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Discovering Paradise

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The pilot had been in on it, obviously. Tony wasn’t sure if it had been a kidnapping attempt, a terrorist attack, something targeted specifically at one of the three superheroes on the plane, or all of the above mixed together. And it really didn’t matter, because the pilot was dead now and on his way to the bottom of the ocean with what was left of the plane. Whoever it was really shouldn’t have tried to take them, they really shouldn’t have.

They’d been flying along in the small private plane, heading back to Malibu from a conference in Hawaii – Tony and Bruce had actually been attending the conference and Bruce had presented a paper, Steve had just come along to play bodyguard. Steve had gotten really into the idea of playing bodyguard, in fact; he had a subdued black suit and a secret service style earpiece and even a pair of nondescript secret agent sunglasses, and by the end of the conference the other attendees had been a lot more afraid of him then they had been of Bruce, which had been nice. One scientist, who Tony was pretty sure had been a plant sent there by someone to try to provoke a Hulk incident, had started to cause trouble while Bruce had been presenting his paper. The disapproving looks from the other attendees and even an admonition from the moderator hadn’t quelled him – more proof that he was a plant, in Tony’s mind. Then Steve had left the side of the stage where he’d been standing like a particularly intimidating secret agent statue, walked across the room and leaned over the man, not touching him, and said something in a low voice. The man had replied back with some heat that Bruce was dangerous, Steve had said something else…and the man had gone pale to the roots of his hair and then wet himself. Steve had summoned the hovering, unsure security guards over with a snap of his fingers and said, “I believe this man should be removed,” and then turned his back on the whole thing and returned to his spot beside the stage, looking completely impassive and like he hadn’t just literally scared the piss out of someone.

Tony had been hard-pressed not to applaud, but it would have spoiled the effect so he restrained himself. Someone had gotten brave during the Q&A session afterwards and asked Bruce why he needed a bodyguard when he had the Hulk; Bruce had just smiled, shaking his head. “I don’t need the Hulk when Steve is here,” he’d said. “Next question?”

Consequently, everyone had been very respectful to Bruce for the rest of the conference, and a good time had been had by everyone except for the guy who’d peed on himself. No one would talk to him, and he’d ended up leaving the next day.

Maybe he was the one who’d set them up. But Tony supposed that it didn’t really matter, at this point. The private plane that was supposed to take them back to Malibu had left its approved flight plan at some point, and by the time Steve’s serum-enhanced system had shaken off the knockout gas the cabin had been flooded with they were god-knows-where and the pilot was on the radio telling someone that the package was on its way and they should be there in an hour. Steve had waited until the man was off the radio before smashing a window with his elbow and then flinging himself into the cockpit to try to take control of the plane, yelling for Tony and Bruce to wake up. Tony had snapped out of it just in time to see the pilot shoot Steve and hit a button that released more gas. This combination of events apparently pissed Bruce off, because the next thing Tony knew the entire cabin was full of roaring Hulk, he could see the metal seams of the cabin roof starting to split…and then he’d gotten another lungful of gas and everything had turned into nothing.

Steve told him afterward that the Hulk had thrown the pilot through the cockpit window, but not before the man had pushed another button and something in the tail-end of the plane had exploded. Hulk had grabbed Steve, scooped up Tony, and jumped out of the plane before the rest of it could explode – which it had only seconds later. They were already in the water when Tony had come to again, Hulk treading water and muttering to himself, Steve unconscious and bleeding, leaving a deadly red trail along the waves. Tony had plugged the bullet hole as best he could, hoping Steve’s enhanced healing could deal with the damage, and then he’d started looking around, seeing nothing but water. There was no sign of the plane, no wreckage, no smoke or fire, nothing. Just water and sky as far as the eye could see.

They kept treading water, drifting with the current instead of swimming – not like there was any direction to swim in. A shark showed up at one point, drawn by Steve’s blood, and Hulk had punched it out of the water and then laughed as it flew through the air. Tony had laughed too, because it was kind of funny. Steve had woken up enough to ask what was funny, Tony had told him a flying shark and then Steve had laughed until he passed back out again. They kept treading water.

The sun started to subtly sink towards the west. Tony was getting tired. Hulk wasn’t, but it was only a matter of time. Steve was still out cold. And then, far overhead, Tony saw a beautiful sight; he saw a bird, possibly a seagull, flying over them and away. “There!” he yelled, pointing at the rapidly retreating speck in the sky. “It’ll be flying towards land, follow the bird!”

Hulk squinted at the bird, then slung Steve over his shoulder onto his back and turned a hard green eye on Tony. “HANG ON,” he grunted. “HULK SWIM.”

