Chapter 1: Kidnapping Dr Ross
So. It turned out that Bruce's Betty was, in fact, one Elizabeth Ross. As in, the daughter of General 'I hate you and everything you stand for, Stark' Ross. Also, General 'Leading the charge against the Hulk' Ross. In fact, General 'Just generally not a happy person' Ross.
It also turned out that General Ross was more or less the reason that Betty was not firmly ensconced at Bruce's side, fuck you all anyway, thanks. Because, lets be clear, the woman had been trying. Ever since the Avengers had their very, very public battle with Loki, where it had been kinda hard to miss the big green guy laying down the law alongside the rest of them, Ms Ross had been very, very determinedly petitioning first the army, and then SHIELD, and then anyone she could get her hands on, to be allowed to see Bruce, to even know where Bruce was. JARVIS had dug up something on the order of six attempts, in the last few months, to get someone to talk to her, to let her through.
And every single time, even after SHIELD had loosened up about Bruce, maybe looked like they'd allow it, General fucking Ross had shoved forward a counter-petition that said if anyone dared put his daughter in range of an unstable biological weapon on loan to SHIELD against his wishes, he would raise the kind of stink that would get SHIELD fucking disbanded, don't think he wouldn't, Fury, fucking try it.
Which, naturally, Fury did, because Fury didn't take that shit from anybody, but the whole thing had devolved into a bureaucratic pissing match that had successfully gummed up official channels on the matter for the foreseeable future. Now, Tony was betting SHIELD would win out eventually, especially considering JARVIS had dug up what looked very like Coulson's signature on a few of those counter-counter petitions, and Tony wasn't betting on anyone going up against Coulson in a paperwork war, but still. It was going to take time. Time Ms Ross, judging by the increasingly angry and desperate tone of her petitions, wasn't going to have before she went and did something ... unwise. Like, you know, go on the run with a big green rage monster, or walk onto an active battlefield for Bruce's sake, or ...
For the record? Tony was liking this woman. A lot. And he hadn't even met her yet.
But, actually. About that.
See, Tony wasn't much for official channels on the best of days. He was more a 'better to beg forgiveness' kinda guy. Well, no. More a 'do it anyway and get off scot free' kinda guy, but the principle was the same. And he had a number of advantages SHIELD didn't.
Such as, that he was still more or less a civilian consultant. No joining any military outfits for him, thank you, he'd had that argument with Rhodey years ago, and if Rhodey couldn't wheedle him around to it, Fury sure as hell couldn't. So he didn't go through a chain of command (much, anyway), and his actions as a private citizen didn't reflect back on SHIELD itself (much, anyway). And if there was blame to be taken, he could happily be the one to take it.
Such as, that the Avengers were no longer living on a top-secret SHIELD base that you needed a pass to access, but at his house. Well. One of them. And it was mostly their house, these days. But. Point was. It was his private property, and he could have any goddamn guests he liked come 'round, couldn't he? If he wanted to invite a pretty woman to stop by, that wasn't any of the army's goddamn business, was it?
Such as, that he had a private jet, and an AI pal that could make his travel plans involving said jet and trips to, say, Virginia, more discreet than really should be possible, in these terrorism-friendly days.
But, most of all, most importantly, such as the fact that he was Tony fucking Stark, and he was a friend of Bruce's, and if he wanted something, he damn well went and got it. Pretty women willing, anyway.
Which was why he was standing here, on Ms Ross' front porch, with a neat little convertible parked in the drive behind him, leaning casually on the doorframe and knocking at the door like he had all the time in the world, and the army none the wiser. Mostly because, for the moment at least, they were none the wiser.
There were days it was good to be Tony Stark, you know that?
Though, when the door opened and he met the confused, then recognising, then fucking furious eyes of Dr Elizabeth Ross, he maybe gave some thought to reconsidering that statement. You know. Just a little.
"Mr Stark," Betty said, with a smile that was fixed, and polite, and for some reason reminded Tony of Natasha in a way that made his lizard brain start panicking slightly. "Why don't you come in?"
"Uh. Sure?" Come on, Tony. It couldn't be any worse than stepping into the lab when Bruce was having a bad day. It definitely couldn't be any worse than getting between Natasha and the alcohol on one of her bad days. (For the record? Don't do that. Don't ever do that. Fucking Coulson didn't do that).
"Tea? Coffee?" she said, once he was in the door, clicking it closed behind him in a way that definitely should not have sounded intimidating, no sir. Mind you, this was a woman who was apparently unfazed by the Hulk. And yeah, Tony knew, and she knew, that the Hulk was actually a big softie at heart, but still. Giant green rage monster. Unfazed.
"Ah, how about no?" he said, breezily, and not at all carefully, no ma'am. "Actually, I was hoping to talk to you about ..." The Hulk? The love of your life? Your (ex?) boyfriend? "... About Bruce?"
Her smile went rigid, for a second. Her smile went stiff, and something flashed in her eyes, a big tangled ball of things that Tony couldn't parse, not in time. But there was pain in there. And anger, fuck yes, he recognised that one. Hard to miss, that anger.
"Where is he?" she said, very quietly. Stepping right up to him, monstering him into the wall, right there in the hallway. Not even waiting to reach the living room, or anywhere they could sit down. Months, she'd been fighting, trying to get to Bruce. Tony figured maybe she'd lost whatever patience she'd once had. "Where. Is. Bruce?"
Tony blinked, a little. Not at the anger. He'd gotten that from her petitions. But at the quiet threat, there. At the fact that she was threatening him. Tony Stark. Who, aside from anything else, was one of the richest men on the planet, who could probably buy and sell her a hundred times over, and was on the first and best superhero team going besides. Betty Ross was doing her damnedest, to intimidate him.
