As Clint is growing up, he gets mocked for both his marks. It's a small town, and most boys have the names of girls on their wrists; his wrist says "Phil Coulson," bold and black. That's something that happens, he learns eventually, as is having two marks. But the other mark is worse. No one else has seen or even heard of a mark like his second - twisted, blobby, and changing with the day. He hides them both under a scrap of fabric, and later, under a shooting glove.
When he finds himself face-to-face and barrel-to-arrowhead with a fed, he's pretty sure he's not gonna live to find out what either of his marks mean. But then the guy introduces himself as Phil Coulson, saying, "I'd like you to lower your weapon, please, Mr. Barton. I'd really hate to have to shoot you."
As it turns out, Phil Coulson is everything Clint needs, patient, competent, knowledgeable, and unashamedly enthusiastic about the things that make him happy, which include pancakes, geeky Captain America collectibles, and Clint. But mostly, he loves Clint, values his skills, takes care of him, and never mocks him for any reason.
He's got the odd fluid mark on his wrist too, ever-changing but always identical to Clint's. Clint sees it a number of times before he works up to asking Phil, "Do you know what it means? Our other mark?"
"We have a third," Phil tells him. "Another soulmate. I've been looking into how to contact them."
"Why's it...." Clint stumbles as he tries to frame the question. "...Not a name?"
Phil sighs as he looks at both their wrists, the shifting, unreadable mark. "There are several possible explanations, and a lot of theories, one of which is that our third has multiple personality disorder."
Clint's stunned that there's such a straightforward explanation. "Okay," he says. "That's interesting. I hope they're okay." He frowns. "Will they be able to read our marks? Can they find us?"
"I'm not sure," says Phil. "But there's no one on the registries looking for our names. It might be up to us."
Clint lays his head on Phil's shoulder. "If anyone can find them, it's you," he says.
When Clint sees Natasha through his scope, there's something about the fluidity of her personality, the weariness in her face, that makes him think she might be the one. So they bring her in, try their best to flush out all the programming, all the chemicals, everything the Red Room has done to her to erase her identity. But once she's clean, the words that slowly fade into charcoal grey on her wrist are "Bucky Barnes."
It breaks their hearts, a little for themselves, but mostly for her. She becomes an honorary third to them, in many ways. And her mark is one of the reasons Phil starts looking into reincarnation, resurrection, ways of cheating death. But it's never more important than finding their third.
When Clint's blinking back the colors around him that have replaced the blue of Loki's staff, it's Natasha that's sitting by his bedside.
She undoes the restraints on his wrists, and then braces herself. So he looks at his wrists.
Phil's name is pale grey.
"No," he says. "Is Loki still messing with me?"
"He's out," Natasha tells him. "You're clear. I'm sorry, Clint. It's true."
"No," he says again.
It's not possible. Phil's what he needs. Phil is everything. Phil's going to track down their third and help them too.
"We're going to take Loki down," Natasha tells him.
Clint breathes through it, staring at the marks on his wrist. "Yeah," he says at last. "Yeah, we are."
He throws himself into the fight without looking back.
Hours later, he's slumped sideways against a lamppost or something, absolutely done and lost and his damn back hurts from how he landed on the quiver. But he has no reason to want to move, to get up again at all. Phil is gone.
A man he's never seen before, but he maybe vaguely recognizes from some of Phil's files, crouches down in front of him. He looks small, tired, but warm, wearing only an ill-fitting pair of sweatpants, and he reaches out, offering his hand.
"Hi, I'm Bruce Banner," he says. "I know this probably isn't your day, what with Phil dying and everything, but I want to do what I can to help."
Clint's eyes zero in on him, sharp like an eagle, and he asks, "How do you know about Phil and me?" A little quick, a little angry, but he can't bring himself to care.
Bruce turns his hand slightly, twisting it until Clint can read his own name in black across his wrist, and Phil's, below it, in grey.
Clint looks down at his own wrist which he has been absently rubbing at with a thumb as if it aches, because really all of him aches, but the grey lines of "Phil Coulson" are the worst ache of all. He doesn't want to see it, but he takes off his shooting glove anyway, seeing the unwelcome sign that Phil is gone.
Below that mark, in clear black letters, is "Bruce Banner."
Clint still feels numb, but he closes his eyes, turns a sort of dead smile on the guy, and says, "All I want is for all of this not to have happened. To not be here and now."
Bruce isn't offended, quite the opposite, in fact. "I know the feeling," he says. "Come on, let's go get food, Tony's paying. Then we'll figure out how to deal with...." He waves his hand at the surroundings with his marked arm. "...All of this."
When they sit down to eat, Natasha sits on one side, and he's more able to take comfort from her, because she's a known quantity, because she knew Phil, she knew them as a couple. But Bruce, on his other side, eating tiredly and determinedly, he's a comfort, too. His life may be changed forever, but it's not entirely empty.
He shows Natasha his wrist, and she nods, unsurprised.
"Did you know?" he asks.
"I'd started to suspect," she tells him. "Nick was never that happy about having the Hulk on the roll for the Initiative. But Phil was fascinated with him, what he'd done and why. Then when he found out you'd been taken by Loki?" She frowns at him thoughtfully. "He pulled me off an op, told me where I needed to be. Bringing Banner in." She pats his leg where it's propped up on her chair. "I think, on some level, he knew."
Bruce seems indifferent to their whispered conversation, and Clint loves him a little bit for that, for not butting in just because the two of them have each other's names on their skin.
When they're done eating, Tony tells them they're all invited back to his place, showers, clean clothes, beds, anything they need. Clint can't think about the future right now. Can't think about sleeping on a bed with Phil conspicuously absent from it, a space where he'll never be again.
Everyone else gets up from the table, the siren song of showers and beds enough to get their exhausted feet moving. Bruce scoots closer to Clint, not touching him but still offering his presence.
"Listen," he tells Clint quietly. "As much as I appreciate Tony's offer... and I'm tempted to stay and see the facilities he's got... I'm a lot more comfortable being on the move, right now. So if you want to stay here, I'm up for that, I'll be around if you want me. But if you'd rather...."