Tony did as he was told, sort of riding piggyback, anchoring Steve with one arm while he held on with the other. And then Hulk started to swim, following the direction the bird had gone in. Some time passed, and two more birds going by overhead let them know they were going in the right direction. Steve woke up again, and this time stayed awake, although Tony and the Hulk wouldn’t let him slide off and swim. “Two words: Shark. Bait.” Tony had told him. “The Big Guy will let us know when he needs to stop.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Steve agreed, and patted the center of the broad green back he was being supported by. “Sorry, buddy.”

Hulk’s snort rumbled through them both. “SILLY.”

Steve smiled and patted again. “Let us know when you’re ready to stop.” He looked at Tony. “You okay?”

“Peachy,” Tony told him. “We’re in the middle of the ocean, no land in sight, and no way for anyone to know where to start looking – I seriously doubt whoever had us taken is going to call up the Coast Guard to report their plane missing.”

“We’re probably still in the Pacific,” Steve said. “I don’t know how long we were all out the first time, but it can’t have been that long. We were due in Malibu, someone would have noticed when the plane didn’t show up and started looking for that plane – so they had to have planned to drop us off somewhere and lose the plane before that could happen.”

Sometimes, Tony reflected, it was a little too easy to forget that Steve was pretty goddamned smart – probably because he was so goddamned pretty and he acted so naïve, you just didn’t expect the guy to be a tactical genius with several years of combat experience under his belt. “Okay, so we’re still in the Pacific,” he agreed. “And someone will be looking for us, because our plane didn’t show up in Malibu.” He frowned. “Of course, by now the bad guys – whoever they are – are probably looking for us too, because their guy never showed up to drop us off, and he’s not answering his radio. So maybe it isn’t such a bad thing after all that the plane went down without a trace, because we’d be sitting ducks if they found us in the water.”

Steve shrugged. “Maybe not. We know they want at least one of us alive.”

For some reason, that didn’t make Tony feel any better at all.

 

About an hour passed, judging by the position of the sun, before they finally saw a dark line on the horizon. The line slowly became a hump, became a definite shape that meant land…but the Hulk was starting to slow down. Steve gave Tony a meaningful look and yelled into the tiring behemoth’s ear. “Hulk! Stop for a minute, nature’s calling!”

Hulk stopped swimming, and Steve immediately rolled off and splashed into the water, bobbing back up and moving a little away, turning his back to them. Tony rolled off too, giving him the same odd look the Hulk was. “You wanted him to stop for that? We were already in the water, why didn’t you just…”

Steve turned back around and swam back over to them. He was frowning at Tony. “You don’t do that to someone. It’s not…it’s just not right.” He saw that the other man didn’t understand his reasoning. “I guess the guys who’ve captured you in the past were a lot nicer than the ones that have gotten hold of me. You just don’t do it, Tony. It’s…it’s degrading, it’s a complete lack of respect for the other person as a human being. Nobody deserves to be treated like that.”

Hulk had gone wide-eyed. “HULK…HUMAN?” he questioned.

Steve drifted closer to him, frown becoming a scowl. “Of course you’re human!” he snapped. “Just because you look different than the rest of us doesn’t make you any less worthy of respect. I’d better never find out someone treated you like that.”

Hulk’s response to that was to sweep him up in a frighteningly massive hug, which sent both of them underwater. Steve popped back up a few seconds later, sputtering, and hauled a very unconscious Bruce above the surface with him. “I thought that might happen. He’s breathing,” he assured Tony. “I figure, if we take it slow, we can haul him the rest of the way. You good? Because I’m gonna have to swim backwards to keep him out of the water, I won’t be able to see where I’m going or hear anything so you’ll have to be the navigator.”

“Yeah, sure, I can do that.” Tony drifted closer. “So that was all for his benefit?”

Steve gave him a look. “No.” And then he flipped backwards in the water and started kicking his feet, propelling himself and Bruce in the general direction of the island. “Come on, let’s see if we can get at least close enough to see where we’re swimming before dark.”

Tony grimaced at the lowering sun and then started after him, modifying his breast stroke into more of a dog paddle and trying not to think about anything but swimming and surviving.

 

Night did fall before they reached the island, but luckily the moon was bright enough that Tony could still see and the waves were so far helping instead of hindering them. Tony was still worried, though. The island, which now looked huge, still seemed like it was a long way off, and he thought he could see large black shapes lurking in the water below. Did things like sharks come out to feed at night? Were there worse things than sharks, bigger and meaner things? Were they going to get eaten right in sight of land?

