"All that is gold does not glitter, From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king."
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
J. R. R. TolkienThe Broken Blade Part I: Not All Who Wander
Chapter 1: The Shadow of the Past
"What are you doing here?"
Bruce glanced up from his microscope where he'd been staring at the latest in a line of disappointing slides; they were on the wrong track with this last experiment and time was ticking. They needed to go back to serum 41b, the last truly successful point, and start again. He saw Betty stand up quickly, turn her clipboard over and walk purposefully to the door of the lab. Only one person would make Elizabeth Ross bite her lip … General Thaddeus E. "Thunderbolt" Ross, her father.
"How's my girl?" He was wearing his dress uniform, a chest full of medals and pins, arms held open for a hug. From what Betty had told Bruce, he half-expected a mountain of man, an imposing giant with silver hair who'd start issuing commands the second he stepped into the room. He reeked of authority, surveying the room with his dark brown eyes, missing nothing. But he was shorter than Bruce, maybe 5' 8" or so, a slim build, just the start of grey streaks around his temples, and the smile on his face at seeing his daughter was genuine. "I had a meeting at the Jet Propulsion Facility and thought I'd just drop in and take the chance you'd be free for dinner tonight. If you can pull yourself away from the lab that is."
"Of course I can. There's a little Chinese place that has good Moo Goo Gai Pan just around the corner. You'll love it." Betty went into his arms, her petite frame disappearing into a bear hug, ebony black curls pressed into his chest. "When do you want to go? I have a few things to finish up here and then I can be ready."
He stepped back and seemed to notice Bruce for the first time, but it was an act; Bruce's early warning system had been rippling up his spine, the tiny hairs on his neck tingling since the second the General had walked in the lab. One of the earliest survival lessons he'd learn was to recognize the signs, to pick up on body language. Betty's dad was happy to see her, but he had more on his agenda that just talking to his daughter, and Bruce didn't need to be a genius to know it had something to do with him.
The second day after Bruce had set foot on the California Institute of Technology campus for his post-doc research fellowship, Elizabeth Ross had simply walked in, announced she was his assistant and never left; she'd wanted to work with him after reading his dissertation and when she wanted something, Betty was a force of nature to be reckoned with. Within a week, Betty had installed herself not only in the lab, but in Bruce's life, showing up at his apartment door to drag him to a free concert, bringing peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches for long days in the lab – which Bruce ate even if he preferred grape jelly – and taking him down to the local pub. He owed her a lot; she was more than just an amazingly intelligent scientist, she was one of the best friends he'd ever had. He didn't have to tell her that he wasn't interested in more than that; halfway through the first semester, he showed up at their usual table in the pub and found her with a handsome NASA engineer, a surprise blind date. Both men were uncomfortable and no date was forthcoming, but her nonchalant attitude about his sexual preference was refreshing and made him love her a little bit more. She was the little sister he'd never had, the one who had escaped the terror of the house he was raised in.
Not that Betty didn't have her own problems. She was constantly running up against the old boy network at Caltech, fighting battles to be taken seriously as a scientist, not ogled as a body. And then there was her relationship with her father; she loved the man and he'd done his best to raise her after her mother died, but he was in the Army and often gone, leaving her first at boarding schools and then with friends as she got older. The fact that she had differing opinions about the role of the military was a source of tension between them. But lately, the fact that she was unmarried and had not provided Ross with grandbabies to sit on his knee and spoil rotten was the biggest issue; he wanted her to find a nice army guy and settled down. She wanted to find a cure for cancer. Both seemed to think the two things were mutually exclusive.
"Aren't you going to introduce me to your friend? Banner, is it?" Ross crossed over to him, holding out his hand. Despite Bruce's reluctance, he was backed into a corner, literally, between the table and the back wall. Removing his reading glasses and dropping them on the table, he wiped his hands on his old khakis and shook the General's hand.
"Dr. Bruce Banner, pleased to meet you, sir." His voice wavered a little.
"So, Bruce, what are your intentions towards my daughter?" Ross speared him with an intense look and Bruce felt like a smear on one of his slides, magnified under the stern gaze.
"Ah, um, Betty is my colleague and one of the most intelligent people I've ever known," Bruce stumbled but managed to answer.
"Dad." Betty used her warning voice, the one that sent undergrads running; it didn't faze Ross at all. She'd learned it from him.
"I have to determine if you're good enough for my little girl." There was the command voice; Bruce wanted to step back, but he didn't. He did, however, drop his eyes and blink, giving Ross the upper hand.
