When they finally reached the nearest village, it was close to sunset. True to his word, Tony hustled Bruce, and thus Steve (though by this time, Tony had negotiated with Steve into hovering nearby instead of physically supporting him), into the nearest clothing store to get the wizard new clothes. The remaining three of the group volunteered to settle their lodgings for the night.
As Tony rattled off a long list of items, with Bruce protesting the necessity of a good number of them, to the delighted shopkeeper, Steve watched with a small smile and reflected ruefully that he'd been wrong about Tony after their disastrous one-on-one meeting in the workshop. He had slowly comprehended that fact over the weeks since Tony had joined them.
While Tony could most certainly be charming, he could also be annoying and abrasive, but Steve now recognized that it was mostly a front, a mask that hid the real Tony from the rest of the world. Tony was kind and caring in his own way, working on ways to improve their weapons and armor whenever they had downtime. The only exception to that was Steve's shield. Tony hadn't even asked to look at it again and Steve hoped he wasn't reading too much into the possible reasons for that. In battle, Tony was always looking out for them in the air, sometimes a little too recklessly. His actions during combat had been a rather common feature in their early arguments. Then today with Bruce, Tony hadn't had a second thought about buying the wizard better clothes despite only having just met the man.
They'd gotten off on the wrong foot and Steve hoped that he could start anew with the warlock. Tony could've died today and Steve would've lost a friend before he could even apologize. He had things to apologize for and it started with the first punch he threw at Tony back in Tony's workshop. He'd been angry, nevertheless, he shouldn't have done it. To date, he still didn't understand the near-vitriolic hate Tony had for Howard Stark, but it was definitely a sore topic that Steve now avoided. Hopefully, he would get the chance to apologize later today. He then turned his attentions outwards.
"Tony, that's more than enough. I wouldn't know what to do with this much clothing," Bruce said, sounding a little harried at the veritable stack of garments in the shop assistant's arms that was still growing as the shopkeeper added more things to it per Tony's instructions.
Steve noted that a good portion of the clothing held by the shop assistant were sensible, if slightly more fanciful, ones suitable for long-distance traveling. There were also sturdy looking coats and some furs for harsher, cold climates.
"Nonsense, Bruce. There's no such thing as too much clothes. Besides, they may get damaged," Tony replied.
The duo exchanged a look, and then Bruce's shoulders slumped a little and he shrugged slightly. "All right, if you insist, Tony."
"I definitely do," Tony declared with a satisfied smirk. Then to the shopkeeper, he said, "We're taking all of these. Wrap them all up!"
"Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!"
The trio exited the shop to find that night had properly fallen. Clint was leaning against the outer wall of the shop and he straightened up once all of them were out.
"Took you long enough," the archer commented. "Did he buy the entire shop for you, Bruce?"
"Thankfully, no. But it was close."
"We still need shoes for Bruce," Tony added.
Clint groaned. "Really, Tony, aren't you even the least bit tired? Don't you want to get some rest?"
"Well, I'm sorry that your stamina's lacking, Clint," Tony replied, sounding not the least bit sorry.
"Clint's right," Steve quickly interjected as it appeared as though Clint and Tony were about to start hurling thinly-veiled, if at all, sexual insults at each other in public. "You've had a long day, Tony. It'd be best if you rested."
"If that's the case, Captain, then you need rest too," Tony replied archly. "I remember Peggy scolding you for overexerting yourself. I don't think you'd want to piss her off."
"If I say that I'm tired too, will you go back to the inn now?"
"Tony, you really should rest," Bruce interjected as well. Then, as if to appease the disgruntled-looking warlock who looked on the verge of a full-out pout, he added, "We can get shoes tomorrow?"
Tony sighed dramatically. "Oh fine, I'm outnumbered as it stands. But we are getting shoes for you tomorrow, Bruce. Do not think you can even attempt to escape it!"
Bruce nodded his agreement while Clint gave a whoop of joy at not having to wander to yet another store to wait for Tony to finish his shopping spree for Bruce. Then with the archer leading the way, the four of them made their way back to the inn where they'd be staying in for the night, and possibly for a few more days after. Steve figured that both Peggy and Natasha would have had the foresight to rent the rooms for a few more days due to today's events, and so he wasn't too worried about that. Possibly the only problem was getting Tony to acknowledge that even though he was up and about now, that did not mean he was completely hale and hearty again and that rest was most definitely required.
There was a brief disagreement over the sleeping arrangements after dinner was settled. The women of the group were naturally having a room to themselves, although they had made do with sharing with the rest of the group when sufficient lodgings had been scarce in the past. That left how the remaining four of them were to split themselves up.
"Right, I'll take a room with Bruce," Tony said. The warlock made to head to one of the rooms allocated to them when he suddenly stopped short.
Steve did not realize what he'd done until Tony said, a little uncertainly, "Uh, Steve? You might want to let go of my wrist?"
