"Excuse me, Dr. Banner, but you've asked me to inform you of any new developments regarding the Four Horsemen? Does that protocol still apply?" JARVIS said, and Bruce felt briefly embarrassed at the thought of JARVIS watching him and Tony at that moment, even though Tony had reassured him that JARVIS wasn't judgmental.
"Umm," Bruce said, catching his breath.
Tony pulled his mouth off of Bruce and asked, "The four horsemen? Is it the end times already?"
"No, it's--um, put it up, please, JARVIS," Bruce said, and the bedroom wall transformed itself into a live image of three people standing on the roof of a building downtown.
"Those are the four horsemen?" Tony asked. "They aren't great at counting, then, are they?"
"The fourth one died yesterday. In a high speed crash on the bridge. You really didn't hear anything about this?"
Tony shrugged. "I've been pretty busy working on the upgrades for the Quinjet. JARVIS?" JARVIS provided Tony with a holographic data set, which Tony lazily flipped through. "Magicians?" he asked Bruce incredulously. "Magicians."
"Shh," Bruce said, equally embarrassed and captivated. "Watch."
The Three Horsemen sailed off the edge of the building and dissolved into falling money.
Tony frowned. "Did they just kill themselves on live television?"
"I don't think so," Bruce said. "An illusion... maybe they weren't on the roof to start out with?"
"Holograms? Hmm. Well, the technology certainly exists," Tony said, waving his hand through one, "But I thought I knew everybody who had it. And I don't know them. JARVIS, are those holograms? Wait, is that Stark tech? And where did the money come from?"
A pause, and then Bruce and Tony were surrounded by different footage of the stunt. Tony studied it for clues, while Bruce watched the live feed anxiously, hoping for the safety of the remaining Horsemen.
Bruce watched the live news feed until it seemed clear that the Horsemen must have gotten away; if they'd fallen to their deaths surely the bodies would have been found by now. He gave a small sigh of relief, not quite sure why he was so invested in their story. Technically, they were criminals. Technically, he was an Avenger (or could turn into one). But technically, Bruce was a criminal too, or had been. And technically, Tressler Insurance had committed no crime, but it seemed clear that the Four Horsemen were in the right to return money to their former customers.
Technicalities aside--Bruce loved an underdog story. Who didn't?
When the live news feed bounced back to the studio, Bruce glanced over and saw that Tony was watching what appeared to be interrogation room footage.
"Where did that come from?" Bruce asked.
Tony shrugged. "JARVIS found it."
"Right," Bruce said, and watched transfixed as Daniel Atlas threw his handcuffs on his interrogator and said, "The first rule of magic is, always be the smartest guy in the room."
"That's the first rule of life," Tony said. "Hey, that FBI agent looks like you."
"He does not," Bruce said, reflexively.
"He totally does. Hmm. Maybe we should get some handcuffs."
"I zero percent believe that you don't already have handcuffs around here somewhere."
"Fair point. Let me rephrase, maybe we should use some handcuffs. Hey, how did he get that key into the soda?" Tony asked. "JARVIS, rewind that and show it in slowmo."
"It's magic," Bruce said.
"He must have just had the key in his palm and then dropped it with the soda? No, that doesn't work," Tony said. "Hm. JARVIS, show it again. Blow it up."
Bruce watched, equally interested in Atlas's trick and in Tony's intent, puzzle-solving expression. Oh, and Tony's unself-conscious nudity was fairly captivating as well.
"Can't you just Google it?" Bruce asked. "Surely someone has made a YouTube video of how to hide a key in a can of soda."
"No way," Tony said. "I'm sure I can figure this out. Anyway, I thought you were the one who was into magicians."
"I was interested in these four magicians--which pretty much everyone in America has been for the last year. You know, after they magically Robin Hood-ed over a hundred million dollars."
"Ah, yes," Tony said, manipulating the footage with his hands. "God, this is stupid. How long do you think he had to practice to get that handcuff thing down?"
"I don't know, why don't you ask Daniel Atlas?"
Tony's face lit up. "Yes! JARVIS, show the footage of their money jump trick. Thing."
JARVIS obliged, and Bruce said, "You know, the police, the FBI, everybody's looking for those guys, and they've been pretty good at staying hidden."
Tony waved his hand dismissively. "We'll find them."
