Today’s Clint’s thirty-fourth birthday, and it’s been at least a month and a half since he last woke up to his ears ringing with the echoes of explosions.
There haven’t been any statements released from the government for over a year, and any superiors he might have had have all disappeared one by one. He watches the sky this morning, same as he has every morning for the past week, and catalogues how the mushroom clouds that hover constantly on the edges of the horizon are all dissipating.
He hasn’t seen another soul for weeks, minus the odd body or blasted-out remains of a bot, and he’s starting to think that maybe—just maybe—this whole thing might be over. He guesses it might be a birthday present, sort of.
Clint won’t lie and say that the thought that he might not have to shoot another person ever again isn’t appealing—it is, because he’s never enjoyed killing, not like Barney, who laughed while he pulled the trigger—but he’s never thought about what to do after the war. It’s just—there isn’t an after. You don’t come through the other side.
You just don’t.
Clint’s been on his own for six months (well, he’s got Lucky, but the little rover’s the most basic AI imaginable and barely counts) before another thought creeps in, more frightening than the ‘it’s over’ mantra that’s been repeating for weeks. He’s somewhere in Colorado, north of Denver’s ruins but south of Boulder if he’s reading the map right, and he stops dead in the center of a road he thinks was once Highway 36.
Silence stretches out around him, his sharp breaths the only punctuation. His jeep quit on him in Colorado Springs and the altitude’s maybe getting to him a little. He can’t hear anything other than the oppressive drone of insects and the whistle of the October wind sweeping down off the mountains. The area’d been hit by one of Hydra’s attacks a year or so ago, he knew. It could just be that he’s in a pocket where no one has moved back.
“I’m not the only one,” he says into the stillness, and cringes at the sound of his own voice. The remnants of a bot stares vacantly into the distance atop an abandoned car and Clint glares back, annoyed with himself. “I’m not,” he tells it, and of course it doesn’t answer. “I’m not,” he repeats, insistent, and looks down at Lucky. “There are other people in the world. Just because we haven’t seen any….” Lucky’s one working little camera points up in his direction and he beeps questioningly.
Clint doesn’t elaborate. He thinks vaguely that he might be losing it.
They spend the winter in Boulder, squatting in a house near a park, right where Arapahoe Road peters out against the foothills. He likes the place. The park’s got a stream and he catches fish in it a couple times, though they’re tiny and he usually throws them back. There’s a nice library about five minutes away, and Clint takes to dragging books back to the park by the backpack-full. He reads under huge, ancient trees on days when it’s warm enough to stay outside, and curls up by the fireplace in the house when it’s not.
The park’s also got a large grassy area (overgrown and half-reclaimed by wilderness by this point) and it’s long and open, perfect for him to set up a couple targets. He uses a bow because it’s quieter and because Lucky beeps excitedly when Clint activates his Search protocols and sends him off into the grass to look for arrows.
Clint pointedly doesn’t think about his secret reason for not touching his rifle. It hasn’t sat right in his hands since he realized he shot the last person he saw, going on nine months ago, now.
At night, he builds up the fire in the fireplace ‘til it’s practically roaring and tells Lucky all about growing up. He talks about Barney and the orphanage, and about Basic with the Swordsman. It feels good to get it all off his chest. The little bot’s a good listener (possibly because he can’t talk back) and Clint takes to keeping up a steady stream of chatter to fill the silence.
He’s pretty sure that if he didn’t have Lucky’s little beeps and whirrs to egg him on, he would have just curled up in a ball of crazy by this point. Humans aren’t made to live in a vacuum. Actually, bots aren’t either.
Of course it couldn’t last forever, and Lucky’s power cell start to fail as the year draws to a close. Clint spends a solid week digging through every electronics shop within fifty miles trying to find him a new one. None of them fit, and Clint spends New Year’s Day curled around his dead rover and crying. He’s alone again, he’s always ends up alone, everyone always leaves, he deserves this for what he’s done—
It’s probably the worst day of his life.
It’s a foggy morning in February when Clint finds the place. He pulls to a stop on his bike, a nice mountain biking something he found in someone’s backyard, and stares. He’s somewhere on the farthest west side of town, half up Boulder Canyon, and he’s been exploring for exploring’s sake.
It’s not anything more than a shack, really, but there’s a sagging power line attached to some contraption on the roof and the neon lights are lit up. ‘I Fix Your Shit,’ the building proclaims, and Clint blinks.
He pedals a little closer and then drops the bike next to a camper with boarded up windows and flat tires. There’s graffiti on the side, scrawled in red. This sign insists that ‘Nothing’s for Free,’ and Clint trails his fingers over the paint before stepping around the trailer and toward the excuse of a front porch. He inspects what appears to be the nose section of a Cessna, spray painted black and adorned with a stenciled shark’s mouth. There’s also a faded couch, stuffing half-exploding out of its cushions, and a pile of rubble and bits of metal further on, past the house proper. The place has a definite air of the home-made, sorta thrown together with hand-driven nails holding up rickety boards.
He touches one of the support beams, just barely brushing his fingers over the wood, and when a voice suddenly says ‘Hey,’ he figures he should not be faulted for jumping near out of his skin and letting out a startled shout.
“Whoa, calm down man,” says the voice again. Clint clutches at his chest and tries to slow his breathing while a guy materializes out of the gloom of the shack. He’s wearing mechanic’s overalls, half-open at the throat to reveal an absolutely filthy undershirt, and there’s something weird going on with his chest, a light glowing weakly through the thin material covering it. The sleeves of his jumper are rolled up to his elbows, showcasing strong arms (also filthy). He’s absolutely covered in grease and oil. He also has a heavy monkey wrench in one hand, a scraggly beard, and a cautious smile.
“Holy shit,” Clint says, and the guy nods.
“Yea, that was my general feeling, too,” he agrees, and waves the wrench carelessly. “You planning on trying to kill me or anything? I’ll fight back, just warning you.”
“No!” Clint insists immediately, incredulous. This was beyond surreal. “No. I don’t wanna try to kill you, you’re the first person I’ve seen in… um. Almost a year?”
The guy hums in agreement. “Then I’m gonna blow. your. mind.” He half turns back toward the darkness of the house. “Hey, Bruce,” he calls out. “Big Guy. C’mere a sec, I need you to confirm I’m not seeing things again.” He turns back to Clint and waggles his eyebrows. “I went a little crazy before Bruce showed up. It’s entirely possible you’re a hallucination.”
“Ah,” Clint says, and that’s not exactly comforting. “I don’t think I’m a hallucination.”
“Fair enough,” the guy shrugs, and Clint’s just starting to think that maybe the supposed Bruce is a hallucination (and wouldn’t that be his luck, the only other guy within a hundred miles would be crazy as a loon) when there’s a crash and another voice swearing quietly and a second guy appears, already mid-rant.
“—have I told you to turn the lights on, Tony, you’re gonna kill yourself wandering around in the dark, I—” It’s then that he catches sight of Clint and stops dead. “Holy shit.”
“We’ve covered that,” the first guy—Tony—says flippantly. “Dude-bro here says he doesn’t want to kill us.”
Clint blinks. “I really don’t,” he affirms. It sounds a little weird to hear his own voice. He hasn’t made a habit out of talking to himself, not since Lucky—he cuts that thought off quickly.
The second guy—Bruce—is eyeing him more warily than Tony had been, lingering on the quiver and bow Clint keeps habitually strapped to his back. Clint shifts under his scrutiny. “I thought I was the only person left.” His voice is softer and more lost than he’d thought it would be and he blushes and glares down at the ground.
“Well, we’re here,” Bruce says, and when Clint looks up, he’s smiling a little, though he still looks wary. “Good to meet you.”
“Tony Stark,” Tony proclaims, taking a step off the porch and clapping his hand to Clint’s shoulder. “And that’s Bruce Banner. I fix your shit!” The smile he’s shooting Clint is wide and a little… off, somehow… but Clint returns it anyway. His mind flicks immediately back to the quiet rover he’s got stored under a tarp in the corner of his living room.
“I’m Clint. Barton. Hi.”
“Good to meet you, Clint,” Bruce says again, but his eyes are on Tony, and he looks concerned. “Tony, go on inside for a sec, okay? Let me talk to Clint.”
“Okay,” Tony agrees easily, but the smile slips a little, turns a hair confused. “You want me to… make some soup or something? I won’t burn it this time, promise.”
“No, baby, we just ate, remember?” Bruce says gently, and Tony’s smile falters further. He steps away from Clint and presents his cheek to Bruce; it’s kissed softly, Bruce ignoring the streaks of grease on Tony’s face. The grin reappears, happy and careless, and then Tony disappears inside again, humming.
Bruce and Clint stare at one another for a long moment, broken only when Bruce clears his throat. And then, well, Clint’s not sure how he does it, but Bruce suddenly seems a good several inches taller, and looks pants-shittingly dangerous. Clint has to fight not to take a step backwards.
“If you’re here to hurt us, I will kill you,” Bruce says, his voice filled with a rumble of quiet menace. “Don’t mistake me. I can be very unpleasant when I’m angry.”
Clint doesn’t doubt him in the slightest. “I don’t want to hurt anyone ever again,” he stresses, and tries to show how much he means it.
Bruce stares at him for another second, and then nods. “Right.”
Clint drags Lucky down to Tony and Bruce’s shack two days after he meets them. Bruce stands with his arms crossed disapprovingly while Clint explains his failed search for a power cell to an excited—like, literally bouncing—Tony. Tony dismisses the issue with a flap of his hand and an offhanded, “Whatever, I’ll just build one. Better one,” before he disappears into the shop.
Clint watches after him, a nameless worry for Lucky’s well-being circling the back of his mind.
“He’ll fix it.” Bruce announces it like it’s a foregone conclusion, and it’s the first thing he’s said to Clint since the threat he’d issued the first day they met. “Tony can fix anything.”
“He won’t break him?” Clint asks, a little lost, cause Lucky’s the only friend he’s had for a long while and he can’t quite see including Bruce in that category, not yet. Tony, maybe. They’re both a little weird.
Bruce shrugs, unconcerned. “If he does, he’ll fix that, too. But be prepared for your rover’s chassis to get a spray-paint treatment. He favors red and gold.”
“…’Kay…” Clint says, and is monumentally confused.
It takes Tony a week to manufacture a new power source for Lucky, and when Clint comes to pick him up, Lucky’s got a tiny blue glowing light deep in his innards that matches the blue Clint caught a glimpse of that one time in Tony’s chest. He’s spray-painted too, just like Bruce said he would be, but it’s a deep purple, almost black.
Lucky whirrs excitedly when Clint kneels down next to him. He pulls the clunky bot into an awkward hug, made more so by Lucky’s enthusiastic gesturing with his armature and pincher claw. He’s apparently very pleased with his haphazard paint job.
“He functions fine with just the one eye,” Tony says from behind him, and Clint turns to look at him, trying to surreptitiously wipe tears from his eyes. Tony shrugs and does him the service of not drawing attention to it. “I could fix the other one if you want, but glass is hard to find and I figured you’d rather see him awake.”
“No, it’s fine,” Clint says. “That other eye’s never worked.”
“Yea, he doesn’t seem to care,” Tony agrees.
Clint stands up and Lucky latches his claw onto the hem of his pants. It’s affectionate, and Clint had no idea he missed that so much. “What do I owe you?”
“Eh,” Tony says. “Whatever.”
“Not whatever, Tony,” Bruce chides gently, piping up from where he’d been chaperoning this interaction from his spot on the faded couch in front of the house. “Trade’s important, remember?” Tony gives him a searching look, then turns back to Clint.
“Stick around. Don’t disappear on us. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there aren’t exactly a lot of people around anymore.”
Bruce pinches his nose with his fingers but doesn’t say anything. Tony grins. “Also help us plant some food when the ground thaws a little.”
“I can do that all that,” Clint tells them, and shakes Tony’s grimy hand when it’s offered.
Clint helps plant their garden in March, and works with Bruce to break new ground to expand it in April. He also starts to make a habit of shooting the occasional rabbit and dropping it off, and after the third time, Bruce stops him and asks if he wants to stay for dinner.
He doesn’t go to Tony and Bruce’s every day, but by May, he’s there probably four days out of the week. He keeps telling himself that he shouldn’t let himself get attached, but it’s hard not to, even when Bruce only warms up to him in casual increments. It’s June before he starts smiling when Clint shows up, Lucky trundling steadfastly behind him. Tony, on the other hand, takes to him right away, dragging Clint into the shop that makes up the bottom level of their house almost every time Clint visits.
They waste time poking at the innards of a flying motorcycle, new enough that Clint remembers the model from when he was a kid. It’s inexplicably been spray-painted neon pink (one of the many things around the house that Tony’s applied aggressive spray paint to, for reasons only clear to Tony) and Clint loves the thing, if not the color. Tony tells him he can have it when they’re finished with it because apparently it’s the process, not the end result. Clint agrees, but only after they’ve covered the pink with a purple/black that’s similar to what Tony used on Lucky.
The workshop’s a sort of controlled chaos.
There’s a huge bench that takes up the entirety of one wall, and it’s overflowing with wires and sprockets and tools, and Clint has no idea how Tony keeps track of everything, but he does. There’s a half-finished antique cherry red corvette under a tarpaulin, the disassembled back half of the shark-faced Cessna from the front porch, a pile of AI-compatible circuit boards in one corner, and a rudimentary bot parked in the other. The bot’s so damn affectionate that Clint wants to pet it on its armature every time he goes by, and Tony calls it Dum-E. Clint’s massively amused by how much it dotes on him, and Lucky strikes up a friendship with the other bot immediately.
Offensively-named and doted-upon bots aside, Clint’s pretty sure that Tony’s a genius, like legitimately. It’s hard to tell sometimes, though, because his initial assessment of something being a little off with Tony only is confirmed the more time he spends at the house.
There’s something haunted in Tony’s eyes, and Clint learns fast not to startle him by coming up on him from behind. He doesn’t ask, though. People are allowed to have their secrets.
“You guys could come over to my place if you ever wanted to get out, take a walk or a drive or whatever,” Clint says one day. He and Bruce are sitting on the couch at the front of the house, watching Tony as he digs around the engine block of a truck they dragged down here somehow. It’s late in July, the air’s muggy and mosquito-laden, and Clint’s starting to think that Bruce might secretly like him at least a little.
Bruce glances at him, sidelong. “Tony doesn’t like leaving the house.”
“Oh,” Clint says, and looks down at his hands. He and Bruce are both drinking beers, though they’re old and taste a little stale. One good thing about Colorado—no matter how long the war went on, there’s still a huge supply of alcohol around, if you know where to look for it. “Okay.”
“He was tortured,” Bruce says after a minute more of watching Tony work. His voice is soft and Clint chokes a little ‘cause he’d chosen that moment to take a drink. Bruce ignores his spluttering and continues on, his eyes soft on Tony’s oblivious back. “They tore out his heart, put something else in. I don’t know what it is. I think Tony does, though. I know he’s repaired it at least once. But he won’t talk about it, and I’m terrified that someday it’ll stop working and then he’ll die and it’s my fault ‘cause I wasn’t here and I couldn’t protect him—”
Clint places a gentle hand on Bruce’s shoulder and Bruce startles, looking at him with wide eyes. It’s the first time Bruce has ever appeared less than in control, and it’s a little jarring. Not that Clint would say anything.