That was when he realized that he'd unconsciously snagged a hold on Tony when the man had said he was going to room with Bruce. Steve blushed a little. He knew the reason for how he'd subconsciously acted. He was still affected by having seen Tony almost die in front of him and right now, it seemed that he needed to have Tony physically near him so that Steve could see that Tony was really all right.
"S-sorry Tony… but I uh… I think I'll sleep better if you'd room with me… tonight?"
Tony blinked at him, looking taken aback. Even Clint was staring at Steve.
"Sorry, I know it's… kind of stupid… but… I saw my best friend fall to his death right in front of me and… I… today…"
"Yes, well… Okay, sure Steve. I… we can share a room. I bet you just want to mother hen me, don't you?" Tony said, adding a weak-sounding joke at the end.
"So I guess we'll take the other room then, Bruce," Clint said, a little loudly to cover up the rather uncomfortable (strangely intimate maybe) moment between Steve and Tony.
"Yes, of course. See you later, Tony, Steve," Bruce replied as he hurried past Tony and Steve to the room he would be sharing with Clint.
"Don't forget we have to get you shoes tomorrow!" Tony called after Bruce just before the door closed.
Then it was just him and Tony standing awkwardly in the middle of the corridor, and Steve realized he was still holding onto Tony. He quickly let go of the other man's wrist and moved over to push open the door to their room, gesturing for Tony to enter first. Silence surrounded them again once they'd both entered the room and Steve had closed the door. Steve was beginning to think that he probably shouldn't have asked to share a room with Tony, nightmares be damned. Surely Tony would feel more comfortable around Bruce than around him. They weren't exactly friendly towards each other prior to today.
He figured he should start with apologizing to Tony. Maybe it would break this awkward atmosphere.
"I'm sorry," Steve all but blurted out, making sure that he was looking at Tony, although the man wasn't looking in his direction.
Not for long though. As soon as his apology graced the air around them, Tony had jerked a little as if startled and then proceeded to look at Steve. Shock was evident on the man's face from his wide eyes and the slightly open-mouthed expression on his face. Steve decided that he should barrel on before Tony could get in a word edgewise.
"I mean it, Tony. That day in your workshop, I shouldn't have punched you and then said all those things about you. I… I was wrong about you Tony. Working with you for the past few weeks made me realize that, but I was just… just unable to apologize to you before today. When I thought you were going to die, I was afraid I'd lose another friend again while I was helpless to do anything but watch it happen. So, I… I'm sorry, Tony."
Tony continued gaping at him for a few more seconds before the man shut his eyes and ran a hand over his face. "Jeez, Steve! Why, why are you apologizing? And for something that happened so long ago? I was being an asshole that day, though I guess you could say that's how I usually am. The point is that I should be the one apologizing, okay? I didn't make it easy for you to like me. I… I guess I'm sorry too that I brought back bad memories for you."
"No, Tony you don't have to apologize for that. You couldn't have known about Bucky. I probably overreacted as well, but when it seemed that I couldn't heal you, I really feared the worst."
"Steve, you almost killed yourself trying to heal me! Just… just don't do that again."
He laughed shakily. "Well, that should be my words to you. Try not to fall out of the sky without warning after today, okay?"
Tony smiled genuinely and gave a jaunty little salute. "Aye, aye Captain!"
Steve was glad to see that they would definitely be able to move past their rocky beginning. But there was still one more thing that he had to know, although it was going to be intrusive. "If you don't mind me asking, what happened to you during the fight, Tony? It's just… well if it's something we could prevent, it might be useful to know in the future."
Immediately, Tony's expression became guarded but the warlock didn't seem to be getting angry at Steve for prying. When he finally spoke again though, Tony's words weren't what Steve had ever expected.
"I… have a heart problem. It just… acted up during the fight earlier."
"A heart problem?" Steve echoed. "Then… then are you okay now?"
"Well, if you're asking if my condition is completely cured, that's going to be a no. But, before you become all worried, I've lived with this for years already. I can manage it. You don't have to be worried."
"Steve, I can handle myself. I just haven't been adventuring in recent years, so that probably hit me harder than usual. I'll be fine. It won't happen again," the warlock reassured him.
Steve was still a little dubious, but he did not want to alienate Tony just when they were beginning to become really friends. He nodded in concession to Tony's words but privately vowed to keep a closer eye on Tony, just in case.
"Alright, but you should still rest early today. You're going to be out getting shoes for Bruce tomorrow, aren't you?"
Tony rolled his eyes but it was all in good humor. "Yes, yes. See, I knew you just wanted to fuss over me!"
The next morning, Tony made good on his promise to buy better shoes for Bruce to replace the pathetic excuses he had. At the same time, it was also a quick escape from Steve, who had thankfully deemed him well enough to not collapse just by walking around shoe shopping. It wasn't that he didn't like how he and Steve had sorted things out but talking about the curse, even indirectly, was not something he had ever done, even though he still hadn't brought himself round to telling Steve the truth.
