Chapter Twenty-Seven: Cut The Wire
Tony had to admit that flying by Hulk was an experience he'd rather not repeat if he could avoid it. While it was as fast and efficient as flying in the armour, the exposed nature of it made it exhilarating beyond measure, the ultimate adrenaline high but more than a little bit terrifying (not that he would ever, ever admit it). He was used to being surrounded by a suit that could take most of the G-forces he was exposed to and protect him from the elements but tucked against Hulk's massive chest he could feel every shift of gravitational force and the rush of air through his clothing as they plummeted toward the earth below.
The landed on the far side of the compound with a deafening crash that made the whole area shudder. With gentleness that many would not suspect the Hulk capable of he lowered Tony to the ground, steadying the billionaire as he stumbled forward his legs shaky from the wild ride and the adrenaline dump into his system.
"Thanks buddy." Tony wheezed, taking a deep breath to try and fight the painful tightness and nausea in his chest and stomach. G-forces were a complete and utter bitch.
The Hulk didn't move back just held the other man steady as he regained his bearings and balance his green eyes gleaming with concern. After a few moments of deep breathing and a few dry heaves the billionaire stood himself up straight looking a little pale but no worse for wear and absently brushed the dust and debris from his person. Crashing through a roof sans armor had certainly been an enlightening experience and apparently a dirty one, Tony was pretty convinced he was going to be brushing cement dust out of his hair for weeks.
Finally feeling like he could walk without face planting into the ground Tony moved forwards in the direction of the reactor, followed closely by his big green shadow. Hulk had over shot their destination slightly and that meant Tony had to move a little quicker than he actually felt up to at the moment but soon the reactor came into view. Beneath their feet the ground hummed, the vibrations resonating through both of them and lining the billionaire's stomach with dread. That did not feel like a reactor winding down and Tony tried not to think what that meant.
"Bad." Hulk mumbled "Bad, bad, bad."
"Yeah, that about sums it up Big Guy." Tony replied.
The billionaire took that moment to wonder whether any of Bruce's knowledge had possibly filtered down into Hulk's conscious mind and the giant understood how bad of a situation this actually was but Tony seriously doubted it. Either way Hulk knew that this was not a good place to be.
It took a few minutes for the pair to fight their way into the building, the entrance had been damaged pretty badly but with Hulk as a clean-up crew they made short work of the debris. Tony sprinted through the corridors toward the control room Hulk squeezing through the corridors in order to follow; they certainly hadn't been designed with the green guy in mind and it was somewhat of a tight fit. Finally they reached the outer chamber and the billionaire looked around thoughtfully, his gaze glancing over the sputtering, sparking tech and landing on the destroyed door lock. He stalked over and ran his eyes critically over the ruined keypad, the override was shoddily done and entirely rudimentary but at least it had worked and at least Tony knew that Howard had at least made it this far. Hulk ambled into the room behind him filling the whole space with his presence.
"Nice of you to join us Green Bean."
The giant raised a brow at Tony and made his way over to the door almost flinching as he approached, something clearly making him feel uncomfortable. He laid a giant green hand on the heavy door and frowned.
Tony looked confused, sure the door was warmer than it should be that was to be expected but it wasn't exactly what he'd call hot then his brain kicked into gear and he gave himself a mental shake. Idiot, the big guy wasn't talking about the heat he was talking about the radiation beyond. The Hulk was almost like a gamma battery, absorbing the gamma radiation from the air around him, it made perfect sense that he would also be sensitive to other types of radiation.
"The radiation? You can feel it?"
Hulk nodded his head and drew his hand back.
"Hot. Too hot."
Well that didn't sound good and if Howard had gone in there, there was a distinct chance he was nothing but a crispy vegetable by now and that made Tony feel nauseous all over again. There had to be a way of ascertaining whether Howard was still in the room, he'd fled or was unconscious on the floor without putting anyone else at risk or causing the reactor to breach. He was startled as burst of static filled the air and he whipped his head around to find the source of the noise. There was an intercom, how had he not noticed that earlier?
He strode over to the crackling panel and almost jumped out of his skin when a voice erupted from the other side.
"Anthony what on earth are you doing here? How did you get here so quickly?"
Well that answered that question, Howard was still alive and kicking and Tony fought the urge to roll his eyes. He jabbed the call button on the intercom ferociously.
