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When you're on a golden sea

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It all started innocently enough.

Bruce had been thinking it was time to leave again, time to get away from the bustle of SHIELD, all the people and the noise and the breakable things all around him, and he was thinking somewhere cold this time, maybe a cabin in the woods somewhere. A cabin, somewhere far in the snowy north, would be nice. He’d been wanting to study the effects of the energy flares from the aurora borealis for some time now.

So Bruce was waiting for the right opportunity to present itself. A minor crisis situation would come in handy, since all the SHIELD agents assigned to tail him, discreetly watching his every move (but not so discreetly that Bruce didn’t figure it out after the first two days), would have their attention briefly diverted elsewhere.

But weeks passed and nothing happened. No crisis, minor or major, and no time to escape. Bruce had resigned himself to possibly drugging his SHIELD handlers (nothing serious, maybe a minor sedative that would leave them with pleasant dreams, even) and hightailing it in the middle of the night, when Tony found him in his laboratory one morning.

“I can give you better toys than this, you know,” he said by way of greeting. “Just say the word.” Always the multitasker, Tony was simultaneously typing on his phone with one hand and prodding at some of the test tubes with the other.

“I do appreciate the offer, Tony, but, uh—” Bruce knew he could trust Tony to keep his confidences, but he just wasn’t used to it. He wasn’t used to—sharing himself. And so Bruce cut himself off, although his escape plans were on the tip of his tongue. Old habits were hard to break.

“But you’re about to make off like you’re the Road Runner and Fury’s Wile E. Coyote. Which is not a bad idea, if you ask me.” Tony looked up from his phone and laughed a little at Bruce’s expression. “You don’t play it as close to the chest as you think you do. You’ve been antsy for a while now, and believe me, if I’ve noticed, then you’re pretty obvious, because Pep says I’m terrible at reading emotional cues. I’m surprised you haven’t left already.”

“A good opportunity hasn’t… presented itself.” Bruce sighed.

As if on cue, one of his SHIELD handlers—a short blond woman, although sometimes her hair was red and sometimes it was brown—passed by the open doorway of Bruce’s lab.

Tony followed the movement of Bruce’s eyes and also caught a glimpse of the blond woman. He glowered at the empty doorway. “Christ, these guys really get on my nerves sometimes,” he said in an undertone. Then he smirked, clapping a hand on Bruce’s shoulder. “Well, Dr. Banner, why didn’t you say you needed a distraction? Distractions play right into my wheelhouse.”

“Don’t go out of your way on my account,” said Bruce, although a smile was tugging at his mouth despite himself.

“It’d be a great pleasure, in fact. Alright, you’re going to have probably 5 minutes, tops, so grab your stuff and take my car – Happy will be out there, just tell him I sent you and to take you to the jet. The pilot should already be on stand-by because I was supposed to go to a board meeting today, but I’m clearly not. Oh, and before you leave, tell Happy to call Suna and let her know you’re coming. No, you know what, I’ll just e-mail her. I’ve got a small private island in the South Pacific, which I haven’t used in ages. Beach house, nothing too ostentatious, no one around to bother you except a staff of three. And you can tell them to go away at your leisure. Go, have a blast.”

“Uh—what.” Bruce stared, dumbfounded by the words tumbling out of Tony’s mouth as Tony typed out an e-mail on his phone. “Tony, you really don’t have to—”

“Too late, e-mail already sent.” Tony grinned at Bruce. “Now you don’t want to disappoint Suna. She’s a very formidable Samoan woman who is as likely to kill you as to feed you.”

“But—”

Except it really was too late, because Tony had grabbed a few of the beakers and test tubes from Bruce’s lab tables—and of course, Tony had picked precisely the most dangerous ones—carcinogenic, radioactive, poisonous, you name it. And then Tony marched out of the lab and, to Bruce’s utter horror, he began throwing them.

“Hey!” Tony’s shouts accompanied the crashes of breaking glass. “Hey, red alert, or whatever color it is. I think this stuff requires a hazmat team!”

So what could Bruce do? He grabbed his stuff and ran to the South Pacific.

 

***

 

The pilot, named Dave, was seemingly used to Tony’s eccentricities, and he only said, “Where to?” when Bruce climbed into the jet with just a duffel bag, still wearing a lab coat.

