Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Fandom: The Avengers & Iron Man (MCU)
Genre: Suspense, drama, AU (canon diverge)
Rating: M / FRM
Characters: Bruce Banner (Hulk), Tony Stark (Iron Man). Mentioned: J.A.R.V.I.S., other Avengers & MCU characters.
Summary: In the aftermath of the events in D.C., the downfall of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the exposure of HYDRA, a stranger runs into Bruce and delivers a disturbing message that sends him and Tony literally running for the hills. Tony grows more suspicious by the hour while Bruce struggles to find a way to explain why he is trying to isolate himself and Tony from the rest of the world – and why Bruce cannot tell Tony the truth.
Written for: Marvel Bang 2014.
Also fills a square on my card on Hurt/Comfort Bingo’s round 5 (square: “moving”).
Artist: nickygabriel [art link pending]
Warnings: Language, canonical violence, canon diverge (although it could be viewed as canon).
Disclaimer: Iron Man, Avengers and Marvel Cinematic Universe, including characters and everything else, belong to Marvel, Marvel Studios, Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Shane Black, Joe Johnston, Louis Leterrier, Anthony & Joe Russo, Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and Universal Pictures. In short: I own nothing; this is pure fiction created to entertain likeminded fans for no profit whatsoever.
Beta: Mythra (mythras-fire)
About Compartmentalized: This is very much a ‘what if?’ story that explores the possible influence of HYDRA on characters we think we know – and what happens when that influence comes back to bite them in the ass.
Bruce and Tony built a fast friendship in ‘The Avengers’ (proof of which we saw when Bruce decided to join the fight when he could have just as well walked away, and in the bonus scene at the end of ‘Iron Man 3’). I like to imagine that both of them hold their relationship in high regard, being surrounded by people and events that make forming lasting, trustworthy friendships rather difficult (especially in the case of Bruce/the Hulk).
With that in mind, I will now proceed to throw a wrench in the works and see if anybody makes it out alive.
Story and status: Below you see the writing process of the story. If there is no text after the title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.
The events of D.C. were everywhere; footage of the Helicarriers falling into the Potomac River, one of them crashing into the main building of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters; hours upon hours of news specials and talk shows pored over the fiasco that was S.H.I.E.L.D. being exposed and what it meant for national and international safety.
The proverbial bubble had imploded instead of bursting, remnants of its shattered form still visible wherever one looked.
Amazingly enough, the Avengers were rarely mentioned in the tumult; it was as if the public were unwilling to draw their favorite superheroes into the discussion where their fame may have become tainted by the shadow of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s shame.
The absence of the Avengers in the media frenzy could have been explained in another way, too: Tony was burning the candle from both ends trying to contain the information that had leaked out of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Not that the Avengers went completely without recognition; Captain America made headlines with his efforts to – literally – sink HYDRA, and Romanoff had been questioned in semi-public hearings. Inadvertently, their actions had made it quite difficult to keep the world from seeing the depth of the Avengers’ connection to S.H.I.E.L.D.
There were many potentially hazardous S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA files that had no place in the public eye – not to mention the files on the Avengers themselves. Bruce wholeheartedly endorsed Tony’s attempts to stop the leakage and make some of the most sensitive material vanish, even though many would claim they were just trying to bury the atrocities carried out in secrecy.
Bruce had learned, years ago, that such atrocities were better left alone; those involved were either long dead or knew how to hide themselves, to live the rest of their lives beyond the reach of justice. The rest would get what was coming to them, one way or another, but they rarely saw the inside of a court room – or a prison, for that matter.
Villainy rarely paid off if you didn’t know how to make yourself disappear.
The U.S. government was openly conducting a manhunt for any remaining HYDRA members, taking the events in D.C. as a personal attack – in true American fashion – mostly overlooking the fact that HYDRA was, more than anything, a global problem.
A few arrests had made huge headlines, including that of Senator Stern. When the newscasts of his HYDRA involvement were broadcasted, Tony had whooped at the TV screen and opened a bottle of champagne – then proceeded to drain said bottle of champagne all on his own and trash the Tower gym with his new armor prototype because HYDRA had tried to get its hands on his tech.
Bruce witnessed Tony’s outburst because he had spent most of his time in various locations provided by Tony since the Battle of New York. They hadn’t seen each other as much as Bruce might have guessed, but they were regularly in contact – especially after Tony’s spat with A.I.M. Frankly, Tony was one of the few people Bruce felt like letting into his life without getting the overwhelming urge to disappear again, and with Tony constantly focusing on one project or another, it turned out Bruce occasionally wanted to seek him out and not the other way around.
That was why he was in New York City, checking out the newly renovated R&D floors of the Tower, and after being cooped up indoors for too long he decided to go out for lunch and a walk. He asked Tony whether he wanted anything, but the man was completely engrossed in a myriad of files J.A.R.V.I.S. had flagged for him. Bruce decided he would bring something back for Tony either way, seeing as he rarely remembered to eat while he was working.