The next morning, Bruce ventured to a kitchen for coffee and probably food. He found Pepper already there, wearing a tailored business suit and clutching a mug of coffee.
"Hey Pepper, you look nice."
"Oh, this old thing?" She waved dismissively, but looked faintly pleased.
"Have you eaten? I'll cook something if you want." Bruce stood in front of the fridge and a holographic panel displayed its fully-stocked contents.
"No, I'll grab a protein bar from my desk. But thanks." Pepper hesitated for a moment, then asked, "You wouldn't happen to know what Tony's doing, do you? I passed his lab and I didn't see suits, which is good, but..."
Bruce winced. "He... might be obsessed with finding the Four Horsemen."
"Uh. Yeah," Bruce said, pouring himself a mug of coffee.
Pepper sighed. "I guess it's not the worst thing that's captured his interest. Just don't let him saw you in half or anything."
"I'll see what I can do."
"Seriously, he'll listen to you." Bruce raised his eyebrows at her over his coffee, and she added, "Probably."
Pepper put her mug in the dishwasher, gave Bruce a peck on the cheek, and said, "I'll be back late tonight--dinner with investors. But if you guys find the Four Horsemen feel free to have them teleport me to France."
"Uh, you know they didn't--"
"Shh, don't ruin the magic for me," Pepper said, giving him a half-smile as she headed off down the hall.
Bruce watched her go for a moment before pouring a thermos of coffee for Tony and reflecting, for the millionth time, on how weird his life was. And how surprisingly, undeservedly wonderful it was.
He forcefully reminded himself of how wonderful his life was when he returned to the lab and found Tony surrounded by holographic maps, photos, and news stories about the Four Horsemen. Bruce had drifted off to sleep for a few hours before getting up for coffee, but it was clear that Tony never had.
"Coffee! Gimme," Tony said.
"Good morning," Bruce said. "Any leads?"
"Yeah, they're obviously in New York," Tony said, "Probably here." He nodded at a map with an overlaid image of an abandoned apartment building. The overlaid address was 45 East Evan Street, Staten Island.
"Oh. Great," Bruce said, sipping his own mug of coffee.
"But I need to know how they did it," Tony said, and Bruce realized he was staring at a slow motion video of Daniel Atlas on the street with a deck of cards.
Tony gave Bruce a look that any teenager would have been proud to claim.
Bruce sighed. "Did you look on YouTube? I'm sure there are videos of people explaining it."
"That's cheating. If they can figure out how to do it, I can figure out how it's done." Tony brightened. "Especially now that you're awake again!"
"Bruce! Let's face it, we're pretty much two of the smartest guys around. We can figure this out."
"This is really not my area of expertise. Nor is it yours, I might add."
"That little shit Daniel Atlas said the first rule of magic is to always be the smartest guy in the room. Done."
"Isn't that also the first rule of Fight Club?"
"Look at you, with your 90s pop culture references. Anyway, there's just no way those guys are smarter than us."
Bruce wished he weren't so susceptible to flattery. But wouldn't anyone be thrilled to be included in an "us" said by Tony Stark? "Fine," he said. "What do you have?"
Tony gave Bruce a maniacal grin and showed off his diagrams and slow motion videos. They watched Daniel and Henley explain the rabbit mirror-box thing several times.
Bruce said, "I think it's possible that we're overthinking this."
Tony snapped his fingers. "Misdirection! Where don't they want us to look?"
"Backstage? In their pockets? Inside the rabbit?"
"Hmm," Tony said, zooming in on the rabbit. Bruce remembered that sane people should be delighted to never be included in one of Tony Stark's "us"es.
"It's probably just holograms. Or mirrors. Or both?" Bruce offered.
Tony gave him a look. "Yeah, and the Iron Man is just metal and an arc reactor. It's the details that matter. It's morning now. Let's go visit them in person! That should be easier than all these videos."
"What, just show up and ask them to do a magic trick?" Bruce had hoped Tony would forget about this idea. He should have known better.
Tony shrugged. "Yeah, why not?"
"Because..." Bruce trailed off.
"Oh, what, did you have something better to do today?" Tony asked. "You're the one who was following them on the news."
"Yeah, on the news... not to their house."
