IT WAS JUST GOING TO BE A KOOKY LOVE STORY. WHY. WHY IS THIS MY LIFE.

Also, people have been asking me about Superman and I regret to tell you Superman will appear in the next part of the verse-not the next chapter of this calamity, the next story in the verse. Like I said, WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME. Tony Stark is turning me into a douche (not that I had far to go honestly) but I love him anyway. Also, MARVEL/DCU has far too many characters. This is spiralling out of control.

On another note- updates may slow down considerably in the future. It's only fair to warn you guys so you don't think I died or quit on you. You see I signed up for a Big Bang (cap/iron man) on LJ and apparently I am allergic to a simple storyline. Wish me luck, I'll need it to write a decent Steve Rogers.

Anyway, ONWARDS.

...

Strong Independent White Boys (who don't need no sophistication)

Chapter 6

...

The private nurse was vetoed before Bruce even finished talking. Babysitters are a menace and he's trying to avoid them since his last one went all CEO on him plus they really don't need any more outsiders in the manor if they can possibly avoid it. Here he is, giving them the perfect reason to avoid it! It's really a win for the Bat, if only Bruce could accept that.

It takes all his bullshitting skills to convince Bruce and Alfred that just because he has a broken arm he isn't terminal, Jesus. So he can't use one of his arms, big deal. Somewhere out there has to be at least one armless scientist. Hell, look at Hawking, he makes do with twitches, surely Tony can compensate by being even more awesome—it really isn't a difficult concept to grasp.

He's getting the best care possible they can surely let him get out of the fucking bed once in a while. You wouldn't believe the amount of conniving it took to get access to the damn sitting room, let alone the kitchen. Now that he's forewarned he's fully prepared to do actual battle for more privileges if need be.

"I can type with one hand, beautiful. Let me help how I can," he wheedles. Tony can tell Bruce is itching to get back out there but he also knows it won't happen as long as he thinks Tony might need him.

He doesn't, by the way, not in the way Bruce thinks.

"Have you taken your pills?" Bruce changes the subject.

"Ages ago, I'm not incompetent," he answers sullenly. "You want to check my ass in case I didn't wipe properly?"

"Now you're just being juvenile."

"Then stop treating me like a child."

Daddy issues he may be willing to admit to under torture but this coddling shit has got to go. He's not made of glass despite the fractures and it's not a funny joke to make anyway.

The point here is that he got out of a crap situation. All the gentleness in the world won't make it have sucked any less balls but they got out and he wants to put it behind him already. He's been blown up, a little torture isn't going to destroy Tony fucking Stark. He's not having it. Once was bad enough, twice is fucking embarrassing. It's like the Universe decided to spit on him personally just for kicks. He made the suit, he's a goddamned superhero, this shouldn't. He wants this to be over and Bruce isn't helping.

"Look, if I have to stay here twiddling my thumbs for one more fucking second something is going to burn," he says angrily. It's nobody's fault. He knows he's taking things out on Bruce but he can't take this anymore. Something has got to give. "Just give me this. I can deal with being benched for the time being, but I can't be useless. Bruce," he begs, "I can't do nothing."

He can see all the thoughts as they fly past Bruce's wide-open eyes. It's not a small thing to ask for, he knows this. They've worked really hard at keeping their side businesses separate and he's sweeping all that aside. He can also see it the minute he's won.

"All right."

A fist-pump of victory would be in bad taste, wouldn't it? Fuck it, he's earned one.

"Suit up, caped crusader. We've got patrolling to do," he says happily. "Hey, do I get a codename?"

Bruce thwacks him on the head with his index finger. Really, they will have to talk about all the spousal abuse happening here.

"You already have one."

"Yeah, but that's my public hero persona," he argues. "I can't be Iron Man when I'm not being Iron Man, if you know what I mean. There is no 'bat' in the name."

"I wish I didn't. Sadly, I've become intimately acquainted with your psyche," Bruce laments.

"Shut up, you love my psyche. You want to have filthy, filthy mental relations with my psyche."

"Your disease is infectious. I wasn't informed and it's too late now, but I look back fondly on the days I knew the difference between sanity and this eternal teetering on the edge of a blood rage and carnal desires." Bruce says.

Tony lifts an eyebrow at him. "Bruce. Bruce, is this your way of asking me to talk dirty to you through the comm-link? Because I think that's exactly what's happened and if you don't correct me it's also what's going to happen."

Bruce gets this look that means he's having a really hard time deciding if he should beat the ever-loving shit out of him of just fuck him raw and Tony just loves his life, really. He should have just done this in the first place, diplomacy is a crock of shit.

...