Clint breathes out sharply between his teeth. "God, rather be anywhere but here right now, Banner. It's not just... not just Phil. I don't wanna see the looks on the faces at the people at SHIELD after what I did... what Loki made me do."
This time Bruce does reach out, just to squeeze Clint's wrist. Clint starts and flinches away; he's not ready for that, not ready to take comfort in anyone else. Bruce draws back, looking apologetic.
"Then we'll go," he says. "We'll go to Stark's place with the others, get what we need to run, then we'll run. I'll just be there to watch your back."
"Yeah," says Clint. "I can do that."
They end up going with the rest to see Loki returned to Asgard in chains, because Natasha thinks Clint needs to see it, and maybe she isn't wrong. So he and Bruce sit on opposite sides in the backseat of the SHIELD car that Natasha's acquired, aware of each other but not touching. They witness the event, looking at Loki with hard eyes, the alien force who decided to use them as weapons. It doesn't make them stand any easier, but Natasha was right.
Once they're able to tear their eyes away, they say their goodbyes to the other Avengers. Natasha hugs Clint tight and gives Bruce a pat on the shoulder.
"Hell of a time to walk into that idiot's life," she comments, and hands him a slip of paper. "Call if you need anything. Call if he needs anything. And please...." She sighs a little, quietly. "Take care of him."
"I'll do what I can," he tells her. "Whatever he'll let me do."
Natasha inclines her head, conceding the point. Then the two of them slip quietly into the rush and chaos that is New York City.
Everything's different now.
It's all Clint can think as they sit on a train south to Trenton, and he rubs at his wrist again through his sleeve. One name faded to grey, and another flattened out and made bold and black. Bruce Banner.
It isn't going to make things easy. Far from it. He can hardly look at the man beside him. No one can replace Phil.
"Guess I'm not quite maybe what you had in mind," he murmurs to the man sitting patiently in the seat beside him. "'Specially now."
"I didn't think I deserved anyone," Bruce says in a voice that's low but clear. He looks Clint in the eye. "I wasn't going to seek you out. But Natasha told me your name on the way to the Helicarrier, and then Phil's name, on my wrist, changed... I couldn't just leave you, not if I could help."
Clint just shrugs. He can't give any reassurance, not just now. "Thanks," is something he can say. "Dunno if I... I prob'ly shouldn't be alone right now, so there's that. You're here."
"Yeah," Bruce says gently. "Yeah, I am."
They sit in comfortable, if solemn, silence for the rest of the trip, neither able to do more than watch the scenery and process everthing that's happened since Loki showed his ugly head on Earth.
The line ends in west Trenton, and they hitchhike their way through the outskirts of north Philadephia and out to Allentown, and - it's the little things that make Clint break down, eventually. He's humming a Billy Joel song, and they pass a roadside strawberry stand, and suddenly everything's too much, everything reminds him of who Phil was when he wasn't being Agent Coulson, his laughter, his unironic enthusiasm for the most normal of pleasant things, simple food and traveling, taking a breath in between missions, a kiss on the cheek when they were stopped at a red light.
Bruce sees, he knows, and soon he bundles Clint into a motel room, and as soon as the door closes, Clint's gulping for breath, drowning in the memories, the good, good memories, and all the little good things that never will be again.
Bruce carefully guides him to the bed, wraps him up in the warm, clean, ugly blankets, careful not to touch him more than necessary, but as he's standing up to step away, Clint reaches out, clutches at his arms with needy desperation. Bruce, after a frozen, uncertain moment, climbs in with him, arms encirling the archer. "I'm so sorry," he whispers. "I'm so sorry I never got a chance to meet him."
Clint tries to tell Bruce what he's lost, and watching those pained brown eyes, he realizes it's what they've both lost. This man would have loved Phil. Clint struggles to get words out, tries to explain Phil, how incredible he was, how he made everything better, but he's choking on sobs, nearly screaming when some of the losses hit him, Phil's kindness, his competence... his smile. Bruce just keeps rubbing his back, keeps whispering kind, meaningless words, keeps being there.
Clint cries himself to sleep, and when he wakes up, Bruce is still there.
It's not enough, but it's what he has, and he's grateful for it.
Three days later, they're outside Chicago, in one of Clint's oldest safehouses. Clint's still barely present, but with Bruce by his side, at least he eats and sleeps and occasionally thinks about the future - in a general "there will be one" kind of way, at least. So they've been sleeping in one bed, but haven't gotten much more intimate than that.
"Running away's kind of my specialty," Bruce is saying. "I've been running away from one thing or another for as long as I can remember."
Clint laughs humorlessly. "Same was true for me, for a long time. I guess when you run to something, instead of away from something else, that's when you know you have a home."
Bruce makes a considering noise, and his hand moves a little where it's resting on Clint's shoulder, pulling him closer in the most undemanding way possible. "I've never particularly liked the idea of home," he says. "Every place has its good and its bad."
Clint turns his head, looking at Bruce. "That's pretty much how I used to feel, until I met Phil. Home isn't a place."
There's a moment of understanding between them, a moment of deep, bittersweet longing. Bruce leans forward to press a gentle kiss to Clint's lips.
Clint wants this, he really does, but it twists up his gut, makes him tense and shiver with nausea.
"I'm sorry," he says, pulling away. "I'm so sorry. I'm supposed to be yours, your name's on me, but I'm broken."
"No," Bruce counters, no disappointment showing on his face. "I shouldn't have pushed. You're not broken. You're grieving. And you're exactly what I need right now. There's no better way I've found to take my mind off of my own problems than to help someone else. You're perfect for me because you need me. You're perfect because you understand."
"Yeah," Clint says with an edge of dark laughter. "Yeah, I do. Between the two of us, we nearly made the Helicarrier fall out of the sky. I get why you want to go somewhere else, do something else, anything else to keep busy."
They're silent for a moment, just processing what they've left behind, the destruction, sharing the understanding of how much it could weigh a person down.