Either way, he was still feeling just a little vulnerable around Steve, even though he knew logically that there was nothing he needed to worry about. But ever since their first encounter, Steve had always seemed to know how to strip him to the bone and vulnerability was not something Tony dealt with well. So, much as he rejoiced over making up with Steve and looked forward to becoming better friends, right now he need to feel just that least bit vulnerable. Besides, he could already foresee becoming great friends with Bruce because of their common interests in the magics and science.
So Tony was quite unprepared to be ambushed by Bruce's startling insight. The day started out normally enough with him haranguing Bruce about appropriate, travel-worthy footwear. It was important okay? Especially since the wizard was going to travel with them and ice was a big issue up north.
Bruce, he noted, didn't fight as hard as he did the previous evening. Tony put that down to the wizard already knowing that it would be next to impossible to dissuade him. Bruce was a smart man and that should probably already have given him some warning that it was entirely possible that said man would've figured out his secrets.
They were sitting on a bench in the small village square, munching on street food, when Bruce finally spoke, his tone hesitant but with determination evident in his expression.
"Tony, I don't really know how to phrase this properly, so if you don't mind, I'll just speak plainly."
"Sure. What is it?"
"I know that you have a curse that damages your heart and I think your name isn't really Antonius, is it?"
Whatever he had expected Bruce to say, it certainly hadn't been all that. Tony was stunned and all he could do was look at the other man blankly. Or he hoped it was blankly, frankly, he had no idea what his face was doing right now. His gut began to churn and on some level, he could feel the stirrings of Chaos energy gathering around him as his fight-or-flight responses engaged. He hated feeling vulnerable and Bruce had seen through him so quickly.
How did Bruce know? Two secrets that Tony had been keeping from everyone else in the party, especially the one about his curse. Not even Natasha, Pepper nor Rhodey knew about that, though he was sure that if Natasha studied even the slightest bit about the magical arts, she'd figure him out in an instant.
Then Bruce laid a hand gently on his shoulder. "Tony, relax. I'm not going to hurt you. Why you chose to hide your identity is your prerogative, and if you don't want to tell me, I'm not going to press. But your curse…"
"What… what about it?"
"It's old, isn't it? Why are you still out on this quest then? You would know better than I do what it actually does, wouldn't you?"
"I… How did you find out about that?" Tony tried to deflect and from Bruce's expression, he knew that Bruce knew what he was doing. Still, the wizard played along.
"I caught you, remember? It all happened quite fast but I thought I felt some sort of dark magic. Then I witnessed Steve attempting to heal you. I could feel that the healing energy met with some resistance around your heart and then I could detect that there was dark magic, a curse, at work."
"So why are you still out in the field, Tony? Do you-"
"No!" Tony immediately protested, having figured out what Bruce's question was. "I swear, I'm not suicidal and I don't have a death wish. I honestly thought that they needed all the help they can get to take down HYDRA and if HYDRA succeeded in whatever it is they're doing, it would affect many, many people. I… I just don't want that to happen."
"Fine, but does anyone know? I know that Steve didn't-"
He didn't mean to interrupt again, but he was suddenly hit with a thought and had to clarify with Bruce. "Wait, Bruce. Does Steve know now? Could he have figured it out like you did?"
"I think that from what I've seen of Steve, if he figured it out, you would already know that. But when he was healing you, he was almost panicking and I had to point out to him to heal more of the damage surrounding your heart. So, he could have figured it out, but I don't think he was in a state of mind to do so then."
Tony sagged back against the bench back in relief. Now that he was slightly calmer, he knew that Bruce was right. If Steve had found out about the curse, he would've mentioned it sometime last night when they were having their talk.
"Does anyone else know though, Tony?"
Bruce gave him a Very Disapproving Look. Tony wondered if it was a good idea for him to meet Pepper and Rhodey.
"It's… it's just private, okay? And I swear that what happened yesterday was because I just wasn't used to using my powers so intensively in a concentrated period of time in a while. I retired from the mercenary scene because of it, you know. I know my limits, Bruce. Really."
"You seem like the type to push them, though."
"Just trust me on this and don't tell the others?"
Bruce gave him a long look, during which Tony fought not to squirm like a misbehaving child caught red-handed, before Bruce sighed and nodded in acquiescence. "Be careful, okay?"
"I will. Promise." There was a moment of silence. "About the other part of your…"
"You do realize you look rather like Howard Stark, don't you Tony?"
"…well, nobody else seemed to notice."
"Tony, I think I can be counted as some sort of expert in hiding oneself, wouldn't you agree?" Bruce said wryly. "But I also have vague memories of a little boy called Tony at the last Stark ball and wizardry conference that I attended."