If he'd thought he'd gotten off the hook by virtue of falling under the protective wing of the Wayne name and all that entails, he'd have been grievously mistaken. Steve proves as much by being present by his bedside one morning in full military regalia. He looks uncomfortable despite usually being entirely at ease in his uniform, or any version of a uniform. At the moment though he looks like someone stuck him in a glittery bikini complete with ostrich feather fans and asked him to shake his moneymaker.

Hey, that's something he should note down for future money raising purposes. Steve would go along with that for orphans, right? They'll have to work on the face, you can hardly expect va-va-voom if you look like you're not sure what you should be doing with your mouth which only leads to looking like you're about to vomit or sneeze.

"Sit down, you're making me nervous with the looming and the fidgeting—did I mention the looming? Come on, Steve, sit. I'd get up, but, eh," he gestures at the sheet in a vague way which he hopes communicates buck-naked.

Steve averts his eyes but then he doesn't know where to look and boy, could he be any more adorable. Tony is starting to believe Clint's tales of Steve being raised by nuns even thought the nuns of Brooklyn are very unlikely to have instilled this kind of chivalry in anyone, no matter the time period.

"I can step out?" Steve offers, his eyes on the floor which isn't nearly as interesting as he's making it look.

"I don't see why you should," Tony tells him and it's only partly because he's too amused to let him. No, really. There is a decent chance Bruce is lying in wait so he can tranquilise Steve so he can ditch him outside city limits if he sends him out.

"You're quite lively for someone who's supposedly inches away from death," Steve says dryly but he sits and looks at Tony.

Tony disagrees wholeheartedly with that statement, but it's nice to be appreciated none the less.

"I accept no comments from the man who calls impalement a 'mere flesh wound'."

Steve looks unimpressed. "I think you'll find that was Thor."

"That's hardly the point," Tony says dismissively. "So, what did I do to rate a visit from Captain Rogers?"

"Fury had a talk with the Mayor about the necessity of debriefing you, hence this." He gestures at his getup and there's a blush, for god's sake. "The Mayor then had a talk with Gotham's Chief of Police, and he had a talk with Bruce Wayne."

"What!" Tony struggles to get up—if they have Bruce, if anyone has Bruce, he will come down on their organisation so hard their future grandchildren will feel it.

"He's fine please stop moving," Steve rushes to assure him. "Both he and Mr Pennyworth are here and unharmed. I swear, Tony. He's fine."

Tony calms down but doesn't let up on the frown. Sure, Steve can say that—wait, what is he doing? This is Steve. No matter what has changed, no matter how hard Fury wishes it to be different, Steve is fundamentally a good person and considers Tony a friend (of sorts). Bruce probably is fine, for a given value of fine.

Okay, what Bruce probably is, is incensed. He hasn't kept his word. He was going to keep SHIELD the hell away from Bruce and Gotham, and here they are, in Bruce's house, in Gotham. Is there nothing going his way anymore?

"I guess Fury will be Fury, sticking his nose where it doesn't belong no matter what," he grumbles.

Steve doesn't defend him, which is new. "How are you, truthfully?" he asks instead.

Tony shrugs and regrets it immediately—fucking hell, ouch. "You know how it is Steve, one minute you're in, the next you're in the possession of some impressive new internal jewellery." He laughs ruefully. "You know I never realised how much I use my arms and hands for the strangest things. I keep wanting to gesture or something, but then I get reminded why that's a bad idea."

"Pepper must be pleased," Steve says lightly. "She won't have trouble finding you, and if she needs to she can just cart you wherever she wants you to go."

"Please don't give her any ideas," he implores, although it's probably too late. It's not outside the realm of possibility this same thought has occurred to Pepper years ago, only with less accidental maiming and more violence on her part.

Steve fidgets some more. It's not quite a sign of the good captain attempting a lie but there's something not entirely kosher in the state of Shieldonia.

"We need to talk about your abduction."

"Okay," he drawls, not understanding why this merits such levels of awkwardness.

"And Wayne," Steve adds, looking away.

A-ha. Bingo, or rather, shit on a stick. This is everything he doesn't want. Apparently he didn't try hard enough to prevent it because it's happened and there's no denying it. It's time for a tactical strike.

"But of course, I always have things to say about Bruce—as a matter of fact, just the other day he developed this new of curling his tongue and it's just right for—"

"No!" Steve exclaims. "Ehm, I mean, that's not—you know, it can maybe wait."

Tony grins, unrepentant. "But I have so much material to work with! You wouldn't believe that boy sometimes—limericks, Steve, that's the level of raunchy we're talking about here. I kid you not, I could make millions writing smut."