"If you're ready," Bruce says into that silence, "we could find some work for you to do, take your mind off things a little more."
"Yeah," Clint answers, nodding. "Yeah, might be time I did that."
They find a little farm for sale the next day, just a small house, pond, a couple fields, and a tiny barn that's hardly more than a shed. It's out in the middle of nowhere, Wisconsin, and the stash they've been collecting from Clint's safehouses along the way is enough to make an offer.They pay in cash, skip some of the formalities, but no one involved seems to care all that much. They wear themselves ragged cleaning it up enough to sleep in, Clint fixing the roof and steps, Bruce checking over the wiring and fixing it up some. Both of them sweep and scrub and scrape until there's some semblance of clean.
The hot water heater, as it turns out, isn't working, so they both shiver their way through a shower, then curl up together in blankets by the fire (because thankfully, the chimney had checked out). They're too tired and too cold to resist the warmth of each other's bodies.
They curl against each other, numb with exhaustion. Clint lays limp in Bruce's arms and breathes in the smell of Bruce's still-slightly-damp curls and the woodsmoke of the fire.
This could become home, in time, he thinks.
The next morning marks five days since the Battle of New York.
Clint wakes, warm, achy and almost content. He curls into the solid presence of Bruce.
Bruce blinks awake, adorably confused, then he yawns deeply and resettles his arms around Clint, soothing the skin of his shoulders and arms with an absent touch.
Then he freezes, and his eyes go wide.
"What?" Clint asks him, instantly alert.
"What does your mark look like this morning?" Bruce asks carefully.
Clint is afraid to look, has no idea what Bruce has just seen on his own wrist. But he does look, hands shaking as he lifts the significant one out of the mess of blankets and sets it in front of his eyes. Phil Coulson. Bruce Banner. Both written clear, steady... and dark black.
Clint jerks back from it, completely terrified. "Shit." He spits the word, tumbling out of the blanket nest to stand in the morning light coming through the windows. "Shit," he says again. Then, "Bruce?" in a shaky voice.
"I see it too," Bruce says, getting up to stand next to Clint and examine the mark. He pinches himself, then Clint, for good measure. Then he shows his own wrist, which is the same. Two names, in stark black.
"Either there was something in the wood," Bruce says, gesturing to the hearth, "or Phil Coulson is alive."
"Shit. FUCK," Clint says with vigor, then he takes a breath and spits two more words. "Nick. FURY."
Bruce scrambles to get the emergency burner phone out of their bags. He turns it on and hands it to Clint without a word.
Clint swears a couple more times as he dials, trying to get his hands to stop shaking. Bruce doesn't know what to do with all of this yet, but he trusts Clint's reaction, waits to see how this unfolds. Clint puts the call on speakerphone as it rings, and doesn't even wait past the click as it stops to start yelling.
"Nick Fury, I swear to Thor, if you used Project Tahiti to bring Phil back...."
"I need the two of you back here," Fury responds calmly. "Need you doing your job as usual, Barton, and a way to contact Banner just in case. And I could use Phil Coulson around, too."
"No, you don't get to do that," Clint says, harsh and grim. "This is his life. This is his mind. It should be his choice, and you knew how he felt about the project."
"Yes, I did," Fury agrees. "And I decided I was willing to take my chances, ask forgiveness rather than permission. And Barton, I know you appreciate that kind of choice."
"And did you get your forgiveness?" Clint says, voice ice-cold.
Fury sighs. "He hasn't regained consciousness," he answers.
"Then when he wakes up? Have him call me," Clint says. "And we can have a chat about whether to walk out on you and SHIELD for good. If he's still himself," Clint growls, and ends the call.
Bruce watches him with huge, concerned eyes for a long, silent moment. Then he shifts to stir up the fire. "Tell me what you know about Project Tahiti," he says.
It's torture to go over it all again, all the things that he'd heard out of Phil's mouth as they lay in bed together, Phil unable to sleep because of what he'd seen, because of what the subjects of the project had gone through, what they'd turned into as the alien drug ate away at their minds. Phil hadn't told him everything classified, but the things that kept him up at night? Those he'd share.
Bruce grips Clint's shoulders hard and asks him to focus on the details, keeps him from getting lost in the enormity of what's happened, what might be happening to Phil. The details Clint knows are few and far between, but all of them obviously mean something to Bruce, the man who studied the Serum for years, and then studied the Hulk for even longer. Pushing the limits of the human body is what he does.
Clint's drained by the time they finish - it's ten in the morning and already it feels like it's been the longest day of his life. He's numb again, can't even form a proper thought about moving or deciding anything, so Bruce tugs him back to the blanket pile in front of the now-blazing fire, wraps him up tight and just holds him for a while. It doesn't touch the cold dread in his belly, but it does help him hold that knot of ice without shattering. Bruce is all over shivers, trying to hold back the Hulk after everything he's learned, but it doesn't scare Clint. It just makes him comforted that Bruce understands the enormous wrongness of what Nick Fury's done.
Clint already doesn't know what he'd do without Bruce.
Bruce keeps Clint fed, tinkers with the hot water heater until it works again, wipes down the windows. They had been planning to tackle the barn today, but all Clint wants to do is lean against the ancient sofa and stare at the little black rectangle that is their phone. Bruce stays close.
When it gets to be late afternoon and Clint still hasn't done much except stare, Bruce sits down beside him. "Maybe we should go back," he says.
"No," Clint says, and the word is full of pain. He wants to, he really does, but... "That's exactly what Fury wants. I will not give that bastard anything."
"Okay," says Bruce. "Then put that in your pocket, and come help me sweep out the barn."
Clint does as he's told, follows Bruce out to the little barn, and they begin the rough work of getting it clean and seeing what equipment has been left behind to rust in the abandoned place. It gets him tired enough to sleep, at least, even if his dreams are worse than ever, even if that night is the first since Phil died that he wakes up screaming Phil's name.
