The first time it happens, almost a year after the New York incident, Tony sees what is going on before any of the others notice and simply heads the big bad army men off, telling J.A.R.V.I.S. to trip every alarm in the building before greeting the men- Oh, Generals, terribly sorry, but the building is undergoing maintenance and we seem to be having some malfunctions in the alarms department, and so sorry, but this really isn’t a good time, maybe they could do this another day? And could they please schedule an appointment next time? Thank you. And then the men are ushered away from the doors and into their cars before they even know what is happening.
When the men are gone, Tony goes to his favorite kitchen, pours himself a drink (not a big one, though), allows himself a small sigh of relief, congratulates himself silently on how well he handled the situation, and jumps when he sees Barton watching him from a perch above the dinner table.
“Jesus,” he snaps. “Can you please try and let me know when you’re doing your sneaky-circus-act-ninja-spy thing? I swear you’re getting as bad as Natasha.”
Barton actually has the nerve to laugh at him before turning serious and saying, “Good job there.”
Tony preens a little. Barton doesn’t give empty praise. “I try.”
Something occurs to him. “Bruce didn’t.. He isn’t here, is he?”
The other man shakes his head. “Not back from debriefing yet from the last fight with Doc Doom.”
Tony can feel the tension leave his body. “Oh, thank God.” There was no telling what it would do to Bruce if he knew the Army was after him again. It had only taken seven months for the man to relax around the other Avengers, and he was still wary around S.H.I.E.L.D. officials. Not that Tony blamed him, there.
When Tony looks back up at the perch, Barton is gone, and Tony is alone. He sinks into one of the chairs and resolves to install a new security system along the outer perimeter of his property.
* * *
The second time it happens, Bruce is currently in the tower. Luckily, Tony doesn’t have to trip all the alarms because Clint, perched on a windowsill on the fourteenth floor, without a word, shoots out three of the black car’s tires in a matter of seconds while the men are still several blocks away. Tony quietly puts in a call to some people he knows (they owe him a favor) and gets the streets surrounding the tower closed off. “Bastards never made an appointment,” he says to Clint, smirking a little. Clint grins, too. It isn’t a friendly smile.
The car never makes it to the tower.
Bruce doesn’t notice.
Nick Fury does.
The next day, a summons comes from S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Fury would like to speak to Mr. Stark and Mr. Barton. And if they do not come immediately, then Fury will not hesitate to knock them out and drag them into his office himself.
Tony and Clint exchange a glance, then go. What can they do?
The others are a little puzzled, but go back to their business soon enough (Thor wants to go get more Poptarts so will the fair lady Pepper please come to the store with him and Bruce has something going in the lab Tony built for him and Steve is currently beating the shit out of some poor punching bags). Natasha sees them out of the building though, and simply says, “My turn next time.”
Clint shoots her a hard grin, and Tony actually laughs. Natasha really doesn’t miss a thing.
Tony doesn’t feel quite like laughing in Fury’s office though. For one thing, Fury has no right to chew their asses out when they’re doing the right thing here protecting Bruce. For another, the things that Fury is saying (risk to society, only for a little bit, they won’t hurt him, best to cooperate) are not boding well. And from the way Barton is standing (feet set solidly into the ground, shoulders squared, aggressive tilt to the chin), things don’t sit well with him either.
“With all due respect, sir,” Clint says coldly, interrupting Fury, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but as a whole the Avengers occasionally have a problem with authority figures. And when said authority figures are attempting to dismantle our team, it stands to reason that we’d object.”
Fury glares at both of them. “Barton. Stark. You are not authorized to meddle in Army affairs. And that is what this is. If the Army chooses to remove a member of your team for safety measures, if the Army chooses to reclaim their property-”
And that is the last straw for Tony, that Fury would actually call Bruce property- as if Bruce was something less than human, as if Bruce wasn’t the kindest person Tony had ever met, as if Bruce’s quick and shy smile that sometimes stole across his face when he felt safe was nothing- as if Bruce was inferior.
He feels himself losing his temper, actually feels himself snapping. But Barton must have noticed, must have known that he had blood rushing to his face in anger, and puts a hand on Tony’s shoulder. There’s pressure behind the hand, and he understands that Barton is warning him not to do anything too stupid; this is Director Fury, after all.
Tony considers not doing anything stupid. He then wonders what, exactly, Clint would consider stupid.
Then he calmly, with no venom at all, with a dull roaring in his ears, and I-kid-you-not a red haze settling over his eyes, says, “Fuck you. Fuck you all.” And stalks out of the room.
He is so unspeakably angry that he doesn’t notice that Clint is still with him until they make it out of HQ. Clint says nothing to him, but there is an aura of savage pleasure radiating off of him, so Tony figures that he didn’t mess up the meeting with Fury too badly.