"It'll be fun!" Tony said. Tony said that a lot, and he was usually right. And anyway, Bruce didn't have anything better to do. So a few hours later, he found himself outside an apartment building that had seen better days. It wasn't terribly far from Stark Tower, really--most of that time had been taken with Tony's grooming and Tony's deliberating about which car they should take. (They'd settled on a Iron Man-red Acura NSX. A side effect of spending so much time with Tony Stark was that Bruce now knew the names of fancy cars.)
Bruce trailed Tony right up to the doorway, where they paused for a moment. "What are we gonna do, knock?" Bruce asked.
Tony shrugged. He rapped on the door, then looked up at a small security camera and waved.
There was silence for a long moment, and Bruce began to spin out a small fantasy in which Tony shrugged and said, "Oh well, guess they aren't home," and then they went back to Stark Tower and never mentioned this crazy idea again. The fantasy had started to wander into sexy territory when the door swung open and a young, good-looking kid said, "Whoa. Tony Stark?" just as Bruce said, "Jack Wilder?"
"This is so cool," Jack said. "Tony Stark! And... Tony Stark's friend," he added, nodding at Bruce.
"Uh, I thought... weren't you dead?" Bruce asked.
Jack's grin broadened. "Good trick, huh?"
Another familiar face materialized behind Jack, and Daniel Atlas said, "What the hell, Jack, you just let--whoa, Tony Stark?"
"In the flesh," Tony confirmed.
Daniel's eyes narrowed slightly and Bruce watched him process the available information. The expression oddly reminded him of Tony.
"Well... come in, I guess," Daniel said, exuding an arc reactor's worth of nervous energy.
Bruce trailed the group inside the brownstone, which looked as though it had been abandoned until recently and then furnished by a blend of dumpster diving and Ikea. It wasn't what he expected, though he also hadn't been expecting to be welcomed into the home of the Four Horsemen--especially not by Jack Wilder, who everyone had seen die in a fiery crash on live television. Bruce still wasn't quite used to the way Tony Stark opened doors. Literally.
Henley was lounging in a papasan chair, reading a copy of People magazine with the Four Horsemen on the cover. She looked up and said, "Tony Stark? What's he--what are you doing here?"
Tony grinned. "Bruce and I are both admirers of your work. Thought we'd stop by to give our regards."
"How did you find us?" Daniel asked. "Wait, did you get a card? Did--did they get a card?"
"A card?" Tony asked. "Are you giving out cards for your secret hiding place? No offense, but that doesn't seem like a great way to keep it a secret."
"No, we're not--you know what, never mind," Daniel said.
"Did you bring the Iron Man suit with you?" Jack asked. "I heard it fits in a briefcase."
"I definitely didn't come here without a few tricks up my sleeve," Tony said.
"Cool," Jack said.
"Seriously, though, are you here to arrest us or something?" Daniel asked. "Because we'd really rather you didn't."
"The Avengers are really only authorized to do anything if you're an alien," Tony said easily, though Daniel still looked suspicious.
"Well," he conceded, "I guess we weren't going to stay here long term, anyway."
"Do you want anything to drink?" Jack asked. "Wait, do we have anything to drink?"
"Merritt got some beer last night," Henley said. "I think there's still some in the kitchen."
"I'd hardly call what we have a kitchen," Daniel said.
Henley shrugged. "In the kitchen-like area, then."
"Also, it's barely even lunch time," Daniel said.
"Dude, who cares? Haven't you always wanted to drink with Tony Stark?" Jack asked.
"I'd love to drink with the Four Horsemen!" Tony said.
"I don't think that's the best..." Bruce started to say, but Jack had already bounded off for the kitchen-like area. He returned and offered Bruce and Tony each a cold-ish Heineken. Bruce intercepted before Tony could give a speech about being handed things. After Tony took the bottle from Bruce, he clinked bottles with Jack.
"To magic!" Tony said.
"To Iron Man!" Jack said.
Bruce rolled his eyes and caught Henley's amused look. She smiled at him and said, "You're Bruce, right?"
He nodded, and she said, "Do you know any of the other Avengers?"
"Um, yeah, I guess I do."
"Soo... can you tell me... is Captain America single?"
"Oh... I can't really...."
Daniel scoffed. "Captain America? Really? That's the Avenger you'd go for?"
Henley batted her eyelashes. "I've always liked the boy next door type."