"How is this different from before?" Steve grouses but then quickly recovers. "We've looked into this League of Shadows. It's not good, Tony. I don't know how they stayed off SHIELD's radar for so long, but they are very bad news. Fury is concerned. I'm concerned." He's back to fidgeting. "We found some things that point to Wayne Enterprises—now I'm not saying he's a part of it but Tony, something isn't right about that guy."

That train of thought? Needs to stop immediately. There are probably many better ways to do it but Tony is fixated on something that's been on his mind, and while they're on the subject of concern he might as well.

"Why was Banner in lock-up, Steve?" Yep, that's a nerve, if the tightening of the jaw is anything to go by. Steve looks more uncomfortable with this topic than he did with Bruce's bedroom prowess. Tony in entirely unapologetic. "Why, Steve? He's an Avenger, one of the good guys. There hasn't been a Hulk-related catastrophe in forever so why was it okay to imprison one of our own?"

Steve shrinks in on himself like a child being chastised. No, no, it's not going to cut it.

"Speaking of our beloved mother Fury, why the hell was it my company had to get involved in finding me and Bruce, Steve?" he pushes on. "If this League of Shadows is such a big deal, why wasn't SHIELD all over this?"

"Insubordination," Steve says so very softly. "Banner was detained because he punched a General in the face."

Tony starts spluttering without something actually relevant to say. What the hell was Banner thinking? He's on thin fucking ice with the military as it is, why did he think it was a good idea to make it worse?

"The General was of the opinion expending so much time and money to look for another freak in a long line of freaks wasn't a good use of resources when we could just get another one. Fury was finding them under every bush anyway, right?" He finally looks at Tony and those blue eyes are full of anger and confusion. "He didn't know at the time he was talking about Tony Stark of Stark Industries, but that shouldn't matter. If Banner hadn't done it, I would have."

Well. In lieu of being a grownup, he just goes with the first thing that pops in his head. "We are still talking about Bruce Banner, right? Not the Hulk? People have been telling me this but I still want to make sure."

Finally Steve smiles. "Bruce Banner, as human as anything. It was very bad timing though, you see he had an entire plan ready, but once we lost him we couldn't make sense of it." The smile turns sheepish. "Clint gave it a go but all he managed to do was make JARVIS laugh. I shouldn't be surprised, considering," Steve says laughingly.

"Oh, god," Tony groans. "What did he break?"

Steve gives him a deadpan stare. "A thingambob with all those whatsits on the side."

They look at each other and both of them start laughing at the same time which for Tony is a terrible idea.

"Ouch, ouch, stop making me laugh!"

"You asked!" Steve laughs back. "It's good to have you back. They will never admit it, but even Clint and Natasha were worried about you."

"Yeah. Of course," Tony says, not quite able to keep the scepticism out of his tone. "I didn't know they had feelings beyond what SHIELD assigns to them."

"Tony," Steve reproaches.

"No, it's fine. Consider me duly flattered." He sighs. "I'm tired."

Steve nods a little regretfully, but he does get up. "All right. Get some rest." When he's at the door he pauses, turns back. "Don't tell her I told you, but I think you should know it was Natalie Rushman who prompted the search for you. She charmed her way into that secretive little group you started with Wayne and dropped a lot of hints in a short skirt." He shakes his head, smiling. "I don't know how you find these people but they are amazing and think the world of you."

Tony pretends he's asleep, and Steve leaves quietly.

So Banner got himself into a mess defending his honour, which, fuck it, Tony can hardly hold against him considering his own track record, and Fury's throne of God King Bastard isn't as steady as it used to be. These are all interesting things, things he wouldn't hesitate to jump on and twist to his purposes were it not for the neon warning signs popping up everywhere in regards to Bruce.

They don't know yet and he does trust his better half to keep his tracks covered yet when he thinks about it he can't but conclude it's only a matter of time. They'll be occupied with the League of Shadows for now and Banner as soon as they realise, but if he knows SHIELD—and he does—that's hardly going to keep them off his ass for good. He is in so much fucking trouble and what's worse, he's dragging Bruce down with him.

...

It can't be put off any longer. He knows this because Alfred made no secret of it with his wrinkling nose and looks of disdain. He's not panicking as that would be for losers and he is a winner, thank you very much, but he's not anticipating it with any kind of joy either.

Bruce enters the room armed with plastic bags and thick rolls of tape. As if this isn't funny enough, the bags are actually red and the tape is gold. He approaches with determination, like a warrior making his last stand. Tony isn't being super creative here, Bruce's abs are straight out of 300 and he's barely wearing pants, let alone a shirt. He does suppose shirts would clash with board shorts, especially when they have bats on them. Wait a minute—bats? Bruce Wayne is wearing bat-shorts?

