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Reaching Out

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He knows Clint sees the marks. He can’t hide everything, not when they are this stressed, this close to fracturing. It’s a bad month, one of the worst since the team came to stay in the tower together. Thor pulls twenty hour days patrolling, because no one else can do it, and in the last drag out fight, he hits a alien craft with a bolt of lightening. The craft manages to land on Tony and Steve. If Steve had been normal human, he’d have been killed. Tony was damned lucky for the suit.

The fallout from the last invasion makes Bruce’s skin green. His eyes won’t turn brown, and he scares Pepper, when his coffee burns his tongue. He knows that he and Clint have an arrangement, and Clint is in charge of his pain. He knows that he’s supposed to be marked by Clint’s knife or lighter and not by his own lab “accidents.”

Except he feels the itch under his skin, and it’s almost the same desperate need that made him pick up the gun. The sadness, the loss, is gone because for the first time in years, since maybe when his aunt took him in, he feels safe. He feels like he has a home, with the Avengers. He could have a home with Clint, if Clint would keep him.

But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because Clint won’t keep him the way he wants. Clint wants to hurt and hurt and hurt, and there’s the desire to help Bruce? But it’s not the real reason he’s doing this. It’s the crystalline truth that managing the Hulk is more important to Clint than keeping Bruce, to have Bruce to play victim to his sadist, and Bruce needs to be happy with that or he needs to give this up.

He can’t give this up.

He finds himself staring at the weapons they have up for strategic defense, the lasers and a few caches of handguns. He finds himself thinking that he could find a serum to delay the change. He could delay it just long enough let the bullets do their work, to let the lasers burn through him. The rational part of his brain is screaming that this isn’t the right reaction to nearly losing two of his friends, that he’s compounding other fears onto the sick feeling in his stomach he had when he came back. Steve was on a backboard with a collar; Tony was being lifted out in his suit.

It’s bad enough to know what it means that Steve is still in the hospital seventy-two hours later and that he’s not quite breathing on his own. He doesn’t need to think about the details of this thing between he and Clint, but it’s in his head now, swirling around everything and making it worse.

Bruce can’t take it anymore. He needs to make it stop.

There’s a sampling knife on the table beside him, razor sharp so it doesn’t distort the material being sliced. It’s just in his hand before he can rationalize, and then it’s jammed into his arm. He drags the blade down. It doesn’t hurt yet, but blood blossoms from the wound, wet and hot, and he starts at it until it does begin to hurt, the sharp and hard bite of a cut that deep.

He stares at the blood, until he realizes that he’s bleeding too freely. “Shit,” he murmurs, and he grips the arm.

He doesn’t want to, but he calls Clint down to look at it. They’re alone in the tower, Steve and Tony still in for observation and treatment and Thor exhausted from his constant vigilance. He’s not calling an intern up from another floor. He can’t risk the infection. He calls Clint, ignoring the pit of guilt in his stomach. He calls him and grinds out, “I’m in my lab. I think I need stitches.”

Clint comes into the lab like Hell’s at his heels, and he stops short at the sight of Bruce’s bleeding arm. “Hell, Banner,” he says in a low voice, and he’s grabbing neoprene gloves from the first aid kit. There’s just too much blood.

“What happened?” There’s something hard sliding through his voice. “Did you do this to yourself?”

Bruce feels the flutter of desire in his stomach, and he shoves it back. This isn’t a scene; Clint can punish him later. “I had to,” he whispers.

“You had to,” Clint says, and his hands so tight around Bruce’s arm that he thinks he’ll lose feeling. “You had to do this to yourself without asking.”

There’s a deep, clawing sense of panic in Bruce. Clint is disappointed; Clint is angry. He shoves it back. He did this because he’s not Clint’s. He can’t let the Other Guy flare through his mind because Clint is possessive and because Clint is indifferent. It’s not fair to himself.

“Look at me,” Clint snaps as he pushes his thumbnail to the cut, digging deep. Bruce cries out, but he looks at Clint. He can’t hold himself steady yet but it’s close.