Bruce remembered having read that Henley had once been Daniel's assistant, and that they were rumored to have been lovers. Frankly, Henley seemed a bit of out Daniel's league, but Bruce of all people should know that love doesn't always make sense.
"Every boy lives next door to someone," Daniel said.
Henley made a dismissive gesture, and said, "So you two really went to all the trouble of tracking us down just to tell us, 'good job'?"
Tony gave her his most Tony Stark smile and said, "I have to be honest. We were hoping for something a bit more."
Henley raised her eyebrows, and Tony continued, "See, we never got a chance to see you perform, and we were kind of hoping to see something before you flee the country."
"Who said anything about fleeing the country?" Daniel asked nervously.
"I just assumed," Tony said. "I mean, if you weren't already planning on fleeing the country, honestly it seems like you should consider it. I can lend you a plane if you need one."
"We have a plane," Daniel snapped. Then he took a breath and said, "But thank you."
Tony shrugged easily. "Fine, fine. Anyway, what do you say? A little magic for two of your admirers?" He was shamelessly applying the Stark charm, which Bruce knew was difficult to resist, and sure enough, Jack Wilder immediately produced a pack of cards and elaborately shuffled them.
"Pick a card, any card," Jack said, falling into an obviously familiar patter. Bruce watched him walk Tony through a trick, and he watched Tony's face, trying to figure it all out. He saw genuine surprise flicker on Tony's face when Jack pulled the card out of Tony's pocket, though Bruce had noticed Jack slip a card into Tony's pocket earlier, before they'd even started talking about magic. On instinct, Bruce checked his own pockets. There was a king of diamonds in there, though he hadn't noticed Jack or anyone else getting close enough to put the card in. He thought back. It must have been when they first came in. So Jack must have started off with a card in mind and manipulated Tony into picking it. But how in the world did a person manipulate Tony Stark into doing anything, let alone picking the ace of clubs out of a deck? That was the real magic.
Not to be outdone, Henley invited Bruce to handcuff her. "I can tell this isn't the first time you've handcuffed a lady," she teased, and Tony laughed.
Bruce said, "Um."
Henley grinned and said, "Had I know you two were coming over, I would have gotten some piranhas ready, but they're so hard to find on short notice."
Daniel said, "You know, piranhas don't usually attack humans, so that illusion wasn't really as impressive as it seems."
Henley said, easily picking the locks that linked her legs together, and said, "Good, then you won't mind that I'm storing all my pets in your bedroom."
Daniel took a deep, steadying breath and said, "First of all, again, I would hardly call the place where I'm sleeping here a 'bedroom,' and second of all, no, I will not be your fish sitter."
"Don't worry," Henley purred, effortlessly escaping her own handcuffs and slipping them around Daniel's wrists in one smooth gesture, "I'd never trust you with anything so important as my fish. Not after what happened last time."
"Oh, very funny," Daniel said, rolling his eyes and somehow shaking out of the cuffs. Of course, Bruce had been distracted by their banter and hadn't noticed if Henley had actually locked the cuffs firmly, though he'd definitely heard them click.
Bruce looked up as the last remaining Horseman entered the living room. Amused, Merritt said, "Can't you two keep the handcuffs for the bedroom? Ah! We have visitors!" He sized them up and said, "Tony Stark, and you must be... Bruce... B... Bruce Banner."
"Very impressive," Daniel said with an eyeroll. "Everybody knows who Tony Stark is, and you must have heard one of us say Bruce's name earlier."
Merritt gave a lazy smile. "Yeah, yeah, nothing special about mentalism. Not like what you do, Harry Potter. Now... Tony Stark. You're here because... because..." His grin widened, and he said, "Because you're used to being the smartest guy in the room, and you can't figure out how we did it."
Tony's look of surprise lasted only a nanosecond, but Merritt caught it and grinned triumphantly. "Hey, it's nothing to be ashamed of," he said. "Not even the FBI could figure it out. We were pretty smooth, right? What was your favorite part? I was partial to our grand escape, myself, but..." Abruptly, he turned his unsettling gaze on Bruce. "Bruce Banner. You're living with Tony Stark, but you haven't always been. You didn't come from money. You're uncomfortable with it. You liked the whole Robin Hood mythology of the Four Horsemen, stealing from the rich, giving to the poor."