Finally he couldn’t take it anymore, and he swam closer to Steve and tugged on his arm. The supersoldier startled so badly he almost dropped Bruce – who still hadn’t come to yet – and Tony had to make a fast grab to keep the other scientist from slipping under the water. “Jesus,” he grunted, almost going under himself before he adjusted. “Why’s he so heavy?”

Steve barked out a raw-sounding laugh. “He’s not, we’re just tired,” he said. “What’s wrong, why did we stop?”

Tony made a face. “There’s something…I keep seeing something in the water, under us. They’re really big.”

Steve frowned at the water…and then without warning, he sucked in a breath and went under. He was down long enough to frighten Tony all over again, but he came bursting back up before the billionaire started to think he might have drowned. And to Tony’s surprise, he was smiling. “Rocks,” he spluttered. “It’s…it’s a reef, or something like that. We’re swimming over rocks. So we’re…closer than we thought…to shore.” He relaxed into the water for a moment, trying to get his breath back, and then went back to treading water instead of just floating. “Think we can do this with Bruce between us? It’ll take less energy, and then we’ll both be able to see where we’re going.” He looked down into the water again and made a face. “And I don’t know if anything comes up to eat at night or not, I’d really rather not have something that does rise up from the depths and bite me on the ass.”

“I had that thought myself,” Tony admitted, only choking a little over Captain America cursing like a normal person. “I’d feel better if we did it that way, let’s do it.”

Steve was already paddling around to get in the right place, and after a little bit of maneuvering – and one accidental dunking they weren’t going to tell Bruce he’d gotten – they managed to get him securely between them and started slowly making their way towards the island. They could see trees now, waving gently in the ocean breeze, and the moonlight was glimmering white on the sand of a rock-strewn beach. “It looks pretty big,” Steve observed eventually.

“Yeah.” Tony was really starting to feel exhaustion kicking in now, but the switch from swimming to treading water had helped some. “What do we do if it has animals?”

“Eat them.”

“That’ll work.” Tony pushed back the image that rose in his mind of the three of them being rescued wearing tiger-skin loincloths and carrying spears, and then having to deal with protests from animal- rights supporters after the pictures hit the papers. “Dibs on the tiger’s head, I’ve always wanted one of those Hercules getups where you wear the head like a hood.”

Steve snorted a laugh. “Let’s hope there aren’t any tigers. I’m too tired to fight off a tiger tonight.”

“Yeah, me too.” They kept treading water, the island drifting closer. Something brushed Tony’s hand. “Gah!”

“Don’t move!” Steve ordered. “We’re right up against the reef – it’s coral, it’s sharp enough to cut you if you’re not careful.” He splashed a little, carefully. “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. Go on your back, float over it. Then I’ll float Bruce over to you, and then I’ll come over.” His smile, tired but reassuring, flashed white in the moonlight. “The good news is, this probably means no sharks or large predators near the beach, so once we’re over the reef you don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

“Assuming the coral doesn’t cut me to shreds,” Tony snarked, but he let Steve take Bruce and then flipped onto his back, fighting a shudder when the water filled his ears and shut out the rest of the world. He floated, moving carefully to propel himself, and then flipped back upright and shook the water out of his ears after he felt the coral tug at his socks – he’d lost one shoe when they’d gone into the water and kicked off the other one once he’d come to. From this side, he could see the wall of coral, like a hedge under the water. “Okay, Red Rover, send Brucie on over.”

“I’m going to hand him off to you,” Steve warned. “Take his shoulders and pull, I’m going to push his legs.”

Surprisingly, that actually worked, and after a few anxious minutes Tony had Bruce in his arms and was watching Steve evaluate the depth of the water over the reef. “You don’t have enough room to float over…”

“I can make it,” Steve assured him, but instead of flipping over onto his back he ducked under the water and floated face down over the reef instead, sort of diving into the other side and then surfacing with a gasp, the jacket he’d been wearing clutched in one hand. He managed a grin. “I used it to protect my hands so I could push off the coral instead of scraping over it. Come on, we’re in the home stretch now.”

They were, but it still took them a good hour to finally reach the glittering beach – and then they were almost too tired to pull themselves out of the surf to get up onto it. Steve ended up mostly dragging Tony and Bruce onto the sand, and then he flopped down next to them with a groan. “There had better not be tigers.”

“I agree,” Tony managed, and then passed out. He didn’t know it, but Steve passed out approximately three seconds after he did.

