Betty Ross didn't pack much. Tony had the nagging impression that either she wasn't expecting to be staying very long, or she was expecting to end up on the run. Given Bruce's apparent history, he probably couldn't blame her, but it was mildly disconcerting.
The plane ride was actually pretty fun, though. He wasn't sure what he'd expected, but a long and excitable discussion on what modes of transport could be considered Hulk-safe probably hadn't been it. (For the record? Private plane and/or helicopter, probably fine, just don't drop the man out of them (huh?). Car, also probably fine, provided Bruce had control of the radio. Public transport, highly questionable, but Tony could honestly say Bruce was getting better about it. New York cabs? Definitely not fine). Tony had pointed out that it was pretty fine either way, except in airborne cases, because the Hulk made a pretty decent mode of transport in his own right, provided you steered him away from, you know, civilian bystanders and anything liable to cut him off in traffic. Betty had told him he was a bad, bad man, mostly seriously, but she'd also been grinning at him a little bit, so.
The plane ride itself was pretty fun. It was when they got off at the airfield that the first problem cropped up. Happy, as per JARVIS's instructions, was waiting for them at the airfield. Cool. Unfortunately, Pepper was leaning against the car door beside him. Possibly ... not so cool. Though he couldn't quite help the little happy bounce at the sight of her.
It was ... weird, sometimes, this whole 'dating' thing, you know that? He kept randomly feeling an urge to grin at completely normal things. Like seeing a woman who had been his PA for, you know, years now, who he probably should be used to seeing by now.
Betty, watching him closely, watching the weird look that Tony was sure must come over his face when faced with Pepper, smiled faintly to herself. Tony tried not to be too annoyed by that.
"Tony," Pepper said, repressively, as he made sure to swagger nonchalantly up to her. Nope. Didn't do a thing wrong, your honour. Completely innocent, that was him. Pepper responded with a professional squint-eye that one of these Tony would really have to bottle, and sell to interrogation experts. He'd make a fortune. Well. Another one. "Want to tell me why you took an unscheduled trip to Virginia?"
He grinned, casual and easy. "Well, Pep, see, it was like this." He gestured sideways towards Betty. "There was this lovely woman, and I decided I needed to kidnap her, spirit her across the country, and bring her home so she can reunite with her lost love, elope with him, and live together happily in my basement."
Pepper's eyebrows shot upwards in surprise, turning to look at Betty, who was trying with some difficulty to keep a straight face. She looked surprised, and alarmed, for ... maybe all of a second, before settling into something more like resigned exasperation and the most put-upon sigh in all the world. Tony ... might have grinned, a little bit. Pride, as much as anything else. Betty may be unfazed by the Hulk. After all these years, Pepper? Wasn't fazed by anything.
And yes, before you say it, he did get that maybe that wasn't a good thing, maybe it didn't say good things about their relationship, but screw it. She was the best, and she could handle anything, and there was times he was just stupidly grateful, for that.
"Did the lady agree to any of this?" she asked, mildly, looking straight at Tony. Betty, beside him, covered her mouth with her hand.
Tony tilted his head, watching them both, and grinned. "The kidnapping, spiriting, and reuniting parts? Yes. The basement part? Maybe not so much."
"No, no," Betty said, grinning. "If it has Bruce in it, I'm pretty fine with the basement." She shook her head, and held out a hand to Pepper. "I'm Dr Betty Ross, by the way."
"Pepper Potts." She took the hand, warm and professional. Then she shot Tony the squint-eye all over again. "Betty Ross as in General Ross' daughter? And Bruce, as in Bruce Banner?"
"Yup," Tony said, before Betty could answer. "Love of his life, yada yada. Kept apart by an evil military conspiracy, you know the story." He flashed his most dazzling grin. "I decided I'd weigh in and fix things. Like, you know, the most badass and awesome fairy godmother in existence."
Pepper ... paused, at that. Paused, and looked like she was suddenly resisting the urge to rub at the bridge of her nose. "Tony ..." she started, and then had to stop for a second. Breathe deeply. "You didn't actually kidnap her, did you? As in, illegally take her somewhere you shouldn't?"
"No," Betty said, very firmly, and more than a little defiantly. "I'm a free woman. I can go where I want. Tony was just ... inviting me around to his house for a few days."