Bruce shrugged. "Sure, who didn't?"
"Tony Stark, for one," Merritt said.
"Hey, do you even know how much Stark Industries has given to charity over the last year alone?" Tony asked indignantly.
"Two point one billion," Daniel said immediately. "About 2% of your net worth. Which is pretty impressive, don't get me wrong."
Bruce raised his eyebrows. He'd never really looked into the money--he knew Tony was rich, obviously, but that was... a lot of money. Merritt smiled at Bruce. "You didn't know, did you? So you're obviously not Mr. Stark's accountant... you must be his piece on the side, then." He frowned. "No, it's more than that. You're very intimate with each other, that's obvious."
Bruce blinked. He and Tony had barely interacted with each other since entering the apartment.
Tony shrugged and nodded at Henley's abandoned copy of People. "I see you all keep up on celebrity gossip around here," he said lightly. But the thing was, Bruce was pretty sure he'd never been romantically linked with Tony in any of the magazines or blogs. He kept a pretty low profile, all things considered, and he suspected there was at least one Stark Industries employee who was paid to kill any stories about Bruce. He was technically still wanted by General Ross, after all.
Merritt smirked. "Yeah, you got me, I'm just a gossip junkie. I just love reading about rich people and their fancy parties. You've both got a secret, and I bet it's a good one... oh, don't look so scared, everybody's got secrets. It's not like anybody's going to hypnotize you into giving them away, right?"
Tony sipped his beer and said, "You guys must be super fun to have at parties."
Just then the front door opened and Agent Dylan Rhodes, who had publicly taken the fall for the FBI's inability to catch the Four Horsemen, walked in, bearing a stack of pizzas.
"Really? You guys are having a party without me?" Rhodes asked, but he was obviously concerned.
"These two just showed up to express their admiration," Henley offered. "How could we turn them away?"
"God, you two really do look alike," Tony said. "Even more so in person."
Bruce and Rhodes briefly made eye contact and then looked away. Rhodes said, "Tony Stark? What are you doing here? What do you want?"
Tony said, "Well... at first we honestly just wanted to see some magic in person, before you fled the country--"
"What did you tell them?" Rhodes hissed at the Horsemen.
"We just assumed," Tony said. "But now I'm way more curious about what you're doing here, Agent Rhodes. Can I call you Rhodey? Hmm, no, that's too weird."
Rhodes set the pizzas down on the coffee table, and Merritt quickly snagged a slice and sat down on the couch, which had obviously seen better days. "This is gonna be good," Merritt muttered.
"I--" Rhodes said.
Tony smiled. "I get it. You didn't want to turn them in. You liked their Robin Hood thing just as much as Bruce did."
"You got me," Rhodes said, relieved.
Tony glanced and Bruce, who shrugged. It sounded a bit fishy to him, but he didn't really care.
"Wow, looks like your mentalism skills are on par with Merritt's," Daniel said.
Rhodes let out an exasperated sigh. "Look, this is not really the best time for visitors."
"Because you're fleeing the country this afternoon? Good plan. You wouldn't want the real FBI to find you guys," Tony said, staring down at his phone.
"We didn't tell him anything, honestly," Jack said.
Rhodes opened his mouth to say something, then shook his head and left the room. He returned with a beer. "This is a pretty severe security breach," he said.
Tony said, "Aw, don't worry about us. I hack into SHIELD all the time, but it's just to fulfill my own curiosity."
"It's true," Bruce said.
"Anyway, I have a pretty vested interest in not angering a group of people who stole millions from other huge corporations," Tony said.
"I don't think Stark Industries has anything to worry about," Rhodes said.
"Good to know... not that you guys could get past our security, anyway," Tony said.
Daniel raised an eyebrow. "Sounds like a challenge."
Tony smiled a sharp smile and said, "Bring it on."
"Boys," Henley said with an exaggerated eyeroll.
"Is that it, then?" Bruce asked. "You're really just going to... fade away?"
"You sound disappointed," Rhodes observed.
"You did a lot of good. You did more than just give people their money back--you gave them hope," Bruce said. He took a deep breath to calm himself, surprised by how intensely disappointed he felt.
"Well--it isn't really up to us," Henley offered apologetically.
"What? Then who?" Bruce asked. Then he looked at Rhodes, since that would explain a few things.
