Fandoms: The Avengers
Characters/Relationships: Tony, Steve, Bruce, Thor, Clint, Natasha, Maria Hill
Word count: 28,728
Spoilers: Uses elements up to The Avengers.
Content Advisory: Action/Adventure, medical emergency
A/N: The second half of this story written for wipbigbang (first 11k written in 2013, last 17k finished in 2017). Amazing art by ensign_c. Also on Tumblr here. Thanks to brighteyed_jill for betaing!
Art: Amazing art by ensign_c can be found here.
Summary: The Avengers Initiative is assembling: The Thunderer - Tony Stark, Iron Man - Thor Odinsson, Captain America - Natasha Romanov, and The Black Widow(er) - Steve Rogers are being thrown together to go after one Clint Barton, who can become a rage monster known as the Hulk, and his bow-wielding protector, the radiation scientist Dr. Bruce Banner. Together these six people might just be able to save themselves and the world they've taken by storm.
On Ao3 or below the cut
Steve could only hope that after months of observation from SHIELD they had a better handle on what really made Bruce Banner and Clint Barton tick. SHIELD had needed Stark and Thor and Romanov in case of an incident when they tried to make contact. But from everything he had observed, an incident would be the very last resort.
Banner and Barton didn’t believe in wanton war and destruction any more than Stark, Thor, or Romanov. The danger they represented was one of teasing a sleeping bear – everything was fine until you started jabbing it with a stick.
How General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross managed to keep his position when he had wasted an untold amount of money, manpower, and lives on trying to recapture Barton and Banner over the past three years was something of a mystery. Steve had theories that he held blackmail material over quite a few powerful people, otherwise how could he have hounded the two this long? His efforts had driven them to Saskatchewan to hide, and nothing was going to make them break cover unless they were forced. They had absolutely no interest in letting Barton be turned over to the US Army, or indeed any army, and Ross should have been thanking his lucky stars that Barton was keeping his head down.
On the one hand, Steve could see a few coldly practical reasons why Ross was still pursuing Barton and Banner. For one, Barton could be an unparalleled weapon in unpredictable terrain, provided he ever got himself under control. What now took dozens of soldiers and thousands, sometimes millions of dollars’ worth of equipment could be taken care of by a single Hulk. But they’d never know if they never got Barton and Banner back. For another, the US couldn’t afford to let any other country capture the two men. Letting them run free wasn’t an option, because there wasn’t an asset that existed that someone wouldn’t try to exploit.
On the other hand, what had happened to Barton was a tragic accident, and him, Banner, and Ross’ daughter had been screwed over repeatedly and with malicious intent to create the Hulk. Barton had signed up to be a volunteer soldier, not a monster, not to have his freedom deprived from him on a whim, not to be used as one-man army to slaughter anyone who was unfortunate to be in his way when his captors decided to loose him. Banner and Dr. Ross had been trying to help soldiers stay safe in the field, not turn them into living weapons.
Staying hidden for the rest of their lives wouldn’t work. There was no place they could go where they couldn’t eventually be found. Curing Barton could be difficult or impossible, and even if it worked, or even especially if it worked, no one would let any of them alone until they’d managed to repeat the experiment. Banner and Barton were going to have to make a choice, and SHIELD was probably the safest one. They were used to dealing with corner cases, with unusual decisions, out-of-the-box thinking, and unorthodox solutions. With SHIELD as their shield, Barton and Banner might be able to have some semblance of a life, which they wouldn’t get anywhere else.
Besides, Steve could understand how someone would want to change themselves for the better. So could Natasha, Stark, and Thor. That was the whole point of this operation; it was a job offer. It was a chance to show them they could do some good and not have to hide.
The trick was they had to make that offer very, very carefully so they didn’t spook.
Steve traipsed down the mountain at an immoderate pace, letting twigs snag at his too-new name-brand outdoor clothes and get caught on his bulky, overloaded backpack. At the forced flailing pace, he grew sweaty and dirty in no time, looking for all the world like an inexperienced city boy trying the Great Outdoors with whatever he’d picked out of an Eddie Bauer catalogue. He pressed himself over his limits so that when he deliberately thrashed out of the trees his throat was starting to close in an impending asthma attack. He stumbled to a stop in clear view of the cabin and rummaged in a frantic fashion through the ridiculous amounts of pockets in his vest until he “found” his inhaler. Instead of quietly taking a few hits so subtly you’d never notice he’d even been gasping, he played up the attack (not to the point of looking faint, just more civilian) and “spied” the cabin with a look of pure relief. After a brief rest, he marched straight for it, openly.
“Hello?” he called. “Anyone home?” The curtain moved, but no enormous green rage monsters emerged, nor did an arrow fly out to skewer him. Good. The two men hadn’t become completely paranoid yet.
“Who the hell is that?” Tony said, squinting through his binoculars. He hit the power switch on the side to increase the magnification. “Got a hiker that just came out of the woods.”
“Let’s wait. I don’t want to crowd them,” Natasha said, peering over Stark’s shoulder from their vantage point partway up the valley.