By now—mostly because Tony doesn’t seem to have a filter when he gets rambling—Clint knows that Bruce was a physicist and had been working in New Mexico when the war was (unbeknownst to them) winding down. He knows that something weird happened to Bruce there, but doesn’t know what. He knows that Bruce sent Tony off in a jet headed for supposed safety just before the last of the bombs hit the major military bases, and that the plane was shot down over the Rockies anyway. He knows that Bruce blames himself for whatever’s gone wrong with Tony’s head, and that Bruce loves Tony more than life. He also knows that the feeling is mutual.
“Sorry,” Bruce mumbles, and Clint feels bad because, yea, he knows all these things about the two of them, and he’s been remarkably quiet about his own past. Granted, he spends most of his time with Tony, who doesn’t seem to care much about anything that isn’t either robot- or Bruce-related, but he could still give a little.
“I was a sniper,” he says, and Bruce turns his full attention on him. It’s a little nerve-wracking, because Bruce, for all his outward placidity, held worrying inner anger. It’s entirely possible that what Clint has to say might piss him off, too.
He goes on anyway, because Clint’s not a coward, and he’s pretty sure that Bruce would at least hesitate before he killed him. “I worked with a partner, a bot. Human analog.” One of Bruce’s eyebrows lifts incredulously, but he doesn’t otherwise react.
“She was perfect. Wonderful. She infiltrated, I took out the target. We were together for years, and she saved my ass more times than I could count. I fell in love with her a little, I think.”
“Analog bots don’t feel love,” Tony interjects, still half-buried in the engine block, and Bruce shoots him an annoyed look.
“It’s different,” he says, “but I’m pretty sure they do. AI doesn’t mean they can’t feel emotions. That’s the whole point of AI. Dum-E does, doesn’t he?” Tony hums non-committedly and continues working. Clint watches him for a moment, wondering who—what—it was that tore him open, and if he’d be stepping on toes by talking about Tasha. But Bruce seems pretty sure of himself, so maybe it isn’t that sore of a subject.
He decides that it doesn’t really matter. He wants to get it out, and they’re his friends, weird as they are. They deserve to know. “We got made in some tiny-ass town in Mexico, I don’t even remember what it was called. They had her and I couldn’t shoot ‘em fast enough and right before I got to her, they wiped her. Total blank.”
“God,” Bruce murmurs, and he looks a little sick, probably ‘cause he knows what comes next. It’s always what comes next when a bot gets wiped, not killed. “They—”
Clint inspects the label on his beer and worries his fingernail under the paper. “They uploaded their own protocols. I had to kill her.” He knows that most people didn’t see human/bot relations as quite the same as human/human or bot/bot, but Clint had been partnered with Tasha for almost ten years. They hadn’t had a precisely normal relationship—it was never physical because bots technically don’t have the ability to consent and Clint knew all her command protocols—but he knew that she’d loved him in her own way.
And at least humans who died couldn’t come back as monsters, killing their friends and partners while wearing stolen faces.
Clint glares at his beer. “It begged in Tasha’s voice.”
“Well thank fuck everyone else is dead,” Tony says abruptly, unearthing himself from the truck. “That way no one has to beg.” He looks a little pale, though, and Clint feels bad.
“Sorry,” he whispers, but Bruce shakes his head.
“Don’t be.” He stands up and walks over to Tony, taking careful steps that keep him straight in Tony’s line of sight. When he reaches him, they have a brief conversation that’s too quiet for Clint to hear, but Tony starts to relax again. Bruce pulls him into a loose hug and then grabs his elbow, leading him back toward the house. When they pass the couch, Bruce pauses. “I’m sorry you had to go through that, Clint. If it’s anything, we’re both very glad you didn’t die, and that you found us.”
Clint stares at them, two men against the world. “Thanks guys,” he says. Bruce nods at him and then they disappear inside.
In October, Bruce apologetically tells Clint that he might want to stay away for a few days. Clint’s practically moved in with them by this point and it feels a little terrible to go back to the house at the park, but Tony’s started looking more haunted than usual, and keeps waking up screaming. Clint’s not sure what else to do, so he goes.
“It’s bound to be bad at this time of year,” Bruce explains, which is in no way an explanation.
Clint tries really hard not to feel like he’s been broken up with, or abandoned, and is not entirely successful. (Not even remotely successful, actually, and he spends an entire night raging at himself and Lucky back at his house, telling both his bot and himself that he should have seen it coming, because everyone leaves. Everyone leaves, and Tony and Bruce aren’t different just because they’re the only people he’s seen in more months than he can remember.)
Still angry, he ends up dropping Lucky off under the questionably-watchful eye of Dum-E and taking the repaired flying bike up to Wyoming, where he wanders the empty streets in Cheyenne for a couple weeks.
It’s enough time for his temper to cool, and when he considers just moving on, not heading back down to Boulder and just leaving Tony and Bruce to their insular little screwy world, he can’t do it. When the time comes and he needs to make the decision to take the I-25 south or head east on I-80, he turns south. The thought of running makes him feel sick to his stomach, and there’s a lot more calling him back to Colorado than his little bot.
He’s only been back for a couple hours when Bruce shows up at Clint’s house, alone and looking like he’s lost some weight.
“I’m sorry,” he starts with, and Clint watches him warily from behind his screen door. “I thought it might be better for him if it was just us, but it wasn’t. I was very wrong.” Bruce rakes his hand through his hair, and it looks greyer then before, even though it’s only been two weeks.
“They took him in the fall, right when the leaves were turning,” Bruce tell Clint, not meeting his eyes. “This time of year, it… he’s more prone to attacks of PTSD now.” It’s the first time either of them have said it out loud, the diagnosis, and Clint opens the door and pulls Bruce into a tight hug.
“I have him sedated right now,” Bruce murmurs into his shoulder. “The nightmares just keep getting worse, and then we couldn’t find you. I think he’s got it in his head that you were taken, too.”
Jesus. Clint feels like shit for disappearing for so long. “Lemme grab my bag.” He’s never even going to mention that he thought about not coming back.
“Just come now, you’ve got clothes at our place,” Bruce says. “We can come back later for the rest of your stuff.”
“The rest of my stuff?” Clint parrots dumbly. Bruce looks at him like he’s crazy, and then switches to slightly abashed.
“We want you to move in. For good.” He smiles, and even though Clint knows it’s stupid to let himself start to rely so closely on other people, he doesn’t need to be asked twice.
Winter comes again, and Tony gets a little better.
It starts to feel like family, the three of them, and Clint hesitantly starts to let them in. He shares shitty stories of his childhood with Bruce and teases Tony like he used to tease Barney, and it—it feels nice.
Clint still gets used to waking up to Tony’s screams, and he probably disrupts the house a little with a few nightmares of his own. Bruce is the least prone to them, but it’s no surprise that with the lives they’ve led, there’s more than one night where the three of them end up huddled together in Bruce and Tony’s bed, sharing body warmth and quietly reassuring each other that their nightmares aren’t real.
It’s March again and Clint’s sitting on the roof, eyeing a distant herd of deer through the hazy afternoon light and contemplating whether or not they have enough power in the generator to run a deep freezer in which to store deer meat, when a flash of movement coming up the road catches his eye.
Whatever it is, it’s moving a little jerkily, but only a little, just enough that it gives the impression of not being entirely organic. Clint stares for a second more before swinging down , flipping smoothly through a window and into Tony and Bruce’s bedroom. Tony’s sleeping face down on the bed, drooling a little, but Bruce is sitting in an armchair, reading, and doesn’t even blink at Clint’s sudden appearance.
“There’s something on the road,” Clint says on his way out, and that catches Bruce’s attention.
But Clint’s already gone, bolting down the stairs and pulling his bow over his shoulder. He’s on the porch with an arrow nocked when the figure resolves itself, and then Bruce is at his back, radiating familiar restrained danger.
The figure pauses when it’s about fifty yards away. It looks up, clearly reading the glowing sign, and then turns to them.
“You fix things?” it asks, and Clint realizes that it’s a human analog bot, designated male, wearing a suit. He blinks, because what the hell is a bot doing walking alone up the road? It comes a couple yards closer, and Clint can see the blue subdermal circuits that mean it’s processing information swirl into life on the side of its face, and yea, what the hell.
“Yea,” he offers up guardedly, but doesn’t lower his bow. “You got something that needs fixing?” Bots can be dangerous. It’s one thing to take in a wandering human, but bots can malfunction or get stuck on original programming, and Clint’s thinking of all the terrible things he saw war bots get programmed to do, and of Tony, sleeping upstairs.
“I’m injured,” the bot says, halting again after halving the distance between them. He opens his suit jacket and yea, Clint can see the sparks there, an ugly gash right over what would have been a human’s heart. The blue circuitry that continues down the bot’s face and neck and onto its chest are stuttering, flickering on and off weakly.
“ID yourself first,” Clint orders, activating the bot’s Obedience protocols. The bot nods and clasps his hands in front of himself, non-threatening to the extreme.
“I’m an Agent,” he says, and Clint’s aim wavers a little, because the voice is registering a little, somewhere in the back of his mind. “Designation SHIELD, Unit Charlie-Zero-Uniform-Lima-Five-Zero-November.” Clint drops his bow. A C0UL50N. Holy shit.
“You’re a Coulson Model,” he says, and breathes out a little in shock. “I thought you all bit it in New York.”
The bot looks a little sad. “As far as I can tell, excepting only myself, you are correct.”
“What’s this?” Bruce murmurs into Clint’s ear. “I’ve never heard of a Coulson—”
“They’re the best of the best,” Clint tells him, quietly excited. “Brand new at the end of the war, incorruptible. You can’t hack their program, it’s impossible. They’re black ops, spies’ spies.” He grabs Bruce’s arm and smiles. “It’s a fucking Coulson, Bruce, holy shit. You have no idea how awesome this is.”
“This is certainly quite a reception,” the C0UL50N says, mild, and Clint barks out a laugh.
He gestures the bot closer. “Come on in, if you like. We’ll take a look and see if we can’t fix that chest of yours.” Bruce still looks a little wary, but Clint smiles at him. “Trust me. Seriously Bruce. If we can convince him to stay, I honestly don’t think we’d ever need to worry about being safe again.”
“Tony isn’t… a fan of analog bots,” Bruce says. “Not the ones that look so obviously human, at least.”
Clint nods. “I know, but he should know the model number. Go tell him what it is, and if he doesn’t want to work with him, I’ll, I don’t know. Set up shop somewhere else. I gotta try to fix him.” He takes a breath and looks back at the C0UL50N, who hasn’t moved. “I gotta.”
Bruce looks hard at him but then turns and heads back inside without further comment.
“Thank you for vouching for me,” the C0UL50N says. Clint grins at him.
“No problem.” He takes a few steps closer and gestures to the ruined side of the bot’s chest. “How’d you get that?”
“Hydra,” he says, and Clint blanches. The C0UL50N raises an eyebrow. “I didn’t allow them to follow me, if you’re concerned.”
“No,” Clint says after a moment of catching his breath. “No, just, there were some around here? We haven’t been all that careful moving around. I thought… I mean… everyone else…”
“It was a ways away,” the C0UL50N tells him. “I haven’t seen anyone else since then.” He looks down, a hint of guilt on his face. “I’ve been wandering for a while and I can go indefinitely with this issue,” he gestures to his chest, “but my readings pinged and said there was some power output up here. I took a chance.” He sighs and his eyes shift to the side, slightly guilty. “I don’t have any standing orders for Search, but it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen anyone—”
“Hey, don’t apologize,” Clint says, and steps off the porch. He hears Tony’s voice float down from the open window upstairs—“A Coulson, are you serious?!”—and smiles, catches it mirrored on the bot standing in front of him.
“I was Shield,” he says, and the C0UL50N’s face relaxes a little. “Bruce and Tony were civilian contractors for us, too.”
“Well, that’s good,” the C0UL50N says. “I only have a few protocols left, and the main one is to eliminate Hydra affiliates. Though, even that one will expire relatively soon.”
Clint blinks at that, surprised. “They programmed terminating protocols with you?” It’s unheard of. Even Tasha, whose R0M4N0V model was the precursor to the C0UL50N, didn’t do terminating protocols. They supposedly screw with a bot’s mental links.
“They worked out a few kinks,” the C0UL50N says, still mild and unmoving. “The only indefinite protocols I have are standard Obedience ones.” He lifts his eyes to the second floor, where Tony’s undoubtedly staring out the window as Bruce struggles to get him into a pair of pants. After a moment he drifts his gaze back to Clint. “You seem to know a fair amount about me. Do you have any of my command codes?”
“No,” Clint tells him, already fascinated. “I mean, I know stuff to order you around within your current protocols, but I don’t know how to renew any of them. When does the last one expire?”
The corner of the C0UL50N’s mouth twitches up. “I’ve got two more weeks for Defense programming. After that, I’m a mostly free man.”
It takes Tony’s enthusiastic support of bringing in the C0UL50N for Bruce to relax, though he tenses again when Clint mentions the terminating protocols. Tony’s on top of it, though, babbling at ninety miles an hour about freedom and AI rights.
“He’s exactly as likely to be a mass murderer as Clint was,” he argues into Bruce’s closed-off face. “And you see how well Clint’s worked out, no murderings at all.” Bruce snorts in amusement at that, and Clint’s pretty sure he’s coming around. He nudges the C0UL50N, who’s sitting elevated on a cleared space on the edge of Tony’s workbench, in the side. The C0UL50N smiles back, and Clint’s heart flutters in excitement.
The C0UL50N program had been his handler, back when it was him and Tasha. It had started off as an overarching, all-encompassing operations program, the smartest and fastest the world had ever seen, and Clint had never felt safer than when he had the AI’s calm voice in his ear. He’d known distantly that SHIELD was developing chassis for it; before everything went to shit, his superior had told him that all the special ops strike teams could expect a physical C0UL50N to be on the ground with them in the next six months. Clint had been looking forward to meeting the one assigned to him and Tasha in person.
But in an act that simply screamed ‘you’ve got a traitor in your organization,’ the manufacturing facility that built the bodies for the C0UL50Ns was hit right as upload started. There’d been data corruption along with the physical loss, because while no one could figure out how to overwrite C0UL50N’s programming, there are always ways to kill bots permanently.
Clint had been under the impression that the entire C0UL50N program was wiped, and it had been shortly after that voice disappeared from his ear that Tasha’d been compromised. As for now, though, he tunes out Tony’s excited ramblings about learning and adaptive capabilities and studies showing emotional connections within programs, and turns to the C0UL50N.
“Is any of your programming corrupted?” he asks, and the C0UL50N shakes his head.
“No. I was the first uploaded, the trial. I missed the attack on the factory by a few hours.”
Clint nods. “How come they didn’t put you back in the cloud?”
“Command pathways were corrupted,” the C0UL50N answers easily. “There’s an older version of me on a backup at NORAD, but Shield didn’t want me out in the ether, so before the attack I was mostly stuck in a few specialized servers. They thought it might be too easy for someone to get a copy of my program. My original programming is fully functional within this chassis.”
“So you’re really it,” Clint muses, a half smile on his face. “I worked with you several times, you know.”
The C0UL50N smiles. “Really? What’s your call sign?”
“Hawkeye,” Clint says, and feels a jolt of something. Not nostalgia, not really, but maybe wistfulness for a time when he had more of a purpose. The blue process lights up the side of the C0UL50N’s face again, swirling and wavering. Clint watches, spellbound.