Bruce stared at the cabin of the small jet, which wasn’t opulent, exactly, just richly outfitted with leather seats and a minibar and a large flat-screen TV. Bruce skipped the drinks, although he was pleased to find packets of chocolate chip cookies. He ate those and watched travel documentaries and cooking shows as they crossed the United States and the Pacific Ocean.

He hadn’t been to this particular part of the world before, and as they approached their destination and the jet lowered in altitude, Bruce switched off the TV in favor of watching the bright blue Pacific grow closer beneath him.

The jet aimed for a tiny, tiny dot in the ocean, which slowly grew bigger – although not by much – and Bruce estimated it was probably only 30 square kilometers in area. The plane descended onto a landing strip that was more like a paved road – and, from what Bruce could tell, the only paved road on the entire island. As Bruce said his good-bye to the pilot and climbed down from the jet, he was greeted by three people—two men and one woman, all of them massive, outfitted in sarongs.

“Suna?” Bruce ventured, addressing the woman.

She sniffed. “Do he ever give advance notice? No. Just ‘Suna, do me a favor,’ and then expect me to jump?” She spoke with the accented English that Bruce had come to associate with Hawaiians. Bruce assumed the “he” was Tony.

“I… I don’t mean to be any trouble. You won’t notice I’m here at all.” Bruce looked back and forth between all the staff lined up, not really sure what he’d gotten himself into.

“No trouble at all, little man,” said the one of the men. He took Bruce’s duffel bag from his hand. “Mr. Stark never come by no more, so what else we gonna do? I’m Chris. That’s Kono, he’s like our handyman. Keeps stuff running, gardens, gets the deliveries. And you know Suna.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Bruce. He definitely wasn’t sure what he was getting into, but if Tony trusted these people enough to hire them as his personal staff, Bruce was sure he could trust them, too. And they were… sturdy. They looked like they could hold their own, come hell or high water or… rage monster. Bruce wondered if Tony had considered that, in picking this location for Bruce.

Suna sniffed again. “C’mon, you look starved to death.”

“Man, that’s like a hug, comin’ from Suna,” said Kono to Bruce in amused low tones as they led Bruce to a waiting Jeep. “I think she like you.”

“What a scary thought, Kono,” said Chris somberly.

 

***

 

The beach house was… huge. It was more like a beach mansion, although it was deceptive because it was sprawling and open-air, different rooms connected by paths and courtyards, so when they first approached, Bruce thought it was a normal beach house, surrounded by well-groomed island foliage. But when Bruce actually started walking around in it, the rooms were seemingly infinite, and he found that each courtyard led to another courtyard which led to another set of rooms in the house.

Bruce found himself a likely-looking set of rooms – a bedroom, a den, a living room – and put his duffel down on the couch. The staff had made themselves scarce after Bruce’s arrival, although Suna had said, in somewhat ominous tones, “You better be back for dinner at eight, yeah?”

Bruce wasn’t sure he could actually find his way back to the main house, but he’d worry about that later.

Very few of the rooms in the house were actually closed to the outdoors. The living room Bruce found had no fourth wall; it just opened up into the courtyard. Bruce found the buttons that controlled a mesh screen, which could roll down and close off the fourth wall, but he pulled the screen up completely into the ceiling. He sat on the couch and stared at the palm trees and flowers in the courtyard, watched colorful birds flitter around and a gecko scuttle through the grass.

A rain started, gently splattering through the greenery, and although the room was open, none of the rain blew in since there was no wind. Bruce fell asleep to the quiet sound of it.

 

***

 

It was the end of Bruce’s first week at Tony’s island, and it was still preternaturally quiet. Suna only made appearances at mealtimes, admonishing him to eat more, and Bruce sometimes visited her in the kitchen, where again, she would insist he eat more, but he tried not to get in her hair too much. Chris and Kono each had their own grounds-keeping and cleaning duties, and largely left Bruce alone.

Bruce wanted the quiet, and he got it. He spent mornings walking around the island (it took about two hours to circle the entire island), exploring the plants and animals that he came across, trying to find different paths each day. He swam in the ocean in the afternoons, and sometimes napped. In the evenings, he tried to write a little more of his next paper. And then he’d do it all over again the next day.

