Chapter Ten: Reconcile and Retribution
The tentative truce between Steve and Tony managed to last the entirety of the planning session; much to the rest of the team's surprise and after they had a basic plan in place the two men parted fairly amicably. Bruce couldn't help but feel relieved that some of the tension had been alleviated, it would have made life in the tower almost unbearable and the way things were going they needed to stand united. After Tony left the room the physicist approached Steve somewhat nervously, giving a small cough to garner the man attention.
"I wanted to say thank you."
The Captain looked up, confusion evident in the blue eyes.
Bruce tried not to fidget under Steve's earnest stare, even though they had resolved quite a few of their differences the previous day he still felt a little wary talking to the younger man.
"For talking to Howard... And not just dismissing Tony."
The blonde shrugged nonchalantly but refused to meet his eye, clearly uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was taking. Bruce rolled his eyes in slight exasperation; honestly for all their differences Steve and Tony shared some startling similarities but it was only when they were tested did they show.
"Nothing to thank me for Doctor, I think you put it quite aptly yesterday, the important thing is not our differences but finding out what has been done to Howard and why. This truce between me and Tony is a means to an end for both of us as much as I wish it were the contrary."
There was genuine sadness in the super-soldier's voice and a lost look in his eyes that worried Bruce. He had never really considered Steve's stand-point; a gross oversight now that he really thought about it and just the thought of what the young and yet far older man had experienced made the physicist want to shudder.
Was it any wonder they always argued when they hadn't taken the time to really get to know one another? Bruce felt the shame scalding his insides.
"Steve I don't believe for a second that Tony is just using you to get what he wants. As much as he pretends that it doesn't your opinion does matter to him, it matters to all of us and we're here to listen to what you have to say, whatever it may be."
He offered a small smile as he emphasized the last few words and Steve's lips twitched in response.
"If you're offering to be my therapist you're a bit late I've already got one; S.H.I.E.L.D mandated and everything."
The physicist couldn't quite suppress the small chuckle at Steve's comment.
"Me a therapist? Have you met me? No, I was thinking something more along the lines of a friend."
The blonde's eyes widened slightly; while it was true they all worked together and lived together there were still rifts between them, even if they were unintentional. Steve respected Bruce greatly; his mind was often as confusing as Tony's but his reserved nature often meant he faded into the background. The fact that he was extending the olive branch so to speak really meant a lot to him and he felt a small smile creep across his face.
"That sounds pretty swell Doc." He replied.
"Well... Good." There was an edge to the older man's voice as though he hadn't expected the blonde to accept his offer.
An uneasy silence passed over them; soon Bruce's skittishness was back in full force and Steve couldn't help but marvel at the quick changes in demeanor. The physicist noticed the stares and stuck his hands in his pockets, twisting them in the fabric as his discomfort overcame him and within minutes Bruce had excused himself practically running to the lab. Not before grabbing a few breakfast items presumably for their guest.
Steve merely shook his head in exasperated amusement; as much as the world around him was changing there were some things that always stayed the same.
In the lab Bruce had to re-center himself; he honestly hadn't known what he'd been doing when he been talking to Steve, the words had just projectile vomited themselves from his mouth. But he had meant everything he'd said even if he'd been somewhat reluctant to say it.
Absent-mindedly he checked through the security footage from the night noting nothing of any real significance the physicist grabbed the luke-warm croissants and orange juice he'd brought with him and walked into the medical room.
Howard was already awake and his eyes narrowed into a sullen glare as he spotted Bruce.
"Oh, it's you."
Bruce brushed of the disdain with ease he'd been subjected to far worse that what this man could throw at him. Affixing a rigid smile to his face he approached the elder Stark brandishing the simple breakfast in an almost teasing manner.
"Yes it's me. I take it from your tone that you're not hungry." Bruce retorted, turning to leave his patience stretching thin.
Howard's glare intensified and he mumbled a few choice curse words under his breath, stubbornly holding out his hand to accept the tray. The physicist handed it to him without a fuss and watched as he devoured the pastries like a ravenous beast and Bruce couldn't blame him.
The other man finished his breakfast before once again pinning the physicist with that unfathomable glare.
"Didn't your parents ever tell you it was rude to stare?"
The anger at the comment caught Bruce off guard and it took all of his control to force the Hulk back.
"My parents have nothing to do with this; this is all about you Mr. Stark." He replied voice and body language as neutral as he could get it.
Howard's expression changed and a slightly maniacal smile crossed his lips as he moved to exploit the chink in Bruce's armor. Like father like son, Howard knew weakness when he saw it but unlike Tony Howard wasn't above taking advantage of it to obtain his goals (at least most of the time).
"Ah... So you're one of those?"
"One of what?" The physicist snapped back before forcefully putting a lid on his irritation.
Stark merely continued to smile that cruel smile, this was something he could do; manipulation and intimidation were the fundamentals of the business world and Howard Stark had been well schooled in both.
"An abandoned one, whore of a mother couldn't cope so they threw you out in the cold; unloved."
Who was this man with the audacity to insult his mother?
