Chapter Twenty-Three: Another Road-Trip
The time passed quickly for the Avengers but at the same time it seemed like an eternity. They organised themselves quickly and with the aid of the information provided by Fury had formulated a viable plan of attack. It wasn't perfect or foolproof, something that made Tony and Bruce wince slightly but it was the best they could do with such a limited timeframe and next to no resources.
In that respect Pepper had been a fucking godsend.
Amidst dealing with the complete shit storm that the WSC had left in their wake with their attack on the tower, their subsequent proclamation of 'Tony Stark: traitor' and running SI she had somehow managed to discreetly commandeer them some transport in such a way that it couldn't possibly be traced back to her. The look of impressed awe on Steve's face when the letter had arrived had been utterly priceless and was something the billionaire was going to remember for the rest of his life, however short it may be. It also reminded of him of why he loved the woman so much, her ability to effortlessly anticipate and accommodate Tony's needs was nothing short of phenomenal; never mind her utterly devious and breathtaking mind.
So the six Avengers were crammed like sardines into the back of a medium sized motor home looking at each other with neutral expressions while Happy manned the wheel trying not to look like he was currently transporting America's most wanted man. The billionaire had been slightly dubious about Happy being their driver but as Pepper had explained Happy was just too obvious of a choice to be believable as a transporter and therefore was above reasonable suspicion. Just because it made logical sense didn't mean that Tony had to like it though, he loathed the thought of putting the man at risk no matter how blasé he was about their 'professional relationship'. Happy had been covering Tony's ass almost as long as Rhodey had, even more so than Rhodey when he thought about it Happy had literally seen it all by Tony's side.
The billionaire gave a small tired sigh, propped up against the back of the driver's seat and watched the rest of the team, they were all hiding the tension well but it was still palpable in the air. Steve and Clint were sat with Thor around the laughably small breakfast table, teaching him the basics of Gin Rummy and Bruce was sprawled across the couch with a copy of some weird meditation book open across his chest; snoring lightly. Nat had disappeared over an hour ago after commandeering the largest of the two bedrooms saying that she needed some 'girl time' which Tony thought meant she was cleaning the many instruments of demise she possessed and it was therefore probably not a good idea to disturb her if he wanted all his appendages intact.
"You okay Boss?" Happy asked lowly, eyes never leaving the road.
Tony sighed again not entirely sure how to answer; and he would have to answer, Happy may not be the brightest person in his employ but he was like a dog with a bone, tenacious. It was something he truly liked and admired about the other man and it had saved his ass on more than one occasion as well as occasionally getting him into even more trouble, a few wild parties in Europe sprang immediately to mind.
"Yeah..." He answered lamely.
He didn't seem satisfied with the answer Tony could tell; Happy had never exactly been subtle when it came to showing his displeasure and now was no different. He let out a grunt of disapproval and the billionaire could see his knuckles tighten around the steering wheel.
"Try again Boss."
Tony's grin turned wry and slightly sardonic. "Okay so maybe I'm not quite one hundred percent."
Happy snorted at that. "I think considering what I've heard about this whole cluster-fuck then that is a god damned understatement."
The billionaire remained silent leaning his head against the head rest of the driver's seat and taking in slow measured breaths as he felt anxiety squeeze his heart.
"I need to ask you a favour."
Again Tony could see the tension in the other man, it wasn't often he asked Happy for 'favours' and they were more often than not asked in times when Tony was either dying or about to do something colossally stupid. His long time friend and former chauffeur had learned to fear the word with good reason.
"Favour?" His voice was rightfully tinged with worry.
Tony licked his lips as he contemplated his next words, keeping his voice as low as possible so that only Happy could hear the next sentence.
"If... if something happens, to me, and y'know... I want you to take care of Pep for me. She's gonna need someone to have her back against all those corporate assholes and general assholes and..."
"Boss... Tony..." Happy cut across "I...Nothing is gonna happen, so you shouldn't worry..." He attempted to sound optimistic but it instead came across somewhat strained.