Before they get to the car, he stops walking for a moment and allows his defenses to snap down around him. He shuts out the anger and protectiveness, straightens his posture, brings back a sparkle to his eyes that says genius-playboy-billionaire-philanthropist. Clint observes the change with fascination. “That was quite good,” he says.
Tony turns a tired smile onto him. “I’d rather not worry the others if I can help it.”
* * *
The third time it happens, it’s been a month, and it’s a bit different. This time there are fifteen S.H.I.E.L.D. agents at the doors of the tower, and this time Bruce is just in the living room with the rest, and this time Tony and Clint are both caught off guard.
Shit, Tony thinks when J.A.R.V.I.S. announces the agents’ presence. Shit.
But Natasha, wonderful Natasha with eyes flashing with something like anger and full lips curling into a dangerous smile, rises calmly from where she is leaning against Clint on the couch and says firmly, “For me.”
She walks gracefully to the tower’s entrance and steps out. She stands in front of the doors, arms crossed, clearly blocking the entrance from any intruders.
“Excuse me,” she says. “I didn’t think any of you had been cleared to come here.”
The agents cringe a little. Capable and smart they may be, but nobody can look an angry Black Widow in the eye.
One of them is brave enough to stammer out the words collect the Hulk, dangerous, biological weapon, needs to be in a proper facility.
Translation: take Bruce away forcibly, lock him up in a cage. His worst fear, here on the doorstep.
Natasha’s eyes narrow. “I don’t think so,” she tells them. “You want Dr. Banner, you go through me. And Captain Rogers and Mr. Stark and Thor and Agent Barton. And then you can deal with the Hulk. That’s if you get through me, and let’s be honest. You won’t.” Her voice is icy and clipped and professional, but the anger is there, simmering just below the surface.
She sees them weigh their choices.
When she sees them decide to admit defeat, sees them decide to leave, she smiles inwardly to herself.
As they turn to go, Natasha says, voice raised enough so they can hear her clearly, “And tell Fury to back the fuck off. We don’t want to fight this on two fronts.”
She remains standing in the doorway, motionless, until she’s sure they’ve gone. She does a quick sweep of the area, and is disappointed to only find two small charges attached to the walls (idiots didn’t even try to hide them). She disarms the bombs and considers throwing them away, then decides to give them to Tony. He loves explosives.
* * *
By the fourth time, Bruce has caught on. After all, he is a genius. Just because he’s not as showy as Tony doesn’t mean he’s not as smart, and make no mistake, Dr. Bruce Banner is absolutely brilliant. And so of course it’s only a matter of time before he catches on and when he does, Tony just wants to die. Anyway, the fourth time it happens, subtlety escapes the Avengers entirely.
Of course, it is a little bit his fault (okay, mainly his fault) that Bruce finds out the way he does. But how was he to know that the bastards would try to barge into the Avengers tower in the middle of the night without warning? And how was he to know that J.A.R.V.I.S. wouldn’t take kindly to it? Okay. So he should have known. Should have anticipated something like this happening. When does anything ever go right, after all?
In short, there was quite a commotion in the main foyer involving every alarm being tripped (again) and a furious Pepper pacing back and forth in her heels while screaming at the twenty-seven conscious soldiers that the Avengers had managed to round up. There were at least another twenty strewn about the floor in various levels of semi-consciousness (largely courtesy of Clint and Natasha).
“Absolutely underhanded and unacceptable! How do you call yourselves men? And how stupid can you possibly be? Do you know who owns this tower? Do you know who lives here? The next time anyone has the nerve-”
Tony pinches the bridge of his nose. Pepper doesn’t lose her temper often; long years of dealing with Tony has left her unflappable in nearly any situation. Apparently being woken up at two in the morning by a bunch of military thugs attempting to kidnap one of the Avengers is just too much. And now there is no turning back. Pepper is one hell of a woman, he decides, as her voice filters into the living room where all the Avengers are sitting (“-idiots and you can tell whoever’s in charge that this tower is off limits-”).
He can’t blame her for losing it, not really. It had been a complete debacle, with every Avenger roused from sleep, with a murderous Natasha flitting around, soldiers dropping wherever she went, with an extremely aggravated Steve bowling people over with his shield, with a half-naked Thor destroying another window by throwing men out of it, with Bruce hulking out. The other guy had roared, and everyone in the room had momentarily frozen.
Clint had been forced to leap onto the Hulk’s back to distract him from the stunned soldiers- they all knew that Bruce would never forgive himself if he killed (mostly) innocent men. The Hulk had thrown Clint into the wall (Tony had considered catching him, but figured that the wall was less dangerous than a metal suit) before recognizing that “Hawk” was a friend.