"What's the point of being the four greatest magicians alive if you let some FBI agent tell you what to do?" Tony scoffed.
"It's really not like that," Henley said.
"Then what's it like?" Bruce asked. He was aware that the question had come out as slightly more of a snarl than he would have liked. Tony shot him a brief, questioning look, and Bruce shook it off. The Other Guy wasn't going to come out over magicians, honestly.
Across the room, Merritt announced, "Pizza's getting cold," and helped himself to another slice. He had a wide grin; Bruce suspected he enjoyed discord.
Daniel took a slice of pizza and said, "The Four Horsemen are a part of something bigger."
"What's bigger than the Four Horsemen?" Bruce asked.
Rhodes cleared his throat and said, "You two shouldn't even be here."
"Well, we're here," Tony said breezily, typing away on his phone.
"Aw, they're cool," Jack said, mouth half-full of pizza.
"We're the coolest," Tony agreed, still absorbed in his phone.
"Look, I'm sure you guys mean well, but you wouldn't understand," Daniel said. "Henley, if you want pizza, I would be happy to pass you your own slice."
"I'm just looking out for you," she said sweetly. "If you eat too much of this stuff you might not fit in certain escape hatches any more."
Merritt laughed. Daniel let out an exasperated sigh, but Bruce noticed that he surrendered the pizza without another word. Bruce was increasingly certain that Henley and Pepper would get along.
Bruce said, "You four were incredibly inspirational for a lot of people. That's why we came here. So yeah, you're right. I don't understand what could be more important." He took a deep breath, and continued, "The average wage for a Chinese factory worker is $1.36. Why don't you go redistribute income there? Or Africa? Or Central America? Or anywhere, really, where people are being taken advantage of by corporations?"
"You know the Chinese hourly wage off the top of your head?" Daniel asked. "What exactly is your job at Stark Industries?"
"Bruce just reads a lot," Tony said dismissively.
Merritt gave a smile that Bruce immediately recognized as trouble. "Do you work for Stark? Or do you work for... someone else?"
"I work in research and development at Stark Industries," Bruce said, which was technically true.
"By day, maybe," Merritt said. "But I think you have another job, one that's not on Stark's payroll."
"Bruce, are you stripping again?" Tony asked, still engrossed in his phone.
"It's so obvious who you are," Merritt said. "I bet even Daniel could guess, and he's terrible at reading body language."
"What?" Daniel asked, then tried to cover his surprise. "Well, what do I care if Tony Stark has a boyfriend on the side?"
"Beyond the obvious," Merritt said. "Think about it."
Bruce crossed his arms and said, "It doesn't matter who I am."
"It kinda does," Merritt said. "If you're gonna talk to us about what we symbolize. What do you symbolize, Bruce Banner?"
"Oh my God, you're the Hulk," Daniel realized.
Merritt looked incredibly pleased with himself. Henley and Jack looked vaguely alarmed. Tony still didn't look up from his phone.
Bruce said, "Technically, I'm not."
"What do you mean, technically?" Merritt asked.
"Well, it's," Bruce started.
Tony said, "Don't get him started on identity politics. Bruce prefers to say that he turns into the Hulk, not that he is the Hulk."
"Well, it's an important distinction," Bruce said, feeling surprisingly calm about being outed on more than one level. He felt that the Four Horsemen were very unlikely to sell this story to the media.
"Can you do it right now? How do you do it?" Jack asked, awed.
"Um, trust me, you really don't want me to do that," Bruce said, trying to smile reassuringly.
"Iron Man is dating the Hulk?" Henley asked.
"I think we'd really prefer it if that not end up on the cover of next week's People," Bruce said.
"Hey, of course not," Henley said. She held up three fingers. "Magician's honor."
"Magicians are really good at keeping secrets," Jack said.
"As long as we can count on you to keep our secret," Rhodes said.
"You mean the fact that you arranged this whole Four Horsemen thing to avenge your father's death?" Tony said. "We will totally keep that a secret."
"What?" asked all four Horsemen and Bruce in unison.
Tony looked up from his phone and gave a smile more smug than Daniel and Merritt's put together. Bruce desperately wanted to make out with him, but he decided to hear him out first.
