Bruce was having an incredibly difficult time while he was working. He tried to distance himself, he tried to pretend that this person on his table was someone who needed him, but when he saw the blue of the arc he just nearly lost it. The only thing keeping the hulk at bay, surprisingly, was the hulk. Bruce had never in his entire time living with the hulk inside his mind seen something like this happen. Usually, the surge of anger brought him out. Now, however, every surge of anger was pushed back, as though the hulk knew that Bruce had to retain control in order to help Tony. If Bruce wasn't in such a state of worry, he might have wondered at how very intelligent it seemed for the hulk to do this.
"Dr. Banner, Ms. Potts, the police, and the rest of the team has arrived. Shall I instruct them to wait outside?" JARVIS asked.
"Yes, yes, I'll go out, he's stable, but I need to have the kits done so I can finish," he said, wincing as his skin rippled then settled back to normal. He opened the door and nodded to those there.
"Do you have the kit or did you send someone to collect the evidence along with it?" he asked quietly.
The officer shook his head and glanced at the others. "I don't know…"
Bruce's eyes glowed green and Pepper took a step back. He swallowed, and closed them. "You did have someone notified that it was a sexual assault, correct?"
"We weren't sure…" the officer stammered and Bruce stepped forward, a foot landing much heavier than it should.
Bruce hadn't taken the time to change completely. He'd grabbed a pair of scrub pants and a lab coat, otherwise he was shirtless and shoeless so the definite green tinge that overcame his features was hard to miss. Steve stepped back a pace, as did the rest of the team.
"Bruce," Pepper said. "Should I send for someone else so you can go to the hulk room?"
"I'm fine," he said, the green fading. "I'm fine, just someone get me a rape kit. I want to get this over with, you should have one in an ambulance, yes?" he said tightly.
The officer said. "I'll look, I called the EMTs, they followed us," he said, running back to the elevator.
Pepper looked at Bruce with a worried expression. "Bruce, you have the hulk in check? Are you sure?"
Bruce nodded. "Believe it or not, hulk is the one controlling himself," he said with a soft smile. He nodded to everyone's confused looks. "He wants me to 'help Tony'. Believe it or not he told me that, and I understood it. I don't know how it happened but it did."
A minute later a pair of paramedics came running toward him and he led them back into the medbay. It looked rather amusing to see him in such a state, loose scrub pants and his hair a complete mess, his rather unimpressive chest blatant white against the similarly colored lab coat. The officer who had been up before came back and turned to Pepper.
"Th-that's the same guy, the big green thing?" he said quietly.
Pepper arched a sculpted brow at him. "Yes, but I'd rather you not refer to him as a 'thing', he's barely holding onto his control as it is. But yes, Dr. Banner is the hulk. You obviously haven't read the press releases we put out about him and the others on the Avengers," she commented.
He just nodded. "I'm…not a big news reader."
She smiled. "Dr. Banner doesn't do interviews, so I handle his press matters. Now, if you'll sit down here, when Bruce is satisfied he'll come out and answer your questions," she said with a smile.
It was another hour and two pale faced paramedics left and Bruce emerged and handed a sealed kit to the officer. His skin seemed to have taken on a constant greenish hue and his eyes nearly glowed green. He handed over a medical file next.
"The kit, I completed it, the paramedics signed as witnesses, and also verified my report. I've got to finish cleaning up after the evidence collection," he said with a shiver as green rippled over his face. "Pepper, can you please contact medical. I need an ENT for a consult," he said, disappearing again.
Pepper felt her stomach drop. For Bruce to need n ENT to consult, they'd done some severe damage to him. She didn't want to think about what he'd said to her when he tied her up in the room. She turned on her heel and headed into the office to make the call. A few minutes later, she was sitting with her hands in her head when she heard a familiar voice.
"Pepper?" Natasha said from the doorway.
Pepper looked up with teary eyes. "Natasha," she said softly, as she looked up at the other red haired woman.
She sat down beside Pepper and put an arm round her back. "Are you okay?"