The billionaire let out a frustrated sigh and ran a hand through his hair. "Happy, I can't... I... Not this time... Just promise me...Okay."
There was a long moment of silence between them.
"Okay, you got it... I promise Boss... Not that I need to but you have my word."
Tony let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding and relaxed against the chair, he didn't know what was coming or what they'd be facing but he could at least take a small modicum of comfort knowing that he'd done the best he could considering the circumstances. His relief was short lived however as the motor home began to slow to a stop. Immediately every pair of eyes in the small living area darted up and Steve lunged forward worry sparkling in his blue eyes.
"What's wrong Mr. Hogan?"
Most people would have blushed and stammered at Captain America addressing them so respectfully but Happy had spent far too much time stuck in the vortex that was the life of Tony Stark to be cowed by such a thing. He spoke clearly and concisely when he answered.
"There's some kind of checkpoint up ahead..." He didn't sound happy.
Immediately everyone was on alert, eyes darting to one another with a sharp concern and Steve took control of the situation slipping into 'Captain America' mode.
"Right, Thor, Clint, Tony and I are going to hide out in the bedrooms. Our faces are too well known; people don't really know yours Bruce so I need you to keep them occupied and get rid of them as fast as possible."
The physicist looked a little nervous at the prospect of dealing with the situation but he nodded with a steely resolute look in his eye and a small quirk to his lips. Tony felt himself smile despite the potentially plan-shattering situation they had happened upon, he knew Bruce would handle this; the man was generally quiet and kept to himself but he'd been on the run for years before now he knew how to act and pretend to be someone he wasn't. He wouldn't have survived and evaded capture for so long otherwise.
The rest of them herded themselves into the bedrooms at the back of the motor home without comment, clearly trusting Steve's decision and Bruce's acting skills. Steve and Thor took the smaller of the two rooms, while Clint and Tony cautiously entered the one Natasha had commandeered earlier. She didn't look impressed.
"What is happening? Is it too much to ask for some alone time?" She demanded sharply.
Tony gawked while Clint merely rolled his eyes as he took in the chaos that was the double bed; it was covered in weapons and equipment.
"Where on earth do you hide all that stuff when you go into a fight?" The billionaire asked slightly breathless.
Natasha's eyes narrowed "Really not important now Stark. Clint what's the sitrep?"
Hawkeye's demeanour immediately changed the consummate professional replacing the light hearted joker Tony had come to admire and sort of like.
"Some kind of checkpoint looks to be only local law enforcement but well..."
"Yebat."* Widow cursed.
"Yeah" Clint continued "Steve and Thor are next door and Banner is running divert and dismiss."
There was the briefest flicker of a smile from Natasha and if Tony had looked a millisecond later he would have missed it. Intrigued he raised an eyebrow at the spy; who merely offered a blank expression and a quiet 'well this should be interesting' in response. The billionaire went to ask her to explain but a hand of his shoulder stopped him and he felt the shake of Clint's head through his hand.
"You'll see Shell head; you haven't done recon on Banner while he's been on the run. It's an experience... Just watch... Well listen and you'll see." There was definitely a smile in his voice.
"Fine." He huffed back and sat down on the bed carefully positioning himself between a pile of caltrops and those electric stun disks Natasha was so fond of. He could play their little game.
Bruce sat at the table mentally calculating all the variables and the best plan of action, it had been a while since he'd been in such a situation and he just hoped that his skills weren't too rusty. He moved from the table and headed toward the small kitchen area to put his plan into action. He turned on the tap and cupped a handful of the cold water rubbing it through his hair in order to tame and slick the curls, next he raided the refrigerator for one of the leftover beers. Grimacing slightly he opened it and took a long mouthful making sure to swill and gargle it before spitting it out. For good measure he poured a little into his hands and applied it like aftershave swallowing down the gag reflex at the yeasty smell. Finally he opened a few of his shirt buttons, kicked off his shoes and grabbed the cheap pair of sunglasses Tony had demanded they buy at the last rest stop to 'protect his delicate retinas' (Bruce had been so relieved to see some of the old Tony back he done it without question) and replaced his reading glasses with them. Happy that he now looked and smelled like a slightly drunk/hung-over idiot he turned to their driver.