They're both breathing hard and tense as Clint comes to awareness after that, Bruce's arms tight around him and his anger so close to the surface that Clint can feel it thrumming. Dawn's just barely lightening the sky and Clint thinks they're probably both done with sleeping. And Bruce... he needs more of an outlet than the cleaning they've been doing.
The barn had contained an ancient push-plow, blunt and inefficient, and Clint has the spark of an idea. "Hey, Bruce," he says, rubbing his mate's arm. "You're runnin' a little hot, there. You think Hulk might be interested in comin' out to play?"
Bruce turns wary eyes on Clint. "You're serious, aren't you?" he says.
"Yeah, I am."
Bruce tucks his head into the hollow of Clint's shoulder while he thinks. "There's no one around here except you," he admits. "You'd be careful? I don't want to live to see both my marks go grey so soon after I found out who you both are."
"Yeah, I will be. I worked with him, remember? He's an okay guy to fight next to, when you let 'im out on purpose."
Bruce's mood is still tense and ragged, holding back the bone-deep anger at what they've learned, and he clings to Clint as he considers his options. He obviously doesn't like either of them, but not choosing would be worse.
"Okay," he says finally. "Let's try it."
Bruce strips down naked and walks out into the middle of their fields, and he lets the anger overtake him.
Hulk is snorting mad. He punches the ground, and his eyes dart around at the empty fields, seeing nothing he can fight and yelling loud and furious because of it. Clint waits a moment, until it feels like Hulk has gotten his bearings, and then he steps out from inside the barn.
"Hey, Jade Jaws," he says, approaching slowly, keeping both his hands visible. "Kinda unhappy, huh?"
"Mates hurt," Hulk complains. He sniffs the air. "Clint okay?" he asks plaintively.
"Yeah, I'm just sad and angry," Clint says.
"Yes," Hulk says, nodding, and then he snorts again. "Want to see Phil."
A wave of longing overcomes Clint, and his knees go weak, but one huge, green hand comes up to support him. "Me too, big guy," Clint says, voice thick. "Me too." He leans against that great, solid green arm for a moment while he recovers his voice. He wants to be able to tell the Hulk that they'll go see their lost mate; instead he sighs. "But the best way to hurt the person who hurt him is to stay away, at least for right now."
"Want smash," Hulk counters.
"Yeah, I bet," Clint says. "I'd like to punch him in the jaw, I know that much. I have an idea, though. Want to help me break the ground here into lots of little pieces?"
Hulk huffs. "Not as good."
"But maybe it's something, huh?"
Hulk looks at him for a moment. "Maybe," he echoes.
Hulk puts his back into tearing up the fields, and although the rows may not be especially straight, the soil is well broken.
It is something to look out on, which Clint does, from the top of the barn. This farm may not be everything they want out of life, but it's theirs, and it's something.
Clint aches with the need for Phil to be here to see it. He checks his mark often, reassuring himself that it's still inky black.
Hulk gets tired in time, and shrinks back to Bruce, a Bruce who's limp and softened, not so much relaxed as emptied out. But it's still better than before.
It's Clint who whispers reassurances in Bruce's ear that night in front of their fire. "We'll get Phil back," he whispers fiercely into the brown curls. "We'll do whatever it takes. You'll meet our Phil."
"I might be smart," Bruce says wretchedly. "I might know biochemistry, the Serum, dozens of methods for cell protection and repair. But I didn't know enough to fix me, after the accident that should have killed me, and didn't."
"You're not broken," Clint insists to Bruce, returning those words with equal determination. "You're you, and you're the Hulk, and I kinda think you always have been. Least, my mark for you was always a little... fluid. Phil said it'd probably settle once our third introduced themselves, if it was a multiple personality deal. An' it did. So you've seen what it's like now, but before... ever since I can remember... it's never been a name. Not even before your experiments. So after the Serum? You're just... more you, maybe. Versatile."
Bruce's eyes have gone bright and fascinated, and he asks every question he can think of about his mark on Clint's arm, how it changed and when. Clint answers what he can; there are a lot of bitter memories in his head about the indecipherable strangeness of it, but right now he's bringing out everything he's ever hoped about that mark, every reason he loves it now.
They keep on that distracting topic long into the night, neither of them wanting to sleep, really, but eventually dozing off, Bruce in the middle of one long, complex, slightly disjointed scientific sentence, and Clint, who'd no longer been truly following, a moment later.
It's in the middle of cooking lunch the next day that the phone rings, and Clint drops a colander full of tomatoes into the sink, staring blindly at the air in terror for a moment before he scrambles to dry his hands and answer the phone. Bruce very carefully puts down the knife he's holding and wipes his own hands, going to sit next to Clint where he's dived into the corner of the ancient, musty couch.
"Hello?" Clint says, wavering, into the phone. His lips form the shape of the name "Phil" but no sound escapes to go with it. Bruce offers his hand and Clint dives for it, half-leaning on Bruce now, squeezing his hand hard.
"Clint," says a blessedly familiar voice from the phone. Clint doesn't let his tension go at all. He listens harder. "I was worried when I woke up in medical and you weren't here. Where are you?"
"Safe. With our third," Clint manages. "Fuck, it's good to hear your voice. I'm still... still tryin' to wrap my head around the fact that you're not dead. Wish I could touch you. But I...." Clint chokes on the excuses; they suddenly seem entirely insufficient. Phil woke up in medical without him. No reason's good enough for that.
Bruce lifts a hand to cover Clint's shaking one, making sure the phone stays right where it needs to be. But he leans in close, not sure how private the conversation is but needing to hear, needing to take care of his mates.
"You thought I was dead?" Phil's saying, voice shocked into flatness.
"You were dead." Clint's voice breaks as he forces the words out. "Did Fury tell you? You died, Phil. Our marks were grey. For five. Days." His rhythm is hard and angry, but his tone flat with an edge of despair. "I couldn't stay there. But if I'd known that one-eyed bastard would go this far? I would've stayed. Stopped him." His voice gains the heavy richness of grief. "Are you - do you remember? Are you still...."
There's a long silence on the other side of the phone, and Clint's curled closely enough to Bruce that the scientist can hear over the phone as Phil takes a deep, unsteady breath.