She shook her head. "No, not at all Natasha. This is my fault. He grabbed me and used me to make Tony…make him…oh god, Natasha. I could hear it, everything. Everything they said to him. Everything they taunted him with what they were doing to him. The things they said…It was horrible… If I hadn't been so weak and let that guy…"
Natasha shook her head softly. "No, don't do this, Pepper. Blaming yourself for it won't do any more good than blaming Tony. It isn't his fault and it isn't your fault. Those men are to blame. We came back as soon as Fury got the message from Cap. Clint's with Cap in the hall waiting for word from Bruce and the doctor that came down to talk to him. He wouldn't tell us anything, just that he didn't know anything for sure yet."
Pepper nodded sadly. "I can't…I mean, I just got Steve and Bruce here to try and help him work through whatever is going on with him. I thought…I thought…"
Natasha put her arm around her and held her close to her for a moment.
"Pepper, I've seen first hand the cruelty of men. And there are so many ways that they take advantages of others, male and female. They took advantage to you, and they took advantage of Tony. Have they said anything yet? I heard the police took them in but Fury was having them transferred to a SHIELD facility on the grounds that Tony's a SHIELD agent," she said softly.
Pepper shook her head. "I don't know. I can't…I can't even face Tony."
There was a knock at the door and the door cracked to reveal Steve's face. "Pepper, Bruce said he can talk to us about it now."
Natasha held her hand as they left together, following Steve into a small room where Bruce and Fury were already waiting for them. They sat down at the small terrible and looked to Bruce.
"He'll be physically fine; he's had a lot of damage to his throat, however. Whatever they did, it appears they used an object of some sort on him at some point that nearly punctured his larynx. We didn't find anything that could have done that kind of damage in the warehouse, but we also didn't find one of the attackers. It is possible that an item was used that he took with him. The damage was significant, and not confined to his throat," Bruce said, not wanting to continue that. "I've repaired the damage and had the ENT help me with the surgery to repair his throat and larynx; however…he won't be able to talk for weeks, if not months, until it is completely healed. He'll also be confined to the med bay for at least four weeks until his other injuries heal, and he'll be on a nasal feeding tube for that time. I have to keep a close eye on his system. Between all the injuries, I cannot switch him to normal diet for a while."
Pepper nodded. "He's going to be devastated, not talking and able to leave the med bay…" she said softly.
Bruce sighed. "I…wouldn't be so sure, Pepper, he's been through a lot. And…I'm not even entirely sure that he'll ever be able to speak again. And even then…" he left the words hanging as his skin rippled greenish for a moment.
Fury's phone buzzed and he picked it up. "All right, got it. I'll be there in a few." He turned off the phone and looked up. "The three men have been transferred to a cell on the Helicarrier. I'm going to do the interrogation."
Natasha stood up. "Permission to accompany," she said.
Fury smiled and nodded. "Of course."
Together they left and headed out to the waiting helicopter on the top of the tower, leaving Pepper, Steve, and Bruce there. Clint had also remained. He honestly did not to watch what happened when Natasha walked into the room with the rapists. He knew that she carried more than a small amount of hatred toward men that did this sort of thing. The fact that it had happened to someone she held close was significant. He wondered if the three men in the cell would survive the night with their genitalia in working order. Something told him they would not.
Steve and Bruce both looked pale, and Pepper's gaze was hollow. How could he help? He knew that the leader, the one that had hurt Tony the most was not captured. He thought that the best he could do was find that bastard and bring him in.
"If you'll excuse me, I have some things to take care of," he said quietly and exited the tower and took to the roofs. Someone was behind this attack, and he was going to find out whom.
Fury and Natasha entered the interrogation room and sat across from the three men, all of which had been zip-tied to the rings that lined the table top. Fury opened a file.
"Jason Terrance," he said, looking up at the man in the blue polo shirt. "Carlos Menendez," he said, glancing at the man in the black t-shirt. "And Dallas Cooper," he said, eyes falling on the last one, the one in the white button up. "Director of SHIELD, Nick Fury."
"Yeah, we know who you are and you're out of your mind if you think you can keep us here," he said. "We have rights."
Fury arched a brow over his eye-patch. "You think you have rights? No, you don't have rights. No one even knows where you are, and if something happens to you, no one will be the wiser. You'll just disappear."