Bruce took a deep steadying breath; he could feel the green starting to tint his iris and knew that he had to clamp down on the pure rage that was seething to the forefront. Howard was pushing his buttons on purpose; lashing out to defend himself Bruce knew that. It didn't make the words any easier to hear though or mean that they cut any less deeply.
"My mother was not a whore."
He hadn't meant to reply, the words had just slipped out but the elder Stark had latched on and was going in for the kill.
"Maybe your daddy was just too soft then, needed to reprimand you more? Then again there isn't much to be done with a problem child they should be thrown in a lake in my opinion, know I would have done so been given the chance but you do the best you can."
Anger and numb horror at the man's words circled in Bruce's stomach and he found his last shred of control slipping away, the stress and lack of real sleep finally taking its toll. Hulk was roaring in protest at the slight to Bruce; at the horrifying slight to his friend and at the callous, evil words the man had spoken. Howard had chosen his weapons carefully but had missed out on a few vital points that would have altered his game plan and now he was going to see the error of his oversight.
Eyes burning that luminous, poisonous green the physicist shot forward and grabbed the elder Stark by the front of his shirt, lifting the man from the bed with ease. His limbs were trembling as he fought off the impending transformation, there was no stopping it now both Bruce and Hulk were pissed. It also wasn't often they agreed on something so when Bruce spoke he spoke for both of them, his voice low and rough as gravel.
"Listen to me Stark. You are a pathetic excuse for a father and how Tony became half the man he is today I'll never know and if hear you talking about 'disposing' of him again I may just take after my father and dispose of you."
Howard dangled limply in Bruce's grasp a look of pure fear on his face as he stared into the glowing green eyes. Normally the physicist would have recoiled at such a look but he wanted this man to be afraid; he'd tempted fate and asked for his wrath and Bruce was more than happy to bestow it. He let the man drop to the bed with a bounce and then turned and practically ran from the room.
He only just made it to the Green Room in time.
"Sir, Doctor Banner has entered the Green Room."
Tony looked up from the schematic he was working on, a worried look on his face. It had been months since Bruce had had an 'unsanctioned' incident (which had admittedly been totally his fault) and the fact he was having one now didn't bode well.
"Has Jolly Green made an appearance yet?"
"Yes Sir..." JARVIS replied "Mr. Hulk 'made an appearance' as soon as Doctor Banner entered the room."
Well shit; that wasn't a good sign.
Tony closed the documents and raced from the shop; on his way down to Green Room he was met by Steve who looked just as concerned as him.
"JARVIS can you tell us what set Banner off?"
If it had been anyone else asking it would have sounded like a condemnation but the worry in the billionaire's voice was far too genuine to be anything but real and Steve felt a twinge of guilt.
"It appeared that Doctor Banner had an altercation with Mr. Stark senior. Sir."
Fuck, with a shit scoop on top.
The super soldier tried and failed to hide his look of alarm while Tony merely grimaced at JARVIS's revelation and the billionaire sprung into action.
"Pull up the footage and send it to my phone, I want to know what the old goat said."
The AI quickly complied and soon the two men were watching the confrontation that occurred in the medical lab. Tony's grimace turned into a tight-lipped snarl and the blonde's face went drained of all its color. He honestly couldn't believe what he had just witnessed; the words that had come out of Howard's mouth. Steve had known that the man had a wicked tongue it was a trait his son had inherited and embraced wholeheartedly but to hear him callously taunt his teammate and then casually comment that he wished he'd drowned his son was something he couldn't quite reconcile. He knew that many years had passed between them and Howard had changed during that time but what had happened to make the man so bitter and twisted as to lash out at someone only trying to help?
It made Steve feel sick to the stomach but there had to be a reason.
"Just don't Steve."
"Don't what?" Steve's eyes narrowed in confusion.
"Defend him… "
"I wasn't goi…"
Tony sighed and cut across him.
"I can see the look on your face, you're trying to rationalize what he said, find the reasons behind it but I can tell you now there are none. He's just a fucking vile bastard who likes to cause pain and suffering, no logic, no reason, just pain."
Steve couldn't believe that, refused to believe that. The elder Stark had once been a good man and an even better friend; he was sure that the Howard he had grown so fond of was still in there somewhere beneath the vitriol. Beside him he could sense Tony seething with anger and struggling to keep it under wraps.
"So what do we do now?" The blonde asked.
The billionaire's jaw clenched as though the choice between what he needed to do and what he actually wanted to do was causing him physical pain. He tucked the phone back into his pocket trying to banish the things he'd just witnessed from his mind.
"Well first things first we go and make sure Bruce is ok, he's not going to be feeling too proud of himself after that little outburst..." Here Tony gave a feral grin "... And then I'm going to have a little chat with my daddy dearest."
The sarcastic, vicious tone of the billionaire's voice made Steve shudder and he was suddenly very concerned for his friends safety. He'd heard about Tony's earlier outburst from Clint and he had to admit he wasn't exactly keen to see it repeated. Maybe he could ask for Bruce's help to keep the other genius in line but somehow he doubted the physicist would feel up to helping.