Bruce took his time outside, finding the weather pleasant. He roamed the streets, trying to find quieter ones within the buzz of Manhattan, walking up to Central Park. He circled the Pond, watching families, joggers, and dog walkers going about their business.
When he exited the park, he tried to decide what to take back with him to the Tower that would entice Tony away from the mess that was S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secret files leaking onto the internet.
While he was trying to make up his mind about the food, he crossed W 59th Street and began wading through the crowd in Grand Army Plaza to make his way back to the Tower. There were a few take-out places Tony really liked, and Bruce weighed his options of going the few extra blocks to find a decent restaurant selling shawarma.
He was debating a detour to one of the nearby restaurants when someone deliberately blocked his path.
Bruce had grown into the habit of dodging people even without looking at them, drawing as little attention to himself as possible, so it always irritated him when people went out of their way to stop his progress. Usually they were one of those street fundraisers, young people trying to earn a bit of pocket money and raise funds for one charity or another.
Seeing as Bruce had seen first-hand where some of that money was supposed to go, he was generally in favor of charity and the work most of those groups promoted. However, being confronted by an aggressive chugger was another thing entirely, and he looked up swiftly, completely prepared to give a disinterested shake of his head.
“Dr. Banner,” the man standing in front of him said – a little too old to be someone looking for donors, and sending warning bells ringing in Bruce’s head for knowing his name.
He didn’t know the guy, and it looked like the man didn’t know him either – not personally, anyway: he had probably memorized Bruce’s face from a picture, but there was no real recognition like when two acquaintances crossed paths. Bruce had learned to look out for and recognize that kind of look during the years when General Ross was hunting for him and his men knew the face of their target – but not who or what he was.
Bruce began to move away, never liking it when people recognized him, but the man blocked his path again.
“I have a message for you,” he said, then offered him a piece of paper.
Bruce was itching to ask who it was from, what it said, and how the guy knew who he was. Instead he took the note, wary and fully conscious that it could be laced with some dangerous toxin that would seep into his skin upon contact and cause a Hulk-out in the middle of the street.
The man wore no gloves, though, so Bruce tightened his hold on the note, flipped it open, finding four words written inside. His eyes swept over them, time and time again, not understanding the message.
Either seeing his confusion or having delivered his message and completed his task, the man moved to walk past him – only to lean in at the last second and whisper a few short words in his ear that made Bruce stiffen, his fingers tightening painfully, almost tearing the note in two.
He stood like that in the middle of the plaza, not seeing or hearing anything for long, agonizing seconds. Eventually he grew aware of his paralysis and snapped himself out of it, turning to look for the man. He wasn’t sure what he would do if he found him, but it didn’t matter since the other was nowhere to be seen, vanished into the crowd, using Bruce’s shock to make his exit.
With his heart beating faster and sweat covering his skin, Bruce looked down at the note again, making sure there was nothing else written on it – no information that he had missed.
Just those four words, printed in a bland script, glaring up at him accusingly.
He folded the paper, shoved it in his pocket and looked around again, feeling cornered and like he was being watched from all sides although no one was paying any attention to him.
Bruce needed to get back to the Tower now – and by the time he got there, he needed to decide what he was going to do.
- - -
Like so often before, Bruce’s first instinct was to run; to take the bag he always had prepared in his closet, with the absolute necessities stashed inside, and vanish.
If he was being completely honest, it would have simply been convenient to leave. Yet he hesitated, resisting the temptation to distance himself from the problem. He had a choice, of which he was keenly aware. Multiple choices, actually, depending on how he wanted to proceed, but the outcome was anyone’s guess and some options tempted fate worse than disappearing into a third world country.
He couldn’t run this time, though. If he did, others would suffer for it, and while being noble often did people a disservice, despite what they believed at the time…
The folded note burned in his pocket, the printed words haunting his mind long after he had stopped glancing at them. If he dismissed the short message, selfishly saving himself, it still left at least one other person open to an attack.
Had it been anyone else, Bruce would have vanished.
But this was Tony.
Tony had given him a place to stay – multiple places, to be exact – accompanied by his trust when Bruce hardly deserved it; Tony had given him resources and left the backdoor unlocked, providing him the means of an easy escape should he need it, but firmly telling him, over and over, that just because the door was there didn’t mean he had to use it.
Had it been anyone but Tony…
Bruce sighed and told himself to suck it up. If he had truly thought it best to run, he wouldn’t have been heading back to the Tower, trying to decide on the best countermeasure. Just like during his years on the run, his mind kept leaning towards going on the defensive, whereas he knew that if he told Tony, the other man would demand to go on the offensive – which meant he couldn’t tell Tony anything at this point and risk him doing something stupid that would compromise them both.
Upon arriving at the Tower, Bruce slipped inside as discretely as possible and took the elevator directly to his floor. He grabbed two bags from the closet, swiftly selecting all the clothes he had that were functional and low-key. He double checked the pre-prepared bag for the most important things, then picked up the final items from the bathroom. He would have never packed so much just for himself, but he wasn’t planning on letting Tony leave his sight once he set the ball rolling, so they would both have to make do with the things he’d selected.
