Chapter Twenty-Eight: Sacrifices
In the outer chamber of the reactor Tony was officially flipping his shit. After the intercom had gone dead he'd had a startling moment of clarity and then the red haze had descended. He'd picked up a crowbar that had been squirreled away in some long forgotten nook and had literally gone to town on the various work stations and counters, a human typhoon of chaos and destruction. Tony was fairly certain that if Hulk hadn't been stood in front of the door leading to the inner chamber then he would have just smashed straight through it, radiation be damned. He hated losing, he hated not being able to do anything in a situation and as the warning alarm began to wind down he hated, hated with an undying passion that he had once again lost the opportunity to try and build something with the man that was his father or at the very least try and mend some of the past wrongs still festering between them.
Tony knew that Howard had felt just as conflicted as he did in this whole situation about their role in the others life in what had to be a disorientating but incredible future. But he knew that at least toward the end something had changed between them, that they had both begun to see one another in a new light and although there were still many things that drove them apart there could have been just as many to heal the wounds.
But now that opportunity was gone.
His good hand gripped tighter around the crowbar and with a scream of fury he smashed the last of the functioning monitors, glass shattering and flying in all directions. Hulk had seemingly had enough of his tantrum and stepped forward once again, holding the man steady between his giant palms and Tony had looked up into those acidic eyes and just crumbled.
"Tony stop. Hurt."
Panting heavily he dropped the heavy metal and staggered backwards out of Hulk's grip clutching his injured hand to his chest and steadfastly the drip, drip of blood; a piece of flying glass must have caught him on the last barrage. The billionaire didn't know what to say, what to do. He'd never been good with dealing with emotions even when his life had been 'stable', well as stable as the life of Tony Stark could be never mind when he was stuck in the middle of what accounted as a fucking warzone. He just…. He just couldn't compute.
The giant stepped forward again and Tony felt large arms wrap gently but awkwardly around him and that was it that was the final straw he just couldn't fucking do this. A small broken sob escaped his lips even as he tried to clamp it down and he buried his face in the Hulk's chest as he tried to fight off his impending mental breakdown. Hulk just stood there enclosing the billionaire, looking frustrated that he couldn't smash what was hurting his friend.
The moments passed by and soon Tony managed to regain his composure, he pulled himself from Hulk's arms and surreptitiously wiped at his red rimmed eyes. He was Tony fucking Stark and he had an image to maintain, the Hulk however was not buying it for a second but he wisely kept his opinion to himself.
"How's it feeling Big Guy?" He asked voice more than a little croaky.
Hulk seemed to catch on to his meaning as he eyed the door with a grimace before turning back to Tony with a shrug.
Tony nodded his understanding still feeling too raw to muster up an appropriately witty response, his own regret hanging heavy in the air. Taking a deep breath he headed toward the exit knowing that if he didn't leave now he probably wouldn't leave until they broke in there and recovered Howard's body. He winced at the thought, at least last time he'd been spared the torment of identifying the body he had a sinking suspicion that he wouldn't be as lucky this time. The idea of seeing Howard's body disfigured and mangled by radiation made bile jump to his throat and it took all of his willpower not to vomit on the spot.
The walk out of the complex was slow going; the billionaire's body feeling leaden with every step; taking more and more effort just to move but after the hellish minutes passed the feeling of fresh air on his sweaty forehead was oh so welcome. The Hulk followed close behind occasionally turning his large head back toward the reactor with a look of something that resembled curiosity on his face but even he let out a grumble of relief when they hit the cool air of the night.
Tony barely made it three steps before he stumbled and almost face-planted into the dirt, he just caught himself using his good arm and heaved out a huge heaving breath. Figuring that standing would probably not the best idea he twisted himself around into a sitting position and drew his knees up to his chest burying his face in them. Hulk sat down beside him the earth juddering slightly as he did so and turned his silent gaze on the small man who was his friend.
How long they both just sat there neither of them had any idea but the silence of their camaraderie was broken by the thundering of footsteps behind them and a familiar voice shouting "Stark you complete lunatic."