"Sir, I really don't …" He didn't know how to explain without getting into more trouble. Realizing he was wringing his hands, he tucked them into his pockets.
"Dad. Bruce and I are not dating and are never going to be dating. He's my friend, a brilliant scientist, but we are not getting married." Betty was unbowed by her father's directness, facing him down easily.
"Okay, okay. You can't blame me for trying. If you spend all your time in this lab, how are you going to meet anyone?" Ross held up a hand when Betty would have argued, forestalling the familiar argument. "So, how is the research going? Any progress on, what is it? Gamma radiation and muscle growth?"
"Cellular regeneration, dad, and it's good. We're close to a breakthrough," Betty responded, the standard answer they gave everyone. Almost two years into the fellowship, and they had very little in the way of results; they'd learned valuable information, but nothing concrete like a formula or a serum that was ready for testing.
"Better make that breakthrough," Ross said. "Isn't your money running out soon?"
"Oh, everything will be fine. The implications for cancer research are too important; there are any number of big pharm R & Ds that will pick us up." Betty sounded so sure, just like she always did. Bruce wished he could be that confident about the future. That confident about anything.
"I know you don't like to hear this, but remember, the U. S. Army has deep pockets." He dangled the option out there.
"And help you create super soldiers? No thanks." Betty shook her head, rejecting the idea. "Bruce agrees with me on this. We're saving people, not killing them."
"You'd rather be run out of business than work for me? You know how many medical advances came from military applications?" Ross's voice grew more strident; Bruce did step back then, wanting out of the brewing fight. Noticing the movement, Ross drew himself to a halt. "But that's for another day, eh? Let me treat you both to a good dinner. Bruce, you coming?"
Before he could form a response, Betty jumped in. "Bruce has to teach a class tonight, so it's just you and me."
"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir," he managed to get out, shooting Betty a grateful look.
"Next time." Clapping Bruce on the back, Ross said to Betty, "I'll pick you up in an hour?"
"Sure, Dad." As she walked him to the door, Ross turned a calculating look back on Bruce; the tension between Bruce's shoulder blades grew as he caught the eye of the General. There was more going on here, he'd bet anything.
Flashes of gold danced like lightning bugs across his vision; he waved them away with a meaty hand, and then dug his green fists into his temples where discomfort knifed into his brain. He roared as a golden bug buzzed by him, swatting at it.
"Big Guy? You hear me? Got a komodo heading for the school. Can you get it?"
Metal Head's voice was too loud, and his back teeth vibrated with the syllables; biting down, he ground his jaw back and forth as the flashing bugs grew in number. Swinging his arms, he tried to brush them off but they came back again and again.
"Kids. Save kids." He focused on that and jumped, covering two blocks in one step, another two in the second. The monster was a big lizard, like the one he'd watched a show about with Cupid; the TV man had called it a dragon with legs, and it had chased him down a road. Only this one was changed by men who stuck it full of needles; the Hulk hated those kinds of men, the same kinds who wanted to chain him down and hurt him. He felt bad for the dragon, but the kids in the playground were screaming and the yellow flashes were swirling around him, distracting him; jumping on the monster's back, he grabbed it by the neck and wrestled it over onto its back, holding it there. Then the bugs swarmed up his arms to his chest, and the Hulk roared, flinging the lizard away from him and frantically scratching at his skin, trying desperately to get them off. He could feel their little legs tapping their way across his body, a creepy-crawly feeling that gave him shivers. A swift pain – the lizard's teeth sinking into his shoulder – and he reacted blindly, catching the animal in one hand and ripping it free, breaking its neck easily and tossing it to the ground. The screams of the children reached him then, and he saw them, huddled together, staring at him. One little brown haired girl huddled inside the monkey bars, and she scuttled away from him when he raised his hand to help her; long deep gouges ran up his arm where he'd scratched himself and drops of blood fell to the ground.
"Another incoming. Python this time. Somebody maxed out their exotic animal budget for this show."
The next wave of gold was overwhelming, covering his body from head to toe, a cloud that tightened around him until he was screaming, flailing his arms. His hand banged into metal and he ripped it out of the ground, swinging at the suffocating mass; they started to sting, pricks that itched and throbbed.
"Whoa, Big Green! What's going on?"
He felt the metal in his hand connect with a hard surface with a loud clang and Metal Head let out a whoosh of air; the flashes flowed over the bar and gave it a golden glow.
"Hulk, can you hear me?"
They were on his face now, in his nose, crawling over his lips. He shut his eyes and mouth as he felt them fly into his ears. Brushes turn to punches as he tried to get the bugs off with his hands.