With one last look around, Bruce left his room and headed down to the lab area. As he exited the stairwell, he noticed Tony was in one of the work areas, adjusting a mechanical component that may have been from his armor. Tony was so focused on his work that Bruce easily passed him by, entering his own lab.
Setting down one of the bags, Bruce took the other one to the back of the room, stopping in front of a storage unit. The biometric lock opened at his proximity and Bruce reached inside, selecting a few containers and bottles which he stashed safely in the bag he was carrying, then closed the storage door and returned to pick up the second bag again, heading back to the hallway between the work areas.
J.A.R.V.I.S. let him into Tony’s lab without a hassle. “I need you to do something for me,” Bruce said before the AI could announce his entrance or Tony looked up from his work.
The other man frowned, fingers working slowly to make sense of whatever was bugging him with the mechanical part. “What?” he asked distractedly, still not looking up.
“First, I need you to pay attention to me,” Bruce pressed, forcing himself to be patient, to not hurry. Tony read people with an intuition that most didn’t think he possessed; if he thought something was up, his defenses would go up. It was a good self-protective measure to have, but Bruce didn’t have the time to battle it down and he would prefer to have Tony pliant and trusting instead of dragging his feet with suspicion.
Tony nodded, not looking like he was listening, but his fingers finally stopped, his lips forming silent words as if he were counting in his head, and then he looked up at Bruce, giving him a quick smile. The smile faded just as fast when he spied the bags he was carrying. “Are you leaving?” he asked, promptly dropping the part he had been working on, the sound of metal colliding against the work table painfully sharp.
“Calm down,” Bruce told him, knowing how easy it was to upset Tony with the mere insinuation that he was going to be abandoned; he had learned that the hard way. For such an independent person, Tony clung to the few people he let near him, and at some point Bruce had earned a place in that inner circle, even though he tried to keep reminding Tony he needed his space and might have to leave one day. Tony continuously dismissed the last point by saying they would figure it out, but Bruce had a feeling Tony would reluctantly let him leave if he felt it was necessary.
I could leave right now, he reminded himself. He would never have to know.
But Tony would find out, one way or another, and their friendship demanded that Bruce not abandon him.
“There’s somewhere I have to go – and I was hoping you would come with me,” Bruce stated. It was like offering a treat to a child, making a deal sound better than it was.
Tony swallowed it instantly, hook, line and sinker. “Oh?” he perked up visibly. “Where are we going?”
“That’s… complicated.” Bruce knew to keep the lies to a minimum. If he got too wrapped up in make-believe, Tony would start suspecting his motives and they would instantly be in the place where Tony was not cooperating.
Tony Stark was famous for not cooperating when he didn’t feel inspired to do so, and no amount of strong-arming was going to make him feel otherwise.
Bruce waited while Tony considered his words. It was like watching a machine process information, micro-expressions passing over his features. It took a while to see them, but Bruce had spent quite a few hours in Tony’s company by now and he was practiced in picking up those small signs that might be a threat; it made sense that he would eventually learn to recognize the non-threatening cues as well.
“Is something wrong?” Tony asked, less chipper. He was going on the offensive, sensing danger.
Bruce shook his head to make him drop the scent. “Not like that. It’s urgent, though, so we need to go right now.”
“I should finish this –”
It was as if they had both forgotten the part where Bruce had asked Tony to come with him and had jumped straight to the assumption that they were going together.
“Alright,” Tony complied. “You’ll need to give me some additional information, though, because I need to go and pack –”
“I already did,” Bruce cut him off.
A shade of caution entered Tony’s face again. “Are you sure nothing’s wrong?”
“I’m just in a hurry, is all,” Bruce shrugged – and saw that the nonchalant act worked.
“Well, since you’ve already thought of everything…” Tony shrugged back, then grinned. “Where are we going?”
“You could just say it’s a surprise.”
“Okay: it’s a surprise.”
“Now I really want to know,” Tony pursed his lips, but at the same time he began moving towards Bruce and the door, which was a good sign.
“Patience is a virtue,” Bruce informed him and turned to walk out the door first, knowing Tony would follow him. He felt a small pang of shame for abusing Tony’s trust in such a way; ever since they first met on the Helicarrier, right before the Battle of New York, Tony had shown uncanny interest and faith in Bruce and the other guy. He had trusted Bruce to show up for the fight when they had been separated and had restrained himself from asking too many questions about the Hulk afterwards.
Bruce hadn’t failed to notice the behavioral pattern he had affectionately dubbed as ‘eager puppy’: it was as if Bruce were the kind of older man in Tony’s life whom the other wanted to emulate, thus following closely on his heels and sucking on Bruce’s influence. Part of that had to do with Bruce’s intellect, which Tony found stimulating in the best ways possible, treating him like a rival in one moment and a confidante in the next. Sometimes Bruce wondered whether Tony had ever known a person who got even close to his own level of intellect, but the answer was easy enough to reach: he had not.
It was like having a worthy lab-partner, but it was also like being around someone he might one day call ‘brother’ – and that was why Bruce led the way to the elevator and pressed the button for the garage, offering Tony a serene smile to dissuade any doubts he might have.