“Codename Hawkeye,” the C0UL50N repeats as the blue dims, information retrieved. “Agent service number 33342-19, Clinton Francis Barton.” He blinks. “You’re listed as KIA.”
“Am I?” Clint asks, but it doesn’t really matter. “You can update my records if you want.” He’s careful not to phrase it as a command, a habit he got into working with Tasha. It gives bots more freedom to do as they please, which is something Clint’s always been in support of.
“I’m not connected to any network,” the C0UL50N says, a touch apologetically. “I’m not sure there’s one out there anymore. But I’ll amend my internal records.”
“Thank you, sir,” Clint says, the honorific automatic. The C0UL50N’s voice is the same as it had always been, and Clint spends a moment wondering if the voice matches the guy they modeled him off. If the C0UL50N’s anything, it’s pretty unassuming. He looks like an accountant—balding slightly and in his early forties. He’s got crinkles at the corners of his eyes, and when Clint brushes against him, his skin’s warm.
“Please, call me Phil,” the C0UL50N says.
“Any particular reason?” Clint asks.
The C0UL50N shrugs, then winces when a small spurt of oil drips from the gash on his chest and smears against his open shirt. “I like the name Phil.”
“Fair enough,” Clint says, and smiles.
Turns out that Tony’s able to fix Phil pretty easily. He stops the slow leak in his chest, throws in a couple new wires, and solders the metal back together. It’s near seamless except that there’s a large gash in the skin covering Phil’s chest, both front and back. Clint sews it up, because Phil says that the exposed metal’s screwing with his external sensors a little. He doesn’t say what happened that resulted in him apparently getting a spear through the chest, and no one asks.
“I’ll heal,” Phil tells them as he buttons up a new shirt, borrowed from Bruce. “It’s not quite as fast to regenerate as human skin, but it’s all self-replicating nanotech. You could probably cut the stitches out in a couple months.”
Bruce finds this fascinating, and reveals his to-this-point secret moonlighting as a medical doctor by quizzing Phil on his regenerative properties for the next half-hour or so. Clint is vastly amused by this hidden side of Bruce, but at the twelfth mention of RNA sequences, he’s lost interest. So has Tony, so they excuse themselves to go shoot at things from the roof. It’s a popular pastime, especially since Tony took it upon himself to design Clint some trick tips for his arrows.
When Bruce and Phil finally climb up to join them, Clint’s showing off, shooting four arrows at once. He hits every target he’s set up around the house with a perfect bulls-eye, and Tony crows his approval even though he’s barely watching. He’s got what looks like a metal gauntlet propped between his knees and is attacking it with a screwdriver. For once he isn’t wearing a thick t-shirt, and the glow from whatever it was that his captors stuck in his chest (Clint still hasn’t gotten the whole story) is casting a ghostly blue light over the roof as the sun sets.
Bruce settles next to Tony and rests his head on his shoulder, using canoodling as an excuse to gently slip the gauntlet from Tony’s hands. Clint watches their exchange with an experienced eye and is quietly thankful for Bruce’s quiet forcefulness. If he wasn’t here to distract Tony every now and then, Tony’d surely self-destruct, get stuck in his head and forget to eat, or walk off the roof without looking.
Phil comes to stand next to Clint and watches when Clint ups the ante and switches to five arrows at a time. It’s the most he can handle bracing between and on top of his fingers, and it’s pretty hard, even for someone as phenomenal as Clint. His aim’s still not off even a centimeter, though. It’s not that hard.
There’s a quiet hum of approval and when Clint glances over, Phil’s smiling quietly. “You’re better then I remember,” he says. Clint grins broadly.
“I’m fuckin’ amazing, sir.”
“Wait, you two know each other?” Tony asks, because he clearly hadn’t been listening when they were talking in the shop. Bruce rolls his eyes and lays down, tucking his arms behind his head to watch as the starts begin to come out.
“Sorta,” Clint admits.
“A version of me helped Agent Barton accomplish his objectives for Shield forces before I had a physical body,” Phil says easily. Tony cocks his head, but then shrugs and steals the gauntlet back from where Bruce has sequestered it half under the eave. Bruce takes it back immediately and tugs Tony down to lay next to him.
“They’re taking my presence well,” Phil says quietly.
“They know I was Shield,” Clint explains, squinting to take another shot in the fading light. “And I vouched for you, and they trust me.” Such is his life, trusted by two of the craziest fuckers he’s ever met. He smiles at Phil. “So don’t go psycho and kill us all when your protocols expire, okay? Bruce is a hard nut to crack, and apparently you don’t want to make him angry.”
“I have no intention of killing anyone,” Phil murmurs with an honest smile, and then points to a wisp of a sapling, maybe ninety yards away and barely visible in the deepening gloom. “Bet you can’t hit that tree.”
“You are on,” Clint grins, and nocks an arrow.
A couple weeks later, Clint stumbles downstairs one morning and finds Phil sitting on the front steps. It’s raining and Phil’s got one hand extended past the roof, drops of water barely hitting his fingertips.
“Whatcha doin’?” Clint asks through a yawn, because really, what the hell.
“I had a couple protocols that I didn’t even realize were active,” Phil says quietly. Clint stills. “Apparently I wasn’t supposed to go into rain unless I had a reason to.” He wiggles his fingers. “Leftover junk programming from when exterior panels were metal, I guess.”
“Huh,” Clint says, and sits next to him on the porch. “So your Defense protocols are expired, then?”
“Yes.” Phil looks back out into the soggy forest. “Actually, make sure, okay? I wouldn’t want to be surprised by a lingering persistent subroutine.”
Clint looks up at their sagging porch ceiling, thinking back, trying to remember his codes, and searches for an order that won’t kick in Phil’s Obedience program. Bots were a little screwy with their programming, sometimes, the lines blurred between one protocol to the next. Defense was separate from Obedience, which was separate from Service, which was separate from Search or Information. Advanced AI like Phil would never have been programmed with Service, but Dum-E and Lucky were all Service, with just basic Obedience.
Phil’s Obedience, like all bots, was long-term and indefinite, because as generally equal as humans and bots were nowadays, bots still hovered around second class. Obedience programming was originally meant to protect humans, to make sure bots couldn’t go on self-directed killing sprees, and modern protocols still had an echo of that paranoia. Obedience means that a bot has to adhere to any basic order given by humans. Stop, Go, Come Here, Bring That, that sort of thing.
More advanced AI, like Phil, had deeper levels of Obedience, too, so if someone has their personal codes accepted into a bot’s protocols, then the orders were allowed to get more specific than the universal basics. Clint’s codes from Shield gave him the ability to direct Phil into precise, minute actions, as long as the orders didn’t blur over into Service. He could order Phil to kill a target assigned as ‘enemy’ and could order background protocols like Search into effect, as well as instruct regarding basic personal choices, down to what clothes to wear and how to express vocally.
The combined effect of Phil’s (and bots like Phil) complex programming was an odd one: when they’d been serving, Phil was technically Clint’s superior, but outside of a military operation, Clint gave the orders.
Defense protocols were very different than Obedience or Service and were always designed to be relatively short term. This allowed for more adaptability in the field and ease for techs to write military bot’s updated programs. Search protocols were on a case-by-case basis, and Phil’s Information, like for all military bots, was always at-will.
What it boiled down to (Phil had explained all this vaguely to Tony and Bruce, but Clint had taken classes in this shit and considered himself pretty much an expert) was that now that Phil’s Defense protocols were expired, he didn’t have to listen to orders that took on a military bent, not unless someone whose codes he’d previously accepted was deemed in danger. It narrowed Clint’s options regarding Obedience orders, too, limiting the scope to basic physical commands and Search functions.
But today, Phil wants Clint to check that the Defense protocols are actually gone, so Clint clears his throat. He needs to go through the whole spiel for authorization the first time around, but Phil’s program should note his vocal patterns so he wouldn’t have to do it again. He’s been careful up ‘til now not to order Phil around at all, though he’s had to gently correct Tony and Bruce a couple times already.
“Designation Coulson Unit, respond to Agent Barton, 33342-19. Code India Alpha Hotel Kilo.”
“Code accepted. Waiting,” Phil says, his eyes blanking a little, the blue rising on his cheek as he listens. Clint frowns. He’s never liked the passive state bots slip into when awaiting orders. It hearkens back to the uncanny valley, before bots’ programming advanced enough that they could be recognized as citizens.
“Uh, I don’t know. Hostile forces Sitrep.”
Phil blinks. “No.” And then he smiles. “Try again?”
Clint leans back against a support beam. “Coulson, respond.”
“Waiting,” Phil says, but there’s still a hint of a smile lurking at the corners of his mouth.
“Make me a sandwich.”
Phil looks unimpressed. “I am not a service bot. That’s never been in my programming.” He looks thoughtful. “I actually have no idea how to do that.” Clint grins at him.
“I can teach you.” He glances around. “Alight, Coulson, tactical analysis of this building. Focus on sightlines and security issues.”
Phil raises an eyebrow. “This building is holding itself together on good wishes and Stark’s insistence that it not fall down.”
“That is not a tactical analysis,” Clint points out. Phil smiles again and leans over to nudge his shoulder against Clint’s.
“No, it’s not.” Phil smiles, but it’s a little more brittle. “Check the Obedience protocol?”
“Yea, sure,” Clint says, but he’s lost a little of the fun. He’s never liked the idea that bots have to respond to basic commands when humans order them to. “Coulson, respond.”
Clint scratches his ear. “Uh. Power down. Resume activity in thirty seconds.”
Phil immediately powers down. There’s a hum from his chest, then a click, and Clint slouches against the support beams on the porch and watches, counting out seconds in his head. Thirty ‘one-mississippi’s’ later, there’s another click and Phil straightens up, all his subdermal circuits flaring bright for a moment before dimming back to invisibility.
“Obedience still works,” Clint says.
“Yes.” Phil doesn’t sound overly pleased.
Clint licks his lips and asks, a little gingerly, “Were you hoping for a malfunction?”
“No,” Phil says. “Yes. But I don’t malfunction. My coding’s much too elegant for that.”
“I won’t ever use it against you,” Clint says, insistent. “I’ll try harder to explain to Tony and Bruce, too.”
Phil startles a little, but then smiles at him. They sit together in comfortable silence after that, their shoulders pressing together. The quiet morning’s broken when Tony’s voice drifts from his bedroom window, unintelligible but enthusiastic all the same. Bruce says something more measured in return and when Tony lets out an excited whoop, Phil and Clint grin at one another.
Today’ll be a good day.
“Thanks.” Phil tugs his shirt back on over his head and inspects the healed skin on his chest one last time before pulling it down to his waist. All that’s left of the gash is a pale line, with equally pale little dots from the stitches marching up the sides. Clint’s hovering, his hands full of miniscule snips of surgical thread.
“I didn’t hurt you?”
Phil shoots him a fond look. It’s getting to be his default look when Clint’s around. “You do realize what you just said, right?”
Clint makes a face and walks to the trash to dump the thread. “You don’t have to play dumb with me, I know you have pain receptors.”
“Which I can turn off,” Phil points out, and checks himself again in the mirror hanging from the back of Clint’s door. They’re in Clint’s bedroom—well, technically it’s Phil’s, too, because there’s only the two bedrooms, but since Phil doesn’t need to sleep it’s still mostly just Clint’s room. Phil just chills here and charges sometimes.
Phil’s still borrowing clothes from the rest of them, because what he’d been wearing when he showed up at ‘I Fix Your Shit’ Plaza had been little better than trash. Today, he’s wearing one of Clint’s desert-camo t-shirts, and it looks a little out of place hanging on his shoulders.
“I need a new wardrobe,” he grumps, tugging at the shirt.
“There’re shops in Boulder,” Clint offers offhandedly, and then immediately regrets it when Phil rounds on him, grinning. Clint makes a cross with his fingers and holds it up to Phil’s face. “No. I am not going clothes shopping with you.”
Phil crosses his arms and his face takes on a very determined set.
“No,” Clint repeats.
Phil cocks his head, very, very slightly.
Clint goes, and pretends for the entire day that he does not enjoy it.
“You’re annoying,” he tells Phil as they wander the aisles of Nordstrom’s.
“I try,” Phil says, and happily plucks a suit off the rack.
“So,” Bruce says one day in the early summer. He and Clint are sitting on the roof, listening to Phil and Tony argue ‘round the back of the house over fitting Dum-E with repulsors that would give him hover capabilities. Tony’s stance is that it would be awesome; Phil’s of the opinion that this would pose a fire hazard. And as awesome as it might be, Clint wholeheartedly agrees with Phil, because Dum-E’s possibly the clumsiest bot in existence.
Clint glances at Bruce. “So, what?”
Bruce sighs. “So tell me why we should keep Phil around.”
“Seriously?” Clint asks, and he’s abruptly a little freaked out. Phil leaving would suck.
“Our generator’s not that powerful,” Bruce comments, but it’s only half-assed, and Clint relaxes a little.
“It’s got more than enough juice,” he points out. Bruce shrugs. Clint sits up and fixes Bruce right in his sights. He’s got a hell of a glare, and doesn’t feel any compunction with fixing it on Bruce right now. “I have some say in this, don’t I?”
Bruce looks a little uncomfortable. “Of course you do, you live here, too.”
“And Phil’s, what, squatting? We fixed him. He’s nice. Useful, too, ‘cause of the whole stronger-than-a-human thing.”
“He’s a bot,” Bruce argues, but it’s still only half-assed and there’s something else going on here.
Clint shakes his head. “So’re Dum-E and Lucky. They live here, too. What’s it really about?”
“Look, I see how you look at him, sometimes, okay?” Bruce bites out, and yea, now Clint’s a little thrown off. He sits back in his chair again.
Bruce frowns and looks down. “Clint. I like you. I mean, I know I’m not the most… open… person in the world, but you’re family, okay? And I don’t want to see you hurt because you fell for a bot. Not after what you’ve told us about your partner.”
“…Fell for?” Clint feels a little winded. He does not think it’s the altitude.
“You’ve made your opinions on human/bot consent perfectly clear,” Bruce reminds him, and yea, Clint has. He’d sat Bruce and Tony down one night and gave them an in depth lecture about Obedience protocols and how not to abuse Phil. There wasn’t any way to mistake that.
Bruce shrugs again. “It might be better for you if we asked Phil to move on,” he continues. “We’re safe here, we don’t need him for protection or anything. We’ve got you and me, and I think that between us we can keep the three of us alive.”
“It’s not like that,” Clint says, a little too forcefully for the moment. Bruce raises an eyebrow. “It’s not,” Clint insists. “Phil’s—he’s my friend. Yea, I like him, but we worked together, sorta, before. And Tony likes him too, even though they act like they can’t stand each other.”
“I’m not denying it,” Bruce says, and raises his hands, placating. “I like him, he’s great. God knows it’s nice to have someone else level-headed around the house, and I think he fits well here. But your happiness comes first, for me.”
It’s touching. Really it is, but Clint’s not feeling the love at the moment. “I’m perfectly happy the way things are. I wouldn’t ever do anything to jeopardize it.”
“A man has needs,” Bruce says gently, and oh, excellent, they’re going there. “Tony and I—”
Clint interrupts, horrified. “I don’t want to hear about your and Tony’s sex life, Jesus Bruce!” He’s obviously too loud, because the arguing from the backyard that has registered as a white-noise background score to this whole conversation, suddenly cuts off.
“What are you guys talking about?” Tony’s voice floats up over the edge of the house, and even from here Clint can tell that he’s grinning.