"I'm sorry, Clint. I'm so sorry. I didn't know," Phil breathes. "I never wanted to leave you behind."
Clint ignores that for the moment. He'd started grieving, and this is worse. So much better, and so much worse. "How much did he tell you?"
"Nick told me that he needed to erase parts of my memory as part of the procedure that saved me," Phil says evenly and clearly, but Clint, from long practice, can hear the fear it hides. "He didn't tell me I'd been dead. He told me that he'd leave it up to you how much to tell me. That you know the risks involved."
"I do," Clint says, his face twisting into lines of pain.
"I'd like to know what I'm facing," Phil states, and it's a calm, measured sentence, but to Clint it reads as a deadly serious demand, the same voice he uses to ask how long they have until the world ends.
"It could... Phil," Clint says. "Everything you are. It could all just... slip away. I don't want to have to lose you again." Those words are ripped out of Clint, voice gone harsh and pained.
"We're going to do everything we can to make sure that doesn't happen," Bruce finally interrupts, in a voice that's quiet, but deep with determination. He rubs Clint's shoulder and presses his cheek to Clint's for a moment before he takes the phone and puts the call on speaker. "We're going to work until we figure this out."
"Bruce Banner," Phil says over the phone, calmer. Glad to have something else to focus on. "It's good to talk to you, finally. I wish the circumstances were better. And I don't have much idea what I'm dealing with here, but... I know I'm glad to have your mind on our side."
"I'm flattered," says Bruce, "and I'll give it everything I have. But you have to understand that a whole SHIELD science team was working on this project, on making it safe, for years, and we have weeks to do better."
"We should get started, then," Phil says. "Do you have a facility in mind? Are you willing to come here?"
"Not there," Clint interrupts.
Bruce sighs. "I can work in a lot of different conditions, but I'd like it if we had the same kind of facilities as the people on the original project."
"I don't trust SHIELD," Clint says, voice thick with anger.
"We do have another option," Bruce reminds him. "Stark Tower."
They call Tony Stark next, and it turns out that the guy's more than happy to help with anything that will get his new favorite science buddy back under his roof. Between Iron Man, Jarvis, one high level agent and one Hulk, they have contingency plans upon contingency plans for getting Phil out - which is probably why, when they knock on Fury's door mad as hell, he lets them do what they want.
Clint's probably been squeezing Bruce's hand a little too tightly in the car on the way over, but neither of them really cares. He doesn't let himself feel the shock of seeing Phil alive again after all that's happened - he just makes sure to keep an eye out for anyone trying to stop them as they help him into a wheelchair and Bruce wheels him through the base.
Tony's brought one of his limos, which he doesn't usually take out if he's going to be the one driving, but, as he said when selecting it, "It's comfy and well-armored, which, well, if were gonna stage a daring rescue of an injured Agent, it's what we'll need."
They get Phil settled into the back, Tony closes the door on the three of them, and then there's a moment where they all just look at each other, taking in what's just happened, where they are. Bruce's warm eyes survey his newfound second soulmate and the way Clint's staring at him as though the sight of Phil is water and he's been dying of thirst.
Phil looks back at Clint with such joy, such fondness, and their fingers tangle together, as they always have, as they always should.
The engine starts, and the limo moves away from the curb, and Phil's mouth quirks. "Huh. So one of the richest, most famous men in the world is driving us around in his own limo?"
"Really not where my attention's at right now, Phil," Clint replies, hopelessly lost in looking at Phil.
"That's understandable," Bruce murmurs, just watching them, not wanting to disturb their reunion. "It's been a long road."
"Yeah it has," Clint agrees. He's still clinging to Phil's hand. "So glad you're here." Then he raises his eyes to Bruce, in awe. "So glad you're both here. Wouldn't have made it here without you, Bruce."
Phil turns to him too, grey-blue eyes curious and grateful as he takes in the face of their third. "Thank you, Bruce," he says. "For being there for Clint when I couldn't be." He holds out an arm welcomingly in Bruce's direction
Bruce finally has to join them in their moment of triumph, settling himself into the offered space by Phil's side and taking Clint's other hand, letting the warmth of their happiness suffuse him. They're together, and they're well on their way to safety. It's a good day.
They enjoy the peace while it lasts, even as they work feverishly to keep it.
Bruce has been working on the problem for a week or so now, and everything he tries just seems to accelerate the changes that the alien chemicals are making in Phil's brain. And they've started to run out of time.
Clint finds him one night, when he goes out to the kitchen of the apartment for a glass of water at 3 AM, and hears a scratching noise. He sticks his head into the living room, and sees Phil in a daze, knife in hand and staring intently at the plaster as he moves to carve shapes into it, strange, alien, seemingly meaningless shapes. Clint's stomach drops, suddenly in freefall, and his limbs feel as if they're no longer quite attached to him. All he can do is look - the only part of him that's behaving itself is his eyes, and they're showing him things he's been dreading since the first mark on his wrist returned to black.
He's losing Phil.
This was how they all started, this was what Phil had described to him in hushed tones in the dark of the night, how every one of the patients in the Tahiti Project had, slowly but surely, begun to fall apart.
Clint can't move. He feels hair prick up all over him, his head and neck and arms, like he's a cat trying to scare away the shadows. The knife scratches away; Phil doesn't notice him. Clint can count on one hand the number of times he's been able to sneak up on Phil, and they all had meant something was seriously wrong.
Clint finally makes himself shuffle closer, makes himself watch what's happening to Phil. His hands are as strong and sturdy as they've always been, his face and body familiar and his. He's just... lost.
Clint doesn't want to startle him, is afraid to draw him out of his fugue, so he just watches, coming to lean against the wall a little way away from where Phil's carving. On some level it's meditative, would be peaceful to watch if it weren't so wrong. Clint watches for an hour, maybe more, a sniper keeping eyes on his target.
Eventually Phil blinks, and Clint can feel awareness return to his eyes. Phil looks at the wall, the knife in his hand, Clint, and his eyes are wide and sorrowful and far too understanding, far too accepting.
