Handling Pointy Things • Chapter 24
Author’s notes: It’s been a while since the last update. I apologize. (However, I’ve been writing a ton of new stuff that will see their release dates later this year, so that’s a good thing.)
This chapter marks a few changes to the info section (mainly, introducing some people from Bruce Banner’s past; you probably already know who they are). However, let’s list it here: this chapter contains hints & implications at a “past Bruce Banner/Betty Ross” relationship.
This chapter was originally supposed to be a separate fic, but since it fit the overall story arc of this story (with Jane Foster visiting and all), it was merged in with a little tweaking. Pseudo-summary goes as follows: Bruce and Betty meet after years of separation. If only General Ross weren’t so keen on seizing the moment to capture Bruce. Luckily, Tony has no problem with being “easily provoked”.
Also, if you’ve missed it: this chapter has a pseudo-beginning in the brand new first part of Sexy Phases: Reworked For Your Pleasure (a mini-series inside the Turquoise series). Be sure to check it out (for the sexy times, you know, in case the title didn’t clue you in). There are some references in this chapter to those events.
Chapter 24: Conferential
As far as Tony was concerned, the day was already perfect.
When he’d woken up, Bruce had already been awake, on top of him, his mind set on giving Tony some of the most awesome morning-sex of his life.
Now that statement, if heard by anyone else, could have led them a little astray; what had taken place in their bed, just some minutes ago, hadn’t been wild or particularly mind-blowing. However, whenever Dr. Banner took it upon himself to initiate a sexual encounter, Tony was sold.
While intimacy had become a more regular thing between them, Tony could count with Dummy’s fingers the times the other man had blown him – without a condom no less. Bruce was a stickler about safety, and while Tony would have sometimes opted to forgo some of the more rigid rules, Bruce wouldn’t budge. So, whenever the other man became comfortable enough to dismiss certain safety measures on his own, it was a new kind of turn-on for Tony.
As warm water cascaded down his skin in the shower cabin, Tony could still feel the lingering sensations from Bruce’s fingers inside him. His body was almost humming with contentment – especially now that his stubborn, gamma-irradiated genius of a boyfriend had allowed Tony to bring him off. ‘Slowly’ had been Bruce’s demand, and Tony had gone slowly – as slow as humanly possible.
Now they were both happy, sated, awake and in a positive mood. Bruce hadn’t complained about the handjob, although he had certainly protested loudly enough when Tony first suggested returning the favor; it would have been nice to tell him ‘I told you so’, but Tony was in too much of a good mood to go there – especially when Bruce was washing his back, rather thoroughly, taking more time than was probably necessary because Tony had refused to turn his back to him, mostly so that Tony could keep kissing Bruce while they stayed face to face.
“You’re impossible,” Bruce murmured against his lips, then made a small sound of discontentment as the washcloth slipped from his hand and fell to the floor behind Tony. “Could you –?”
“No,” Tony replied immediately, to whatever he was going to ask. “I’m clean. Stop fussing and kiss me.” Bruce gave him a slightly sheepish look as Tony ran his hand down Bruce’s wet, hairy chest. Sometimes, he still got awkward around Tony, which was ridiculous. If Bruce weren’t so good at those puppy dog looks, Tony might have complained about it, but as it was, he just wanted to pet him and keep pumping his self-esteem up to the max.
“We should head out,” Bruce said after a moment, although his hands were on Tony’s waist, tracing up and down, almost tickling. “We’ve been in the shower long enough and the others might be up already.”
“This place conserves water, re-cycling and reusing. And I don’t care if the others are already up,” Tony argued.
“Jane promised to show me the pamphlets for the science and technology conference she and Dr. Selvig came here to attend,” Bruce pressed, and that finally caught Tony’s attention.
“Do you want to go?”
Bruce hesitated. “Well, I think I would like to. The things she remembered off the top of her head seemed interesting enough, and there are a lot of new innovations out on display…”
“Then we should go,” Tony jumped at the idea. “When did you two talk about this?”
“While you were in the bathroom, I think – or getting a new round of drinks.” Bruce shrugged. “It’s not a big deal. I’m not sure I would handle the crowds very well.”
“You’ve spent time, on the run, in some of the most crowded places on Earth, so don’t give me that crap,” Tony reminded him. “We’re going.”
“It might be sold out.”
Tony gave him a skeptical look. “I’m Tony Stark. If I can’t procure us tickets for a science conference, it’s not worth going.”