“Nothing,” Bruce calls out. “Don’t worry about it.”
“I’m coming up there,” Tony announces. Clint shoots Bruce a measured look.
“Phil stays. I’m not sending him off on his own because I might have the possibility of maybe developing feelings that can’t be reciprocated. That’s crueler than anything else. We’re not meant to be alone, human or bot.”
“Okay,” Bruce says, and Clint can’t tell if he’s worried or pleased. Fuckin’ Bruce. Clint loves him, he really does, but sometimes he wants to throttle the guy.
Clint’s on the front balcony, the one that opens into Tony and Bruce’s bedroom, bolting on new metal sheeting to the railing because he lost a bet that was obviously fixed. Teach him to ever make bets with Tony, the giant cheater.
The old sheeting’s in a haphazard pile next to him, half-rusted through, and he’s covered in orange dust. The fifth time he sneezes and it comes out orange, he starts to think that he possibly should have been wearing a mask for this particular chore. Still, he’s got a job to do, so he drags the next sheet over, struggling a little under its weight. It’s a pain, but the metal really helps keep the wind out, more so than the random planks of wood they can find lying around. Plus, metal’s not flammable, which is always something that needs consideration when Tony’s involved.
Of course, that’s when he bashes his knuckles. Clint swears and glares down at his hand; it’s scraped and starting to bleed a little, but it’s nothing overly bad. He sighs, and then near jumps out of his skin when a hand reaches down from behind him and grabs hold of his own, lifting it to inspect the scrape.
“You’re going to give yourself tetanus,” Phil reprimands, and produces a swatch of cloth from nowhere. He wraps it around Clint’s knuckles. “If anyone in this house should get lockjaw, it should be Stark.”
“I won’t get lockjaw,” Clint says, but he’s smiling. “I’m invincible, haven’t you heard?”
“Hm.” Phil doesn’t sound particularly impressed. “Let me finish that for you.” He nods to the sheeting, where there’s only a couple pieces left. Clint eyes him.
“You’re wearing a suit.” But he steps aside and lets Phil pick up the pieces. He levers them into place easily, hidden bot strength out in full force.
“I always wear a suit.” Phil gestures for the drill, and Clint hands it over.
Clint watches Phil work for a moment. “Why do you do that?”
Phil does him the favor of not pretending he doesn’t know what Clint’s talking about. “Just a moment,” he mutters, and slides the last plate home, making quick work of bolting it into place. When he straightens up, there’s a smear of rust cutting across the silky black material of his jacket. He frowns down at it. “It’s intimidating.”
Clint’s a little lost. “…You wear a suit because it’s intimidating?”
“Psychologically, yes,” Phil says, still frowning down at the rust smear. He brushes at it ineffectively. “What kind of clothes do you and Stark and Bruce wear?”
Clint looks down at himself. Today he’s in his old fatigue pants, which are only hanging onto life because they’re Shield issue, and a tight black t-shirt with cut-off sleeves. It’s fraying at the edges. “To be fair,” he says, “I’m doing a lot of manual labor today.”
“You do a lot of manual labor every day,” Phil points out, his eyebrow arched pointedly. “Bruce and Stark dress similarly to you, and it makes sense to dress that way because we’re technically living in what’s probably considered a post-apocalyptic situation.”
Huh. Clint hadn’t thought of it in those terms. It’s a little disconcerting. Phil sees his discomfort and waves it away.
“Doesn’t matter what it’s called. But say you’re a traveler and you come upon this little shack out in the middle of nowhere. You find three guys, dressed like you, and everything makes sense. They might seem tough, but if you really wanted to take advantage of them, you might try, because they fit into your preconceived notions of ‘survivor.’ But say there’s a fourth guy, inexplicably wearing a pressed suit, spotless, something that screams g-man…”
“You’d think that there’s something else going on here, and you might leave them alone,” Clint finishes for him. Phil smiles.
“There you go.”
“So you wear a suit because it’s an easy way to help protect us?” Clint asks, heading inside, Phil close on his heels. “You’re dedicated, sir.”
“Hm,” Phil agrees. “Well, I also just like how they look.”
Clint’s watching the staring contest between Tony and Phil with a sort of horrified fascination. Neither of them has moved in over five minutes, though Tony, at least, has to blink. Clint can hear Bruce swearing to himself behind the house where he’s working in the patch of dirt they’ve decided is going to house a meat-smoking shack, and he knows that he should go out to help. This, however, is much more interesting.
Tony’s hand snakes out and moves a piece. “Check,” he says. “Mate in three.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Phil snaps. “Again? I’m a computer.” He glares at the board for a moment, blue flaring on his face as he runs through his possible moves, and then knocks over his king.
Tony stands with a flourish. “And I,” he declares, “am a genius.”
“You’re not built for chess,” Clint offers Phil consolingly, because Phil’s lost the last six games in a row. “Don’t take it so hard.”
Phil just shakes his head. “I can calculate every single move possible on the board in half a second! How the hell does he keep beating me?”
“Genius,” Tony throws out, plopping back down in his chair and leaning it back on its rear legs. “I am beyond awesome.”
“Don’t encourage him,” Bruce says, breezing through the kitchen’s back door and dropping a drive-by kiss on Tony’s cheek. He grabs hold of Clint’s shoulder and levers him out of his chair while simultaneously thrusting a pair of work gloves into his hands. “His head’s massive enough as is.” He turns and heads back outside while Clint sheepishly pulls on the gloves and makes to follow him.
“That!” Tony shouts at Bruce’s retreating back, and then points at the door swinging shut behind him. “That is what she said. The thing about the big head. Point: it’s not the one at the end of my neck.”
“You ruin it by explaining it,” Clint says earnestly out as he pushes the door open, and he catches Phil’s sigh just before it swings shut.
“You’re an idiot, Stark.”
“I believe the words you’re looking for, dear Agent Coulson, are ‘genius who regularly whups a computer’s ass at chess.”
It’s a gorgeous afternoon and the four humanoids plus Lucky are taking a field trip to the creek that flows near the park Clint found when he first got to Boulder. Clint, Bruce, and Phil are all wearing a varying assortment of swimming gear and basketball shorts, and are having a good time splashing around, but Tony’s wrapped up in jeans and a t-shirt and is sitting glowering on the far side of the stream.
It’s hot, hotter than usual for July, and Clint’s not going to let Tony’s mood ruin his perfectly nice day, so he’s utterly relaxed where he’s lying on a sun-drenched rock, his ankles dangling in the stream. Lucky’s perched next to Clint’s head, angling his pincher claw just right so the sun’s not in Clint’s eyes. It’s pretty much perfect.
Or would be, if Tony could just wind down. Bruce hadn’t been exaggerating when he said that Tony didn’t like leaving the house, and it had taken him over a week just to convince Tony to come to the park with them. It’s not all that far from the house, not really, just a ten minute drive, but Tony’d frozen up the second the house was out of sight and hasn’t relaxed since.
Clint’s not watching Phil in the water (because that way lies madness, and he’s pointedly not going to think about that) and so he doesn’t see when Phil hooks his arms onto a rock where Tony’s sitting. He hears him, though, hears the quiet, “Hey, the water’s nice. You should come in.”
“I’m not taking my damn shirt off,” Tony snaps.
“Tony,” Bruce says, cautioning, but it’s too late.
Too late because Phil’s already saying, mild and gentle like he always is, “No one cares, you know.” Referring to the light in Tony’s chest, the light that no one talks about.
Clint snaps his eyes open and sits up, nearly jostling Lucky into the creek. “Hey,” he says, but Tony’s abruptly standing on the rock, glaring down at Phil, who’s looking more startled than Clint’s seen him look before.
“No one cares, huh?” Tony spits. “Coulson, power off.”
“Tony!” Clint yells, because he’s just seen Phil’s face, a split second of hurt and betrayal before Obedience kicks in and he powers down. He goes limp and slips off the rock and under the water.
“Oh, shit,” Tony says, his eyes wide. Like he hadn’t realized that his order would actually work.
Clint swears under his breath and jumps in, barely remembering to spin and order, “Lucky, stay there,” because the little guy’s got no self-preservation and the last thing Clint needs right now is to have to wrestle two bots out of the water. Lucky beeps worriedly but stays put, though he extends his arm out over the creek and hovers it in Phil’s direction.
“I’m sorry,” Tony’s saying on repeat. “God I didn’t think, I’m sorry.” He’s kneeling on the rock, staring down at where Phil’s supine on the creek bed. Clint doesn’t even look at him, just takes a deep breath and dives down. At least the water’s not overly deep, just a couple feet. He should be able to do this.
But when he tugs on Phil’s arm, he realizes just how heavy he actually is. He’s solid metal and doesn’t float at all; Clint had watched him wade carefully in the water the entire afternoon, because there’s no way he can actually swim. That, coupled with the quickly-moving current, is going to make this more difficult than Clint had thought.
“Coulson, power on,” Clint tries, forcing out the rest of his air, but it’s useless. His voice doesn’t register with Phil’s systems, not distorted like this underwater. Clint surfaces and takes a breath. “I need you guys,” he gasps, spitting out river water.
Bruce gives Tony a meaningful look and Tony, chastised, immediately starts stripping down to his boxers. He hesitates for a half a second before he pulls his worn t-shirt over his head, and in any other situation, Clint’s pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from looking out of curiosity.
Right now, though, the only thing that registers is a circular light embedded directly in the center of Tony’s sternum. Clint’s too focused on getting Phil out of the water to notice anything else.
“Each of you grab one arm, I’ll get his waist,” Clint orders. “We just gotta get him enough out of the water so his systems can register the power on command.”
Bruce and Tony nod and they all dive down. With the three of them working together, they manage to lever Phil up out of the water for a second, but that second’s all Bruce needs to shout, “Coulsonpoweron!” before he slips out of their grasp and back under the surface. Tony and Bruce don’t follow him back down, but Clint does, holding onto Phil’s face so that when Phil’s eyes open, Clint’s the first thing he sees.
For a terrible moment, Phil doesn’t move from where he’s sprawled against the creek bed. But then Clint tugs on his hand and Phil sits up, careful not to slip on the slick rocks underneath them. Clint’s air is running out, so he tugs Phil’s hand once again before pushing off the bottom and surfacing. He watches through the distortion of water as Phil makes small, deliberate movements, and a few moments later, Phil’s climbing up out of the creek on the opposite bank, coming up to sit next to Lucky.
Tony starts babbling the second Phil emerges, spouting apologies and pleas for forgiveness. Phil just smiles across the water at him, though it’s a little tighter than usual.
“It’s fine. I’m fine.” He looks at Lucky, and lets the little bot poke him experimentally. Lucky whurrs protectively and Phil repeats, “I’m fine,” low and purely for his benefit.
The sun’s still shining, but the easy mood’s been broken. They pack up and take an uncomfortably quiet ride together back up to the house.
They’re on the roof again, but this time it’s ‘cause it’s August and the house is sweltering. It’s sweltering because Tony ripped out the air conditioner’s cooling unit last week for reasons unknown to man or bot, and Bruce didn’t catch him in time to stop the carnage. Tony’s been instructed to fix the damn thing before they all sweat to death, and so he’s inside, cursing and complaining at the top of his voice.
It’s kinda nice to hear him back to his usual levels of swearing and muttering. He’s been unusually quiet since the drama at the stream last month, even though Phil’d pulled him aside and swore up and down that he didn’t hold any hurt feelings. Still, Tony’s been overly cautious about issuing orders to anyone, always phrasing things in the form of a question, so it’s a bit of a relief to hear him ordering the broken air conditioner to ‘just start working, dammit!’
In deference to the heat, Bruce and Clint spent the day yesterday putting up an awning on the roof and installing a fan or eight to help the canyon’s natural breeze cool them off. It’ll be nice even when Tony’s got the air fixed, even though their first attempt’s a little lopsided. Construction was never anyone in this house’s forte.
Right now though, Bruce and Clint and Phil are all stretched out in the shade. Bruce and Clint are drinking lemonade (Clint’s is lightly spiked his with Tony’s latest foray into the moonshine business, and he’s starting to think that that may have been a mistake) and Bruce is reading something from Clint’s latest backpack of books.
“At least you don’t have to worry about your circuits overheating,” Phil grouses. He’s got his head resting in Clint’s lap (Bruce had shot Clint a pointed look when Phil settled there, which Clint steadfastly ignored) and Clint’s peering closely at the fletching on his latest set of arrows. Something’s off, these ones keep edging slightly to the right.
“As opposed to worrying about our brains and fragile bodies overheating?” Bruce asks, but he’s smiling even though he doesn’t look up from his book.
“You’re no fun, Doctor Banner,” Phil declares, his eyes closed and a small smile on his face. Clint pats him consolingly on the shoulder.
In the bowels of the house, there’s a thudding crash and then Tony’s voice drifts up, using a set of swear words that Clint hasn’t heard since all that shit went down in Budapest. He’s impressed, really. Phil opens his eyes and catches Clint’s. They share a grin.
Bruce unconcernedly flips a page of his book. “Fun,” he says, “I most certainly am not.”
October comes without an almost worrying lack of incidents. Clint and Bruce exchange a few cautious looks when the leaves start to fall, but Tony’s still wrapped up in harassing Phil and doesn’t seem to notice the season turning.
It happens, though, because of course it does. Shit like this doesn’t get fixed with a new toy.
Clint’s half-asleep, curled comfortably in bed around the gentle warmth of Phil, who’s plugged into the power cables Tony’d hooked up months ago, charging. Phil’s got his hand resting on Clint’s head, idly scritching his scalp and staring out the window, though what he can make out in the inky blackness of the night, Clint’s not sure. It’s soft and comfortable, and Clint almost feels a little bad for pressing up to Phil like this. Almost. Not quite.
The crash from the room next door jolts Clint into full wakefulness, and he’s up and flying off the bed before even Phil can react. “What—” Phil asks, but Clint just grunts and bolts out of the room.
Bruce and Tony’s door is open and Clint skids into the entryway in time to catch Tony in his arms as he tries to flee. Bruce is holding his head and their dresser’s overturned, spilling clothes and half-finished tinkerings across the floor.
“Don’t touch me!” Tony flails in Clint’s arms, and his eyes are wide and unseeing. “Let me go, you can’t hold me, I have rights!”
“Tony,” Bruce says, and Clint might be mistaken, but he thought his eyes looked a little green there for a minute. He blinks, though, and the illusion’s gone. “Tony, sweetheart. It’s us. It’s Bruce and Clint, you’re safe.” Clint doesn’t let Tony go even when Tony goes slack in his arms, because the last time he fell for that, Clint ended up with a bruised jaw and shaken pride. For all that Tony sometimes looks like a stiff breeze could blow him over, he packs a hell of a punch.
Bruce comes up to them and gently peels Clint’s arms away, transferring Tony into his hold while still keeping him loosely restrained. It’s a movement he and Clint have practiced before, and it shows.
“Shh,” Bruce shushes. “Tony, it’s us, you’re safe.” He keeps repeating it, nodding to Clint when Clint silently asks if it’s okay for him to touch Tony, too. Sometimes it helps to ground him, so when he gets the affirmative, Clint starts to brush his fingers through Tony’s hair.
Tony starts crying and Bruce guides the three of them into a puddle on the ground. That’s when Clint looks up and sees Phil, standing shocked in the doorway.
‘Later,’ Clint mouths at him. Phil nods once before retreating, and after a moment, Clint can hear him pacing in the other room.