"Meet the housemates," Tony continued, eyes suddenly darker and more serious. Willing Pepper to understand. "Like us billionaire playboys who happen to be housing a team of superheroes do. Right, Pep? And if it happens that she knew one of said housemates previously, well, that's just karma, right?"
Pepper paused. Thought it through. Tony watched her. Watched her run through all possible legal ramifications, watched her mentally run through the contract with SHIELD in her head, calculate how badly this would piss people off, calculate what would need to be done to control the fallout. He watched her run through that. And then he watched her look at Betty, at the pained, hopeful thing in Betty's eyes. And, like that moment after Afghanistan, when he'd told her he knew what he had to do, and had watched her decide, in that moment, to stand beside him ... Here, now, he watched that resolve settle over her again.
Because, and he could not say this often enough, Pepper was the best. The best ever.
"We probably can't play it as that much of a coincidence," she said, slowly. Raising a skeptical eyebrow in his direction. "Definitely not if you're going to be trying to act like an innocent." Tony did his best 'who, me?' impression. "But it's not actually illegal, and keeping her away might be. Or at least, highly questionable. So ..." She stopped, and smiled, turning to look at Betty. "I guess ... Welcome to life with the Avengers, Dr Ross."
And if Betty's returning smile had more than a little raw relief in it, well, even Tony had enough decency not to mention it.
Tony wasn't really sure why his stomach was cramped up in knots as they actually pulled into the Mansion. No, really. He wasn't. He shouldn't be nervous. He knew he shouldn't be nervous. He genuinely, honest-to-God, hadn't done anything wrong this time. The only ones liable to complain about this were Coulson (for the breach of protocol, and Coulson's signatures had been on the counter-counter petitions underneath some really, really passive-aggressive wording that subtly implied that General Ross was being a great big bag of dicks, and they both knew it, so Tony figured the man wouldn't be too unhappy), and Cap (for the stop-running-off-and-doing-things-on-your-own thing, but Cap also had a massive chivalry and fair play and taking-care-of-your-people thing going on, and would probably punch General Ross in the face himself if he knew what the man was doing to Bruce), so. Probably nothing to worry about. At all.
It wasn't even really the team. If he was honest with himself, which, lets be fair, he generally tried not to be. It was, actually, Bruce himself. Mostly the thought of Bruce.
Because Tony had done the whole, 'went behind your back, got you a surprise present that you really, really wanted but probably weren't ever going to get for yourself', thing, which ... Had occasionally backfired rather spectacularly on him in the past. (For the record? Howard Stark was impossible to shop for. Or build for. Or make-marvels-from-the-raw-fundament for. Father's Day had been fucking awful, okay?). If Bruce thought he'd done something wrong, or messed with something he'd no right to mess with, or screwed up Betty's life in a way he shouldn't have ... It wasn't even the thought of the Hulk. It was the thought of the disappointment that would be on the man's face ...
Look, there was a reason Tony usually made people buy their own presents, or tell him what they wanted, specifically and with annotations and sixteen alarms programmed into JARVIS to remind him about it. He would build anyone anything they asked for, or hand them all the money in the world to buy whatever their hearts desired, but he couldn't ... The rush, the sheer rush of straight-to-the-brain-with-the-happy-drugs he got when he got it right was not worth the risk of the crushing disappointment in the (far more likely) case that he'd gotten it wrong. So.
He wasn't the only nervous person in the car, of course. Betty, opposite him on the other couch with Pepper beside her, had started to twist her hands in her lap worriedly about as soon as they started entering the city. Like she was expecting them to be stopped at any moment, told she couldn't go on, told she wasn't allowed to be there. Like she was on the run, looking over her shoulder every minute. It was ... Actually, it was making Tony kind of angry all over again, which was handy in one sense, as it was helping with the whole paralysing fear thing, and really, really not on the other, because he was planning to do enough stupid horrible things to General Ross as it was.
And Pepper, stuck between them, seemed to be developing a whole 'panic by proxy' thing just from being in the same space. So, on the whole, it was probably for the best when Happy pulled into the Mansion's underground garage, and practically turfed them out of the car.
Sometimes, Tony thought Happy needed a pay raise. Then he remembered that he couldn't give everyone who worked for him a pay raise every time he had a bad day, because even his fortune had limits, and Pepper wouldn't let him besides. But, yeah. Maybe he should send Happy one of those really, really expensive brandies that Happy pretended not to want?