 

When he woke up, the moon was falling away from the first dim fingers of false dawn, and Steve was nowhere to be seen. Tony forced himself to sit up, groaning as his body reminded him that he was really getting too old for this kind of thing. His arc reactor – thankfully still glowing strongly – cast its soft blue light over Bruce, who was very peacefully asleep there on the sand next to him. “Steve?” he hissed, not wanting to yell. “Steve, where are you?”

Silence answered him, and the soft shushing of the ocean breeze in the trees and the ocean waves against the sand. And then he saw Steve’s jacket propped up on a stick nearby, with one empty arm pointing up the beach. Tony considered getting up, then dropped back down into the sand and stared up at the slowly fading stars. He fell asleep wondering if he should go see where Steve had gotten to.

When he woke up again, dawn was rising in earnest and there was a small fire burning in a circle of rocks nearby. He sat up, still feeling stiff and sore, and he shook Bruce’s shoulder. “Hey, sleepyhead, time to get up. Steve discovered fire for us.”

Bruce grunted, one brown eye opened, and then the other eye opened and he blinked in confusion. Tony saw his hand clench into the sand, feeling it. “Weren’t we…on a plane?” he asked hoarsely. “I remember a plane.”

“Hulk got us out of the plane before it blew up,” Steve’s voice said, and that was when Tony realized that Steve was sitting beside the little fire, and that Steve’s jacket was now draped over Bruce – who clutched at it when he sat up. “He did most of the swimming that got us here, too, and then Tony and I took over for the home stretch.” He grinned when Bruce stared at him. “Good morning.”

Bruce’s eyebrows drew together. “The pilot…he shot you.”

“I got better.”

“Uh-huh.” Bruce rubbed his eyes and looked around. “Do we know where we are?”

“On an island,” Tony provided helpfully. “Somewhere in the Pacific.”

“Oh good.” Bruce turned his attention back to Steve. “You discovered fire?”

Steve shrugged. “I read The Swiss Family Robinson about a hundred times when I was a kid, and all the Tarzan books, and Robinson Crusoe too. And the guys and I lived pretty rough some of the time when we were doing reconnaissance in Europe.” He made a face. “I’ve got a fish cooking under the coals over here and a couple of coconuts set aside that sound like they might have liquid in them, but we’re going to have to find water sooner rather than later. And we’ll need to find a shelter, or make one, something that can keep animals and the weather out.”

That got Tony’s attention. “Animals?”

“There are bound to be some here,” Steve told him with another shrug. “Monkeys, cats, rodents – something.”

“Tigers?”

“You are obsessed with tigers.”

“Only because I want to wear one and be king of the island.”

That made Bruce snort. “You don’t get to be king of the island, tiger or no tiger. You get to be Mr. Howell.”

Tony was immediately offended. “Hey, no! I would be the professor.”

“I get to be the professor,” Bruce contradicted happily. “I know how to make necessary things out of raw materials. Do you?”

“Well, that depends on your definition of raw materials…” Bruce waved his hand at the trees. “Okay, then no, no I don’t.” He thought for a moment, frowning. “All right, I guess I have to be Mr. Howell. So who’s Steve going to be?” He assessed the puzzled supersoldier with a raised eyebrow. “It’s either the Skipper or Ginger.”

Steve frowned at him. He didn’t know what they were talking about, but he did know one thing. “Ginger is a girl’s name.”

“Ginger was a movie star,” Tony corrected. “You look like a movie star.”

“Steve would have to be Maryann,” Bruce disagreed, gesturing toward the little fire and the bulge under the coals where fish was supposedly cooking. “He cooked. Maryann is the only one who cooked.”

“That’s another girl’s name,” Steve protested. “Do I look like a girl to you?”

Bruce took pity on him. “It was a TV show,” he explained. “A comedy about a group of stereotypes who got stranded on an island. A snooty rich older couple, the Howells; Ginger, a spoiled movie star; the Skipper and his inept first mate Gilligan; a down-to-earth country girl named Maryann; and the Professor, a guy who could build just about anything out of whatever he found laying around. Except a boat or a radio, apparently.”

Steve’s blue eyes narrowed. “You know,” he said, shaking the stick he’d been poking the fire with at Bruce, “I can’t help but notice that the only one coming out okay in this lineup is the professor.” He switched his gaze to Tony. “Are we being insulted here?”

“I am, and I tried to insult you but Bruce wouldn’t let me,” Tony told him. “Maryann was about the only person in the group with any sense at all, she actually knew how to do things.”

“Still not a girl.”

