Warnings: none. Well, language, I guess?

Thanks to my beta, irite, for helping me get this new project off the ground!

I do not own The Avengers.


He fought it.

Of course he fought it. Tooth and nail. But given what had happened, the timing of the attack...he never stood a chance.

And maybe that's what Vanko had intended, the jackass. Not Tony's death, just the exposure of a weakness.

Stark Expo was supposed to be one hell of a party. After all, they hadn't had one of these since 1974. And Tony had a lot to celebrate, so the opening ceremony was supposed to be a triumphant new beginning, chock full of phoenix metaphors and shit.

But then Vanko had shown up. Wearing his own suit, powered by an arc reactor, complete with electrically-charged whips.

It hadn't been much of a battle. It could have been a lot worse, with civilian casualties, or massive structural damage, or both. But Tony had been able to get back into his suit pretty quickly—not before Vanko had gotten some pretty good hits in, but quick enough—and he had taken down Vanko without much fuss after that.

Still, when he'd sat in front of the Senate the next morning (those bastards were pretty insensitive about serving subpoenas), the makeup caked over his left eye did little to hide the bruising and, well, there wasn't much hope of concealing the stitches in his lip, either. All in all, it wasn't really how he preferred to appear on national television, and really not how he wanted to look when he was trying to convince a Senate committee that his suits posed no real threat to American security. Because even if no one (except, well, Tony) had been hurt in Vanko's attack, the fact remained that Vanko's 'suit' posed a threat. And that Vanko had this technology, well...

It kind of proved the Senate's point. Unequivocally, actually.

Still, they'd called Justin Hammer—the idiot who headed up Hammer Industries, one of Tony's 'competitors' (as if; that guy was too stupid to compete with anyone, ever)—as a witness. He'd barely had to say ten words about the current state of weapons technology before the decision had been made.

After all, the post-9/11 American government was a damn powerhouse, with very little regard for things like personal property and, well, laws. They decreed—with very little debate amongst themselves and with almost no public outcry—that Tony had to hand over his suits and all related technology. Including the arc reactors.

Luckily, no one except a select few knew about the one in his chest. And they weren't going to tell.

Thank God for paranoia.

Of course he objected to the ruling. Loudly. Rudely. But all of Tony's protestations were summarily dismissed, and he was ordered to deliver his property to the United States military or face the consequences.

Stern had been the one to deliver the news, with a smirk on his face, and Tony couldn't do one damn thing about him without endangering his tech even more.

But that certainly didn't mean he was going to hand over his property. Not that easily.

So Tony fought it. He signed the company over to Pepper (who sighed, but took the reins with no fuss otherwise) and dedicated his time to fighting it. He cancelled all his plans for the next year: business trips, vacations, speaking engagements. He handed over the construction of Stark Tower in New York entirely to his contractors.

He was, he thought, prepared to see this through.

He was wrong.

For months, he was tied up in court, trying to assert his right to keep his tech. But after being attacked by Vanko, after everyone saw what that kind of technology in the wrong hands could look like, no one would listen to what he was saying. No one believed they were safe; they wanted the government to protect them, like that was a good idea. And so court after court ruled against him, saying that it was for the good of the nation—no, it was absolutely essential for national security—that he just do what he had been ordered to do. After all, a private citizen holding such a dangerous weapon was certainly far too risky.

As they'd all seen.

It was an exhausting battle, and an expensive one, a trying one, and finally, eventually, Tony had had enough. The months-long legal battle had decimated what personal life he'd had; by the end, he hadn't seen Pepper or Rhodey in weeks. Pepper was busy running the company and Rhodey, well, the military was keeping pretty tight wraps on him. He'd called a few times to express his condolences over 'this bullshit,' as he put it, but short of resigning his position, there was very little he could do about it.

And Tony got it. He really did. He wasn't even angry.

The wreckage of his personal life might not have been enough for him to throw the towel in (because Tony approached problems with a near-rabid intensity), but on top of that, his health was...not what it needed to be. Frankly, he was pretty sure he was dying. He hadn't been in the suit in ages—hadn't had time to rebuild what was stolen—and it had slowed down the palladium poisoning, but nothing he knew of could reverse it, not even the vast quantities of green gook he was choking down every day.

It was just a matter of time.

And he wasn't going to waste what was left of his life fighting a battle he knew he couldn't win.

He was done.

