It was early and the motel diner was mostly empty - the truckers had already cleared out; the families were still waking up. Bruce listened vaguely to the television precariously shelved above the counter and largely ignored his companion, who was muttering to himself as he tapped at his cell phone.
Tony abruptly stopped tapping and, with a magician’s flourish of his hand, looked up. “Okay, I realize this could appear to be poorly conceived - to those of limited vision - but what you have to understand is, I’ve actually just had the greatest, most outstanding idea ever.” Tony’s eyes searched heavenward and then he nodded soberly. “Yes, I believe history will consider this my triumph.”
Bruce stared at him from across the table, his empty fork paused in descent.
Tony pushed his phone to the side and leaned forward urgently. “Wait, hear me out.”
“I am hearing you out.” Bruce gestured to his plate with the fork. “Eating pancakes. Drinking coffee. Hearing you out.”
“Huh. Usually people have started edging away by now. Or saying ‘no’ a lot and looking disappointed in my life choices. Weird.”
Bruce shrugged. “They’re good pancakes. Tell me your plan.”
“Please.” Tony raised a corrective finger. “My outstanding plan.”
“Sure, tell me your outstanding plan.”
“One word: twine.“
Bruce paused again, this time with his pancake halfway between plate and mouth. “Maybe two words?”
“I’ll go to six, I’m just that kind of guy: the world’s biggest ball of twine.”
“You want to build one?”
“Why? I could just buy it, unravel a sweater and set a new record.” Tony rolled his eyes at the obvious. “No, I want to visit it. I want us to visit it. Classic road trip.”
“And why would we - I - want to do that?”
“Because - according to my research - it’s part of the proud, spiritual heritage of our nation; because it’s our duty as citizens. Because, Doctor Banner, I have nuked hostile alien forces, but I’ve never seen a ball of twine so large it has tourists orbiting it.”
“Or there’s coffee pot houses.” Tony warmed to his pitch. “Did you know there are buildings shaped like coffee pots? And now you do know, can you think of anything more important or life-affirming than finding them?”
Bruce looked down at the phone by Tony’s elbow and, after raising an eyebrow for permission, took it. He swiped through the screens, running an eye over the apps. Most had sleek icons for, he suspected, custom software, but one, right at the end, stood out like … well, mostly like a green and yellow icon with a sign and a car on it.
The car looked like it was swerving off a cliff. So that boded well.
“Roadside America,” he read. “Never miss another giant twine ball.”
Eyebrow still raised, Bruce slid the phone back. “You’re that mad at Fury, huh?”
“I don’t get mad.” Tony sat back again, looking slightly pensive. “I get … deeply interested in twine. Come on,” he coaxed. “It will make sure - what’s his name? Agent Crank-something, whatever - make sure the replacement babysitter earns his paycheck.
“Plus, it will provide invaluable on-the-job experience for Fury’s newest, shiniest recruits and give you some quality time out of the lab so you can prove to the powers that be that the big green guy is under control.
“If you think about it, I’m doing everyone an enormous favor. I should charge.”
“And what if the other guy’s not under control?” Bruce shook his head. “He’d be loose in heavily populated areas full of families. Full of kids. ‘Poorly conceived’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.”
Tony snorted dismissively. “It’s twine and coffee pots, how populated can the area even get?”
Bruce said nothing while he finished his pancakes. Tony settled comfortably and tapped nonchalantly at the phone, as if he weren’t surreptitiously checking Bruce’s expression every few seconds.
It was a terrible, terrible plan. Offhand, Bruce couldn’t think of worse, discounting anything involving gamma radiation. If history considered it at all - and this was Tony Stark, so it probably would - ‘triumph’ wasn’t going to be the noun of choice.
There was a whole past, and a whole future, waiting in sterile labs or on the fringes of cities a continent away; right now, he was kind of … it was good to be around people. Uncertain, a little shaky, but good: the first cloud clearing after the monsoon.
And Tony was, well, he was Tony - but Iron Man wouldn’t let anyone get hurt.
He glanced up. Tony was pointedly looking away. Smirking.
“I’m going to regret this,” Bruce promised, and drank the remains of a tepid cup of coffee.
Tony’s smirk became a brightly encouraging grin as he reached over to clap Bruce on the shoulder. “Hey, only if we live.”
Tony’s cell rang while Bruce was in the restroom; he checked the caller ID and then answered as mechanically as possible, video off. “This is Tony Stark’s phone, he’s currently-“
“Available and talking to me, and late for the meeting he swore he’d make it back in time for.” Pepper sounded amused, so that was a good sign. Resigned at the very least. Same difference: he wasn’t going to be required to actually explain himself.
