Chapter Fourteen: Old Nemesis
Bruce worked long into the next morning analysing all of the data to the best of his ability and what he found horrified him. it wasn't any wonder they had kept this so secret; what they had done to Howard had broken just about every ethical, moral and human rights law ever written. The depravity and abuse of power they'd been allowed to get away with was obscene and it made him feel sick and very, very angry.
He knew it was slightly hypocritical of him to judge what they had done considering his own less than stellar past; but even he'd had his limits and this had crossed just about every one of them.
The physicist let out a weary sigh and pulled off his glasses, massaging his eyes with the palm of his hand. Their problems however didn't end with the WSC; after taking a fine tooth comb to all of the medical reports Bruce had discovered a few rather disturbing things.
Firstly the sheer amount of viruses in Howard's body was mind boggling he had a veritable zoo of the bacterial worlds best and brightest; by which he meant deadly and contagious. The only reason he was still alive after being pumped full of what was essentially poison was the serum and the enhanced anti-bodies it had allowed his body to produce.
Secondly was the nano-machines; the little blighters were everywhere. The physicist had come to the conclusion that they were what had been used to introduce the viruses into the elder Stark's system. But, and here was the mother of all buts; they'd been designed to work in a cryogenic environment now that Howard was back in the land of the waking how would they react to their change in environment? Would they just break down inside his system or had they been programmed to do something far, far worse?
Even with the information he had there were still too many variables.
He needed Tony's input, the billionaire understood machines in a way he never would but right now he knew that was impossible. Tony needed space from this whole debacle to try and find his feet after they had rather spectacularly been swept out from underneath him.
Bruce just hoped he didn't take too long.
Aware that he was unlikely to get right to the heart of the matter without the other man Bruce decided that it was as good a time as any to take a break. He could see the thin streaks of dawn creeping around the skyline of New York and his stomach began to protest the lack of sustenance. Mind made up he headed up to the communal floor by taking the stairs, intent on making himself a light meal and possibly scoring some edible leftovers.
The communal area was bathed in darkness; the only light source was the flickering television which was showing some ridiculous tele-shopping channel. Bruce found himself snorting softly at the ridiculous adverts, honestly who bought this stuff? He made his way to the counter quietly and fished out the ingredients for a simple cheese and tomato sandwich, smiling as he saw the plate of leftover spring rolls in the refrigerator with his name on. Content that he'd got enough to keep him going for a little while the physicist headed back toward the stairwell intent on eating and then crashing out for a few hours.
"Going somewhere Doctor Banner?"
Bruce froze, the plate of food slipping from his hands and shattering on the floor. He knew that voice, knew it with a cold certainty that made his heart pound and the other guy roar; begging to be free. Slowly he turned back around keeping his breathing measured and controlled, trying not to let the blind fear or anger win.
He thought he'd been safe here, Tony had told him he was safe here.
But proof to the contrary was sat on the large plush couch as if he owned the place.
"Ross." Bruce could barely find his voice.
The man in question was sat with his back to the physicist and for the briefest of moments Bruce seriously considered walking behind his oldest tormentor and snapping his neck in one swift movement. However brief the notion was it appeared the other man picked up on it and the physicist could practically see the man's smug grin; as if he was proving every thing Ross had ever said about him.
"Not a good idea Banner, I'm here on official business and if anything happens to me they will know exactly who to blame."
The threat was thinly veiled and Bruce instantly caught on to Ross's meaning.
We will pin it on Stark and watch him burn.
And Bruce refused to let Tony take the fall for something that he had done in a moment of weakness, as much pleasure as the act would give him. Ross seemed to sense his compliance and patted the seat next to him, inviting the physicist to sit.
"I'd rather stand." Bruce replied defiantly, sounding more bold than he felt.
There was a snort of derisive laughter.
"If you think your little friends are going to swoop in you are very much mistaken. I had this floor locked down the second you set foot on it, now sit Banner."
Bruce didn't move an inch his survival instinct kicking into overdrive. He could vaguely hear the shrill scream of his heart monitor and knew he needed to calm the fuck down but when the man who had instigated a large amount of his worst nightmares was sat before him it was pretty difficult to do so. He took long, deep breaths willing his heart to slow, it really wouldn't be the greatest idea to let the Hulk out on a still slumbering city.
There would be other opportunities for the other guy later and in a controlled environment at that.
The physicist padded forward and sat on the furthest corner of the couch away from Ross, shooting quick glances around the room to try and ascertain where his lackeys were hiding.
"You can stop fidgeting Banner, I came alone."
Bruce mentally snorted at that one; that's what they all said.
"And believe it or not I am not here for you..." There was a definite hint of angry bitterness to his tone at that particular statement and it gave Bruce a brief moment of satisfaction "I'm here to deliver a message."