He got the quiet he wanted, but Bruce began to think that maybe it was possible to have too much quiet.

In India, he still dealt with people every day as a doctor. People who didn’t really know him, and certainly could not be called friends, but at least he had a little social interaction to keep him tied to humanity.

Bruce was walking on the beach, having these thoughts, when the sky—absolutely clear two seconds ago—suddenly grew dark with rolling, heavy gray-green clouds. Thunder rumbled, threatening an imminent storm, and Bruce scrambled away from the shore.

A violent CRACK of lightning plummeted straight down into the island, not a mile away from Bruce stood, and he fell back from the impact, sand cold on his back, vision spotting with multicolored afterimages of the lightning strike. It happened so suddenly and so quickly that Bruce had no time to even be afraid, or to feel anything at all, which was a good thing, because the big guy wasn’t a fan of storms.

“Bruce Banner!” A voice called to him, coming from the direction of the lightning strike.

Temporarily blind or not, Bruce knew that booming voice anywhere. “Th-thor?”

“Yes. I apologize for startling you.” The soft sound of boots running in sand, coming closer.

Bruce tried to blink out the afterimages still clouding his vision, but they weren’t going anywhere soon. He was starting to get worried, and that was never good. Worry led to fear, and everyone knew what fear led to, thanks to Star Wars. “How did you—what are you—?”

“Here, let me heal you. Lightning blindness is usually not permanent, but we shall not take any chances.”

A broad hand covered Bruce’s eyes, and Bruce had to stop himself from jerking at the touch. For some reason, the other guy didn’t like Asgardians that much, and Bruce had to forcibly calm himself and tell himself – really, tell the Hulk – that Thor was a friend.

The lightning still burned into the backs of his eyelids for a second, but, after a few moments, the dizzying flashes of color stopped.

Thor lifted his hand. Bruce opened his eyes, and Thor was looking down at him, concern clear on his features. “Alright, friend?”

“Yes,” said Bruce slowly, sitting up, and he really was. Whatever growing unease he had felt earlier was seemingly calmed by Thor’s help. Maybe the Hulk really needed proof of friendship before he could trust. Hard evidence. Like any scientist. “What are you doing here?”

Thor sat down beside him in the sand, crossing his legs and resting his forearms on his knees. “Well, I was riding the wind, watching over Midgard—”

“As one does,” murmured Bruce, but his amusement was lost on Thor.

“—and I noticed you here, alone. I thought I would descend to come to your aid, if needed.” Thor was a big guy, a big alien guy who spoke like someone from a high fantasy novel, but Bruce suspected Thor was much more perceptive than he let others believe. “Are you well, Bruce Banner? Why are you not at SHIELD? You have not been banished here against your will?”

Bruce cracked a smile. “No, not anything like that. This is Tony’s place. I just wanted to be alone for a little while, uh, to think. It was getting too… chaotic. Back in New York.”

Thor nodded understandingly. He declared, “That is wise. You’re a wise man, Bruce Banner.” He grinned, clapping a hand on Bruce’s knee reassuringly, and Bruce didn’t flinch this time. “I shall stay for a little while, and be alone with you as well.”

“Um,” Bruce had to laugh a little. “You know, that’s not exactly—”

But Thor was ignoring him, staring out at the open sea, and the sky, which was rapidly clearing up once more. He said, interrupting Bruce, “It is quite beautiful here.”

Bruce turned his gaze to the ocean as well. “Yeah, it is.”

 

***

 

Tony really had a knack for picking his staff, because Suna, Chris, and Kono did not bat an eyelash at the sudden appearance of a blond man wearing armor and a red cape, on a private island, with no plane or boat in sight.

Suna just took a look at Thor and sighed, saying, “At least this one don’t eat like a bird, I bet you.”

True enough. Thor ate like… well, like anyone of Thor’s size would eat. Which pleased Suna to no end, making him the new favorite guest. Thor chose quarters somewhere inside the sprawling beach mansion, and the next day, Bruce went on his morning walk to find Thor getting surfing lessons from Chris.