"Tell me I'm dreaming this. If this is reality then I have obviously lost my grip on it sometime between nine and eleven. I always did say that mornings could kill a man," he babbles. "Seriously?" he laughs. "I appreciate the gesture, but really?"

Bruce sets the bags and rolls of tape down on the bed, then produces some scissors from somewhere. "I have never been more serious. This is a serious matter," he growls.

Someone turns on a tap in the en suite.

"Okay," he breathes. He's counting seconds because he can't go too fast, that way lies madness.

The sound of the water is thunderous. It's not really, he knows that, but it seems like it is. It's not fair, why do these things keep happening to him, why, why, why—a horrible tearing sound diverts his attention from it. Bruce is standing there with a long strip of golden tape, and he looks ready for battle. He tears it off with his teeth, which shouldn't be as hot as it is, but it's also fucking hilarious.

He holds his breath for a second, and another, and then bursts out in laughter.

They wrap his cast in the Iron Man coloured plastic and tape—well, Bruce does, Tony tries and fails to be at all helpful—and he breathes again. It's pathetic it helps make him feel better—it's plastic for hell's sake—but it does and he's just stupidly thankful for Bruce and his devious mind.

"What are the scissors for, bat-surfer?" he asks and is immeasurably proud of himself for refraining from the beautiful pun to be made there. He's aware of Bruce's concessions to his sense of humour with this exercise and he doesn't want to push him too far because that's just ingratitude. Bruce has better be proud though because that was fucking hard, okay?

"Phase two," Bruce smirks, then attacks his pyjamas.

"This is just getting me dirtier," Tony says huskily. There's no hiding that with only torn strips of cloth covering him.

"Don't get ahead of yourself," Bruce tells him. "That's phase four."

He lifts Tony off the bed—completely unnecessary and ridiculous but undeniably arousing, just like the rest of it.

"Have I told you how much I like your plans? Because I really like your plans."

"No talking. I didn't leave any room for talking in-between 'unclothe' and 'ravish in bathtub'.

"You're the man with the plan," Tony agrees cheerfully, focusing on Bruce's heat, smell, and heartbeat, hoping it will just let him forget everything else.

...

It doesn't.

...

"I am well aware your organisation steamrolled all over the police department so you could invade Master Wayne's home, but I will not allow you to disturb them while they get some much needed rest," he hears Alfred say. Bruce is in bed with him on his uninjured side and no doubt wide awake by now.

"Sometimes I regret ever getting out of that fucking desert," he whines, and Bruce pinches him in the side for it.

"I apologise. I am not doing this to be belligerent. I wish I could schedule a meeting, however both Mr Stark and Mr Wayne are mysteriously booked up for the next millennium every time I try. If this weren't important I wouldn't be here Mr Pennyworth."

"That's Agent Supernanny," Tony mumbles. "Of course they sent Agent Supernanny. Bruce, I better talk to him. He's not going to give up and we don't want to be trapped in here all day."

"All right. I'll be in the bathroom. Shout if you need me." He'll be well within range to interfere and overhear without actively hanging over them. It's a compromise Tony is lucky to get, he knows.

Bruce gives Tony a peck on the lips and gets out of the bed.

Looking at him Tony is struck by the knowledge of how perilous it is for this man to be with him. No one Tony knows can ever see Bruce naked, never ever. He is beautiful like nobody's business, muscles gained through legitimately hard work, an innate grace that's only emphasised by diligent practice. He is also covered in scars nothing can adequately explain. Sure, he can stick to the tired polo excuse when talking to normal people, but the Avengers aren't normal people. If maybe not Banner, the others would know the marks for what they are—signs of a dangerous man leading a dangerous life.

"It's all right Alfred, I'm up," he calls out.

Alfred appears in the doorway first. "Are you sure, Master Anthony?" He asks this in a way that makes it perfectly clear is if willing to bodily hold Coulson back for however long necessary should his answer be negative and while Tony would pay to see such a thing, he's sadly grown as a person.

"Yeah, I'm sure. He'll just keep ringing the bell at all hours and you know how much that irritates Bruce."

Alfred steps aside to let Coulson in only reluctantly. "I'll fetch some tea for you sir. Tea, Mr Coulson?"

Coulson quirks his lips in that vaguely uncomfortable smile he has. "I would appreciate some, thank you."

"You better not have brought a taser," he says. "Alfred disapproves of weaponry inside the house, other than historical junk which isn't functional anymore. Sit down Coulson, you're making my neck hurt." Tony points at the chair Steve used last time trying to look imperative.

"Your medication should make that impossible," Coulson says, but he does sit.

"I still have the number of that masseuse. Really, I won't judge you if you ask me for it. You look more tightly wound than my arm."

