Chapter Eight: Bearer of Bad News
Bruce hurried to the penthouse clutching the tablet close to his chest eager to get this whole encounter over sooner rather than later. He really was dreading this but he knew that deep down this was the right thing to do; that Tony deserved the truth instead of yet another veil of lies and half-truths. Bruce just wished he wasn't the bearer of bad news... Again.
The elevator doors slid open with barely a sound and the physicist stepped inside trying to ignore the trapped feeling as the doors closed on him. He'd never been a fan of elevators even before his accident and now with the Hulk around he was even less so. Bruce distracted himself by going over what he'd gleaned from the blood and DNA analysis and tried to figure out just how to break it to the billionaire without causing an incident.
The physicist snorted at that thought, like that was ever going to happen.
Before long the elevator slowed to a halt and Bruce let out a breath he wasn't aware he'd been holding as he stepped out into the expansive apartment, that was silent and completely dark.
The Doctor frowned. "JARVIS where is Tony?"
The crisp British voice broke through the gloom.
"Sir is out on the upper balcony Doctor Banner."
For some reason this made Bruce's stomach churn unpleasantly and he hesitantly voiced his next question.
"Has he been drinking?"
"No Doctor Banner, although Sir has certainly been contemplating it by my observations."
This honestly shocked the physicist and he couldn't quite tell if it was a good omen or a bad omen. Drinking had always been one of Tony's coping mechanisms; as far as he was aware and the fact he wasn't doing so now meant one of two things.
Either A: he was coping with this far, far better than anyone expected or B: that particular coping mechanism wasn't helping him cope any more.
Bruce really hoped it was option A, although he seriously doubted it.
Somewhat cautiously he made his way up to the upper balcony and moved quietly, but not silently to stand beside the contemplative billionaire. Although Tony didn't possess a large, green and angry alter ego that didn't mean he liked being sneaked up on. After a few moments the dark gaze flicked to the side catching Bruce's own and the physicist could see the exhaustion weighing the other man down.
"Come to scold me about earlier Banner." Tony's voice was tight and he turned his gaze back to the city below.
"No, why would I?" Bruce shook his head an honest look on his face.
The physicist frowned "Why? Were you expecting me too?"
The dark head bobbed ever so slightly, his gaze still pointedly looking anywhere than at Bruce.
"Yeah, kinda, I did just punch your patient in the face after all... Don't you have that hypocrites oath or something." There was still a dark edge to the engineer's voice.
Bruce didn't bother to hide the quiet snort of laughter at Tony's comment; he knew full well of his friends distrust of medical professionals, a feeling he wholeheartedly shared with good reason. However the tone of voice of Tony's voice worried him, he'd heard it too many times before to not know what it meant and where it could lead if left unchecked.
"I think you might have still be under the delusion that I'm actually a medical doctor Tony, I'm not obliged to uphold the Hippocratic oath but I will admit hypocrite does seem to be more appropriate."
There was a hint of snark in his voice and Bruce hoped it would jostle Tony out of the melancholic mood he was in before he wandered too far down that dark path. The billionaire however shrugged off the comment still apparently lost in his own little world, frowning as the world below him passed on by.
"So what did you come for Bruce?" The question was blunt.
The physicist's nerves seemed to amplify ten fold and he had to take a deep steadying breath, he knew this was not going to be pretty.
"Um... Well, I need to talk to you..."
Finally Tony tore his gaze away from the bright lights and loud noises of the city below, he took in Bruce's agitated expression and nervous stance and knew what this was about.
"About Howard, right?"
Because Tony absolutely refused to actually call him father out loud.
"Uh... Yeah, listen there is no easy way to say this but whoever had your... Er Howard in that cryo-chamber well... "
The billionaire raised an eyebrow.
"Spit it out Bruce."
"They messed with his DNA." The words came out in a rush.
Time stretched out between the two men and Tony's face remained completely impassive as he processed the information; then as if a light switched on his brain the billionaire's mouth drew into a hard line, his eyes turning steely. Bruce felt a shudder run through him at the cold fury he could feel radiating from the other man.
The physicist had to take a deep breath before continuing, he could feel the Hulk reacting to Tony's anger and he had to reassure his mental house guest that there was no threat to them; that Tony wasn't angry at them. At least he thought the billionaire wasn't angry at them; it was nearly impossible to predict the man's moods at the moment. Tony had always been somewhat mercurial but this situation had him teetering right on the edge.
"They did something to his DNA Tony... I think it was a variant on the 'Super Soldier' serum they gave Steve but I can't figure out why..."
