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Up in the Air, Junior Birdman

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The fight has been more frustration than aggression. They’re outnumbered, nearly outmatched and Natasha is bone weary. They’ve been going all day, moving between burroughs, trying to contain the threat, struggling to find a seemingly absent motivation.

The army of golden warriors is eerily silent, blank-eyed bodies armed with spears, animated by strange magic. They’ve been pouring through the streets in a wave. Most are easily knocked down, but every tenth or so proves both more resilient and dangerous. They’re the ones with intent, golden hands reaching out for strangers. When those warriors take hold of someone, a paralytic is released, dropping the victim to the ground. Several of those victims have died as their hearts stopped.

While the bulk of the army moves like puppets in tin suits, there’s humanity in the eyes of that tenth soldier. More than animated tin, they’re people, controlled somehow.

Cap, Stark, and Thor have finally triangulated the last full regiment near the Brooklyn Bridge, while Clint and Wilson are picking off the strays who’d crossed ahead.

It all took longer than necessary, a series of bickering, pissy disagreements degenerating into miscommunications that nearly got Stark run over by a municipal van. Clint’s sporting a shiner, and her calf aches like a muscle perpetually cramped.

Natasha has been running point on a smaller group, but she’s out of ammo and doesn’t want to let any of the warriors get close enough to risk contact. She’s weighing her odds, ducking and weaving, lashing out and breaking what she can while wishing for an extended reach when the last of her bites shorts out the closest warrior.

They’re still coming, but she grabs his spear as he falls, wincing at the static that burns through her, but she doesn’t have time to shake it off. She thrusts forward, stabbing through soldier after soldier. They’re crowding around her and she’s starting to get sloppy, fighting for focus, when Hulk drops from above.

He smashes through the ranks,crushing tearing mashing, a boot amongst ants. Most crumple, but there were several of the humanoids among the army. One grabs at the Hulk--brave if that’s an accurate description. Hulk crushes its throat. It screams: wrenching and pained. None of them have screamed before.

She can’t truly mourn them, but it's startling and when Hulk has disposed of the rest, he looks to her, gaze darting around until he's satisfied then throws his head back and howls.

Nat holds out her hand. He grunts his displeasure, but returns the gesture. It’s been a long day for him too, and while the paralytics don’t knock him out, they’ve left discolored patches on his thick skin. He’s scrubbing and scratching at his arms, clearly uncomfortable.

“I promise that we can help with that,” she says, “but not now. Sun’s getting low.”

And it was.

She turns away as he transforms.

***

Bruce comes back to himself in the midst of golden bodies. He looks around, sees destruction but no blood, just broken suits.

Relief staggers him and he stumbles, catches himself, hands on his knees. Natasha is a few feet away, holding a golden spear, waiting him out. His chest opens.

It's the juxtaposition, maybe. Her pale face, the red of her hair, the tac suit fitted like skin, the dirt on her cheek, the spear. The way she holds herself like she's the barricade the enemy will have to breach and she's immovable.

She's so damned beautiful in that strength. The spear just adds to it. A warrior goddess, although he’s a little embarrassed by that analogy, knowing how much she’d hate it.

Natasha cocks her head and reality rushes back, even as a hint of hysteria twists his mouth. She looks like nothing so much as hope. Perhaps this won't be the horror his whipsaw snatches of memory are suggesting. Perhaps the other guy just growled and smashed and made way.

Perhaps he didn't murder and maim.

Then Bruce looks down.

In front of him, stiff metallic features have relaxed into the slack face of a boy not much out of adolescence. His chest is a mangled wreck, although still golden.

Bruce sinks to his knees. His gut roils, burning welts on his skin standing out amongst the dirt but he can’t bring himself to care.

Death then. Of course.

“I didn’t know,” he starts, and swallows hard.

His throat is so thick, bile and fear and loathing, voice so low he’s not sure she heard him, or that he wanted her to.

But then Natasha is kneeling beside him, hand wrapping around the back of his neck. Her touch is water in a desert. He feels unworthy of it, can’t move from her absolution. She tilts him towards her, and he lets her, so weak and so grateful.

He pushes his head against her shoulder, wraps his shaking hand around her hip, sinking into that warm hold on his neck.

“We’re okay,” she says, and he sees boots a few meters away. Knows they’re Clint’s.

“Doc?” he says, but Bruce doesn’t respond. He feels weak, helpless, horrified.

“No one could have saved them,” she says. “But we still did our duty. We made it better. At least for now.”