Bruce allowed a small laugh to escape him. “Fine; we’ll go. But don’t kick anyone off the list to get us in there!” he added, hurriedly, when Tony turned to leave the shower.
“Who do you take me for?” Tony asked, pretending to be hurt.
“None other than who you are,” Bruce replied, and Tony laughed because that was so true.
- - -
It was a few hours later when Tony pulled in to the parking area of the large convention and exhibition center and parked the car. Bruce was surprised he hadn’t gotten them a VIP spot, but it seemed Tony’s aim was to go unnoticed today: he was dressed so unassumingly that most people would probably look right past him. Bruce was glad, because Tony attracted crowds wherever he went, and science nerds might actually be worse than Iron Man fangirls.
They exited the car and started towards the main doors.
Darcy had stayed behind voluntarily this time around. Although Jane had assured her there would be plenty off cool, futuristic stuff to be seen here, the young woman hadn’t been convinced and said she would rather hang out at the Mansion, maybe sunbathing for a bit.
Thor had volunteered to come, but everyone had agreed it was perhaps too premature to bring an Asgardian to such a public setting – especially if the more scientifically inclined members of the group wanted to enjoy their day.
So, it was just the four of them, Dr. Selvig looking positively chipper while taking a look at the day’s timetable in between demonstrations, lectures and other events. “I’m surprised that you weren’t planning to come despite Stark Industries having three exhibits,” he mused, looking at Tony.
“I don’t really handle that stuff,” Tony shrugged, then looked at Bruce. “That’s how I got us tickets, so stop worrying that I needed to depend on bribes or threats to get us here.”
“I wasn’t worried,” Bruce claimed, although he may have been a little concerned.
There was a good-sized crowd already present, from professional scientists to researchers and even a few college groups. Jane looked this way and that, clearly excited, and they chose a direction and began to make their way through the exhibition booths. Tony actually seemed fairly into it, grabbing pamphlets here and there and chatting up the young inventors as he poked and prodded at the new engineering designs.
“It’s almost like he’s shopping,” Jane whispered to Bruce at some point.
“He might as well be; I wouldn’t put it past him to hire some of these people to SI as soon as this event is over,” Selvig mused.
Bruce had no need to partake in that discussion, and trailed after Tony instead, sharing in his exploration. Most of these inventions were outside Tony’s own area of interest or beneath his intellect, but he recognized talent when he saw it, and it was well-known how aggressive Stark Industries had been in their recruitment efforts, even before Tony and Pepper Potts were at the helm. That was why they were the most successful company at what they did, and would probably remain that way in the near future.
They traveled from one exhibition area to the next, exploring even the fields that weren’t directly within their expertise. A few lectures caught their eyes and they sat down for those, then grabbed a quick snack before heading out to see more of the exhibitions. For the most part, people didn’t seem to recognize Tony, although Jane and Selvig were stopped for a chat a handful of times. Bruce, for his part, was happy to go unnoticed. He had been worried someone might see him, recognize him, and even if they didn’t know he had been a wanted fugitive, they might ask uncomfortable questions about his sudden disappearance.
Jane and Selvig had once again become distracted by scientists of a similar field, leaving Bruce and Tony to mill around. “Should we go eat?” Bruce mused, feeling kind of hungry from all the walking around.
“Sure,” Tony agreed.
They settled down to wait for their companions, Bruce leaning against a concrete support column while Tony stood next to him; not too close to brush against Bruce, but enough to indicate they were in the same group.
“Bruce?” a female voice broke through the steady murmur of the crowd around them. There was a hint of shock in it, and Bruce immediately tensed at the note of recognition – then turned towards the voice and felt his stomach drop while his chest clenched tightly.
A tall, dark-haired woman stood a few feet from him. Her blue eyes were large with surprise and barely contained emotion. She was dressed smartly, yet casually. Not that Bruce would remember what color she was wearing, should someone ask him a minute from now: his eyes went back to the face that sometimes haunted his dreams, even now when he slept with Tony beside him.
Guilt was suddenly overwhelming him with a thick, cold coating. “Betty,” he managed in a choked voice, and then she was there, in his space and pressed against his chest, arms around him, and it was all he could do to hold her back and inhale her scent, so familiar under the new perfume.
“Bruce,” she whispered in his ear once more, desperate and equally choked up, as if she were on the verge of tears. Her grip was desperate, as if Bruce might bolt, and it had been years since the last time they saw each other. That fateful night in Harlem…
“It’s me,” he finally said by way of reply.