This did little to reassure the physicist but he didn't voice his concerns. Instead he stared blankly at the wide-screen television where a woman face had just appeared. She was stern looking and there was a no nonsense attitude radiating off her in spades; Bruce instantly knew that this was not a woman to be messed with.
"This is a message to the terrorist group known as the Avengers. For far too long you have flouted the laws of this world and we will stand for it no more. Recently you stole something from your world and the people you say you protect, items and information of great importance. In view of your previous though reluctant assistance we offer you this choice; return what you stole or face the full might of your planet. You have until noon today to comply. "
Bruce felt the snarl work it's way up his throat, the vaguest hint of green tinting his vision.
How dare they.
How fucking dare they.
After everything the Avengers had done for them, the amount of times they had saved their asses this, this was how they repaid them? By stabbing them in the back, by calling them terrorists?
The vile ungrateful bastards.
Anger was burning like acid through his veins and it was getting harder and harder to keep himself in check. Beside him Ross just shot him a sick grin and stood up, eyes intent and focused on his every move as if waiting for him to slip up.
"I'll be seeing you soon Banner, very soon."
Bruce didn't offer the man a reply instead focusing at keeping the other guy at bay; the Hulk was baying for freedom and with Ross in the general vicinity Bruce couldn't predict that there wouldn't be a massacre. The General didn't seem fazed by the lack of response and casually walked out of the area. The physicist took a few deep breaths and calmed his rankled nerves before tentatively calling out.
"I am here Doctor Banner, my apologies my systems were overridden by the intruder. I have informed Mr. Stark of the breach and he said he would be there ASAP."
"Thank you..." Bruce replied weakly as the adrenaline started to wear off.
Almost as soon as the words had left hid mouth the doors of the elevator doors slid open and out flew an enraged looking Tony.
"Banner, Bruce! Where are you?"
The billionaire stormed in and practically ran to his friends side as Bruce gestured.
"JARVIS said there was a security breach... What the hell happened?" He sounded furious.
"Fucking Ross is what happened."
Tony's face went pale almost immediately; he understood the implications of that asshole being in his tower and he didn't like any of them one bit. More than that he felt like he'd let Bruce down, he promised the other man a safe haven free from persecution and the fact the one person above all others that would threaten that haven just waltzed in with ease burned him to his very core.
Bruce nodded in reply, a hollow look in his eyes that made the billionaire flinch. Fuck no, this was not happening; he would not let his friend revert back to that skittish, hunted man he'd been when he'd first arrived at the tower.
He would not allow it.
The haunted look remained for a few seconds longer and then it just seemed to vanish as if the physicist suddenly remembered something important and his expression hardened.
"He wasn't here for me, he was playing messenger boy for the Council... suffice to say they aren't very happy with us."
Tony could sense the anger behind his voice and suddenly felt nervous; if the message had managed to anger Bruce then the billionaire could be fairly certain it wasn't going to be one he wanted to hear.
"What did they say?" His voice was quiet.
The physicist sighed. "JARVIS playback please."
"Of course Doctor Banner."
The vile woman appeared on the screen again and repeated her ultimatum to the watching men. Tony felt his fist clench unconsciously as she waffled on and by the end he could completely understand Bruce's anger. The utter nerve of those bastards; trying to make them look like the bad guys here. (Admittedly they'd taken a broad context in regards to legality but nothing compared to them.) The Council honestly had a bloody cheek but right now the Avengers had more pressing things to deal with than ungrateful bunch of bigots.
Like an imminent tactical strike.
"JARVIS get the rest of the gang down here now and send a memo to all Stark-Industries employees at the tower informing them that today is an extra paid vacation day and no one is to come in under any circumstance."
"Of course Sir, shall I inform Ms. Potts of your plans?" The AI asked.
Tony hid the flinch; Pepper was going to be pissed at him for giving the whole company the day off but it was better than the alternative. He didn't want any civilians mixed up in this mess and he knew Pep's would understand when he explained it to her.
"Yeah, give her a heads up... Just don't tell her what's going on, I don't want her to start worrying."
"As you wish Sir."
The billionaire turned back to the slightly trembling Bruce and flashed his most reassuring smile.
"You okay big guy?"
Bruce nodded hesitantly, still looking a little pale. "Yeah... I guess so, just a bit of a shock."
Tony could understand that and he swore that something like this would not happen again; if Ross thought he could just waltz in here whenever he wanted he had another thing coming.
It was at this point that the rest of the team emerged from the elevator a mixture of annoyance and confusion on their faces, however at seeing the woman on the screen both Barton and Romanoff froze. Steve looked at the duo with curiosity and then back at the woman on the screen before frowning.