Carlos turned to the other two. "Man, I didn't sign up for this shit," he said.
"Keep your mouth shut," Dallas said with a growl. "You talk, I'll fucking kill you."
"Before or after they kill us, Dallas?" Jason said with a sigh. "We're fucked. The bastard set us up good, that's all there is to it."
"Who would that be?" Fury said, leaning forward. "I mean, we can do this the easy way, or I can leave the room and you can get to know Black Widow a bit better. I'm sure she would enjoy some special time with you."
"What's that bitch gonna do?" Dallas said. Before Fury even could move, she'd cut his hands free of the table and had him trapped under her with a razor toed boot at his throat and another hovering just above his crotch.
"I hate rapists. If I had my way I'd castrate you all here and now and leave you without medical attention and see who survived until the morning," she said, glaring down at him. His eyes had gone wide and he had nothing more to say. "I suggest you explain yourself. Quickly."
Fury nodded. "Man, she doesn't like men period, but men that stick their cocks where they don't belong, that's something she can't stand."
"Look it wasn't our idea. He came to us, the guy in the mask. He said Stark had been fucking around with his wife, and we've all had Stark take our wives to bed. So he knew we had a beef with him," Carlos said.
"So, Stark was sleeping with married women?" Fury asked.
"No we weren't married, we'd broken up already when she ran into Stark," Carlos said. "But how the fuck am I going to get the bitch back after she's been wooed by Tony fuckin' Stark?"
"Really? You got dumped, your ex went on a date with Stark, and you blamed him?" Fury said, frowning at the two across the table. Both nodded and looked away. "That's what this is about. You three idiots got dumped and your women happened to meet up with Stark afterward, and you somehow blame him for the whole thing."
Jason shook his head. "Well, when you put it that way…" he said, chewing his lip.
"When I put it that way? What other way is there to put it?" Fury asked.
Carlos shifted uncomfortably. "When he talked about it, you know, it made more sense, you know, how it was Stark's fault, but…I don't know why, now, I mean, it really doesn't make sense, does it?" he said, looking at Jason.
Jason shook his head. "It doesn't. None of it makes sense now. Daisha and I broke up because I was moving…"
Natasha hauled the last one up and sat him down, not bothering with tying his hands again. He frowned. Dallas shook his head. "Serena and I broke up because…because…I was seeing another girl on the side and she found out…" he said, looking across at Fury.
Carlos shook his head. "Maria and I broke up…because we just made better friends than lovers…" he said looking up. "Why the hell would I blame anyone for that?"
Fury looked across at Natasha. "Order blood work for them all. We may be dealing with something bigger than we thought."
"The man, the one who convinced you of this, who was he?" Fury asked as Natasha left to get the kit to draw blood.
"I…I don't know… He said his name was John Smith, and he wore a mask the whole time we were with him, and he wore gloves…" Jason said, the color draining from his face. "He…he told us that we had to make Stark pay, that it was the only way…and then we…we…oh my god, what the hell did we do?"
Carlos also had paled. "I thought he was going to kill him. He had a…billie club? Those things the cops in England carry. Is that what it was? He shoved it down his throat, and we laughed at him…why would we do such a thing? There was blood just pouring from his mouth, he…you could see it, he pushed it all the way down and he was choking and he'd yank it back out again…and the he used it…" Carlos blinked, and stopped. "Oh…why did we watch him? Why did we keep doing it again and again, it was like we couldn't stop, like we were…"
"Being controlled?" Fury asked with a sigh. Well, this just got more complicated than he'd like.
Clint found himself at the club that Tony and the others had been at quickly enough. After some nosing around, he found out that there were quite a few women that Tony had slept with around, and most of them told Clint that Tony had been what they needed at the time. A simple one night stand with no strings attached, and all of them were coming off relationships, both bad breaks and clean breaks. He could find no one that said that Tony made them cheat on their partners. He hit a few other bars he knew Tony frequented and found the same thing, and the occasional cheating woman that he'd turned down. So Tony had some morals after all, it seemed.