Betty pulled back a little, to properly look at him. Her smile was affectionate and warm now – and relieved. “You look good,” she commented. “Compared to the last time.” The memory made them both a little uneasy, and Tony decided to intervene with a casual clearing of his throat. Both of them turned to look at him, while Tony looked back at them, his face betraying very little.
“This is my friend, Tony,” Bruce offered as an introduction.
“Mr. Stark,” Betty said without missing a beat, offering her hand for Tony to shake.
“Dr. Ross,” Tony inclined his head.
Betty smiled and looked at Bruce again. “I have seen you on TV, although I wasn’t certain whether you were actually staying in New York City.”
Again, Bruce felt incredibly guilty: all these months that he had been getting cozy, sparing only a few seconds here and there to wonder about Betty and her life – and whether he should contact her. However, he’d hoped she had moved on, and he had no desire to mess with that – not since he and Tony had become an item.
“You’re a hero,” Betty pressed. “One of the Avengers. That is amazing, Bruce, because that’s what you dreamt the Hulk could become – and now here you are,” she finished, looking at Tony again. Clearly she knew about Iron Man, just like the rest of the world.
“It’s not that simple,” Bruce hedged.
“It really is,” Tony argued. “I think I’ll leave you two to catch up,” he went on without missing a beat and locked eyes with Bruce. “Let me know if you’re coming back to the Mansion with us, or if you’d prefer to catch your own ride.” A ride with Betty, he probably meant.
A new kind of guilt began to fester inside Bruce. “Tony, I –”
“It’s fine,” Tony said, flashing them a smile, which was more genuine than it should have been. He turned to look at Betty. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Ross. He’s told me a lot about you, and I’m vaguely familiar with your work.”
She seemed a bit surprised by that, but by then Tony had turned and walked into the crowd, and there was no way for Bruce to go after him, to talk to him, or sort this out. There was no way he could have that conversation in front of Betty, but that didn’t mean he didn’t want to have it.
“So, that was the famous Tony Stark,” Betty summed up.
“Yeah,” Bruce said a bit awkwardly, rubbing the back of his neck. “I should have called,” he said then. “Or… something.”
“It’s okay,” Betty reassured him. “I knew you were alive, safe, and not on the run anymore. I knew you would make contact when you were ready, but then I saw you standing here and I couldn’t pass up the chance…” She bit her lip, briefly, as if realizing something. Perhaps she thought Bruce hadn’t wanted to see her.
“I’m glad,” Bruce told her and took Betty’s hand in his without thinking. “I’ve missed you.” Her hand was small and delicate. It wasn’t calloused from hard work, and the eyes that met his were not brown.
“Should we go and sit down somewhere?” she suggested, and Bruce agreed.
They went to one of the overpriced cafeterias, got something to eat and then sat away from the crowded tables, on the edge of green area with plants and flowers. They weren’t the most comfortable seats, but it gave them a sense of privacy.
“So, what has happened in your life?” Bruce asked after a bit, unwrapping his sandwich.
“Work, some research,” she replied. “Nothing to be excited about.”
“But you’ve been keeping an eye on me?” Bruce confirmed.
“Always,” she replied with a smile.
“What about… Leonard?” Betty and a mutual friend, Dr. Leonard Samson, had been together when Bruce last entered Betty’s life. He wasn’t certain how it had held up in the middle of what happened, but if Leonard made her happy…
“We’ve been in contact,” she admitted. “After you left, I knew to whom my heart belonged.” Bruce knew the answer to that. “We’ve gotten closer again, although we both know…” Clearly, Betty felt conflicted over this, and Bruce gave her a reassuring smile.
“I want you to be happy, Betty,” he told her. “If there’s a chance at happiness with him, take it.” He realized that in their – his –current situation, it may have been more predictable to say that Bruce was ready to try things with her again. If not for Tony, he might have. But there were certain risks involved where Elizabeth Ross was concerned, and no matter S.H.I.E.L.D.’s promises, Bruce wasn’t stupid enough to brave those risks blindly.
She blinked at him, analyzing his words. “What about you?” she asked. “Is there someone…?” If she felt hurt by the idea, she didn’t show it. After all, they had been apart longer than they had been together, and sometimes, no matter how well-suited people were to one another, it just wasn’t enough.
Bruce hesitated. He didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but he didn’t want to lie to her either.
She must have taken a page out of Leonard’s psychology book, though, because she allowed a ghost of a smile onto her lips. “There is, isn’t there? Who is she?”