"You… you remembered me?"
"Well, it seems like you also remembered me, didn't you?" Bruce replied with good humor. "I just thought you looked like you rather be somewhere else instead of being paraded in front of all the guests. I'm afraid I shared the sentiment."
"That's what I thought when I saw you!" Unbidden, a genuine smile formed on Tony's face, even though memories of various galas and balls were not amongst the ones he liked from his childhood. "You know, I don't like to believe in fate and destiny, but I'm glad we met."
At that, Bruce smiled became just a little wider than what Tony had seen before and he couldn't help but feel happy about being able to do that. Tony knew that it had been a long time since the wizard genuinely had things to be happy about.
"I'm glad we met too," the other man replied sincerely. "I also won't tell anyone about who you are, if you don't want me to."
"Natasha knows because she works for me. But for now… I don't want to let the rest of them know."
Bruce nodded and didn't press any further.
After having essentially two heart-to-heart talks with two different people in such a short time, Tony found himself alternately hanging out with Bruce or being around Steve a lot more often than he imagined he would. His improved relationship, friendship with Steve had translated into even more effectiveness during combat and just… Well, Tony felt a lot freer now than he had before. As if a weight had been taken off his shoulders because he had managed to patch things up with Steve and had a kindred spirit in Bruce.
He would admit that having Steve acknowledge him and consider a friend had gone a long way to soothing his insecurities because of Howard, but it wasn't just that. With their friendship, they began to seek each other's company during down time and Tony found out that Steve was an artist, or as the man himself liked to say, enjoyed sketching. There hadn't been much time for Steve to draw on this journey, but the paladin had obliged Tony's request (demand) to see some of his works on his sketchpad.
Tony was no connoisseur of fine art – that was more of Pepper's area – but he could tell that Steve could certainly draw. He later managed to wheedle Steve into drawing something for him after he saw a sketch that was clearly a part of his mansion. He'd told Steve that he wanted to put it up in his room and prove to Pepper that he did have some artistic taste no matter what she said.
As for the times that he didn't spend with Steve, he tended to be around Bruce, prodding the wizard's mind as they shared and discussed theories. He was now really glad that Bruce knew the truth about him. Though he had already offered Bruce to stay with him once this was all over, Tony knew he would be insisting ten times as hard until his new friend caved and gave in. His mansion had more than enough space, and he could convert a room into a private study for Bruce. He knew that the wizard missed the opportunity to do research, and Tony would gladly provide all he could for Bruce to catch up on the work he so loved.
He also found a confidant in Bruce and it was a mutual thing. He found himself explaining to Bruce why he ran away from home and hid his identity. Bruce did not judge him, and had instead reciprocated – even though Tony had insisted that it wasn't an exchange – by telling him about how he got bitten (Bruce was saving a boy who'd wandered into the forests at night) and how drastically his life had changed after that.
Now, it was just over a week since they'd destroyed one of HYDRA's smaller bases and found Bruce. Tony had kept Bruce's secret, and had managed to talk Bruce out of confessing it to the rest of the team. He knew that it still didn't sit right with Bruce, keeping the fact that he was a Were from the rest of them. But Tony had also seen how much happier Bruce was now, with everyone treating him like a normal human being and not like a dangerous animal in human shape.
Perhaps it was a very Tony Stark way of dealing with things but it had worked for Tony. And a part of Tony also knew it was because he didn't want to risk losing the new but already flourishing friendship he had with Bruce who could and would have lengthy discussions with Tony about pretty much anything under the sun. So he was a selfish asshole but that wasn't anything new or remotely surprising about Tony Stark.
But as things went, Tony never quite got what he wanted in the end.
It had mostly been a peaceful (relatively speaking) journey through some farmlands before they gave way to the start of more forested wilderness. Then they'd gotten waylaid by a group of bandits. The group had sort of been forewarned from the innkeeper in the village they'd stopped in, though it had been a little surprising that the thugs had mostly gotten a drop on them. Natasha and Clint had felt that something was off, but it hadn't really been until the first, unsubtle crunch of boots in the undergrowth that had everyone on complete alert. Then it had devolved into a frenzy of action as a large number of men swarmed out to surround them and combat began in earnest.
The men, while large in numbers, weren't particularly difficult to knock out or incapacitate. Tony supposed, as he fired off blasts of energy from both hands, that the reason why this group of bandits had ever been successful enough to warrant a warning was due to their sheer numbers. But if one could get past that, then they'd be fine.
Then suddenly, in the midst of all the fighting, he heard a startled cry of pain from Bruce. Tony turned around to see Bruce clutching his right arm protectively. Then like a pack of hungry wolves that had scented first blood, a number of the bandits turned their attention towards the injured wizard.
"Bruce!" Tony cried out, blasting away three men rushing towards him as he tried to head over to Bruce's side.