“He looks like Preppy McFrappe from Yuppyville,” Tony announced decisively, and derisively. Thor and Natasha looked at each other in bewilderment. Even ignoring technical jargon, half the time they didn’t know what Tony was talking about. Tony looked over at them and sighed. “He looks like a city guy who’s only ever seen camping supplies in a store. No experience. How the hell did he get out here alone?”
“Boneheadedness?” Natasha suggested, and Tony smiled.
“Maybe. Maybe not. He does anything hinky, it’s going to be hammer time, just saying,” Tony said, and continued watching.
Natasha felt little prickles of unease at the unspoken lie. It was too far to make out Steve’s features even through the binoculars, not past the turtleneck sweater, coat, and hat, and she hadn’t said a word about knowing the mysterious hiker. She was growing to like Tony and Thor, and having to keep her mouth shut about SHIELD in general and Steve in particular was beginning to wear. Not that she hadn’t kept as many secrets during the war for the same gravity of reasons. Working for the army was one thing – a spy organization, something else.
There was more freedom in working for SSR- or rather, SHIELD- than there ever would have been in the regular army. The army had never really had plans for people like Natasha; witness what they had tried to do to Barton! Stark hadn’t contradicted her explanation for working for the new SSR, which was, strictly speaking, true. Or that they had asked her to find people to talk to Barton that could handle him if he reacted badly. She just hadn’t mentioned SHIELD’s scope and budget had gone astronomical in the seventy years since she’d known them. She didn’t mention they were being watched as much as Barton and Banner.
But she also didn’t assume Stark or Thor was stupid. They had to know someone would be watching them. At their level power, a certain amount of danger could be shrugged off. No subtle, clandestine attempts to hurt them could succeed, which left betrayal or all-out assault. They hadn’t let Natasha into their confidence enough for the former and anyone who had ever seen the two of them in action would think very hard about initiating the latter. In short, they might know or guess that Natasha had been more secretive than she was telling and didn’t care, or cared enough to wait for her to say for herself.
Natasha sighed mentally. She enjoyed the two men’s company – Thor had the manners of a prince and though Tony might look, he did not leer, and accorded her the respect of soldier without seeming to have to try. It was a nice change, and in the past month she’d gotten to know them, she almost felt like she had friends again.
She could only hope revealing the Black Widow wouldn’t be a setback for them. They needed him; he was stealthy and subtle, something they rest of them were not. He was hard and practical, with few illusions. And he could smooth the way for their own peculiarities as easily as breathing. Tony was brash and loud, Thor a monument to an alien world, and Natasha was a living historical icon. They needed a man in their corner, a silent partner, a bridge, an interpreter.
Someone to look out for the freaks of the world.
“Aaaand he’s taking a hit off of his inhaler. Least, I think it’s an inhaler, unless it’s a teeny tiny bong, which I would totally not put past Mr. Yuppie. If he legitimately got lost this far out that would completely make sense… Nope, no smoke, regular inhaler.”
“I would dare a closer look, but I believe they would hear me,” Thor said with a sigh, pressing his eyes to his own binoculars.
Down in the valley, Steve smiled and waved as the door opened. The person inside didn’t seem to want to come out, but there was just enough light spilling into to see a faint reflection off eyeglasses.
“That’s the good doctor,” Natasha said quietly.
“Bad news for us. His houseguest could be anywhere,” Tony said.
“You do not believe they are both inside?” Thor asked.
“Banner’s more vulnerable. Why answer the door unless he had to? Barton’s face isn’t on the news.”
All of them must have missed Barton’s departure, both Steve at his own post, and them at theirs, had all managed to let him slip by. Natasha cursed inwardly and knew that down in the valley Steve had to be doing the same. The initial plan had Steve making contact, confirming the two men’s identities and getting their attention, and then Natasha would lead the others in after Steve left. Armed with more information, they could approach with open hands and know any sore spots to avoid. The last thing she wanted to do was go in cold if she didn’t have to.
“Good reasoning- hsst,” Natasha said, catching a hint of movement off to the side. All three turned as a sandy-haired man with a rifle in his arms just barely came into view. Barton. Natasha thanked her lucky stars that she’d been able to convince Thor to keep the suit in its case and wore her own armor and vibranium bracers under regular clothes. They were here first and foremost to talk. Fighting was the last thing they wanted to do, even if they were so very remote up here. The presence of a “civilian” at the cabin should help motivate everyone to keep their tempers.
Barton easily cradled the rifle he’d picked up earlier from the cabin. Though a far cry from the kinds of weapons he’d used in the army, the old hunting rifle was nevertheless a good companion. Reliable, not hard to clean, the hunters up here swore by them. Minimal practice had let him take his share of rabbits and game birds, along with the occasional deer in the six months they’d been up here. A little bargaining in the nearest town, and they were reasonably self-sufficient. It was a quiet life, a good one, and no one had found them until now.
But it was still a life dominated by the giant green rage monster in the room. Clint had had no trouble seeing the wisdom in getting a solid handle on his condition before trying to sneak into the kinds of labs Bruce needed to try to cure him. And they still had Betty on their side, who took the samples Bruce smuggled to her and did everything she could. She’d been able to suggest a few things to avoid, chemicals, some foods, anything that exacerbated Clint’s control and put stress on the Hulk; that had kept things from getting worse. But the rest was in his hands alone.
