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In Which the Avengers Take Exception to the Army Meddling in Their Affairs

Chapter Text

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.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

*          *          *

 

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.

Chapter Text

Steve. You have got to slow down. Say it again.” Tony can barely understand Steve because Steve is babbling and seriously, how often does that happen? So it must be something either really  bad or something really good and honestly, the way their luck usually goes, it’s probably bad and- 

 

“I said,” Steve says more slowly, “I came home and J.A.R.V.I.S. didn’t greet me. And Bruce is gone.

 

“Oh, fuck,” Tony says. “I’m coming home. Try and get the others.”

 

By the time Tony gets home (Pepper had not approved of him running out on the conference until he simply said, “They took Bruce”), Steve has calmed down. He’s sitting in the main kitchen with a plainly agitated Thor.

 

“Clint and Natasha are flying in as we speak,” Steve says in his Captain America voice. “Thor, as you can see, came as soon as I reached him. I contacted Fury, who contacted Coulson, who says that we’ll have his support, but not officially.”

 

Tony nods tersely.

 

For once, he has nothing to say. 

 

He can't remember the last time he was this furious. Hell, he hadn’t been this furious when Loki had tried to, you know, take over the world and shit. This was fucking low. At least Loki hadn’t crept up on them and at least he’d had the sense of honor to, you know, not take them out when they were apart. This was fucking ridiculous. 

 

He grimly goes to reboot J.A.R.V.I.S. and finds that the thugs only cut a few cords (that he thought were well hidden). It doesn’t take long to get J.A.R.V.I.S. back online, and soon a familiar voice says, sounding a little apologetic, “I’m afraid I couldn’t stop them, sir.”

 

“Not your fault,” Tony says tersely. “We should still have footage, though. Pull it up, please.”

 

Natasha bursts into the room, her eyes emptier than usual. Clint walks in after her, shoulders tense. “We were already on our way back,” he explains quickly.

 

They watch the footage together. Watch as a swarm of men dressed in black descend upon the tower (“Not S.H.I.E.L.D.” Natasha assures them. “Too sloppy. All brute force.”), watch as they cut off J.A.R.V.I.S. They watch as five men efficiently plunge a needle into Bruce’s neck, watch Bruce’s eyes fly open in panic before the men hood him, strap him into a straitjacket, and carry his limp body out of the tower.

 

“I’ve found where they’re keeping him,” a new voice says.

 

Everyone jumps except for Clint and Natasha. Phil Coulson is calmly standing behind them. 

 

“Sir, I let Agent Coulson in. You appeared to be occupied.” J.A.R.V.I.S., if possible, sounds a little amused.

 

“I see that,” Tony sighs.

 

Phil looks at the others. 

 

“I thought you were in Russia. Nazran, or something,” Steve says.

 

“I was. Not anymore. You weren’t supposed to know where exactly. How did you find out?” Phil frowns at them.

 

Steve shoots a guilty look at Tony, who groans. “Okay, so sometimes we keep tabs on you.”

 

Phil raises an eyebrow, simply saying, “Back to the matter at hand. They’re keeping Bruce underneath the Pentagon.”

 

They all consider this for a moment.

 

“Well,” says Natasha. “That complicates things. A little.”

 

“Fuck our lives,” says Clint cheerfully, a little manic. Natasha raises an eyebrow at him, but she knows that the worse things get, the more perky Clint will be. She has long accepted it as one of his idiosyncrasies.

 

Phil’s phone rings. He looks at the number with some surprise, but doesn’t hesitate. He picks it up.

 

“Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D.” 

 

Tony strains to hear, but can’t. 

 

“Yes,” Phil says. His voice is even flatter than normal and his face is carefully void of expression. “Yes, I can. I’ll be there in an hour.” He hangs up, and if it is possible for Agent Phil Coulson to look angry, he looks angry now.

 

“I’ve been asked to go and evaluate Bruce,” says Phil. “They seem to think that I’m an expert on the Avengers.” A small quirk of the lips.

 

Tony says, “I’ll get into the mainframe. J.A.R.V.I.S. and I can do it.”

 

“Stark,” says Phil sharply. “That is a federal offense. Do not tell me you plan to barge in and hack into the Pentagon’s mainframe. That is highly classified information and a matter of international security.”

 

Tony smiles, a little viciously. “Never stopped me before. Anyway, you only call me Stark when you expect me to do something you disapprove of.”

 

Phil glares at him, but there isn’t any force behind it. Conceding the point, he says, “Now, I am going to fly down to Virginia. I am going to try and talk to Bruce and I am going to do everything I can to make sure they don’t do anything to him. But I do not plan to fight my way out of the Pentagon. Understand?”

 

They all nod.

 

“With all due respect, sir,” says Clint. “I’d like to accompany you. Please.”

 

“And me,” says Natasha. 

 

Phil studies them. Realizes that, either way, these two are coming whether he approves it or not. Better to have them with him than having them stalk him.  “Fine,” he says. “Be discreet. Tony. Get to work. Don’t get caught.”

 

“Never,” Tony says, sounding hurt. 

 

Thor announces, “I would like to accompany you also, esteemed Son of Coul.”

 

Steve agrees, “It’d make me feel better if we were at least in the area, Agent.”

 

“You can’t just all go traipsing off to Virginia,” Tony exclaims indignantly. “I can get into their mainframe just as easily there as I can here!”

 

Phil isn’t exactly sure how a trip that was supposed to involve him and only him has turned into all six of them piling into the Quinjet, but he ruefully admits to himself that he shouldn’t be surprised.

 

*          *          *

 

When Bruce wakes up, he is still in the straitjacket. And he’s lying on the ground, in some sort of cell. There’s a door with no handle across from him. All Hulk-proof, he imagines.

 

“Dr. Banner,” a cold voice says. “I suggest you do exactly as we say. Your friends won’t be able to help you here.”

 

Bruce scans the room for an intercom and finds it tucked away in a corner. There’s a camera there too, blinking. 

 

He doesn’t respond to the voice, pointedly closing his eyes. He’s trying to think how long it’s been. He’s a little alarmed to find that he has no idea how much time has passed since he was taken. He has a dull headache, and he knows he’s trying to shake off the final effects of being drugged.  He’d Hulk out if that wasn’t exactly what these people wanted.

 

“Dr. Banner,” the voice says again, more sharply. “We are going to run some tests. You may not like it, but you are going to submit to them. Because you have no choice.”

 

Bruce can’t help himself from shuddering, because he hates this, hates that he’s being put in a cage, and experimented on, and probably will be used however the fucking Army wants to use him. 

 

He vaguely wonders what Steve is going to think when he comes back to the empty tower, wonders if Tony will miss having him around in the lab.

 

Then General Ross steps through the door. “So,” he says casually. “It’s been a while.”

 

Bruce struggles to his feet and gazes at him evenly. 

 

“What I’m interested in,” Ross continues, “Is to what extent you’ve got the Hulk controlled. So, is it pain? That brings it out?”

 

“No,” Bruce says tersely.

 

“Okay,” Ross says. “Hypothetically, if you were to be injured, would you still be hurt after being the Hulk?”

 

“Never tried,” Bruce says. (It’s a lie. He and Tony found out during their early experiments with the Hulk together.)

 

WIthout warning, Ross whips out a pistol and shoots Bruce in the knee.

 

He collapses, curling in on himself; the pain is overwhelming. Fuck, that hurts. He’s tempted to just let the other guy out, but that’d be playing right into Ross’ hands. And Bruce has spent years not giving into the bastards, and he certainly isn’t about to start now.

 

So he forces the rage away, forces himself to keep breathing evenly. It’s a struggle, because it would be a welcome change at this point, to be a giant green rage monster. But the iron will that has served him so well in the past overcomes base instinct, and with effort, he is able to keep the other guy at bay.

 

“Interesting,” says Ross, without emotion. “Well, when you decide you’re tired of hurting, change.”

 

He turns to the door. 

 

“I have it under control,” Bruce grits out between his teeth. “I’m not going to Hulk out.”

 

Ross looks back at him contemptuously. “We’ll see how long this lasts. I’d like to see you turn into the Hulk. And I always win.”

 

The door slides open. He leaves Bruce gasping helplessly on the floor.

 

*          *          *

 

If Phil didn’t know better, he’d say the Avengers were nervous. Natasha is piloting the jet, because she likes flying, and Clint is with her in the cockpit. 

 

Tony is on one of his tablets, with a laptop to the side, and he’s speaking in a low voice, presumably to J.A.R.V.I.S.

 

Steve is sitting with his shield in his lap. There’s a distant look in his eyes, and Phil is sure that he’s thinking of another time he had to rescue a friend from experimentation.

 

Thor is in the middle of a video call with Jane. He had explained sheepishly that he had left her rather abruptly and without explanation. (“I was overcome with concern for the good doctor!”)

 

Phil himself is mostly too worried to be nervous (although he is afraid that the Avengers are going to decide to take matters into their own capable but destructive hands). On the phone, Ross had insinuated some unpleasant things, and Phil had thought it best not to disclose the entirety of the short conversation to the team.

 

He figures that Clint and Natasha know that he’s not telling them something, but the rest of the team is oblivious.

 

He is very good at acting unconcerned.

 

So when they touch down at a private airfield about twenty miles north of the Pentagon, he tells Natasha and Clint to get dressed in professional looking black suits. With any luck, they won’t be recognized. Clint is surprisingly good at appearing quite nondescript, and while Natasha is always striking, she does put on a wig to cover her distinctive red hair and keeps her eyes on the ground.

 

“Please don’t do anything illegal,” he says to the others. “Except Tony. You can proceed.”

 

Clint and Natasha follow him into the car that’s waiting for them.

 

He knows that they’ll be professional. He knows that they won’t do anything to blow his cover. But he is also familiar with Clint’s alarming propensity for self-sacrifice and knows that Clint will not hesitate to be the fall guy if they need to get Bruce out. And he is familiar with Natasha’s ability to dispatch entire security teams. 

 

So it’s with a little bit of trepidation that he walks into the Pentagon (not that anyone notices), Clint and Natasha flanking him.

 

General Ross greets them, politely. 

 

Clint nods, Natasha shyly shakes his hand.

 

Phil says, “Pleasure to meet you, General.” He tries to keeps his voice level and controlled as always, but out of the corner of his eye he sees Clint’s lips twitching into a quick smile and knows that he isn’t doing the best job at appearing uncaring.

 

Ross leads them to an elevator, making a few attempts at conversation.

 

Phil, however, keeps his answers civil but short, and Ross soon stops making small talk.

 

Several minutes and security clearances later, they are standing at a door. Ross says, “I must warn you, Banner is dangerous. He’s an animal. Don’t be fooled.”

 

Phil says with a blank expression, “Of course.” 

 

Clint and Natasha are too disciplined to show any semblance of displeasure or anger, but Phil knows that they’re both furious. Natasha in particular, he knows, wants to rip Ross’ throat out. 

 

“You can go in,” Ross says, opening the door (there is an optical scan as well as a password on the lock). “I’ll come with you.”

 

“It won’t be necessary,” Phil says, wanting to be able to see Bruce alone.

 

“I’d like to come,” Ross insists, and there is nothing Phil can do about it without rousing suspicion.

 

Phil shrugs, says, “Whatever you like,” and walks into the room.

 

The first thing he notices is that it’s too bright, and too small.

 

The second thing he notices is the blood, and then he sees Bruce propped against the wall.

 

“I wasn’t made aware that he was injured,” says Phil.

 

Bruce’s eyes flicker open at the sound of his voice. Phil looks at his eyes, and they’re definitely brown. Pain-filled, weary, scared. But brown.

 

Ross shrugs. “We’re trying to get him to turn, and we thought perhaps pain would be a good motivator.”

 

Inwardly, Phil imagines killing Ross in several creative ways. Outwardly, he only says, “Pain has never been a factor before.”

 

Ross smiles coldly. “Always a first time for everything.”

 

“Well,” Phil says, “Why am I here? What do you want me to do?”

 

He tries to ignore the wary look on Bruce’s face when he says this. He wishes he could assure the man that he’s not here to help Ross, but there’s nothing he can do with the general standing in the room.

 

“I was told that you have some influence over the individuals involved in the Avengers Initiative,” Ross says. “We had hoped that you could convince Dr. Banner to cooperate with us. We’ve been...” He pauses. “Imaginative in our efforts to persuade him. But he’s quite stubborn.”