That statement hurt, a bit more than it should have – mostly because Betty had to do the guessing and Bruce owed her the truth. “He,” Bruce corrected.
Betty’s eyebrows shot up. “Really?” Her surprise turned into a frown. She was smart and might just figure it out although the hints had been in short supply. Bruce let her work the facts, guesses and hunches, until she finally seemed to reach an answer. “Stark?” she asked, as if not completely certain whether she believed it was possible.
Bruce lowered his eyes for a bit. He knew Tony wouldn’t blame him if he lied – if he denied the whole thing. Then again, in the deepest, darkest recesses of his heart, Tony might be disappointed Bruce didn’t have the balls to tell the woman he had loved – still loved – that he was with someone else. With Tony. “Yes,” he admitted, looking at her again. “Not very long so far, though,” he added, as if that would make a difference.
“It must have been awkward for him, when I showed up like that,” Betty mused. She wasn’t apologizing, though.
“Trust me, it wasn’t,” Bruce reassured her. “He doesn’t function like most people.”
“Is that why the two of you hooked up?” she teased, and Bruce laughed.
Their discussion turned livelier after that; quite a lot had happened in their lives that couldn’t be summarized under ‘work’ or ‘avenging’. Once the ice was broken, it was just like old times, even though both of them longed for the closeness that used to be there, that much was certain. Bruce was glad Betty didn’t push for it, though, because he wasn’t certain whether he could say no, and he had no desire to hurt Tony’s feelings, no matter how much the man pretended he was okay with this discussion taking place.
Closing time was beginning to approach and the crowd had thinned visibly. They looked around as they realized this, snapped out of their little world. Betty smoothed her hands along her dress. “Should we go find Tony?” she asked.
“Probably,” Bruce agreed. They got up, threw the wrappers of their lunch into garbage and began to make their way towards the main doors. It was hard to tell where Tony would have headed off to, so Bruce fished out his phone in case of messages. There were none, so he opened a tab to write Tony one, to check on his location.
Beside him, Betty suddenly stopped, and Bruce did the same, looking at her in confusion. Her face was tense, eyes serious, and Bruce followed her gaze to see what had gotten her so upset so suddenly. Across the room and through the wide open doors that people were walking through, they had a clear line of sight to the main doors of the convention center. Bruce immediately spotted the armed men fanning out, weapons in hand. People were starting to pull back uneasily, but no one was screaming or running.
Bruce knew why: these were Hulkbusters. He could tell them apart by their gear, even from a distance, and he had no idea how they knew he was here, but it was obvious that was why they were present. They probably had eyes on him and knew he was headed towards the doors.
“We should run,” Betty murmured.
Bruce agreed. No matter the promises, he didn’t trust S.H.I.E.L.D. to put up a fight for him – especially when they took their orders from the same place as the Hulkbusters, most likely. He wasn’t going to let anyone capture him on blind faith that someone would come rescue him later.
Before they could make up their mind about an exit strategy, however, they spotted General Ross – Betty’s father – coming through the crowd – and a familiar form intercepting him, forcing him to halt. Tony.
Bruce’s blood ran a bit colder.
“What’s he doing?” Betty asked.
Bruce wished he knew, especially when General Ross pulled a gun from his belt and aimed it at Tony’s face. A sensation of pressure was beginning to grow inside him, but he tried to rein it in; there were hundreds of people in their immediate vicinity. If the Hulk came out with Ross and the Hulkbusters so close by… Besides, even General Ross wouldn’t be foolish enough to shoot Tony Stark in such a public setting. Bruce knew, however, that he wouldn’t be able to trust that fact if his lover didn’t move out of Ross’ way.
- - -
Tony knew who Elizabeth Ross was. If not from a professional viewpoint, then because she had been Bruce’s significant other before Tony ever entered the picture. This day had been a long time coming, and just as he had anticipated, he wasn’t certain how to react.
So, to ensure he didn’t ruin this reunion which Bruce more than deserved, he left them to it and made himself scarce. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t keep an eye on what happened, although he trusted Bruce enough to… what, not discard him like a used handkerchief?
Bruce and Tony had been through a lot since they met, and Tony had faith that no matter how strong the pull back to Betty’s arms, Bruce wouldn’t just callously abandon what they had.
As Bruce and Betty settled down to eat and talk, Tony circled around, checking on them every once in a while. He wouldn’t admit he was concerned, or worried, but it was better to be safe than sorry…
“Tony,” a familiar female voice called out after an hour had passed, and Tony turned to find Jane and Erik Selvig standing behind him.