They were paddling out into the water, and when Thor noticed Bruce’s arrival, he turned and waved an arm, calling, “Join us, Bruce Banner. This is a highly enjoyable Midgardian sport!”

Thor was no longer in his armor, just in some swim trunks – although he was still wearing his gauntlets for some strange reason – and he looked like any other California surfer, out there on the water, riding a surfboard. He also was uncannily good at it, but Bruce suspected that Thor would likely excel at any physical activity he attempted.

After riding out one particularly big wave, Thor and Chris collapsed in the sand beside Bruce, both breathing heavy.

“Having fun?” Bruce looked at Thor upside down.

“Oh yes. This is much more enjoyable than the snows of my home.” The warm weather did seem to agree with Thor. The Asgardian wasn’t even getting sunburned – his skin was just darkening into a tan that cover girls would be envious of. Thor sat up. “You should try it as well, Bruce Banner.”

“No, I don’t think I—” But before Bruce could get up and back away, Thor and Chris had both grabbed Bruce and hauled him up into the air easily. Bruce struggled to get out of their grasp. “I really think this is a bad—”

With a huge splash, they unceremoniously dumped Bruce into the ocean.

The rumbling quiet of the underwater world engulfed Bruce briefly before he kicked up and broke the surface, gasping, salt water stinging his eyes and dribbling into his ears. He was so surprised he couldn’t form words. “You—I could’ve—!”

Thor was watching him, smiling, and his normally booming voice was gentle. “Yes, but you did not.”

 

***

 

It was as if Thor’s presence seemingly was a beacon, because soon after Thor’s arrival, when Bruce was trying to teach Thor chess one evening – “Ah! It is like the game of kings that I played as a child. But less bloody.” – when a dark figure just… walked out of the ocean.

Bruce squinted at the beach, not sure if he was seeing things. It was already dark, and his distance vision wasn’t the best. But sure enough, there was a slim figure, walking out of the water, onto the sand. The person seemed to be wearing scuba gear.

“Thor,” he said, quiet, trying to not make any sudden movements, “Do you see what I see?”

Thor cut his eyes towards the beach. He narrowed his eyes, unhooking the hammer at his belt, and said, “Come, let us question this intruder.”

Which Bruce thought was really easy to say when you were as big as Thor and when you carried a giant mythical hammer. He followed Thor down to the beach, just in time to get close enough to see the intruder’s face as she pulled off the scuba mask.

“Natasha?” Bruce was surprised at how unsurprised he was.

“Doctor. Thor.” Natasha gave them curt nods in turn. She was outfitted in a black scuba suit. When she pulled back the hood of the suit, her dark red hair came free, wet and curling. She began stripping out of the suit, which was mildly interesting to watch, but she was wearing a conservative one-piece bathing suit underneath.

“If SHIELD sent you to get me, I think we both know that’s a lost cause,” said Bruce, soft. Wasn’t there anywhere where he could be left alone? Although he didn’t mind Natasha herself, he minded the things she stood for, the group that tried to keep an eye on him at all times like an overbearing parent.

“Don’t worry, I’m not here for you.” Natasha flashed a grim smile. She jerked her chin over her shoulder. “I’m here for them.”

Two other figures were emerging from the water. These two were not in scuba gear, so it was very easy to see that the two new people on the island were Clint Barton and Steve Rogers. Clint was supporting Steve, who was wincing and holding an arm against his stomach, which had been opened in a bloody wide gash. His whole arm was red with blood, staining his sleeve and gauntlets.

“Our plane crashed, shot down over the Pacific not far from here, and we need to lay low for a little while. Our pursuers are probably still looking for us, or they will be once they inspect the wreckage and we’re not there.” Natasha spoke in low, professional tones, but it was clear she was worried. It was in the tightness around her eyes. “Rogers in not in good shape. His recovery is usually aided by the serum, but I think his wound is infected. Sorry to intrude on you, but Tony gave me the coordinates and told me we could stay here.” She added, with a little quirk of a smile, “Provided we promised to not drag you back to SHIELD with us.”