Tony’s sobs slow to snuffles after about five minutes, and then he looks up and asks, “Where’s Phil?”
“Next door,” Clint tells him. “You want him to come in?”
“Yea.” Tony’s voice is still a little shaky, and he’s hoarse, but Phil’s obviously been listening, because he steps into the room a couple seconds later.
“Hey Tony,” he says, and Tony looks up at him.
“I can trust you not to go poking around at my internal organs, right?” he asks, and it’s such serious and terrifying question that Bruce and Clint both freeze. Tony never talks about what happened to him, but right now he’s staring at Phil and saying, “It’s just that robots fucked me up, okay? I need you to promise.”
“I promise,” Phil whispers. “I’ll never hurt you.”
“Okay,” Tony says, and nods. “Okay. C’mere.” Phil jerks into movement, Obedience kicking in, but for once Clint doesn’t jump to his defense, because Tony clearly hadn’t meant it like that and Phil looks like he wants to give Tony a hug anyway. Instead, Clint shuffles to the side and Phil slips in next to him, wrapping his arms around Tony, too.
Tony sniffles. “You guys are a bunch of girls. Group hugs and shit.”
“Shut up,” Bruce says fondly.
They stay there the rest of the night, just leaning together on the floor, and Clint’s not sure when he falls asleep from one moment to the next.
He’s curled up around Bruce when he wakes up, though, which is a little odd, but not weird enough for alarm. Clint sits up and stretches, bats Bruce’s hand away, and glances around. Bruce makes a sleepy noise and Clint winces when he shifts and feels the unmistakable metal frame of glasses under his hand.
“Here,” he says, and Bruce yawns before taking his glasses.
“Where’d they go?” he asks. Clint shrugs.
“I’ll go look for them.” He pops to his feet, a little slower than usual, because hardwood floors do not make the most comfortable of beds. Bruce sighs and flops onto his back, turning his head so he can look at the wreck of his room.
“I guess I’ll start cleaning up here.”
“I’ll call you when I’ve got breakfast going. I can do pancakes if you want?” It’s mostly just a rhetorical question; Bruce always likes pancakes, and he hums happily at Clint’s suggestion. He rolls to his knees and starts picking up clothes and tossing them on the bed, separating them from bits of metal.
Clint doesn’t stick around, lest he get roped into sorting Tony’s mess. Instead he clomps down the stairs, heading straight for the workshop. If Tony’s going to be anywhere, that’s it. He always retreats to the shop after a bad night.
Clint’s mouth is open to call out a ‘good morning’ when he pushes open the door, but he snaps it shut when he sees the scene in front of him.
Tony’s bent over Phil’s outstretched left arm, inspecting it closely. Phil’s got his jacket off, tossed carelessly over a nearby hobby horse, and his sleeve’s rolled up, giving Tony easy access to the panel open there, exposing circuitry that had been hiding under unobtrusive lines that ran the length of Phil’s arm, elbow to wrist. Clint’s traced those lines before, and he stops dead in the doorway, a little shocked.
Phil looks up and meets his eyes, smiles a little, and Clint relaxes.
“This is so awesome,” Tony breathes, completely unaware of Clint’s presence, like always when he gets wrapped up in something interesting. He pokes something and Phil’s middle finger twitches. Blue flares in his arm, then dies.
“There is a purpose to this, isn’t there?” Phil asks, mild as always.
“Yea. Yes. Totally. If I can see how your motor functions work, I can improve Dum-E’s arm.” Tony glances at the boxy robot sulking the corner. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Dum-E waves said arm and beeps a little, and Clint sees the smile that slips onto Phil’s face when Tony’s not looking. He’s appropriately blank when Tony looks back, though.
“I cannot believe someone thought that you were responsible enough to create life,” Phil deadpans. Tony pokes something else and Phil’s hand flies up and smacks Phil in the face before dropping back down to the table.
“Goodness I didn’t think it would do that,” Tony obviously lies around a grin.
“I will taze you,” Phil also lies. “I’ve got electrical outputs in my fingers, I could do it.” He shoots Clint another grin and then blinks innocently when Tony looks up, mock-offended.
Clint goes and makes pancakes. Phil’s got this.
It’s the middle of December and Clint’s woken up in the middle of the night. He’s freezing, ‘cause there’s a crack in his window that he hasn’t gotten around to fixing, and it’s apparently started snowing sometime in the last few hours. Phil’s usually pretty good about staying in the room to keep Clint warm at night (he puts off heat like Clint couldn’t believe) but he’s conspicuously absent tonight.
Clint wraps a blanket around himself and sticks his feet, sockless, into his boots. He figures that since he’s already awake, he should wander downstairs and warm up by the kitchen wood-burning stove. He’ll nag Tony into making sure the heater’s working tomorrow.
He’s about to drag a chair up to the stove when he realizes that he can hear a voice coming from the workshop. It’s obviously Phil, because Clint heard two sets of snores when he passed Tony and Bruce’s room on the way down, but he’s not sure who Phil would be talking to. So instead of sitting down the by fire, Clint wraps the blanket tighter around himself and diverts his path toward the shop.
And okay, Clint admits it, the sight that greets him when he pushes open the workshop door is kinda adorable. Phil’s sitting sprawled out on the ground, his back pressed against Dum-E’s broadest side. Lucky’s tucked up between Phil’s legs, and Phil’s got panels off of both of them, his fingers on both hands spread against contact ports on the other bots. Phil’s eyes are open but unseeing, there’s a small smile on his face, and he’s blazing with blue light from his face down to the tips of his fingers.
Clint’s breath catches for a moment, because, god. He’s beautiful.
As Clint watches, Phil lets out a small tut of laughter and shakes his head. His fingers flex and Dum-E beeps happily. Lucky whirrs back an inch and then rolls forward again, nudging Phil playfully. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Phil says aloud. “Stark would look horrible with extra arms, and I’ll thank you not to suggest it to him.”
Clint snorts in silent laughter before he leaves them to it and heads back up to bed, feeling warmer in his chest despite not sitting by the fire. Phil looked so utterly relaxed; Clint wonders how often he sneaks off for late-night gossip with the other bots.
With vague images of a smiling, blue-washed Phil circling his brain, Clint burrows down in his blankets and stares up at the ceiling. He dozes a little, drifting in and out of light consciousness, but he snaps to alertness when Phil slips in an hour or so later.
“Hey,” Clint says sleepily. Phil smiles at him and picks up his power cord, plugs it into a port on the back of his neck. “I’m cold,” Clint complains, and Phil smiles wider before sliding into bed and tucking Clint up against him.
They’re like kids,” Phil says softly some long minutes later, just as Clint’s finally feeling contently warm and heavy-eyed. Clint makes a quiet questioning noise.
“Hm? Tony and Bruce?” He’s more than half-asleep by this point.
Phil snorts, and it’s adorable. Clint smiles a little in surprise with himself, but he’s too sleepy to school that thought process, especially when Phil’s already concentrating on rubbing his hands slowly up and down Clint’s arms. It feels nice, and he’s not about to tell Phil that he’s warm enough already. “No, Dum-E and Lucky.”
“Oh,” Clint says as he wakes up a little more, because yea, obviously. Phil’s more than aware of his surroundings; it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’d noticed Clint hovering earlier, even if he didn’t say anything at the time. Hell, he probably only spoken out loud for Clint’s benefit.
“They’re sweet.” Phil sounds contemplative. “Dum-E wants so bad to be useful. Loves Stark, which I cannot understand.”
“Aw, you know he grows on you,” Clint teases him. “He’s got a way with bots. You’ll be following him around the shop next, offering to hold his screwdriver.”
“Error,” Phil intones, calling up a generic bot voice instead of his own familiar tone. “Input indicates logical fallacy,” but when Clint blinks up at him, he’s grinning. Clint shoves him in the shoulder.
“You’ve never told me how you got Lucky,” Phil says, back to his own voice, though it’s quiet. Clint feels a little like they’re wrapped in a cocoon, darkness and cold pressing in from the outside, warm and safe here their room.
“You gotta be more specific. I got lucky all the time,” Clint jokes, badly. He turns onto his back so he can better bat his eyes at Phil, but Phil just licks his lips and the moment takes on that spark of heat that Bruce keeps cautioning Clint about. Clint huffs a little and rolls his shoulders, breaking the fragile tension when he glances away.
“Uh, he was assigned to my battalion after I got reassigned after Tasha. I always got the bot-centric jobs, cause I, you know—”
“You treat us like people.” Phil says, utterly serious. He never talks about Tasha unless Clint brings her up, and Clint’s ridiculously grateful for this small kindness. As is, Clint fights down a blush and nods, tucking his head in under Phil’s chin so he doesn’t have to look right at him.
“Yea. Well, I mostly wrangled the rovers, and one day we accidentally walked into what turned out to be a field of landmines. I got most of the little guys out, but Lucky got winged when he shielded me when I stepped wrong. That’s how he lost his eye.” Clint smiles fondly down at Phil’s chest, covered in the soft undershirt he changes into at night. “We started calling him Lucky ‘cause he shouldn’t have kept rolling, but he did. And he saved my ass. He’s pretty badass for a baby bot.”
“He is,” Phil agrees. “He’s unusually attached to you. He talks about you all the damn time.”
“Jealous, sir?” Clint asks playfully.
Phil smiles. “No. But I’m unusually attached to you, too.”
Clint doesn’t even stand a chance of fighting the blush this time, and is irrationally relieved that the room’s dark enough that Phil probably can’t see.
So, Clint’s perfectly aware that he should be using his famed eyesight to watch for rabbits, but instead, all of his laser attention is focused firmly on Phil’s back. They’re a couple miles from the house, wrapped up in cold-weather gear (well, Clint is, though Phil’s turned off his pain/temp receptors and is just in a winter camo long-sleeved t-shirt and matching pants). They’re on the hunt, mostly because Tony’d complained that he was sick of frozen venison. It’s starting to snow, and Clint’s starting to lose focus.
Phil hasn’t moved even a millimeter in over an hour, and Clint’s sunk to the level of thinking about just what that chassis could do, what Phil could do with such control.
“You’ll freeze,” Clint mutters in an effort to snap himself out of it, and the corner of Phil’s mouth twitches up.
“I won’t. I actually think that’s physically impossible.”
The fond tone in Phil’s voice is Clint’s breaking point; it’s already only the cold that’s keeping him from embarrassing himself. He really has to rein in his thoughts. “There’re no rabbits out here.” He stands up and stretches. “Waste of time.”
Phil stands, too, and shakes off the light dusting of snow he’s accumulated on his shoulders. “Yet Stark asks, and you offer,” he points out with a twist of his mouth.
“He’s an unfortunate blind spot,” Clint admits. “I woulda liked to see what he was like before he got—uh. Yea.”
Phil nods. “He was undoubtedly even more insufferable. Gods know how Bruce put up with him.”
“I’m sure their angry sex is phenomenal,” Clint sighs, and then since he apparently has no self-preservation, adds, “Fuck I miss sex.” Immediately after this errant thought escapes past his lips, Clint freezes, mortified. “I mean.” Ah, shit.
A breeze whips through trees and burrows its way into Clint’s hood, and he shivers violently, discomfort outweighing embarrassment, at least momentarily. But then Phil’s there, radiating his usual heat and wrapping his arms around Clint’s back. It puts them face to face and Clint’s heartbeat kicks up a notch. He’s immediately warmer, and this is terrible.
“I’ve never had it,” Phil tells him. Clint frowns a little, his thought processes completely derailed.
Phil looks unimpressed with Clint’s ability to keep up with a vein of conversation. “Sex.”
Oh. Clint swallows. “You. Can you?” He knows Phil can. All analog bots can, and it’s even pleasurable; it’s one of the reasons they’re analog bots. Tasha had regularly seduced marks for infiltration purposes, and even sometimes went out for her own pleasure. There were always humans with less firm scruples than Clint’s, though she’d preferred bot partners.
“Yes,” Phil says simply, even though he knows that Clint knows. “It seems like it would be very enjoyable.”
“It is,” Clint says dumbly. They’re very close, he and Phil, their faces inches apart. Phil’s looking at him, and dammit, Clint wants—
He clears his throat and takes a step back. Phil’s arms fall to his sides, and Clint immediately misses the heat. “Let’s look over the next hill. If we can’t catch anything then, we’ll head back. Tony can suck it.”
They run into a flock of wild turkeys on their way home, and Tony does not, in fact, have to suck it.
“So are you and Agent Coulson-bot fucking yet?”
Clint chokes on his oatmeal and Tony pats him half-heartedly on the back. It takes a couple seconds before Clint’s sure he can get any words out and not accidentally inhale the rest of his breakfast, and then he twists around and shoots Tony a glare.
“Why should Phil and I be sleeping together?”
Tony affects an electronic voice and does robot arms. “Because-you-are-in-love-with-him. And-also-because-analog-bots-are-fully-functional. Beep, boop.” He waggles his eyebrows and makes an absolutely obscene movement with his hips.
Clint stares at him in mock horror for a moment before turning back to his food. “You’re offensive.”
Phil walks in just then, neatly avoids a robot judo-chop to his neck, and oh god, Clint desperately hopes he hasn’t overheard the conversation he and Tony were having. Phil gives no impression that he has and instead asks Clint, “What’s wrong with him today?” nodding to Tony. Tony gives him the finger and then beeps off, probably to find (and irritate) Bruce. Clint shrugs and turns his attention back to his bowl.
There’s silence, and when Clint looks up, Phil’s staring at him. “What?” he asks, defensive around a mouthful of oatmeal. Phil tucks his tie in and sits down.
“Your heartbeat’s elevated. You shouldn’t let him antagonize you.”
“You shouldn’t let him antagonize you,” Clint volleys back, because before he’d watched Tony and Phil interact, he’d never seen a bot’s eye twitch. “And don’t tell me my heartbeat’s elevated, that’s creepy.”
“I want to make sure you’re healthy,” Phil says, and now Clint feels like shit. Awesome.
“Well, keep it to yourself,” he mutters into his bowl. Phil taps his fingers on the table for a moment and then stands.
“Would you like to go hunting today?”
Clint sees the offer for the hunt as the peace offering it is. He and Phil haven’t once been unsuccessful when they’ve gone out together. But he feels off-kilter right now after their last hunting trip, and now after that whatever-it-was with Tony and so he looks down at his bowl and mumbles, “Uh. No. Sorry.”
Phil’s hand curls on the table and his circuits flare for a second before fading abruptly. “Oh. Okay.” He sounds a little lost but leaves without another word, and Clint—Clint’s suddenly lost his appetite. He tosses the rest of his food in the compost bin and washes out the bowl, instead, and then waits for almost ten minutes before he goes upstairs in search of Bruce. He thinks that’s a pretty good elapsed time period.
Bruce is sitting at his desk in his and Tony’s bedroom when Clint finds him, his nose buried in a thick book that looks far above Clint’s comprehension level.
“Do not say ‘I told you so,’” Clint cautions, getting Bruce’s attention. Bruce looks up, and at the sight of Clint’s hangdog expression, his face makes a complicated one of its own, part pity, part resignation, part chagrin.
“Can we, I duno. Talk?” Clint hovers in the doorway of the room. He’s not sure where Tony actually went, or where Phil is, but right now he just needs a comforting shoulder. Bruce nods and flips his notebook shut; it looks like he’s been working on complicated mathematical equations, and yea, Clint has no idea. He slinks into the room and perches on the edge of Tony and Bruce’s bed.
“I think I’m in love with him.”