He found out a lot of what Tony did when he was out on the town. He flirted incessantly, but he found to his surprise he flirted with both men and women, though he didn't find any men he'd actually taken to bed. He ran across disgruntled ex-boyfriends that were mad that Tony had been with their exes, but none that claimed to blame Tony for the break up. He decided he wasn't going to find more information, so he scouted the area around the warehouse that they'd found him in.
He knew they were looking for something that had been used to damage his throat like that. He had never seen someone with that kind of damage that wasn't done purposefully. The idea that it was an act meant to cause Tony pain was one way to look at it, but another was that it was done purposefully to silence him for some reason. Battering the larynx like that would certainly do that job. Why? There were other ways to do it, he supposed, but then, if whoever was doing it was trying to disguise their true intention…
He stopped as the idea dawned on him. This hadn't been about the sexual assault. That had been a horrible cover for the true intention. With attention focused on the sexual assault, leaving the other three to be caught and punished and escaping, no one would question the fact that Tony was without his voice for a long time, if not permanently. Whoever had done this was beyond twisted.
He was about to go back when he spotted a trashcan dumped over recently. He leaped down and began to sift through the contents and found what he was looking for. A billie club, covered in still tacky blood…
Bruce sat beside Tony's bed and waited. He wasn't sure what he expected. Tony might not wake up at all. He'd seen the like before, traumatized victims refusing to come out of a coma. He didn't want that to happen. He looked up as the door opened and closed and saw it was Steve.
"How is he?" he asked, looking at where Tony was hooked up to the various lines running into him.
Bruce shook his head. "I can't say yet. No sign of waking yet. He's been taken off the anesthesia, so now we wait. The surgery on his throat caused a lot of swelling, and he'll have to stay on the ventilator for a while until we can be sure his breathing won't be affected. The larynx suffered the worst trauma, but the whole of his throat was battered pretty badly."
Steve nodded. "I don't understand why someone would do this," he said quietly as the door opened and Clint laid a white wrapped object on the counter.
"I found the weapon," he said quietly, and Bruce jumped up and snapped gloves on. "I have a theory too."
"Let's hear it," came Natasha's voice as she came into the room, her own face looking pale.
"I don't think the assault was the reason for the attack," he said, looking between them. I think it was a cover."
Steve looked at him. "How can raping someone be a cover?"
"Think about it. I did a lot of club diving and not once could I find a woman that claimed she had cheated on her partner with Tony, I even found a couple that had been angry that Tony wouldn't sleep with them because they were still married. The only thing that doesn't fit with the whole story, that this was some sort of revenge rape, is the damage to his throat. Think about it. He would have been injured enough as it was, and while yeah, sadistic bastards might want him to have the most pain, but what if that was the true crime," Clint said, looking at them all. "He was trying to stop him from being able to speak."
Natasha nodded. "That coincides with the three we have in custody. It was like they were coming down off some sort of mind control. At first they were angry and swearing and then they became horrified at what they'd done. They couldn't name the man they worked with."
"What use is stopping Tony's voice, though? It isn't like he can't communicate other ways. So if it was a matter of trying to stop him from talking about something…" Steve said with a deep frown.
Bruce looked up. "That means that…there is something about Tony's voice specifically that they were trying to destroy."
Steve frowned and looked at Natasha and Clint. "Let's go see if we can figure something out with the director," he said as they left together, leaving Bruce to stare at the club. His last hope was getting something off the handle, anything, DNA, a bit of a fingerprint, anything.
He felt Tony's hand twitch and he looked up to see his eyes opening slowly. They'd had to restrain him, of course. He had IV lines, a feeding tube line, and he was intubated. He couldn't pull any of it out without severely damaging something. He's eyes went wide and he yanked hard against the wrist binding.
"Tony, I need you to be calm for me," he said, leaning over him and locking eyes on him. Tony's eyes darted around and he obviously could tell he couldn't speak. "Okay, you were hurt, do you remember?" Part of Bruce wanted him to answer no. Instead he nodded, slowly. Bruce swallowed. "Okay now listen. You're intubated. I can't remove it yet, there's too much swelling in your throat. I may have to do a tracheotomy still if the swelling continues to increase, okay?"