“Where’s Bruce?” Selvig asked, looking around.
“He met an old acquaintance,” Tony explained. “I gave them some space.”
“Oh,” Jane blinked, looking around. “A female acquaintance,” she noted, as she spotted Betty and Bruce sitting further away. “You’re not worried, are you?” Jane teased then, but her smile dropped as quickly as it appeared.
“They used to be together,” Tony shrugged. No reason to lie about it, and, okay, maybe he was a little worried about it himself.
“Before Bruce’s incident?” Selvig asked.
“Before, during, a little after,” Tony replied.
Jane took another look at the duo. “She’s beautiful.” Just as she said it, she jumped a bit and gave Tony a flustered look. “Not that I think that’s, you know, any reason for him to… dismiss you or anything.”
“My ego can take this,” Tony reassured her. “Was there something else you wanted to see?”
“A few more things,” Selvig nodded. “You should come with us, leave them be. Bruce doesn’t seem to be planning on any hanky-panky with her.”
“Yeah,” Jane agreed. “He cares about you.”
“I know that,” Tony rolled his eyes. He did, so why did it feel so nice to hear other people say it? “I think I need a drink,” he decided.
“Or we could just check out the levitation models in hall C,” Jane offered.
Tony scoffed. “Oh, please! I’ve been trying to crack magnetic flight capabilities since the third version of my armor and I’m still not convinced it can be done efficiently.” But that was a sufficient distraction and they headed over to check it out, and as expected, the prototype could barely lift a model plane, which weighed little more than a stack of papers. Still, Tony enjoyed evaluating it for the next half an hour, after which they looked at some other innovations before deciding it was time to start heading for the exit. The crowd had already thinned and most people were slowly moving towards the lobby.
They were a few small exhibition halls away when Tony’s phone chimed and he slid it out of his pocket, fully expecting to see Bruce’s name and face flashing on the screen. Instead, it was the familiar logo of J.A.R.V.I.S. With a slight frown, Tony tugged the earpiece free from his other pocket, inserted it and answered the call. “What’s up, J?”
“Sir, the safety parameters you have set for Dr. Banner are in the process of being breached.”
Tony froze, his ears expecting to hear the roar of the Hulk rise above the noises of the crowd. Nothing happened, though. “Explain,” he ordered.
“A Hulkbuster unit has entered the premises. General Ross is also present. Shall I warn Dr. Banner and guide him to the nearest safe exit?”
“Not yet,” Tony replied. “Where’s their point of entry? Where’s Ross?”
“Approaching the main entrance as we speak, sir. May I also note that Dr. Banner and his companion are moving towards said doors?”
“Damn it,” Tony muttered and then started across the room at a brisk pace, leaving Jane and Selvig to run after him.
“Tony, what’s happening?” Jane asked, obviously having figured out something had changed.
“Prepare to evacuate if things get green,” Tony told them over his shoulder.
“Green?” Jane repeated in obvious confusion.
“The Hulk,” Selvig clarified, voice dropping a few notches into something that sounded rather worried.
Tony didn’t stay and explain. He arrived at the main lobby just in time to see the Hulkbusters spreading out, dressed in full gear. Guards were ushering people towards the exit, containing the natural curiosity and fear. His eyes swept the room, to locate either General Ross or Bruce, but he had no luck with the latter before Ross strode in, grim-faced.
Without hesitation, Tony moved to intercept him, stepping right in front of Ross before his men had a chance to block him. “General,” Tony greeted with zero pretense in his voice. “Fancy seeing you here. I hope they didn’t make you and your men pay full entrance fees this close to closing time.”
“Get out of my way, Stark,” General Ross snapped, his eyes narrowing.
“I don’t think so,” Tony argued, standing his ground.
With a snarl, Ross went to step past him, but Tony swiftly followed, blocking him again. “I’m not going to ask again,” Ross warned.
“Please, don’t,” Tony countered.
“I know he’s here –”
“And he isn’t yours to hunt anymore,” Tony snapped. “Or did you miss the Avengers saving the world and the Hulk becoming a hero?”
Ross almost growled with frustration, trying to get past him again. Around them, the Hulkbusters observed the situation, but didn’t move to interfere without an order to do so. “One lucky break doesn’t make a monster into a pet,” he said, moving to stab a finger at Tony’s chest, at which point Tony leaned back far enough to avoid contact. “He’s still wanted by the U.S. military and has crimes to answer for.”