“Well, uh. Thanks.” Bruce thought it was pretty strange that the Avengers had all assembled on this private, tiny island in the middle of nowhere in this series of coincidental events. Or maybe it wasn’t so random at all. But Bruce pushed the thought aside. “Let’s get him inside. I’ll look at his wound and see what I can do. Thor, can you get Kono and see if he has any medical supplies? Antibiotics in particular. If not, can you ask him to send for some?”

Thor stared at Bruce for a second, wanting to help, but clearly unfamiliar with the word “antibiotics.”

Clint sighed, heaving Steve into Bruce’s arms, and Bruce nearly fell down under the weight of a mostly unconscious Captain America. “I’ll go help him,” he said, jogging off into the dark after Thor. He called over his shoulder, “Good to see you, Bruce!”

“Hey, Doc,” said Steve, weakly, lifting his head a little. His face was flushed, eyes bright with fever. “Funny seeing you here.”

“C’mon, Steve,” said Bruce, trying to keep his tone light, but he was worried about a wound that could overcome the healing abilities of the serum like this. “Let’s get you warm and dry, alright?”

“That sounds nice,” mumbled Steve, and he fell to unconsciousness once more.

 

***

 

Clint and Thor came back to Bruce’s quarters looking grim.

“Kono says no antibiotics, but he’s sent for them. Should be here in a few hours,” said Clint.

“Okay, we’ll just try to keep his fever down and get this wound cleaned and stitched up in the meantime.” Bruce was trying to do just that, working with what he had in the house’s well-stocked first-aid kit. Steve was laid out on the couch, passed out. Natasha helped Bruce, seemingly anticipating Bruce’s needs as well as any nurse, handing him rubbing alcohol and gauze and needle and thread whenever he needed it. He wondered if she had served as a nurse before – she probably had. It was hard to tell, with Natasha. She seemingly had done everything, at some point in her life. Some rumors went around SHIELD that she used to be a ballerina.

“Anyone want to tell us what happened?” said Bruce, looking up from his work with thread clenched between his teeth as he finished off his final stitch.

“Dr. Doom,” said Clint. He stood by the open wall of the room, watching the ocean with narrowed eyes, plucking at his bowstring idly. He watched the ocean as if expecting something to rise out of the sea at any moment. “Teaming up with some wannabe dictator in Indonesia, and we got rid of the immediate threat, but not before Steve got hacked and slashed by Dr. Metalface.”

Thor came up by Clint’s side, his hammer at the ready. “Do you expect another attack?”

Clint bared his teeth in a grin that held no humor. “I always do.”

“But practically, I think we’re safe for now.” Natasha cleared away some bloodied bandages. “We went dark during our swim over here, shut off anything emitting a signal. I don’t think anyone could’ve tracked us.”

“So all we have to do is wait.” Bruce put the back of his hand to Steve’s forehead, which was still alarmingly hot with fever. He wiped off the blood—Steve’s blood—on his hands with a spare towel. “I really don’t know what could put him down like this. It’s not a normal injury. And I don’t have any equipment with me to run the tests I would normally do.”

“Don’t worry about that,” said Natasha. “It should be coming.”

“But we didn’t ask for any—”

“Don’t worry,” Natasha repeated. “Like you said, we just need to wait.”

Thor swung Mjolnir around and around in his hand, making it hum. “I hate waiting.”

 

***

 

Bruce was startled awake by a familiar voice saying, “I can’t leave you kids alone for ten minutes.”

“Tony?” Bruce blinked the sleep out of his eyes to see Tony looking down at him over the top of his sunglasses. Bruce had fallen asleep while waiting, sitting on the floor, with his back propped against the couch that Steve slept on.

It was morning now, barely, the sun just coming up with weak yellow light. Tony’s suit was rumpled, and his eyes were tired, as if he hadn’t slept on the flight over. “Hey, Doc. How’s the patient?”

Natasha said, somewhere behind Bruce’s head, “Still has a fever.” Bruce turned to see Natasha leaning against the back of the couch. He wondered if she had slept at all. Clint and Thor were nowhere to be seen.

Bruce added, getting up, “Something’s not normal with the wound. I think the weapon might’ve been poisoned with something.”