"At first, I thought your choices of targets for your major heists were random. I didn't think too much about it, honestly--I was too busy wondering how you did it. Which is what you wanted, of course. I probably wouldn't have questioned it at all until we came here today and saw you were apparently working with Agent 'Rhodes' here," Tony said, putting air quotes around "Rhodes."
Agent Rhodes had gone very still. Bruce wondered if Rhodes was armed. He wondered if Rhodes would try to kill them to protect whatever secret Tony was about to reveal. He sidled closer to Tony and took deep breaths.
Rhodes noticed and said, "Relax. Whatever insane thing he's about to say, I'm not going to do anything to hurt him. He's Iron Man."
"Indeed I am," Tony said. "And you are Dylan Shrike, son of Lionel Shrike--a great magician who drowned trying to escape from an underwater locked safe," he explained for Bruce's benefit, since everyone else seemed familiar with Shrike.
Rhodes said nothing, but his jaw tightened and he tilted his head forward imperceptibly.
"Oh, holy shit," Jack said.
"Well, so what?" Daniel said.
Bruce knew that so what was a question Tony always relished, and sure enough, Tony answered with enthusiasm. "So, each of your three big shows as the Four Horsemen revolved around Shrike's death." Tony paused dramatically, waiting for someone to ask him for more information.
Jack happily played into Tony's hand and said, "No, only our last...." then he trailed off, perhaps afraid he'd said too much.
Tony nodded and said, "Sure, your final stunt involved Shrike's safe. But for your first--did you ever wonder why you were targeting the Crédit Republicain bank?" There was a collective shrug, and Tony added, "Or why you were instructed to turn on your benefactor Arthur Tressler?"
Henley said, "We gave money back to people whose claims were unpaid by Tressler Insurance."
"Sure," Tony agreed, "But all the major insurance companies have millions of unpaid claims from Katrina. The thing about Tressler Insurance, though, is that they were the ones who insured Lionel Shrike. And they didn't pay the Shrike family's claim after Lionel's accident. Credit Republicain was the bank that carried the note. And, of course, Thaddeus Bradley is the one who publicly humiliated Lionel Shrike. This whole thing has been about avenging this guy's father's death," Tony concluded, nodding at Rhodes.
"Is that true?" Jack asked, looking at Rhodes. His face broadcasted his betrayal and his youthful optimism; Bruce could relate to the former.
Merritt said, "My God. It is true."
Rhodes shrugged. "It's true that Lionel Shrike is my father. But what I told you yesterday is also true."
"Did we or did we not just spend a year of our lives committing felonies in your father's name?" Daniel asked.
"So what?" Henley said. "We still did everything we thought we were doing. Everything Bruce said. We still gave hardworking people their money back. We still gave them hope."
"But are you going to keep giving them hope?" Bruce asked. His breathing was slow and measured. He shouldn't be angry about this. Not angrier than usual. Tony shot him a concerned look and Bruce shook his head minutely. He was in control.
"I told you, it isn't up to us," Henley said. "We're part of something larger."
"Wait, are you--are they--?" Bruce asked Tony.
"Nah, they don't work with SHIELD, unless Fury's significantly improved their security. Which he hasn't."
"So who then?" Bruce asked. "And what are they going to have you do next?"
The question hung unanswered for a long beat, and then Daniel said, "You know--I was in New York, when the Chitauri attacked. When the Avengers saved us."
Henley said, "I thought you were touring then!"
Daniel shrugged. "I... didn't want to talk about it. But I--I remember what the Avengers meant to everyone. To us. And if we have a chance to be anything like that, then... I have to imagine we'd all want to keep doing that. No matter what else happens."
"Yeah, totally!" Jack said.
"That's probably the least douchey thing I've ever heard you say," Merritt said.
Henley said nothing, but her smile spoke volumes.
"I mean, we did stop an alien invasion and a nuclear bomb, no big deal or anything, but yeah, you guys are really inspirational too," Tony said.
Bruce rolled his eyes. "You were. Are. And you did it without using a multi-million dollar suit."
"Yes, but I'm certain their holograms used Stark technology," Tony said, and looked smug when none of the Horsemen denied it.
Rhodes, more relaxed now, said, "I don't think anyone will be disappointed with what the Four Horsemen go on to accomplish. Except maybe Thaddeus Bradley."