"You do unspeakable things to my blood pressure," Coulson snaps. "Please cooperate and we can get this done quickly and painlessly."

"Is this where you fire me?" Tony tries to make it sound like a joke. He's not sure he quite manages it. Coulson just continues to look put upon.

"Regretfully, no. I am here to find out where Banner has disappeared to. As you know I am in charge of the Avengers when it comes to day to day business and a disappearance of one of the team members poses a problem to this duty."

Tony narrows his eyes at the man. "Are you accusing me of something here? Because let me just tell you how bad of an idea that is."

His tone is mild but the accusation is clear. "I am here to inquire, not accuse, however coincidental the timing of his disappearance is."

"I don't think I like what you're insinuating," Tony tells him.

"Every attempt to contact Dr Banner personally has failed. What we have managed to accomplish is a warning against harassment from a law firm I know very well because you have forced me to get to know them very well," Coulson continues in the same tone. "Now I would rather you not make this difficult and confirm for me what we both already know but I am perfectly willing to bend the pinky on your injured arm until you yield."

They pause because Alfred appears with the tea and Tony has leaned manners in the time he has known the man out of self-defence. Coulson goes along with the charade because he is unflappable, or maybe he already had manners. It's difficult to tell for sure.

They sip tea for a while in silence. It is surprisingly not awkward.

"This is quite nice," Coulson comments.

"Oh? What did you get?" Tony asks, leaning forward to catch a whiff.

"Darjeeling, I think."

"Yeah, that one is quite nice," he agrees, trying not to feel too jealous. He knows better, damn it, even if he really, really hates his tea. "With sugar?"

"No, I prefer it plain. You?"

"Honey, usually."

Coulson hums. "Banner is in Stark Tower, isn't he."

"Good try."

"It was never much of a secret, Stark. If Captain Rogers' account of your conversation hadn't given it away, the legal attack would have. What I want to know is why."

"Fury ask you to ask me that?" he grumbles.

Coulson smiles his little smile again. "Contrary to popular belief, Director Fury is not personally responsible for every breath taken at SHIELD. As of yet the Director is unaware of Banner's Houdini act. My question is out of personal curiosity."

"You know it recently occurred to me that SHIELD isn't going to protect any of us if we need it," Tony says suddenly. "I mean, yeah, okay, we're sort of valued as heroes when the going gets tough, but what about when it isn't? Steve is Captain America, so he has that. Clint and Natasha are actually SHIELD first and foremost, so they have that. Thor is a god, but he has an evil brother plus he's an alien from a warrior culture. Bruce—man, just thinking about the mess that is Banner's life makes my head hurt." He wants to stare down Coulson which is probably a lost cause, but he tries anyway. "What happens when they're deemed to be a threat?"

Coulson barely blinks. "Both Thor and Dr Banner are valued members of the organisation. You're speaking of eventualities that are unlikely at best."

"I'm not so sure about that. The military already hates Banner enough. What if they decide he's out of control? Does SHIELD wrap her burly arms around him and press him against her mighty bososm to keep him safe or will he be left to fend for himself? And Thor, he's not even human."

"Colourful imagery aside, that sounds a lot like paranoia to me. You went through a traumatic experience—"

"Don't you dare try and make me sound unstable. This isn't about that," he spits. "Let's make it about me—you know how I like to make it about me. Before SHIELD, was there anything the government wouldn't have done to take my armour? Yeah, didn't think so, but then you guys came along and sanctioned me or something—I don't know, there was paperwork and it was all very official—and all was well, until you grew tired of me and the entire circus starts up again."

"You continually disobeyed orders. You hacked into classified files at your every convenience," Coulson interrupts. "No one grew tired of you, Stark. You were unmanageable to the point of treason and we couldn't justify it anymore."

He ignores all of that in favour of his impassioned speech because you know what, he's making a point and it's a point someone should have made much earlier. Rehashing the Drama of Tony Stark, Ex-Avenger (reinstated) is cruel and entirely superfluous.

"Now me, I have an army of lawyers and money to spare to fight whatever they throw at me. What does Banner have?" He chuckles weakly. "Thor would probably just Mjolnir the fuck out of whatever they throw at him but Banner's a soft touch. He'd have to run again. He doesn't deserve that, Coulson."

Coulson sighs tiredly. It's a familiar sight—he does it quite often. "So you've what, decided to hijack the Avengers because you don't trust SHIELD with their wellbeing?" he asks irritably.

"I don't trust SHIELD, full-stop," Tony corrects him. "No one kidnapped Bruce Banner, Coulson. Think about it."

"Sometimes, you make me wish for retirement."

"You give me too much credit," he says mock-bashfully.

