reason to bring us out here.”

“I panicked,” Bruce said, like it absolved him of all he had done. “I had to make a call and I fell back into my old habit of running. I took you with me because I didn’t want to leave you vulnerable to an attack.”

“I’m far from –”

“You don’t have any suits right now,” Bruce countered. “You have bits and pieces, plans and schematics, but you don’t have a single operational suit. If HYDRA had come for you, expecting a battle, what would you have done?”

“I would have given them a fight.” He would have, to his last breath.

“I know,” Bruce said quietly. “I know you – and you know me.”

“No, I don’t. Clearly,” he gestured at Bruce who had in a heartbeat transformed from an ally to a potential foe.

“I’m not part of HYDRA,” Bruce repeated, sounding tired of saying it.

“But they think you are.”

“Some of them do.”


“I’ll tell you when we get back to the cabin.”

“You’ll tell me now or no one’s going back to the cabin.” It might not be true, but if it came down to a fight, Tony would make Bruce turn into the Hulk and then it would be a whole different game.

Bruce sighed, shifting his stance, looking frustrated. “It seems we’re at an impasse.”

“So it does,” Tony agreed, moving his feet into a better position. He was in the middle of doing that, trying to mind the sudden fall behind him, when Bruce lunged forward. He must have waited for the opportunity because Tony was wide open for it, forced to lean hard to the side to avoid falling back, and then there was a hand grabbing his wrist, twisting, fingers pressing at a spot that made pain shoot up his arm.

Tony dropped the injector, right into Bruce’s waiting grip.

“We never worked up the right dosage for the big guy,” Bruce told him a bit breathlessly as they crashed down to the ground. He kept his grip on Tony’s wrist, the rest of his body pinning him to the rocks at the edge of the fall. The whole attack was so beautifully executed it probably would have made half their team pump their fists into the air in pride. Tony, on the other hand, didn’t appreciate it at all, knowing he was not getting the upper hand like this, laying on his side – and then he felt the injector at his neck. “This one’s for you,” Bruce told him just before the prick of the needle traveled across his nerves and Tony felt hot, then drowsy, then nothing at all.

- - -

Getting through to Tony had clearly been impossible, so Bruce used the only opening he had: he waited until Tony left himself open for attack then pounced on him fast, going for the injector. He couldn’t afford to lose Tony again and spend the rest of the day running round the forest, seeing as it was lucky he had found him in the first place. Coming to the river had been what eventually helped him track him down because it was logical Tony would follow it downstream in hopes of getting somewhere.

Tony had been so wrapped up in the idea of how to use the injector against him that he seemed to have completely forgotten its effects on himself – even after Bruce had confessed to drugging him for the drive north. It was clear Tony was distraught by what he thought Bruce was, and it was important he set the record straight.

He wasn’t going to do it when Tony was looking for an escape like a cornered animal, his desperation sharp enough that he may have actually jumped into the river eventually. Fishing him out would have required Bruce to transform, and he knew Tony would have used that to his advantage.

After he had the other man down for the count, Bruce barely had time to feel triumphant before he realized the error of his decision: they were miles from the cabin, and with Tony unconscious, Bruce would have to carry him.

“Dammit, Tony,” he sighed and slowly worked the other man’s limp body across his shoulders, starting the long walk back. He knew the dose was enough to keep Tony unconscious for the rest of the day at least without something to counter it, and if Bruce didn’t start moving, Tony would freeze to death come nightfall.

It was late when he found his way back, muscles aching, legs numb. His skin was tinted with green, his focus completely absorbed on a litany of another step, another step, another step, and he thanked his sense of direction for making it back to begin with.

The door had been left open when he rushed out after Tony, and Bruce carefully lowered Tony to the ground, doing a quick check round around the cabin to make sure no one had been there in their absence. Their belongings were still where Tony had left them, halfway shoved back into the bags, and Bruce returned to pick up the other man, carrying him inside and laying him out on the dingy bed.

It was cold even inside the cabin, and Bruce got them some more clothes, wrapping another layer around Tony to keep him warm before getting some for himself. He checked the fireplace, wondering if he dared to light a fire in it, but it was likely the chimney was clogged up and they would end up with a cabin full of smoke.

He settled for walking around the small space instead, keeping a steady watch over Tony’s unconscious form, ensuring that he stayed warm and that the drug didn’t have any unexpected side-effects.

Twelve hours after the altercation at the river, Tony began to stir. Outside the boarded windows, snow was falling lazily from the sky, and Bruce had begun to doze. It was like dog’s sleep, however, and when Tony made a small sound at the back of his throat, Bruce was wide awake and looming by the bed, watching the process.

Thin lines of Extremis red danced on Tony’s skin seconds before he blinked his eyes open, gaze unfocused.