"This isn't the end," Clint tells him. "We've got time."
"You're right," Phil says, but he hasn't moved from his position, frozen in front of the scarred wall.
Clint approaches, and with slow, gentle motions, he takes the knife out of Phil's hand and tosses it onto a side table. Then he slides a hand up Phil's chest to his shoulder, squeezing it tight. "We're gonna do this."
Phil just quietly curls into him, taking comfort in the bulk and heat of Clint's body, and Clint's heart breaks - he realizes he's never seen Phil quite this scared, not for himself.
He rubs Phil's back, holding him close, and praying to every god he can think of (except one - except the one who made all this pain necessary, the one who stabbed Phil through the heart) that they'll be able to solve this, and soon.
Another week goes by, and it doesn't get better.
Every time Clint ventures into the lab, Bruce has deeper circles under his eyes, and he's either running a test or worrying at his hair with clawed hands, as if he can massage the answers out of his brain with sheer force.
Clint sighs. He knows the frustration, but he can't stand to see Bruce like this, can't stand to see both his soulmates falling apart in front of him. He goes to Bruce when it's getting late and pulls him away from the work, despite his protests. He shushes and kisses until the scientist falls quiet and follows.
Today Bruce keeps muttering, even as he lets himself be led away. "He's getting worse. And I'm afraid I'm contributing to that, more than anything else. From the records, none of the others progressed this fast. There's something about having an awareness of the process... knowing what it's leading to and how it progresses... that makes it worse." He rubs at his eyes with the hand that Clint isn't using to drag him along. "I shouldn't be here. This isn't...." He sighs, deep and sorrowful. "I ruin everything I touch, okay? I'm not good for him. I'm not good for you. I'm not good for anyone."
Clint turns when he hears that, shushing Bruce again, pulling him close. "Don't even think that. You've been great, you helped me survive when Phil was dead, okay? And I need you. I need you here. You're Phil's best chance. You've done so much. None of this is your fault." Clint's voice goes dark and dangerous. "This is all on Nick. Bringing back Project Tahiti? Should never have happened." He pets Bruce's hair. "You're the best thing that could've happened to us, okay?" he tells Bruce, who has started shivering. "Never doubt that."
Bruce leans into him, lightly, hesitantly, and his voice breaks as he speaks. "I don't want to be the reason why you lose him any sooner than you have to."
"It's not about that," Clint insists. "Phil died, okay? Anything I get after that is a miracle." Clint turns to kiss Bruce on the lips. "And you? You're a miracle. Everything you do for me." He pulls Bruce in farther, kissing him more deeply now. Pressing his tongue into Bruce's mouth and sweetly, determinedly, making Bruce's body simultaneously relax and thrill, making his joints loosen and his blood move.
"You're so beautiful," Bruce tells him when they pull apart. "I don't know how to say no to you. But I don't know how I'll survive if this doesn't work...." He presses his face into Clint's neck. "...And I was part of it."
"Shhh, shh," Clint says again, stroking his hair and pressing his cheek against the scientists temple. "That's not how it is. This was always gonna happen. All you're doing is making sure he's got the best chance. An' that's all I want. Time, we had. More time than anyone in our line of work has any right to expect. 'Kay, Bruce? You're not takin' him away from me. Loki did that; he did it for good. All you're doin' is tryin' your best to give him back. An' that's enough of a miracle for me."
Bruce quietly shakes, gasping silent sobs into Clint's shoulder. Clint leads him the rest of the way to their bed, the bed where Phil lies sprawled and asleep, face soft and easy. Clint climbs in beside him, then pulls Bruce in after, wrapping him up tight in his arms and leting him cry away his exhaustion and stress.
Sandwiched between his sleeping soulmates, it's easy for Clint to feel lucky, to feel blessed, to feel loved. But it's not easy for him to sleep. He watches them both, wishing he could make this easier for the both of them.
There's one last thing Bruce wants to try.
Phil has become obsessive, nearly violent, and if this doesn't work, the best they'll be able to do for him is try and keep him calm. Bruce has made that clear, but Clint can't quite help but hope that this will be their cure, that everything will work. Even though his early life taught him that he doesn't often get what he wants, he has so much of what he wants now. And he wants to keep it all.
So Clint watches, he watches intently as Bruce injects the formula into Phil's arm, then tapes a cotton ball over the pinprick before letting the usually competent agent return to scratching incomprehensible patterns into the walls of the lab.
He watches as Phil continues carving... and doesn't stop.
"Phil," Bruce tries. "Why do you need to carve these things? Why is it so important?"
Phil doesn't look away from the wall. "I need to figure this out. I need to know."
Bruce sighs, and he looks at Clint despairingly. "I'm sorry," he says.
Clint bites his lip, face crumpling.
They only humor him because it makes him more peaceful. If they keep him away from his carving, he fights. They don't want to see him distressed, not when they might have so little time left - some of the symptoms of the other subjects were worse. So they both stay, watch over him, try to keep him calm.
It's when Bruce starts staring at the images with a similar glazed look of concentration that Clint starts to panic. He goes to his second soulmate, shakes his arm just a little. "Bruce?" he asks, worry coloring his tone.
"Hey," Bruce says, immediately turning to him, frowning when he sees the archer's expression. "What's wrong?"
Clint closes his eyes, leaning into Bruce just a bit. "Saw you staring and got a little afraid you were getting lost too, in whatever snare's got his mind."
"I don't think so," Bruce answers carefully, "but I am starting to see patterns. It's possiple that I could help him do... whatever it is he feels compelled to do."
Clint slides his arms around Bruce, regarding him warily. "Well, don't get too far down the rabbit hole, okay? I'm gonna need you."
"I'll be careful," says Bruce, kissing Clint soft and sweet. "I promise."
"Okay," Clint agrees, but he's still very much afraid. Bruce squeezes his hand, even leans down to kiss it, before he pulls away to get started.
"Jarvis, you've got caps of all these configurations, right? Can you transfer them all to holographic wireframe slides, please?"