 

“Fine,” Phil says. “I can do that. But I need you to leave.” That’s a risk, he knows, but there’s no other choice.

 

“I don’t think so,” Ross says in a low voice. “I don’t know that you’re not working against me.”

 

Phil says without emotion, “You do what you like, but keep in mind that you are not Dr. Banner’s favorite person, and I may make more headway with you out of this room. You have a camera in the corner, you can keep an eye on me.” He hopes that Tony’s managed to interfere with the security measures, and decides that it doesn’t matter because if Ross stays in the room, Phil might actually kill him.

 

“Very well,” Ross says. “We’ll be watching, Agent. And if you are double-crossing us, Fury won’t be able to protect you.” He stalks out of the room and the door closes behind him.

 

Before Phil moves to Bruce’s side, he pointedly stares straight at the camera in the corner. It moves up and down, twice.

 

Phil allows himself a rare grin. Tony has done it.

 

They are in control now.

Chapter Text

Natasha keeps her eyes on the ground. She had seen the blood, had seen Bruce curled in the furthest corner from the door. She’s fighting back the urge to kill General Ross, because she figures it won’t accomplish anything productive, and anyway, it would create unnecessary paperwork for Phil. Besides, death is too merciful. It would make her feel better, though.

 

Clint is also fuming, not that anyone would notice. He’s keeping his breathing carefully even, and he’s been under cover enough times that the expression on his face hasn’t changed once.

 

“Hey, Hawkeye, Widow,” Tony says on the comm. “Do you see the cameras pointing at the door? There’s two of them.” 

 

Clint doesn’t move his head, but his sharp eyes easily pick out the two security cameras.

 

“I see you,” says Tony. He sounds amused. The cameras wiggle up and down, side to side.

 

Clint almost smiles in spite of himself.

 

“Ross coming back out,” Tony warns them.

 

Not a moment later, Ross comes out, plainly displeased.

 

“Fucker shot Bruce in the knee yesterday. Stomped on him a bit today. Probably cracked his ribs,” says Tony. His voice is low, and deliberately steady.

 

Clint honestly isn’t sure why Tony is telling them this, because let’s face it, he already wants to bash Ross’ face in. The extra information isn’t helping. 

 

Ross says, “You S.H.I.E.L.D. agents sure are a cocky bunch.”

 

Clint says, “Why do you say that?” He prepares himself to get out of Natasha’s way. 

 

Next to him, Natasha imperceptibly moves her weight to the balls of her feet. She’s ready to pounce, not that General Ross notices. 

 

“Because,” Ross says, drawing his pistol. “You seriously thought that I wouldn’t recognize you, Hawkeye?” 

 

Clint instantly drops to the floor, and the bullet from Ross’ gun buries itself in the wall behind him.

 

Natasha knocks the gun out of his hand, forces him to the ground. “Hawkeye,” she says dryly. “Army generals sure are imbeciles.”

 

Clint smiles at her. “Why do you say that?”

 

“Because,” Natasha says, with a wicked glint in her eye. “He seriously thought that Hawkeye came into hostile territory without his field partner.”

 

Ross snarls, “Fucking bitch. I’ve got back-up. Probably on their way now.”

 

“Nope,” Clint says brightly, as he confiscates Ross’ weapons. “You actually don’t. We're in control here. Anyway, Black Widow can kill all of them with her hands behind her back.”

 

He viciously pulls back his fist, punches Ross twice, knocks him out.

 

“Felt good,” he remarks to no one in particular.

 

“I want a turn,” Tony whines into his ear, and Clint laughs. 

 

“Get in line,” Natasha says grimly.

 

She glances at Clint. “Well,” she says. “Looks like Phil’s gonna have to fight his way out of the Pentagon.”

 

*          *          *

 

Bruce is having a hard time focusing.

 

He’s also having a hard time breathing.

 

He figures that it’s the blood loss that’s making him lightheaded, and that he has some cracked ribs. Maybe even a broken one or two. He vaguely wonders if one of his lungs will be punctured if he moves. 

 

Phil is saying something to him, and Bruce detects concern in the other man’s voice. 

 

But the thing is, Bruce isn’t sure if he can trust Phil. He wants to, but Phil is high up in the pecking order of S.H.I.E.L.D.

 

And he really doesn’t trust S.H.I.E.L.D. For all he knows, Fury may have decided a giant green rage monster is more trouble than it’s worth.

 

So when Phil walks over to him, Bruce presses himself against the wall.

 

“Bruce,” Phil says sharply. “Bruce, can you hear me?” He sits down a few feet away from Bruce.

 

Bruce nods, once. He really, really isn’t feeling well. His knee is still throbbing, and every time he moves his leg, it feels like there are knives stabbing him. And he can’t take any deep breaths thanks to the beating Ross and some of his men gave him this morning. And on top of everything, it's hard to keep the other guy reined in, especially the way he’s been feeling- that is, in pain, and angry, and frightened. So he’s absolutely exhausted, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

 

He just wants to rest.

 

“Bruce,” Phil says again. He’s worried because Bruce is largely unresponsive, and because there is blood, so much blood on the floor of the cell. And the way that Bruce is looking at him with guarded eyes reminds Phil of how Bruce was in the beginning with all of them, how he was always just a little aloof and withdrawn, how he made sure to sink into the background, how he was never convinced that they wanted to be around him. How he always looked a little like something was hunting him, and how he never quite allowed himself to be happy for fear it would be snatched away. He’s worried because despite himself, he likes Bruce very much, and that has always been Phil’s problem, hasn’t it?

 

He’s supposed to compartmentalize, and not form any attachments to the people he works with, he knows that. And for quite a while, he doesn’t. Then he becomes Clint’s handler, and Clint with his cockiness and his penchant for laughing in the face of near-certain defeat and his remarkable ability to always come through when he needs to breaks down some of the barriers he has built.  And then Natasha comes along, and she is the most dangerous woman he’s ever met, and she’s been made and remade and is so strong, and she has such a wonderfully dry sense of humor. Phil is a little horrified to find that he that he doesn’t like putting them into danger. Of course, he does anyway, because S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t around so he can play favorites.

 

And then the Avengers come along and Phil gets to know each of them and he realizes now, as he looks at Bruce huddled against the wall, that he has become far too attached to this dysfunctional group of heroes.

 

“Look,” Phil says gently (if the junior agents could hear him now, they’d be shocked that he had a voice other than his emotionless, highly professional one). “I know you’re in quite a lot of pain, and I see you don’t know if you can trust me. Can you trust Clint and Natasha?”

 

Bruce’s eyes latch onto him at the sound of their names.

 

“Hawkeye, Black Widow.” Phil says. “I want you in here.”

 

The rest of the Avengers demand to know what’s happening, talking all at once, asking after Bruce, begging to be allowed to destroy at least part of the Pentagon.

 

“Thor. You may not destroy any part of the Pentagon. And I want radio silence.” None of them take notice, and Thor attempts to lay out a case for why he ought to be able to dismantle part of the building.

 

Clint and Natasha enter the room. Clint is nonchalantly dragging an unconscious General Ross behind him.

 

“He recognized me,” Clint explains. “He tried to shoot me, so Natasha took him down and I knocked him out.” He seems entirely without remorse.

 

Natasha adds, “We thought if we had to fight our way out of the Pentagon with Bruce, a hostage might be useful."

 

Phil would have gaped, if Phil Coulson did such things. It’s official. God hates him.

 

Hacking into the Pentagon’s security network, a Norse god pleading to be able to destroy a highly secure federal facility, a group of dysfunctional superheroes (including said Norse god) refusing to maintain radio silence, a hostage Army General, and what looks like will be a rather trying time getting out of the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense.

 

His life has gotten very odd, even for his standards. He sighs. The amount of paperwork after this particular excursion was going to be monumental. He doesn’t even want to think about what Fury is going to say. 

 

He considers how they are going to do this, considers his assets (Bruce doesn’t look like he’s in any shape to Hulk out, but he has S.H.I.E.L.D.’s top two field agents, a supersoldier, a god, Tony fucking Stark, and a hostage). He figures that they are already in so much trouble, they may as well make this worth it. 

 

“Thor?” Phil says. “I may have changed my mind.” 

Chapter Text

Tony Stark is not the sort of man who is used to waiting for things to happen. So he is very pleased when Phil tells them that he’d like them to, you know, get in on some of the action. Because why should Phil and Clint and Natasha get to have all the fun? And after playing back some footage of Ross treating Bruce worse than shit, Tony is ready to show these idiots exactly who the Avengers are. And from the gleeful look on Thor’s face and the steel in Steve’s eyes, the other two are just as keen to get going. 

 

He says, “J.A.R.V.I.S. Link me into the security feed when I get my suit on.”

 

He jams his fists into the briefcase, and waits for the metal to encase him.

 

“Thor,” Steve calls up into the sky, shading his eyes from the sun. “Think we can get some cloud coverage?”

 

“Of course, good Captain!” shouts Thor from where he is hovering. Ominous looking clouds immediately begin to gather around the god, with lightning streaking throughout the dark grey expanse.

 

Coulson says to Tony on a private channel, “Tony, I may need you in here. I can’t get anything from Bruce.”

 

Tony is startled for two reasons: One, Coulson rarely opens up private lines of communication in the field. Two, he called him Tony, and Coulson never, ever uses real names during missions.

 

“Roger that,” Tony says. “I’ll be there in five.”

 

He fires his stabilizers and shoots into the clouds. Just as he’s about to clear a path to Bruce (J.A.R.V.I.S. has outlined the most efficient way to blast through the building), his ringtone goes off. A picture of Rhodey appears in his peripheral vision. 

 

“Dammit,” he says. Rhodey has always had impeccable timing. Like, seriously. Couldn’t the man ever call when he was just sitting at home tinkering in the workshop, or out getting lunch with Steve and Bruce, or, you know, doing something that didn’t involve him breaking into the fucking Pentagon?

 

“What’s wrong?” says Steve, sounding concerned and a little out of breath. He and Thor were taking down the west side of the building to create a diversion.

 

“Nothing,” Tony says hurriedly. Then he takes the call.

 

“Tony. Please tell me you don’t have anything to do with the attack on the Pentagon.” Rhodey doesn’t sound too optimistic.

 

“I’d be lying then, honey,” says Tony as he fires a hole into the roof to give himself an entry point.

 

Rhodey groans. “I’ve been ordered to neutralize the threat. Three fighter jets coming in hard from your east,” he says. “And I’m on my way, too.”

 

Well, shit. Because that’s all they need. Tony says, “I thought you were in Nevada! Can you hold off for a minute? I just need a minute.” Or five.

 

“That depends on how good your explanation is for attacking the goddamn Pentagon.”

 

“Um, Iron Man?” Steve comes in over the comm line. “Thor and I don’t actually want to cause any casualties over here. Can you maybe develop a sense of urgency? Please?”

 

“Roger that, Cap!” Tony says.

 

Then to Rhodey, he explains what’s going on. He gives him the Sparknotes version, because Steve’s right, they don’t actually have time to waste, especially if there are fighter jets coming down on their asses.

 

“So Ross just barged in and took him?” Rhodey sounds suitably outraged, and Tony has to smile. 

 

“Yeah, sweetcheeks. Little fucker took Bruce, shot his knee, and broke a few of his ribs. And Bruce is doing an admirable job of not Hulking out and destroying the fucking cell they put him in, so I figure I at least owe him a rescue.”

 

Rhodey sighs. “I’m going to face disciplinary action for this,” he warns Tony. “You owe me big time.” He hangs up.

 

Tony grins. Rhodey is the best. Then he drops into the hole he made in the roof (of the Pentagon! Pepper is going to be pissed).

 

*          *          *

 

Thor is doing his best not to kill people. Because he figures that most of these people aren’t the ones that took Bruce, and anyway, he’s not even very angry that they’re shooting at him. After all, he’s sort of systematically knocking down walls and they’re just trying to protect their territory. 

 

He gets it. He’s really not that angry. 

 

Then there’s a roaring overhead, and there are several big planes flying close to the ground, circling.

 

“Captain!” He calls.

 

Steve ducks behind his shield to protect himself from bullets, and looks at Thor.

 

“What are these airplanes doing? They do not appear to be the kind of planes we ride.”

 

“Ah,” Steve says, gazing up at the fighter jets. Into his comm unit, he says, “Iron Man? Is the Quinjet equipped with any sort of guns?”