Bruce's voice was quiet as he explained to the billionaire what he'd found and he handed the tablet with the data to the other man so he could see for himself. Tony's dark eyes scanned the data never once losing the steely edge and the physicist watched the clenching and un-clenching of Tony's jaw as he absorbed what had been brought before him. He could see it written plainly over the billionaire's face; the hurt, the anger, all emotions that Bruce was familiar with but there were others as well guilt, loathing and something Bruce couldn't quite put a name on.
More importantly Tony was completely silent.
The billionaire remained silent for a moment longer before turning and heading back toward the glass door that segregated the balcony from the penthouse. He stopped for a second before drawing back his fist and punching the reinforced glass with all of his might. Horrified by the show of violence Bruce rushed forward and caught his friend's arm as he pulled it back for another blow, holding it in a tight grip.
"TONY!" The shock was evident in his voice.
The other man seemed to be completely trapped in his own little world, completely oblivious to everything that was going on around him. The dark eyes were caught in turmoil and the stared blankly at something that wasn't visible to Bruce but all to visible to Tony. After a few moments he seemed to regain his senses and began to struggle against the vice like grip the physicist had him caught in, snarling like a wounded animal.
"Let me go Banner!"
Bruce shook his head. "Not until I know you're not going to hurt yourself again." He could already see the bruises forming on the man's knuckles.
There was a moment where it seemed Tony was going to continue fighting but then he just slumped against his friend sighing deeply.
"I won't Bruce, just let me go... Please."
Whether it was the softly spoken plea or the look of sheer defeat on Tony's face Bruce wasn't entirely sure but he let go of the billionaire's arm and took a step backwards. The two men stood still and in silence watching one another, feeling out the situation until finally the billionaire spoke.
"I just don't know what I should be feeling right now... I hated him, hate him but when I think about someone pulling that kind shit on him I just see red and I don't know why. It's so fucking aggravating to have these messed up, conflicting... " here Tony sneered slightly "Emotions; almost makes me wish the old bastard was still considered dead and I could go on loathing him in peace."
Bruce stood there awkwardly fidgeting as Tony spoke; he'd honestly been expecting this but it still didn't lessen his level of discomfort at the whole situation.
"Tony... This is a pretty unorthodox situation, you're allowed to feel conflicted..."
"No! No I'm not!..." The billionaire cut in harshly "I don't do conflicted. Especially not about him! He made my childhood a living hell and the second he had the chance he had me shipped off to a fucking boarding school. He didn't give, doesn't give, a single shit about me; he never did, why should I give a shit about him?"
The physicist took of his glasses and rubbed the lenses clean in a calming circular motion.
"I'd say because he's your father but I realize how horribly hypocritical that sounds considering my own experiences of fatherhood. To be honest I really have no answers for you Tony, all I can do is offer an ear when you need it."
The words were calm and controlled and they seemed to deflate all of Tony's rage and confusion. The billionaire hated that Bruce could so easily rationalize his arguments and at the same time not patronize him, it was infuriating but at the same time he was grateful for it. He let out a deep sigh and closed his eyes, running a hand through his hair.
"Do you want to know what my earliest memory of him is? I must have been about four or five..."
The small, scrawny figure of a young child snuck down the corridor, wide brown eyes darting around and gleaming in the soft light. Seeing that the coast is clear the kid smirks broadly and darts forward through the open door.
A wonderland of mechanical gizmo's and engineering brilliance sprawled before him and the young Anthony Edward Stark couldn't help but gape in wonder.
"Alwight! Lets do this!" He crowed full of confidence.
The four year old ran forward and began rummaging through the piles of electronics in search of the elusive piece of circuitry he needed to complete the motherboard he'd been working on. He knew he didn't have long, his dad was due back any second and if he was caught there would be hell to pay.
"Come on, come on where awe you?"
The door to the lab slammed open and the intimidating figure of Howard Stark stormed in. Immediately Tony dived under the nearest table and drew his knees up to his chest trying to make himself as small as possible. Howard sat down at his work desk stinking of the grown up drink he always guzzled and Tony felt himself gag and unfortunately for him, rather audibly.
There was a moment where everything seemed to go silent and then a large hand reached down and grabbed the child by the collar, hauling him from underneath the desk.
"What have I told you about coming in here!?"
Howard voice boomed through the lab and the young Tony shook in the man's vice like grip, the colour draining from his face.
"I... T-thought... You could help me... D-daddy..."
The man's grip around Tony's collar tightened and he glared at the child squirming in his grasp.