If Bruce pretended Tony was his flesh and blood – someone he had to protect for reasons other than the fact that they were friends – perhaps he would stop feeling so damn guilty about what he was about to do.
- - -
Tony wasn’t an idiot: he knew something was up. Bruce didn’t just show up with two packed bags in tow, telling him they needed to go somewhere post-haste.
A surprise or not, Tony read Bruce’s subconscious message loud and clear: I need you to trust me.
While Tony wasn’t big on trusting people – not after Obadiah and the Ten Rings, or A.I.M., or S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Insight Project – he had wanted Bruce to trust him since day one, and one rarely earned trust without giving some in return.
When the elevator stopped at the garage and Bruce stepped out, looking from one parked vehicle to another, Tony wondered again about this immediate need to be somewhere else. If Bruce was getting jumpy, thinking someone was gunning for him and the Hulk, he wouldn’t have stopped by Tony’s shop to invite him along. He was also downplaying the urgency, probably for Tony’s benefit, and right now it looked like he didn’t have his entire plan figured out.
“We’re going by car, I take it?” Tony guessed and began walking towards one of his.
“Yes,” Bruce answered shortly, then added: “Not that one.”
“What’s wrong with this one?” Tony asked, feigning offense.
“Too flashy,” Bruce told him. “I would prefer if it didn’t spell ‘STARK’ on the license plate.”
Tony shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He looked around. “That one good enough for your secret mission?” he asked, pointing at one of the subtle company cars; a simple sedan without any bells or whistles.
“It will do – and this isn’t a secret mission,” Bruce told him, walking over to the car. “Where are the keys?”
Tony stepped over to a panel on the wall, unlocked it, and selected a car key from the inside. He tossed it to Bruce, who caught it deftly, immediately unlocking the car, throwing the bags into the back seat and sitting behind the wheel. Tony approached a bit more cautiously, opening the passenger side door. “Can I drive?” he asked. “You can just give me instructions.”
“Get in,” Bruce ordered, an urgent note in his voice.
“Are you sure you should be driving, anyway?” Tony asked, slowly taking a seat. “Road rage is a serious issue for a lot of people.”
“Buckle up, please,” Bruce replied simply and started the engine, pulling out of the parking space before Tony had even grabbed onto his seatbelt.
“I like driving when I’m in a car,” Tony pressed, fastening his seatbelt nonetheless.
“Then why do you have a chauffeur?” Bruce asked, taking them out of the garage.
“How many times have you seen Happy driving when I’m in the car?” Tony challenged.
“I’m driving,” Bruce said with an air of finality, and Tony let it go.
“So, about this secret mission –”
“Not a mission.”
“Whatever. I’ll call it that because you’re being very secretive and mission-like about it.” Tony looked out the window, trying to guess where they were headed. They turned left onto FDR Drive, left the island of Manhattan, then continued north on I-87. After they had driven north for a few hours, Tony started losing interest in the scenery and dug out his phone, checking his messages. Bruce gave him a look from the corner of his eye, which Tony faked not noticing; if Bruce wanted to be unforthcoming about their destination, he couldn’t blame Tony for finding ways to occupy himself until they got there.
- - -
After they entered Connecticut, Bruce began to feel the familiar urge to hide his trail. Even in a less conspicuous vehicle he knew the plates could be tracked very easily. Normally he would have preferred disappearing in the crowd, but with Tony tagging along he needed a different strategy; in a bus, it was just a matter of minutes before someone would recognize Iron Man.
So, after a small debate, he left larger roads and headed for the outskirts of the nearest city, driving around until he spotted a shabby-looking car dealership. He parked the car in the yard, taking a look at the junk surrounding them. “Stay in the car,” he told Tony, then got out before Tony had even raised his gaze from his phone.
Bruce looked around for a salesperson or the owner of the dump. It was getting late but a man approached him soon after, looking suspiciously at Bruce.
“I need to buy a car,” Bruce told him. “I need it right away, I’ll be paying in cash.”
The man’s eyes moved towards the car he had arrived in. “You looking to sell that one?”
“I would, but I don’t exactly have the paperwork for it,” Bruce admitted.
“If you have the cash, I might have a car for you,” the man said slowly. He kept looking at Bruce’s car, and it was very unlikely it would be still standing there come morning.
“I’ll take a look,” Bruce nodded, and followed the man to the other side of the building. There were a few options and he picked a trusty-looking pickup that still had some miles left on it.
Money exchanged hands, no receipt necessary, and Bruce drove the truck out next to their car, exiting to go fetch their bags and Tony.
“What’s that for?” Tony asked as he got out, glancing at the dirty, worn truck.
“We’re switching cars,” Bruce informed him.
“Why?” Tony frowned and looked suspiciously at the man still standing in the yard.
“Please get in the car,” Bruce requested.
Tony again directed his eyes at their new vehicle. “How much did you pay for this?” he asked, face scrunching up. He looked like he might go and pop the hood at any given second.