 

There is a pause, then Tony says, “Yes, but I haven’t tested them yet.”

 

Steve weighs his options, then says, “Thor, take to the skies. Don’t get shot. Take one of the planes as high as you can go, then take out the wings or the engines. Or something. Just make sure it’s high enough to give the pilot time to use a parachute. And away from cities! Or civilians!”

 

Thor doesn’t respond, but launches himself into the sky. One of the planes peels away from the others and follows him.

 

Before Steve can do anything else, a silver streak flies by one of the planes and shoots a turbine. The plane goes down, the pilot ejects from the cockpit, and a silver suit catches him, placing him on the ground before rising up and blasting the remaining plane.

 

“Is that War Machine?” Steve asks on the comm unit.

 

“It is indeed, Cap!” Tony sounds extremely pleased with himself. 

 

Phil says, “Well, that is a little unexpected.”

 

Then Rhodey himself comes on the line and says, “You bastards owe me so much right now. Bruce had better take me to dinner or something.”

 

“Sweetie pie, I’ll buy you all the restaurants you want,” Tony says.

 

“I want radio silence if what you’re saying is not immediately pertinent to the mission,” Phil says, but he obviously doesn’t expect to be obeyed.

 

*          *          *

 

Phil is biding his time. He figures that he’ll have Tony get Bruce out of here via Iron Man ferry, while he negotiates safe passage for he and Clint and Natasha with the help of Ross, who is still unconscious.

 

“Hawkeye, how hard did you hit him?” Phil asks, nudging the prone general with his foot. 

 

“Hard enough,” Clint says unrepentantly from where he is guarding the door. He lets loose another blunt-headed arrow. It connects with a solid thwump and another security guard crumples to the ground.

 

In the corner, Bruce is still awake, but just barely. The blood loss is worrying all three of them, and Phil really just wants to get this over with. It’s been a rough day. 

 

Natasha has her hands on Bruce’s shoulders, speaking in a low, urgent voice while Phil bandages the knee. 

 

There must have been an increase in security personnel, because the occasional thwump has given way to the steady thrumming of Clint’s bowstring as he shoots. There’s the sharp crack of gunshots now, but nothing Clint can’t handle yet, so Natasha remains kneeling by Bruce.

 

Phil is still reeling from the arrival of War Machine and his subsequent decision to help them. That had been a surprise. He supposes he has Tony to thank. 

 

There’s a sudden rise in gunfire. 

 

From the corner, Phil hears Bruce say a little frantically, “The other guy, he doesn’t like guns.” He sounds strained, and Phil figures that it’s been tough the last few days to keep the Hulk from emerging.

 

“We’ll get rid of them,” Natasha says, more gently than one would expect from the international spy Black Widow. “We won’t let them get you.”

 

Thwump. Thwump. A particularly alarming burst of gunfire, and Clint’s breath hitches. 

 

Natasha turns sharply towards the door. Phil is on his feet instantly.

 

“I’m fine, hold your positions,” Clint says. His voice is tight, but he’s getting the pain under wraps.

 

Soon the bow is going again, this time with explosive arrows. Phil frowns.

 

“Want to switch?” He offers, knowing that Clint will refuse.

 

Sure enough, Clint calls back, “With what bow? I’m fine. I’ll be fine. Thanks.”

 

Just around then, he hears a commotion in the corridor that can only be Tony. His suspicions are confirmed when he hears Clint say, “About time you got here, Tin Man. Could have saved me the trouble of getting shot. And oh, you brought a friend. Lucky me. Hey, Rhodey.”

 

And then Tony and Rhodey are both in the room, larger than life, Iron Man in all his sleek red and gold glory and War Machine bulkier, more menacing, bristling with guns and blasters.

 

Tony walks over to Bruce, and Natasha stands. “I’m gonna give Clint a hand,” she says, pulling out her favorite handgun.

 

“I never thought I’d be saying this, but I am delighted to see you,” Phil tells Tony, “And honored and grateful to have your help,” to Rhodey.

 

“Great power, great responsibility, and all that jazz,” Rhodey says. “Can’t be endorsing kidnapping and coercion. It’s bad press.”

 

Phil is reminded why Rhodey and Tony are friends. Because all he needs is another smartass in a super-robotic suit.

 

“By the way,” Rhodey says, voice sounding vaguely computerized, “Hawkeye is out there, and he’s been hit. Not looking too good, honestly.”

 

Phil curses beneath his breath.

 

“I heard that, Rhodey, and I’m fine,” Clint says, but he sounds strained.

 

“That’s it, you’re getting out,” Phil snaps. “I’m still your handler. I don’t care if you’re an Avenger. I don’t care if you’re part of the goddamn Justice League, I am getting your ass out of this situation.”

 

Rhodey says helpfully, “I can give him a lift?”

 

“Dammit,” Clint says, “You need me covering you!”

 

“What do you think I’m here for, yebanushka?” Natasha demands. She sounds more amused than anything.

 

Phil takes a deep breath. Reminds himself that he can take some ibuprofen when they’re done here.

 

“Rhodey, just take him. Try not to drop him even if he wiggles. And thanks. For everything.”

 

Rhodey shrugs, and with all of the guns and blasters on his shoulders, it frankly looks a little dangerous. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” he says. “Anyway, if I’m going to help you idiots, I may as well do it right. I’m already in enough trouble as it is.”

 

At that, Phil has to crack a small smile. It seems that the already-in-trouble-may-as-well-give-it-my-all attitude is quite popular today.

 

The War Machine suit clanks out of the room with a wave (Phil wonders out loud why it’s noisier than Tony’s and Tony sharply says something about Justin Hammer). A moment later, he hears the sound of the suit taking to the air, and he peeks out the door. Natasha is still calmly dropping security personnel, and Rhodey (and a protesting Clint) are already out of sight.

 

“One down, one to go,” she says as she shoots two more incoming men.

 

“Widow,” Phil says warningly. “Are you killing all of them?”

 

“Tranq rounds,” she assures him. “Tony made them for us a few weeks ago. Tell him to get Bruce out. Now. I’m going to have to use actual bullets soon, and I’d rather not.”

 

Phil nods his assent at her, and re-enters the small room.

 

Tony is bent over the other man, faceplate flipped back, and Phil catches part of what he is saying.

 

“I swear to you he will never touch you again. He will never hurt you again because we will destroy him, Bruce. I will fucking destroy him with my bare hands if I have to.”

 

He says more, but quietly enough that Phil can’t quite make it out, not that he’s trying too hard to listen. If Tony can get Bruce to relax a little, it will be better for everyone. So despite Natasha’s warning, Phil decides to give Tony a few more minutes, decides to give Bruce a chance to breathe a little. So despite Natasha’s warning, Phil says nothing. And watches as Bruce seems to find a peace within himself, as he collects the pieces of his shattered emotions and pulls them back together. He’s calmer now; he’s always calmer around Tony. And doesn’t that just take the cake, that Bruce is calmer around Tony, who is a whirlwind of life and spirit and full of an intense fire and everything that isn’t calm. 

 

But anyway, however it works, the important thing is that it does, and Bruce lets Tony carefully lift him into a princess carry (Phil finds it in him to be amused by this, although honestly at this point he suspects that everything is just a little bizarre and amusing). Even with Tony being as gentle as humanly possible, Bruce whitens with the pain of the ribs and the knee, and Phil grimaces in sympathy. 

 

“Widow, they’re coming out now.” Phil warns her, not that she needs it.

 

Tony flashes a grin at Phil, flips his faceplate back down, and shoots into the hallway and away from the startled security.

 

Phil says into his comm unit, “Widow and I will be joining you shortly. Please prepare the Quinjet.”

 

He waits for affirmation from Steve, who says, “Yes, sir.”

 

Then he turns his attention back to the still-unconscious General Ross. “You’re not a very good man,” he remarks offhandedly. “I don’t even feel guilty about this.”

 

He grabs Ross, pulls him upright, and places a gun to his temple.

 

“Ready?” He knows that Natasha is ready, so it’s really only a formality that he even asked.

 

At her sharp, “Yes,” he steps back into the hallway to face, well, a few more men than he had thought.

 

Luckily, Natasha now has a gun in each hand, and Phil has something better than a gun- a high-ranking military official at his mercy.

 

This is going to be fun, he thought to himself. The others are going to be so jealous.

 

“Please drop your weapons.” Phil makes sure to speak clearly, and to keep his voice neutral. “We would prefer not to hurt you.”

 

One of the men says, “Why should we drop our guns? Go ahead and shoot the General, and we’ll shoot you.”

 

Phil shakes his head. “I don’t think you understand. My associate and I are very upset about how General Ross has handled things. He... forcibly removed one of our friends from his home. Kept him in a fucking room the size of a walk-in closet. And broke some ribs and shot his knee. We are not happy, and honestly, we would not be sorry to have General Ross dead. You won’t be able to kill us both before I shoot him. The only reason he is valuable is to get us safe passage. So you obviously have orders to keep Ross alive, or you would’ve tried to shoot us already. Here’s how you keep Ross alive: You let us walk out. You let us leave. And when we leave the building, we also leave General Ross, alive.”

 

He waits for this to sink in.

 

One of the men in the front swings his gun from Phil to Natasha, and Natasha sends a bullet over his head. “That’s a warning,” she says. “You won’t get another.”

 

Then a path slowly clears for them. Phil goes first, with Natasha carefully covering his back.

 

When they make it into the elevator, Natasha jams her finger into the ground-level button, and Phil says into his comm unit, “Tony, can we make sure this elevator doesn’t stop?”

 

“Way ahead of you,” Tony says, and suddenly the elevator shoots upward.

 

Natasha raises one eyebrow as they reach their floor. “That was fast,” she says.

 

“Thanks,” Tony replies brightly. “By the way, Rhodey’s coming back in to help you guys out. He should be in front of the elevator by now.”

 

Sure enough, when the elevator opens, War Machine is standing at the entrance.

 

“I hope you don’t have motion sickness,” he says. Phil hears a smile in his voice.

 

“On three,” Rhodey says, surveying the circle of security and police forces around them. “One... Two... Three.”

 

Phil drops Ross in the same moment that Rhodey tucks him under his left arm. He looks to his right, and Natasha is in the same position.

 

Then Rhodey is flying, and Phil wonders, not for the first time today, when his life got so strange.

Chapter Text

Tony has to admit, he’s pretty relieved when Rhodey comes into the Quinjet, with Coulson and Natasha each tucked under an arm. Because even if Coulson and Natasha both terrify him a little (although it’s been a while since Natasha threatened to kill him), they’re still part of the team, and more importantly, they just may be friends, and Tony has to admit that he’d be more than a little upset if something happened to them.

 

“And we’re up, up, and away!” He calls to Steve, who’s standing by, ready to take off in the cockpit.

 

They rise into the air smoothly- Steve has gotten much much better at piloting the Quinjet; the first few times had been a bit bumpy. Natasha had to give him lessons after the fiasco in Denver (that was a story for another time).

 

He turns his attention back to Bruce, who is still awake.

 

“Hey, buddy,” Tony says. “You’re good now. Everyone’s out and safe.”

 

“Anyone get hurt?” Bruce asks, weariness lining his face. 

 

“Nope,” Clint says firmly from where he is getting patched up by Natasha. He’s out of Bruce’s line of vision, and he plainly doesn’t want Bruce beating himself up over him getting hurt.

 

Tony could kiss Clint right now, except, you know, not really, because Clint is a great guy and all, and yeah, he has a great ass (and the arms aren’t too bad), but he’s really not Tony’s type. But it’s totally nice of him to not want Bruce to worry.

 

Bruce sighs, and he sounds so, so, tired. “I don’t know what I did to deserve you guys,” he says softly.

 

Tony winces a little, because he’s really not that good at emotions, he’s really not, and honestly, he doesn’t have much room to complain, but he’s pretty tired too, because despite how he makes it sound, hacking into the Pentagon in such a short time was a little more difficult than he let the others believe, and he hasn’t been sleeping much anyway, and then the ensuing fight at the actual Pentagon wasn’t exactly a walk in the park either, so he isn’t really in the mood to do the emotion thing.