In a matter of moments, Bruce was out of sight as more men surrounded him while others got into Tony's way. Just as abruptly, there were panicked, frantic yells from the bandits but those were drowned out when a loud growl echoed through the forest. For a second, Tony thought that a wild beast had stumbled across them, but then the sound of yelling got louder and some of them were actual screams of terror and others of pain that were abruptly cut short. Without even having to really see Bruce, Tony knew with a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach that Bruce had transformed.
Tony did not even need to try and fight off the thugs blocking his way to Bruce now. They had all scattered, pushing each other out of the way, almost trampling over each other in their bid to flee into the forest. The only ones not running frantically away were either dead, dying or just a little too far from Bruce and Tony to see what was going on.
"Holy shit!" Clint exclaimed, having spotted the carnage from wherever his current vantage point was.
Tony felt very much like adding to Clint's oath when he finally saw the transformed Bruce. He'd known Bruce was a lycanthrope , but he didn't know what Bruce's animal form was. He hadn't thought to ask as it was clearly a very touchy topic for Bruce (Tony could be tactful, hard as it was to believe) and Bruce hadn't offered the information when explaining how he got turned.
Bruce was a weretiger.
The sleek form of the large tiger stood in the middle of the bloody carnage Bruce had left behind after his transformation, teeth bared to show long canines that were covered in blood. Tony had half a second to admire the majestic beauty that was Bruce's tiger form before Bruce moved.
With one graceful, powerful leap, Bruce had covered the quite considerable distance between himself and two of the stragglers of the bandit group. Powerful paws raked down each man's back, leaving deep, bloody gashes behind. The cries of fear and agony from the men as they died alerted the rest of the group to Bruce's new form.
In their fear, some of the bandits with crossbows began pelting Bruce with bolts. Bruce shook them off like they were just minor annoyances and the few that managed to puncture the tiger's hide trickled the smallest amount of blood before enhanced healing factors sealed the wounds closed. In short, the bandits' efforts were doing more to irritate the already-angry weretiger instead of debilitating him.
"Bruce Banner's a weretiger?" Peggy exclaimed in shock, but Tony could hear the wariness and even some fear in the cleric's tone.
Hearing Peggy's words spurred the remaining bandits into action. Most of them abandoned their original motive of robbing them and started to run. It was unfortunate for them that Bruce had not appreciated being pelted with crossbow bolts despite the less than superficial wounds they had caused him. In yet another burst of speed, Bruce had downed a couple more bandits. The weretiger was about to head after the rest of the escaping thugs when Steve stepped right into Bruce's path, his shield raised defensively in front of him.
"Stand down, Banner. They're already running away, surrendering. There's no need to chase them down," Steve ordered in his sternest tone of voice.
"Steve!" Peggy called out in worry, because everyone knew it was reckless to get in the way of an angry, running-on-instinct lycanthrope.
From where he was standing, Tony could not see Bruce's face, but he wasn't sure that Steve words would get to Bruce. And they could end up with the very unpleasant situation of an injured Steve. Sure, Steve was much more heavily armored than any of the bandits, but Tony wasn't going to underestimate Bruce's strength in his tiger form. Bruce might be able to rip off the plates of armor even if he wouldn't be able to claw through it.
With that in mind and hoping that his next decision would turn out to be right, Tony took off from the ground, speeding towards Bruce and Steve and then landed so that he was right in between Bruce and Steve.
"Tony, what are you doing?" Steve whispered with a mildly panicked tone at Tony, but Tony ignored the paladin.
"Bruce, hey, it's all good now," he said to the tiger instead.
This close to Bruce, he could see that Bruce was larger than the average tiger. He watched as Bruce's eyes – now colored gold instead of dark brown – focused on him instead of Steve. He wasn't seeing any sort of recognition in Bruce's eyes, and the muscles of the tiger were still coiled with tension and looking like he would spring into attack at any moment.
"Bruce? C'mon buddy, everything's fine now."
Bruce gave a little rumbling growl, moving minutely closer to Tony as the weretiger's head ducked down a little. Steve shifted behind Tony at that movement and Tony immediately held his arm out to block the paladin from rushing forwards. At the same time, he became aware that Clint and Peggy both had their arrows nocked and trained on Bruce and that Natasha had no less than four daggers in her hands and was moving silently towards Bruce as well.
"All of you drop your weapons!" he demanded instantly. "This is Bruce here. We're not going to attack him!"
"Tony, this was an uncontrolled transformation. He's acting entirely on instinct," Steve said urgently. "Right now, that instinct is set to fight and kill."
"No, he isn't," he rebutted matter-of-factly. "Bruce wasn't stepping forward to harm me. If he were, I'd be dead long before any of you could do a thing anyway."
"Tony, don't be stupid," Natasha hissed at him. "I'm not telling Pepper you got yourself killed!"