Tony cocked his head. Steve had stripped off his white shirt and was just wearing his undershirt. Tony did his best to ignore the bullet hole. “With pecs like that? We could pretend. You look like about a C-cup to me…”

Steve made a face at him. “I should give Bruce your share of the fish. And you should probably give him your pants.” He grinned, not entirely nicely, when Tony spluttered in shock. “Mine would be too big for him, you two are closer to the same size. We can work out something else later, but for now…well, you’ve got underwear on, and he’s not going to be able to move around too well with my jacket tied around his waist.”

“I could just go…”

“Oh god no, do not finish that thought,” Tony ordered. He stood up and unfastened his belt, then dropped his pants and kicked them over to the snickering Bruce. “As king of the island I declare that this is not a nude beach and all man-meat has to stay appropriately covered at all times.”

“You can’t be king of the island unless you’re wearing a dead tiger,” Steve pointed out.

Tony stuck out his tongue at him, and Steve chuckled. He used his stick to push the coals away from the palm-leaf wrapped package and then used a second stick chopstick-style to fish the package out away from the fire and scoot it onto a flattish rock, which he handed to Bruce. “Okay, breakfast is served. I’d say eat it while it’s hot, but without forks that would probably be sort of painful.”

“Yeah, it would.” Bruce was already picking at the palm-leaf wrappings, and he smiled when they came open and released a small cloud of aromatic steam. “I’ll just divide this three ways…”

“Two ways,” Steve corrected quickly. “I already ate.” Bruce narrowed his eyes, and the younger man folded his arms across his chest defensively. “What? I did, really. I had a fish, earlier.”

“What did you do, eat it raw?” Bruce asked, and Steve blushed. The scientist’s mouth dropped open. “You ate it raw? We can’t even get you to eat sushi! Why did you do that?”

Steve poked the fire with his stick again, closing up the hole in the coals, not looking at either Bruce or Tony. “I needed to eat, I was feeling shaky.”

Bruce sighed. If Steve, who quite literally turned green at the sight of sushi, had actually eaten an entire raw fish straight out of the ocean, he’d probably been just this side of passing out from low blood sugar; his supersoldier metabolism was a wonderful thing, but it also required a lot of fuel to keep going, especially if he got injured. “You know how to open a coconut other than by brute force?” Steve shook his head. “Use a sharp rock to open up a hole where the little depressions are on the top, then after we get the liquid out we can crack it the rest of the way open and dig out the meat.” He waved at the waiting coconuts. “You crack while we eat. And if any of them are dry, we can rinse them out and use them for water once we find some.”

Steve nodded and immediately picked up a coconut and a rock, getting to work digging a hole in the tough rind. Tony shot a look at Bruce, who shook his head; when Steve went into crisis mode he also slipped into ‘I’m fine’ mode at the same time, and pushing the issue right now wasn’t going to get them anywhere. Bruce carefully divided the rapidly-cooling fish and held the rock out to Tony. Who picked at the fish, trying to see what kind it had been, and then shrugged and ate it with his fingers. They finished at about the same time, and it wasn’t nearly enough for either of them, but by then Steve had the first coconut open so they at least had liquid to wash the fish down with. Tony was surprised by the liquid and it showed. “That is…is it bad? What’s wrong with it?”

Bruce snorted. “There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just not processed and in a can like you’re used to.” He took another – small – swig. “This is actually just about perfect. Believe me, if you get hold of a bad one, you’ll know.”

“Joy.” But Tony took the coconut back and took another drink, watching Steve dig a hole in the next coconut. “So after this, what?”

“I go look for water,” Steve answered. “You two will need to stay here and keep the fire going – or move it, if the tide is going to come too far up and put it out. Maybe you can catch more fish or something, too.”

Tony frowned. “Why can’t we all go look for water?”

Steve just barely glanced up at him. “Because I have shoes and you don’t. You’ll be fine on the beach as long as you’re careful. Not to mention, I don’t want to create fire from scratch again unless I have to – not like it’s easy to do, you know?”

“It isn’t?”

“It isn’t,” Bruce confirmed. “And I hadn’t thought about the shoe thing. While we wait for Steve to get back, I’ll see if I can make us some sandals.” Steve immediately looked up, interested. “I learned while I was…travelling. I can make pretty decent hats, too.”

“You’ll have to show me when I get back.” Steve finished the last coconut, got a drink of his own, and then handed it over to Bruce and took the empty coconut from Tony. “I’ll take this one with me, when I find water I’ll bring it back.”

“Even if you don’t find water, you’ll be coming back before nightfall,” Bruce ordered, giving him a look. “Tony and I will have a more permanent camp made when you get back, we won’t be relocating tonight even if you do find water.”

Steve frowned, but Bruce didn’t relent so finally he sighed and gave in. “Okay, I’ll be back before nightfall. But if I’m not, don’t try to come looking for me in the dark, okay?”