“You’re an engineer: if it breaks down, you’ll fix it,” Bruce told him and climbed in. Tony followed him, slower, sniffing at the dusty interior.
“Did you just sell my company’s car to that guy?” he asked then, pointing at the owner of the place.
“No, but I paid him enough for this one that he’ll take care of it for us,” Bruce replied and started the engine, pulling out of the yard. They needed to go and get some gas, after which Bruce needed to decide what he was going to do next.
“Take care of it, my ass,” Tony muttered and shifted in his seat, taking a look around the truck’s interior again.
“I need us to keep a low profile,” Bruce explained.
“That car was pretty low profile.”
“It was also owned by Stark Industries.”
“Which is a problem why, exactly?” Tony frowned. “I’m starting to get the feeling that this secret mission is going to cost me. Did you pack my wallet?”
“I have enough cash to get by,” Bruce replied simply.
Tony blinked at him, then braced himself as Bruce spotted a very convenient-looking gas station and pulled off the road a bit too fast. While Tony gave him an accusing look, Bruce stopped the truck and took a look around the worn-down pumps and the small convenience store.
“I’m going to fill up the tank and go inside for something to eat. Do you need to go to the bathroom?” Bruce asked the other man.
“Yes, Mom,” Tony replied bitingly.
“I’ll get the key,” Bruce offered.
“Why can’t I do that? Also, couldn’t we have chosen a place that’s actually seen some maintenance in this century?”
“I need you to stay unrecognized,” Bruce told him. “Otherwise the whole low profile thing is for nothing.” He waited a few seconds to let Tony stew on that. “I’ll get you some coffee while I’m in there,” he promised.
“Make it large,” Tony grumbled, but he did wait in the truck while Bruce went to get the bathroom key, then kept his head down while going to the bathroom – not that there were many people around and none of them looked interested in the two of them.
Bruce watched him go then quickly climbed back in the cab of the truck, searching one of the bags until he found the bottles and containers he had placed in there before leaving his lab. He carefully selected two – a bottle and a rectangular container – and put them in his pocket, then slid back out and proceeded to fill up the tank. After that was done he fetched the canisters he had seen in the bed of the truck when checking it out at the dealer’s and filled them up as well; if he could help it, this would be the only stop he made until he knew where he was headed. The less contact they had with the outside world, the better.
Tony came back soon after, his face telling the whole tale regarding how he felt about the bathroom facilities. He gave Bruce the key, though, and got back in the truck.
Bruce went to the bathroom himself and then inside to pay for the gas and get Tony an extra large coffee, as well as various other edible items that would keep well on the long drive.
After he had a bag full of groceries, he stopped at a tall table near the door meant for customers who decided to eat some of the fast foods available. His hands moved quickly, placing the coffee on the table and the large bag beside it, pretending to be adding sugar into Tony’s drink.
He found the small rectangular container instantly, slipping it open, and shook three pills out of it. Working the top of the coffee cup open, the broke down the pills the best he could and dropped them in, then found the bottle and unscrewed it, carefully tipping it over the coffee, his eyes watching small drops fall down, one after another, until he believed it was enough and screwed the bottle shut again, then fixed the lid of the coffee back in place.
As he picked up his bag and coffee, he turned briefly to thank the clerk, but found the young man engrossed in something showing on the small TV near the ceiling, not even paying attention to him.
Bruce exited the door and walked back to their truck, moving around it to his side and opened the door. Tony glanced at him, looking bored, then reached out to take the coffee from him. Bruce knew he could count on one hand the number of people from whom Tony would accept items – any items – and he tried not to let it show on his face how horribly guilty he felt to be included on that list.
Tony sniffed the coffee, then sipped it, making a face. “God, this is awful,” he said – then kept drinking. Bruce hummed and climbed into the truck, setting the grocery bag between their seats with the other two bags. Tony glanced at it, then peered inside to see what he had selected, making a face again. “Should have asked you to bring me a slice of that pizza they were advertising in the window.”
“If the coffee was that bad, imagine the pizza,” Bruce told him.
“You’re probably right. I don’t need a stomach bug,” Tony nodded, then buckled up his seatbelt as Bruce started the engine and kept drinking his coffee, looking rather pleased with the world for the time being.
Twenty minutes later, Tony had finished his large coffee and was playing with his phone again. Bruce itched to tell him to stop but restrained himself for now.
Ten minutes after that, Tony slumped a little in his seat. Bruce found a place to stop by the road, pulling up, then took the phone from Tony’s unresisting grip and took a look at him: the other man was dead to the world, asleep.
Bruce turned off the phone then opened it, taking out the battery and any other parts he could pry loose without actually cracking it in two. A few of the components he threw out the window right then and there, then hid the rest before pulling away and continuing down the deserted road.
While he had been on the run, Bruce’s body had learned to go without rest for impressively long times. He got better at it every year, and one theory was that the closer he was to accepting the other guy as part of him, the more he could draw from the gamma monster’s power and endurance.
If that failed, he had a few specially designed drugs that would keep him alert, but he didn’t like depending on them right away, still riding the sense of danger he had carried inside since Manhattan.