"I had a big green air cab" He ground out through clenched teeth, beyond exasperated "And you seriously think I'm going to just leave you here after all the shit we've been through just to find you."
"You stupid, stupid child! Why are you so infuriatingly stubborn?" The static filled voice roared
The words stung far deeper than Tony would admit and he set his jaw even though he knew the other man couldn't see his face. Behind him Hulk shifted in agitation and Tony placed a placating hand on his arm, it wouldn't do for the big guy to get too angry right now. This wasn't the ideal location to get his smash on.
"Pot, kettle have you met black old man?... Now why don't you make yourself y'know useful and catch me up on what the hell is going on in there?"
There was a sound that could have been a growl of frustration or just another burst of static.
"The cooling system is shot to hell and the whole reactor is overheating!"
Tony frowned that was, that was bad with a capital 'B'. He needed to get in there, see exactly what they had access to and try and MacGyver it the best they could. He knew that they were rapidly running out of time and that they were lucky that the damn thing hadn't already exploded. He moved across the room to where the hazmat suits were heaped on the floor and began pulling on the coarse layered material wary of his injured hand.
Hulk watched him suiting up and growled, moving in front of the door leading to the inner chamber like an overzealous guard dog. Tony glared.
The giant green man shook his head standing his ground, not that that was a particular hard thing for him to do.
"Too hot, Tony cook."
The billionaire growled. "I know what I am doing; the radiation won't hurt me while I'm in the suit. So move."
Hulk remained steadfastly in place, his acidic eyes narrowed and broad face resolute. Behind them the intercom once again crackled into life Howard's voice echoing through the speaker stern and unyielding.
"Hulk do not let him in this room, the RAD's are beyond danger levels and even with the hazmat suit on he's going to burn."
Tony bit back a shriek of indignant frustration, he was not a child! He was capable of making decisions for himself and a little radiation poisoning was not going to stop him from doing the right thing. He clearly said this out loud (damn useless verbal filter) because the next minute the elder Stark's voice sounded over speakers, his tone nothing like Tony had ever heard.
"I know you are Anthony and that is why I am the one who has to do this. I will not have you throwing your life away so carelessly when you still have so much to give. I will not let you cut short your own legacy."
The billionaire was stunned into silence, his face slack with shock for a moment before his anger re-emerged.
"Why, why would you say that?" He spat.
"Because it's true Anthony, you have much more to offer than an old man twenty years past his prime. It's right that I'm the one to do this."
"Right?" Tony spluttered aghast "How the fuck do you figure that one out?"
This time there was definitely an exasperated sigh over the intercom's speakers.
"The serum, whatever bastardized version of it they gave me increased my body's ability to deal with threats. It can deal with the radiation far more effectively and efficiently than yours can. I have the knowledge to stop this, although at this point I can only see one course of action. That General and his team really made a fucking mess in here."
The billionaire's eyebrows shot into his hairline as his stomach twisted unpleasantly, that did not sound like a good thing.
"One course of action?"
There was a beat of silence before Howard spoke again, his voice sounding a little unnerved but at the same time determined.
"I'm going to have to manually flood the reactor from the inside, they completely destroyed all the coolant controls. The only release left is the emergency manual one."
Tony's heart stopped.
"No! No! That is fucking suicide, even if your super fucking enhanced immune system can handle the RAD's to manually release the coolant you have to be in the room, a fucking sealed room! Not even you can stop yourself from drowning!"
Tony would have liked to believe that he didn't sound like a hysterical woman but he knew damn well it was a fucking lie. He knew he had issues with drowning; it was highly featured in all of his worst nightmares and to think that someone… His own fucking father he reminded himself was willing choosing that path made his skin crawl. The entire situation was completely fucked and Tony couldn't see a way out of this. If the situation was as the old man had told it flooding the reactor was the only way to stop the reaction and if Ross's men had done that much damage to the control system…
He bit his lip to stop the half frustrated scream, half sob tearing itself from his throat.
"There isn't any other way." Howard said softly, his voice losing its usual harsh tone, he sounded like a man who had accepted his death and it made the billionaire want to destroy something.
"There is always another way!" Tony spat petulantly "That's what you always said, Stark's always find the other way! You can't do this!"
"Anthony!" It was sharp but not cruel and the billionaire fell silent. "If there was another way I would have taken it but there isn't. I'm sorry you're so against this but you know I'm the only one capable of this."