And yes, he was rambling in an attempt to distract himself, don't think he didn't know that, he totally knew that, so. Just ... He was bad at this. Had he mentioned?
"I've taken the liberty, sir, of informing Master Bruce to meet you in the foyer," JARVIS informed him as they climbed into the elevator. More gravely than usual, and Tony sometimes wondered where JARVIS was getting some of this programming from, that he could sometimes tell better than Tony could what people were feeling. His AI was the best in the world, the best in lots of worlds, but sometimes Tony felt just a little bit nervous at how ... alive JARVIS was.
On the upside, when JARVIS eventually took over the world, Tony totally had an in with their new overlord.
"Thanks, buddy," he managed, a little too distracted to even appreciate it overmuch when Betty jumped a little bit, and Pepper gently explained, sotto voce, who and what JARVIS was. "The others?"
"Have not yet realised you're home, sir," JARVIS answered. A little snittily. "I suspect Masters Thor and Barton hadn't even realised you were gone in the first place." Tony grinned, a little. Whoever else did or didn't, his AI loved him. "Miss Romanov, and Master Rogers, however ..."
... were waiting for him in the foyer, apparently. And no Bruce, not yet.
"Tony," Steve said, repressively, as Tony stepped out of the elevator first. Maybe out of some misplaced sense of chivalry, maybe just out of sheer perversity. Though he did have to pause for a second, to wonder if Steve and Pepper were supposed to sound so ... very, very alike, sometimes. "Where have you ...?"
He cut off, as Pepper and Betty stepped out behind Tony, his face doing this complicated thing where it was trying to be the special-for-Tony scowl and a smile of welcome to the nice ladies, all at once.
Tony actually thought that was kinda cool.
And then, before Tony had done more than open his mouth, his easy smile fixed in place, ready to explain (or make shit up on the spot) ... Bruce wandered up from the bowels of the house, and enough things happened at once to make the point rather moot.
"Tony, what ..." Bruce started, wandering into the foyer, before he looked up, and ... stopped dead. Like he'd frozen in place, his eyes fixed at a point just past Tony's shoulder. A point just past Tony's shoulder that gasped, once, very softly. A little hitch, more hope and joy and vague disbelief than anything else. At the sound, Bruce went stock still, something on his face that Tony ... couldn't decipher. Not at all.
"Bruce," Betty said, very quietly. Stepping past a suddenly equally frozen Tony, brushing his numb hand in passing. Tony could see her smile. Tentatively, tremulously. "He- Hey."
"Betty," Bruce breathed. Like it was a holy prayer, like he couldn't quite believe what he was seeing. "Betty. You ..."
And then Betty apparently gave up on the whole 'patience and propriety' thing, or, in fact, any other thing beyond the 'run to Bruce's arms and hug the fucking shit out of him' thing. Also, the 'kiss my love senseless' thing. And Bruce, after a second of stunned disbelief, just sort of folded himself around her, wrapped her up like he was never, ever going to let go of her again, and alternated between kissing her and burying his nose in her neck like it was the one safe place in all the world. He whispered something into her shoulder, something soft and ragged, and Betty did the laughing thing that was also a crying thing, and ...
And Tony, watching, felt the knots around his heart give way, all at once. Felt the numbness flood out of him, leaving him slumping a little, light-headed and sort of achey inside, and glanced to the side in startlement when he felt someone move into his side, and hold him up.
Pepper smiled at him, something suspiciously damp in the corner of her eyes too, and reached up to touch his cheek. To hold it, a little, and smile when he curved helplessly into her hand.
"You did a good thing, Mr Stark," she said, very quietly, with that rare thing in her eyes that was just for him. Smiling as she leaned in to kiss him, very softly, just for a moment, just to touch. "A very good thing, Tony."
"Yeah," he breathed, and tried to smile like he'd known that all along, like he'd planned that all along. "Yeah," he said, and then decided that Bruce had the right idea, actually, and pulled her close so he could bury his nose in the one safe place in all the world.
And he didn't notice it, not really, but both Steve and Natasha were looking at them, at the four of them, and they were smiling. A little bittersweet, maybe, but they smiled.
Fuck. Being a hero was so fucking good, sometimes.