“Then get yourself a lawyer to further your case – although I promise, mine are better.”
Ross’ patience was about to come to an end, and once it snapped, the older man’s hand went to his waist and returned with a gun, which he pointed at Tony’s face. “Get out of my way, Stark, or I swear I’ll shoot you, right here.”
Tony was fairly certain he wouldn’t, but he wouldn’t put it past Ross to incapacitate him in order to get to Bruce.
“Sir?” J.A.R.V.I.S. asked in his earpiece, the connection still open.
Ross glared at him, gun unwavering. The safety was already off.
Tony shifted his jaw. He knew the odds. Even if he avoided getting shot by Ross, there was still the whole Hulkbuster unit to consider. So, deciding that he needed another kind of approach, he raised his hands in surrender and stepped to the side. “This isn’t over!” he called after Ross as the man shouldered past him and ordered his men to spread out.
“Oh yes, it is,” Ross spat back at him.
Tony narrowed his eyes. “J.A.R.V.I.S.,” he murmured.
“Bring the car around.”
“Very well, sir.”
Tony turned and pushed his way out of the door, dismissing the clerks telling him the exit was a little to the right. Outside, people were yelping and exclaiming, and just as he reached the steps, his car curved around, without a driver, stopping at the front of the building. “Start the armor’s pre-launch sequence,” Tony ordered.
“Already in progress, sir. Do you wish me to call someone? The others Avengers, perhaps?”
“No need,” Tony huffed, then threw his phone into the car and walked over to the trunk. The tailgate opened and from the trunk expanded several mechanical hands, the beginning of the armor assembly. Tony yanked his shirt off, then stepped into the midst of the moving parts and felt the familiar pressure settle around his form as the armor was fixed into place.
“How’s the situation proceeding inside?” Tony asked when the HUD came up live in front of his eyes.
“Dr. Banner and Dr. Ross managed to momentarily hide after your exit, sir. However, the Hulkbusters are sweeping the area and the center guards are urging people to leave the premises. Dr. Foster and Dr. Selvig are still inside.”
Tony made a minute nod. The armor ready, he stepped away from the car and strode back inside through the main entrance. This time no one tried to tell him they were about to close, or that he needed to purchase another ticket if he wanted to go back inside. J.A.R.V.I.S. had already located Ross for him; the General was setting up a command center at the info desk.
He didn’t need to announce himself this time around: the heavy footfalls of the armor alerted the remaining Hulkbusters and their leader to his presence, and the expression on Ross’ face was hard to read. “You’re interfering with a military operation, Stark,” Ross snapped.
“You can continue your operation after I’ve removed my companions from the premises,” he promised. “Including Banner.”
Ross’ jaw worked and he strode over, staring at the faceplate. “You’re out of your league.”
“You want to test that?” Tony challenged.
“I will arrest you along with the fugitive, Bruce Banner –”
Tony decided, at that second, that he was done listening. He knew Ross, and the man wasn’t going to stop when he had gotten so close to Bruce. That made his decision rather easy, and he drew back his arm, then delivered a solid punch to Ross’ stormy face. The man dropped to the floor like a dead weight, out cold.
Around him, weapons were raised as the Hulkbusters reacted to the swift power imbalance in the situation.
In response, Tony raised both his arms, repulsors whining to life, weapons becoming exposed in a blatant threat. “Sure you want to do this, boys?” he asked the men around him, turning his head, calmly regarding them. Their weapons packed a punch, but weren’t built to take down a high-tech suit of armor designed for battle. These men knew that; they were here to get the Hulk, not fight Iron Man, and they eventually lowered their weapons, one after another.
“Good choice,” Tony congratulated them dryly and lowered his own arms, disengaging the weapons systems. “Get out,” he ordered, then turned and walked away. He had barely left the vicinity of the conflict when Jane and Selvig rushed over, followed more cautiously by Betty Ross and Bruce. “Sorry about that,” Tony said to Betty; she and the General might not always agree, but he was still her father.
She shook her head, clearly not feeling sorry for the unconscious man who was being inspected by a couple medics. “We should leave.”
“Agreed,” Tony replied and led the group outside.
“Tony,” Bruce started, his voice tight. He didn’t look green, but highly uneasy.
“You take the car,” Tony told him, the armor pulling back in order for him to reach his pocket. It took some struggling, but he eventually deposited the keys in Bruce’s hand. “I need to clear my head.” Also, he expected there would be ramifications for his actions.