 

And anyway, what would he say? That Bruce does deserve friends, that just because he has a slight tendency to turn into a destructive rage monster doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve friends? Because he does, he totally does, because Bruce is the best man Tony knows, and Tony knows Captain America, so that’s a big deal, okay? Like, Bruce is incredible because he puts up with the world keeping him at arm’s length and he never begrudges people for it and he’s always kind to people, even when they’re not being very kind to him, and you know what? Sometimes Bruce is the only one that can stand to be around Tony when he’s being all self-destructive and shit, and Bruce never, ever looks at him with pity or disgust and that’s rare, so, yeah, of course Bruce deserves to have some people watching his back, because he watches theirs. And isn’t that the fucking point of being a team? 

 

Tony freezes when he notices that everyone in the cabin is staring at him, and groans.

 

It’s official. He needs to get some sleep before he confesses undying love for Nick Fury or something, for fuck’s sake.

 

But then he catches a glimpse of the pure gratitude tempered with relief on Bruce’s face, and decides that his accidental outburst is worth it, if Bruce can finally get it through his thick skull that they aren’t going to abandon him, and they never will.

 

*          *          *

 

Phil knows it’s coming, he knows it, but he still inwardly cringes a little when his phone buzzes in his pocket. He had hoped that Fury would at least wait until they were all back and safe at the Tower.

 

Honestly, at this point, things could still go south. Phil wouldn’t put it past the universe to throw one last hurdle at them before they got home.

 

He briefly considers ignoring the call, then decides against it (Fury would never fire him, but he could make life miserable for a few months).

 

Reluctantly, he answers his phone. “Agent Coulson,” he says.

 

What the fuck do you fuckheads think you’re doing? Are you fucking kidding me?

 

Phil winces, both at the volume of Fury’s voice and at the implacable rage.

 

“Sir, it wasn’t intended to be a direct attack upon the Penta-”

 

It doesn’t matter what you fucking intended, Agent Coulson, because the fact remains: You and your merry band of fucktards fucking attacked the fucking headquarters of the fucking U.S. Department of Defense!

 

“Sir,” he says, stubbornly. “They invited me in. They expected me to evaluate Dr. Banner, who was in a state of-”

 

Fury cut him off again. “That is not fucking good enough for me, Coulson! When I gave you the go-ahead for this assignment, it was with the expectation that you would keep them from destroying the Pentagon! And what do I find? I find my number one agent aiding the goddamn fucking Avengers going all vigilante on the U.S. Army’s ass!

 

Phil sighs. “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again, sir.”

 

I expect all of you except for Dr. Banner in my office tomorrow at 0800 sharp. We will finish this conversation then.

 

“Yes, sir,” Phil says.

 

Fury hangs up abruptly.

 

“That went better than expected,” Phil admits to the others, who are watching him closely. “We’ll probably get yelled at tomorrow morning, and there’ll be an absolute mountain of paperwork... But for the most part I think we’re fine.”

 

“Ross won’t be when I’m through with him,” Tony says darkly.

 

“Don’t tell me,” Rhodey says sharply. “I don’t want to know.”

 

“Will you be in much trouble, Lt. Colonel?” Steve asks, polite as always, and with genuine concern coloring his voice.

 

“Just Rhodey, Cap,” Rhodey says. Then he shakes his head ruefully. “I’ll face some disciplinary action. Maybe suspended from service for a few weeks until they decide they need me.”

 

Bruce says, “I am so sorry. You shouldn’t have done that. It’s not worth it.”

 

Rhodey shakes his head. “There are some things more important than obeying orders, Dr. Banner. Worst case scenario, I take a leave of absence and go crash at my apartment for a bit.”

 

Bruce still looks a little stricken, and Phil cuts in sharply, “Bruce, we’ve all made our choice, and we’ve all chosen to stand with you. Of our own free will. You are not responsible for any consequences this mission may have. We make the decision, we deal with what comes.”

 

Tony says to Rhodey, “If you take that leave of absence, fuck staying in your shitty apartment. There’s always a room for you at the Tower. I have some upgrades in mind for the War Machine suit.”

 

Rhodey nods in thanks. 

 

*          *          *

 

When they reach the Avengers Tower less than an hour later, all of them are exhausted with a bone-deep weariness that stems from the physical and emotional strain of the day. 

 

None of them are asleep, although Clint is leaning against Natasha, his head on her shoulder, which says a lot, and Natasha is letting him, which says even more.

 

The Quinjet lands, and for a moment, it looks like everyone is considering just spending the night inside the cabin.

 

Then Steve comes out of the cockpit and urges everyone out. “Everyone get some sleep. It’s been a long day.” He ambles out of the jet and into the tower.

 

A few more minutes pass, and Phil reluctantly rises. “It’s been a pleasure, everyone,” he says, stifling a yawn. “But I need to grab a cab.”

 

At that, Tony struggles to his feet. “Don’t be ridiculous, Coulson,” he says. “Stay here for the night. God knows I have enough room.”

 

“Anyway,” Clint pipes up, “He finished your floor last week.”

 

Phil looks at Tony, surprised. “A floor?”

 

Tony doesn’t quite meet his eyes. “Well, I mean, there wasn’t much else to do, and it was a vacant floor so I figured that you’re with us often enough that you deserve to have your own floor and I mean, it really didn’t take much, all we, er, I did was have it outfitted with a full bath and a full kitchen and some extra coffee machines and a few other rooms and Clint and Natasha helped pick out decor and it didn’t even take very long and really, don’t think I did this because I like you, or anything-”

 

Phil considers letting Tony babble on for a few more minutes, but is gracious enough to recognize a gift when he sees one, and simply says, “Thank you.”

 

Tony snaps his mouth shut, still not looking at Phil. Nods a little sheepishly.

 

Phil is reminded that as much as Tony doesn’t want to be seen as good, he is. Because Tony Stark is an arrogant bastard who talks too much, but he’s also blisteringly intelligent, and surprisingly insightful, and sometimes, when he has a need to be, kind.

 

“No, really,” Phil says. “I appreciate it.”

 

Tony does look at him then, offers him a tentative smile, then turns his attention to Rhodey, who had been attempting to slip out.

 

“Babe, where do you think you’re going? You’re staying with me tonight, and then we’re going shopping for restaurants tomorrow!”

 

Rhodey actually starts laughing a little hysterically, and Phil realizes that it has been one hell of a day for the poor man.

 

Actually, it had been one hell of a day for all of them. 

 

“Tony,” he says. “Do you have a stretcher or something for Bruce?”

 

Bruce protests a little, but with little energy, and Phil glares at him. “You’re lucky I didn’t get Stark to take you straight to a hospital.”

 

Bruce immediately shuts up, and Phil wonders why everyone he fucking works with has an aversion to getting proper medical attention.

 

And there is a stretcher rolling itself up the ramp.

 

“What the fuck,” Clint says.

 

Tony gives a little half shrug. “I was doing some tinkering a few months ago, and I made a self-propelling stretcher.”

 

“Is it safe?” Natasha asks dubiously.

 

“Probably,” Tony says. “I mean, I didn’t hook up any explosives to it if that’s what you’re asking.”

 

“In Asgard,” Thor says, “We have small beds like that, but they fly!”

 

“Thor,” Clint groans. “Do not give Tony any ideas.”

 

“I don’t care,” Bruce announces. “It doesn’t look like it will immediately kill me, so that’s good enough for me.”

 

He starts to stand, and Phil goes to help, but Tony and Thor are already there to help him.

 

So Phil waves at them, and wordlessly goes to help Clint.

 

“I really am fine,” Clint mutters, getting painfully to his feet. “They only got me good once, and the other two only grazed me.”

 

Natasha slugs him in the shoulder. “Let him hover. Coulson gets joy out of hovering over us.”

 

Phil actually laughs at that, and damn he must be tired if he’s laughing out loud.

 

But Clint says nothing more as he allows both Phil and Natasha (who does a fair amount of hovering over Clint herself) to accompany him into the tower.

 

After making sure that Clint is settled in and not in immediate danger of dying, Natasha follows Phil into the elevator.

 

Natasha says, “Seventeenth.”

 

He looks at her. 

 

“Mine is right below.”

 

Phil hits the appropriate buttons, and the elevator heads down.

 

“Why is Clint’s floor so high?” he asks Natasha. He knows, but he wants to hear what she thinks.

 

Natasha shrugs. “Tony is an ass, but he puts thought into things. He knows Clint feels safe when he’s high up. And if you look around the tower, there are perches. Everywhere.”

 

Phil says, “Who would have thought that Tony Stark had it in him to be a team player.”

 

Natasha smiles at that. “He always had it in him. He just needed the right team.”

 

She waves good night at him, and he exits the elevator. Onto his floor.

 

Phil doesn’t even take a look around. There will be plenty of time for that later. He does pause in the kitchen. The refrigerator is fully stocked, and Phil grabs a water bottle and downs three ibuprofen tablets. Tomorrow promises to be a long day, and he doesn't want to face an irate Fury with a headache.

 

He finds his bedroom (and briefly appreciates the simple and elegant set up of the room), pulls off his jacket and tie, unbuttons his shirt, and collapses onto the king size bed. 

 

Before he goes to sleep, he reminds himself to do something nice for Tony sometime soon.

Chapter Text

Phil wakes up at 6:33 the next morning. He frowns a little, because he’s three whole minutes off of his mark and that doesn’t happen often. He’s usually within one or two. Three rarely, and God forbid four or five.

 

He rises in search of a shower, and jumps when a voice says, “The bathroom is the second door on the right, Agent Coulson. The closet is the door next to it.”

 

“Thank you, J.A.R.V.I.S.” Phil says. He had forgotten that Tony’s AI ran the Tower.

 

He goes to the closet, and is both amused and slightly displeased to find that the closet contains three neatly pressed purple suits, complete with shirt and tie. Tony’s idea of a joke, no doubt. Or maybe Clint’s.

 

It doesn’t faze him though, that the suits are exactly his size- Clint and Natasha have both had ample chances to get that information without him knowing.

 

He considers just not taking a shower, and staying in the clothes he’s in, but the prospect isn’t overly appealing. He decides to humor them, especially since Tony designed an entire floor for him, and grabs one of the suits.

 

Phil hangs the suit on the doorknob of the bathroom and takes a shower.

 

He emerges from his room twenty minutes later in the purple suit, holding a steaming espresso from the coffee machine in the kitchen.

 

He finds Natasha already in the elevator, and she struggles to keep her face straight. “I didn’t know that’s why they wanted your measurements,” she says innocently.

 

“Agent Romanov, I don’t want to hear it,” he says sternly. But his lip quirks into an almost-smile. Then, “I assume you’re going to get Agent Barton.”

 

“I was,” she says. “I wanted to make sure he’s okay.”

 

“I did too,” Phil admits, and they exchange sheepish glances.

 

Clint is probably fine... Especially considering Tony keeps the Avengers Tower medical wing updated with high-end equipment to rival any hospital. But years of looking after each other breeds habits that are hard to break. Just because they’re involved in the Avengers Initiative doesn’t mean they can stop worrying. 

 

Clint is, of course, fine. In fact, he’s sitting on his bed, waiting for them to show up (“I knew you two would feel the need to check on me, mother hens that you are.”), and when he sees Phil in the purple suit, bursts into laughter.

 

Phil is pleased to see that Clint’s wounds are properly bandaged. He is less pleased about Clint’s reaction to the suit. At least Natasha had the decorum to control her laughter.

 

“I didn’t think Tony would actually do it, sir, I swear,” Clint says as they get back into the elevator, amidst giggles.

 

“Agent Barton, that is enough,” Phil says. He has to fight to keep a blank look on his face, especially when he sees Natasha crack a smile.

 

“Who’s gonna drag Tony out of bed?” Clint asks when he stops laughing.

 

Natasha shakes her head. “I’ll get Thor,” she says instantly.

 

“I call Steve!” Clint shouts.

 

Phil narrows his eyes at his agents. “I’ll stick you with paperwork,” he growls.

 

“You do that anyway, sir,” Clint says.

 

He exits the elevator cheerfully on Steve’s floor.

“That’s not fair,” Phil grumbles to Natasha. “Steve gets up at the crack of dawn. He’s already awake, Barton doesn’t even have to do anything.”

 

She rolls her eyes. “You’re the one who lets him get away with it. Stop whining.”

 

Phil has to admit she has a point.

 

He grudgingly gets out of the elevator on Tony’s floor. 

 

“See you,” Natasha says as the door slides closed. He could swear her voice is cheerful. It’s actually a little unnerving.