So, on November 29th, 2010—the same day that Vanko was sentenced to life in prison, incidentally (and that wasn't nearly as satisfying as Tony had hoped it would be)—Tony had his property delivered to the designated military base. He, of course, didn't go, wouldn't face that kind of humiliation publicly.

Couldn't face that pompous douche Justin Hammer, creaming himself over getting his hands on Stark Tech.

On November 30th, he got a visit from Nick Fury.

They'd met before, of course, and Tony thought he'd been pretty clear then about how he felt about Fury's proposal. He'd said no to 'The Avengers Initiative,' and he'd figured that'd be the end of it, the end of his involvement with SHIELD.

It wasn't, apparently.

But Tony was done with the government, and that included the covert agency that Fury headed up. Fury wouldn't take 'no' for an answer, but Tony could out-stubborn anyone. And so, after a solid week of unanswered phone calls and ignored voicemails, Fury gave up and headed back to New York.

At least, Tony had assumed Fury had given up. He really should have known better.

The director left, in his wake, a collection of large black boxes, containing God knows what. Tony didn't give a shit; he left them untouched where they'd been set down by Fury's breaking-and-entering henchmen. After a few days, Tony got tired of tripping over them and shoved them off to one side of the living room, but aside from that, he ignored them entirely.

So, for a week after his last 'chat' with Fury (that is, the last ignored phone call), Tony stayed holed up in his lab. Alone. Pointedly not thinking about the more or less empty wasteland his life had become. It didn't take him long to knock together the specs for a new suit—that he'd been explicitly forbidden from constructing, like that was going to stop him—and he threw together the design for a new arc reactor, too. Granted, it still used palladium and was thus going to continue killing him if he stuck it in his chest, but he had to make sure he stayed on top of the game, that he had the best tech available.

He was going to make what he'd handed over to the government look like it was straight out of the 1950s.

It was a productive week, all in all, and he was on quite the roll when he was interrupted early on December 14th.

Someone rang the doorbell.

That was strange for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, people did not ring Tony Stark's doorbell. Either they could just let themselves into the house, like Pepper or Rhodey (and Fury, that asshole, though Tony had fixed that loophole in the system within the last week), or they couldn't actually make it to the door through the rest of the security system.

Second, it was—Tony checked his watch—3:04 AM. And he wasn't expecting any visitors.

Tony was between PAs at the moment—none of them lasted like Pepper had—and it was the middle of the night anyway, so he couldn't just push the unfortunate duty of checking this out on someone else. Which meant he could either deal with it or ignore it. He'd just decided to ignore it and get back to work when whoever it was rang the bell again. Apparently, they were insistent. And annoying. With a frustrated sigh, Tony called, "JARVIS, gimme the video feed from the front door."

"Of course, sir."

A moment later, it was up on his screen. And he got a pretty clear view of the guy standing at his front door.

He didn't look threatening. Looked kinda geeky, actually, like he'd wandered over from Caltech or something. But the nervous way he kept looking over his shoulder, the way he'd jumped when he'd heard the camera by the door moving? That was setting off alarm bells. That kind of paranoia didn't look good on anyone.

What's he so worried about?

As Tony watched, the guy rang the doorbell again, looking back behind him like he was expecting someone or something to leap out of the nearby bushes and attack.

Rolling his eyes, Tony stood and made his way to the staircase. Obviously this guy wasn't going to leave, and he was apparently scared half out of his wits about something so...might as well let him in, right? It was humanitarian.

Worst case scenario, this guy was some crack addict or something, and had, through some weird stroke of luck, managed to make it to Tony's door. Tony doubted it, though; his life was never, ever that mundane. And he had a feeling this, whatever it was, wasn't going to be mundane at all.

When he got to the door, Tony took a moment to look out the peephole and get a better look at his visitor. He was, Tony could see, nervously shifting his weight from one foot to the other, and fiddling with the hem of his shirt so energetically that it'd started to come unraveled He had a duffel bag slung over one shoulder, and it had definitely seen better days. His hair was sticking straight up, like he'd been running his hand through it, and the glasses perched on his nose were just slightly askance. He looked, in a phrase, completely insane.

Slowly, Tony cracked the door open, standing behind it, out of sight. "What do you want?"

There was a long pause. Then, "Hi. Um. This is, uh. Really awkward, I know. And it's late, I'm sorry if I woke you. But I'm looking for, um, Tony Stark?"

"What for?" This wasn't exactly boding well, and after the year he'd been having, Tony wouldn't put it past this guy to be some kind of would-be assassin. And he wasn't about to let a would-be assassin saunter into his house. Of course, Tony very much doubted that any would-be assassin would be this damn awkward. Or nervous.