“Wait,” Bruce said hurriedly, one hand grabbing onto armored bicep. “You didn’t…”
“Have to do that? Yeah, I did,” Tony argued, looking him in the eye without popping up the faceplate. He didn’t feel like facing his boyfriend just yet. “He can’t just waltz into our lives and grab you. He’ll have to learn that – the hard way, if necessary. You’re an Avenger. The Hulk is a hero. If someone disagrees, they can take it up with me.”
This had come close to being a disaster, he knew that, and in order to bring that into perspective, he needed a little space. So, he stepped back from Bruce, then engaged the thrusters and shot up into the sky, leaving the others to debate how to get home.
- - -
Bruce’s neck was starting to hurt from looking at the sky, his eyes a bit watery in the dust that floated around them after Iron Man’s departure. Tony hadn’t shown his face, but Bruce had been able to tell, from his voice alone, that this hadn’t been how Tony had wanted the day to end. He didn’t doubt Tony’s word on his willingness to take on Ross and anyone else who would come for Bruce. Tony was smart, though, and he knew actions like this wouldn’t please everyone.
He was still tense from the preparedness to run if the situation warranted it. If Tony hadn’t interfered…
“Bruce?” Betty said from beside him, and her voice grounded him a little, as it always had.
Lowering his gaze, confident that Tony wasn’t coming back, Bruce looked at the three people gathered around him. “I’m fine,” he reassured them. “Although, I would prefer to leave, in case the Hulkbusters decide to finish the job anyway.”
“I’ll drive,” Selvig promised, and Bruce gave the car keys to him without a fight.
“Should we split up, just in case?” Betty asked – she had learned her lesson, a long time ago, about how badly her father wanted to get Bruce.
“That might be wise,” Bruce agreed and looked at Jane and Selvig. “Take Tony’s car, go back to the Mansion. I’ll go with Betty.”
“Is that a good idea?” Jane asked, looking at them both.
“We’ll see you back at the Mansion,” Bruce promised, then looked at Betty, who nodded.
They parted ways in silence, and Betty drove in the opposite direction at first, to make sure they weren’t being followed. After a while it became apparent that no one was on their tail, and Bruce asked Betty to take them to the Mansion, giving her directions.
“I’m glad you have friends like Tony,” she stated after another silence had stretched out long enough between them. “That he’s willing to take up arms and fight for your safety and freedom.”
“I suppose,” Bruce replied, uncertain whether he wanted to put Tony in that position. “I’m not sure if punching the General was actually a good move on his part.”
Betty laughed, surprisingly loudly. “I’m sure it was satisfying, though, on many levels.”
Bruce looked at her, allowing himself to smile. “Yeah. They don’t have the… best history, even without me standing between them.”
“Who would have guessed,” she joked dryly, then glanced at Bruce. “Don’t tell him to stop protecting you, please.”
“He wouldn’t, even if I begged on my knees,” Bruce admitted with a sigh. “He’s uncompromising when it comes to the safety of those around him. Too many times he hasn’t been ready when he should have been, and he loathes repeating that mistake. I guess it’s only fair that the other guy is really protective of him in return.”
Betty frowned. “The Hulk?”
“Yeah,” Bruce said, not really bothering to cringe at the name on her lips. “It’s… a long story.”
“In this traffic, it will be a long drive,” she countered, and so Bruce proceeded to tell her everything, from their first battle against Loki to Tony’s break-up with Pepper, the incident with the other guy that almost got Tony killed – and how their relationship had progressed from there. It felt good, somehow, to explain to her how it had happened; that he hadn’t just jumped onto the next person he met after Betty. It also felt good to have her support, even though it was a little bittersweet. After all, they still had feelings for each other, that much had been clear from the first second they laid eyes on each other once again.
When they finally pulled up to the Mansion, Jane and Selvig were already there, as were the other Avengers. Bruce insisted Betty should come in and meet his team, at least, and she followed him inside.
The others were gathered in a hallway, all looking a bit tense.
“Hey,” Steve looked at him upon his arrival. “We heard there was trouble.”
“Nothing we couldn’t handle,” Bruce replied.
“You mean, nothing Stark couldn’t handle?” Clint challenged and inclined with his head at the tightly shut study doors. “He’s been at it with Fury for the last half an hour.”
“Why?” Betty asked, frowning. “He kept the situation from escalating into something much worse.”