“We’ll figure it out in a second.” Tony produced a handheld device from his pocket and held it up, aiming it at Steve’s stomach. It blinked blue occasionally as it scanned, and Tony glanced around the room as he waited, commenting, “So, seeing the immaculate condition of this place, I guess you didn’t throw any raging house parties. I’m really disappointed in you, Bruce.”

“Tony?” Steve cracked open an eye. His cheeks were still flushed, and his hair was damp with sweat.

“Hey, super-soldier,” said Tony, turning to Steve. His voice was softer, fond, when he added, “You know, delirium’s a good look on you.”

Steve managed a laugh that was more like a dry cough. “Are you making a pass at me while I’m semi-conscious?”

“We both know my moral scruples are questionable at best.”

Natasha tugged on Bruce’s elbow. “We should go,” she said.

“But— Steve’s still—” Bruce nevertheless let Natasha drag him out of the room, because when Natasha wanted to move you somewhere, you were going to go whether you wanted to or not.

“Tony’ll take care of it. Just give them space. Let’s get some coffee or something. They’ve got good coffee in this part of the world, don’t they?”

Bruce blinked. “Wait, do you mean to say that they, they’re—”

Natasha just shrugged, which Bruce interpreted to mean that she had no idea, either. “I’m not exactly the authority figure on defining relationships,” was all she said, and Bruce wondered what that was supposed to mean.

 

***

 

They sat on the beach while they waited, drinking coffee and watching the hypnotic movement of the waves crashing onto the shore. The sun was rising in a blindingly clear blue sky, bright and cheery, in contrast to the somber mood that had settled over the group.

“I truly hate waiting,” reiterated Thor.

“On stakeouts, I would play this game with myself to stay awake,” said Clint. He had his bow balanced across his knees as he drank his coffee. “Kept me going for hours.”

“What game?” Thor looked intrigued.

“Don’t tell them about the game,” said Natasha with a groan, which is how Clint started explaining to them the rules of four-dimensional tic-tac-toe.

They were just starting to get it when Tony came up and sat down on Bruce’s other side. Always needing to be contrary, he saw everyone else was sitting with their legs crossed and he opted instead to sit with his legs straight out, reclining back with his elbows in the sand.

Tony said nonchalantly, looking out in front of them, “So what’re we watching?”

“Steve must be better if he’s cracking jokes,” said Natasha wryly.

Waving an expansive hand, Tony said, “He’ll be better in no time. Probably by the end of the day today. You were right, Bruce, Doom’s blade had been laced with some nasty stuff. I think we’ve got it all taken care of.” Tony grinned. “And I just conveniently cancelled all my board meetings for the week, so I think it’s about time for a little tropical vacation, don’t you agree?”

“Don’t need to ask me twice,” said Clint, and he promptly got up, heading back towards the house.

“Where are you going?” Bruce said, confused.

The only response that came back was a question shot over Clint’s shoulder. “Stark, where do you keep the booze in this place?”

“Damn, a guy after my own heart. Or liver, or whatever.” Tony scrambled up onto his feet to follow.

 

***

 

The place seemed to come alive after that. It was mostly Tony, who was like a person-shaped tornado of activity. He couldn’t sit still for long and pulled others into his whirlwind by sheer proximity. He pushed them all into trying new things, getting them out of the house and out on the beach.

Turns out that, in addition to Thor, Natasha and Clint were also terrific at surfing, while Tony was fair, and Bruce and Steve were fairly terrible. Thor tried windsurfing, and just like surfing, he was a pro at it.

Steve took Bruce out to show him how to fish, which Bruce found to be a really enjoyable activity, just sitting out on the water, talking and waiting for the occasional nibble, except when Tony and Natasha roared up on jet-skis, with Tony shouting something about, “Stop being grumpy old men already!”

Tony and Thor didn’t sunburn at all, just developed glowing tans. Bruce sunburned if he so much as looked at the sun, so he slathered himself with sunscreen liberally every morning. Clint didn’t noticeably change in appearance, probably because he was already fairly tan from his job. Natasha, on the other hand, sat in the shade whenever she had the opportunity, and she barely darkened at all.

“Skin cancer,” she said ominously, when Bruce asked. They were watching Thor and Steve race on jet-skis, and Natasha was actually holding up a parasol to protect herself from the sun. “Plus, Russian.”