Huh. What was it Bruce had said? The bravest thing he'd ever seen? Tony stifled a grin. Oh yeah. He could get to liking Dr Betty Ross. A lot.
"That's what I'm here to talk to you about," he said, looking at her seriously. Really, genuinely seriously. Because, he got it, this wasn't something she was ready to joke about. "I was wondering ..."
"No," she cut him off. Icily. He blinked. "No, I'm not going to back off. If that's what you were sent to ask. I'm not backing down, not until you tell me, or someone tells me ..." Her voice cracked, ice shattering briefly over pain, and then it firmed. Then she had it back. "Until someone tells me where Bruce is. And what you've done with him."
Tony blinked. Long and slow. "What we've done with him." She nodded, fiercely, her lip curling as she stepped forward again, hand coming up to press against his chest, pin him to the wall. Tony wasn't even sure she was conscious of doing it.
"You haven't dissected him, at least," she said, something raw under her voice. "Or hurt him much. He's been fighting for you. He wouldn't ... he wouldn't, if you had ..."
Tony's blood shot through with ice, something sick and crawling slamming through his gut. "That was ... That was a concern?" he managed. Much more hoarsely than he'd have liked. She looked at him, with something like pity, and a lot like pain.
"What do you think my father wanted him for?" she asked, quietly. "Though, maybe I can't blame you. I didn't believe it, either. Not until Bruce told me." She smiled, bright and jagged. "He's a weapon, isn't he, Mr Stark? You of all people should know what your government does with weapons that aren't any use anymore." The icy thing bloomed, jagged tendrils spiking through him, and her smile faltered. Fell. "Though, I guess he is being useful. Now."
"No," Tony snarled, instinctive, unconscious denial. His brain wasn't fully booting, yet, something cold and distant fogging his thoughts, but he knew that much. He knew that much. "He's not being useful. He's not being fucking useful." It wasn't like that. It was not like that. Fuck him. No. "He's my team. He's my friend. He fucking saved my life, and he is not ... Fuck. No."
No, no, no, and furthermore, no. And if Bruce thought it was like that, if SHIELD thought it was like that ... Fuck General Ross, and fuck Nick Fury. Tony could break them, if he had to. He could break them. Fucking see if he couldn't.
"... You mean that," Betty said, watching him. Right up close, watching the jagged thing in his eyes. And it wasn't a question, not quite. Tony counted that a small triumph, at least. "You mean that."
He nodded, tightly, straightening up, realising belatedly that he had slumped back against the wall for a second. Not saying anything, just working to shove ... all of that ... back down, lock it back inside him. Fuck. Where was his easy smile when he needed it?
Betty backed off, a little. Backed up a couple of steps, let him stand properly. Watching him, with a strange look in her eyes.
"Why did you come here?" she asked, suddenly, looking thoughtfully at him. "Not to tell me to back off. Why?"
He swallowed, straightened. Twitched his shirt back to rights, settled 'Tony Stark, playboy philanthropist' around him like a shield. Found his casual grin, forced it back up whether it wanted to go or not. She let him. He got the distinct impression she was letting him.
"I came to ask you if you'd like to accompany me on a little trip," he managed, when he'd gotten 'cavalier and charming' fixed back in place. "Go to New York. See the sights. Meet up with ... an old friend. Like that?"
She blinked, long and slow. Her face going a little stiff, like she was trying not to let the sudden hope show too badly. "To New York," she repeated, slowly. "Where ... Where he is?" Tony nodded, the grin a little more real, now. "I thought ... I've been denied clearance for ..."
"Yeah, see," Tony interrupted, raising one hand in a flourish. "That's the advantage of taking a trip with me. I don't use clearances. Not for my house."
She stared at him. "... Your house?"
He grinned, rich and deep. "Yup. My house. My private property. Who else do you think was rich enough to put up a bunch of superheroes that happens to include a Hulk, a god of thunder, and a supersoldier who has a slight tendancy to go through gym equipment like paper?" He let the smirk grow full-blown. "SHIELD were very happy to have me footing the bill, let me tell you."
She worked that through. She worked it through, and came up with the right, sneaky answer, just like he'd planned. "So," she said, slowly. "If you happened to have ... a friend around? Just for a visit?"
Tony grinned, nodded. "Don't need clearance for that, do you? Did I happen to mention I also have a private jet? At the nearest airfield? Right now?"
She looked at him, for a long, long moment. And then ... she smiled, and it was ... mischief, and defiance, and a hint of 'fuck you, world, I am getting what I want', and yeah, oh yeah, Tony could see why Bruce loved her. Tony could see why Bruce would strangle an abomination mostly to death to keep her safe. He could see why she was Bruce's Pepper.
"Are you kidnapping me, Mr Stark?" she asked, and it was playful, it was light and defiant and playful, and yeah, Tony was going to break the world for her, too. He totally was.
"I don't know," he said, flashing her that patented Stark grin, delighting in her raised eyebrow. "Would you like me to?"
She let it wait a beat, smiling that quiet smile, and then ... "Give me half an hour to pack," she said, Betty Ross, and grinned at him. "And we're flying first class, right?"
He laughed. "Never anything less, with Tony Stark airways!"
Pepper was going to kill him. Also Coulson, and Fury, and most of SHIELD. Possibly Cap. But fuck. There were days it was really, really good to be him.
Chapter 2: Bringing Betty Home
Tony is a little messed up, and they are all so adorable.
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.