He’d heard the jokes that snipers were the loneliest guys in their units, and by and large that had been true in the field. Just him and his calculator, or maybe a spotter, for hours or even days on end. But at the end of that time he still got to go home. He could meet his unit at the bar and have a beer, head out for a game or a concert, maybe find someone who wanted to have a mutual good time. He could go back to his apartment and watch a show, listening to the downstairs guy’s choice of heavy metal and smelling the killer barbecue from the family in 304. He could help the super hang the Christmas lights in the winter, swinging himself up onto the roof, or lob baseballs off the balcony for the kids below in the summer…
You never really realized how much a loner you weren’t until you were truly forced to go at it alone. Not that Bruce was bad company, not at all. He was intelligent and had a dry sense of humor that struck chords with Clint’s own, and they could, and had, talked marksmanship all day. But both of them were laboring under a mountain of guilt and seething with anger at Ross’ betrayal. It meant silences could be anywhere from awkward to unbearable. Hence why Clint spent so much time out of doors. It kept both of them from rubbing their emotions raw.
They’d chosen this place for its seclusion, and to have it broken by three others… no, four; Clint spied another stranger at the cabin door and his heart skipped a beat. The Hulk growled in his mind, alert at the danger sense that prickled at his neck. Not yet. No danger yet you big, dumb dope. The Hulk continued to grumble, but stayed back, for now. As long as he could keep his adrenaline from spiking, that seemed to help keep the Other Guy down.
There were two well-built men and a slightly shorter woman in front of him, all three dressed for a long hike and carrying what looked like camping equipment. The man near the cabin looked to be the same. The three people in the clearing looked harmless enough, but Clint couldn’t afford to be that careless, not now. He raised the rifle a little and put on his sternest voice.
“This is private property,” Barton said flatly.
“Didn’t see a sign, Lone Ranger,” Tony said, crossing his arms. Natasha privately thought Tony could have looked more worried – Barton was unarmed, they were ostensibly not, and the loners up here had plenty of land to bury a body.
“There were no marks of ownership anywhere, and we walked quite far,” Thor said. He hefted his binoculars and added, “We were watching birds.”
Natasha somehow managed not to choke as Thor pulled out a Birder’s Guide to Saskatchewan. Tony also valiantly did not whip around to stare at Thor like he was crazy. As a matter of fact, after two heartbeats, he joined in the insanity.
“He’s been on this kick for months. What were you talking about this time, the red-breasted titmouse?”
“The Northern Hawk Owl, which you well know as you were grousing about it not an hour prior.”
“Birds, grousing, ha ha,” Tony said, rolling his eyes.
“Theo, Anthony, if he doesn’t shoot you, I’m going to start throwing rocks.” Natasha might not have had any ambitions to go to the stage as a child, but she’d learned how to play a role very early on, and after the serum she’d gotten very good at improvising when she’d snuck into officers’ meetings. She didn’t know where Thor had gotten his idea (or, for that matter, the book) but she would run with it for a touchdown if Barton let her. She hoped the others didn’t mind a name change, but “Thor” was too distinctive and if she said “Tony” outright, Barton might look past the flannel shirt and hat to see Tony Stark.
They needed to ease Barton into the idea of meeting people who were different, not drop everything on him at once. That could end up being… messy. They hadn’t wanted to be spotted at all, so there’d be less lies to untangle later, but suddenly revealing there were three super-powered people in Barton’s backyard when he was armed, alone, and on high alert would be even worse.
Natasha just looked up at Barton and tried to look long-suffering, a good friend dragged out to do something she had no real interest in. Barton took a long, slow look around and lost some of his wariness. Not all of it by a long shot, but some.
“Further west,” he said brusquely. “Valley that way.”
“That your place?” Tony asked, waving at the cabin.
“’Cause I would totally love to sit on something that isn’t a rock or a log or end up with more pine needles in my food than actual food.”
“You dropped it in the fire. That was your fault,” Natasha said, with a little smile for remembering the night Dum-Dum had done the same, and then just ate it with a shrug, ignoring Gabriel’s gagging sounds.
“It was my food and I’ll whine if I want to. Anyway, could we trade you some chocolate for renting a chair and table for an hour?” Tony said plaintively.
“Sorry, no. Looks like we already have company.” Barton jerked his chin over to the cabin just below. “We really don’t do visitors.”
“It’s really awesome chocolate,” Tony said with a sigh of resignation, getting up to leave. Thor stood too, the heavy pack he was wearing making his muscle obvious even through his sweater and coat. Even for Natasha’s unusual strength the Iron Man suit was heavy, yet Thor could and would bear it, unpowered, without complaint. The wide, reinforced straps caught Barton’s eyes, and Natasha took advantage of the distraction to kick some debris over Mjölnir. Tony’s mystical hammer was damned inconvenient in that Tony was the only one who could pick it up. He couldn’t carry it around in a bag or leave it dangling from his belt, he had to hold it in his hand. And picking up a giant sledgehammer that made your hair stand on end if you got too close and carting it away in front of Barton wouldn’t look good for establishing peaceful intentions. At least it could fly back to Tony once Barton had cleared the area.