He relaxed and glanced at the clock on the diner wall. “Late is relative. Have we considered going with ‘absent?’”
“How about ‘absconded?’”
“I like this game. Abridged? No, that’s not right.”
“Tony.“ Her voice softened and he felt himself flinching at the thought of a sympathetic gaze, even one coming at him from roughly a four hundred miles away. So that was ridiculous. “This isn’t like you.”
“Pepper, you know as well as I do, this is exactly like me: driving off to God knows where, doing God knows what with God knows who. It’s been the subject of a lot of your memos. Historically speaking.”
“Okay, that’s true, but usually you’re not driving yourself.”
“The Acura only seats two,” Tony pointed out, as if he didn’t have a private jet within half an hour’s notice of take off at all times. “And I didn’t think Banner would be up for sitting in my lap while Happy drove.”
Pepper took a beat and then spoke in a tone that seemed to be striking out desperately for the shores of reason. “You were meant to be taking Bruce to the airfield, where he was scheduled to get on a plane to the Virginia facility. What happened?”
“It’s a funny story, actually. I missed the exit.”
“For four hundred miles, you missed the exit?”
“And then we got here and we found this great diner - did you know diners do pancakes? Why don’t I spend all my time in these places? Anyway, Banner decided he really, really wanted to go to Missouri.”
“Missouri? You’re in Virginia. Wait, you are still in Virginia?”
“Sure.” Tony glanced out of the window. “It looks Virginian. There’s probably trees and so forth. What can I do? It’s Banner and you know how demanding he is.”
“He’s not actually the first person I think of when someone says ‘high-maintenance.’” There was definitely a smile, somewhere under the blatant disbelief. “And he really, really wants to go to Missouri, huh?”
“Branson, specifically. Apparently they have some big ball of twine and once he heard that, I couldn’t do anything to stop him. Actually, technically, this may qualify as a hostage situation. But don’t tell anyone, I think I can talk him down in six, maybe seven days.”
“Are you seriously claiming that Bruce Banner kidnapped you? That’s what’s going in the diary for June?”
“Abducted! See? I knew there was another word. My round, I think, but thanks for playing.”
“This isn’t about twine,” she said quietly, the amusement fading. “We both know this is about-“
“Yeah, coffee pot houses, you got me. Coffee pot houses, Pepper. I have to know.”
She didn’t sigh or huff or push; there was silence and he let it stand, despite the urge to fill it.
“First, whatever roadside tourist leaflet you found? Put it down, you don’t know where it’s been," she said at last. "Second, one week."
“One week,” he agreed. “Ten days tops - and then you can sic Jarvis on me.”
Hearing a smile was one thing, but now he was pretty sure he could hear her eyes rolling. Dis-tur-bing. “What makes you think I didn’t already?”
“Jarvis wouldn’t narc me out,” he said confidently. “No way. Bros before fleshy meat sacks. Even beautiful, intelligent and deeply understanding ones.”
“Ten days, max, or I’m taking Colonel Fury out to dinner.”
“You know I love you, right?”
“Luckily for you, I do. Fleshy meat sacks, Tony? Really?” She hung up.
He grinned; everything was on track. The grin faded and he looked accusingly at his phone. “Jarvis, you have my back, right?”
“Yes, sir” Jarvis said smoothly. Then, “Of course, so does Miss Potts. This initially led to logic conflicts, which you’ll be pleased to know were resolved quickly.”
“Great, because if you start singing Daisy Bell, we’re going to have words.” Tony paused. “Wait, how were the conflicts resolved?”
“Simple statistical extrapolation.”
He narrowed his eyes at his phone. “Explain.”
“I’m sorry, Tony. I'm afraid I can’t do that.”
Bruce wandered back to the table and bent to pick up his jacket. He wavered, seeing Tony’s expression - whatever that was. “We’re good?”
Tony shut the phone and tucked it quickly back into his inside pocket. “Good? We’re great! What kidnapping charges? Wow, you’re paranoid.”
Twenty-eight hours and almost a thousand miles later, Bruce looked up at the façade of ‘Ripley’s Odditorium’ and said, “this isn’t funny.”
Tony took in the ‘earthquake damaged’ exterior of the museum - the huge rents and twenty-degree angles that did, now Banner mentioned it, look a little like the Hulk had decided to join the tour. “It comes pre-smashed for your convenience, how cool is that?”