"Happy follow my lead okay."
"You got it Doc." He replied nodding, this wasn't his first rodeo.
The motor home crawled to a slow halt.
Bruce watched through the side window as an officer approached the vehicle and heard the sharp rapping on the side door. He took a deep breath before plastering a large slightly dopey grin on his face and pulling the door open.
"Officer..."The officer flashed his identification badge "...Fletcher" He said brightly, his voice slipping back into an accent he hadn't used in such a long, long time that it almost hurt to think about. "What can I do ya' for?"
The officer... Fletcher look slightly taken aback by the enthusiastic greeting but after catching the faint whiff of beer he relaxed slightly. Bruce grinned mentally; the guy was already underestimating him.
"We're doing a spot check of all vehicles in the area Sir; we've had reports that a dangerous fugitive may be moving through the area."
Bruce furrowed his brow "Well that don't sound good, who's the guy?"
The officer handed Bruce a photo and even though he had a good idea of who was going to be it still made a lead weight drop in his stomach when he saw Tony's face flash in front of him.
"This is that Stark fella' isn't it, what did rich boy do crash too many parties? Seems the type."
The physicist drawled with wry humour, chuckling drunkenly at his own joke. In the bedroom Tony had to cover his mouth to stop himself from snorting slightly despite the severe situation, while both Natasha and Clint just smirked slightly and rolled his eyes.
Fletcher frowned slightly and took the photo back "Don't really have the details Sir, we've just been asked to search all the vehicles that pass through the area. So I need to see some identification and then need to search the vehicle."
In the back of his mind Bruce felt Hulk growl in frustration but he soothed him with the reassurance that he wasn't needed, not yet, the young officer was persistent and didn't look like he was going to back down from his duty but Bruce knew he could handle this situation. He plastered on a bright smile hoping he would still be able to de-rail the younger man and handed him the fake ID Tony had provided him with when he'd first moved in with him.
"So Mr.." Fletcher looked at the identification "Keppel**, what is the nature of your journey?"
Bruce rolled his eyes behind his sunglasses; Tony could be subtle and completely unsubtle at the same time. "Please call me Robby, Mr Keppel is my father, me and my friend here are heading down f'r our school reunion down in Washington County." He let a warm smile bleed through into his voice.
The officer looked down again at the identification and then back at Bruce the look in his face showing that he was clearly uncomfortable with this whole situation and thought it was a waste of time but knew he had to follow through. The physicist sighed internally, why was nothing ever easy? He spoke again to recapture Fletcher's attention before he began to over think things and complicated the matter further.
"Well there ain't much here not really..." Bruce positioned himself so that the officer could see through the door but not in a way that would allow him access "See? Just me and a few buddies."
Fletcher looked slightly flummoxed clearly not entirely sure whether this was considered enough to make his superiors happy or not and Bruce mentally prayed that it was, while still maintaining his casual demeanour; not giving away a flicker of worry even though he felt it.
In the bedroom Tony listened through the door with a slight look of shock on his face. If he hadn't know for a fact that it was Bruce out there he would have sworn blind that it was an entirely different person. His demeanour had completely changed and there was a confidence in his voice that the billionaire had never heard before, it was... startling, the difference it made. The man out there was not the reserved, quiet person with authority issues he had come to know and it made Tony's head spin and stomach churn. Was this how Bruce would have been had he not had his accident? Or was this an act of necessity of something to try and just make life that little easier?
It left a slightly bitter taste on Tony's tongue but he was no less in awe of it.
Sitting on the bed both Natasha and Clint were sat on the bed smirking slightly but their faces held a modicum of feigned sympathy. It really was too fun to be able to catch Stark out of his element and demoted to the realms of cluelessness every once in a while.