"Yeah, since he won't be able to profit off of it," Daniel said.
"Nope," Rhodes said, looking as smug as Tony. "Anyway, it was lovely to meet the two of you, but we'll need to leave soon."
"To flee the country, right," Tony said. "Hey, if you guys ever get into trouble, just give me a call. Here's my card," he said, handing it to Jack, whose eyes widened.
"Is this your number or Iron Man's?" Jack asked.
"You know we're the same person, right?" Tony asked. "Anyway, it's mine. No sexting."
"Uh, yeah, of course," Jack said, blushing.
"I'm kidding, you can sext me if you want."
Bruce took pity on Jack and said, "It was nice to meet all of you."
"It was lovely to meet you too, Bruce," Henley said. "I do hope we don't disappoint you in the future."
"We won't," Merritt said.
Rhodes smiled tersely and said, "I suspect everyone will be very captivated by our next performance."
"I look forward to it," Bruce said.
"If you don't like it, please don't smash us," Daniel said.
"I--" Bruce started, and Merritt said, "Don't worry, I already hypnotized him. We'll be fine."
Bruce grinned. "Even if you did.. do you really think it would get through to the Other Guy?"
"Well, that's a thought that will fester," Merritt said. "Maybe we can try it in our next live show."
"That's probably the worst idea I've ever heard," Bruce said. "And I hear terrible ideas daily."
"I know you don't mean my ideas," Tony said. "Are you talking about Pepper? She does have some bad ideas, like--"
"--anyway, we'd better let you catch your flight," Bruce said. "If you let Tony get started, it could take awhile."
"Hmph. Fine. You crazy kids have fun in France!" Tony said.
"We never said--" Jack started, and Tony grinned.
"We'll look you up the next time we're in New York," Henley said.
"It shouldn't be that hard. The building has his name on it," Bruce said.
"Also, we're magic," Daniel said.
"Right," Bruce said. "That."
"In that case, I hope you have a safe teleportation to France," Tony said. "Bye!" He waltzed out the door, satisfied with the last word. Bruce shrugged and followed him with one last wave at the Horsemen.
In the car, Bruce said, "So, did you figure out how they did it?"
Tony said, "Technically, no, but I did figure out why they did it, and isn't that the more interesting question?"
"Uh huh," Bruce said. "You uncovered Agent Rhodes' daddy issues."
"And you said you weren't that kind of a doctor."
"I'm really not."
"Whatever. You have to admit, though, it was pretty impressive investigating."
"I bet JARVIS did most of the work."
"Um, I invented JARVIS, so I get credit for his findings."
"Oh, just like how slave owners get to keep whatever their slaves make?"
"JARVIS is not a slave, Bruce."
"Yeah? How much do you pay him?"
"JARVIS doesn't need money, he's--hmm," Tony said thoughtfully. "Actually, I may need some coffee if we're going to have this argument." He illegally parked in front of the nearest Starbucks and hopped out of the car. "Are you coming?" he asked Bruce.
"I'll stay here. You know, in case someone tries to tow it."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Nobody's going to try to tow my car, honestly. C'mon, you know I can't be trusted to correctly order your hippie drink."
Bruce sighed and resisted the urge to point out that anything Starbucks offered was by definition not a hippie drink. Inside the Starbucks, Tony happily signed autographs and posed for photos. Bruce took photos and kept a terse smile plastered on his face until it was their turn to order. "Tall soy chai, please," he said, and Tony smirked. But the smirk faded when Tony went to pay for his coffee.
"They got in my wallet!"
"Did they take anything?" Bruce asked. "I have cash if you need it."
Tony shook his head. "They left something, though," he said, and handed him a tarot card: The Tower. "How'd they do that?"
Bruce shrugged. "Magic?"
Tony narrowed his eyes. "We're going to France so we can figure out how they did it."
"Sure, Tony, we'll go to France. But first you should probably pay for your coffee."
Tony sighed. "Fine." He paid for both their drinks and left a generous tip for the baristas, while Bruce studied the tarot card. On the back of it someone had scrawled, "The closer you look, the less you'll see."
Bruce showed the message to Tony once they were back in the car. Tony said, "We'll see how smug they are when they realize I put tracking devices on all of them."
"When did you do that?"
Tony did jazz hands and said, "Hey, a magician never reveals his secrets."