"I'm not going to get killed, Natasha. You and Pepper can all rest easy," Tony insisted with a roll of his eyes.
Then slowly, he reached out a hand, keeping his palm open where Bruce could see it clearly. Bruce's earlier movement had put Tony close enough to him that he could feel the copious amounts of heat that the weretiger form of the wizard was giving off. There wasn't all that much distance between his hand and Bruce's fur. Carefully, Tony let his palm brush against Bruce's fur gently, just behind the feline ears. Then Bruce turned his head into Tony's hand, rubbing his ear into it. Tony smiled, and began gently stroking the soft, striped fur.
"See guys? He knows us, well, he knows me at the very least. Drop the weapons."
"You don't seem very surprised by the fact that Banner's a lycanthrope," Natasha commented flatly. "You knew before the rest of us, didn't you?"
Leave it to Natasha, superspy extraordinaire to figure that one out so quickly. Tony wasn't about to deny it however. It was blatantly obvious now that he knew about Bruce's condition.
"Yes, I knew Bruce was a lycanthrope. I just didn't know what his animal form was."
"That day when we first found him and you suddenly just destroyed that metallic case," Steve suddenly spoke up from behind him, realization evident in his speech. "It was…"
"Silver. Yes, it was made of silver. I identified it by touch alone and then deduced why it'd hurt Bruce when he had handled it."
"And you didn't think that it was important for us to know?" Steve demanded and Tony could hear the beginnings of disapproval, maybe even anger coloring Steve's tone.
"No," Tony shot back, turning to glare at Steve even as he made sure he still had a hand in Bruce's fur. "Because I know what it's like to be hated and feared because of something you couldn't control, because of something you didn't even ask for. Even by the people who're supposed to be your family and are supposed to love you regardless of anything."
It was as if some sort of key had been turned, unlocking the gates behind which Tony kept his resentment against his lot in life and letting it all spill forth. Vaguely, he felt horrified at what he was saying, knowing it was a mix of defending Bruce and throwing a lot of his issues into the light. He'd been accused of having no brain-to-mouth filter, but it wasn't true. Not for the important matters. But right now, it was as if his brain had disconnected from his mouth; he couldn't seem to stop himself.
"It fucking hurts. Worse than someone taking a rusty knife to your heart, twisting it slowly into your body and then pouring salt straight into the bloody hole. I got used to it because that's what I had to do, but I know Bruce hasn't. Bruce wasn't born a lycanthrope; the old farts in charge of the wizardry schools wouldn't have let Bruce step through the gateway no matter how much raw natural talent he had if that had been the case. And before you say that he could've hidden it, there are anti-lycanthropy tests to go through before being accepted and it's not that easy to hide monthly transformations during the full moon in a densely populated school!"
He couldn't stop his voice from rising in volume as he continued, "Bruce disappeared from the world four years ago because he got turned into a lycanthrope. He chose to hide because he didn't want to accidentally hurt anybody when he transformed, but the few odd instances when he was found out… If I'd been in his place, I'd have taken out the entire village in a fit of unthinking rage. Just because fucking Fate conspired to screw you over doesn't make you evil and unstable. If anything, it's the people around you who eventually drive you into insanity.
"Bruce is a good person. To hell with the notion that he's supposedly dangerous because he's got a furry little problem now! He stopped, didn't he? When you stepped in his way, Captain, he could've torn apart your armor and killed you if he'd been acting entirely on instinct. Maybe when he first transformed in pain and in anger he was acting on instinct, but by that time, Bruce clearly wasn't. We've never talked about it, but there's nobody and there will never be anybody who can hate us for the things we couldn't control, more than we can ourselves!"
His chest was heaving by the time he'd finished his long and loud rant at the unfairness of the world and their situations. Tony hadn't even realized that he had, at some point during his rant, started gesticulating with both hands until he felt a tentative touch of another person's hand to his shoulder from behind him and realized that Bruce had turned back into his human form.
"Oh hey, Bruce. You're back," he said with a wan but fond smile.
The wizard returned his smile, looking tired as if the transformation had taken a lot out of him. It probably did.
"Tony, thank you," Bruce said. "But… but what you did, getting between me in that state… It's just not safe. I, I don't know how much the beast knows that you're… well you."
"I'd say after today, both sides of you would recognize me. I'm not afraid of you."
"You really do need to have better self-preservation instincts, Tony," Bruce admonished but did not lecture further. Instead, he turned to face Steve. "I'm sorry that I did not let you know about my… condition. It was refreshing not being shunned by other humans who weren't only interested in using me for their own purposes."
"Hold it, Bruce," Tony interrupted because Bruce was very likely, deliberately hiding a key point from the rest. He knew what he did and he didn't require deflection of blame. "You forgot to mention the fact that I talked you out of telling them. That'll make it my fault, but I'm not really sorry because you're my friend and I'm selfish for wanting you around."