Coulson glares at him through narrowed eyes. "When I say you, I mean all of you children." He stands up, finishes his tea and sets the cup down gently. "Please ask Dr Banner to contact me. If he has a grievance, I would like to hear it—from him," he adds pre-emptively.

He rolls his eyes. "Sure, Coulson, I have nothing better to do than play messenger for you."

Coulson nods like sarcasm is something that happens to other people. "You may also release Mr Wayne from the bathroom now. I'm sure he's very clean."

"Will that be all?" Tony asks in an atrocious British accent, trying to hide the panic welling up inside. Oh god, Bruce.

"For now," Coulson says, smiling. "I'll be in touch."

Of course he will. Tony's not going anywhere so SHIELD can stalk him as much as they like. Fuck, fuck, fuck, are all the Avengers in Gotham? What are they doing and more importantly, how can he make them stop?

He needs to speak to Banner, now, however Bruce comes out of the bathroom and he is very clean indeed, so maybe later will do. Wait, no, he's already dressed and holding his phone. Bruce wiggles the next generation StarkPhone at him before throwing it his way. Tony isn't expecting it so he barely catches it in time.

"Watch the head," he complains.

"Read it," Bruce orders him, so he does.

It's a news site, Gotham Daily something or other, so he expects to read about their glorious return. Bruce Wayne is always news in anything Gotham but this time it's something else. The article is all about an armed robbery in a hotel, only there's the part where it was stopped by a woman heading for the restaurant. Apparently she used her shoes to disarm both men almost simultaneously. There is a picture, too, and it's quite obviously Natasha in a dress. He can see Clint standing behind her with his hand in his jacket pockets, the picture perfectly relaxed.

"I always knew heels had to be useful somehow," he jokes but it falls flat. "I guess they're all here, then? Other than Banner, obviously."

Bruce is looking at him. It's not an 'I told you so', not quite. He swallows. There isn't a lump in his throat. It's just the tea, it always leaves his mouth dry.

"I have to leave," Tony says, his voice full of surrender. Bruce isn't arguing with him. Why did he expect he would, though? "I'd love to stay here in bed forever but we both know it's not going to happen."

"Yes."

"Besides, I can't leave Pepper to deal with SHIELD alone and there's our project to think of," he says more cheerfully and it's all a lie, lie, lie.

"Of course."

Tony makes a frustrated noise and smacks the mattress. "I refuse to let everything go to hell!"

"Tony," Bruce says calmly.

"Yeah," he sighs.

"Tony," Bruce says again, and this time Tony actually looks at him. "What makes you think you're doing this alone?"

He gapes at him, at a loss for words because how do you say you're ruining someone's life without making it sound egocentric? Bruce sits on the bed with him, runs his fingers gently through his hair. "I did not sit through Tyra Banks for you only to let you run away now, you idiot."

"Bruce, they have files on you," he says dejectedly. "They will dig until something makes sense and you know how that story ends. I can't do that to you. You were right to fight me when I pushed for official but I'm a stubborn bastard and look where it got us. I'm so sorry, Bruce."

"Are you honestly surprised?"

He can't say that he is which does nothing to make it better.

"It's not only that," he confesses. "I can't tell you—fuck, how I wish I could—but I can't. It has all the makings of a spectacular clusterfuck with me at the epicentre. You can't be involved. It would be bad, very, very bad."

"This is what's going to happen," Bruce says, and there's no waver, no pause, no room for argument. "You will take my plane and go to New York to take care of your people and yourself while I deal with things here. In a few days you will invite me to dinner and I will bring you flowers. We will give an interview about how horrible our capture was and how grateful we are to be rescued by the Avengers. Then, while everyone is distracted by how rich, successful, and happy we are, we will be rich, successful, and happy beyond their wildest dreams."

Tony, for once, has nothing to say.

"But that is phase two," he says, interrupting Tony's stream of bafflement. Then he kisses him and the world tilts sideways, taking all of Tony's terror and forcing it to slide away.

"Trust in your magnificent brain," Bruce whispers into his mouth.

"I'd rather trust in you," Tony counters.

"Then start now."

...

Pepper fetches him from the airport and it's a little like old times. She has Happy with her and is looking pleased and disapproving at the same time. It is the most wonderful sight ever.

"Would you look at that. The CEO of Stark Industries, I am so honoured," he teases her. He's wearing a designer cast and sling contraption that's less cumbersome than the everyday version so he's careful while he hugs her but it can be accomplished without too much trouble.

"Welcome home, Mr Stark," she says and gives him a watery smile.

"How is Banner?" he asks right away.

"Considering you didn't actually kidnap him but he is potentially wanted by the military I decided we hardly needed to look elsewhere for legal representation seeing as these things are hardly new territory for you," she says with a note of condescension. "Your usual firm is perfectly capable of handling all these things."