“Came up here for quiet, not for chocolate,” Barton said.
“Yeah, yeah, not the droids you’re looking for, move along,” Tony said. Barton stiffened, and even though Natasha hadn’t a clue what Tony was referencing, it clearly meant something to Barton. Tony, not being stupid, just shouldered his pack and walked away, looking grumpy. Thor headed off next with a smile and a murmured thanks about the location of the hawk owl. Natasha was the last to leave, and took her path close enough to Barton so she could offer a Hershey bar. It had been the little things that had kept her guys in good spirits when they were so far from home, and from what they knew of Barton’s background, he was very, very far from home.
Barton took the chocolate quickly, returning his hand to the gun stock. “West,” he said again, nodding where Tony and Thor had gone.
“I’m Natasha,” she said, waving good-bye.
“Francis,” he said reluctantly.
His middle name. Well, since over the half the people in this scenario were using aliases anyway…
“It’s just nice to know there’s someone around up here,” she said cheerfully, and took her leave. Barton muttered a response so quietly that if Natasha’s ears hadn't been so keen, she would have never heard it.
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
She wanted to turn back, wanted to tell him he wasn’t alone. All she could do was smile at him, smile and maybe make him realize that not every stranger was out to hurt him. Maybe he’d be able to remember that. She just hoped that Steve was having better luck.
Steve could nearly hear whoever was on the other side weighing his options. The door finally opened a crack after a lengthy pause.
“Hey there,” Steve said, warmly as he could while letting himself wheeze. “Don’t suppose I could bother you for a drink?” The inhaler was imperfectly concealed in his hand, still in view of the door. “My eyes were bigger than my stamina, I’m afraid. Overdid it.” He wheezed a bit more for effect, but that was mostly for show. The drugs had done their work, and he’d learned to deal with his asthma a long time ago.
The door opened another few inches, the sun just barely illuminating a rumpled-looking man with salt-and-pepper hair, glasses perched on his nose.
“Are you doing okay?” Banner asked reluctantly, not coming fully into the light. Steve hid his alarm at being greeted by the good doctor. If Barton was off roaming the hills, that could be bad. He must have slipped out of the house somehow, even though Steve had been observing it for the past several days, and Steve mentally berated himself for the lapse. It would have made more sense for Barton to be the one to greet strangers, because it was unlikely for Barton to be physically hurt. Banner was all too mortal, and if Barton lost his advocate and protector, he’d have to go at it alone. Solo operation was hard as hell, Steve knew that more than most, and to be entirely cut off from resources to boot along with acquiring a rage monster inside your own body… he needed the help. Anyone would need help.
“A little better, but I could use some water, if you have it,” Steve said, letting his wheezing wind down. Regardless, Barton was out and Steve-the-asthmatic-tourist didn’t know there were two people that lived here. The others would either be able to handle Barton, or not. Steve couldn’t afford to warn them through the earbud, and they were all watching him anyway, even if only one of them knew who he really was. He trusted their intelligence enough to be on the lookout regardless.
Banner finally pointed to a split-log bench and said, “Sit down; I’ll be right back.” Steve collapsed with a look of gratitude, feeling the hard cartridges of his Widower’s Bite against his wrists. Concealed by the thick cuffs of his coat and sweater, he still had a way to incapacitate Banner if everything went wrong.
Of course, if everything really did go that wrong, it would probably just be more advisable to run.
Banner returned with a pitcher and tin cup, dripping wet, and Steve took it and sipped it carefully. It was tooth-achingly cold and tasted of minerals, but he couldn’t detect any obvious poisons. If it was something more exotic, it would take time to affect him, in which case he had antidotes in his supplies. He drank the water down with every evidence of gratitude, and accepted another cup as Banner kept looking all around the valley. Expecting helicopters and men in combat gear, most likely.
We wouldn’t do that to you, Doctor. You aren’t guilty of anything but being a good man. A hell of a lot better than most of the people you know.
“Thanks,” Steve said, leaning back and letting the faint breeze cool the sweat on his face. “I really didn’t mean to overdo it that badly.”
“Don’t you have a hiking buddy or something? It’s dangerous up here for the inexperienced…” Banner dropped off, realizing Steve could take offense, and he laughed to put him at ease.
“Yeah, it’s my own fault, I know. I’m supposed to meet some people just west of here. There’s a valley…”
“Oh,” Bruce said, looking over that way. “Right.” He didn’t sound terribly convinced, but when was the last time someone had hiked up out of nowhere out here?
“I solemnly swear, I’m only up to good things,” Steve said, and pulled a couple empty water containers out of his pack. “Could I trouble you…?” He put on his best puppy dog eyes, and Bruce reluctantly went back into the house. As Banner opened the door, Steve could see a little more inside, including the computer with the satellite hook-up. So that’s how they were communicating with Dr. Ross all the way out here. He wondered who had hooked them up with the equipment.
“How you end up out here?” Steve called.
“Needed to get away from it all,” Bruce called back. “The usual.”
“All couldn’t be farther away,” Steve agreed amicably. “But don’t you miss anything out here?”