Tony nodded, but his eyes were frantic still and Bruce could see by the heart monitor he was agitated, a lot. "Tony, calm down, okay, I don't want to have to sedate you, but I will if you can't calm down."
Tony was actively trying, Bruce could see that, but he couldn't imagine what was going on in the man's head. "Okay, I need you to listen to me; you're on a feeding tube right now, okay? Your system has to be monitored. That means you have to stay here, okay? And I have your arms restrained because if you pull out any of these tubes, it is going to be a big problem, okay?"
Again, the words set Tony's heart rate up a bit before it settled down again. Bruce knew that it was uncomfortable to have the tubes like that running down into his lungs. He moved and checked the two IV lines he had running, one for high dose antibiotics and the other for saline and morphine. He had him on a steady drip. He checked the tubes and couldn't help but notice the flinch when he got near Tony's mouth. He winced at the thought because it was completely unconscious. He had a feeling if he wasn't restrained that he would have ripped everything out by now already.
He sat down and put a hand on Tony's in the restraint. "Tony do you have any idea who the man was that had left?"
He felt his hand squeeze reflexively at the question and his heart rate shot up by twenty points. "Tony, I know, I need you to squeeze my hand, don't move your head right now. We had to do a lot of surgery to repair your larynx. Once for yes, twice for no, okay?" he said softly, rubbing a thumb over the back of Tony's hand gently as he spoke. Tony squeezed once.
"Alright, we're thinking that, as terrible as this is, what happened was a cover for something else, okay?" he said and Tony's hand squeezed again, his eyes focused on him. "Good, good, okay, the other men, the three we caught, they somehow have been brainwashed or manipulated, and left for us to catch. The other man, the one that escaped, we think was trying to destroy your ability to speak, Tony. That's the theory Clint came up with, so do you know why someone would want to do that and cover it up so no one would catch on?"
Tony's brow wrinkled and he squeezed twice. "It's a long shot, but we can't come up with anything else as to why the masked man would have arranged this. A diversion is the only thing that makes much sense." Tony squeezed again twice. "Okay, Tony, okay, you should rest. When you've healed a bit I'll get a tablet so you can talk to us through JARVIS," he said and Tony squeezed once.
Bruce got up to leave and Tony jerked on the wrist restraints, making them rattle. Bruce shook his head. "I can't take them off, Tony. If you pull something out, I can't be sure if you'll ever speak again, and I'm not going to lie to you, that's iffy as it is." Tony blinked and turned his head to the side and stared out the window. "I'm sorry, Tony. I wish I'd gotten there sooner."
Bruce stepped out of the room to see Pepper standing there. He nodded. "He's awake. Don't take the restraints off, though, he already asked, I just can't be sure yet that he won't pull everything out."
"Okay, I'll go sit with him for a while," she said softly, heading into the room with him.
Bruce headed down to the kitchen and flopped into one of the dining chairs with a deep sigh. He honestly didn't know what to do. He was startled out of thought as Steve sat down beside him.
"How is he?" Steve said as he grabbed a bagel off the plate. Pepper always brought bagels if she came by in the morning.
Bruce shook his head. "I don't know, I mean, its touch and go at this point. If his throat doesn't stop swelling, I'll have to trach him until it heals and I don't really want to do that. He's reacting poorly to being restrained, of course, and he's severely anxious."
Steve nodded. "We've still haven't gotten any leads on the masked man. Clint's still out there looking, and Natasha isn't even close to giving up the search yet. Fury's iffy on Clint's idea that this wasn't about revenge, but he's letting Clint go after it because we just don't know enough. No one can come up with the idea as to what Tony's actual voice could be so important for unless there is some sort of code somewhere that requires his voice activation. Did Tony know?"
Bruce shook his head. "I asked, but he responded no to it, that he didn't know why someone would want his voice removed. Even at that, wouldn't you think Tony of all people could come up with a voice modulator that could emulate his voice perfectly?"
"I don't know enough about this stuff, but if anyone could it would be Tony," he said with a sigh.
"Sirs, there is an incoming video transmission," came JARVIS over the speakers. "It is classified as priority one for Sir."