Tony raised his head to see the familiar red, white and blue uniform of Captain America sprinting toward them followed by Thor, Hawkeye and Widow. He didn't respond to them too lost in his own mind to really acknowledge them approaching, it was only when Steve grabbed hold of his shoulder and shook almost violently that the billionaire raised grief stricken eyes to meet his furious blue.
"Stark, what the hell?! You don't just go running off on your own agenda you know better than that!"
The Captain wasn't really looking at Tony as he ranted but the second he caught sight of Tony's face he stopped dead, he knew something was horribly, terribly wrong.
"What happened? Where's Howard?" He asked, his voice adopting a softer tone.
The billionaire pointed weakly to the reactor building. "He's… He's still in there. Ross's men they destroyed the system that regulated the cooling, he had to manually release it into the reactor core…."
There was a multitude of gasps from the three newcomers and each of them bowed their heads in understanding and sympathy.
"No Cap, I don't want to hear it. All I want right now is a shot of ridiculously over expensive whiskey and Pepper, I don't want to talk about it, and I don't want to think about it. I just want to forget this ever happened and then possibly make those responsible pay."
Steve nodded "That's fair, I think all of us would like to forget today ever happened."
There was a murmur of assent from all those present, even Hulk who still had that odd look on his face. Abruptly he stood startling the rest of the team and then without so much as a word he began walking back toward the reactor building. Confused but intrigued Tony staggered to his feet and tried to follow but was stopped by a giant green hand in his face.
Tony frowned. "What the hell Big Guy?"
"Hulk need check thing. Not safe for Tin Man. Too hot still for Tin Man."
The billionaire looked like he was about to argue but Hulk didn't give him a chance, he'd already leapt before the smaller man could even get two words out of his mouth. He watched as the green giant landed on the roof of the building close to the center and very carefully began peeling away sections of the roof, making sure to adjust himself as to not put too much weight on the weakened structure. From their position on the ground the rest of the Avengers watched in wonderment as the Hulk was there one minute and then suddenly the next minute not.
The minutes ticked by and then a green blur shot into the sky a roar of victory echoing through the air. Hulk landed a few meters away from the assembled team something bright orange clutched to his chest. Tony's brain snapped to attention as he realized what Hulk had done and what the bundle of orange in his arms was or rather who.
Eyes wide and heart pounding Tony raced forward only to be stopped by the Hulk roaring at them.
The billionaire understood and kept his distance as Hulk shrunk down into his much smaller counterpart. Bruce's hair was stuck flat against his forehead and his skin was shining slicked in the coolant; he wobbled uncertainly for a moment and shivered before purposefully sinking to his knees and pulling off the hazmat suit from his quarries prone form. Tony watched in wonderment as Howard was revealed and felt his heart squeeze tightly in his chest, at least this way he could get some closure.
Bruce seemed lost in his own little world, examining the elder Stark with a startling proficiency considering he'd just woken up from a Hulk out. That however didn't stop Tony wanting to shake him, Howard was dead, there was no way he'd survived that and nothing the physicist did was going to change that. Still Bruce worked in silence, laboriously starting on chest compression's focused and completely unaware of the world around him.
Tony watched, the rest of the team milling behind him, his eyes lowering to the ground in resigned futility.
This whole scenario was futile.
It was just...
The sound of a retching cough pierced through the billionaire's mind and his head shot up.
"Son of a bitch."
Howard was curled on his side puking up the coolant still flooding his lungs, while Bruce supported him carefully. The physicist turned his head his face still solemn and motioned with a quick jerk that it was safe to approach them. Tony didn't hesitate but the rest of the team did, clearly wary of coming close to something that had not long ago been in the heart of a nuclear reactor. Coming to a halt beside his friend Tony fell to his knees helping the clearly exhausted Bruce to support the still vomiting Howard.
"I... I don't understand. How did Hulk know?"
Bruce shifted uncomfortably.
"He didn't... He was just determined not to leave him behind for the 'bad men' to claim, I guess he still doesn't trust people outside the team much." He let out a weak chuckle.