Not that Tony knew many assassins personally.

Tony heard his visitor take a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Uh, well. It's kind of personal, and um, I'd rather not talk about it unless—"

Unable to take the nervous stuttering another minute—his own personal safety be damned—Tony stepped out from behind the door, flinging it wide. He stuck his hand out. "Tony Stark. Now who are you and what the fuck are you doing here?"

His visitor took his hand and shook it. "Um. Bruce Banner." He looked over his shoulder again. "Can I, uh. Come in?"

Tony was sorely tempted to say 'no.' But now this guy had a name, and he really seemed too innocuous (and nervous) to be much of a threat, so Tony stepped aside. "Sure." He was, after all, not the kind of person to back away from something like this. Really, he tended to bound head first into bizarre situations.

Stepping inside, Banner cast one last look behind him before he shut the door. He set his bag on the floor. Then the two men stared awkwardly at each other in the foyer for almost five seconds before Tony—realizing that Banner had no intent of taking the initiative here—said, "Come on. Let's go down to my lab."

Might as well be comfortable for whatever this was, right?

Silently, Banner followed him through the house and back down the stairs. In the lab, Tony quickly closed out everything he'd been working on and scrounged up another chair before flopping into his. "So. What's with the late night visit, Mr. Banner?"

"Doctor," Banner corrected absently, almost like it was an old habit he hadn't quite managed to break yet. He glanced around, taking in his surroundings. For a moment, Tony was worried—was this some government spy, here to check on him?—but then he realized that Banner wasn't actually looking at anything important. In fact, he seemed to be rather fixated on DUM-E, who was whizzing around in the background.

Not really something anyone with the government would be very interested in.

Plus, the small smile on Banner's face was way more 'that's so cool' than 'I have to report that.'

Still, it was time to get down to business. "Okay, Dr. Banner." Tony prompted, letting some of his irritation slip into his voice. "What gives?"

The smile faded from his face and Banner clenched his hands briefly on the arms of his chair before he answered, "I'm here to help you."

Oh, this was just getting way too weird for Tony's tastes. He asked, "Help me with what?"

Banner pointed at Tony's chest. "The palladium poisoning."

Tony didn't even realize he was standing up before he was on his feet. "How the fuck do you know about that?" No one knew about that. Not Pepper, not Rhodey. Tony had told no one.

Banner put his hands up in a placating gesture. "Look, um. I'm sorry. It's just...this has been one hell of a weird day for me and, uh. Yeah. Do you know Nick Fury?"

Oh. So that's where all of this fuckery was coming from. Somehow, Tony was completely unsurprised. "Damn straight I do." Tony scowled, wandering over to a workbench and picking up a screwdriver. He had a brief fantasy of shoving it through Fury's remaining eye.

Banner snorted softly. "I met him today. Yesterday. I, um." Tony glanced over his shoulder at the hesitation and Banner looked up from his shoes, meeting Tony's eyes. "Do you know who I am?"

That was easy. "Hell no. Should I?"

Fiddling with the hem of his shirt again, Banner answered, "I...no. It'd just be easier if you did." He paused. "It's just...I was up in Canada and...Fury found me."

Tony said nonchalantly, sauntering back towards his chair, "Yeah, that asshole does that. It's kind of his thing."

Banner did not seem reassured. "He found me. Just like that. I didn't realize it could be so easy, I thought I was safe—"

"Safe from what?" Tony interjected. But then he thought back to how Banner had been acting when he'd been stuck on the front porch. The paranoia. Oh, it was obvious. "Is there someone after you?"

With a humorless chuckle, Banner affirmed, "Oh, yeah. Um. The army? I mean, not all of it, but definitely...some."

Who the hell did I just let into my house?

Tony, quite calmly, made it the rest of the way back to his chair and fell into it. When he was more or less situated, he demanded, "Okay. The army is after you? Who the fuck are you, exactly?"

With a weary sigh, Banner reached into his pocket and pulled out a thumb drive. He handed it to Tony, pointedly not looking him in the eyes. "Here. Fury said it'd probably be easier this way." Suddenly, he stood. "Hey, uh, mind if I use your bathroom?"

"Huh? Sure." Tony gave him a vague set of directions and waved him off. Then, not even noticing if Banner was heading in the right direction (he was too interested in finding out what the hell was going on and really, this guy was harmless anyway), he swivelled around and stuck the thumb drive in a nearby console.