"Something's wrong! Get the kids out of here! Jarvis, tape and analyze the …"
The Hulk forced his eyes open in time to see Thunder God with the brown-haired girl in his arms, the other kids behind him. Metal Head was hovering near him; a long dent ran across his chest. Then he looked at his own hands, what was left of the monkey bars clenched like a weapon, and he cried out in frustration, the flashes and bugs gone in an instant as if they'd never been there.
"No. Hulk not hurt. Hulk need to …"
An excruciating agony filled his head, and he dropped the metal and cradled it with both hands, screaming in rage. He could see the fear in the children's eyes, the protective arms of the Thunder God, the way Metal Head moved between the Hulk and the kids. With an enormous leap, he bounded up, not caring what direction he was going, his only thought to get away, away from kids and people he could hurt. The cloud followed him, tendrils curling towards him; he ran, keeping ahead of it, long leaps eating up ground. The town gave way to houses that were further apart; he saw trees and headed for them, going until there was nothing but the tall boughs and the craggy rocks of a wilderness area. Landing on the edge of a particularly high ridge, he lost his balance, spinning his arms to balance, then tumbling down into the ravine below, smashing his head on the rocks as he went.
The sky was above him, blue and filled with white fluffy clouds, the kinds that looked like animals and ships; he lay on his back, sunk down into the loamy earth. It was soft, actually, and he was tired. The little guy was rising up inside of him; maybe little doc could stop the bugs and the flashes and the headache that was pounding inside his skull. What the Hulk needed was Cupid; Cupid would know what to do, would make him feel better. Little Doc could get Cupid. The change didn't come easily, as if his body was fighting his brain; as much as the Hulk wanted the little guy to fix things, Bruce had to rip his way out.
"It was only a matter of time, you know."
Bruce glanced over, disoriented and confused, a massive migraine coloring his sight; prickly hot skin, the least little movement made his stomach roil. The man had to be a figment of his imagination because he looked just like he did in Bruce's dreams, the same robust General who'd chased him throughout half the world. A little more paunch than when they'd first met, but still vibrant and self-assured, in his combat fatigues, one of his favorite cigars in his hand. He couldn't be real; how would Ross know where to find him here, in the middle of nowhere?
"No, I don't know." Words hurt; hell, just forming a coherent thought made his head pop open a few stitches. "But I imagine you're going to tell me what you think. You do love to hear yourself talk."
"Barton's smart mouth is rubbing off on you, Banner." Ross winced at that bad pun. "You're evolving. With everything you've been through lately, there have to be changes. Nannites. Cosmic radiation. Tesseract energy. Whatever that trickster did to you. Each alone might not have an effect, but together?" Ross smiled kindly at him, the father figure mask he always tried to wear, but Bruce knew better than to trust anything the man said.
"How do you know all that?" Bruce demanded. The General hit him where he knew it would hurt; Bruce had seen the data and a perfect storm was brewing at a molecular level, his worst nightmare coming true.
"You think I don't have my inside sources? Going to let you just wander around New York without watching you?" Ross laughed and tapped the end of his cigar, letting hot ash drop to the forest floor.
"I'm in control. Things are different now." Bruce rubbed his throbbing temples.
"Right. Because of your new found friends and your little boyfriend. The one you've poisoned now?" A long, slow smile, the teeth of a shark that sensed blood, Ross cut to the quick. "What does your precious science say about that?"
Spikes of tension, anger curling in his stomach, a rock hard knot of fear.
"Dying here." Clint coughed and blood ran down his chin. "Only one way. Make me … like you."
"You don't know what you're asking, what you'd be. It's a curse," Bruce argued.
"Not a curse. A gift. Want you. Forever." Clint's eyes drifted closed, his fingers loosened … he was fading fast and there was little time to think through the implications, only seconds to make the choice. Live without Clint or live with what he was about to do to Clint. Clint's chest rose and fell slowly … then one more time, hesitating too long between each breath; ripping open his cuff, Bruce bit into his own wrist, blood welling up, and tilted the liquid into Clint's slack mouth a few drops at a time, waiting to offer more until Clint convulsively swallowed, damning him to the same half-life Bruce led. Ultimate selfishness, Bruce thought, that's what it was, no act of salvation. He was condemning Clint even as he saved him.
"That wasn't real. It was just a dream." A moot point since Bruce had seen Clint's test results himself. Gabriel the Trickster had trapped them in a number of alternate universes, trying to teach them a lesson and keep them distracted; most of the others couldn't remember what they'd dreamed, but Bruce remembered all of them. In Clint's vampire world, Clint had almost died at Kingpin's hand and Bruce had to save him; what they hadn't known was the events of those universes had effects in the real world. Somehow, they had a bond now, a kind of psychic connection, as strange as it sounded, and Clint was showing signs of increased gamma radiation. None of it made logical sense, but the data didn't lie.