The door to the Green Room was imposing, there just wasn't any other way to describe it. Steve hadn't visited this particular room before and he could honestly say he was glad for it.
"JARVIS has Bruce come back yet?" Tony asked.
Although they couldn't hear anything through the immense amount of soundproofing the walls shook from the forces inside.
"Forget that question; I'm going to take the answer as a resounding no."
The billionaire started punching in a long and complicated number sequence into the electronic panel while Steve watched on with fascination and a small amount of carefully concealed fear. Finally the panel beeped loudly 'access granted' flashing on the display and Tony smiled that unnerving smile again making Steve feel nervous that he was about to do something stupid.
"So Capsicle you coming in?" He asked casually leaning against the wall.
Yup, definitely something stupid. The soldiers eyes almost bugged out of his head at the thought of going in there without any kind of protection available.
"Are you crazy Tony? The way Hulk is right now he'll rip you limb from limb."
The billionaire shrugged off his comment effortlessly and stood up straight, staring deep into Steve's eyes with an earnestness that made the blonde's heart hurt.
"Trust me, Bruce, Hulk and I have been working on this. You're perfectly safe."
There was such conviction and blind, loyal faith in Tony's voice that he just couldn't help but give in. He wanted to see that the other man was right, to see that Hulk could be trusted even in his worst state but he still had his doubts.
The billionaire smiled as he hit the button and the door slid open.
The room was more like a cavern than a room with metal plates drilled into bedrock to reinforce the structure. Strewn across the floor there were various clusters of junk metal, plastic and wood; some of which had already taken a beating and was that a waterfall pool? Steve couldn't hold back the small gasp of laughter and shot an amused look at Tony, who just grinned in response.
The smiles didn't last long as a roar pierced the air reminding both men of why they were there.
The Hulk waa on the far side of the room making short work of a bunch of scaffolding his huge fists swinging wildly and a constant low growl erputing from his chest. Moving more boldly than he felt the billionaire walked forward and cupped his hands around his mouth.
"Hey! Big Guy!" He bellowed.
Hulk stopped and turned, the green eyes narrowed in distrust.
"Away Tony, Away!" He ground out, swinging his giant arm in the direction of the door.
"Sorry Big Guy, not going to happen. Now why don't you tell me what's going on in that big green head of yours."
The giant stopped his destruction and sat down heavily.
"Pain. Past. Old man hurt Banner."
Tony could sympathize with that and he sat down next to Hulk, leaning against the giant green leg.
"Yeah, he's good at that... But you're safe now, I won't let him hurt you or Bruce anymore."
The Hulk grunted softly fists clenched tightly in his lap and Steve watched with fascination as the two interacted with one another. He could see the agitation still evident in the Hulk but he was controlling it amazingly well, far better than he had ever imagined.
"Hulk, smash old man."
"I know buddy, but you can't smash everything all the time as much as I'd agree this time."
This time the giant gave a snort that sounded suspciously like laughter.
"Tony want smash too?"
"I do but this time I can't." He replied somewhat forelornly.
"Understand. But no like. Banner back now."
The Hulk went completely still as the transformation reverted and within a few minutes an exhausted looking Bruce was spread-eagled on the floor. Tony stood and headed over to an alcove in the wall pulling out a spare set of clothing and the heading back out the physicist. With a cheeky grin on his face the billionaire prodded Bruce with his foot, eliciting a groan from the other man.
"Rise and shine, sleeping beauty."
Bruce swatted at the foot poking his side mumbling incoherently into the floor. Taking that as a reason to continue the billionaire dropped the clothes on the prone man's head causing him to sqwark in surprize and bolt upright.
"You're an ass Stark." He muttered, brown eyes narrowed in contempt.
Tony laughed the insult off and walked back over to Steve, who looked as if he was struggling to wrap his head around what had just happened. Bruce sighed and dressed himself quickly before heading over to his team-mates a shameful look on his face but before he even had the chance apologize Tony held up his hand to stop him talking.
"Don't want to hear it Brucey." There was a finality to his tone.
Bruce ignored it.
"I threatened him Tony and then Hulked-out..." There was a distateful edge to his voice as he used that phrase "...How can you be okay with that?"
The billionaire shrugged and leaned on the other man's shoulder, ignoring the way he flinched at the contact.
"Because he deserved it; JARVIS showed us what he said... And well your coping mechanism was far better than mine."
The physicist pulled away looking thoroughly scandalized at what Tony was implying.
"I turned into the Hulk! How is that better?!"
"You didn't actually hurt anyone, if you remember rightly I punched the bastard in the face."
Bruce looked completely aghast at the billionaire's logic and shook his head in exasperation; unable or unwilling to come up with an argument at that point in time.
"And speaking of that bastard I think it's time I paid him a little visit. He needs to learn that there are some house rules he has to follow unless he wants to go back to being a human popsicle."
Bruce and Steve shared a look knowing that there was no use trying to dissuade Tony, he had made his mind up and that was that. All they could do now was manage damage control and pray that everyone made it through unscathed.