“Have some water,” Bruce offered, placing a bottle within Tony’s grasp. He knew better than to try to make him drink it himself, or putting the bottle directly in his hand.

In his half-awake state, Tony took the bottle and drank from it, almost choking as he didn’t have the presence of mind to try and lift his head before drinking. Bruce steadied the bottle while Tony coughed, keeping the water from spilling, and for a brief moment their fingers touched around the cool plastic.

Tony visibly jerked, alertness returning to his features, and he scooted away on the bed so fast that Bruce was worried the wall might give in when Tony’s backside hit it.

“Relax,” Bruce ordered. “You are fine. You are not bound and the door isn’t locked or booby-trapped.” He took a step back. “We need to talk.”

Tony stared at him, eyes wide, brain slowly coming back online. His left hand rose to touch the spot where Brue had injected him.

“You wanted to know why HYDRA thought I would hand you over to them on a silver platter,” Bruce said, knowing Tony was still regaining control of his body – including the use of his quick tongue. “It’s complicated, yet very simple,” he went on, dragging over one of the rickety chairs to sit opposite from the bed, making it feel like they were having a conversation while Tony probably plotted his next escape attempt.

“Before I had a contract with the U.S. military,” Bruce started, “I had trouble funding my research. A private investor came to me, telling me they were interested in my work. I was young and impatient, focused on my research and caring little about anything else – even when I figured out the money was coming out of HYDRA’s pocket. Their interest in my work was real, however, which meant steady support, and their scientific mission had nothing to do with their actions during WWII.

“They funded me for a few years before the military got interested in my work and I began working on their money. I had no illusions that my previous sponsor hadn’t arranged for the switch, and since I had the means to move full speed ahead on my work, unlimited possibilities in front of me, looking back seemed… detrimental and pointless.”

He halted, letting it all sink in. Tony was still staring at him – not at his face, but some spot between his shoulder and chest. He looked slightly out of it still, but Bruce knew he was listening.

“I was never actively part of HYDRA,” he said. “They didn’t hand me a manifesto to read in order to join in. When the Insight Project was launched, we were both on the list of targets, and that makes me assume that either my team-up with the Avengers blacklisted me – or the more likely option that even within HYDRA, the information of my involvement was always highly compartmentalized.”

“That sounds awfully convenient, to make you sound less like the HYDRA accomplice that you really are,” Tony finally said, slowly, voice wavering. He swallowed afterwards and looked at the bottle of water Bruce was holding.

“It’s not poisoned,” Bruce said and offered it to him.

Tony refused to take it from his hand, so Bruce carefully sat the bottle down on the bed and let go, watching as Tony reluctantly picked it up, opened it, smelled it and then drank just a little bit at a time as if that would keep him safe if it were drugged or poisoned.

“I was never approached to join HYDRA,” Bruce said. “My work with them was no different from any other scientific research, and I think it was incidental I found out about their involvement in the first place. HYDRA has no leverage on me.” He looked at Tony’s face until the other man agreed to meet his gaze. “You have to trust me.”

“That’s a little hard to do right now,” Tony replied.

“I know.”

“Why not just tell me all this in New York?”

“And have you lash out at me there, when you had home field advantage?”

“Yeah, that would have been a whole different argument,” Tony agreed.

“I wasn’t going to tell you,” Bruce admitted. “I knew how you would react, after the events in D.C. and the mess you’ve been mopping up.”

“Wouldn’t have made a difference if it happened before D.C. – or years from now,” Tony stated.

Bruce sighed, seeing he was getting nowhere. “Even if I were one of them,” he said slowly, “I wouldn’t have taken you in. Our friendship means more to me than any moral standing. I may have made a few mistakes in how I handled this, but it was all in order to keep you away from HYDRA.”

Tony didn’t say anything for a while, leaning against the wall and looking at nothing, fingers rolling the plastic bottle back and forth between his hands. “You had to know they would come gunning for us sooner or later, either way,” he finally mused. “Us both or just me, if you’re on their roster.”

“They brought me a message in the middle of a crowded street, in broad daylight,” Bruce countered. “I didn’t want to wait and see their next move, especially when they realized they had miscalculated my participation in their plan.”

Tony looked at him again, then sighed and shook his head, closing his eyes. “You’re a fucking idiot, Banner,” he informed him.

“Does that mean you believe me?” Bruce asked, daring to feel a little bit hopeful.

Tony opened his eyes again. “The moment I don’t, I’ll bash your head in with the nearest object I can find and ask what the other guy thinks about HYDRA.”

“I dare say it begins and ends with ‘smash’.”

Tony offered him a tiny smile. “I’m counting on that.” He sat up, slowly shifting forward, settling cross-legged on the bed. His hands kept playing with the bottle, setting it down on the bed in the gap between his thighs and crotch, turning it back and forth, clockwise and counter-clockwise. “I hope you realize we’re changing our tactics from here on out,” he said finally, lifting his gaze from the bottle and to Bruce’s face. “No more running. You’re taking us back to civilization and I’m going to find a way to keep myself safe.”