“I’m pretty sure the feeling’s mutual,” Bruce observes. Clint shoots him a murderous look.
“That is entirely unhelpful.” He sighs and scrubs his hand over his eyes. “Possibly more unhelpful than ‘I told you so.’ If I could convince myself that he doesn’t feel the same way, it would be easier.”
Bruce gets up from where he’s parked in an armchair and drops next to Clint on the bed. “You can’t just take him as is? Go for it anyway? If you both want…” He’s cautious, worried, and Clint feels so very tired. He’s screwing this all up.
“No. He can’t consent, not really. What if I slip up and give him an order, like, ‘Want me,’ or ‘Love me?’ He’s accepted my command codes, and I can’t take those back, not ever. It gives me too much power. It’s not a fair relationship. I can’t do that.”
“Hm.” Bruce leans in, pressing comfortingly against Clint’s shoulder. “That sucks.” For once he seems a little lost. It’s weird to see him not utterly in control, but here he is: the unflappable Doctor Banner, flapped. Clint smiles a little to himself, despite the situation. Give Bruce a PTSD-panicked boyfriend and he’s the anchor in the tempest. Present him with the complexities of AI consensual relationships, and he’s at a loss. Hell, it’s no surprise. Clint’s pretty much at a loss, too.
Clint sighs and presses back against Bruce’s shoulder. “Yea. Yea, it really, really does.”
“I’m not sure what I did,” Phil says a few days later, slipping into Clint’s room to hover by the door. Clint’s stretched out on the bed, staring at the ceiling, and has to half-turn on his side to get Phil in his sights. He looks miserable, and Clint feels like the worst kind of trash.
“It’s nothing,” he says, because Phil’s—Phil’s his friend. He is nothing more than a friend because he’s a bot and bots can’t consent, and Phil’s got just the same rights as Tony and Bruce and Clint never wants to do a single thing to make any of them uncomfortable. They have a good little life here, the four of them. They’re happy. He doesn’t want to screw that up. “I’ll be fine, okay?”
“It’s nothing, Phil,” Clint insists, and it’s stupid, because bots don’t need to look nervous. They do not, and yet Phil still does.
Phil takes another hesitant step closer, then clenches his hands at his side and comes to sit on Clint’s bed.
“We’re friends, aren’t we?” he asks. Clint snorts out a pained little laugh, and Phil frowns. “We’re not?”
“Please don’t be fucking stupid,” Clint mutters, careful even now not to verbalize commands. He turns over and buries his face in his pillow. There’s silence in the room until Phil sighs.
“It’s just that I’m usually extremely good at reading humans. Your body language alone is incredibly insightful, and I even think I’ve managed to simulate it, at least most of the time. And something’s changed with you, and your unspoken language, in the last week. Specifically, after the last time we went hunting, but it’s gotten worse since then.”
Clint buries his head down further, but Phil taps him on the ankle and keeps talking.
“I could cite your blood pressure and hormone levels, if you want. Talk in percentages and exacts. Or we could actually talk like two sentient beings.”
Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck—
Clint sits up and looks Phil straight in the eye. “I want you.”
Phil blinks. “I’m sorry, I fail to see how this is an issue. I was under the impression that I was attempting to make my interest in you apparent.” He narrows his eyes. “I’m extremely sophisticated programming, Clint. I feel emotions. I thought you knew that.”
Clint shakes his head. “I do know that. But you can’t consent.”
Phil glances away, because yea, it’s true. “Technically. I’m required to respond to Obedience commands. But that’s irrelevant because I want you, too. You wouldn’t order anything I don’t want to do. I trust you.”
“Oh, well, that’s fine, then,” Clint snaps. “I’ll just go ahead and rape you because you trust me.”
Phil’s hands tighten on the sheets. “It wouldn’t be rape.”
“You can’t consent!” Clint shouted. He closed his eyes and rubbed his hand over them. “You can’t consent, Phil. You will never be able to consent.”
“No,” Clint says, dangerous, getting on a roll. “No, no, no, you wanna see what I can do? You wanna see what I know? Designation Coulson Unit, respond.”
Phil shoots Clint an utterly betrayed look even as his circuits automatically flare into life. “Waiting,” he says.
Clint crosses his arms. “Take off your tie.”
Phil’s hands twitch once before he reaches up and loosens his tie. He slips it off and sets it on the bed between them.
“Change your voice setting to default,” Clint says. “Stand up, turn around, bow. Tell me thank you.”
Phil stands, turns in a circle, and makes a low bow. “Thank you,” he says, monotone with in the default bot electronic voice. Clint makes a face.
“Reset to original specifications.”
“Please stop,” Phil whispers, back to his usual voice.
Clint swings his legs off the bed. “I can’t be with you, Phil. Look at all the power I have over you! Tony and Bruce have it, too, but you’ve accepted my command codes. I can order you to kill people, I can order you to stay, to leave, to fucking love me, Phil! That’s not consent, that’s slavery!”
Phil doesn’t say anything, just sits on the bed and stares down at his hands.
“We can be friends,” Clint says gingerly. “Just friends, just like we’ve been. I just… I need a couple days to come to terms with it.”
“I’m in love with you.” Phil’s voice is flat. “How could I not be?”
“Jesus, Phil,” Clint breathes. He reaches out and grabs hold of one of Phil’s hands, pulls it to his chest. Phil looks up at him, all hope and quiet longing, but Clint can’t make any move. He won’t. Instead he stares at Phil for a drawn-out moment, and then says, “I want you so much that sometimes I can’t breathe. I wanna spend the rest of my short, insignificant little human life with you. But I can’t, because I won’t put you in a situation where someday you might not be able to leave. I—Phil, I—”
Phil kisses him.
It’s wonderful and terrible and beautiful and horrible. Phil’s mouth is soft like Clint thought it would be, and he tastes faintly like steel and snow.
Clint pulls away. “No. You gotta—” he forces down a sob. “Leave me alone, Phil.”
The betrayal is back, intensified to eleven when Phil’s Obedience kicks in. He stands and walks to the door, though he walks backward and his movements are jerky. He’s clearly fighting it, Clint can tell, but right now he just can’t deal with this. He can’t have fallen for a bot.
It’s more than the Obedience, too, it’s all of Clint’s issues wrapped up in a giant ‘fuck-this-noise’ bow, stupid and painful. It’s because bots? Bots get wiped. Bots get wiped same as people get killed, and the world’s painful and Clint’s done with that sort of shit. He’s better on his own, always has been, and in a moment of panicked anger, he decides that he’s done here. Phil can stay and help Tony through his shit, be the quiet backer to Bruce’s calm rationale. He can be friends with the bots and just, just exist here. It’ll be better for Phil if Clint’s the one who goes.
Phil shuts the door between them and Clint can tell that he’s paused in the hallway. The barrier between them’s enough to satisfy his protocols.
“Don’t do this,” Phil’s voice drifts through the wood. “Clint. Please, please don’t do this to me.” Clint stands up, grabs his jacket, bow, and quiver, and slips out the window.
It’s a couple hours after the confrontation in Clint’s room, and Clint’s up a tree. He’s currently pretending that his eyes are watering from the cold and not from trying not to cry, which is a positive step forward from where he was an hour ago, when he was sobbing uncontrollably. Lucky’s circling the trunk of his perch, beeping worriedly at him, and Clint can’t find it in his heart to send him home.
He can see the house rising up next to the clearing of trees that marks the road. Their awning from the summer’s looking a little worse for wear, sun-bleached and soggy from last night’s slushy rain, and Clint inspects it blankly, forcing his mind away from Phil. He needs to come up with a way to gather up his things to go and simultaneously avoid everyone else. He thinks he can do it if he just waits ‘til midnight or whatever.
“You can stay here, buddy,” Clint says into the cold air, not looking down. His breath puffs up, vaporous around him, and Lucky whirrs in distress. Clint shakes his head. “No. I know you like it here. You and Dum-E’ve got a thing going. It’s good.”
Lucky’s halfway through a series of angry-sounding beeps from the base of the tree when there’s a sudden rumbling noise, the distant sound of some glass breaking, and then a pulse. If he’d had slightly worse eyesight, Clint wouldn’t have seen the shockwave streak through the trees, but he’s Hawkeye for a reason and he watches in a dull sort of horror as the wave spreads and disappears in a flash. And when it passes over him, maybe half a second after the initial rumble, all the hair on his body stands up on end. Lucky falls silent abruptly, and that’s all the confirmation Clint needs.
“Fuck,” he breathes, and drops to the ground, swinging down branches fast enough that he skins his hands. He barely notices, just turns and runs, leaving Lucky behind for later, pushing fast over rough terrain. He’s home in maybe five minutes, bursting through the door to the workshop in another five seconds.
God, but it’s bad.
Phil’s slouched in the corner, eyes blank and sightless, head lolled sideways. His suit’s rumpled and it’s all Clint can see as he pins Tony against the wall of the workshop.
“WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU DO?”
He’s never yelled at Tony like this before, not even once, not when Tony wakes him up at three in the morning because he wants Clint to hold his tools while he fixes the toaster, not when Tony barges in on him when he’s trying to covertly rub one out, not when Tony steals all the jelly for peanut butter sandwiches that Clint had to drive three hours to find. Not even when Tony accidentally orders Phil around.
Tony’s shaking, his hands held up defensively. “I didn’t know it was an EMP, I swear, Clint I’m sorry!”
A second later, Clint finds himself ripped away and Bruce is there, practically green around the edges as he tosses Clint across the room and away from Tony. And holy shit, check that, not practically green, actually green and holy shit, holy shit.
Tony’s got still-shaking hands on Bruce’s face and Bruce is growling, his muscles bulging, veins standing out. “I’m okay,” Tony’s repeating over and over and Bruce is starting to take calmer breaths. Clint stares for a moment more before he crawls over to Phil’s side. His chest’s screaming when he breathes in, and he should have realized something was up before he saw the weird color change; the Bruce he knows can’t throw him twenty feet through the air. He’s pretty sure he has a couple broken ribs.
“Oh, god, Phil,” he whispers, running his fingers over Phil’s expressionless face. “Please don’t be dead. Coulson, turn on. Come on, Coulson, power on.” There’s no response and he presses increasingly panicked hands against all the usual ports, but he’s never seen any sort of physical power button anywhere on Phil (not that he’s seen all of Phil) and doesn’t even know where to start. He’s only aware that he’s started crying when oil-stained hands touch his face.
“I’m sorry,” Tony says, his face more terrified than anything Clint’s ever seen. “I’ll fix him, okay? I promise, he’s not gone. Just off.” Clint nods once, numbly, and then looks across the room. Bruce is sitting with his back against the wall, staring blankly off into space. “Later,” Tony promises. “We’ll explain later.” Clint doesn’t say anything, just turns back to Phil. Tony lets him be for a minute longer, going back over to Bruce and tugging him to his feet. “We’re all going to be okay,” he tells the room at large.
Neither Bruce nor Clint comment, but after a minute, Bruce shakes off Tony’s hands. “Let me look at your ribs,” he says to Clint, quiet. “Tony’ll fix him.”
“I’m not leaving him,” Clint snaps, and Bruce tightens his hands into fists at his side.
“Clint,” he orders, and there’s a hint of a rumble in his voice, and Clint instinctively knows that it’d be a bad idea to cross Bruce right now. He stares at Phil’s face for a second more and then stands, wincing. His chest protests and he lets out a gasp of pain when he straightens up, but he quickly schools his face and follows Bruce out of the workroom and into the kitchen.
“Where do you want me?” he asks.
Bruce turns haunted eyes toward him and Clint blinks, coming down from the anger a little more. There’s a beat of silence and then Bruce touches brittle fingers to the table. “Right up here, okay? Can you get up all right?”
Clint nods stiffly and forces himself up. He tries to lift his arms and pull off his shirt, but lets out another little whimper when his ribs object. He feels a little dizzy, nauseous. It’s probably shock.
“Let me,” Bruce murmurs, and helps Clint out of his shirt. There’s an arm-shaped bruise already forming along Clint’s left side and Bruce hisses in sympathy (and maybe guilt) when he sees it. Clint doesn’t look directly at him and instead concentrates on how difficult this is going to make pulling to full strength on his bow. And leaving. And life in general.
“I’m sorry,” Bruce whispers, his fingers gentle and still painful as they explore the extent of the damage. “I know you’re not a threat, but I couldn’t… It’s Tony.”
“I know.” And Clint does know, is the thing. He’s seen how Bruce is ninety percent of the time, all soft and unassuming. But he’s seen him protective, too, knows the limits he has when it comes to Tony, and Tony’s safety. (There aren’t any.)
“Let me get something to wrap this with,” Bruce says, and Clint lets him go. There’s a mighty clunk from behind the closed door that leads to the workshop and he tenses, fighting down the urge to run in there.
The thing is, for all of Tony’s talk about AI rights and bot equality, he still doesn’t see bots as quite fully alive, and Bruce has made it abundantly clear that he thinks that sort of thing doesn’t really factor in today’s world.
More than once Clint’s walked in on Tony poking something sharp and glinting into Phil’s cheek, or stomach, or ear, or once, memorably, one of Phil’s eyes, because Phil’s amicable about shit like that and lets him do it. Still, Phil’s just one step away from being Tony’s next project, Bruce doesn’t care, and Clint can live with that, that’s fine, but he doesn’t see bots like that. It’s a fundamental difference that usually doesn’t matter because they’re mostly respectful, but it’s still a difference.
It’s stupid, but when he signed up for SHIELD at the tender age of fourteen, he was enrolled in a class that showed new cadets grainy vids of humans and bots working together. The actors, human and bot alike, always had large, earnest smiles on their faces, and most of the other cadets had scoffed and laughed at the overacting, and at the ‘Bots are People, Too,’ sugar-sweet message.
But what Clint took away from that class wasn’t that SHIELD needed to employ better actors. No, the only thing that that vid did was cement in his head that the bots in the vid had wanted new cadets to treat their comrades well.
Concern for hypothetical members of your species is a very advanced emotion, in Clint’s opinion.
Maybe it was because the bots at the orphanage had always shown him kindness—real kindness, not programmed, and Clint’s positive that there’s a difference—and most of the other kids had only ever dealt with war bots, or service bots, both of which had far more rudimentary programming. But Clint knew that bots weren’t mindless, not by a long shot.
It’s one of the reasons he was always first in his training classes, because he never once treated a bot as collateral. It’s the reason that, once he was out of training, he was often requested as an operative for bot-heavy units. It’s the reason he was paired with Tasha to begin with, and how he fell a little bit in love with her. It’s how he’s fallen hard for Phil.
It’s the reason that if Tony’s accidentally killed Phil, Clint’s sure he won’t be able to stay, even if it means he’ll never see another living being for the rest of his life. Even if he was going to leave anyway, and who’s he kidding? He wasn’t ever going to leave; he would have stayed just to be near Phil for the rest of his life, no matter how painful. He knows that, now.
Bruce comes back just then, busy ripping a sheet into shreds, but when he looks at Clint’s face, he stills.
“Don’t leave,” he whispers. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
“I don’t care at all what that was with you,” Clint says, wooden. “I’m assuming it’s whatever happened in New Mexico that you’ve never told me about. I don’t care, Bruce. I’ve been hurt worse than this by friendly fire before.”
Bruce swallows and Clint finally looks at him.
“Phil might be dead.”