There’s a moment where Bruce can watch Clint deciding how to proceed, and the words come.

“I’m going to hurt you,” Clint says, and it’s like a switch is being flipped in Bruce’s brain, though this time it’s sluggish, almost fighting to happen. They’re not in the room, but Bruce’s lab is a good surrogate. They’ve done some minor things here, investigated a few options, but never something full blown. With Bruce’s blood making Clint’s hold slippery, it’s a full scene.

Clint’s eyes are dark, shadowed with anger when he says, “You could save us both time and tell me why you needed to do this.”

Bruce shakes his head. He hates that he admitted the gun to the team, that they look at him and think that he’s almost always three minutes from blowing his head off again. He doesn’t want to say that the ideas were there again, that the stress was making them bubble to the surface.

Clint pushes another finger into Bruce’s cut, and it feels like he’s spreading the skin open, making the cut worse. “Tell me, or I’ll slice this open. I’ll leave you to bleed all over the lab, and your interns will find you.” There’s a low thread of anger there. “How badly do you want to bleed, Banner?”

He digs into the wound again, and Bruce’s back spasms. “I don’t--”

“Tell me,” Clint hisses. “Tell me why you needed to mark yourself.”

“I wanted, I thought about, using some of the experiment I’ve been working on.” His words come out in gasps. He tries to keep control, to avoid the harshest edge of the truth. He can’t not have this, and if Clint realizes Bruce’s problem, if he knows how fucked Bruce has let himself get, he could leave. This could end. “I thought about using it to stop the Other Guy. I’d stop him, and then I could do what needed to be done to just stop this.”

Clint’s eyes flash, and he threads one hand into Bruce’s hair, snapping his head back. There’s something strange on his face, something foreign. It makes Bruce’s skin cold to see it. “You do not get to make those decisions. You put me in charge, and you are not allowed to decide to die. You have those thoughts, and you come to me.”

He stops, just staring at Bruce. There’s a raw intensity in his eyes. “If you start to think like that, you come to me. I will take you to the room, I will whip, I will burn you, whatever you need to make it stop.” He licks his lips. “It doesn’t even have to be like this. If you want me to sit in your lab while you work or watch television with you. If I’m able to, I’ll do it.”

There’s edge of almost fear in Clint’s voice, and Bruce nods as much as he’s able. He wants to lean into Clint, but he won’t. He’ll take his orders and he’ll take his demands, but he won’t try to comfort. It still can’t work like that, and the realization makes Bruce feel sick.

And then it’s over. Clint is changing his gloves, tossing them into the bio hazard bag. He pulls on a new pair and goes for the first aid kit, pulling out tape and gauze. Then he’s checking the cut like he wasn’t threatening to open it earlier, like this is the first time he’s seeing it.

“I think you’re going to need stitches,” he says finally. He won’t look at Bruce. “I can do a field job of stitching, and we’ll see how you are healing in the morning. If it gets worse, I’m taking you into SHIELD.”

Bruce tries to pull himself back together. He’s still too raw, stripped down and left open. He barely winces when Clint starts stitching him up. He doesn’t ask why a lab first aid kit will have a suture kit; he assumes it was Natasha or Clint’s paranoia.

Clint is careful, and Bruce watches the wound close. It’s still bleeding, but he doesn’t feel hazy or tired from the blood loss, just the bone deep ache he has when he comes back from changing into the Other Guy. It’s worse somehow, though, when he didn’t change. When he’s been himself for almost a week.

When Clint is done suturing, he wraps Bruce up in gauze and tape. He still won’t meet Bruce’s eyes. “You should get cleaned up,” he says, and his voice is soft and foreign. “Use some alcohol wipes on your arm do the stitches stay dry. I’m going to change and order pizza.” He takes off the gloves.

Bruce shakes his head. He doesn’t feel like eating. “I’m fine--”

“I think it’s a good night for a Stephen King marathon,” Clint says. His tone is flat. He won’t say I don’t think you should be alone, but Bruce can hear it. He’s not going to win the fight.

“Okay,” he whispers. “I’ll meet you in the TV room.”