 

Tony’s floor is sleek and modern. J.A.R.V.I.S. immediately greets him. “Good morning, Agent Coulson.”

 

“Good morning, J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Phil says, unerringly polite as usual. “I would like to speak to Tony.”

 

J.A.R.V.I.S. seems to hesitate. “Mr. Stark does not get enough sleep as it is.”

 

“Yes,” Phil says. And he knows it’s true. “I’m really sorry, J.A.R.V.I.S. We need to meet with Director Fury at 0800.”

 

J.A.R.V.I.S. is saved from having to make a decision by Tony bursting out of his bedroom and promptly running into Phil.

 

“That was easier than expected,” Phil says to no one in particular.

 

Tony scowls at him. “What are you doing here?”

 

“Making sure you’re up,” Phil says patiently. “Meeting with Director Fury in about,” he checks his watch, “an hour.”

 

Tony takes a look at him and begins to grin, and Phil spends four whole seconds wondering what is so amusing about a meeting with Nick Fury, and then remembers that he’s wearing a fucking purple suit.

 

“Stark, you are lucky that this is a damn good coffee,” Phil says without emotion.

 

Tony can’t seem to wipe the smirk off his face, but doesn’t actually say anything, so Phil takes what he can get. 

 

Phil walks back into the elevator, Tony at his side.

 

“Will you go check on Bruce?” Tony asks. “I don’t know how I feel about leaving him in the tower. I would go, but I’m gonna go try and get Rhodey to stay at least until we get back if Bruce wants to stay here. Which he shouldn’t, because he should get looked at by actual doctors, because despite the fact that I’m a genius and Clint has a surprisingly impressive knowledge of field medicine, the ribs and knee weren’t looking too great last night. And I don’t think Hulking out will do too much. The damage isn’t life-threatening, per se, and when we experimented a while ago the Hulk didn’t regenerate things like paper cuts and sprains, really. And again, I’d really not leave him alone.”

 

Phil nods. He knows that Ross would have to be absolutely insane to attempt breaching the tower again, but then, stranger things have happened. He doesn’t feel overly comfortable about leaving Bruce alone in the tower either. “What floor?”

 

“Fifth,” Tony says. “Thanks.”

 

When Phil walks into Bruce’s bedroom, he finds him awake, but looking terrible. Phil knows that Bruce wants to stay home, but this is ridiculous. He looks half dead. “Bruce,” he says, “It would make all of us feel better if you got medical attention at S.H.I.E.L.D.”

 

Bruce hesitates.

 

“One of us will stay with you,” Phil assures him, correctly guessing why the other man is reluctant to go. “They won’t lock you up. You have my word.”

 

“Fine,” Bruce says, not making eye contact. Then he looks at Phil. “Why aren’t you scared of me?”

 

Phil says, deadpan, “You’re not all that frightening.”

 

Then he takes pity on Bruce and says, “You’re not out of control. You’ve proved that dozens of times over. You know what you’re doing. Even when you’re the Hulk, you’ve started to be more self-aware. I’ve watched you progress, and you almost never Hulk out without meaning to anymore. I’m careful around the Hulk, but not scared. Because you’re Bruce Banner.”

 

A disbelieving smile plays across Bruce’s face. 

 

“Is it so strange to you to have friends?” Phil asks mildly.

 

Another smile makes its way across Bruce’s face, but this one is bitter. “Phil, your clearance level is barely under Fury’s. Don’t tell me you don’t know anything about my past.”

 

Phil concedes the point, but says, “Your past isn’t what I’m interested in. And even if you were a little destructive before, it doesn’t change the fact that you’ve saved the world four times now, and still counting.”

 

Bruce doesn’t look convinced, so Phil says, “Stop blaming yourself. When we accepted you into this initiative, we accepted both the Hulk and Bruce Banner. I personally will not let S.H.I.E.L.D. do anything to you without your express consent.”

 

He is pleased when Bruce nods without apprehension in his eyes.

 

“Where’s the self-propelling stretcher?” Phil asks.

 

J.A.R.V.I.S. answers, “I’m sending it up right now, Agent Coulson.”

 

“Thank you,” Phil says.

 

J.A.R.V.I.S. hesitates for a moment, and then says, “Agent Coulson, Thor thought that the stretcher needed a name. Agent Barton called it Rollo, and it seems to have stuck.”

 

Phil takes this in stride. “Duly noted, J.A.R.V.I.S. Thank you.”

 

As they wait for Rollo to arrive, Bruce seems to finally take a good look at Phil.

 

“If you don’t mind me asking,” he says, “Why are you in a bright purple suit?”

 

Phil is frankly, really fucking tired of the fucking purple suit, and he hasn’t even stepped into S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters yet.

 

“Tony,” he says wearily.

 

Then the stretcher rolls into the room, and says, “Doctor Banner. Whenever you are ready.”

 

Bruce stares at it in shock.

 

Phil is beyond the point of being surprised at anything that happens in his life anymore. He wordlessly helps Bruce onto Rollo and walks into the elevator, Rollo trailing behind like a strange, mechanical puppy.

 

He takes a glance at his watch. 7:18.

 

He needs another fucking coffee.

Chapter Text

Nick Fury is livid.

 

His one eye is glaring at them with even more gusto than usual.

 

“Sir,” Phil tries, but Fury cuts him off. 

 

“Coulson, I don’t want to hear it right now. I have to deal with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security and an alarming amount of Congress members and the fucking President of the United States. So I do not want to hear your excuses.”

 

The team is all standing in Fury’s office. It’s not a terribly big room, and it's cramped with them all standing there.

 

Tension lays thick in the air.

 

Because yes, they all understand that they may have gone a little overboard, but they are also unrepentant. There seems to be an unspoken agreement among the team that they will do whatever is necessary to protect their own. And somehow, Phil has gotten himself sucked into it.

 

Tony, particularly, is standing in that cock-sure way he has, arms crossed, aggressive tilt to the chin, a defiant spark in his eyes. 

 

Phil has a feeling that Tony has more things planned for General Ross.

 

Alarmingly, Phil doesn’t mind this.

 

Natasha is taking the ass-chewing surprisingly well. That could be because she’s actually tired. Clint had let slip to Phil that Natasha had been awake the whole night, keeping watch over the tower. Phil hadn’t said anything to her, even though she needs the rest, because he knows that they all have ways to reassure themselves. And if Natasha finds peace in stalking around the tower and looking after them, then that’s just the way she is. 

 

So, yeah, he’s not worried about Natasha mouthing off to Fury, and Tony is obviously focusing most of his energy on plotting.

 

Steve is standing solidly, a little bit in front of Tony, and while he doesn’t look like he’s angry at Fury, he doesn’t exactly look happy either. But Steve rarely complains about anything.

 

Thor is, surprisingly, the one to start the trouble. 

 

Phil actually cringes a little when Thor booms, “Director Fury, I believe we acted in haste, but I also believe we acted justly.”

 

Clint immediately jumps in, just as Phil knew he would (Clint has never been shy about voicing his displeasure). “If you expected us to do nothing after fucking General Ross snatched Bruce up from under our noses, you must be smoking something strong. Maybe you could share.”

 

“Agent Barton, I expected you to do something. That something did not ideally involve attacking the fucking Pentagon.”

 

That’s where Bruce was, the Pentagon. So we attacked the fucking Pentagon. It’s not that hard.” Clint is furious, but Phil suspects that his injuries are bothering him, and he’s more angry at the situation than Fury himself.

 

Phil presses a hand to Clint’s arm, giving him a warning look. Long years of working together has given them the ability to communicate quite well without speaking, and right now Phil tells Clint to back off.

 

Clint’s eyes narrow, but Natasha deftly hooks her foot around his, and he quiets.

 

Fury, in any case, seems to have come to the same conclusion as Phil- that Clint is angry at Ross, not Fury.

 

“If you idiots ever decide to do something like this again, which you had better not unless you have a very good reason to, let me fucking know first so that when the entire staff of Homeland Security calls, I can make an informed answer and be ready to defend your sorry asses,” he says, but he sounds calmer. “Get out of here before I decide to fire all of you fucking morons,” Fury says, waving a hand. 

 

“That went quite well,” Clint says brightly as soon as the door closes behind them.

 

*          *          *

 

Rhodey leaves to face his superiors, promising Tony that he’ll be back if he needs to take a break from being an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel for a while. 

 

Pepper hasn’t flown back from Malibu yet, although she is on her way.

 

So it is just the Avengers in the tower, just the Avengers and Coulson, and hey, he basically counts.

 

They are all sprawled across their favorite living room. Bruce had been allowed to leave the S.H.I.E.L.D. medical wing after Tony had bullied the doctors into releasing him into the Avengers’ care. 

 

At the moment, Bruce is fitfully sleeping on the chaise lounge adjacent to the far wall, injured knee raised by a sling Tony had rigged into the ceiling. Tony seats himself on the ground with his back against Steve’s legs, making sure to keep Bruce within his peripheral vision. Actually, he makes sure to keep his entire team in his sight, because honestly, it’s sort of ridiculous of him, but it makes him feel better when he can check on everyone. 

 

Right now he sweeps his eyes over the room. He can see everyone except Steve, and he’s sort of pressed up against Steve’s legs, so he would know if Steve so much as twitched. Thor’s massive frame is curled up on a bean bag, and yeah, it’s a really big bean bag, but there’s something vaguely funny about the Norse god of thunder sitting on a plush bean bag like some kindergartener. Clint is up in his perch over the doorway with some blankets and a bowl of grapes. Occasionally he tosses one expertly into Natasha’s open mouth (he never misses). She is draped sideways across a leather armchair. Coulson is sitting on the floor next to the coffee table. Doing paperwork, of course.

 

No one is really paying attention to the television, but Tony likes background noise, it helps him think, and right now he is thinking of the many, many ways he can make General Ross’ life miserable.

 

“Can I-” Tony starts, but Phil interrupts with a firm “No. Do not discuss this with me in the room.”

 

“Fine,” Tony grumbles. “Need-to-know basis only. Any restrictions?”

 

“No assassinations,” Phil lists calmly. “No kidnapping, no lasting physical injury, nothing that can be definitively traced back to you or proven against you in court.” 

 

“Mental and emotional distress?” Tony asks, a pleading tone making its way into his voice.

 

“Fine,” Phil says. “I’ll allow it.”

 

“Maybe a little kidnapping?” Tony is nearly begging. He’s curious to see how far Phil will let him go. It’s interesting how they’ve managed to corrupt the agent to the point that he’s practically conspiring with them to get back at Ross.

 

“Tony,” Steve says disapprovingly.

 

Phil thinks about it for a moment, then firmly says, “Absolutely not.”

 

“Financial ruin?” Tony says hopefully.

 

The only thing Phil says is, “Don’t let it get traced back to you.”

 

“Don’t insult me,” Tony says. As if he’d get caught. He’s been surreptitiously ruining credit scores since he was twelve.

 

“Natasha, Clint, the no-assassination rule applies to you also,” Phil warns, not even looking up from the forms he is filling out.

 

Natasha sighs heavily. Clint throws a grape at Phil. It hits him square on the forehead, but Phil catches it on the rebound and pops it into his mouth.

 

“I would like a grape, Clint!” Thor says.

 

Clint obligingly tosses three grapes into Thor’s mouth.

 

Tony stays quiet for once, letting his teammates’ conversation flow around him, voices blending into the noise from the television. He focuses on everything and nothing at once, because sometimes, planning extreme acts of revenge takes every bit of ingenuity a person has.

 

And all modesty aside, Tony has plenty of ingenuity to spare.

 

He’s done the proper research.

 

He knows, of course, that Ross has a daughter. He also knows that he isn’t going to touch Betty, because that would hurt Bruce, and anyway, Tony’s fight isn’t with her. It’s with her father.

 

He knows that Ross keeps two homes, one in Washington D.C., the other in a secluded location in northern Maine. He knows that the home in Maine is a safe house, a place he goes when he’s not working. He knows that it’s a log cabin, and as such, is made entirely of wood.

 

Wood burns.

 

Something else he knows: Ross is very, very wealthy. Especially if you include the multiple illegal offshore accounts he keeps.

 

First things first, then. He grabs his tablet, runs some programs. He’s done this, and harder, so many times that he could do this in his sleep.

 

“Bruce,” he calls.

 

Bruce cracks an eye open. 

 

“Favorite charities?” he demands.

 

The other man thinks for a moment, then rattles off several.