"I think that it's quite clear that Bruce did not mean us any harm by concealing his lycanthropy," Peggy said as she came closer with her weapons already lowered.
It was a gesture that Tony fully approved of. As it stood, only Peggy had lowered her weapons, although Clint was beginning to look less on edge as he came closer. Two of Natasha's knives had disappeared, which was slightly encouraging, but she was still armed and Tony wasn't fooled into thinking that she couldn't whip the rest out again in the blink of an eye. Steve still had his shield held out in front of him but he did not have a serious, battle concentration look on his face.
"Bruce, we might not completely understand what you've been through since being bitten but I think all of us can say we understand not wanting to be lonely," Peggy continued to say.
Steve lowered his shield from its original defensive position and a softer, sympathetic expression formed on his face. "It may not be the same but I understand being discriminated. I want you to know that you don't have to feel like you need to hide just for us to accept you."
"Nevertheless," Bruce insisted, "I should have found an opportunity to tell all of you before something like this happened. I have control, usually. But today was close. I'm sorry."
"Well, I don't think that's something anyone would normally tell a group of people that they've only known for a week," Clint pointed out reasonably. "But it's good that it's out now."
Natasha joined the circle that everyone else had unconsciously formed to include Bruce. Her hands were conspicuously devoid of weapons. "I understand secrets and not wanting to hurt or kill others," was all she said directly to Bruce.
"Good! Great! Do we need a group hug?" Tony declared, the last part done mostly jokingly, but he would do it if it was called for.
"That's all right, Tony," Bruce said with a smile that was looking a bit tired. "Thank you, all of you."
"You sure, Brucey? Because I can call for a group hug, you know. It's no trouble at all, right?"
"I'm sure, Tony. I'm just really tired now. Could we head onwards to our next stop?"
"Sure, but you might want to put on some clothes first."
After Bruce had changed into untorn clothing, they managed to reach the next village in good time. It was lucky, especially since Bruce was really tired after his uncontrolled transformation. He hadn't transformed due to provocation in a long time and had explained that it was a lot more taxing than it normally was during full moons or a voluntary change. When they had secured rooms, Bruce all but stumbled into one of them, collapsed on to a bed and was asleep instantly. Tony made a move to follow after the wizard into the room, but Steve stopped him.
"Tony. We need to talk."
Tony glanced at him, wariness in his eyes. "Suuure. Just let me-"
"I don't think you'd want our talk to disturb Bruce."
The warlock's deep brown eyes narrowed at him. "Are you implying what I think you are?"
"We're going to talk, Tony. I think it will take some time and raised voices might be involved. I would prefer it if we shared a room instead."
Tony seemed to twitch a little, probably at the calm and reasonable way Steve was speaking. "What, so neither of us can storm out if it all gets too much? Sure that's a good idea, Captain?"
Steve just stubbornly looked at Tony. He had spent the time it had taken to reach the village stop thinking over what he wanted to do and say to Tony and he wasn't going to let the warlock out of it. It was true that Tony had a point that if they didn't manage to resolve anything during their talk, it would be awkward sharing the room even if it were only for one night. Nevertheless, he still had the urge to keep Tony near him. It wasn't as strong as that day when Tony fell from the air and almost died, but it was still present.
Finally, Tony sighed but stalked into a different room. "Suit yourself, Captain."
Steve followed after Tony wordlessly, closing and locking the door behind him. He followed Tony's lead for now, setting down his belongings and getting slightly more comfortable by removing pieces of his armor. Then he settled himself on the bed he claimed, facing the warlock, waiting for him to finish fiddling with his things.
"Alright, quit staring at me. It's uncomfortable," Tony said, as he turned around and sat on the other bed. "Okay, so what did you want to talk about? I'm gonna guess it's about Bruce's little incident today, right? You're still upset that I didn't tell anyone about it?"
"Yes, I am upset, but not because you didn't tell anyone about Bruce's situation. I was, and still am, upset because it was a very legitimate possibility that Bruce wouldn't recognize us after an uncontrolled transformation," he tried to keep his voice calm and reasonable, but as he thought back to the moment when Tony put himself between Bruce's huge tiger form and Steve… He just couldn't quite keep it all together. "You can't deny that, even Bruce admitted it. And you, you just stepped in between us. It was reckless, needlessly reckless!"
"Speak for yourself, Captain. Who was the one who stepped into Bruce's way first to prevent him from giving chase after the bandits?"
"I'm better equipped to deal with Bruce at close range if he failed to recognize us than you are, Tony. I…" Steve sighed. He hadn't wanted to go back to shouting at Tony, but that idiotic move the warlock had pulled still left him shaky and his emotions were a little out of whack. "It's stupid, okay? I just wished I'd known earlier or found out in a different way that did not involve tense combat conditions. I wouldn't have judged Bruce. It's clear that he isn't prone to aggression and violence. I… I wish we could just trust each other more."