Banner came back out, handing Steve back his containers, and looked a little haunted. Steve could easily imagine what was going through his mind at that moment.
Betty Ross, my labs, food I didn’t have to cook myself, stores, a job, and any sense of self-worth.
“Grass is always greener, no matter where you are,” Banner said with a shrug. “It’s not bad out here.”
“At least you’re away from all those jerks at the office,” Steve said, nodding sympathetically. “Or store or school or wherever.”
“Right. You feeling better?” Banner asked. Steve stood up and took a few deep breaths to show his lack of wheezing. “Good luck finding your buddies.”
Steve smiled and turned to go. Phase one, complete, if modified on the fly. If everything went well, Steve-the-yuppie-tourist would “inadvertently” intersect one of the two during the next couple of days, and then hike out past their cabin again. Non-threatening contact initially established, he’d introduce Thor, Tony, and Natasha as his friends during one of those times, and they would be able to quietly, carefully reveal themselves for who they really were in a controlled environment. Assuming revealing Steve’s identity to Tony and Thor worked out, after all. This wasn’t just about bringing Barton and Banner in, it was about revealing the point of SHIELD and what they needed everyone for. The world was, in the words of Steve’s mentor, “stranger than you already know.” And Steve knew a wide range of strange at this point.
Far better to do this here, where there was nothing to do but face the consequences, instead of in Malibu or New York. Under the stars, amidst the wild, it was easier to step away from the distractions of the greater world.
Feeling fairly confident, Steve started to walk away.
That’s when a thunderclap from above nearly deafened him.
He quickened his pace.
Barton waited until he saw the others had moved off west, waited a good while longer to make sure they weren’t going to double back, and then took a quick turn around the little clearing they’d been using to do birding. Maybe they were just what they said they were, hikers out in the great wilds of Canada looking for something off the beaten path. Or maybe they were spies for the General.
Damn it, he really didn’t want to have to leave again.
He hunted for clues in the leaf litter, looking for anything that didn’t match their story. MRE wrappers, army boot footprints, cigarette butts, GPS locators, even wireless cameras, any of those he might have suspected. He didn’t expect to kick over some leaves and stub his toe on a gleaming silver hammer that looked like something straight out of fantasy movie.
How the hell did that fit it anything he’d seen today? Clint reached over and pulled on it, and nearly wrenched his shoulder out of its socket. The thing might as well have been mounted in cement for all he budged it.
“The hell?” he muttered.
Then he looked closer at the hammer, and his jaw dropped. He knew he’d seen that somewhere before. There were a few very blurry pictures of this hammer, or something like it, in Tony Stark’s hands when he’d returned from his international ass-kicking of all terrorists great and small. He’d heard a few stories about it in passing; picking up gossip from soldiers’ message boards and conspiracy websites. And “Anthony,” how dumb had he been not to have recognized that goatee?
Above his head, thunder growled. Clint looked up in alarm – where had that come from?
Tony jerked to a halt so fast Thor nearly ran into him, and turned around. “He’s got her,” he said, paling.
“Mjölnir. He’s got his hands on her.”
Thunder growled in response to Tony’s outrage, and Natasha could see lightning crawling in the bases of the sudden swell of thunderheads above.
“He cannot move her, Tony. She judged you worthy, not him. He cannot harm her,” Thor urged.
“I’m not worried about that! But there are pictures of me with her. He knows we’re not who we said we were.”
“Run or come clean?”
“Come clean.” Steve broke out of the woods next to Natasha, and started shucking his pack and outerware with casual grace.
“Legal? What the fuck are you doing here?” Tony demanded.
“Steve Rogers, agent of SHIELD,” he said, black armor and Widower’s bite becoming visible as he stripped away his hiker persona.
“He’s with me,” Natasha said, cutting through Tony’s irritation and Thor’s growing ire. “We needed the help. We needed someone subtle. And you were pretty adamant about not having any official presence, so what did you think was going to happen?”
“And SHIELD sent you. Just you?” Thor said, eyeing Rogers up and down, testing his fitness with his eyes.
“She only trusted me around you,” Steve said.
“Wait, go back, you were in my house,” Tony said, clearly irritated enough not to let this drop. Storm clouds were still gathering, and this was not exactly the time or the place, but Tony wasn’t going to move until he got an explanation.
“Can we focus on the important things here?” Steve asked.
“You lied,” Tony accused, looking more at Natasha.
“I did not,” she said. The thunder boomed overhead, and Natasha looked over her shoulder. Tony might have been able to summon Mjölnir with a thought, but hadn’t wanted to startle Barton. And now, with the weather going, and Barton apparently standing right next to the hammer, he didn’t dare try to tip Barton over the edge. Natasha loosened her coat and dropped her pack, pushing off her outerware so she could move freely. If worse came to worse and Barton lost control, they had to be able to run. “I said I was working with SHIELD, which is true. I said they needed us to look into Barton and Banner and offer them a place and a job, and I said I needed help if something went wrong. I said I wanted to be respectful, and I said we’d be using SHIELD information.”
Tony held up a finger, as if about to protest, thought for a second, then dropped it. Then he pointed it at Steve. “Okay, ‘Nathan-’”
“You damn well know SHIELD wasn’t just going to give you their intel and say ‘good luck.’ I came to help, like she said.”