"Pepper, I wish it were that simple but it never is so why bother. Is he at the tower or the mansion?" he asks instead.

"Tower. He was most interested in the equipment so I let him have at it. He's been working on something for the past few days—Tony, tell me we didn't steal anything dangerous."

"You didn't steal anything dangerous," he parrots obediently.

Pepper, who knows him too well by now, huffs angrily. "Well whatever it is, he's very protective of it. Promise me you will deal with this because I can't, I can't take anymore shocks, not with the company to run and SHIELD breathing down my neck every time I turn around."

"First thing, Miss Potts, I promise. Actually," he turns to Hogan, "You remember that burger joint from that one time, with the thing in the cheese?"

"Sure do, boss," he laughs. Pepper walks away muttering angrily about murder not being an option and he follows after her, whistling happily.

...

Banner starts talking at him the minute he's through the doors.

"So I've combed through the rest of the data you gathered and you were right, it really is junk for the most part however entertaining Johnny Storm's chatlogs were."

"I see you've settled in," he says eyeing the mess of chemistry equipment.

"Oh, yes," Banner says distractedly. He whips off his glasses and starts wiping them on his lab coat. "Thanks. It's very homey. Anyway, I isolated the interesting bits and tried to put it all together into something cohesive." He swings a screen over to face Tony and points with his glasses. "See this? There's chunks of data missing here, here, and here."

He can see what Banner means and from the looks of things he's been trying to fill those gaps as best he can. "So I take it you didn't show Fury," Tony concludes.

Bruce recoils a little, startled by the observation. "No. I was going to, but then..."

Tony flaps his hand at him. "Yes, yes," he says, "Rocks fall, Fury is a dick."

"Those would be the highlights, yes," Banner agrees. "Since I can't get access to SHIELD databases I've been trying to make do with what I remember. I tried my best to recall all the data we have on Steve's samples while I was here so let me show you what I've got so far."

"While this is all undoubtedly fascinating and I will enjoy it immensely, we have a more pressing concern," Tony stops him, making him do that startled twitch thing again. Honestly, for someone who turns into a hulkbeast, Banner sure is excitable. Maybe that's why, actually.

"SHIELD?"

Tony shakes his head. "While they are a massive pain in my ass, no."

"Richards then." Banner shoves his glasses back on. "I may have gotten a little carried away—this is all fascinating stuff—but you're right, we need to find out how he got this. What do you suggest we do?"

Isn't that a good question. If it were up to him, he'd bring Bruce into this. Investigating is more up the Bat's alley than it is his, as much as he hates to admit it. All he can think of is invading the Baxter building under the pretext of more biological questioning. He does have Banner now which might be enough of a distraction so he can have the time to break into Reed's computers and copy everything. With him and JARVIS working on this simultaneously it shouldn't take long at all.

"Have you considered he came by it legitimately?" Banner says suddenly.

It's a ridiculous idea. The Fantastic Four don't have any ties to SHIELD and Fury would rather eat his other eye than give someone else anything to do with Captain America willingly. Of course there is one other option. "You think he walked up to Steve one day and just asked him for a phial of blood?" he says bemusedly.

Banner gives him a withering look. "Would it kill you to ask?"

"Ask? Who? You mean ask Steve?" he exclaims. That's even more ridiculous. He should just call Steve, ask him about his day and how about them Dodgers, oh by the way, did you give your blood to Mr Fantastic? "Actually, that's not a bad idea. JARVIS, call Captain Rogers for me, will you?"

...

If Steve's surprised to be invited to the Tower, he doesn't show it. They have a chat about the weather in New York, which means he's still being tracked by SHIELD, great, awesome, and Steve agrees to stop by for lunch or a movie (Tony doesn't remember which he used to lure him in).

He's still trying to think of a non-confrontational way of asking if he let Mr Fantastic stick a needle in him however he's not getting anywhere. It's one thing if Steve was actually reckless enough to go spreading his bodily fluids around but why the hell did it have to be Richards? Honestly, out of all the scientists in the world, why him? Tony would have preferred it if he'd given his DNA to Luthor.

Banner is there for moral support or to drink his coffee—personally he's going with coffee.

"I still think this is ludicrous," he says again.

"Eliminate the possibilities before you draw a conclusion, Stark. If Richards stole his data or is trying to recreate it we'll have to involve Steve anyway," Banner says calmly. "I thought you'd be pleased."

"Why the hell would I be pleased?" Boy, is his voice really that high? Banner's smirking at him so that answers that.

"I thought you liked Steve. He certainly likes you."

"Steve likes everyone," he says nonchalantly. "I don't see why that's even a thing."