Like the other guy making an appearance, Bruce added in his head.
“Clearly you can’t punch an Army general without getting some kind of reprimand,” Darcy shrugged. “Did he really do that?” she asked then. “I bet he had to hold back, to not take his head right off; I’ve seen the armor lift a car on YouTube.”
“It can lift more than a mere vehicle,” Thor rumbled, one hand on Jane’s shoulder. “He made a noble choice, to not shame a much weaker opponent.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about the lack of shame,” Natasha mused. “Ross will be barking up a storm because of this.”
On cue, the study door swung open and Tony could be seen hovering in the doorway – only to be called back by Fury’s voice in the speakers: “Stark! I’m not done.”
“I’m just about as done as I can imagine being in my life,” Tony argued, swerving back from the doors and further into the room. “We both know he wasn’t going to listen to reason. He even smells the Hulk and he’s assembling his team.”
“Like I’ve been telling you, it isn’t something you should get involved in.”
“Then who is going to be involved in it? You want the Hulk to go another round with them? I thought we had an agreement with the government that the Hulk was no longer to be hunted like a rabid animal!”
Bruce cringed a little at his lover’s tone and the obvious rage in it. Fury had really worked Tony up something fierce this time.
“He’s getting his authorization so high up that those agreements don’t matter.”
“So this is about you being cranky that Ross went and over his head it sounds like, rather than me decking the man.”
“Don’t twist my words. You know very well what this is about: all you needed to do was give Banner time to leave the scene –”
“He threatened to shoot me where I stood. Does that count for anything?”
They all could hear Fury’s sigh. “I’m not disagreeing, but on principle, this kind of behavior needs to be kept to a minimum.”
“Why? So you can fire my ass from your little dream team? I didn’t think I was actually part of it, seeing as I never got the official approval,” Tony snapped back. “J.A.R.V.I.S., I’m done. Have a nice night, Director.” A few seconds later the room dimmed and Tony stalked out, expression dark.
Bruce moved to stand in his way before Tony could make his way to the nearest alcohol bottle. “Tony –”
“Just, don’t,” Tony said, but he had already reined in most of his mood before replying.
“He’s not wrong, you know,” Clint started.
“But he’s not right, either,” Steve argued, surprisingly. “We’re a team. The Hulk is part of this team – as is Bruce,” he continued, looking at Bruce and Tony both. “We watch each others’ backs – because if not us, then who?”
Thor nodded his approval.
“Ross won’t stop,” Natasha said. “He got authorization to move in today, and Iron Man probably got his name put on a few more black lists because of that stunt.”
“What’s a few more in the ocean of bullshit?” Tony asked. “But yeah, I have to agree with Cap: we are our own best defense.”
Bruce knew it applied to the whole team, but he still felt somewhat touched by their leader’s declaration.
“I think we all need a drink after today,” Selvig offered.
“Hear, hear,” Tony agreed.
“Would you like to join us, Dr. Ross?” Steve asked, extending the invitation.
“Oh, what the hell,” Betty smiled. “It’s not everyday you get to drink with a group of superheroes.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Darcy grinned, and they all moved to the living room.
Bruce and Tony remained behind for a moment, and once they were alone, Bruce pointedly slid both his hands around Tony’s body. “You’re an Avenger,” he told his lover. “Just like any one of us. That’s not a title anyone like Fury can give or take.”
Tony gave him a flimsy smile. “Caught that, did you?”
“Pretty sure everyone did,” Bruce informed him, then pulled Tony flush against his chest. “I know we need to talk about what happened today – not just Ross, but Betty, too – but let’s just go join the others and forget about that for a moment, yeah?”
Tony nodded slowly, meeting his eyes. “If you and she –”
“No,” Bruce shook his head. “Whatever you were going to say, the answer’s no.”
“Okay,” Tony sighed with relief, and the smile he gave Bruce was a little less strained. “Just checking.”
Bruce leaned in for a quick kiss before releasing Tony, then walked into the living room to join the others. He knew Tony would follow him – if for nothing else than for the promise of alcohol, which he would use as a system coolant tonight. Bruce knew better than to argue at this point, determined to simply be there, to cushion Tony’s fall, if it came to that.
to be continued…
Author’s note: If you’re wondering how Tony and Ross are so very cozy with each other, check out the three issues of MCU related comic, “Iron Man 2: Public Identity”. That should clear things up a little. (And, of course, the little scene at the end of The Incredible Hulk, as well as the short movie The Consultant.)