Tony still looked rebellious. “I don’t think we need any jackbooted government thugs here.”
“I don’t wear jackboots. If I were what you thought I was, I would have subdued Banner and used him as a lure to get Barton in your clutches, and hope the three of you could subdue him long enough to get him transported to a cage. You watched me. What did I do?”
Steve kept his face very calm and composed in the face of Tony’s growing anger, until Thor put a hand on his shoulder.
“He spoke to Dr. Banner. That was all he did.”
“Everyone with the right security clearance knows what happened to the last five capture squads Ross sent after Barton. Banner was the one that warned them off, and then struck back as soon as they showed their intentions. He spared Barton from transforming at least twice during those attempts, because he was plenty dangerous on his own. We’re not trying to capture them, because they have evading that down to a science. We need them to talk to us. They deserve a choice.” Steve stared straight at Tony. “They deserve a chance to do some good. I know they want to.”
Tony’s expression softened and the thunder above eased off slightly.
“If what you say is true, they have rarely been offered that,” Thor said. “It is a common thread in all our stories.”
“Look, I lie a lot in my job; it’s necessary life skill for what I do. But I don’t lie about things like this, or people like them.”
“Do you think Banner would have talked to us?” Natasha pointed out.
Tony nodded reluctantly, and then started as Thor abruptly thumped his pack to the ground and loosened the zipper, the metallic gleam of his Iron Man suit visible through the gap.
“We will have the opportunity momentarily to see if that is true,” Thor said. Natasha looked over her shoulder to see Dr. Banner advancing through the trees. With his bow. Her heart sped up; if Barton followed them to see if Mjölnir was the real deal, this was going to get very awkward. And violent.
Clint swallowed as he cleared the trees and saw a colorful group of four people in a loose circle. The woman had stripped down to a patriotic suit of red, white, and blue, looking uncannily like Captain America – one of his history teachers had had a reproduction poster of her, or at least what she was supposed to have looked like, on the walls of his classroom. Tony Stark and Theo were seemingly ignoring her colorful costume change in favor of arguing with the fourth man, the hiker who had been at the cabin, who was now in government commando black.
Clint felt the Hulk throw himself at the walls of his mind at the sight that had always brought pain, and fought down the surge of fear and panic.
It’s one man. I’m strong enough for one man, Hulk. I can handle one man. Please, I’m strong enough for one – I can save myself, please!
He repeated that over and over, torn between keeping ahold of the gun to convince the Hulk he could defend himself, or tossing it aside so he wouldn’t crush it if he couldn’t hold the transformation back.
MORE THAN ONE. NEED HULK. SAVE BARTON, SAVE BANNER!
What if Clint didn’t want to be saved? What if Clint was tired of running, of fighting, what if he wanted to remove the temptation of the Hulk from the unscrupulous? He’d thought of that before, back when Bruce and him had only weathered the second attempt to capture them, and in a moment of weakness had pressed the cool, smooth barrel to his chin. He’d thought maybe he could give Bruce back his life if he was gone. He’d caught Bruce slipping tiny personal notes into the packages he’d gotten smuggled back to Betty, and looking at the one picture of her he had with all the longing in the world.
But Clint hadn’t pulled the trigger. His sniper training had held, that you always had to have a full plan, that after the kill, there had to be an extraction, an escape route, and those could be even more elaborate than setting up the shot itself. If it worked, if Clint was gone, it wouldn’t save Bruce a thing; it wouldn’t give him his life back. Ross would haul him back and set him to making more Hulks, and without Clint there, Bruce wouldn’t be able to protect himself. Without Bruce to keep him sane, Clint knew he’d lose himself in the monster inside.
There was no easy way out.
It was Clint and Hulk together that screamed at the intruders into their world. “Go away! Leave us alone!”
The woman turned towards him, her hands empty, and next to her the commando did the same. Behind them, Tony and Theo were looking over their shoulders, and with a sinking heart, Clint realized Bruce was advancing from the opposite side, working his way around to Clint.
“Go, get out of here. Now!” Bruce yelled, an arrow knocked, his bow pointed at the ground for now, but Clint knew how quickly he could fire, and how deadly he was at that range. Bruce might not have been a soldier, but he’d been taught harsh and painful lessons that had brought his skills to a high peak at a very young age.
From the way Tony and Theo were looking at him, they respected that skill. Good; Bruce had put enough holes in enough people that they should respect him by now. Clint just prayed, with what tiny amount of himself was not occupied with holding back his transformation, that they wouldn’t hurt Bruce.
The Hulk roared again in his mind, and Clint realized that imagining Bruce lying bloody on the ground was the last thing he needed to think about. Sweat started to trickle down his face as Clint cast the rifle aside and tried to hold onto his humanity with everything he had.