 

“Go back to sleep,” Tony orders him. Bruce is tired enough that he obeys

 

It’s to everyone’s credit that nobody even asks what Tony is doing, although Thor looks a little confused. 

 

Soon enough, all of Ross’ offshore accounts have been liquidated and six charities have received some very generous anonymous donations.

 

“Phase one: Complete,” he announces to the room at large.

 

Steve leans over, looks over Tony’s shoulder. “Is that all you’re going to do?”

 

“Of course not,” Tony says, offended. “That is clearly why I said ‘phase one.’ That indicates that I have other phases planned.”

 

“Okay,” Steve says. “Be careful.”

 

“Always, Cap,” Tony says with a wink, not that Steve can see it.

 

Phase two, which involves emptying Ross’ legal bank accounts and utterly destroying his credit ratings, is laughably easy. 

 

“Ross is gonna get a nasty surprise the next time he tries to buy something,” Tony says viciously.

 

“Do we get to help? I want to do bad things to Ross too,” Clint complains.

 

Tony looks at him. He looks at Natasha. Two highly trained specialists for S.H.I.E.L.D. that moonlight as assassins in their spare time. He gets an idea. “I think Phase three will, indeed, require some help from some super-ninja-secret-agents. I wonder where I could get some of those?”

 

Phil pointedly pretends not to be listening.

 

Clint gives a razor sharp grin, and Natasha’s eyes flash. “I’m in,” he says, and Natasha nods in agreement.

 

“What’s the plan?” Natasha asks.

 

Tony’s eyes glint dangerously. There is steel and determination and anger behind them. “What we’re going to do is go to his home in Maine. We’re going to get past the security, which is not going to be an issue. Then you two are going to booby-trap the house for all you’re worth. Everything. Trip wires and smoke bombs and alarms and whatever the fuck else you think will be irritating as hell. Then when he hasn’t been able to rest for a week because you two have been sneaking around, not getting caught, and generally fucking with his mind, Thor is going to bring in a storm. Lightning is going to strike the house, which is, if I haven’t already mentioned, entirely made of wood, and burn it to the ground. And when we’re done with that and he has nowhere safe to go, we are going to hunt him. We are going to hunt him until he can’t turn around without seeing someone following him. And when he’s exhausted and scared and out of places to hide we are not going to kidnap him, but we are going to have him arrested for crimes against humanity, because last I checked, Bruce is human. And anyway he has engaged in sponsoring some very suspicious experimentation. And I have a few people in the FBI that owe me some favors. And then after he’s in prison, and unable to post bail because I’ve gotten rid of all his money, I am going to sue him for all he’s worth. Not that he’ll be worth anything, because we are going to destroy him and he will be a pathetic shell of a man.”

 

There is silence.

 

"Also," Tony says, "We are going to spread some rumors that will further destroy his reputation. But I figured that isn't really a phase, per se, because it's so easy."

 

Natasha smiles wolfishly. Clint shrugs, says, “I’m in.” 

 

Thor says eagerly, “I will gladly do this to help you in destroying the General, Anthony.”

 

Steve doesn’t say anything, but when Tony swivels around and looks at him, there is agreement written all over his face.

 

Phil looks pained. “I said I didn’t want to know.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“There was a segment on the news today about a certain General Ross,” Natasha remarks offhandedly.

 

It’s been two weeks since Tony has hacked into Ross’ bank accounts. Phase three is in motion, and Clint is already in Maine, scoping things out. Phil has some reservations about sending Clint out by himself, because although Clint is more than capable of taking care of himself, Phil isn’t sure that he will. But he figures that he’s just being paranoid.

 

The rest of them are sitting in the dining room keeping Phil company as he fills out paperwork.

 

Phil is still wrapping up the last of the forms from the Pentagon Fiasco, as they have begun to call it, and determinedly pretending not to know about Tony’s dastardly plans. 

 

“What did they say?” Steve says expectantly.

 

To mostly everyone’s surprise, Steve is entirely on-board with the whole Operation-fucking-destroy-Ross. 

 

Phil is the one who is not surprised. Steve is a great guy with upstanding morals, but has a protective streak a mile wide. And nobody messes with his team.

 

Actually, that seems to be the running theme lately. 

 

All of them are a little bit paranoid and a little bit jumpy and very overprotective of Bruce. Tony literally does not let Bruce out of his sight and Natasha has set all sorts of alarms and triggers around the Tower (Phil doesn’t even want to know where she’s procured them) and there is one incident in the park where Thor calls down lightning to defend Bruce from some overly friendly dogs (“Son of Coul, the small mongrels appeared to be threatening Dr. Banner!").

 

That one had been a little bit of a PR nightmare.

 

In any case, Phil thinks wearily as he puts down the last of the Pentagon papers triumphantly and starts on Form 41B-3.2 (assault on a civilian’s pet without provocation), it will be over soon and Ross will be taken care of and maybe the team will relax a little.

 

He can’t blame them for overcompensating though, so he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even reprimand Thor for electrocuting the maltese and its owner (there hadn’t been any permanent damage). 

 

Bruce is patiently dealing with the team in his own way, which is to accept the coddling and hovering with a long-suffering look on his face. Occasionally he does some yoga. But overall, he’s doing much better than Phil had expected. Phil strongly suspects that the attention, while stifling, is reassuring for Bruce, who still isn’t quite used to being liked and wanted.

 

Besides, while Bruce hasn’t helped with their revenge-plotting, he also hasn’t stopped them. And if Bruce is beginning to develop enough of a sense of self-worth to allow the others to protect him, well, Phil is not complaining at all.

 

Meanwhile, Phil stubbornly doesn’t listen to the conversation going on around him.

 

“The anchor said something about Ross being sued by the Stark Industries legal team,” Natasha tells Steve as she nibbles on some blueberries.

 

“Pepper my dear, have I told you I loved you today?” Tony calls loudly. He is on his laptop, reading reports from his legal team and presumably finding the segment Natasha is talking about.

 

Pepper, who is back from Malibu and generally playing the role of resident mother, strides into the room with two iced coffees and a glass of milk, sipping from one of the coffees and plunking the other one down in front of Phil. “You’ve told me several times,” she tells Tony as she hands Thor the milk and seats herself next to a truly impressive pile of finished paperwork.

 

“Thanks, Pepper,” Phil says, taking a long sip from the coffee.

 

“Yes, my eternal gratitude,” Thor agrees, dipping his pop tart into the glass.

 

She shrugs. “Anytime,” she says. Then she turns back to Tony. “Our team has been digging up evidence for the past week. There’s a solid case here for us.”

 

“Of course there is,” Tony says smugly. “He’s a fucking shithead.”

 

J.A.R.V.I.S. interrupts, saying, “Sir, Agent Barton is calling. Would you like to take it?”

 

“Of course,” Tony says. “Put him on speaker.”

 

Phil thinks about protesting (he really shouldn’t be hearing all of this) but curiosity wins out. And anyway, he wants to take Ross down just as much as the others do.

 

“Did what you asked,” comes Clint’s voice. “All of the security is good, but not good enough. I can take care of most of it, and I think J.A.R.V.I.S. can definitely handle the rest.”

 

“Of course I can, Agent Barton.” If an AI could sound indignant, J.A.R.V.I.S. certainly did.

 

Phil frowns. The others may not have picked up on it, but there is something off in Clint’s voice. Something tight. He sounds like he’s straining to speak and trying to cover it up. Maybe he’s imagining it, but- he glances at Natasha. Her brow is furrowed and she meets his eyes. Okay. So he isn’t imagining it.

 

He’s heard Clint speak too many times with broken ribs or with blood flowing out of his thigh or with his fingerpads cut through to the bone from his bowstring to not recognize when his asset, his specialist, his Clint, is in pain.

 

“What happened, Agent Barton? Do not lie to me.” Phil’s voice cuts through whatever Tony is saying.

 

There is silence.

 

Clint,” Phil says sharply.

 

Finally a sigh from Clint. “I, um, let myself get caught and interrogated. It’s fine. They think I’m dead so they’ll be caught off guard.”

 

Steve says sharply, “Clint, you haven’t even healed from getting shot in the Pentagon.”

 

Natasha curses at him in Russian.

 

“Nat, that was rude,” Clint says, trying to lighten the suddenly tense mood. “Cap, it’s nothing I can’t handle. I’ve taken worse than that. They weren’t very creative.”

 

Fuck,” Phil snarls, and he winces inwardly because he’s Phil Coulson and he doesn’t show emotion, but sometimes this idiotic team of his gets to him. “Clint, you didn’t even have back-up. What if you hadn’t managed to get yourself out?”

 

“But I did, so everything is fine. They didn’t hit me that hard and there was only a little bit of waterboarding and then I stuck one of those dissolving syringes Bruce has been working on in my leg and then they thought I was dead. It wasn’t even as bad as the time in Chicago or that one time in Conakry.”

 

There are so many things wrong with that statement that Phil is struck speechless.

 

Tony says stiffly, “That wasn’t part of the plan.”

 

“No shit,” says Natasha, glaring at Tony. He raises his hands helplessly. “Don’t take it out on me.”

 

Bruce says, “Clint, those solutions hadn’t been tested thoroughly.”

 

“I improvised, and for the record, Bruce, they worked fine,” Clint says, as if it’s not a big deal that he allowed himself to be caught and interrogated and then faked his own death with experimental drugs.

 

Phil takes a few deep breaths. Regulations and rules and precedents and protocol flick through his head. He makes a spur of the moment decision. (He is doing this far too often recently. Fury is going to have his head.)

 

“Tony,” he snaps. “Get me to Maine. Now.”

 

“Already taken care of, Agent Coulson,” Tony says with a half smirk. “Natasha’s taking the Quinjet out in half an hour. We figured you would go.”

 

Phil is again reminded that Tony is more perceptive than most people give him credit for. Or maybe he is just getting too predictable.

 

“Barton,” he says. “Do not move from where you are unless you are being threatened, in which case you haul your ass out of the situation.”

 

“Yes, sir,” Clint says, because he has always been good about knowing when he’s pushed Phil too far.

 

Phil is already grabbing his favorite guns and jabbing his comm unit into his ear before he remembers that he absolutely was not supposed to be getting involved in this because he is a highly respected S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who does not engage in acts of petty revenge that will result in a Mount Everest of paperwork. 

 

But then again, he is a handler and Clint and Natasha are his assets and he does not send them out alone.

 

And anyway, he’s already on the Quinjet because he and Natasha have come to a silent agreement that Clint obviously can’t be trusted to be on his own for periods longer than a few days.

 

“Have fun, kids,” Tony says, waving at them. “I’m gonna finish things up here on my end. Try and stop Clint from killing himself. Stick to the plan.”

 

Then he’s hopping off of the jet, already jabbering to J.A.R.V.I.S. as he goes.

 

Natasha starts the Quinjet, still muttering to herself, switching languages without realizing it. Phil has only caught several phrases clearly enough to comprehend them, and nothing is very complimentary towards Clint.

 

Then again, nothing he’s thinking at the moment is very complimentary towards Clint either.

 

“I’m going to kill him,” Natasha says, loudly.

 

“I’m going to drown him in paperwork,” Phil growls. “I just finished the ones from the Pentagon fiasco.”

Chapter Text

By the time Natasha and Phil find their way to Clint’s hideout, Clint is beginning to feel the aftereffects of his little... adventure.


The adrenaline is wearing off, and he is acutely aware of a dull ache in his ribs- two cracked- and a pounding headache. He suspects he might have a concussion, but not a serious one. 


He’s insanely thirsty, which is probably a side effect of Bruce’s fake-death cocktail.


He’s also pretty tired, because he hasn’t had a chance to get a good night’s sleep in a while and getting interrogated takes a bit out of you.


And Phil and Natasha are both looking at him like he’s lost his mind.


Which, to be fair, is perhaps justified. In hindsight, his plan was maybe a little more hazardous to his health than his team might have liked.


The look he’s getting is one he’s familiar with, because it’s the look he gets when he jumps off of tall buildings without checking if he has air coverage (but that was once, maybe twice, okay, maybe four times, and Thor and Tony managed to grab him before he splattered onto pavement), the look he gets when he turns off his comm unit and engages hostiles by himself, the look he gets when he singlehandedly takes on some giant fucking Asgardian thing that has no business being on Earth.


“Sorry?” He offers weakly.


“Who were they?” Phil says calmly.