“Deal,” Bruce agreed. “What direction are you going to start with?”

“I think I’ll start by going up the beach some more that way,” Steve said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. “If I get cut off, I’ll head inland from that point and circle back towards you.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Bruce told him. “Just don’t take any chances you don’t have to, okay? You’re too big to drag.”

Steve grinned at him, standing up. “You didn’t think so yesterday. Don’t worry, though, I’ll be careful.”

He went down to the water’s edge, rinsed out the coconut shell, and then jogged away up the beach. Bruce frowned after him, then raised a questioning eyebrow at Tony. Who shrugged. “He was out cold for hours because, like you just pointed out, he’d been shot, and he probably got a lungful of the second round of gas, too. Even after he came to again Hulk and I wouldn’t let him swim until the Big Guy got too tired to keep going. And then Steve swapped places with him while I played navigator – he was swimming backwards to keep you out of the water, he couldn’t see where he was going.”

Bruce looked back up the beach; Steve was already out of sight. “I knew we shouldn’t have let him go.”

“He’s fine…”

“Don’t you start too,” the other man told him. “He’s enhanced, not superhuman, Tony. Yesterday he was gassed twice, shot, knocked out for hours, and then swam for hours more while towing me along with him – there is no way in hell he is actually ‘fine’, fish or no fish.” He snorted. “We’re just lucky he didn’t pick up a poisonous one by mistake, I doubt he knows the difference.”

“The one we ate…”

“Not poisonous,” Bruce assured him. “Flat fish, silver scales. Don’t worry, I’ll show you how to tell which ones are edible and which ones aren’t. For now, just don’t eat round fish and you’ll pretty much be okay.”

“Round…”

“Blowfish, Tony.”

Tony cocked an interested eyebrow. “As in fugu?”

Bruce shook his head. “Not here it isn’t – here it’s blowfish poison, you use it to kill things.” He stood up, tossing Steve’s jacket to Tony, and stretched, then brushed sand off himself before putting on Tony’s pants; Tony hid his face in the jacket and whistled very loudly, which made Bruce laugh. “Prude.”

“I repeat: Not A Nude Beach.” Tony muttered from inside the jacket. He peeked, saw that Bruce was covered, and started folding the jacket. “Okay, since you’re the Professor…what do we do first?”

“Pick a spot to put a temporary shelter, make a firepit, and then move the fire,” Bruce told him. “Then we’re going to make a shelter, gather fuel for the fire – we’ll want it built up big tonight – and start working on the other things we’re going to need, like gathering more coconuts, finding more fish, and making some footgear and a comfortable place to sleep.” He saw the look. “Most of that won’t take as long as you think, really.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” Tony was frowning, though. “I’m not sure about your big fire. To keep animals away, right?” Bruce nodded, but Tony shook his head. “Unfortunately, it could also draw people to us, as in the people who tried to have at least one of us kidnapped in the first place.” That got a raised eyebrow. “Steve said it, not me; he said they must have wanted ‘at least one of us’ alive. So if they’re looking for us…we probably don’t want to help them find us right now.”

Bruce nodded slowly. “You’re right. We can shield the fire, though, and I wasn’t going to build it that big. I just want to make sure it’s big enough to keep animals at bay, and for Steve to see through the trees if he doesn’t make it back by dark.” He held up a hand when Tony started to object. “I know he said he would, but that just meant he was going to try really hard. So if it gets dark and he’s still out there, I want him to be able to spot our fire and home in on it.”

Tony stood up himself, also brushing off sand. “Well, in that case, we’d better get to work so he has something besides the fire to come back to.”

 

Steve showed back up when the sun still had at least a hand-span to go before sinking into the ocean, carrying an awkward-looking bundle wrapped in his t-shirt and three coconuts which had wads of leaves stuck in them like corks. He handed the coconuts to Bruce and the bundle to Tony. “Water and dessert,” he said. “I didn’t find the water we need, but I made us a temporary water source that should last a few days – covered it with my shirt to keep the bugs out. I’ll go back and get us some more water in the morning, before I set off again.”

Tony had unwrapped the shirt, which was full of fruit. “I don’t know what half of these are,” he said. “But they smell wonderful.”

“As near as I can tell, they’re all edible,” Steve told him. “At least, none of them hurt me.” Bruce facepalmed. “I was careful…”

“You were hungry and decided to take your chances, like you did with the fish this morning,” the other man scolded mildly. “But yes, they’re all edible. In fact, the two big ones are breadfruit, they’ll be nice for breakfast.” He secured the water-filled coconuts in a safe place away from the fire and then pointed. “Strip and go clean up while there’s still light, I’ll hang your clothes up to air. By the time you get back the fish stew should be about ready.”