Natasha’s heart sank as Barton collapsed to the ground, his clothing straining to hold him as he struggled against the monster inside him. They hadn’t wanted to do this, hadn’t wanted to provoke him, dammit, they hadn’t even had a chance to come clean yet! But in the face of an impending Hulk, they couldn’t afford to be anything less than fully prepared. Behind her, Natasha heard the mechanical clicks and whirring as Thor armored up, and thunder rumbled overhead as Tony held out his hand for Mjölnir. Banner stared at them all, wide-eyed, and Natasha was very, very glad that Barton’s head was down as Tony’s hammer went whizzing by to slap into his palm. Thor was extremely intimidating as Iron Man, and thunder growled softly overhead as Tony held Mjölnir at his side. If anyone could give the Hulk a run for his money, it would be those two, and Banner was more than smart enough to see it.
“We’re not here to hurt you,” Steve said, keeping his hands open and away from his sides. “Dr. Banner, please, we’re not trying to capture you. We wanted to talk; I wanted to ease you into things, so that’s why I didn’t start out in uniform.”
Banner’s bow was up and though Natasha was not exactly familiar with the ancient weapon, it looked very substantial, more than enough to punch a hole clean through her or Steve with ease. She twisted her wrists the right way and her bracers opened up slightly, forming two small diamond-shaped shields. She hadn’t wanted to be burdened with anything that would tend to get lost in the field, or that she would have to fling at an enemy – guns served well enough for long distance, but for close-up work, she relied on agility as much as strength. Howard had designed the vibranium bracer-shields to let her deflect bullets without weighing her down.
But Steve had no such protection, and bulletproof vests didn’t do well against sharp objects.
Banner looked between Thor, in his silver, red, and gold armor, Tony with his massive magical hammer, Natasha in her red, white, and blue, and back to Steve in his government spy black. If they had been a new version of Ross’ Hulkbuster squads, they should have opened up, guns blazing, well before this. Their restraint made him hesitate to start firing, but unwilling to drop his bow. Barton’s panting was harsh in the background, but Steve’s soothing words, plus the lack of people starting to shoot, seemed to be giving him more time to regain control.
But he was still struggling, and the hands gripping the long meadow grass had taken on a decidedly greenish tinge.
“Cap?” Tony muttered very quietly. “I really don’t want to hit this guy, but you squishier people are way too close for comfort.”
Natasha waved Tony back. “We’re not running.”
“You may have to,” Thor said, sliding back his face plate. “Captain, Agent Rogers, we will do Barton no favors by tallying more deaths to his conscience. His other form is a berserker; he will be unable to give us mercy.”
Thor had a naturally carrying voice, and Banner’s head swiveled to him, eyes wide with shock.
“Oh God…” Barton’s voice, a broken growl, broke the tableau. “Go! Go away!”
There was something in his tone that pulled on Natasha from seventy years ago. One of the 107th whom she’d rescued during that first mission had been experimented upon by Schmidt’s pet scientist Zola, and he’d cried out in the same way as whatever chemicals and variations on the serum had burned through his blood, trying to change him.
He’d ended up dead later, fallen off a train on foreign soil, never knowing what had happened to him in the HYDRA base but unwilling to sit on the sidelines. James Barnes had been his name, like Steve's friend, and all that young man had wanted to do was serve his country, be a good soldier, just like her.
Just like Barton. If she’d been born in this time, or he in hers, who knew? He might have been in the Howling Commandos, or she might have served with him in one of the hot, sandy, uncertain wars of this century. They might have been brothers-in-arms. Instead he’d been changed as James had, and had everything familiar ripped away. He’d just been trying to become better to serve his country.
Natasha stepped forward and let her voice take on the bark of the drill instructor who’d whipped her into shape and helped her get Dr. Erskine’s attention. Sargent Dain had been hard as nails, but fair and even as the scales of Justice, about as far away from General Ross as she could imagine.
“You stow that crap right now, soldier!”
Banner shifted his bow to cover her, eyes wide, and she could feel the stares of the others burning into her back. Barton suddenly looked up, his face distorted, too large, too green, but with a hint of hope through the mask of rage and despair that creased his features.
“Do you think this is a joke? Is that a smile I see? I am not here for your amusement! On your feet and salute your superior officer!”
Barton snapped to his feet with the reflexes of someone who’d learned to follow his drill instructor in basic even when dog-tired and half dead. He stared at her, the green of his eyes slightly tinging with his normal blue.
“Soldier! At ease.” She let her parade-ground inflection soften only on the last word, and Barton used that, and the sight of the others holding very still in the face of Banner’s unwavering aim, to wrest full control back of himself. He collapsed to his knees, breathing in huge gasps of air that he slowly began to relax, the Hulk fading back inside him. The gratitude on his face, the relief, nearly made her dizzy.
Everyone was on edge, standing still yet quivering with tension, and something had to break. When Natasha flipped her shields back down, Bruce’s wire-tight reflexes snapped, and the bow twanged in her direction. Time seemed to slow as she tried to jump out of the way, slow enough that she could see Banner’s horror as he uselessly grabbed for where the arrow had been. Barton’s mouth gaped in shock, and Steve lunged in her direction, trying to shield her with his body. Natasha could see that Banner’s aim was too good; it would skewer them both through.