He drove through the night and long into the next day, regularly checking on Tony. The man remained unconscious.
When Bruce knew he was hitting the limit of the drugs he had slipped into Tony’s coffee, he turned onto a small dead end road, driving to the very end before killing the engine and unbuckling his belt.
To clear his head, he stepped out for a moment, breathing in fresh air. They were somewhere in New Hampshire, still heading north. He had found a few old maps in the in the glove compartment but as he was keeping off the main roads, it was hard to keep track of where exactly they were.
Feeling a bit more awake and alert, he got back in the truck and set up a small chemistry set. He split a few pills and mixed them with two other liquids, stirring the liquid carefully to make sure they were sufficiently dissolved, then pulled a syringe from the bag. After carefully filling the syringe he lifted Tony’s sleeve, fixed a tourniquet around his arm, and found a vein. Placing the needle at the vein, he slowly pushed it in. He took his time pushing the drug into the vein, releasing one hand to lift Tony’s eyelid to watch for a reaction.
He spied a tiny flicker of red but nothing more, and continued at an even slower rate, carefully pulling the needle from Tony’s arm once he was done and pressing a clean bandage over the wound to stop the bleeding.
It was fortunate, perhaps, that Tony had theorized that the drugs that helped him control the most volatile sides of Extremis could possibly work on the Hulk. They had conducted some tests, most of which rendered Tony nigh on catatonic, but never got around to actually trying them on the other guy. The knowledge Bruce had gained was enough to sedate Tony, though, without a chance of him waking up unexpectedly.
With a sigh he put the items away, not dwelling on the breach of Tony’s trust. This was for Tony’s own good, whether he chose to see that or not, and Bruce was not going to regret it. After all, he would have regretted the other option even more, either leaving Tony in New York or letting him sabotage their escape.
After making sure Tony was comfortable and warm, Bruce started the engine and drove back to the road, still heading north.
- - -
When Tony woke up, it felt like he had slept for a day after staying up for two and a half. He stared straight ahead for a minute, uncomprehending, brain feeling like it had been enclosed in a vacuum bag.
Eventually he realized he wasn’t hallucinating the vision of a wall of green around him. His nostrils flared, trying to pull more oxygen into his lungs and bloodstream, but his head still ached and he felt a little removed from his body.
It took him a few tries to lift his hand to the door handle, and several more to unbuckle the seat belt and untangle himself from it. As he slid down from his seat he almost crumbled to the ground, only his iron hold on the door keeping him upright.
A sound from behind him made him start and he turned around, still clinging to the door for support, body braced to fight until his brain got the message that it was just Bruce, sorting through bags near the rear tire of the pickup truck.
“Bruce,” Tony blurted out and instantly felt like he was going to throw up. “Where the fuck are we?” he asked despite his stomach’s protestations, and held down his lunch like a champ.
Bruce looked up at him, then gave the wall of green a casual glance. “Maine.”
‘Maine’, Tony lip-synched, taking another look. He was actually starting to separate the trees from the forest, his nausea lifting slightly. “Why are we in Maine?” he dared to ask next. “Also, how long did I sleep?” The last thing he remembered was leaving the gas station, and that had been somewhere in Connecticut.
No wonder he felt more than a little out of sorts.
He looked back at Bruce, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of trees. “Why are we in Maine?”
Bruce kept digging through the bags, re-arranging things. Tony saw clothes and food, some camping supplies. No gadgets or computers, which gave him a bad vibe that this wasn’t actually a mission.
“In case it hasn’t come up, I’m not exactly a fan of camping,” Tony declared. “Also, someone didn’t allow me to pack for this trip, so I’m feeling a little under-dressed, unprepared and definitely underwhelmed by the whole experience.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Did I just sleep for four hundred miles?” he murmured, disbelieving.
“A little more than that,” Bruce told him and straightened, hoisting up one of the two remaining bags. “We need to start moving.”
“Moving?” Tony blinked at him.
“Drink this,” Bruce went on, tossing a plastic bottle at Tony. In the state he was in, Tony didn’t even try to catch it, his eyes following its fall to his feet. Gatorade. “It will make you feel better,” Bruce promised.
Tony slowly reached down and picked it up, opening it with fingers that felt far less steady than normal. He got the bottle open, though, and realized he was really thirsty, drinking half of it in one go. Once the worst of the thirst was quenched, he kept suckling at the top of the bottle and took another look around.
They were in the middle of nowhere, at the end of an overgrown forest road that had definitely seen better days. As far as he could see, there were no signs pointing towards a trail or a hiking path.
Tony instinctively reached for his pocket; his phone could tell him exactly where they were. It wasn’t there, though. Frowning, he checked all his pockets, then turned around and searched his seat, under and beside it, but found no traces of his phone.
“Where’s my phone?” Tony asked Bruce, guessing he had dropped it in his sleep and the other man had stashed it away.
“You can’t have your phone,” Bruce answered.