Tony sat aghast still gently cradling the older man.
"But... How..." He wasn't even sure what he was trying to say or ask.
Again the physicist squirmed under the scrutiny but he seemed to understand what Tony wanted to know.
"He could hear his pulse, only just but he heard it and knew that he needed me to help. He kept growling 'Heart' through the shift back. He normally doesn't do that so I figured it had to be important."
"So basically what you're saying is that he pulled a fucking Captain America on us." Tony snarked when he regained his voice.
This time when Bruce laughed it was genuine even if it made him pale about ten shades due to the exertion.
"Sounds about right."
There was a groan and Howard twisted his body so he was once again lying on his back, his dark eyes unfocused.
"...w't..." His voice was so hoarse it was painful to even listen to.
Tony ran a hand through Howard's sodden hair, a gesture he'd once seen his mother use to calm him and whispered into the man's ear.
"It's ok old man, just me. Don't worry we got you, you're safe."
There was a brief moment where he'd thought Howard would try to fight but he'd just relaxed under Tony's hand and slipped back into unconsciousness, his breathing shallow but steady. Somewhat humbled by the display of trust the billionaire let his whole posture relax and let the feeling of pure relief wash over him. It was over.
The relief didn't last long however as the sound of engines roared overhead and a familiar trick of the light caught the Avengers eyes.
Tony rolled his eyes, typical SHIELD always show up after they're actually needed.
It always amazed Tony how ruthlessly efficient SHIELD peons could be with the proper motivation. It had barely been an hour since they'd been picked up by the Helicarrier and they'd already been showered, fed and shoved into a conference room to wait for Nick Fury to debrief them. But there was something about this that niggled at Tony's mind and he couldn't help but feel like he'd be played somehow. Clearly he wasn't the only one as Bruce and Natasha's faces held similar contemplative looks but he didn't get the opportunity to ask their opinion as the director chose that moment to walk through the door and seat himself at the head of the conference table.
The silence was almost palpable.
"I suppose I should congratulate you on a successful mission." He drawled, steepling his fingers in front of him.
Tony bit the inside of his cheek hard enough to draw blood in attempt to stop the comment that begged to be spoken. Apparently he was alone in his restraint, something that was to everyone's surprise. Steve bent forward, resting on his elbows and leveled Fury with a cool glare.
"With all due respect Sir go fuck yourself, there was nothing vaguely successful about that clusterfuck. We were lucky pure and simple."
It wasn't often that Tony had the urge to hug someone, especially Capsicle but in that moment he wanted to hug Steve hard and never let him go.
"Cap's right, the whole thing was a mess... And we were next to useless..." Bruce muttered, his eyes swirling hazel "They completely had our number Fury, we were lucky nobody was killed... Well at least nobody innocent."
There was a sneer in his voice that Tony heartily agreed with; anybody who had died had probably deserved it for agreeing to participate in such madness. Clint, Thor and Natasha also seemed to agree their heads bobbing slowly.
Fury seemed unfazed, his good eye dark and unreadable.
"That may be the case, but regardless you managed to prevent a catastrophic nuclear event, obtain substantial Intel on the WSC's comings and goings and recover the target. All in all I'd say that was a win."
The Avengers glowered as one at the director; who seemed completely unperturbed by the action. Finally Tony had had enough.
"So what's the big picture Nicky? Care to let us in on your little pow-wow or are we out of the loop again because we've danced to your tune? Because honestly I'm getting a little sick and tired of being the plaything of others."
"Listen Stark it may come as a surprise to you but I've not been trying to play you. I'll admit that some of the opportunities this situation presented have been fortuitous for SHIELD but I didn't purposefully set any of this up and nor did I plan to have you take the fall. I already had the SHIELD lawyers preparing a case to dismantle all that traitor shit. You're my team and while it doesn't always seem like it I've got your back."
Tony wanted to retort, to say something witty but that had seemed almost sincere, hell even Natasha looked convinced by that statement and the billionaire was hard pressed not to accept her judgement. This was what she did for a living after all.