“Stew?”

“Fish and…things Bruce swears to me are edible, boiled in coconut shells,” Tony told him, trying not to look at the red pucker on the other man’s solar plexus that had been a bullet hole the day before, or at the fading scratches which liberally coated his arms and chest. “I’m waiving the no-nudies rule because you’re filthy. Go wash off so you don’t nasty up our hut.”

Bruce snorted. “It’s hardly a hut, it’s more of a lean-to. We’ll see about building a hut later.”

“There’s a lot of good materials here to build with,” Steve agreed, giving in. He toed off his shoes, then unbuckled his belt and dropped his pants; the socks and underwear he left on. “Blisters,” he said when Bruce pointed again. “I don’t want to get sand in them, and I need to wash the socks anyway. And there are…fish, out there.”

“Unless you’re planning to stand perfectly still and let it bob on the waves like bait, the fish aren’t going to come anywhere near you,” Bruce told him. “You can keep the socks, though – just take them off before you get in the water and rinse them out.” They had a brief – very brief – staring contest, and then Steve sighed and dropped his underwear; Tony looked away and started to whistle, and Bruce rolled his eyes. “I said it before, I’ll say it again: You are such a prude. Go on, Steve, before Victorian Boy here gets any more embarrassed.”

Steve chuckled and limped off, and Bruce frowned after him. He waited until the younger man was in the water and splashing, though, before he said anything. “I’m going to need you to come down the beach with me in a few minutes,” he told Tony in a low voice. “Because a blister? Should have healed almost instantly, especially since he ate earlier. ”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “You think America’s Golden Boy is lying to us?”

Bruce snorted. “Of course he is.” And then he bent over and picked up Steve’s shoes, holding them up; in the sole of one was a jagged hole. “Last time I checked, blisters didn’t start on the outside of your shoe.”

“Shit.” They waited. After about ten minutes Steve sat down on a rock, and Bruce immediately stopped what he was doing and made tracks down to the water, Tony right behind him. He didn’t stop once he got to the water, though; he marched straight in, stood in front of the startled supersoldier, and folded his arms across his chest. “Tell me or I’m tipping you off that rock and finding out for myself. Because drowning so won’t kill you for very long.”

Steve had crossed his arms too, but protectively and mostly to shield his lap. “I just stepped on something, it’ll heal…”

“You stepped on something round and pointy,” Bruce corrected. “Was it in a hole?” Steve hesitated, then nodded. “Was it a punji pit?”

“Not really, it was…part of one.” He held up his hands to ward off the next comment, then realized what he’d just done and snapped the hands back down. “A really, really old one, I don’t think it had been that deep in the first place and now it’s mostly not a pit anymore. It was just my bad luck to step right there where one of the spikes was still up a little. And I marked that area so none of us would walk into it by accident again. Everything’s okay, really.”

“Yeah, except for the hole in your shoe, which must correspond to an equally big hole in your foot,” Tony said, rolling his eyes. “Jesus, Steve. Even I know what a punji pit is, those things aren’t small. Did it go all the way through?”

“More to the point, did it break any bones going through?” Bruce added. Steve started to shake his head, then stopped. “Is that you don’t know or you just figure it’ll heal?”

Steve’s jaw set. “It’s already healing, and I pushed the bones back into place,” he said. “Not like I haven’t had to do it before. Foot bones are little, they heal fast.”

Tony was starting to see the pattern now. “What didn’t heal fast?”

“Leg bones, those are a bitch.”

“Yeah, especially if you keep walking on them while they’re broken.” Bruce still looked exasperated. “I’m going to look, and then I’m going to decide what to do about what I see,” he said. “And whatever I decide is what goes, got it?” Steve sighed and nodded, giving in, and Bruce patted his knee and then picked up his leg to look at his foot. Part of the hole was still visible on the top. Quite a bit more of it was still visible on the bottom, although it was obviously healing. Bruce poked at the bones on top of the foot, making note of which ones were broken, and then he put the foot back in the water. “Finish washing, and then Tony and I are helping you back up to the fire,” he said. “It’s clean now, but your socks won’t keep the sand and dirt out.”