Suddenly Mjölnir flashed between the two groups, destroying the arrow in a spectacular display of well-timed overkill. It plowed into the ground a good five yards to Banner’s side as Natasha hit the ground, Steve sprawled on top of her protectively. He swore in three different languages as he rolled off her and to his feet, eying Barton warily. Natasha picked herself up as Banner started to apologize, his face looking bloodless with shock.
“Don’t,” she said, shaking her head, giving Tony a grateful glance. Thor could have easily shielded her too, or blasted the arrow to ash, but a look back at him, with his stoic and solemn countenance, told her why he hadn’t. She most likely could have survived an arrow hit long enough for him to fly her to a hospital, but firing energy weapons or guns very close to the man who’d just managed to rein his rage monster not two minutes prior would have meant more than just one arrow wound.
Thor claimed to have been trained as a prince; he understood the needs of the many versus the few. That kind of wisdom could be so rare; knowing you had strength and not always using it was why Dr. Erskine had chosen her.
They had, after all, come to talk, not to fight. Not if they could help it.
“My God,” Banner said finally, and laid his bow on the ground with shaking hands. “I didn’t mean…” He stopped himself from trying to apologize again, and just let out a long, slow breath, turning to Barton. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” He also clearly wasn’t going to get up any time soon, and Banner seemed to be all right with that. Natasha echoed Barton’s reassurance about her health before Banner could ask her. Still shaking his head, Banner went to Mjölnir. Tony opened his mouth to warn him about her immovability, when Banner carefully pulled her up from the ground and carried her back to Tony.
Tony’s mouth remained open, and Steve’s jaw sagged a little as Banner handed the hammer back. Thor strode up, grinning widely, and slapped Banner on the shoulder with a care for his metal gauntlet and robotic-enhanced strength.
“It seems we have found another worthy friend, Dr. Banner,” Thor said. “For Mjölnir only lets herself be lifted by those most deserving.”
Barton finally staggered to his feet and closed the gap between him and Banner, putting his hand on Banner’s other shoulder. “That’s totally you, Doc.”
“What…?” Banner said, blinking in confusion. Tony reached out and took Mjölnir from him, cradling her in his arms as Thor took his hand away.
“It looks like you just got a Golden Ticket, Brucey,” he said, his natural banter resurfacing after that revelation.
“Tony Stark?” Bruce said, exchanging a look with Barton as he finally registered who was cradling the massive weapon.
“In the flesh.” Tony may have flexed a little, Natasha was sure of it. “Killer thesis, by the way.”
“And the rest of you?”
“Thor Odinsson, of Asgard, now known as Iron Man,” Thor said with a bow.
“Fits you better than Theo,” Barton said, and Thor smiled.
“It was only meant as a gentle deception, to keep from alarming you. I hope you can forgive me.”
Barton gave an expansive shrug; alarming was all a matter of perspective with all that had happened today.
“Natasha Romanov, Captain America,” Natasha said, raising her chin.
“Holy shit,” Barton muttered.
“Yeah, sort of my reaction too,” Tony said sympathetically.
“Ice,” Natasha said succinctly. “Thank global warming for me getting out.”
Barton nearly laughed.
“Steve Rogers, agent of SHIELD. We came up here to offer you a place,” Steve said, between one blink and the next going from shocked to all business, and Natasha swore she could faintly hear him rapidly compartmentalizing. “There’s a program called the Avengers Initiative. You wouldn’t have to run anymore. Ross wouldn’t be able to touch you, either one of you. And no experiments.”
Tony and Thor exchanged glances; this was the first they’d heard of the offer either. Steve turned towards them. “No more lies about the important things.”
“Offering us a place to do what?” Barton asked, eyes narrowing.
“To fight the fights we never could,” Steve said. “The fights no one else is capable of. People who can’t be matched and won’t be reasoned with-.”
“Like me?” Barton said ominously.
“You weren’t trying to take over the world the last time I checked,” Steve said so blandly that Barton nearly cracked a smile.
“I’m here to help Clint, not to turn into some kind of government assassin,” Banner snapped.
“Doc,” Barton said, a peculiar world-weariness in his voice. They exchanged a look that held an entire conversation in it, something they’d talked about before, Natasha was sure of it. Maybe Banner had actually begun to enjoy tricking Ross’ men into underestimating him, and hadn’t liked that revelation about himself. Maybe it was about Barton himself, that if they hadn’t found a cure in three years it was likely one didn’t exist.
“And who said anything about government?” Steve added. “The threats we’re talking about… are not exactly local.”
That got everyone’s attention.
“Another world has challenged Midgard?” Thor asked, looking stormy.
Steve was about to respond when he froze, the look on his face meaning someone was contacting him over his earbud. He lost a little color, and looked at the group, focusing on Thor.
“Do you know someone called Loki?” he demanded.
“My brother, the king-” Thor began, looking shocked
“Something just landed on deck in the name of Loki, got our location out of one of our agents through means no one is ready to understand, and went flying straight for us.”
“ETA,” Natasha said, Barton echoing her almost simultaneously.
“They’re saying less than five minutes at its current speed.”
Thor flipped down his faceplate and scanned the heavens, the Iron Man mask fixing on one point in the sky.
“The Destroyer,” he said, his voice sounding hollow and sad even through its synthesized filters. “Brother, what have I done to anger you?”