"Who is it, JARVIS?" Steve said, as the video monitor rose from the table and turned toward them.
"Under code Stark gamma six, when Sir is incapacitated, Captain Steve Rogers and Doctor Bruce Banner are allowed access to sub systems three through seven as well as all priority one messages," JARVIS said and the monitor flickered to life.
"Where's Tony?" came a voice that none of them knew. He was a bald older man talking to them from somewhere that had metal in the background.
"Tony's been injured, he's unable to answer," Bruce said, frowning as he stared at the man.
The man sighed. "I was afraid of this very situation, I warned Tony that he needed to come in immediately."
"Come in? Who are you?" Bruce asked.
"My name is Professor Xavier; I run a school for mutants and mutant training. I've been attempting to get Tony to come in since he was a child," he said, rubbing a hand over his head. "But why did I not see him when he was injured? I've been monitoring him for the last two months… What happened?"
"I don't understand what this has to do with Tony, was he helping you with something?" Steve asked, frowning.
Xavier shook his head. "I've been trying to get Tony to come in for assessment."
"Assessment? For what?" Bruce asked.
"To see exactly how far the mutant gene altered his physiology and what the potential for change it yet held," he answered matter of factly.
"Mutant gene?" Bruce said, frowning.
"Tony and his father both carried the mutant gene. They're mental capabilities stem from that gene, I'm sure you've noticed, Dr. Banner, brain scans on Tony are never quite normal. The reason is that he was born a mutant, though in such a way that others just assume he's a genius. No doubt he is, but the mutant gene compounds that genius and mental power exponentially with training. How was he hurt?" Xavier said.
Bruce was slightly taken aback. "Here, I'll transfer the files to you," he said, initiating the transfer before he thought more about it. He didn't even know this person and he was sending the reports over to him without a second thought.
Xavier looked away at something else and then turned behind him. "Jean, take a look," he said and a woman with red hair leaned just into the edge of the transmission.
"This is bad, Professor," she said quietly. "Really bad. This kind of emotional trauma could trigger the mutant gene's acceleration in him. We know when Tony is under severe distress, his capacity tends to magnify, explaining his sudden increase in ability when he was captured by the Ten Rings. This could trigger more capabilities than we've anticipated," she said, standing back up.
Xavier looked at Bruce and Steve. "Do you have the perpetrator in custody?"
Steve shook his head. "We detained three men who participated in the attack, but it seems that they were brainwashed or hypnotized or something and they can't explain why they did what they did. The masked man, as they called him, the one that convinced them to do this…they don't know who he is or where he came from."
Xavier nodded. "Very well. I'll do some research on my end, I'll contact you if I uncover anything that might be helpful. Whatever you do, try to keep him from becoming overly distressed. I've never been able to examine him personally, so I am honestly unsure of the extent of his potential."
The feed went black and Bruce and Steve exchanged looks. "Tony's a mutant," Bruce said, frowning. "I never…I'm running tests to find out if that's true, I'm not taking anything at face value," he said, getting up and going to the med bay where Tony was apparently asleep and Pepper sat beside him, her hand in his.
Pepper looked up as he came and took a blood sample, barely causing Tony to store. He smiled at her. "Some routine checks, don't worry, Pepper," he said as he took the sample to his larger lab and began a full spectrum analysis of his DNA sequences. It would take several hours to complete, even with the advanced device that Tony had invented for him.
If this was true, they had another clue. If it wasn't, they still had another clue, either way. They knew more now than they had before. It was a long wait and Bruce had fallen asleep on the table when the alarm sounded to let him know the analysis was complete. He went and pulled the paper off the printer and gaped. He went to the interface console and dialed into Director Fury's private line. His face filled the screen.
"Director, I think I've found something," he said softly, still staring at the paper.
Fury looked annoyed at the personal call. "What is it Bruce? Has something happened with Stark? I don't have time…"
"You need to make time. I got a call from a Professor Xavier. I decided to verify what he said and ran a full DNA analysis. Sir, Tony's carrying the mutant gene. And if I'm reading this right, it is actively altering more of his DNA as we speak," Bruce said, looking up at him.