He settled in to read.


Holy shit.

'Harmless,' right. Wow, Stark.

When Tony finished reading through the contents of the thumb drive (which consisted largely of SHIELD's records on the guy), he'd re-evaluated his earlier assessment of Banner.

This guy was one badass motherfucker.

Obviously, he was brilliant. Now that Tony had a framework to work with, now that he'd been reminded, he did know who Bruce Banner was—a few years ago, he'd read his work on anti-electron collisions, and it was, frankly, unparalleled. The man was, without doubt, a genius. Tony even had to begrudgingly admit that Banner would give him a run for his money in the intelligence department.

That was awesome enough, but there was so much more.

For one, Banner was tough as hell—that much gamma radiation should have killed him, but he was still alive and kicking. Despite the best efforts of the army, despite having been hounded across the country, the guy was still alive. It was stunning.

And two, well, good lord, it was incredible what he could do.

Or immensely dangerous. But Tony was definitely leaning towards incredible.

Even if the guy had taken out a couple of city blocks here and there. It wasn't like he'd meant to do it.

The casualties...well, it wasn't like Tony could really judge that, either. Not after what he'd spent most of his life doing.

And Banner was clearly judging the hell out of himself. Tony thought back to how closed off Banner had been when he'd handed over the thumb drive, how he'd done his best to vacate the room immediately afterwards. He was clearly expecting the worst, clearly had a lot of practice at castigating himself. Tony wasn't going to get on that boat. He had exactly zero room to do it.

Glancing quickly at the clock, Tony was amazed to see that almost an hour had passed since he'd started reading. A very silent hour. He spun around, looking back at where Banner had been sitting earlier.

He wasn't there.

Where the fuck did he go? Did he just cut and run? What the hell? "JARVIS—"

"Dr. Banner is in the living room, sir."

Tony heaved a sigh, part beleaguered, part relieved. Now that he knew who this guy was (and boy was that a lot to take in on its own), he really needed to get to the 'why' part. For example, he really wanted to know why that asshole Fury was sending a nuclear physicist his way.

Especially this nuclear physicist.

At least now he got why Banner had been so uptight when he'd been outside. Tony figured if he had the army after him, he'd probably be a little twitchy, too. Especially if it happened that if he happened to get provoked, he might take out God knows how many people. And potentially city blocks.

Yeah, Tony thought he got it.

Standing, he stretched before heading towards the stairs. When he got to the living room, he was unsurprised to see Banner sprawled on a couch, fast asleep. It made sense; the guy had apparently had quite the day, and being that nervous all the time had to be exhausting.

Not to mention the amount of control he had to keep over himself. It was actually intimidating to think about.

So he wasn't going to. Instead, Tony strode over to the couch and tapped on the sole of one of Banner's shoes. "Morning, Sunshine. We need to talk."

Banner jerked awake, snapping upright before he was even fully conscious. Tony reflected briefly on the possible repercussions of startling a man who, he'd just learned, tended to turn into a large, green rage monster when feeling emotional. Apparently, though, Banner had a pretty good handle on it; for a moment, he looked startled, and Tony thought he saw a flash of green in his eyes, but then he cleared his throat and straightened, pulling back and away from Tony.

He launched immediately into an apology. "Hey. Um. Sorry. You were reading and I, uh..." he looked down at his hands, clasped in his lap.

"Fell asleep on my couch, yeah, I get it," Tony said easily, settling down in a nearby chair. This whole thing was awkward as hell, but he wasn't going to let that stop him. "So, I read everything on that thumb drive. Did Fury just hand that to you and tell you to deliver it or what? 'Cause that's a fucked up way to do an introduction. I mean, you could have just printed up your CV."

The look Banner was giving him was incredulous. "What?" Tony demanded.

As if he was talking to someone very, very slow, Banner asked, "You did read those files, right?"

Tony nodded. "Sure did." Then, since Banner didn't look any less confused, Tony decided to help him out. "You're worried that I'm gonna freak out about the whole rage-monster thing. I'm not. It's cool."

Banner flinched visibly at the phrase 'rage monster,' but Tony plowed on, "Anyway, whatever, right? It's not like that's going to be a problem." Banner's jaw dropped open, which didn't do much for Tony's already-tenuous belief in what he'd said. But what he'd seen so far indicated it wasn't going to be a problem. And when in doubt, exude confidence. That had been his strategy so far, and it hadn't let him down yet.