***

“It’s not actually gold,” Stark says, handing her the spear.

“Obviously,” Natasha says.

He shrugs. “Thought the alloy breakdown would give us some info, but mostly, it’s just a lightweight metal. The real mystery is the color. It’s not painted. But my interest has waned.” Stark leaves.

“Well, it’s mine now. Whatever it is.”

Bruce leans against his lab table. “So, what are you going to do with a spear?”

“Hunt boar?”

He barks out a laugh. He’s been quieter than normal the past few days, and she doesn’t want to cajole him. He's allowed to process his role in their missions however he needs to.

Still, she wishes there were something she could say. Since there’s not, she just keeps showing up, quietly checking in. He takes her to coffee, to the place with the real whipped cream. She brings him a series of ridiculous tiny notebooks from the bespoke paper goods store that Steve can’t stay away from--he's addicted to the wall of pens.

Bruce reaches back, switching off his monitor. He holds up a miniature notebook embossed with golden fists they've turned into the restaurant log. “Have you eaten?”

She shakes her head.

“Let me buy you dinner,” he says.

“Where?”

He fiddles with his glasses. “Steve and Clint went to Red Rooster last weekend.”

She rolls the base of the spear in a circle on the floor. “You want to go to Harlem?” She doesn’t let her dubiousness creep in.

“I want…” he huffs out a breath. “I haven’t been back since...the incident. And I…” he shrugs. “Maybe I want to see that things are reparable.”

“This a foray, or just another way to punish yourself?”

He waves her off, “Nevermind. It’s fine, don’t worry. We’ll go to the German place. You can have Chicken Cordon Bleu. Again.”

It’s such a small thing to ask, this tentative geographical sortie. Maybe it's even healthy on his part. Recovery, not condemnation. Doubtful, knowing Bruce. But possible. She can give him the benefit of the doubt, hope it will encourage him to do the same. “No, we’ll go. But I want Sylvia’s if we’re trekking out there.”

Bruce rolls his eyes, something softening, the tick in his jaw ebbing. “Call Clint and Maria then, we’ll make it a party.”

~*~

The food at Sylvia’s is good, even if conversation circles back to the fight earlier in the week.

“I’m just saying it was sloppy,” Hill soaks up the rest of her greens with her fried cornbread and Clint grimaces. “It’s not training. You’ve all had enough training. It’s...synergy. Unless the threat is life or death, you all get sloppy. And petulant. Teamwork has to be second nature, even if it’s for a beer run.”

Clint quirks his mouth. “We’ve got too many flyers, not enough buyers.” He reconsiders, “Or maybe it’s the opposite. When no one’s likely to die, everyone’s got an opinion and no one wants to fall in line.”

He looks at Bruce, “Present company excluded.”

“At least in this incarnation,” Bruce acknowledges, arm slung casually along the back of Nat’s chair. “We all know it’s not true for the other guy.”

His amused smile sours briefly, and he rubs his thumb over his bottom lip. Natasha finds herself a little transfixed, the slide and pull of expression and touch. He’s more at ease than she’d expected tonight, if still quiet. Taking it all in. Of course, eating with the three of them can be a spectator sport.

Soldiers of different stripes, all of who have a tendency to shovel in food like someone’s going to take it away. Or rather, someone’s going to give them an assignment and prevent them from seeing another plate for a good long time.

“He’s better than Stark half the time,” Clint counters.

“True enough,” Hill agrees.

Natasha just keeps looking at Bruce, speculative. His tone is mild. There’s no anguish but she can see the dismissal of their point forming.

Maria is eyeing the rib he has left. He tilts the basket towards her, and she snags it.

“Hulk’s good with clear direction, not so much with a free for all.” Licking sauce off her fingers when the meat is gone, she dips her napkin in her water glass.

Bruce has his glasses off, a shoulder raised in tension.

“He likes Steve,” Natasha says. “Or rather, he likes Tony, and he listens to Steve when there’s a clear delineation of roles and directives.”

“That doesn't mean he’ll always do it.”

“Kind of the point Hill is making. The guarantee isn't there for anyone. And that's a problem. Sure, Hulk cuts a wide swath, but it’s not like we haven’t all fucked it up a time or two.”

The waitress drops off the dessert menu, and Clint groans.

Bruce is the only one who orders.

The waitress comes back with coffee, and Natasha stirs sugar into her mug. “The lullaby is making a difference,” she says. “I know you don't trust it, but he's responding.”