"You're getting more dangerous, Banner; this illusion of control you've sold to Stark and SHIELD and the others? We both know it's horseshit. Everyone else may have bought it, but not me. I've just been waiting for you to show your true colors." Ross stood and stretched, a habit he had after sitting for too long. "You should turn yourself in now, before you cause more damage. After that little display with the kids today, I'll have you soon anyway. If you come quietly, it will save your friends some damage, and I might let that archer of yours alone. Defy me and you can sit in the cell I've got ready and watch our scientists take your boyfriend apart to study."
The golden swarm darted out from behind a corpse of trees, lasering in on Bruce, circling then descending on every inch of exposed skin. He threw his head back and screamed, racked by bands of pressure in his head and a multitude of burning stings until the Other Guy had to battle his way back to the surface, the pain too much for Bruce to stand. Even before he was fully changed, the Hulk jumped up, pain driving him out of the clearing with a long leap. Over and over again, he tried to outrun the flashes but they always caught up and fell back on him; his voice grew hoarse from his roars as he fled. Finally, the Hulk, miles away from where he'd started, collapsed back into himself when the swarm disappeared, leaving a naked, shaking man who knew the time he'd dreaded had come.
After what seemed an eternity but was only a few minutes, Bruce was able to sit up and fumble in the inner pockets of Tony's miracle pants for his emergency stash: starkphone, credit cards, three different driver's licenses, and a full wallet of cash. Tony could track him via the phone, so he didn't have much time; he stood, shaky, and checked the GPS map before he typed in a quick message, erased it, typed a different one, then erased that one as well. Seconds ticked away before he reached his decision; one last time, he typed a message and hit send before he turned the phone over, popped out the battery and the SIM card and disengaged the tracker. Dead now, he left it on a broken tree and started walking away from the nearest habitation, aiming instead for a different destination. Following the sound of the water, he found the river and walked upstream, bare feet stepping into the icy coldness, crossing back and forth three times before he was satisfied his scent was gone, keeping under the leafy foliage to avoid detection from above. He was lucky; sunny and warm, it was a beautiful spring day, and he'd kept himself in shape running on the treadmill, doing yoga with Natasha, sparring with Tony and Steve … and he didn't need to think about that. What he needed was to get a move on so he could disappear.
The fight had been early in the morning, not long after school had started; now it was closing in on lunchtime. He came to a campground, skirted around some cabins, and found clothes hanging on a line, only slightly damp; he took jeans and a plaid shirt, leaving his miracle pants in the communal shower house trash can; he didn't trust that Tony couldn't track those too. A map by the camp store gave him directions and information, so he cut across country to the shared parking lot for an extended hiking trail. He picked out an older yellow Subaru covered with dirt, parking permit on the dash showing the owners weren't due to return for three more days, and drove out with the spare key that was under the wheel well and a half a tank of gas. Taking a random direction, turning when he felt like it, sticking to small two-lane back roads, he drove for a couple hours in the massive forest; the third town he came across was a place where five trailheads started and people came to go backpacking and spend day trips in the woods, a place perfect for his needs. Parking the car in an alley behind a convenience store, he liberated a muddy pair of work boots from the bed of a pickup and made a beeline to one of the three banks on the main street. There was just enough time before closing to hit all of them and make a cash withdrawal on the credit cards; he'd found that small town people understood cash deals, and his story about a woman selling a bass boat AND a brand new four wheeler to get rid of her ex-husband's toys was met with smiles and nods. After he exited the last one, he took out the limit at all the ATMS he could find in twenty minutes, building up a nice nest egg, then he tossed all the cards in a dumpster behind the town grocery store, crossed the street into the pharmacy, bought a backpack, socks, a pack of underwear, bottles of water, aspirin, protein bars, and a six pack of Mountain Dew. His last item of business was to catch the very handy town trolley that ran out to the trailheads; this time he chose a battered Honda and did a U-turn, heading right back in the direction he'd come from.