"Might wanna pick your jaw up Stark." Hawkeye murmured quietly, sharp eyes never leaving Tony's.
The billionaire shut his mouth immediately, shot a half hearted glare at Clint and went back to listening to the conversation, pointedly ignoring the two super spies sat smugly behind them. Bruce practically had the officer eating out of his hand and it made Tony wonder that if Bruce could be this manipulative then why the shit wasn't he more often? Hell the billionaire knew he could sweet talk people into doing what he wanted but the physicist? He was talking people into liking him and that was an entirely different ball game one to which Tony had no clue of the rules.
It finally seemed as if Fletcher was going to relent and leave them in peace when a second, older and much gruffer voice entered the conversation accompanied the harsh sound of a blunt object coming into contact with the side of the motor home, dangerously close to where Bruce was standing. Even from his perch in the bedroom Tony felt himself jump.
"What's takin' so long greenhorn? All ya' had to do was search the van surely even you can do that simple task." He barked as he swung the police baton back into its holder.
Bruce took an instant dislike to the older man, reminded far too keenly of another older man of authority.
"We were just finishing our business Officer." He tried to keep the disdain from his voice but Bruce was fairly certain a little had seeped through.
The newcomer raised an eyebrow at Bruce and tilted his hat slightly in a gesture of authority and in that second the physicist knew they were in trouble. He may have been able to convince Fletcher not to come aboard but trying that with this sour face old git who clearly had an authority complex shoved so far his ass it hadto be painful was just not going to fly here.
"Mmm-hmmm." The officer hummed, sucking his lip slightly in a menacing manner.
Beside him Fletcher blanched slightly and wilted under the intimidating man's presence and turned an apologetic gaze up at Bruce. The physicist offered a small smile in return; while he didn't actively like the police Fletcher had seemed to be a genuine guy. This new intruder however seemed like a total ass.
"Yes Officer Brunswick, we were just finishing up." Fletcher added an almost pleading look on his face.
"Mmm-hmmm." Brunswick snarked "Did you check the inside?"
Fletcher paled slightly and Bruce mentally cursed.
"Uhm... No Sir. There didn't seem to be any need." He replied somewhat timidly not daring to look either man in the eye.
Back in the bedroom Tony could feel his heart rate pitch slightly, they were sobusted. Behind him he could hear his fellow team-mates shuffling around trying to remain quiet, admittedly curious he turned around to see just what the hell they were up to and ended up with an eyeful of Natasha's naked back. The billionaire just about managed to muffle the squeak that escaped his mouth and shot a glare at the smirking Hawkeye.
"Oh stop being such a baby Stark; you'd think you'd never seen a naked woman before." He teased as Widow shot out a hand and cuffed him around the head.
"Clint knock it off, I'm trying to think."
Tony tried not to feel smug and for once decided that not spewing the thought that had just crossed his mind was probably a good thing instead he asked.
"What are you doing?"
Natasha turned to him, a long towel wound around her body and shot Tony a fleeting smirk before her face turned serious.
"Improvising." She replied, none to gently pushing Tony out of the way and heading out of the bedroom door.
Outside the bedroom Bruce could feel himself starting to flounder, he had tried every tactic he could think of to dissuade Brunswick but the old bastard was stubborn and would not back down; digging his heels if further with every word the physicist said.
"Robby, darlin' what's taking so long?" Natasha's accent was a flawless mimicry of Bruce's own
A pair of cool hands wound themselves around Bruce's waist and it took every ounce of his control not to jump in surprise. He turned his head slightly and caught sight of Natasha's cold green eyes as she laid her chin on his shoulder, she had angled her body so that her towel covered curves were in plain sight of the two police officers and both of them were apparently not above abject staring. The physicist bit the inside of his cheek to stop the snort of laughter at the obvious tactic but if he was perfectly honest he'd never been happier to see the Widow. Well he would be happier if she didn't have a grip on his hips so tight it could probably crush bone but he pushed his discomfort aside and let a slow, lazy smile cross his face.