Steve liked building sandcastles and was scarily good at it. There were moats and everything, and little staircases winding up the towers.

“I want to kick it,” said Tony, in horrified tones to Bruce as they watched Steve sit back on his haunches, considering his handiwork. He actually grabbed Bruce’s elbow in alarm, fingers digging in. “What the hell is wrong with me? I have this insane need to kick it. Knock it all over.”

“I think maybe you just want his attention,” said Bruce, and while this area of the human experience certainly wasn’t his forte, this was fairly obvious to anyone with eyes. “How about we, uh… just walk away, and try to do something more constructive?”

“Don’t you dare try to psychoanalyze me, Banner,” said Tony, narrowing his eyes.

Which led to them going into the kitchen to bother Suna, until she threw her hands up in exasperation and tossed her apron in Tony’s face. Tony wasn’t seemingly bothered by it, saying something about how Suna threatened to quit every time he visited. Which led to him and Bruce trying to make lunch for everyone on their own, which… ended up pretty horrible.

“Oh my god,” said Natasha, spitting out a mouthful into her napkin.

“It’s delicious!” said Thor, but his opinion couldn’t be trusted since he thought Pop-Tarts were the crowning achievement of Midgardian cuisine.

“The crunchy parts aren’t bad,” said Clint, chewing with a considering look on his face.

Steve was just eating mechanically, stoic, but Clint peered close and said, “Steve, are you crying?”

“Just… don’t eat it,” said Bruce with a hand over his eyes.

“I can’t let food go to waste,” Steve insisted, although his voice sounded a little choked.

 

***

 

Later on, about a week after Tony arrived on the island, Bruce found himself sitting on the beach house deck that faced the west, watching the sun go down into the ocean.

Not long after, Tony sat down beside him. “So what’re we watching?” he asked again, a joke that hadn’t gotten old yet.

“Hey, thanks, Tony,” said Bruce. He gestured at the house behind them, at everything around them. “For… this. For letting me stay here. I don’t know if I ever said that. I think it’s been good for me.”

Tony waved it off. “Who doesn’t need to escape, every now and then?” was all he said in response.

Steve came up and sat down on Tony’s other side. He knocked his shoulder into Tony’s, which caused Tony to jostle into Bruce a little, too. “Thanks for saving my skin back there, guys. I was in pretty bad shape.”

“There are too many thank yous going around,” said Tony with a groan. “It’s giving me a stomachache.”

“You know, Steve,” said Bruce, casually. “You could say thanks in a different way. I think Tony would appreciate it.”

Tony whipped his head around, flabbergasted. “What. What are you. What are the words coming out of your mouth. When did you become conniving? Are you an evil Dr. Banner? Did Natasha put something in your water?”

“What do you mean, different?” Steve said, confused. The implication of the words seemed to hit Steve abruptly, and he blushed, going pink right up to his hairline. “Oh. Oh, I mean. That’d be. I don’t mind. If—”

“Goddamn,” Tony breathed, and Steve squeaked as Tony hauled him up by the collar and dragged him back into the house. He called over his shoulder, “Don’t wait up!”

Natasha watched them pass by, and quirked an eyebrow. Bruce just shrugged, smiling a little.

The others joined him on the deck, watching the last bit of the sun dip below the ocean. Thor was staring up at the sky, which he tended to do, as if he could see something else going on up there that no one else could. He probably could. Clint was sitting back-to-back with Natasha, sharing a bottle of rum.

Bruce started off on this little trip alone, but by the end, he was beginning to realize that being alone wasn’t going to give him the most stability. It was a startling conclusion to reach, the complete opposite of all his previous experiences to date.

But he couldn’t deny that he had felt calmer than he had in a long time, being here, with people he could trust. He wasn’t clawing at an elusive calm that kept slipping out of his hands anymore. It was right there; he could hold onto it, so long as he didn’t examine it too closely.

“This is nice,” said Clint, almost dreamily, and Natasha snorted into the bottle of rum in her hands.

“You’re totally drunk.”

“But it really is nice,” Clint insisted, while Natasha continued to crack up, which was rare, to see Natasha laughing aloud like this, and Bruce had to agree.

This was nice.

 

The End