Bruce nodded slowly. He would have preferred running until the dust had settled, but he had no desire to test Tony’s resolve about bashing his head in…

“You’ve also got to promise me something,” Tony added.


“Never again try to keep me safe.”

Bruce dared to chuckle. “I’ll do my best, but I can’t make any promises; we are teammates, after all.”

“Speaking of which,” Tony mused and stopped playing with the bottle, settling his hands on his thighs and giving him a wry look, “I think we better not tell Rogers about you being on HYDRA’s mailing list.”

Four days later

The aftershocks of the explosion shook the earth as Tony landed his suit next to a huffing Hulk. Around them, a HYDRA base was in flames, not a single member of this cell left standing.

“Good workout,” Tony noted, glancing at the giant green rage monster beside him. All he got was a grunt in return, as if the Hulk had barely worked up a sweat. “So…” Tony ventured, “do you know what happened this week with me and Bruce?”

“Puny Banner fucked up,” the Hulk retorted with obvious disdain.

“That he did,” Tony agreed and flipped up the faceplate despite the smoke in the air. “Do you think he’s a member of HYDRA?” The two shared a body, which meant they shared a brain. Whether they shared each other’s memories was another story. Tony knew Bruce didn’t actually recall what went on when he wasn’t holding the reins, but he could just be blocking it out.

He doubted the Hulk blocked out anything if he was aware of Bruce’s actions.

The Hulk looked almost contemplative for a bit, gazing down at Tony. His vocabulary was limited even on the best of days, but sometimes a single grunt conveyed more than an entire speech delivered by Captain America. Not that Tony was going to abandon talking in favor of grunting; it wasn’t his style.

“Banner is your friend,” the Hulk said, with surprising clarity and obviously talking to Tony rather than at him. “Always your friend, first,” he concluded.

Tony debated that, nodding his thanks and snapping the faceplate back down before he started coughing from the smoke. “Well, it’s good to have a second opinion,” he decided.

Option one was that maybe Bruce was as innocent as he claimed and had simply acted in a way he deemed would provide them the best chance for survival.

Option two was that he had felt conflicted and took Tony to buy himself some time before he decided whether to take him to HYDRA or not.

Option three was that this was all a supremely elaborate plan to incriminate Bruce, then absolve him in the eyes of his gullible friend while Bruce was actually working for the enemy and occupying front row seats to all of Tony’s secrets.

He had been betrayed once…

The Hulk harrumphed beside him and turned, starting to walk away from the destruction he had wrought upon the HYDRA base in short order after they had landed. Tony could have just stood by and watched, but it was so much more satisfying to join the Hulk on his rampage. Besides, he needed to keep an eye on the big guy and make sure he didn’t get too smash-happy.

Tony took one more look around and turned to follow the Hulk, the armor feeling a little stiff as he walked; he had finished it in a rush and needed to adjust it once they got back. All that made him much slower than the Hulk, providing him with a good look when the wide green shoulders started to quiver as the Hulk began his transformation back into the significantly scrawnier shape of Bruce Banner.

He stopped several feet away, knowing the Hulk got especially touchy when in the middle of a willing transformation. It did not take long before Bruce was kneeling on the ground, torn pants barely covering anything as they hung to one hipbone.

Tony resumed walking, taking his time. He felt safe and secure in his armor, whatever Bruce’s alliances were.

Bruce looked up at him as Tony stopped at his side, then craned his neck to look back at the fiery destruction. If he was HYDRA, he masked his true feelings extremely well, and that nagging doubt was dwarfed by Tony’s desire to believe both the man and the beast when they said that whatever the case, their friendship would come first.

“Ready to fly?” Tony asked him.

“Oh, God,” Bruce groaned but reached up, clutching onto Tony’s forearm to help himself to his feet. His eyes searched the faceplate for a moment, clearly trying to establish contact between them. “We did okay here?” he asked, unnecessarily since he could see it for himself.

“We’re good,” Tony replied, not necessarily meaning the battle.

He shot up into the air, holding Bruce’s body pinned to his armored form with one arm, and Bruce probably knew what he had meant with those words, seeing as he didn’t seem half as concerned with falling compared to when they had first arrived at the HYDRA base and Tony had let him fall down from the altitude of one hundred feet, unleashing the Hulk upon their enemy.

Let HYDRA talk to the big guy about their future recruitment plans for Bruce Banner and hear his thoughts on it.

‘Hulk smash all heads!’

Tony smiled and curved towards New York City and Avengers Tower.

Once they got there, he would show Bruce just how prepared he was for any future threats and they could put this ugly adventure behind them and focus on something that would revolutionize world safety.

The End