"Hey babe, just talking to the officers here."
Natasha smiled warmly at the two men before kissing Bruce on the cheek a looked filled with hidden promises that made both officers flush slightly plastered across her face.
"Well don't keep me waiting too long darlin' you know how I don't like to be kept waitin'..."
And without another word she sauntered back off toward the bedroom, hips swaying in an exaggerated fashion leaving no illusions as to what she was 'waiting' for. Brunswick whistled quietly under his breath eyes not leaving Natasha's swinging backside, after she slipped out of sight he turned his attention back to Bruce jaw slightly agape.
"Damn that's a woman you got their friend."
Bruce gave a chuckle knowing just untrue that actually was but not wishing to undo the work Natasha had put in place he twitched his lips upward, raised his sunglasses and winked.
"You got no idea friend." He answered truthfully.
"Bet she's a real animal in the sack." Brunswick said with a heated tone and a look of undisguised lust on his face.
The physicist felt his stomach twist in disgust but he kept his expression casual and prayed that Natasha would forgive him later.
"That's one way 'o putting it but like she said, she don't like to be kept waiting."
Brunswick smirked and the expression on his face made Bruce's stomach twist even more violently, the man was an honest to god letch and he felt insulted on the Widow's behalf. Hell even the other guy felt insulted; if the grumbles in the back of his mind were anything to go by. Considering his and Natasha's somewhat chequered past that was truly a testament to how disgusting they both found the man. Understandably oblivious to the physicist's inner workings however the officer continued to smirk while Fletcher rolled his eyes; at Brunswick in disgust and Bruce in amazement at apparently landing someone like Natasha.
If only he knew the truth.
"Well Greenhorn let's not keep the lady waiting any longer, it ain't gentlemanly." He tipped his hat to Bruce before stalking away.
Fletcher lingered a moment longer before offering Bruce a terse smile and quiet farewell before following his superior officer back toward the checkpoint. The physicist let the door of the motor home close with a quiet click and rested his head against it, taking in a slow steady breath. That had been close, too close. If it hadn't been for Natasha's intervention he dreaded to think how that situation would have turned out.
Happy slowly drove through the checkpoint and quickly out of sight of the officers before the rest of the Avengers deigned to emerge from hiding. Tony blustered in like a whirlwind and immediately threw an arm around Bruce's shoulders a slightly manic grin on his face.
"Forget the Nobel, get this man an Oscar because I honestly didn't recognize you..."
The physicist ducked his head but you could just make out the slight red tinge to his ears.
"Plus you got to schmooze with the notorious Black Widow and keep your manhood intact, that deserves an award all of it's own."
Natasha gave the billionaire a quick smack around the head while the rest of the team just shook their heads in amused exasperation. He grumbled slightly but gave them all a smug smirk, a gesture they all immediately saw straight through; they had known him long enough to see the strained edge to the smirk.
"Tony, please don't talk about my 'manhood' again unless you want to give the Other Guy ideas." The comment was as dry as the desert.
There was a brief moment of disbelieving silence before Tony burst into laughter, genuine, unforced laughter; the like they hadn't heard from him in quite some time.
"Jesus Banner..." He turned to the rest of them "And this is why Bruce is my favourite."
The mirth was short lived however as the motor home once again began to slow down as the terrain began to roughen. They were getting close, Tony could feel that sense of certainty running through his body like a rush of adrenaline and it made his fingers thrum with anticipation. He wasn't the only affected, Clint was a taught as his bow string, Thor and Natasha looked resigned but determined and Steve... Steve looked more serious than Tony had ever seen him and considering the shit they'd all been through that was saying something. For the briefest of moments their eyes met and the raw sadness in the Captain's gaze nearly took Tony's breath away.
He'd forgotten he wasn't the only one with something to lose here.
But the moment passed and it was suddenly back to business, Steve's face betraying nothing.
"Avengers. Suit up."
**A shade of green