So yeah, at final count, he had twenty-seven soldiers awake and handcuffed in the main foyer, another twenty or so lying around, a smug Natasha, Pepper still screaming at the top of her lungs, further damages to the tower, and Clint with probably-cracked ribs and a bruise blossoming on the entire right side of his body and a possibly-separated shoulder.
Bruce isn’t green, or anything, but there is such a look of fear in his eyes that Tony just wants to give him a hug (and Tony is not the sort of person to randomly give out hugs, thank you very much). His posture has turned defensive, even among friends. He looks tired and scared and ashamed that this is happening again, and is that an apology forming on his lips?
It is, Tony thought wearily. This man is about to apologize for something he has no control over, about to apologize for something that he shouldn’t have to apologize for.
Sure enough, when Bruce speaks with a quiet voice (quiet and upset and so, so ashamed), he says, “Clint. All of you. I am so sorry. I am. I’ll leave straight away.”
“And that,” Tony snaps, “is the most fucking stupid thing I have ever heard you say. For a genius, you are a fucking idiot.”
Bruce flinches like he’s been hit. “You shouldn’t have to deal with this. Deal with me. It’s my cross to bear and I will, but there’s no reason that you all should-”
“Would you just shut up? Please.” Tony says. He’s angry, and not at Bruce. But really, you would think that Bruce just expected him to throw him out on the street, as if he was that much of an asshole that he wouldn’t want to deal with Bruce and the other guy. All he wants to do right now is rip someone to shreds, “someone” being fucking General Ross and his cronies, and he’s willing to bet his entire fortune that Clint and Natasha would be at his side and that Cap would be leading them into battle with Thor flying overhead.
Steve gives him a disapproving look though, and Tony sighs. He knows he’s being rude, but can you blame him? It’s been a tough thirty-seven minutes.
Natasha says, perfectly composed, “Tony, calm down. Bruce, you’re not going anywhere. Stop moving.”
The last is directed towards Clint, who is trying to sneak away from her. He whines a little, but lets her pull him back onto the sofa. Without warning, she lunges for his shoulder. Clint is almost quick enough to avoid her, but he’s slowed down by fatigue and injuries and she manages to pop his arm back into place. He yelps and glares daggers at her, but softens when she graces him with a rare smile.
The two of them look vaguely surprised to see that the other Avengers are all watching them with amusement. “Get back to business,” Clint says airily, waving his left hand. “Go back to telling Bruce how he isn’t going to leave because we are not giving him up and all that shit.”
A strange look crosses Bruce’s face as he looks at the rest of them. “Really, you don’t have to do this.”
“Maybe we want to, Bruce,” Steve says. “Maybe we’re willing to do it because you’re our teammate. Our friend.”
Bruce looks a little stunned, and a lot grateful.
Natasha says loudly, “I’m starved. Can we order in some Chinese or something?”
The conversation is plainly over.
Tony surveys his teammates (Bruce sitting crosslegged in front of the couch, Steve leaning back in an armchair with his eyes closed, Thor rummaging through Tony’s movie collection, Clint laying with his head in Natasha’s lap), and is reasonably content. “J.A.R.V.I.S. Find us some Chinese takeout that’s still open, please.”
* * *
The fifth time and final time it happens, the Avengers are scattered across the country (and in Clint and Natasha’s case, the world). Tony is in Malibu at some conference thing for Stark Industries because Pepper insisted he make an appearance. Clint is in Dubai on a mission (or at least that’s what he tells the others) and Natasha may or may not be with him. Thor has gone to visit Jane. Steve is in Washington D.C. to attend some ceremony involving some war memorial. In any case, Bruce is actually the only one in the tower for about two days until Steve comes back.
It’s been several months since the last attempt, and so the Avengers have relaxed a little. Fury has, indeed, backed the fuck off (Clint and Natasha suspect that Coulson has been doing some meddling, although he’s supposed to be on an extremely covert mission in the Russian underworld, and anyway, Fury's heart obviously wasn't in it; he had only sent fifteen agents). There hasn’t been a single peep (or court order) from the Army Generals.
The fifth and final time it happens, Bruce is alone.
So basically, no one is there to stand between Bruce and the cold, unfeeling hands that take him from where he is sleeping in his lab, hands that jab a syringe full of some cocktail of chemicals and sedatives into his neck before he can even wake. His eyes do come open for a moment, bright yellow-green, but another pair of hands immediately puts a black hood on him, forces him into a straitjacket, and he is helpless as the men drag him out of his lab, out of the Avengers tower, out of his home.
He tries to ignore the fear settling into his stomach. His last thought before he loses consciousness altogether is a resigned, It was always going to come to this.