"I have to correct you there. He has an ongoing feud with a jogger he met in Central Park."

Tony tries to gauge just how much of that is bullshit. You wouldn't expect Bruce Banner to be a good liar but his poker face is immaculate.

"No," he says, and it's a long, drawn out sound he thinks conveys his disbelief perfectly.

Banner smiles wider. "Oh yes."

"But, why?" he asks with a hint of whine. His whole worldview is being upset.

"He litters and has no respect for his fellow joggers," comes the familiar voice from behind them.

"Steve! Where the hell did you come from," he demands. He hadn't been there before, right? What was JARVIS doing even, goddamn.

"The elevator," Steve says like he'd expected Tony to be aware of this.

"You could have said something," Tony pouts.

Steve blinks at him. "Bruce saw me."

Tony glances at Banner who's examining the contents of his cup, the foul betrayer.

"You look well. Are you back in New York to stay a while?"

Tony glares down at his arm and nods. "Yeah, I am. It seemed like the best idea. Bruce is a bully—my Bruce, not Hulk-Bruce." He continues quickly at the sight of Steve's glare. "It's easier for me to work from here. Less exertion. He's right, but I don't have to like it."

"He could come here?" Steve says with what seems like great personal sacrifice. It's something to keep an eye on.

"That's the downside of dating a billionaire business man—he can't. He has WE just as I have SI," he explains. "But I didn't ask you here to whine about my love life—hi, Steve! It's good to have you here. You've been here before, right?"

"Oh, yeah. It's changed since then though."

"Pepper remodelled," Bruce joins in. "Since Tony nominally lives at the mansion she changed a few things here."

"That's right, you live here now," Tony says.

This isn't getting him any closer to asking Steve about Richards, but what can he do? What's a good way to work up to asking someone about their super secret altered DNA? He's not familiar with the etiquette here, so babbling it is.

"I kidnapped Banner so I could keep him in my tower like a beautiful princess," he goes on. "So far, no knights—not counting you, you aren't here for a dashing rescue."

"It's not kidnapping if you ask, Tony," Bruce says amusedly.

Steve looks progressively more lost.

"You don't live on the base anymore?" he asks Banner.

Bruce smiles grimly. "I thought it was in my best interests to find alternative lodging. Tony obliged me."

"This is about that General, isn't it," Steve says grimly.

"Among other things, yes."

"SHIELD would protect you, Bruce. You're one of theirs." Steve says earnestly, and Tony feels a little sad for him.

"My experience with military organisations has been less than encouraging," Banner says. "I didn't want to take the chance."

Steve turns to Tony but he hardly has any assurances to give. By now Steve should know Tony and figures of authority have never gotten along well.

"It was my idea," he admits. "Steve, do you remember the Tesseract experiments? The Hulk chamber?"

"I remember Tony, I was right there with you," Steve interrupts.

"Then you should understand why I'm pulling Bruce out before they stuff him in a box," he snaps.

Steve glares daggers at him. He's crossed his arms and stands tall, even out of costume there's no mistaking him for anyone other than Captain America.

"I can't believe you'd think I'd let that happen."

Tony believes him, really he does. Steve would protest anything he sees as injustice, but Captain America or not, he is just one man.

"I'd rather be safe than sorry."

It was the right thing to say obviously. Steve relaxes and Tony breathes easier.

"All right. I understand. I don't like it, but I understand." He smiles a little and Tony feels better just seeing it. "Thank you for telling me."

While it makes him feel like a total dick he still grabs on to it.

"Hey, you're team leader, it's only right," Tony says, the words tasting bitter in his mouth. "This was only one of the reasons I called you though."

"Don't tell me," Steve says with a sigh, "You've kidnapped Thor as well."

"No, but now that you mention it he always was my favourite—no offence, Banner."

Steve is trying to look scandalised and failing.

"Tony!"

Banner groans and drops his head in his hand. "Can we just ask him already?"

Steve looks at him curiously. "Ask me what?"

Tony drums his fingers on his cast, considering the best way to go about this yet again. He's not getting any better ideas. Fuck it, he can just be blunt and smooth it out later.

"Steve, have you been giving your blood to strange men?"

"Excuse me?" Steve splutters.

"Richards, Steve, have you given blood to Reed Richards?" he elaborates.

"No," Steve says with a puzzled frown, "why would you think that?"

Tony and Banner share a look.

"This is not good," Banner says.

"Very not good," Tony agrees.

"What do we do?"

"What are you talking about," Steve exclaims. They both turn to him, equally dour looks on their faces.

"Come on, we'll show you. You can help plan the next move, oh tactical genius," Tony says, grabbing Steve and dragging him to the elevator.