"So that gives you permission to come in here when I'm not around?..." He sat the child on the work desk, still not letting go "Empty your pockets."
Fear swept through Tony and he was frozen on the spot, he didn't dare do as the older man asked knowing that it would get him in even more trouble.
"I said... Empty. Your. Pockets."
The sound of flesh meeting flesh reverberated through the room and brown eyes went wide with tears and pain. Slowly as though moving through a thick soup the child emptied his pockets of his stash not daring to meet his elders eye but he could feel the anger in Howard building.
"So not only do you break in here but you think you can steal from me as well?"
Tony winced and braced himself for another strike but it didn't come. Instead when he looked at the man he called father all he saw was a cruel, calculating look and for some reason it scared the child more than the thought of another slap did.
Howard remained completely silent as he lifted the youngster from the bench and carried him across the room. Out of the corner of his eye Tony could see the piles of empty bomb casings just waiting to be filled with the complicated electronics his father specialized. Suddenly dread and realization dawned on the young Stark and he began to flail in the mans grip, frantically trying to escape. Howard however was having none of his wayward sons antics and slapped him again, this time hard enough to stun the youngster and the child went limp in his arms.
When Tony regained his senses everything was dark and he could feel the coolness of metal digging into his sides. There was a thin strip of light spilling in giving him just enough to make out his surroundings. He had been squashed inside what appeared to be a small metal tube and Tony felt his breath catch as his heart began to beat double time in his chest. He shifted slightly to free his arm and started to bang on the metal panelling directly in front of him, his voice getting higher in pitch as he cried out for help.
"...He didn't let me out for four hours, he kept me trapped in that tiny place for four hours. When he finally let me out I was an absolute wreck and I couldn't stand being enclosed in anyway for months afterwards..."
Tony's voice was utterly broken and Bruce could see the muscles in his jaw working furiously as he tried to contain his emotions.
"...I mean what kind of person does that to their kid? Can you see why I say I shouldn't be conflicted? He was nothing but a fucking bully."
The physicist couldn't really give an answer to this but he knew that his friend wasn't really looking for one; Tony knew the kind of man Howard truly was and so did Bruce. The billionaire turned around his body stiff and his skin pasty the toll of this emotional show and tell clearly showing. Bruce let out a sigh and hesitantly placed a hand on Tony's shoulder deciding that distraction was the best course of action.
"So... What do we do now? Where do we go from here?"
The dulled eyes seemed to regain a glimmer of their previous lustre as Tony's brain slipped into problem solving mode.
"As much as it pains me to say it, I think we need the teams help..." Tony grimaced as he continued "... I want to know exactly who did this so I can make them regret ever messing with a Stark and while I could probably find out I'll more than likely draw attention; which is the last thing we need right now."
The physicist nodded in agreement; while he didn't doubt Tony's information gathering skills for a second he knew that the other man was right to involve the team. Natasha and Clint had a lifetime of espionage training the could utilize and with them in the picture it meant they were less likely to be noticed.
"Sounds like a plan Tony and I agree that we need to keep ourselves off the radar as long as possible, we don't know what we're heading into here." Bruce replied taking a step back to a comfortable distance.
The billionaire snorted softly "When do we ever big guy?"
Tony shook his head in exasperated amusement.
"Okay I hate to be the voice of reason here because quite frankly it's boring but I think we need some sleep because you quite frankly look as someone has punched you and I have no desire to deal with Captain Virginity, Legolas or La Femme Nikita without at least four hours sleep under my belt."
Bruce didn't deign to argue; Tony's logic was flawless as usual but he was hesitant to leave the other man. There was still an air of unbalance around him that the physicist didn't like, it reminded him far, far too much of himself but he knew that Tony wouldn't appreciate the smothering and so decided to drop it for the time being. At the end of the day the billionaire was a big boy; he could generally look after himself and well, he could always ask JARVIS to keep him updated on Tony's status if he was still worrying.
The two men entered the penthouse and bid each other goodnight before parting ways and happy that his friend would be okay for the time being Bruce set off toward his own room; intent on sleeping on something other than an uncomfortable cot. Once in the elevator he spoke to the AI.
"JARVIS can you inform me if Tony looks as if he's about to do anything stupid."
"Of course Doctor Banner." JARVIS replied instantaneously.
"Thank you JARVIS."
Feeling much more assured that Tony was in safe hands for the rest of the night he was more than happy to settle for the evening and as soon as his head hit the pillow of the expensive double bed Bruce was out like a light.