"Of course, Doctor Banner. Can you tell me what sort of information you're looking for?"
"I want to stack similar but varying slides, see in what ways they vary and in what ways they don't. I think there's something there."
Bruce begins to sort through the slides with Jarvis's help, and when Phil catches sight of them, he drops his knife and walks towards them with purpose. He grabs one and starts continuing the pattern with strokes of his thumbnail where he'd had to stop on the original because he'd reached the edge of the wall. Jarvis updates the file accordingly.
"Make me a realtime updating copy of that, J?" is Bruce's only response, and he continues juggling the files. But he spares a moment for Clint when he realizes the archer is staring, staring at a complex and mysterious beast of a puzzle that seems like it might be eating both his soulmates alive.
"I'm okay," Bruce reassures Clint. "If this was somehow contagious without the Guest Host's blood as an intermediary, it would have happened to Phil years ago, when he was still in charge of the project."
"Okay," Clint agrees. "It's just... creepy, you know?"
"I understand," Bruce nods. "But... trust me to know when I'm about to lose myself? I'm used to keeping track."
That makes Clint smile, at least a little bit. "Always," he agrees.
It's a couple of hours later, and Clint's gone into the adjacent lounge area for coffee and hasn't come back; Bruce hopes he's getting some rest.
Phil has added onto the edges of almost every one of the files now, and there are a lot more correlations between different ones than there were at the beginning. He's started sorting them now too, stacking them together and peering at them.
There are so many places where the circles line up, but nothing else does.
Bruce tilts his head, watching Phil stack and unstack them, trying to find what's missing, getting agitated again when he hasn't been for so long. Bruce decides to reach out, try something.
He separates the layers into a spaced stack, twisting it, and making columns that connect the circles on each layer.
Phil's eyes widen, and he grabs the new configuration of holograms, turning it around and staring at it before he starts shuffling the layers again, but this time with less frustration and more purpose. Bruce watches carefully. There's something different about his energy now.
Phil makes a few final changes, and then he turns the thing again, looking at it from all angles.
"This is it. This is the shape. It's underground, I think. Tunnels, shafts, caverns. This is all of it." Phil settles, as he hasn't for days. He sits down, and he looks with satisfaction at the 3D projection in front of them, eyes almost present again. Bruce hardly dares to hope.
"Phil," he says, low and quiet. "Are you with us?"
Phil frowns, turning, seeing the strain and the sorrow on Bruce's face. Seeing all the patterns spread around them, the time that must have been spent.
"Yeah," he says, swallowing tightly. "I think it's over."
Bruce watches him carefully for a moment, and then he calls, "Clint?"
Clint comes running in from the next room, looking as though he might have dozed off on the sofa in the lounge, hair askew, panic on his face. "What's wrong, what happened?"
Phil turns towards him, approaching hesitantly. "I'm okay," he tells Clint.
Clint's eyes flit to Bruce.
"I didn't do anything except help him solve the puzzle," Bruce says. "But... it's possible... that's all he needed."
Clint looks back to Phil with wary wonder. "Is it true? Are you still here?"
Phil smiles. "I'm pretty sure," he says.
Clint can't bear to celebrate quite yet - he's had too many things torn away from him at the last moment. His eyes return to Bruce. "Is there any way to know?"
"I can test his blood," Bruce answers. "See if there's been any change in the alien processes we've been seeing."
"Okay," Clint says. "Let's do that."
Phil tries not to let the hurt show on his face when Clint won't reach for him yet, won't touch him.
The test takes an hour for Bruce and Jarvis to process, and Phil and Clint anxiously await the verdict. Phil's pretty sure he knows what it's going to say.
"This looks... actually really good," Bruce says, scanning the test results. "And you haven't felt any compulsions to carve, or anything?"
"Not that I've noticed," Phil says with dry humor which Clint utterly fails to appreciate. He scowls, then looks at Bruce.
Bruce nods, face turning brighter every moment. "I think we're in the clear."
"Are you sure?" Clint asks, eyes wide, piercing, heartbreakingly hopeful.
Bruce approaches both of them, looking at them each steadily and confidently in turn. "I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the endpoint was, the objective for those chains and chains of code. I wanted to stop them, but this - this might be better. You've decoded the message. That was all the codes needed to do - it's not trying to rewrite your brain anymore, it's dormant." Bruce smiles, squeezing Clint's hand. "I'm sure."
"We're safe." Clint grins. He swoops in to kiss Phil, a long-awaited welcome home, deep and hungry and happy. Phil responds in kind, needy and glad.
Clint could kiss Phil all day, but as he pulls away for breath, he sees the look on Bruce's face. There's satisfaction, but there's also wistfulness.
"What's that look about?" Clint asks Bruce, turning to him again, getting into his space, watching him with sharp, concerned eyes.
"It's nothing," Bruce denies, eyes lowered.
"No, it's not," Clint insists, gently prodding Bruce's chin up until he can look into the scientist's eyes.
Bruce's brows are drawn together in a frown, but his mouth is smiling sweetly as he puts a hand on Clint's neck. He kisses Clint on the mouth, softly, like a goodbye. "You don't really need me anymore," he tells Clint.
Clint's jaw tenses, and he clutches Bruce's shoulder. "Do you see this?" he asks Bruce sharply, showing the inside of his wrist, the two names written on it blackly. "Do you see it, Bruce?"
"Were your parents soulmates?" Bruce asks in a seeming non sequitur. But Clint feels, deep in his gut, exactly the kind of doubt that Bruce is implying.
"Yeah," he answers quietly. "Yeah, they were. An' that didn't work out so well for them. But we're not like them, okay?" He looks pleadingly at Bruce's brown eyes, willing him to see.
"Soulmates are meant to find each other," Bruce continues, not answering the question. "Meant to be there for each other, at least for a while. But some aren't meant to stay together. I'm too dangerous to stay, now that you don't need me anymore."