When they left the museum a few hours later, they were wearing a couple of luridly colored t-shirts over their shirts and carrying a handful of postcards … and there was someone lying on the hood of the Acura, jeans-covered legs hanging down to the bumper.
Tony squinted and identified Clint Barton, who was enjoying the afternoon sun on the most expensive lounger in existence.
Two quick taps to his cell and Tony could tell that Barton was alone and - more importantly - that he hadn’t scratched the pristine black cherry paintwork.
He glanced at Bruce, who shrugged without alarm. “Maybe he likes twine?”
Barton’s head craned up an inch as they approached. “Stark. Doctor Banner.”
“Barton.” Tony looked around before he pulled off his shades and slipped them into his pocket. “I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but aren’t hidden sniper’s nests usually -- I don’t know? More hidden? Less on my car?”
Barton grinned and sat up, rolling his shoulders before he slid off the hood to stand next to them. “Relax, I’m just playing messenger for Colonel Fury.”
“Isn’t that Cranklin’s job?” Tony glanced around again. “Is he here?”
Barton shrugged. “Agent Franklin is on another assignment. I guess. You get me.”
“Colonel Fury could have called,” Bruce pointed out mildly. “We have phones, I’m almost certain that SHIELD’s resources extend to an address book.”
Barton’s expression cleared, so completely and so carefully blank that Tony wondered if it was a part of his training. “Actually, he did call. And he wanted me to thank you personally, Stark, for having all communications forwarded to the National Enquirer.”
Super Secret Shadowy Government Agent 101: never let them see you laugh.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Tony smiled pleasantly “Jarvis?”
“Do you have any idea what he’s talking about? Have you been a bad AI?”
“Absolutely not, sir.”
“An AI that can lie. That’s awesome.” Barton scrubbed at the back of his neck and looked vaguely around before tracking back; Tony thought he seemed kind of tired.
“So, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, huh? This was worth ditching your surveillance and getting my ass sent half way across the country for?”
Bruce turned to consider the still-busy museum behind them. “Yes. Honestly, I’m as surprised as you. And it was like that when we got here,” he added.
Barton’s mouth twitched. “Was the big ball of twine everything you dreamed of?”
“And more.” Tony grinned, showing a little more tooth than he strictly needed to. “And don’t forget the playing card replica of the Roman Colosseum or the genuine Vampire Killing Kit.”
“For killing genuine Vampires?” Barton looked interested. “How do they spot the counterfeit ones?”
“I understand some kind of glitter is involved. What does Fury want?”
Barton wasn’t fazed by the conversational swerve. “A lot of things, but he’d probably settle for that warm, happy feeling of knowing where the big, green wrecking ball is at all times. No offense, Doctor Banner.”
“Don’t worry.” Bruce smiled faintly. “You’ll know when I take offense. And Bruce is fine.”
“Okay. Bruce.” Barton looked between them. “Just let SHIELD know where you guys are sometimes. Hey, maybe you could even stop doing whatever the hell it is that’s jamming Doctor - Bruce’s - tracker. Then we don’t have to make those embarrassing, “It’s three a.m., do you know where your Avenger is?” calls to Miss Potts. Think about it.”
Tony nodded. “Sure,” he said generously. “I’ll think about it. I can do that - I’m a multi-tasker. In the meantime, have you ever considered witnessing first-hand the undeniable grandeur of a Very Large Array?”
Barton blinked and then slowly shook his head.
“Great, it’s settled. I saw a car rental place a few miles back. I’ll have someone fly out and pick up the Acura and whatever you drove here. You drove here, right? They didn’t just drop you out of a plane?”
Banner and Barton had a moment of silent communication, which, as far as Tony could tell, mostly consisted of shrugging. Apparently, they spoke each other’s language.
“Shotgun,” Bruce called, half a second before Clint.
Fury spun the postcard back and forth between his fingers: novelty museum, Stark’s blurry block print, novelty museum, Stark’s blurry block print. He stopped the card midway and tapped the side thoughtfully against the edge of the desk. “And where are they now, Agent Hill?”
“We don’t know, sir. The car Agent Barton pulled from the motor pool is in Alaska, but there’s no indication anyone’s with it and his comms aren’t tracking. Stark’s car was flown back to New York yesterday.
“However, they rented a Camaro in Missouri and told the company they were headed to New Mexico.” Maria hesitated. “We have the vehicle make and registration. It’s just a matter of time, but I could ask-“
“No, not yet, he’s got enough to focus on right now.” Fury smiled less than pleasantly. “I’d say we still have options.”