“Some guys from Ross’ security detail. They only stay onsite when Ross is at the house, which is really stupid.”


Natasha continues to glare at him. “Stay here,” she says coldly. “And do not move until Phil deems it acceptable to do so.”


She stalks out of the crappy motel room- hey, Clint was going for surreptitious- presumably to meet with some of her contacts in the area. Clint knows she keeps contacts everywhere, and they need some charges and wires and a few other things that can’t be obtained at the local Wal-Mart.


Now it’s just Phil looking at him, and there’s a mix of anger and exasperation and worry in his eyes.


“Sir,” Clint says. “I’m fine, really. When this is over I’ll rest for a few days and then I’ll be as good as new. Really.”


“Barton,” Phil says, and his voice is carefully emotionless. Really, really bland.


Clint winces. The more bland Phil is, the angrier he is. And the last time Phil looked this bland, it had been right after Clint had jumped between Iron Man and 12,000 volts and about 2,000 milliamps. It had been better for Clint than Tony, who had, of course, been wrapped completely in metal, but it nearly killed Clint anyway.


And Phil was using his last name. Not a good sign.


“Yes, sir?”


“When we are finished with this, you and I are going to have a long talk about your tendency to throw yourself into situations where your death seems near-imminent.” 


“Yes, sir,” Clint says. He doesn’t mention that he hasn’t ended up dead yet, and anyway, usually when he takes risks, they’re necessary. 


“Injury report,” Phil says, all business.


Clint pulls a face at him, but rattles off how he’s feeling. “Two cracked ribs, a few bruises here and there, headache, possibly a mild concussion. They weren’t any good, sir.”


“Side effects from Bruce’s death cocktail?” Phil asks, because Phil is scarily competent and always knows exactly what to ask Clint.


“I’m thirsty,” Clint says. “But I think that’s about it, sir.”


Phil looks him up and down as he’s done so many times before, concludes that Clint is telling him the truth and nods before offering him a water bottle.


Clint takes the water bottle gratefully and accepts the ibuprofen pills that Phil is holding out even more gratefully. “I’m glad to see you, sir,” he says, “But weren’t you trying to avoid getting involved?”


Because he knows that Phil hadn’t intended to help them with this, and that it would have been a nuisance for him to deal with the aftermath even if he hadn’t gotten in on the action.


Phil sighs. “That was the plan,” he admits. “But then you made the spectacularly questionable decision to let yourself get tortured so I figured that maybe you needed some adult supervision.”


Clint doesn’t miss the tightness of his voice and offers Phil an apologetic smile. “Sorry, sir,” he says.


“Mmm, you should be,” Phil says, but a little absently. “Did you disable all of the cameras on the property?”


“Of course,” Clint says, mildly offended. “I did that even after getting questioned, thank you very much.”


“Okay,” Phil says. “When’s the last time you slept?” 


Clint actually has to think about it, which isn’t a good sign. “Does being unconscious count?”


“No.”


“A few days, then,” Clint admits. 


“Catch some sleep while you can,” Phil tells him. “I’ll wake you when Natasha gets back.”


Clint doesn’t wait to be told twice. 


*          *          *


“Tony,” Bruce says presently.


Tony barely spares him a glance, because he’s a little busy right now with trying to reduce Ross’ reputation to well, nothing. Also he’s working on a new field uniform for Clint with a built-in glider, because for a guy who can’t fly, the man spends way too much time in midair.


“Tony,” Bruce says again, more insistently, so Tony finally looks at him.


They are sitting in his lab, Bruce nibbling at raspberries while Tony works on things. It’s a fairly normal arrangement for them, because sometimes Bruce just craves human company (although he’d never say so out loud) and Tony never says no to having another person to talk at. And since Bruce is the only Avenger who’s likely able to keep up when Tony falls into science-y jargon, it works for both of them.


“You all don’t have to do this, really,” Bruce says. There’s a faint look of guilt in his eyes.


Tony is very used to dealing with Bruce’s I’m-not-worth-it moments, though, and he just lets Bruce talk for a minute or so about how he’s not worth pissing off the U.S. Armed Forces before saying, “Yes, so?”


Bruce is speechless for a moment. “Were you even listening?”


“Um, sort of,” Tony says, going back to the bodysuit prototype he’s working on.


“Tony, I’m serious,” Bruce says. “Having the U.S. Armed Forces as an enemy is less than ideal.”


“Bruce,” Tony says finally, while testing the fabric for sturdiness. “I’m serious. It doesn’t matter. They all hate me anyway except Rhodey, and Rhodey will never stop loving me. As for the others, Natasha and Clint could probably decimate the entire army, Coulson really just doesn’t give a fuck anymore, Thor is not subject to ‘Midgardian’ authority, and Steve is Captain America. Half of the generals in charge wilt just looking at him. And honestly, I think I know you well enough that I can admit that I’m sort of having fun at this point. Really. It’s not often that I get to destroy a man and not get an extremely withering but bland look from Coulson. Have you ever gotten one? It’s like, he’s burning a hole through your face but at the same time he looks completely neutral. How does he even do that, you think?” 


Bruce looks a little bemused. “Um, I’ve never really gotten one. I don’t think.”


“Hmm,” Tony says. “No, I guess it’s more reserved for me and Clint. Although I could swear Clint gets it more than I do.”


Bruce snorts. “I doubt that.”


“No, really!” Tony protests, but halfheartedly, because the point of bringing up Coulson was to distract Bruce from his original statement. And although Bruce is undoubtedly far too intelligent to not know what Tony’s doing, he runs with it anyway.


“Hey, would you hand me the blowtorch? I want to test for flammability.” Tony gestures vaguely at his workbench.


Bruce raises an eyebrow, but goes and gets it. “Is that for Clint?”


“Mhmm,” Tony says absentmindedly. “Phil pointed out the other day that Clint has an alarming penchant for jumping off of skyrises without warning the people who can actually fly, so I figured if I built in something that resembles a wingsuit, it would help out. The tricky part is making sure it doesn’t impede him while he’s fighting. Dummy, have the fire extinguisher- shit.


Dummy, who is understandably a little paranoid about fires, misunderstands and sprays Tony and Bruce with flame-dampening foam immediately.


“Dummy. Why would you do that?” Tony sounds more exasperated than angry.


Dummy emits some clicks and whirs, and Bruce swears he sounds ashamed.


“Never mind,” Tony says, sighing heavily. “I’m not getting anything done anyway. Bruce, get cleaned up. J.A.R.V.I.S., find Steve and Thor. I want to get some food, and then I need to talk to one of our lovely ninja-spy people.”


*          *          *


Thaddeus Ross isn’t a stupid man. He knows perfectly well that Tony Stark is behind the liquidated bank accounts and the unsavory rumors, but he’s furious when he finds that Stark has covered his tracks so thoroughly that there is no way anything can be proved.


“Are you idiots?” He glares furiously at his legal team. “You’re telling me I’m getting sued by the bastard and you can’t prove that he’s ruining me? You’ve got to be fucking with me.” He raises a hand to his nose. Still tender. Fucking Barton and his Russian bitch. And he had thought Agent Coulson, at least, was a respectable government worker. Apparently not.


“No, sir. I’m sorry, but-” 


Ross cuts off the plainly nervous lawyer. “Well, find a way.”


“Yes, sir.” A brief hesitation, and then, “General, as your legal team, we think it may be wise to remove yourself from the situation for a little bit. Surely you have a second home you could stay at for a while?”


“I do,” Ross says. “Maybe I will.”


*          *          *


Natasha sits perched in a tree. She makes a small face to herself, because this is totally Clint’s territory. “Tell me why I’m doing this again?” 


Phil’s voice in her ear responds at once. “Because your idiot of a partner has some cracked ribs and maybe a concussion and needs to sleep. Come on, Black Widow. Get in and get out. Hawkeye can go with you tomorrow.”


“Yes, sir,” she says, because there really is nothing else to say, and Phil is right. The sooner she is done, the better. And she does want Clint to get some rest, because she needs him to be watching her back when she starts setting alarms and traps in earnest.


So she swings out of the tree, making sure she’s not passing any surveillance equipment. “Did Hawkeye take out the cameras?”


“Yes,” Phil says.


Good. But then, Clint is always thorough. She’s still cautious, because being careful has saved her life more than a few times. It doesn’t take her long to get to into the house, though, because Clint has already been here. And Ross is a fool and leaves his house completely empty.


She brings the blueprint of the home to the forefront of her mind and easily finds the main security panel in Ross’ bedroom.


“Okay,” she says. “I’m here.”


Phil feeds her instructions from Tony, and Natasha follows them exactly, entering codes and reprogramming the system.


“You’re done,” Phil says. “Now get out.”


Natasha does.

Chapter Text

Clint wakes up quickly with nearly-imperceptible panic in his eyes, but Phil has been down this road too often to not know when Clint isn’t sure where he is.

 

Phil makes sure not to make any sudden movements and says clearly and calmly, “Agent Barton, you are in a Quality Inn, twenty miles north of downtown Beddington, Maine. You’ve been asleep for seven hours.” Then, in a more gentle voice, “I’m here, I’ve been here, and Natasha should be back any moment.”

 

Clint calms himself down instantly, makes to sit up, then grimaces. 

 

Phil wordlessly hands him some painkillers, which Clint readily accepts. Phil frowns, because Clint is generally opposed to most drugs- he says it slows down his reactions. To be taking the pills without arguing, he must be feeling worse than Phil originally thought. 

 

Natasha abruptly comes in, though, so Phil doesn’t ask and Clint doesn’t offer explanations.

 

“Tony says Ross is planning to come up to the house,” she says without preamble. “So we need to get this done even quicker than we thought. We need to go now.” She examines Clint swiftly, her eyes searching his. 

 

He meets her gaze steadily and swings out of the bed. He says firmly, “I’m good to go.”

 

They all know that Clint is running on two cracked ribs and a concussion and some fluid in his lungs and a multitude of cuts and bruises that he’s not mentioning, but it’s not like they have a choice, really. They need to get Ross’ house rigged quickly and Natasha can’t do it by herself. 

 

Natasha nods at Clint, because in the end she respects him enough to accept his word when he says he’s ready to go.

 

Phil is more reluctant (because he’s the one who always has to drag Clint’s ass to Medical), but he does trust Clint and he figures that there is no way that he is going to be able to stop him. “Be careful,” he says, relenting. “Do not go off the grid. Either of you.” 

 

Natasha says, “Yes, sir,” which means that she will do as Phil says, at least until either Clint’s or her life is at stake. 

 

Clint only winks, and Phil knows that that’s as good as he’s going to get from Clint. 

 

They don’t waste time. Natasha pulls on a utility belt, stuffed with various charges and triggers. Clint does the same, and swings an additional duffel bag over his shoulder. 

 

None of them miss the wince that steals across his face for a split second.

 

“Let’s go,” Clint says.

 

“I mean it,” Phil says. “Keep me posted. I’ll get Tony on the line, too.”

 

Natasha nods and runs out the door. Clint makes to follow her, but Phil presses a syringe into his hand before he goes. “Just adrenaline,” he says. 

 

“Have I ever mentioned how much I love you?” Clint takes the syringe gratefully and darts after Natasha.

 

“Good luck, you two,” Phil says into his comm unit, and settles down with the blueprints of the building on his StarkPad.

 

*          *          *

 

Natasha drives. Or, rather, she sits in the driver’s seat while J.A.R.V.I.S. drives.

 

It looks like an entirely normal little sedan from the outside, but it’s been Tony-fied in the usual way, meaning it has weapon panels along the outside that shoot both forwards and backwards and J.A.R.V.I.S. has a full uplink to it. It also has a hyper-speed that enables it to go around 300 mph. 

 

Tony and Phil are both on the channel while Natasha and Clint form their plan of action. Natasha deliberately takes all of the physically demanding tasks and graciously doesn’t mention it. Clint allows her to.

 

He does, at some point during the drive, jab the syringe into his leg. The jolt of adrenaline it delivers does help quite a bit, and the pain in his ribs and head fades considerably.

 

When they reach the cabin, Natasha asks J.A.R.V.I.S. to park in a manner that will enable a quick getaway if needed, and the car obliges. “Thank you,” she says. Then, “Going in,” into her comm unit. 

 

“Ross boards his plane early in the morning, so you have about three hours to get this done. I want you out of the state before he gets in. We’ve already got alibis ready for all three of you, but I need you back in New York for them to work,” Tony says.