There's a disbelieving sickness roiling in Clint's gut. He just got his family back together, and safe. He hasn't even gotten to celebrate. "Bull. SHIT." Clint spits, not quite yelling in Bruce's face. "There is NO reason for you to leave us. We've been looking for you all our lives, okay, Bruce? You belong with us."
Bruce flinches away from the harsh tone of voice, flees down the hallway to the elevator. Clint starts after him, but Phil puts a hand on his arm.
Clint shakes it off. "Don't. I want you both here, okay, Phil? I need my mates next to me. I need to know you're both okay. Or do you think he's right? That we're better off without him?"
Phil's tired, but he lets the harsh words roll off his back, as he's so good at doing with Clint. He smiles just a little.
"No," says Phil. "I want him here too. But he needs to know that he's free to go. That he's not trapped. And I think you understand that better than you're willing to admit right now. When we met, would you have stayed if I insisted on you being by my side for the rest of our lives?"
Clint shifts self-consciously. "No," he's forced to admit.
"So we'll take care of each other, like we always have," Phil says gently, taking Clint's hands in his. "And we'll be here in case he needs us. Because we owe him a lot, but what we owe him most is respecting his choices."
"Okay," Clint says, or whines really. "But I hate it."
"I know," Phil says. "So do I."
They stand there for a couple of minutes, wrapped in each other's arms and reveling in the feeling of having each other back, of being safe. And then the elevator dings again, signaling someone arriving in the lab.
"So I got as far as the donut shop on the corner before I realized I really didn't want to run again," Bruce tells them sheepishly. "So... coffee and donuts?" He holds out the paper bag and drink carrier in his arms like a peace offering.
"Bruce," Clint says, with a whoosh as if he's deflating like a balloon. He's hesitant to get closer, afraid Bruce will spook again.
Phil just smiles, coming forward to relieve Bruce of his parcels. "Thank you," he tells the doctor, setting the food down on a bench. It's clear he's referring to more than the food... but he doesn't hesitate to dig in, sighing happily as he finds a black coffee and a chocolate glazed.
Soon the other two relax as well, and Clint's clinging to his own coffee as if it's his lifeline in a storm, and Bruce sips his own milky decaf as he picks at a bear claw. The food may be full of caffeine and sugar, but it's warm and filling, and soon they find themselves with drooping eyelids and heavy limbs.
Clint drags the other two to the apartment Tony gave them. He hasn't been carving compulsively or working on science tirelessly, so he takes care of them, dragging them both into the huge shower where Phil rests his chin against Bruce's shoulder, and soon they're leaning against each other as Clint washes them, making sure they're intact and safe with his sharp eyes on every part of their bodies as he spreads lather across their skins.
"We're all here," Clint whispers against their skins, into Phil's ear as he gives a last ruffle to the agent's hair as it's rinsed under the water. "We're all safe."
He's pleased when it's Bruce who answers. "Maybe we really are," he says, in a tone of contentedness tinged with wonder.
And when they all pile into the big soft bed, limbs entangled, Clint knows they're all right where they're meant to be.
A black SUV pulls up outside of a ramshackle little farmhouse in the middle of Wisconsin, and a man in a sweeping black leather trenchcoat steps out. He sighs deeply as he looks at the house, pond and two little fields, and then he steps up on the porch to knock on the door.
There's some shuffling inside, some low voices, and then Phil Coulson answers the door, clad in only someone else's purple pajama pants.
"Nick," he says. "Come in. We've been expecting you."
"Doesn't look like it," Fury counters, eyeing Phil's state of undress.
"Expecting you to show up doesn't mean actually wanting you here," says Clint from where he's perched cross-legged on the kitchen counter. He's got coffee in hand and he's wearing only a pair of cutoff jeans.
"Or being particularly concerned about what kind of impression we make," Bruce agrees.
At least he's wearing a damn shirt.
They don't offer him a drink. They don't ask why he's there. They just stare at him, all three of them, making it clear that he's intruding in their space.
"I need you back, Cheese," Nick starts.
"No," says Phil, "and before you go any further, I want to make it clear that banking on our friendship is no longer an option for you. You don't get to call me nicknames, you don't get to ask for favors. And you especially don't get to give me orders. You knew how I felt about the Tahiti Project. You used it on me anyway. You are not the friend I took you for, Director Fury."
Fury sighs, rubbing at his forehead. "Guess I deserve that," he says.
"You really do," Clint tells him, glaring daggers at the intruder.
"And if the world needs you?" Fury asks all three of them.
"I'm sure one of the other Avengers will let us know," Bruce tells him, stepping closer. "Now do you have anything actually relevant to say, before I kick you out of our house?"
Fury looks at him, eyebrow raised. "Dr. Banner, is that a bluff you really wanna make with me?"
Bruce smiles, cold and knowing and fierce. "If you think that's a bluff, you might want to think again. About how there's no one here for miles except my soulmates and the man who made them hurt. About how the Other Guy loves this place and would leap at the chance to defend it. About how the last time I let him out, the only thing he wanted to do was go and find you and pound you into a paste, and the only thing that stopped him was that Clint needed him here. I'm not worried about the Hulk hurting them. And I'm certainly not going to worry about whether he hurts you."
Fury nods, and if he's surprised, he doesn't show it. "Well," he says. "Maybe I burned my bridges here, but the world is gonna have the three of you if it needs you, and that's good enough."
"Out," is all Phil says.
The director turns to leave. Just as he's at the door, Bruce makes a growling sound deep in his throat. Nick doesn't react much, but it's enough that the three of them smile knowingly as he clambers back into his car and drives away.
Clint laughs darkly. "You're beautiful, Bruce," he says. His face goes a bit softer as he continues. "All of you."
"You know," Bruce replies, leaning against the counter and hunting for a mug, "I'm not sure if I believe that, but it's getting a lot less weird to hear."
"We're never going to lead safe lives," Phil tells him. "We don't need someone safe." He bumps his shoulder against Bruce's fondly. "We need someone dangerous."
"I guess I'm your man," Bruce says.
"Yeah," Clint agrees, grinning. "Yeah, you are."