Anger, sadness, futility and resignation warred through Tony, this wasn't right; wasn't fair. He had just miraculously gotten the man back and now he was being stolen once again and there was nothing he could do about it.
"This isn't fair..."
There was a short crackled snort of mirthless laughter from the speakers.
"Since when has life been fair Anthony?"
Tony had no answer for that, no quippy come back, no snarky retort, he was done. His head dropped as he bit the inside of his cheek hard enough to draw blood in order to stop himself from saying something he would regret. Behind him Hulk stepped forward and placed a large hand gently on Tony's shoulder.
"Old Man right." He said as gently as a giant could.
Tony resisted the urge to shrug of the massive hand, he was feeling tired, rubbed raw and it was getting harder by the minute to actually contain the crashing wave of emotion that was threatening to seize him. It also didn't help that the burst of adrenaline that had kept him going so far was beginning to wear off and the pain from his injuries were becoming much more prominent. The billionaire's shoulders slumped partially in defeat and partially under Hulk's giant hand.
"Fine, whatever…" The pain was obvious.
The intercom crackled once again but there was nothing but the sound of heavy breathing over the speaker as if Howard was unsure what to say in such a tentative moment. Tony knew that if the situations had been reversed then he probably would have been the same, how do you put into words what twenty years had been unable to heal? There was a sharp intake of breath and finally the elder man spoke.
"For what it's worth Anthony I'm proud of you…. You've become a fine man. Goodbye…. Son."
The billionaire stood there slack jawed his eyes wet looking as the intercom burst into static and without even realizing what he was doing he slammed his fist into the intercom. Hulk grunted and rolled his eyes but he understood the need to lash out, it was generally his primary modus operandi. The adrenaline finally having run out Tony slumped to his knees; his body weak and his soul aching.
He just wanted this to end.
Howard took his hand off of the intercom watching with grim amusement as it shook, he hadn't expected Anthony to show up with that green friend of his but as usual the boy was full of surprises. More than that he hadn't expected him to be so vehemently opposed to his plan, he was aware that Anthony didn't have the most positive of feelings toward him but the way he'd challenged him; it was almost as if he cared about his well-being. The thought would be laughable if it didn't seem like it was the only logical conclusion at this point, the boy had pretty much admitted it back in the holding cells.
He stepped forward into the inner chamber of the reactor, feeling the heat bleeding though the thick, rough fabric of his hazmat suit. Time seemed to slow as he moved the feeling almost surreal and in the back of his mind he knew it was a side effect of the radiation on his system but at the moment that was the least of the worries. Howard moved over to what was left of the main console and began the countdown to sealing the reactor room, he watched the numbers for a moment eyes blurring slightly with sweat before walking calmly and with dignity into the main reactor.
The door closed with a hissing click and the only noise the older man could hear was the steady thrum of the reactor. It was almost unbearably hot, his whole body feeling like it was being cooked from the outside in but he didn't have the time to focus on that he had come here with a mission; one he had no intention of failing. He could see the coolant pipes overhead and followed them to where a release valve was visible. Slowly he reached out and twisted the valve with all his strength but the damn thing wouldn't budge. Cursing softly Howard looked for something he could use as a lever, thankfully the reactor had not been immune to the crazy bastard's rampage and there was debris littering the floor. He picked up a round metal tube and wedged it against the valve, using the entirety of his body weight to force it open.
There was a brief second and then the liquid exploded outwards like a torrent hitting Howard square in the chest. It was colder than he'd anticipated and it burned in contrast to the deep searing heat of the room. Backing away from the gushing valve his eyes scanned the rest of the pipes around the room, they were shaking under the pressure and beginning to rupture, thin streams of the coolant leaking from the rapidly forming cracks.
It wouldn't be long now, that much he knew.
Howard tucked himself in the corner feel so very, very tired and waited. There was a loud groan that even eclipsed the alarms blaring and then the pipes overhead gave under the pressure flooding the room entirely with coolant. The older man just sat there as the liquid quickly rose past his chest, lapping at the underneath of his chin his whole body feeling A small smile quirked at his lips as he let himself relax as the coolant rose above his head, the vile liquid rushing down into his lungs forcing out the air. There was a fleeting moment of panic as his body rebelled against the intrusion but then he went limp and still as the oxygen deprivation took hold.
Howard's last thought before the darkness took hold was that he had at least died doing something worthwhile.