Bruce’s jaw is tight. He ignores Maria’s speculative eyebrow, but he gives Natasha a slight nod of acknowledgement. This fight is long-standing and she won’t cede her ground. If she’s willing to take the risk, he’ll damn well better acknowledge that it’s worthwhile.

When they bring his bread pudding, Bruce makes a show of pulling it towards himself. Natasha leans into his space to steal a bite anyway, unimpressed by his growl.

“She’ll take you down over dessert, doc,” Clint says, chewing on his ice. “I’d just give it to her.”

“Should have ordered your own,” he says to her, tone full of mock chastisement.

“It tastes better when it’s yours,” she says. He gives her this look under his lashes, sly. She's been forgiven. She steals another spoonful, taking her time pulling the sweetness off her spoon.

“Of course it does,” he says softly.

“When I was a kid,” Maria says, “and my brothers and I weren't getting along, my mom’d kick us all out to spend a week in the woods with my dad. She'd pack up the car and tell us to fix our shit.”

“So that's your solution?” Clint pours more creamer into his cup, lifting it towards his mouth with fingers spread around the rim.

“It's a solution,” she says.

They stroll leisurely to the train to work off some of the meal, Hill and Clint walking in front, the easy bickering a testament to decades of working together.

Bruce has his hands shoved in his pockets, but he bumps Natasha with his elbow. She bumps him back, nearly pushing him off the sidewalk.

She can feel the rich chuckle of his laughter vibrate in her chest, and he pulls a hand free, tangles his fingers with hers, thumb rubbing along the inside of her wrist just long enough for heat to tingle through her, before he drops her hand.

“Thank you,” he says softly, without looking at her. “For tonight.”

She brings the sense memory of that touch to bed with her, the way her skin had felt alight, her head buzzy, a reversal of the heart in her throat moments of transforming the Hulk back to Bruce, of asking for that exchange.

With that touch along her wrist, she was the one considering transformation.

A Week Later

“That’s it!” Hill slams her hand down on the table, which actually does cease the bickering over who should have done what in dealing with the Golden Army. “We’re going camping.”

Stark is the first to react. “Nope.”

“Yes,” she says, and stands up. “We’re going to camp. We’re going to retreat, and do organized activities and bonding exercises and eat marshmallows and you all will fucking learn something out there in the woods, or by God, I will burn this tower down. I will not listen to one more ‘no I didn’t, yes you did, why doesn’t anyone do what I tell them’ argument.”

“I don’t sleep outside.”

“It’s not outside, Stark, it’s a tent.”

“No one else objects?”

Steve raises a tentative hand. “I’ve never been camping. Slept rough in the war, but never as,” he pauses, “A recreational activity. What are we supposed to learn from this?”

It’s the sincerity that stops the rest of them, even if it is piled on a little thick. No one’s willing to call him on it.

Natasha answers, “Maria thinks us being out in nature without any kind of technology will make us nicer people.”

“No, I think it will make you listen to each other. Well, I think out in the woods you can yell to your heart’s content, but you’ll still have to work together to feed yourselves and to not get eaten by bears.”

Steve raises his hand again. “Bears?”

“No one’s getting eaten by bears,” Natasha says.

“There are bears?” Thor sounds delighted.

Maria sighs. “Show of hands, who has camped before? For fun.”

Bruce’s hand goes up, as, reluctantly does Clint’s.

Maria sounds annoyed. “Romanoff.”

“You said for fun.”

“Explain camping,” Thor demands.

“You sleep in a shelter you bring with you, and you cook over a fire. Often, you have to gather your own food by hunting or fishing. No electricity. You tell ghost stories. You swim in a lake if there is one. You cook things on sticks. There’s beer. Sometimes singing. In my family, football, though I’ve heard tell of frisbee.”

Thor is nodding along like it makes sense. Steve has an expression on his face that says dubious, but open.

“That is delightful,” says Thor, “although more like a survival exercise than a game. When I wish to experience nature, I visit my hunting lodge deep in the mountains. It is rustic, but still fitting for rulers of Asgard. I have slept under the stars before. It was quite satisfying. With ale. And singing.”

No one asks Thor to elaborate, but Maria smirks, “That’s the idea. Nature. Fresh air. Sleeping rough.”

Steve waves his hand around again, caught on an earlier point. “Explain the bears.”

“Also,” Natasha says solemnly, “there are bugs.”

Steve’s expression goes from dubious to no fucking way.