 

“Got it,” Clint says.

 

“We’ll hurry,” Natasha agrees. She gets out of the car and heads up to the house. 

 

Clint follows and is relieved to find that he can almost move naturally. At the very least, he won’t slow Natasha down.

 

*          *          *

 

Tony is almost too pleased for words right now. Clint and Natasha are finishing rigging the house, Pepper and the Stark legal team has got Ross by the balls, and it’s uncharacteristically dry as a bone in Maine for the next few weeks. He takes a long sip from his newly refilled coffee and frowns immediately.

 

“This is decaf,” he announces to the room at large. “I don’t do decaf.”

 

“Yes, you do,” Steve says patiently from where he is curled on the couch. “You haven’t slept in-” he waits.

 

Bruce readily supplies the answer. “Around fifty-three hours.”

 

Tony pauses. “Huh. It’s been that long?” And, yeah, there’s a sort of pressure behind his eyes and maybe he’s having a little bit of trouble focusing on what people are saying to him. But he’s certain he’s slept fairly recently. He thinks back, and realizes that maybe Bruce is right.

 

Then again, Bruce is always right. He really shouldn’t be surprised.

 

“You need to sleep, Tony,” Steve says, not ungently. 

 

“Where’s Thor?” Tony asks suddenly, because he’s become aware that there is a distinct lack of big blonde Norse god in the room.

 

Bruce gives him a strange look. “You told him to get to Maine about five minutes ago.”

 

“Wow, really?” Tony doesn’t exactly remember doing that, but he can’t deny that Thor is definitely no longer with them. Also, the window is open. “At least he didn’t go through the wall this time,” he says. He’s learned to take his victories where he can.

 

*          *          *

 

“Natasha,” Clint says. They’re in a tree about two hundred yards from Ross’ cabin. “When did Tony say Thor was going to get here?”

 

Natasha is sitting on a limb right below him. “I think he said about another half hour.” She fingers one of her pistols absentmindedly.

 

“Actually,” Phil’s voice says in their earpieces, “I think he’s moving quicker than we expected. Coming in hard from your southwest, according to J.A.R.V.I.S.”

 

Both of them cock their heads to the indicated direction, and soon enough, the familiar red-caped figure lands at the bottom of their tree.

 

“Friends! I am glad to see you this night, truly.”

 

“Shhh,” Clint says, but he’s practically giggling. It may be the adrenaline putting him in the good mood, or it could be just that he tends to giggle when he’s hurt and tired. 

 

“I believe I will take it from here,” Thor says, a little more quietly. “I will see you back at the Tower when my task is complete.”

 

Natasha throws him a half-mocking, half-serious salute, then grabs Clint’s arm to drag him to the car. “Don’t get seen,” she warns him.

 

“Good luck,” Clint adds.

 

They get in the car, and Clint says, “That went surprisingly well.”

 

It is true. It went off without a hitch, and while Natasha and Clint are always, always professional, they are also very used to having to improvise to get their missions done.

 

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” Natasha tells him.

 

J.A.R.V.I.S. says, “Incoming call from Agent Coulson.”

 

“Answer it,” Clint says.

 

Phil says, “Good job,” then rattles off some coordinates. “I’m waiting in the Quinjet.”

 

He hangs up.

 

Clint’s adrenaline rush is wearing off, and he feels his body beginning to wind down.

 

Natasha notices at once (because she notices everything) but doesn’t mention it. Clint is grateful, because he doesn’t really want to keep telling her that he’s fine. Anyway, they’re done with their part and they’ll be back at the Tower soon. 

 

When they get to the Quinjet, a ramp drops down. “Is that for the car?” Clint asks, because if it is, it’s a new renovation.

 

“Yes, Agent Barton,” J.A.R.V.I.S. says, sounding faintly disappointed that Clint even had to ask.

 

The car rolls itself up into the jet, and Clint and Natasha get out to find Phil in the cockpit. “Get a little rest,” he says firmly.

 

Natasha doesn’t argue, curling up on a seat and immediately dropping into a light slumber.

 

Clint isn’t far behind, sprawling himself out over three seats. 

 

Phil glances at his two agents fondly and flies them home.

 

*          *          *

 

Bruce is waiting for them when they land. He has Rollo with him.

 

Clint’s eyes widen when he sees. “No,” he says. “I do not need the sentient stretcher. No offense, Rollo.”

 

Bruce crosses his arms. “I am not going to argue with you,” he says. “You are going to get on that stretcher. Either I will have Natasha force you onto it and strap you down, or you will go willingly. Either way, you are getting on the stretcher and I am going to run a full exam on you.”

 

Clint throws Natasha a pleading look. She meets it without flinching. I’ll do it, too, she seems to be warning him.

 

He tries Coulson, but Coulson shakes his head.

 

“I’m fine,” he protests, but he climbs onto Rollo.

 

*          *          *

 

Phil find Tony in his workshop. 

 

“Where’s Bruce?” Tony says, without looking up from whatever he’s doing.

 

“Patching up Clint,” Phil says. “We need to talk.”

 

“If you’re going to lecture me on appropriate actions to take against Ross, I don’t want to hear it,” Tony says, still not looking at Phil.

 

“Actually,” Phil says, mouth twitching a little, “I was going to go over what we are going to tell Director Fury.”

 

“Oh,” Tony says. He makes eye contact. “So what are we saying, Agent?”

 

Phil quirks his lips a little at the nickname. Tony mostly calls him Phil, but occasionally will revert back to calling him “Agent,” at this point, purely as a joke.

 

“We’re going to tell him that we don’t control nature and as such, had nothing whatsoever to do with the fire.”

 

“There’s no fire,” Tony says, but he’s smirking. 

 

“Yet,” Phil points out.

 

They share a knowing look, and Phil has to admit that it’s odd how well he and Tony get along these days.

 

Suddenly there is a small explosion behind Phil, and he ends up on his hands and knees. “You owe me another suit, Stark,” is all he says.

 

“Shall I have another custom-tailored purple one made?” Tony asks, and then Phil remembers that Tony is actually a massive pain in the ass.

 

*          *          *

 

When Clint wakes up, he’s in his bed, there is an IV in his hand, and Bruce is sitting in a chair. As soon as Clint opens his eyes, Bruce is on his feet. “How are you feeling?” he asks.

 

“Fine,” Clint says. He raises the arm with the IV in it, cocks his eyebrow. “What’s this for?”

 

“You were dehydrated,” Bruce says, “And I wasn’t sure what my experimental false-death cocktail would do to you so I threw in some other stuff to make sure you’re stable.”

 

“Okay,” Clint says, because Bruce isn’t technically this kind of doctor, but he’s perfectly capable and Clint trusts him more than some random white-coat anyway.

 

“Maybe next time, you could wait until I’ve tested my drugs before you use them?” Bruce’s voice sounds a little strained, and Clint pushes himself into a seated position.

 

“What’s wrong?” Clint asks.

 

“You could have died,” Bruce says. “And it would have been my fault.”

 

Clint laughs. “Bruce, I could die every day. And it would not have been your fault because I would have been the one that ultimately chose to use the dissolving syringe. Which, by the way, is fucking awesome.”

 

Bruce doesn’t look entirely convinced, but leaves the subject alone.

 

“Thanks,” he says. “Really. You guys don’t need to feel obligated to do this.”

 

Clint just shakes his head. “Don’t you get it?” he says. “We like you. And we protect our own.”

Chapter Text

The following week, Thor is back among them, a satisfied set to his shoulders and a grim smile on his face. “It has been done,” he tells Tony, matter-of-fact.

 

“Good,” is all Tony says.

 

Phil is quietly pleased, and decides that he does not care about Fury’s disapproval. In any case, he suspects that Fury may even approve of their actions, because there has been a pleasant and noticeable lack of angry phone calls from the director.

 

“Are we done, then?” Clint asks. “Because honestly, I’d be fucking happy to put an arrow through his knee. An explosive arrow.”

 

Tony looks around at them. Everyone’s here in his workshop except for Bruce. He’s not actually sure where Bruce is, although he has certain suspicions about a certain brown-haired girl with fire in her eyes and a love of omelettes and action figures. 

 

“I’m not actually sure that’s the best idea,” Tony says slowly, because he’s rather fond of the thought of maiming Ross. “Don’t want you to take the fall.”

 

Clint makes a face. 

 

“I could do it,” Natasha offers. “Bullets are less distinctive than arrows.”

 

Tony throws a glance over at Phil, but Phil doesn’t indicate that he approves or disapproves.

 

“No,” Steve says finally, because it always falls to him to be the voice of reason. “I think we’ve done quite well.” He pointedly gestures at the television screen, and J.A.R.V.I.S. obligingly turns up the volume.

 

“Investigators aren’t sure what caused the fire at General Thaddeus Ross’ summer home yesterday, although eyewitnesses claim that there was a lightning strike in the area. The fire completely destroyed the cabin, although there was very little damage to the surrounding area. The general himself is suffering from severe smoke inhalation and second degree burns, but is expected to make a full physical recovery. However, Ross has been the object of numerous investigations recently regarding his stand on human experimentation and is expected to...”

 

J.A.R.V.I.S. lowers the volume and says, “Master Stark, there is an incoming call from James Rhodes. Would you like to receive it?”

 

“Put him on speaker,” Tony says, and he’s grinning like a shark.

 

“I know I’m on speaker,” is the first thing Rhodey says, “So hello, everyone.”

 

There is a chorus of hellos from the whole team, and Tony says “Rhodey, when’re you gonna stay in Avengers Central for a few weeks? We’d have such fun.”

 

“Last time I stayed Thor drank me under the table,” Rhodey says with a laugh, “And I had a training exercise to lead in the morning.”

 

“Thor drinks everyone under the table,” Natasha says comfortingly. 

 

“Indeed I do,” Thor says. “Except for the good Captain, of course.”

 

Steve shrugs. “It’s not my fault I can’t get drunk. Trust me, sometimes I wish I could. Anyway, what did you need, Rhodey?”

 

“Nothing,” Rhodey says. “I just wanted to say that it’s a shame about Ross, isn’t it?” 

 

Tony laughs outright.

 

Phil, deadpan, says, “Yes, we heard. It’s very unfortunate.”

 

There may or may not be a snicker from Clint. Phil kicks his ankle lightly with his foot anyway.

 

“Also,” Rhodey says, “It may interest you that General Ross will no longer be a general. Effective immediately, but won’t break to the public for at least another month. Not that you heard it from me, of course.”

 

“Heard what from you?” Tony says glibly.

 

“Bastard,” Rhodey says, good-natured. “I’ll be in town next week. Catch you then.” The call ends with a click.

 

Tony sweeps his eyes over the team in that nervous-making-sure-everyone-is-there-and-well way he has. All of them are wearing expressions that range from satisfied to downright viciously smug. Even Phil has this glint in his eye that says he’s perfectly happy with this turn of events.

 

“Hopefully that’s the last we hear from Ross,” Clint says grimly.

 

Steve looks uncharacteristically vindictive as he says, “I doubt he will. He won’t be able to get the resources.”

 

“Actually,” Natasha counters, “I sort of hope he tries again. I didn’t even get to shoot him a little.” The look on her face is a little bit terrifying.

 

“I have enough paperwork as it is,” Phil says mildly. 

 

Tony’s flashes a quick smile and says, “Let him try. Let anyone try and get the fuck near any of us. They’ll have a surprise coming to them.”

 

Thor adds, “The next time such a thing happens to any of us, I shall not be so merciful and will call upon my dear friends the Warriors Three and the Lady Sif to assist us, and we shall never be bothered again.”

 

The room gradually empties after that rather alarming announcement, with Steve good-naturedly agreeing to chaperone Thor at his favorite bar, Tony meandering back to his workshop, and Clint and Natasha going to the gym to spar to burn off some energy. Phil chooses to stay, because he’s got papers spread out all around him, and now that everyone’s gone, it’s quiet.

 

“J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Phil says presently.

 

“Yes, Agent Coulson?”

 

“If you don’t mind, make sure you show Bruce footage of this last conversation between us sometime. It might do him some good.”

 

“Indeed it might, sir. I shall do so whenever the opportunity arises.”

 

“Thank you, J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Phil says.

 

He again considers the possibility that he is in too deep with the Avengers, then figures that it’s Fury’s problem. After all, he’s the one who put Phil on the Initiative.