Bruce’s face crumples. “No, no, Clint, Tony’ll fix him. Tony fixes shit, remember? If it’s got a charge, he can fix it.” He grabs hold of Clint’s shoulders and squeezes. It hurts a little, and Clint wonders if Bruce knows his own strength right now. “He’ll fix him. And Phil’s all sorts of advanced isn’t he? A charge like that wouldn’t wipe his memories.”
“I don’t know,” Clint says, and his voice cracks. “He’s supposed to be linked to a network. He’s supposed to back up, to have the cloud as a safety net, he doesn’t have that shit, Bruce. He might not—he might not—” He sucks in a wavering breath. “We fought. I ordered him to leave me alone. I made him leave, the last thing I did was make him—”
Clint can’t talk anymore. He breaks down, curling in on himself, drawing his knees up and ignoring the shrieking pain in his chest. Bruce’s eyes widen, alarmed, but it’s clear he doesn’t want to touch Clint right now, not unless he has to. He probably doesn’t trust himself. It doesn’t really matter.
Instead, there’s a shuffle and the sound of the kettle filling; a few minutes later, Clint’s wiping his eyes and Bruce is handing him a cup of steaming tea.
“Drink,” he orders. Clint does. The cup’s about half gone when he starts to feel sleepy and he blinks dazedly at his hands. “Sorry,” Bruce says, and Clint has just enough wherewithal to think ‘traitor,’ before he passes out.
“If I wasn’t entirely positive he didn’t mean to do it, I’d probably be more angry with Bruce,” are the words Clint wakes to. He’s blurry-headed and everything feels thick, and he makes a quiet interrogatory noise before the voice registers. When it does, he tries to open his eyes because he needs to see to make sure, to be positive—
“Hey,” Phil says. “Hawkeye. Calm down, I’m right here.”
“Phil,” Clint croaks. “Y’okay?” He’s finally able to force his eyes into narrow slits, and Phil’s face swims side to side, double-vision. He’s smiling.
“I’m fine, or I will be. You’re the one with bruised ribs and a concussion, and who was then given some pretty strong sedatives on top of that.”
“Ah, that fucker,” Clint mutters, meaning Bruce. His fingers twitch on the bed and he smiles happily when warmth surrounds them, Phil holding his hand. He falls asleep again.
The next time Clint wakes, he’s alone. His ribs are aching, and he takes the three tiny white pills of ibuprofen someone’s left out conscientiously next to the bed, and follows them up with half the glass of water. He’s got vague memories of Phil sitting next to him, but he doesn’t want to get his hopes up. He could have been hallucinating.
There’s a rap of knuckles on the door, but it swings open before he can say anything, and then—
Then everything’s okay, ‘cause Phil’s walking in, his suit straight on his shoulders, a small tic of a smile on his face. He’s carrying a bowl of something that smells wonderful and he visibly relaxes when he sees Clint sitting up in the bed.
“You had us worried there for a little while,” he says, and Clint can’t stop looking at him.
“Well,” Phil smiles and puts the bowl down. “Bruce is pretty much sick with guilt, Tony’s off in his own head, and I’m just glad you didn’t actually disappear on me.”
“I thought you’d—”
Phil cuts Clint off with a shake of his head. “I’m Shield design. You actually think they’d send me out in the field in a chassis that would lose memory and functions from a little electromagnetic pulse?”
“I couldn’t get you to turn on,” Clint says, plaintive, and it’s only by twisting his hands in the sheets that he stops himself from reaching out and tugging Phil down onto the bed. Phil comes anyway, perches in just the right spot at the edge of the bed so that Clint can curl around him.
“Sorry it took so long for me to reboot,” he says, and Clint sucks in a pained gasp, his ribs aching as he tries to scoot closer. Phil rests his hand on Clint’s head, scritches his fingers a little at the base of Clint’s skull, and stills his movement. “I had to rewrite a few processes. I’m adaptive programming, so I was able to write workarounds for the couple circuits that got fried.”
“Shouldn’t’a gotten fried t’begin with,” Clint mumbles. He feels a little short of breath.
“Blessing in disguise,” Phil says enigmatically, and reaches over to grab the bowl of soup. He waves it in Clint’s face. “Eat.”
“Feel sick,” Clint says, because he does. His stomach’s cramping while his arms and legs simultaneously feel too loose, wobbly. He starts shaking a little and Phil practically drops the bowl of soup in his scramble to pull Clint closer.
“Shock,” he says. “Clint, I—”
Clint clutches at him. Phil could’ve checked out for good, just another person who left, and Clint’d be alone, all alone again and he couldn’t handle it.
“I won’t leave,” Phil whispers, his lips pressed against Clint’s hair. Clint realizes he was actually verbalizing those thoughts, oh god, maybe there’s something to this ‘shock’ thing. Phil pulls back half an inch. “Seriously, you’ll feel better if you eat. And then we need to talk.”
“About good things,” Phil hastily amends. “Nothing’s wrong. Really, nothing’s wrong.”
So Clint finally accepts the bowl when Phil offers it again (it’s filled with canned chicken noodle, slimy and mushy and just like Clint likes it) and practically inhales it. Phil watches him eat with a sort of half-disgusted, half-impressed look on his face, but since he can’t process real-boy food and therefore has never experienced the joy that is Campbell’s condensed, Clint’s of the opinion that he has no room to judge.
“Right,” Phil says once Clint’s downed his meal to Phil’s apparent satisfaction. “First: please refrain from hysterics.” Clint narrows his eyes; that doesn’t bode particularly well. But Phil just shakes his head and plows on. “The EMP permanently damaged a few—few—of my circuits. It’s nothing I can’t write workarounds for, though. It might take me a fraction longer to process stimuli, but it probably won’t even be noticeable.”
Clint’s heart, which had seized at the words ‘permanently damaged,’ takes a tentative foray into beating again.
“There is one protocol that’s been affected,” Phil interrupts with an arch look, “that I’m sure you’ll be interested in.”
“What that?” Clint asks, after it becomes apparent that Phil’s waiting for his answer.
“Obedience,” Phil says simply, and Clint’s heart is more than on board with beating, now. In fact, it’s going a little faster than usual.
He doesn’t actually have words, ‘cause he can’t really put the intense wash of hope he’s feeling into anything coherent at the moment.
“It’s convoluted,” Phil explains, and leans back against the wall, making himself comfortable at the head of Clint’s bed. “I can’t rid myself of them entirely, because that results in system failure. But I can change end behavior.”
Phil waves Clint’s confusion away. “Like I said: convoluted. In a fully functioning AI, any AI, failure to Obey results in automatic shutdown. For those with ambulatory chassis,” ‘like me,’ he doesn’t say, “they experience a bolt of extreme displeasure, pain, whatever you’d like to call it. And then shutdown. It’s all programming, because you can’t actually force AI—something that qualifies as proper AI, something with free will—to behave in any sort of way, no more than you can a human.”
Clint’s fascinated. He’s—well, he understood the basics, obviously, but he’s never quite thought of it that way. But yea, it’s pretty obvious. Phil’s definitely got free will. Otherwise, how would have made the decision to wander up Boulder Canyon in the first place?
“So my end behavior programming was damaged,” Phil continues. “I’ve still got the imperative to Obey, but then the order just sort of dangles. I need a consequence at the end of it.”
“And your consequence isn’t shutdown?” Clint asks.
“It doesn’t have to be.” Phil looks up at him, his eyes searching. “Since I’m designed to repair myself, once damaged, I’ve got the prerogative to write whatever end result I want.” He looks down again, and in a rather shocking show of nerves, picks idly at a thread on the blanket. Blue washes down his face and is gone again in the blink of an eye. “So what I came up with is, if I don’t respond to an order, or directly disobey it, I’ll have a tic.”
Clint’s a little floored. Pain and automatic shutdown resolved into a… a tic? “That’s a big difference,” he hazards.
Phil inclines his head. “It is. But operations programming doesn’t store memory. All I needed was a consequence. I obviously remember the original protocols, but there’s no reason to replicate them.”
“Yea,” Clint whispers, cause, well. His mind’s starting to expand at the possibilities. It’s a little—boggling. “Could you… show me?” he asks, and the corner of Phil’s mouth twitches up.
“You’ll need to give me an order.”
“What kind of order do you want?”
“Anything.” Phil’s looking at Clint now with more intent than usual, and Clint’s pretty sure he knows what kind of ordering Phil’s thinking about.
“Do you really want this?” Clint asks. He means, ‘Do you really want me?’
“Take off your tie,” Clint says, and then cringes, ‘cause that’s the last thing he ordered Phil to do, and that isn’t a pleasant memory. But Phil—there’s a brief swirl of blue and Phil tics his head to the left, barely a movement. And then he just smirks and shakes his head.
“No. I think I’d like to stay dressed right now.” He looks Clint up and down. “Though, if you weren’t nursing bruised ribs, I think I’d have a different answer for you.”
Clint feels like he’s gonna shake apart. “Phil—will you—I mean. Phil. Kiss me.”
Phil ducks his head amidst another wash of blue. “Gladly, Clint.” He scoots in closer and runs a hand up Clint’s side, the very picture of gentle. Clint leans into his touch, ignoring the twinge of pain when his chest protests a hair, and then Phil’s nosing at his cheek, guiding his head to tilt a little with a warm hand on his jaw.
“Phil,” Clint murmurs, but Phil cuts him off by pressing their lips together. Clint lets him lead, at least partially because he’s a little shocked, still. Phil moves closer, pressing his mouth against Clint’s with more intent, adding a soft nip to his bottom lip as punctuation before he’s pulling away. “Again,” Clint says, but Phil just tics his head to the side and leans away.
“I won’t be able to restrain myself,” he admits, and it has to be Clint’s imagination, but his voice sounds gravelly. “You need rest. Sleep more, and then tomorrow we’ll have Bruce look you over again. He also owes us an explanation.”
“I don’t care,” Clint insists, but Phil just shakes his head.
“Will you stay?” Clint asks, and tries to keep the note of pleading out of his voice. Judging by Phil’s indulgent grin, he mostly fails.
“I will,” he murmurs, and leans forward to drop a chaste kiss to the corner of Clint’s mouth. “If you sleep.”
“Kay.” Clint’ll agree, totally following his own desires, not because Phil’s stretching out next to him, warm and soft. Phil’s fingers wind carefully under the back of Clint’s skull, cushioning his head, and Clint closes his eyes in pleasure at the touch. He’s not sleepy, not really, but he’ll close his eyes because Phil wants him to. It’s just so nice… Clint falls asleep between one heartbeat and the next.
A quiet clunk to the side of the bed wakes Clint hours later, and he blearily opens his eyes to find Tony dropping off a bowl of fruit and a glass of water. “Hey,” he says, thick with sleep, and Tony startles. He apparently hadn’t realized that Clint was awake.
Clint can’t really move; he’s pinned down on the bed by Phil in power saving mode, an arm heavy where it’s thrown across Clint’s hips. The other’s still tucked under Clint’s back, the tips of his fingers just brushing his hairline, and his lips are pressed against Clint’s neck.
“Hey,” Tony returns warily. He gestures to the bowl. “Thought you might be hungry. Also, Bruce wants to talk to you, but he’s kinda freaking out.”
“Mm,” Clint agrees, and then shifts a scant inch. “Phil, hey come on, let me up.” Phil surfaces with an audible click and pulls away a little, though he searches Clint’s face before he goes. Clint’s aware that Tony’s staring at them—or maybe just at him—because he’d noticed the order. Of course he had.
“Phil rewrote his programs when he repaired damage from the EMP,” he says before Tony can get a word in. “He doesn’t have to follow Obedience anymore.”
“It’s a little more complicated than—” but Clint cuts Phil off with a shake of his head, because Tony’s gone all wide-eyed and is already practically salivating at the possibilities. It’s too early for that. Phil clears his throat and turns on his side to better fix Tony in his sights. “Basically. I’ll talk you through it later.”
Tony doesn’t look thrilled to be put off like this, but after a moment of glaring at them, he shrugs and turns to go. “It’s a date, Coulson. I won’t forget.”
“You rarely do,” Phil grumbles, but it’s only half-hearted. Clint takes advantage of his distraction and half-crawls over him to grab the fruit, which he wolfs down in a few bites.
“I needed that,” he says, sighing in contentment. Tony’s watching him with an incredulous look but Clint doesn’t care—everything’s right with the world today, so Tony’s unimpressed-face can just be damned.
“Come on,” Tony says after a healthy pause that he spends staring at how Clint’s sprawled practically on top of Phil. “Downstairs, hup-hup.”
“We’re coming,” Phil says, and cuts off Tony’s lewd comment with a raised finger. “No, Stark. Bad.”
Tony grins, turns on his heel, and disappears out the door.
Clint goes boneless on top of Phil but then cringes when his ribs make their injuries known. “Ow, fuck, ow, dammit.” Phil sits up, bracing Clint’s sides in his steady grip.
“Let me re-wrap your chest before we go down.” Any protest Clint might have made at this suggestion was quelled by Phil flexing his fingers slightly, and the resulting pain from that movement.
Phil’s stony-faced while he works, not betraying any emotion at the sight of the large bruise along Clint’s side, and he stays quiet when he helps Clint into one of his button-up shirts, as all of Clint’s t-shirts require more movement than Clint’s really willing to engage in at the moment.
“Don’t be angry,” Clint tells him as they’re about to go down. “I was sorta screaming at Tony. I don’t blame Bruce.”
Phil stills and looks surprised. “Why were you yelling at Stark?”
Clint’s—yea, okay, Clint’s a little surprised no one told Phil what happened for Bruce to do whatever it was he did. He slides his arms around Phil’s waist and pulls him close. As long as he’s gentle with his movements, his ribs don’t protest too much. At least they’re just bruised and not broken.
“I thought he’d wiped you. Killed you. I don’t know, but you weren’t moving and Tony was just standing there, looking shocked, some random metal bit in his hand…”
Phil stares at him for a drawn-out moment. “I love you,” he says finally, and it’s a little shocking, okay? Clint’s got a decent reason for his knees to wobble a little.
“You—you too,” he says weakly. Phil shoots him a smile and leans in for a quick kiss before pulling away, and that—pulling away, that is—is getting old. Clint wants to crowd him up against the wall and touch him everywhere, make his circuits stutter. But when Phil grabs his hand and tugs, Clint lets him lead them away from the bedroom. He knows how to practice self-restraint, really he does, and the last thing Clint wants is for them to distract themselves and have Tony or Bruce come to interrupt.
So they tromp down the stairs and spill into the kitchen, and the happy smile on Clint’s face falls a little when he sees Bruce sitting at the kitchen table, curled in on himself and clearly miserable. Tony’s sitting close to him, his chair pulled over so that their knees can touch, and for once he’s not talking.
“Hey,” Clint says, and Bruce looks up.
“How are you feeling?” he asks. “I didn’t—”
Yea, no. That scared, sad expression doesn’t sit well on Bruce’s face, so Clint shakes his head and interrupts. “I’m fine, Bruce. Really. Nothing broken, ‘cept maybe some pride, ‘cause shit, man. You got a hell of a punch when you’re pissed.”
Bruce blanches, and behind Clint, Phil lets out a little sigh of exasperation. “Clint,” he reprimands. “That is unhelpful.”
Clint turns to him. “What? I get why Bruce’s never been all that concerned about security, now.” He looses his hand from Phil’s grip and drags out his usual chair at the table, plopping down into it with only a small wince, which he hastily schools, and looks at Bruce. “So, explain? Unless you don’t wanna.”