"Yes, well, it just isn't that easy to trust others when you know the general sentiment and have been burnt a few times," Tony muttered, though he didn't look as angry as he did a short while ago.
Steve thought back to Tony's rant, recalling the way Tony had spoken as if it was a personal experience. It might have been. Steve knew there were several ways that warlocks came about and he couldn't see Tony entering a forbidden contract with a demon or a devil. And if Tony's family hadn't been able to accept his awakening as a warlock, then it was most likely that Tony had been picked by the fickle hand of Fate to bear those powers.
"I'm sorry for what you had to go through, Tony."
"W-What are you talking about, Captain?"
Tony was starting to look uncomfortable but Steve ploughed straight on, knowing that if he let Tony, the other man would run from this conversation faster than lightning. "When you were defending Bruce, the way you said certain things… You've experienced them firsthand, haven't you?"
A look of consternation crossed Tony's face, as if he'd just realized how telling he'd been during his rant earlier. "I… Yes, yes I have."
"Do… Do you want to talk about it? I can't promise that I know exactly how it feels, but I… I used to be picked on and beaten up a lot."
"What? Why would anyone do that to you?" Tony exclaimed, surprised and a little outraged.
Steve tried to ignore the warm feeling in his chest because of that and explained, "I was sickly and small as a child, and that didn't change until quite recently. But even then, I couldn't stand bullies and would stand up to them even though I knew I wouldn't be able to really defend myself if they started to get physical. Bucky had to pull me out of a lot of fights."
"Had that righteous paladin thing going from the start, didn't you, Steve?"
"I just don't like bullies," he replied with a slight blush. Really, he wasn't all that special.
"Sometimes, I wonder how you're even real," Tony muttered. "Compared to you, I'm a screw up of epic proportions. My family probably saw it coming."
"That's not true! You're not a screw up!" Steve protested immediately, shocked that Tony would think that of himself.
"Tell that to my family. For the longest time, all I wanted was to have my father be proud of me. But how could that happen if I'd already failed at having any sort of magical competence? So I tried to make up for that lack in other ways, in other areas. But it never worked.
"The final straw was when my warlock powers awoke when I was fifteen. I became a pariah. My father wouldn't even look at me. In fact, after he got over his shock, he locked himself up in his workroom and didn't leave for days. I decided to run away from home about two years later because I couldn't take it anymore… and my mother had passed away. Died in a freak accident. She was one of the only people left who still loved me and treated me normally, so when she died, I… Well, it's been seven years since then and I haven't heard a single word from the rest of them. I guess they must be glad that I'm gone. Must be the best decision I've made in my life."
Tony finished speaking with a wry, self-depreciating smirk. The incongruous sight and Tony's story made Steve's heart ache. No wonder the man had trust issues. Steve knew he'd been lucky, despite having spent most of his life being small and sickly and coming from one of the poorer areas of the city, because he'd had his mother's undying love and support as well as Bucky who'd stuck by him through thick and thin. It didn't sound like Tony had any of that.
In two strides, Steve covered the distance between them and enveloped Tony in a hug. He felt the warlock stiffen, almost wanting to draw back. Tony seemed unused to the concept of hugging and that was a heartbreaking notion.
"I'm sorry," he said softly. "You shouldn't have had to go through all of that. Nobody should have to."
Tony was still holding himself awkwardly in Steve's embrace, making no move to do anything as the other man replied haltingly, "That's… Life just… doesn't always work out."
"I know. I'm just glad you're okay and that I got to meet you."
"Tch. Don't go all sentimental on me, Steve."
Behind Tony's flippant words, Steve could hear the disbelief. A little impulsively, he held Tony a bit closer. "I'm not lying, Tony. I'm really glad to have met you," he repeated, willing Tony to believe him. Then to try and diffuse the tension, Steve added, "Even if you were a pain in the ass the first time we met."
That made Tony snort and some of the stiffness in his body melted away. "I'm still a pain in the ass. Also, I think I just made you swear. Clearly, I'm a bad influence."
"Then maybe we'll balance each other out," he answered with a smile as he pulled away from Tony.
"Ha! Maybe," Tony said. Then a solemn look entered as his face as the warlock continued, "Steve… Thank you… for listening to me and all that. I don't usually, you know…"
"I'm honored you shared your history with me. Just don't feel like you're obliged to tell me everything. It's your choice Tony, okay?"
"Also, please don't throw yourself into dangerous situations any more than you have to. Bruce was right in that you really need to develop some self-preservation instincts."
"Fine, you mother hen! You and Bruce both!" Tony grumbled, but he wasn't truly annoyed if the small smile he had was anything to go by.
In the end, Tony did not share anything more personal with him that night. Nonetheless, Steve felt that their friendship had become even stronger than before, and that was more than all right with him.