Tony took a step back. “I can go get your underwear…”

Bruce started to say something, but Steve held up his hand again – careful not to expose himself this time. “No, let me get this one,” he said, and then turned his penetrating blue eyes on the nervous billionaire. “Tony, since I got the serum, I have seen literally hundreds of guys…get excited when I’m not fully dressed. And before that, in the Army, I saw lots of guys get excited in the showers, not because of me. It’s just…it’s just a guy thing, okay? It doesn’t mean anything. So you don’t have to worry about it, really. Guys look at each other and sometimes they react, it’s not a big deal.”

Tony’s mouth had dropped open, and Bruce grinned. “That is an interesting look on him; thank you, Steve. Were you almost done, or do we need to give you a few more minutes?”

Steve blushed again. “I…well, honestly, I’ve been done for five minutes. I was just trying to get up my nerve to walk back up the beach to the fire again, because it hurt like hell coming down here.”

 

Dinner that night was quiet. The fish stew was good enough that they all took their time eating it, and the fruit for dessert was even better although a lot stickier, but for the most part the reality of their situation was settling in for all three men. They were on an island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. There were probably people looking for them, but creating a classic SOS to attract the attention of those people was out of the question – they’d have a fifty-fifty chance of being ‘rescued’ by the people who’d had them kidnapped in the first place, people who possibly only needed or wanted one of them alive. And they didn’t have any way of telling those people from actual rescuers or just someone who happened to find them and wanted to help. They were going to have to stay put for a little while, and lay low, and hope that eventually someone they recognized would find them.

After they’d eaten and washed up and Bruce had secured the remaining fruit in a hammock sort of affair he’d concocted earlier, they started making plans. Steve fell asleep about five minutes into the plan-making, but the two older men kept going without him. “He’s not going anywhere tomorrow anyway,” Bruce declared, poking at the rock-shielded fire. “I have sandals now, I can go out in the morning and get more water – I think he cracked open a palm tree to make a stump-well, so we’ll have water from that for a couple of days and by then we’ll have found a real source.”

Tony was poking the fire from the other side, playing with it. “What if there isn’t any?”

“Then getting water is going to be a lot more work. I’m pretty sure there’s water somewhere, though. Steve did fine incontrovertible evidence that people were here once.”

“You’re not going to let him live that down, are you?”

“Actually, I’ll never bring it up again,” Bruce corrected. He shook his head at Tony’s surprised look. “He was right about being the only one who could go look for water today – he was the only one with shoes, and finding a reliable water source is something that can’t wait in a situation like this. And him finding an old punji pit, one worn almost level? That’s actually a really good sign: It means people lived here once, and they were protecting themselves against other people, but none of them are here now.”

“Which means there have to be resources here,” Tony said, nodding slowly. “Water, food.”

“Even shelter.” Bruce set his stick aside. “Tropical storms…well, you don’t weather those in a lean-to. Either the interior of the island is geographically sheltered enough that simple structures could withstand a storm, or there are caves somewhere that they took shelter in.” Tony shuddered, and Bruce acknowledged that with a nod. “Yeah, I know that might not be easy for you at first. But believe me, you’ll be really glad if we find some. In a place like this, having a cave is like having a really well-built house – warm, dry, protected from animals and the elements and even other people.” That got him a look, and he shrugged. “Handheld infrared scanners won’t read a heat signature through solid rock, and you can camouflage the entrance so it’s not easy to spot.”

“Yeah, but there’ll be signs that someone has been in the area and they’ll eventually track you back to your hidey-hole, what then? We’d be cornered!”

“No, we’d have time on our side, at least a little bit of a head start,” Steve chimed in sleepily. One blue eye opened. “Camouflaging the entrance isn’t meant to fool searchers forever, it’s meant to buy you time to get ready or get out.” The eye closed again. “It’ll be okay, Tony, you’ll see.”

“He’s right, it will,” Bruce agreed, his little smile coming back. “We’ll camp here on the beach until we find a good, protected spot in the interior, and then we’ll set up a watch from a higher vantage point, see if any commercial traffic comes through this area. Or any searchers we recognize.”

“I guess we can hope for the Helicarrier, yeah – or a cruise ship.” Tony tossed his stick into the fire and retreated into their lean-to hut, patting at the ground cloth Bruce had helped him weave together to make sure nothing had crawled under it before laying down, and then fussed around until he got as comfortable as he thought he was going to be able to get. “Wake me at midnight.”

“I will,” Bruce assured him. They’d decided to keep a watch just in case there were any larger animals on the island, or in case any people showed up. He could see the beach and the water from where he was sitting, and the silver-gold sliver that was the moon getting ready to rise over the ocean, and he smiled. The three of them could handle living in paradise for a while, it might even be good for them. It was beautiful here, there was plenty of food available, and monsoon season was still a few months away.

And best of all, he got to be the Professor.