“He wants to,” Tony says. “He is also aware that he should have probably said something before now.”
“I didn’t want you to leave,” Bruce tells them, and the expression on his face is heartbroken. “People have—”
“I didn’t,” Tony adds shortly. “And we’re so not arguing this out again right now, Big Guy. Clint and Phil aren’t running for the hills, even though they clearly should.” He drifts his eyes up and eyes Phil. “Sorry, by the way. I haven’t had a chance to apologize. You sorta disappeared once you turned back on.”
“I’m fine, too,” Phil says, and comes to stand behind Clint’s chair. “The accident was actually rather fortuitous.” He holds up a hand to stem Tony’s questions. “Which I’ll explain in detail later. Right now, let’s stay on track?”
Silence settles in the kitchen for several minutes. Clint doesn’t want to break it, as it’s clear that Bruce is gathering his courage for whatever he’s about to say, and Phil and Tony are busy glaring at each other in a show of their usual mutually-beneficial antagonism.
Bruce’s voice, when it breaks through the silence, is quiet. Still, the rest of their attention snaps to him immediately.
“I was experimenting,” he says. “Radiation treatments, weapons—” he waves a hand dismissively, a gesture picked up from Tony if Clint’s ever seen one. “—it doesn’t matter. This was years ago, almost—” He looks to Tony for help and is supplied with a quiet “almost twenty years ago, now.” Bruce nods.
“I can’t believe it’s been that long. Anyway. We were kids, really, and I was playing house with Tony in New Mexico, and he was—bored. He wanted to go home, back to California, but I wouldn’t go. I was close to finding—at least I thought I was close to finding—a repellant for some of Hydra’s more laser-based weaponry.” He looks up then, guilt flashing across his face that’s mirrored perfectly on Tony’s.
“We fought,” Tony says. “I left. Went back to the house in Malibu.” He glances at Clint and Phil. “I’m rich as shit, by the way. Like, multi-billionaire rich. Doesn’t matter much, now, but there you go.”
Clint blinks. That’s a little… unexpected, given the state of casa de I Fix Your Shit. But whatever.
“Anyway,” Bruce mumbles. “I was distracted, missing him. There was an accident, and I could have possibly avoided it, but—” he sighs. “I thought we were over. I didn’t really see…”
Tony sucks in a breath. “He was an idiot, and so was I. The explosion changed him, brought out—”
“I had a rough childhood,” Bruce says, and Clint frowns. Relevancy…? Bruce shakes his head. “It’s maybe because of that… I’m angry. A lot. It was worse when I was younger, I had a hell of a temper.”
“He used to scare me, sometimes,” Tony murmurs, and his knuckles are white where he’s holding onto Bruce’s hands. “But we’re fucking brilliant together and he’s never hurt me.”
“Never,” Bruce affirms, and frees one hand so he can rub it over his eyes. “This is really hard to tell, I’m sorry we’re so scattered.”
“It’s fine,” Phil reassures them. “Tell us what you want to tell us.”
Bruce nods. “The explosion. Best I can figure it, it sort of—brought out my darker side. I’m not sure how, it’s all sort of a blur, but I always remember the world going green, and so—so much rage. I change. I don’t know what I’m doing, don’t have any memories of what happens. When I get angry, I change into something else.”
If Clint hadn’t seen it—seen the green skin and bulging veins, felt the power behind the muscles that tossed him rag-doll through the air—he’d think that Bruce was being metaphorical. He’s not, though, and that’s a little—
“I call it the Other Guy,” Bruce tells the table. “Pretty much everyone else called it the Hulk.”
Phil’s fingers tighten on Clint’s shoulders, and he twists around sharply, lets out a sharp hiss of pain, and then tries again, more slowly. “Phil?”
“No, I.” Phil looks perplexed. “I have files on you.” Bruce and Tony blink up at him and Phil makes an unhappy face. “They’re unpleasant.”
Bruce looks down. “They would be. My commanding officer wasn’t… kind… to me after the accident. He put me through, ah, tests. It wasn’t.” He sucks in a sharp breath and shakes his head.
“I tried for weeks to get ahold of him,” Tony picks up the story. “They told me he was sick, and then that he didn’t want to talk to me, that he was done with me. Thank Christ I didn’t believe them.”
“The rest isn’t all that important,” Bruce says, his voice firmer. “Tony raised a fuss, got my CO reassigned and then came back and lived with me again. We were under contract, we couldn’t really leave, so we just—stayed there. For a few more years. And then there were the attacks on the bases, and I sent Tony away—”
“He sedated me,” Tony snaps. “It’s an old trick.”
“One I’m not thrilled with, either,” Phil comments, half under his breath. Bruce flushes, caught, but continues anyway.
“—and his plane got shot down on the Western Slope. He was pulled from the wreckage by Hydra bots, I found out, the Other Guy didn’t react well, and I found him. We came here after Hydra wiped out the area because—”
“Because there wasn’t anyone here, and I couldn’t handle it,” Tony concludes. “We’d been here a couple years when you found us, Clint, and that’s that.”
“Besides a couple days ago,” Bruce adds, “I haven’t had an issue since I found Tony in that camp.”
It’s evening, hours after Bruce and Tony had shared their history with the rest of the class, and Clint can’t sleep, even though he knows he should. Phil and Tony are in the shop, trying to modify Dum-E and Lucky’s Obedience protocols, and judging by the amount of cursing filtering up through the floorboards, they aren’t having much luck. Phil hadn’t been optimistic when Tony’d brought it up; the only reason he’d been able to do what he did is because he’s highly advanced programming.
But it’s getting late and Clint’s beginning to feel petulant. Phil’d made it clear earlier in the day that he wanted to take things between them relatively slow, mostly out of deference for Clint’s injuries, but that didn’t mean that they couldn’t curl up together in bed. Clint wanted Phil in his bed. In fact, he thought that he’d be pretty happy if he was able to curl around Phil and never leave his bed for the rest of his natural life.
The shop (which is under Clint’s room, might he add) goes silent for a moment—the eye of the storm—and then a resounding crash practically makes the whole of the house shake. Clint listens as something thumps to the ground in the room next door, then cocks his head when steps (Bruce’s) clatter down the stairs. A minute later, Bruce makes the return trip dragging a loudly-protesting Tony behind him, and their bedroom door shuts firmly behind them.
Clint’s mouth twitches in amusement when Tony’s gripes abruptly cut off, but he’s just got enough time to roll his eyes at their obviousness when his own door swings open.
“He’s awfully enthusiastic,” Clint observes. Phil nods, and there’s a tiny smile at the corners of his mouth.
“I’m sure we’re going to be subjugated to an earful of his enthusiasm in a few minutes.”
“We could give them a run for their money,” Clint teases, but Phil doesn’t so much as twitch past taking another step further into the room and shutting the door behind himself.
And when he lifts an eyebrow and says, utterly inflectionless, “I’m not sure your poor ribs would be able to handle the things I could do to you,” Clint chokes on air a little.
“Jesus, Phil.” The blasphemy gets Phil’s smile to widen, and he crosses the room and settles on the edge of Clint’s bed—of their bed, Clint thinks happily. He makes grabby hands. “C’mere.”
“Gently,” Phil cautions, but stretches out next to him after loosening his tie. He hooks a leg over both of Clint’s and wraps an arm around him, too, low on his stomach and well away from his ribs. His head he noses into the arch of Clint’s neck, and Clint sighs happily.
“Tell me about robot sex?” he asks, and Phil makes a sound that is suspiciously close to a snort of laughter. He lifts his head and inspects Clint closely.
Clint shrugs best he can while lying down. “I never asked any bots about it. I was never interested in that sort of relationship with one before.”
Phil kisses him, soft and tender, and Clint gets the idea that he’s possibly said something right. But before he can do so much as lift his head and really, you know, get into the positively magnificent kiss, Phil pulls away.
“What do you want to know?” He looks genuinely curious, and Clint feels his face heat a little.
“Just. Um, is… is it the same as human sex? Like. I assume you’d be able to penetrate me, right? But can I top you? Or—shit. Would you even want me to? Do you come? Would I fuck something up if I did in you? Do you need prep? How do you climax? I just. Holy shit, stop me anytime, here.”
Phil’s eyebrows, which had been climbing steadily through Clint’s rapid-fire filter malfunction, settle back down. Curiosity has morphed into amusement, and tenderness, and Clint sort of wants to hide his face.
“Perhaps we should start with the basics,” Phil tells him. Clint nods.
Phil shifts them subtlety, sliding his leg between Clint’s and dropping his arm down lower, so that it’s resting right above Clint’s groin. It sends a pulse of heat low into Clint’s belly, but he’s pretty sure that Phil’s just adjusting them so that they’re both comfortable, so he tells himself to cool it off. Not that it’s as easy as it sounds, what with what they’re currently talking about.
“Well,” Phil says slowly, “the clinical answer to some of that is that yes, I can climax. It takes work, just like human sexual activity. I reach a certain point and it will tip me over into maximum pleasure sensations.” He waves his hand that’s resting on Clint’s stomach lazily, and then drops it back down again. “It’s a ceiling algorithm.”
“Ah,” Clint mutters, and Phil smiles.
“The less clinical answer is that yes, sex is much the same.” He drops his head back down, so he’s speaking into Clint’s neck, his lips brushing the soft skin under his ear. “I’m in control of my reactions. I’ll decide when I get hard. I can do it slow, if you like, let it build. Let you take me in your hand—or in your mouth—and work me. My original specifications were quite exacting—I’m told that I’ll feel like a perfect facsimile.
“Oh,” Clint squeaks out. He’s breathing a little harder, and is starting to reevaluate the purposefulness of Phil placing his arm so close to certain… areas.
Phil nods, pressing his lips down more firmly for a breath of a moment before he’s talking again. “So yes, I can fuck you.” Clint shivers—he doesn’t think he’s ever heard Phil swear before. “And this chassis was designed to be human analogous.” Phil pauses, and Clint feels his lips turn up against his neck. “So you can fuck me, too.”
Clint moans. He can’t help it, really he can’t.
“The nanotech in my skin is more adaptable and resilient than normal human skin,” Phil goes on. “So when you top me, you’ll only need to do the most perfunctory prep.” He lifts his head again, and when he grins at Clint this time, it’s wicked.
“The interesting part is the fluids.” He slides his arm lower still, a slow rasp of smooth fabric against Clint’s jean-clad dick, and Clint’s breath hitches. He can’t remember the last time he got this hard this fast.
“The… oh god, Phil.”
“Mmhm,” Phil hums with a nod. “I don’t need to ejaculate, but I most certainly can. It’s a sucrose derivative, so when I feed you my cock and I come down your throat, it’ll taste sweet. Like candy.” He presses his arm more firmly down and slides it back and forth, agonizingly slow, and Clint moans again.
“Fuckin’ a, Phil, you can’t say shit like that…”
“If it gets you to act like this,” Phil practically purrs, “I’ll talk how I damn well please.” He pauses, and it takes Clint an embarrassingly long moment to realize that Phil’s pulling down the zip on his jeans.
“I thought you said…”
“I said gentle,” Phil tells him, his head turned away so he can watch his hand’s progress in spreading Clint’s fly. “But back to sex.”
“Didn’t think we’d left the topic,” Clint bites out as the tips of Phil’s fingers slip under the waistband of his boxers. Phil huffs out a laugh.
“No, we most certainly have not.” He slides his hand around Clint’s hip under his clothes, his skin warm against Clint’s. He tugs a little, the barest of light touches, and urges Clint to lift his hips just enough so that he can ruck his jeans and boxers down.
“An interesting thing about bots,” Phil points out conversationally, “is that we don’t identify as any specific sexuality. Our makers assume that we, as free-willed beings, can engage in any sort of sexual activity we wish. The result is that I have a few features that aren’t standard-issue on male humans.” He trails his fingers around the base of Clint’s dick, and any questions Clint had been about to voice, die in his throat.
“I can self-lubricate,” Phil continues, just as calm and collected as ever, even as he turns his wrist and wraps his hand loosely around Clint’s cock. “Subdermal pores all over my body. It’s fascinating.” He slides his hand up once, and the return glide down is abruptly much slicker.
Overcome, Clint bucks once, hissing when his ribs protest. Phil shoots him a quelling look.
“Keep still or I will stop.”
The order is much more arousing than it should be and Clint stills immediately. “Please Phil,” he whispers.
“I’ll take care of you,” Phil promises softly, and starts the movement of his hand again. Clint tosses his head to the side and snakes one hand up to clasp against the back of Phil’s neck. He drags him in and kisses him fiercely, and Phil returns the kiss with enthusiasm, shifting again so he’s half-draped over Clint, giving him just enough room so that there’s no weight on his chest. There’s enough room so his hand can keep jacking Clint, too, and Clint’s totally on board with that.
He’s so on board, in fact, that he almost misses when Phil says next. Phil pulls his head away and kisses a line down Clint’s jaw, sucking a bruise just under the jut of bone. “I’ll always take care of you,” he breathes into the skin there, and the lust Clint’s drowning in shifts abruptly into something a little deeper.
“I love you, Phil,” he groans out. “Goddamn it, I love you so much.”
“Yes.” Phil’s staring at him, intent, the delicate blue tracings on his face swirling, processing. “I love you, too.” And then all of Clint’s mental processes stutter to a halt when Phil slides down and takes him in his mouth.
His hands are strong on Clint’s hips, holding him down with enough force that Clint’s acutely aware that Phil’s not human. It’s a good thing, too, because Clint would do some serious damage to himself if he had free movement right now.
Phil pulls off. “You don’t need to narrate. Just enjoy the ride.”
Clint shuts his mouth and lets Phil get back to work.
“Well don’t you look chipper,” Tony comments from behind an industrial-sized cup of tea the next morning. He’s leaning against the kitchen counter and staring straight at Clint, a look that could only be described as a smirk gracing his face. “Not putting too much strain on the ribs, are we?” He blinks innocently, and Clint narrows his eyes.
Bruce, who’s sitting next to Clint at the table, raises an eyebrow but doesn’t shift his attention from his book. Phil apparently finds something in the refrigerator fascinating, and Tony outright leers. Clint’s eyes narrow further.
“It’s just,” Tony gestures with a careless hand, and his tea sloshes dangerously close to the edge of his cup, “that you sounded like you had a good time last night. And maybe I’ve been doing it wrong, but I was under the impression that ‘enjoying yourself’—” Clint can hear the quotes even if Tony doesn’t actually do them “—equals some sort of pelvic thrusting.” He accentuates this statement with an indecent plunge of his hips. His tea spills. He doesn’t notice.
“Shut up, Tony.”
It’s a rare feat, but three voices ring out in unison. There’s a pause.
“Congratulations,” Bruce adds, and the bastard’s smirking, too. “You did sound like you had a good night.”
“Traitor,” Clint accuses, aghast. “You’re worse than he is.” Bruce shrugs, and Clint waits for a beat before dropping his contribution. “My debaucherous robot sex is none of your business, even if Phil doesn’t have refraction times and can keep me on edge for hours.” That gets Bruce’s attention, if only so he can look up to level Clint an unimpressed look. At the counter, Tony chokes on tea.
“You’re all terrible people,” Phil says earnestly into the resulting silence. “I don’t know why I stay.” He sets down a bowl of oatmeal in front of Clint. It’s steaming and doused liberally with honey, and Clint smiles up at him.
“It’s ‘cause you love me,” he says, soft, and Phil smiles back.
“Yea,” he says. “I really do.”