Crossing his legs, Tony leaned back, lacing his fingers together behind his head. "So what's the deal with you and Fury? 'Cause I told that dick that I didn't want anything to do with him, and now he's sending me, uh, irradiated charity-case physicists and I don't know what the fuck he wants me to do with you."

He looked at Banner expectantly.

For once, Banner took the hint that it was time for him to speak. "Well, uh. Basically? He found me in British Columbia, took me to some creepy facility, and told me some stuff about what's going on with you and the, um, palladium poisoning. Said some really cryptic stuff, but the gist of it was that he thinks that there might be a solution for it that you haven't thought of yet."

"Yeah?" Tony asked, interest piqued. "What kind of solution?" Because he'd tried everything, he thought, and he'd gotten nowhere. He'd let his irritation with Fury slide if he got some answers.

Banner shrugged stiffly. "Not sure. Fury suggested we start by looking through some of the stuff your dad left you—"

"Uh, yeah. That? Not going to happen." Tony had no interest in going through that stuff, had no interest in thinking about his dad. He already felt like enough of an idiot, enough of a failure. Didn't need that on top of it.

One corner of Banner's mouth turned up. "Fury said you'd say that."

Annoyed (because Fury was such an asshole—screw that thing about letting his irritation with the director slide), Tony demanded, "And he sent you here to, what, convince me?"

"Not really. He just said I might be helpful, if you ever did 'get your head out of your ass.'"

Ugh. Fucking Fury. Tony was ready to snap something along the lines of 'get the fuck out of my house' or 'I work alone,' or 'I don't need help,' but the really tense, defensive way Banner was wedged into the corner of the couch stopped him abruptly. Clearly, the other man didn't like this any more than he did. He'd been dragged out of Canada—where he thought he'd been hiding, he thought he'd been safe—and had been taken into custody by some covert government agency. That had to suck—from what Tony had read, Banner's dealings with the government tended to be generally violent or traumatic or both. So that'd probably fucked with him. 'Cause really, if Tony thought he had some good reasons to have a beef with the government, he had nothing on Banner. But despite that, the guy was here, even as there was no clear benefit in this for him, even as he'd clearly be just about anywhere else. For whatever reason, he'd decided that this was something he wanted to do. At least, Tony hoped that's what Banner had decided. But it didn't really seem like Fury to be outright coercive, to force someone to do something.

Not outright coercive, no...maybe manipulative, but not coercive.

Anyway, for whatever reason (and Tony would figure it out, he decided) Banner wasn't running, even though it was evident he wanted to.

So Tony wasn't going to run, either.

And maybe...maybe working with another person could be useful. Maybe even...fun.

If he saved his own life in the process, well, that wouldn't be so bad, either.

Instead of saying something snarky, then, Tony just nodded tersely. "Fine. So, what, you're supposed to stick around 'til we figure this shit out?"

Mutely, Banner nodded.

"And if I say no?" Tony thought it was worth knowing what would happen.

"Uh...then I guess I try to find a way out of one of the most densely populated areas in the country." The way Banner spoke indicated that doing so might be an issue. Or maybe that just being in one of the most densely populated areas in the country at all was a problem.

You think, Stark?

But that did raise an interesting question. "How did you get here, anyway? And how did you get in? 'Cause uh, this place? Kinda supposed to be impenetrable. And you don't really seem like the penetrating type."

Banner shot him a look, like he couldn't decide if he should be amused or annoyed by the phrasing. "SHIELD. One of their agents dropped me off..." he trailed off. "What do you mean, 'impenetrable'? The agent...she didn't have any trouble getting past the security gates."

Tony grumbled. Apparently, he needed to tweak the system again.

Well, he'd already made his decision, anyway, so how Banner planned to get out of here was a moot point. "Sure. Fine. You can stay. I can do this. I guess." Or at least he'd try. But then he thought of something. A problem. One thing he still didn't get. "Why's Fury so worried about me, anyway?" Tony had told the director that he wasn't interested in the super secret boy band, so why did it matter so much what happened to him now? Fury didn't strike him as that much of a humanitarian.

Banner clearly didn't have the answer, either. He just shrugged and answered hesitantly, "I think...when it comes to SHIELD...we shouldn't ask too many questions."

That, Tony decided with a critical look at Banner, is an idea that's just not going to stand.

Well, he was apparently going to have time to work on it. Since Banner was his new roommate and all.

Whatever.


Thanks for reading!

So, what did you think? Please review and let me know.

Hopefully, any lingering questions will be addressed in subsequent chapters...