"What happened?" Steve asked authoritively.
Tony face looked thunderous and beside him Bruce looked shaken, admittedly not a good sign.
"Our friends at the WSC decided to pay us a visit, using Thaddeus 'thunder-cunt' Ross as messenger boy and catching Bruce on his own."
Beside him Steve heard Natasha suck in a breath and Clint mutter a expletive.
"I take it that isn't good then?"
Natasha shook her head. "Ross has been after Bruce for years, the fact he didn't take advantage of the situation does not leave me with any optimism as to what the Councils message is."
Well that didn't bode well.
The tension in the room was palpable as the five Avengers stared at one another as the council-woman's message played again. Tony was pleased to see that the rest of the teams reaction had been virtually identical to his own, the looks of disgust attesting to that and under any other circumstance he might have found the look on Steve's face amusing.
But not now, not with so much at sake.
"So what's the plan Cap?"
The soldier looked startled by the question but recovered quickly, slipping into his 'Captain America' persona.
"We're all in agreement that we are not handing back Howard right?"
There was a unanimous nod from the team; they'd already come this far it seemed redundant to give up now, they were in it for the long haul.
"Then our first priority is to minimise civilian casualties and keep Howard safe until we can figure out what to do with him."
Tony stood up and brushed himself down, looking resolute.
"Civilians are a done thing, I already gave JARVIS the order to give everyone in the tower the day off. Other than that there isn't much we can do."
On the couch Bruce still looked fidgety and he cleared his throat grabbing everyone's attention. He tried not to squirm as they looked at him and spoke clearly.
"I don't think it's a good idea to move Howard."
That caused a reaction, both Tony and Steve looked shocked while the assassins merely looked curious. Bruce continued.
"I've been researching his condition and I'm not convinced he's safe. The nano-machines are in a state of flux in hid body and I can't predict how they are going to react when the homeostasis finally ends."
The majority of the room looked confused at this but the physicist turned his gaze to Tony and saw the solemn, tired look on the billionaire's face as he connected the dots. Bruce felt his heart ache as the understanding dawned and he watched his friend come to terms with a rather frightening reality that he hadn't considered before.
"No offence Doc but can you put that into English?" Steve asked thoroughly baffled.
Bruce went to reply but Tony cut across him.
"He could be a walking chemical bomb."
The billionaire sighed and ran a hand through his hair.
"That is what you were saying right?..." Bruce nodded "The nano-machines, the little robots in his blood were made to work in a body that was frozen. Now that Howard is no longer frozen we can't predict how they'll react, they might do nothing; they might overload his system with all the viruses they're carrying or admittedly worst case scenario here; they might go haywire and commit the mechanical equivalent of suicide. Taking Howard and who knows else with him, never mind the release of all that shit into the atmosphere."
Tony suddenly felt like he had aged twenty years, everything was coming back to bite him in the ass and there was nothing he could do to change that. Even worse he had dragged the rest of the team down with him and now they were facing a fight that by right should have nothing to do with them. It made him feel sick to the stomach that his impulsiveness had caused so much trouble and was going to taint some of the best people he'd ever known.
He couldn't ask them to do this, he couldn't ask them to give up everything for his mistake.
A hand placed itself on Tony's shoulder and the billionaire stared up into Steve's earnest blue eyes and it was if the man had jumped right into his thoughts.
"Whatever nonsense your brain is concocting stops right now. Sure you may have started this but we chose to stay regardless and we damn well ain't leaving until it's finished. No one threatens one of us and gets away with it."
Tony couldn't find the words to express the gratitude he felt; not that any of them would have taken it seriously anyway. Instead he nodded and cleared his throat in an attempt to dislodge the lump there and for a few moments the silence was comfortable.
"Someone needs to talk to Stark senior and explain what's going on." Natasha piped up, looking primed and ready for anything.
"I'll do it."
All eyes turned to Tony and he shrugged nonchalantly at the sudden attention.
"Tony are you sure that's a good idea?" Bruce asked concerned, clearly remembering their last encounter.
Again the billionaire merely shrugged.
"Probably not... But I dragged him into this, the very least I can do is tell him what's happening to him as a result of that."
The physicist clearly wanted to object but decided to keep hid opinion to himself. It was clear that his friend needed to do this and who was he to stop him from regaining some kind of equilibrium?
"Fine but I'm coming with you, hopefully he won't be too much of an ass if there are two of us there."
Tony didn't argue, just offered a weak smile.
"Sure thing Doc."
Steve clapped his hands together his face resolute.
"Let's suit up team, we have until noon."
The Avengers didn't speak; just dispersed to prepare.
The WSC wanted a fight and a fight they would get.