“Why not?” Tony whipped around again, leaning heavily against the truck’s door for balance once he was facing Bruce again. “Why can’t I have my phone? I need my phone. If this is some kind of hippie yoga retreat, I respect your conviction, but I didn’t sign up for this and I… Just give me back my phone,” he snapped, certain that Bruce had taken it.
Bruce dug into his bag and threw the familiar shape of Tony’s phone at him. He almost had to drop the bottle in favor of catching it, but managed to juggle both.
The phone felt lighter than normal in his grip and Tony soon figured out why: it was missing most of its insides. With a narrowed gaze he looked up at Bruce, feeling like a dog cheated out of his bone. “Where’s the rest of it?”
“You wanted the phone.”
“All of it,” Tony rolled his eyes. Fuck did that hurt. “What’s going on?” he asked then, before Bruce could give him the gory details of how his phone had ended up in the state it was in.
“We need to lay low,” Bruce informed him. “No contact with the outside world. That includes your phone.”
“My phone is encrypted!” Tony burst out. “Why are we here?” he asked, furiously pointing at the woods, almost hitting his hand on the truck door as he did. “What’s up with this ‘laying low’ bullshit?!”
“You need to trust me,” Bruce replied, insufferably patient and calm.
“That’s getting a bit old,” Tony retorted. “I’ve come this far without a fight. I deserve to know what’s going on.” He waited, as patiently as he could.
Bruce looked like he was thinking about it, then shook his head and picked up the second bag, offering it to Tony.
Tony refused to take it.
Bruce scowled at him, expression darkening so swiftly Tony backed up inch by inch until the truck door prevented him from moving farther back. “Carry the bag and stop fighting me,” Bruce told him, dumping the bag at Tony’s feet, then started off towards the treeline.
“I’m taking the truck and going back!” Tony shouted after him.
“I broke the engine,” came a weary reply.
Tony stepped away from the truck door, slammed it shut, then rounded the front of the truck and popped the hood. Sure enough, a few key components were missing and nowhere to be seen. Tony looked around but couldn’t see anything but moss and trees and the dirt road.
Desperate fury coiled inside him and he looked after Bruce, who was still making his way into the trees – slowly, as if giving Tony time to make up his mind.
“Goddammit,” Tony swore with a vengeance and stomped back around the truck, yanking the bag up from the ground. It weighed more than it looked and he struggled to get it into a position he could actually carry it in, then took off after Bruce.
He began catching up with him after a few minutes, muttering and then throwing a particularly nice tantrum in Italian when he stepped into a sneaky little puddle.
After a few miles he decided sneakers were not the best shoes for walking, soaking wet or not. “Did you at least bring hiking boots for us?!” Tony yelled at Bruce, who seemed to keep a safe distance between them on purpose.
There was no answer, so he took that as a ‘no’.
- - -
Predictably, Tony’s cooperation had ended when it was time to move on foot – although to be honest, his cooperation may well have ended several hundred miles ago if not for the fact that he had been unconscious.
Bruce pressed on, knowing that Tony was following. He could hear the other man, huffing and puffing his irritation until it became a pointless waste of breath. For a few hours Tony was silent, trudging on valiantly, but the woods eventually began to grow dark and Bruce knew it was time to make camp.
As he stopped and lowered his bag to the ground, he lamented not taking the risk of stopping at one of the stores in the area: he could have gotten them the makings of an actual shelter, but the tarp he had brought along would have to do. After all, leaving Tony in the car alone while he went to make his purchases had been too much of a risk, even out here; turning his attention away and trusting other people’s goodness had lost him numerous belongings over the years while on the road, and he wasn’t about to lose track of Tony.
“Are we there yet?” Tony asked, imitating a bored child as he walked up to Bruce. He didn’t look like a child, though; he searched their surroundings with critical eyes, assessing the situation and the way Bruce was opening his bag and pulling out items. It wouldn’t fail his notice that Bruce was making camp. “Please tell me you at least have a tent in there,” Tony finally said.
“Nope,” Bruce shook his head and spread out the tarp. “You’re an engineer; figure out a way we can use this against the ground and have it give us shelter from wind and rain.”
Tony stared at him, clearly taking his time choosing between replies instead of just spitting out the first thing that occurred to him. Bruce was thankful for his restraint, knowing what had to be running through Tony’s head. “Fine,” Tony eventually said and dropped his own bag to the ground without much consideration for the things inside. It was a good thing Bruce had given him mostly clothes to carry.
While Bruce prepared them a simple dinner with the limited tools and ingredients at his disposal – another reminder they were severely unprepared for this trip – Tony busied himself with the tarp. He was no boy-scout, but he could apparently factor in the terrain and eventually managed to fasten the tarp in place and make an adequate shelter.
By the time they both finished their tasks, dusk had truly fallen and Bruce moved their belongings to the tarp, then offered Tony a small bowl of dried fruit and meat, a power bar and a water bottle. “Try to ration the water,” Bruce cautioned. “No way of knowing when we’ll get a refill.”
Tony stared at the offered items like they were poisoned.
Bruce sighed and lowered them onto the tarp between them. “You need to eat.”