"As for what happens next, that is up to you. You're the ones with the Intel it's up to you what you do with it." His voice could have almost passed as indifferent but there was a gleam in his eye that the billionaire knew so well.
Tony almost grinned at that, that was the Nick Fury he'd come to know, loathe with a fiery passion and somewhat respect. Not the guy who'd been talking moments prior, he was honestly surprised the other man hadn't broken out into hives at having to actually show a modicum of emotion. Tony was well aware that Fury knew that he'd give SHIELD the Intel, they were the best equipped to utilize it but that didn't mean he'd make it easy or cheap for them.
"Oh I intend to Nicky, I fully intend to." He flashed Fury a ruthless, shark like grin.
The rest of the meeting was pretty boring after that, each of the Avengers giving their own version of the events as best they could. There were a few brief moments in the debrief that had Tony shuddering (Thor and Bruce's description of how Ross's latest creation had affected them being one such thing.) but the rest was fairly boring considering it was describing what had turned out to be and epic battle. He himself kept his report on what had happened in the reactor to an utter minimum. That particular encounter still a little too raw to really deal with, with anything other than professional detachment. Soon however Fury was satisfied and dismissed them, telling them to go get some rest and recover.
Tony did neither of those things.
The second he'd been released he'd headed straight down to the medical bay where Howard had been taken. The man still hadn't regained consciousness, which was probably for the best considering the battery of tests he'd been subjected to and Tony watched him through the plate-glass window, like some creepy stalker.
"Penny for your thoughts?"
Tony started and turned around and relaxed when he saw Bruce hovering in the doorway, looking exhausted but generally comfortable.
"Think you'll need more than a penny Banner."
Bruce snorted softly and moved to Tony's side, a solid presence of support.
"Any news yet?" He asked.
Tony shook his head and sighed in frustration.
"No, they're still waiting on the test results. Which of course are taking forever because they aren't using my tech."
Bruce rolled his eyes but recognized the avoidance technique for what it was.
"I'm sure they'll be here soon Tony and I'm sure they'll come back fine."
"Do you honestly believe that?" The billionaire asked.
The physicist felt his heart squeeze painfully in his chest and he took a moment to consider his words. As painful as it might be his friend deserved the truth.
"Honestly... No. But it's better that he's here and able to receive any help he needs than rotting in some radioactive Satan's pit."
"Wow, way to sugar coat it Bruce." Tony's voice was pained.
Bruce looked a little embarrassed at his bluntness but was prevented from apologizing as one of the SHIELD physicians walked in carrying a stack of papers and both men's attention snapped to her.
"Mr Stark, Doctor Banner. I'm Doctor Mitzuyuma; would you like to take a seat?"
The two men eyed one another before sitting in the chairs the doctor had gestured to. She sat opposite them a flash of discomfort in her eyes, before she cleared her throat and began.
"As you are aware this situation is unique due to Mr Stark Snr's altered physiology but from all the tests we've done I'm afraid the prognosis doesn't appear to be good. The massive amount of radiation he was exposed to managed to eradicate the numerous viruses floating in his system but at the same time it mutated the antibodies that they are now attacking healthy cells at an advanced rate, so advanced that even his healing factor can't keep up."
Tony felt the whole world spin.
He'd been expecting something like this, he had but that didn't make the news any easier to hear.
"So what you're saying..." He swallowed thickly "Is that his body is essentially killing itself and there isn't anything you can do about it?"
Doctor Mitzuyuma looked uncomfortable but nodded.
"That appears to be the top and bottom of it Mr Stark."
Tony doesn't want to ask the next question, it lies on his tongue like a lead weight but he knows he needs to know.
The woman sighs softly and runs a hand through her hair, she looks worn and tired.
"We can't be sure..."
Tony made a hissing noise through his teeth but kept a lid on the comment that immediately sprang to mind. Bruce placed a steadying on his shoulder and thanked the doctor for her time, she didn't need to be told twice and practically sprinted from the room.
The billionaire shook his head as his brain processed the information he'd just received and basically came up with the conclusion fuck his life.
Fuck. His. Life.