"I like to fish," Bruce says like it’s something that's just occurred to him.

Maria sighs, “We’re going to need reinforcements.”

***

Natasha knocks on Bruce’s door as he finishes packing. He motions her inside, and she sits on his bed. She holds up her offering before he can ask why she’s there. Bruce turns it over, opens it, and laughs.

It’s a book of poems about fishing, the sublime transcendence of standing in streams.

She likes it--the openness of his face, the throatiness of his genuine laughter.

“I’ve been reading Norman Maclean,” she says, “to gear up.”

He grins again, eyes crinkling and she likes it so much it's startling.

“Do you think,” he asks, tucking socks into his duffel bag, “that it’s going to be more Wet Hot American Summer, or Friday the 13th?”

“Frankly,” she says, “I’m not sure which would horrify me more.”

***

They take Stark’s private jet to an airstrip in the Upper Peninsula. Bruce naps on the plane because Tony can be a certain type of manic on the jet that Bruce finds unpleasant. Plus, the seats are comfortable, and he packed his headphones like they were going on a mission. Airtime and Bruce work better together when he has the option of tuning the experience out.

He even reads some fishing poetry.

The Sprinter vans Maria had rented are waiting for them. Despite some grumbling, the group manages to load up coolers, tents, and paraphernalia into one van, and Avengers plus Sam Wilson and Colonel Rhodes into the other.

“Auxiliary members,” Hill had said. “I needed some people who are both capable of following orders without arguing, and who have slept outside and are willing to do it again.”

Tony glances between the two men while Bruce carefully stacks his gear and a tent next to the van to take inventory. “Tell me you’re hanging out, hiking the Adirondacks and wearing cargo shorts,” he says to Rhodey. “Please, please tell me.”

He looks over at Sam. “You look healthy. I buy you might sleep outside.”

Sam snorts. “Military,” he says. “You sleep outside, and you learn not to complain.”

Rhodey even brought his own tent. “State of the art,” he said. “You’d make a fortune if you started exploring extreme survival equipment.”

“We’ve got some sort of government contract, “ Stark flapped his hands. “But I don’t sleep outside.”

“You are tonight,” Maria says. “So pick a tent buddy, or I’ll pick for you.”

It breaks out in easy enough lines: Rhodes and Stark, Steve and Sam, Clint and Thor, Natasha and Maria. Bruce gets his own tent. If it comes down to it, he’lln be too big to share.

“Now,” Maria says, unzipping a duffle bag, “Electronics in the bag. Cell phones, headphones, StarkPads, all of it. Weapons too, if you’ve got ‘em in the tac van.”

“You’re kidding,” Stark says, like he thinks she really is.

Maria just shakes the bag. Bruce hands off his headphones reluctantly, catches Natasha’s eye and she turns up her mouth like she’s saying, “Whatcha gonna do.” Steve tosses in his cell phone, looks longingly at the shield. It’s always a little weird to see him in civvies, hauling around the shield like a giant frisbee.

“What if something happens?” he asks, “I want to respect your rules, but things tend to go...pear-shaped when we’re all together.”

“Sat phone in the van, and I’ll keep one in our tent. And nothing’s going to happen that requires your shield. I don’t know why you brought it.”

“Team-building,” Steve says, like he’s gonna argue the point.

Clint claps him on the shoulder. “Bonding, Cap. It’s like team-building without the blood.”

Maria sets her jaw. “I make no promises. But if I find that you’ve been hoarding your screens, I will make you suffer.”

By the time they’ve unpacked, half the beer is gone. Clint and Rhodey pull the first cooking shift, making sandwiches and canned soup for dinner.

“Hit the hay, people,” Maria says, once the ham and cheese is decimated, and the last vegetable from the industrial sized cans of alphabet soup disposed of. “We’re hiking at dawn.”

Stark and Rhodes give her a round of raspberries, seconded by Clint, Steve and Thor, who are sneaking sips out of a flask like high schoolers on a field trip. Bruce slips away to his tent as Sam and Natasha companionably finish up the dishes.

He hasn’t slept outside in nearly two years, this tent more luxurious than the room he’d been renting when Natasha had ousted him in India. But it’s still different than built walls, beamed or thatched roofs. The vinyl that separates him from the elements is undeniably temporary.

Bruce is glad for the solitude, the chance to hear the voices in the distance, the crickets and the lake lapping nearby. A part of something and yet removed to a safe distance. He sleeps better than he has in months.