“You need to tell me what’s going on,” Tony countered – then shivered a bit. It was getting chilly and it would only get colder the further the night progressed.
Bruce twisted around and dug into the bag Tony had been carrying, pulling out a long, warm jacket. He offered it to Tony, then just laid it out beside the other man when Tony made no move to take it. “I can’t tell you yet,” he replied. It wasn’t the truth, exactly, but he didn’t possess the words that would inform Tony of the truth in a way that didn’t end unpleasantly for one or both of them.
“You could tell me where we’re headed,” Tony haggled and slowly picked up the water bottle, inspecting the seal of the cap. Bruce kept his face neutral; it looked almost like Tony was suspecting foul play when it had actually already taken place many long hours ago… He didn’t seem to be aware that Bruce had drugged his coffee and that meant Bruce shouldn’t feed his guilty conscience when it was utterly pointless and detrimental to their survival.
Finding the cap unbroken, Tony twisted it open and drank, visibly cutting back before he got too greedy. He tightened the cap back into place and proceeded to stare at the bottle with a contemplative look, then shivered again and looked around at the now-dark forest.
“Try to get some sleep,” Bruce said softly.
At his words, Tony’s head whipped around, eyes nailed on Bruce’s face. “What about you?”
“I can go on for a bit longer,” Bruce told him.
“Doesn’t mean you should.”
Bruce looked out into the darkness. The lack of light, artificial or natural, had stopped unnerving him years ago when he would spend weeks at a time away from other human beings. “It’s not the first time I’ve traveled like this. I know my limits.”
Tony shifted, stilled, then slowly reached for the jacket and pulled it on, zipping it up. “Aren’t you cold?” he asked. “I’m pretty sure I can manage if you would rather…” He didn’t finish – didn’t dig into the bag to see what else was there, as if he thought he wasn’t supposed to.
Bruce shook his head, the motion mostly lost in the dark. He knew how Tony felt about cold places after Afghanistan, where the cave had gotten very cold at night. Even with Extremis, it didn’t mean he liked it even when he could survive it. “I’m fine. There are some clothes I can put on if I get cold.” He would not; he was thick-skinned and it was possible the other guy took care of the rest, seeing as wandering around half-naked for days at a time during his exile hadn’t killed him; it was often unpleasant but rarely unbearable.
Silence fell between them, uncustomary since Tony often filled it with words. Bruce heard him pick up the bowl and eat some of the food he had laid out, then eventually pulled up the hood of the jacket and laid down, shifting around until he found a good position.
Bruce remained awake, listening to Tony’s breaths ease into a sleeping rhythm and the occasional noises coming from the forest. There was no rain that night and no nasty wind, either, which was lucky.
When dawn began to approach, Tony stirred and sat up sharply, wordlessly staring at the trees like he was figuring out a very complex formula in his mind. “Why can’t you tell me?” he finally asked Bruce, continuing the conversation from the last night as if they had never stopped.
“I just can’t,” Bruce countered.
“That’s not an argument!” Tony snapped. His hair was a mess from sleeping, his beard less trimmed. He was starting to look like a person who hadn’t cleaned up in a few days, which was exactly the truth.
“Then stop pushing me for answers,” Bruce told him and got to his feet, stretching slowly to get his blood running.
“I’m going back down to the truck,” Tony threatened.
“Do you even know where we came from?”
Tony looked around, frowning, then pointed.
“No,” Bruce shook his head.
“Why should I trust you?” Tony asked, clearly meaning their argument about the direction of the truck, but to Bruce’s ears it was the beginning of a much deeper accusation – an accusation that could put them both in danger, especially Tony himself.
“Have I given you reason to doubt our friendship?” Bruce asked.
If Tony was sensing something was off, he would tell Bruce; he wasn’t known for any kind of restraint when it came to keeping secrets. While Bruce’s query sounded innocent, it had the distinct possibility of becoming the very opposite.
Tony looked unhappy. “Yes,” he replied – then pointed at their surroundings. “You’ve dragged me into the middle of nowhere with no explanation whatsoever. Are we on a mission? Are you running? Why am I here? Why did you destroy my phone, really?”
“I needed to take us off the grid,” Bruce said simply, knowing he was approaching the limit of how much evasiveness Tony would be willing to deal with. It was shocking he had come this far and Bruce knew he needed to change tactics soon.
“Well, I can’t think of any place farther off than this,” Tony rolled his eyes.
Bruce could think of a hundred more, but they took time – which he hadn’t had – and Tony tagging along was problematic. Maybe he should have gone on his own while he had had the chance. “We should head out soon,” he said instead.
“I’m gonna go and take a leak,” Tony announced and got up, taking some of his frustration out on the jacket as he struggled to remove it.
Bruce’s eyes followed the other man as Tony took off into the trees. He knew Tony wouldn’t try to go back on his own, regardless of his posturing, but he didn’t exactly feel safe yet, either.
They needed to get further away, then review their options – and Bruce also needed to decide how much of the truth he could reveal, and if there was any middle ground between ‘none’ and ‘all’ where Tony was concerned.