The total time in town was just under an hour, and he was surprised Tony hadn't found him yet; the instant that first transaction went through, Jarvis would pinpoint his location and with the suit, Tony could be there fast. Ross would be slower; the cards were secure ones with Stark tech, so Ross had to be telling the truth about inside help if he had access to that information. Still, as the miles ticked on the odometer, his worry about Ross slipped away; with enough cash now, Bruce was on familiar ground. He knew how to double back, set a random pattern, wander without purpose; he stopped and topped off, under $20 each time, picking the gas stations least likely to have security cameras. Keeping off the interstates, he stayed with rural America, places where street cams were virtually non-existent and paying cash wasn't all that unusual. He switched cars again outside of Cincinnati, a Ford F-50 overnighting in a cut rate airport shuttle lot, and kept going on a sugar and caffeine buzz that pushed back the ache in his head.
The sun sank beneath the horizon and the night rolled by, minutes turning to hours in the broad beams of the headlights. He had nothing but the scan button on the radio and his own thoughts chasing each other in his brain as he drove. The scientist in him played the numbers game, reinterpreting the results of the last tests over and over, slamming into the same walls, the lack of answers, too many variables unknown. Project a new hypothesis and reject it, the simple logical process was soothing; science didn't require emotional leaps. Facts were facts, a kind of lullaby for the anxiety and worry that simmered; he could pretend the dread wasn't there, but his grasp was tight on the wheel and his leg was jiggling on the floorboard. Faces of frightened children, the headache stretched behind his eyes, body a taut wire ready to snap, Tony's voice vibrating in his teeth, and Clint gone, off on a top secret mission, all too conveniently absent. Ross had come at him sideways, assuming Bruce hadn't dreamed all this up; the General was obstinate, sure he was right, and would never give up. He was counting on Bruce to run rather than put innocents at risk and threatening Clint was going for the jugular.
From the Other Guy, grumbles and uneasy shifting, anger tinted with a knot of fear, memories of the pain still fresh. A spike of longing for Cupid, the desire to turn around and smash Ross into a greasy pulp, disgust at himself because of a little girl's tears. Hunkered down, hiding, licking his wounds, the Other Guy huddled in. And, if he muted the science and the worry and the anger, Bruce could sense the adrenaline surge, controlled energy, masked concern … Clint as a low level background to all the rest of the currents. That connection comforted him, the knowledge of Clint's safety lulling the Other Guy and calming Bruce.
Drive-ins had cameras, so he grabbed a sandwich at the deli of a small mom & pop store in Tennessee about two in the afternoon; the nice couple chatted about the weather without a second glance at him. He bought a ball cap that said "I Bleed Big Orange," sunglasses, a large coffee, and three bottles of 5-hour Energy, turned west towards Memphis then south into Mississippi, dumping the truck for a non-descript Chrysler sedan. At some point as the sun dipped westward, the caffeine threw his system into overload, and he knew the crash was coming; no amount of energy drink was going to get him through the rebound migraine that was forming like a storm front across his brow. Time for him to stop was fast approaching, so he pointed the car east again and rolled into Anniston, Alabama just after 8 p.m. Leaving the car in the employee lot of the Piggly Wiggly, Bruce dragged himself and his backpack to the Victorian Inn, tapping lightly on number 207, the room facing a small copse of trees on the end of the row. The door cracked immediately, and he shut it quickly behind him, locking it and sliding the deadbolt.
"You took your time."
For the first time since the flashes began, Bruce let out the breath he was holding and looked at Clint. All the planning, the contingencies, and here they were, going on the run together. If he didn't feel like throwing up, he'd make some joke about the whole situation being romantic.
"I thought you were out of the country?" This had been Clint's first official mission as a fully reinstated SHIELD agent; abandoning it in the middle to go AWOL with him probably wasn't going to be a good move.
"Nope, we were in New Orleans." Clint was shirtless, clad only in a pair of low riding black jeans, his chest speckled with drops of water. Staring, Bruce took in the newly dyed spiky blonde hair Clint was drying and the small gold loop in Clint's left ear. A tattoo was on his left bicep, some sort of crest, and another, Celtic scrollwork, curled around the other arm like a cuff. "Someone should explain to the bad guys that if you want to send us off on wild goose chase, they've got make it plausible. Hard to believe the tip that H.Y.D.R.A. bosses were gathering in NOLA when all the hotels are booked for a dentist convention and the Modern Language Association. Not a room to be had anywhere. Coulson and I were already thinking about heading back when I got your text. He stayed to lay a false trail for me."
Bruce couldn't stop staring at the tattoos; he liked them. A lot. And the blonde hair made Clint look years younger. If his damn head wasn't about to explode, he'd appreciate the view a lot more.
"Like it?" Clint turned around, arms extended. There was a third tattoo, low on his back, just near his spine, peeking above the frayed belt loops: a Celtic cross. "Not sure if I'm going biker or townie. Thought I'd let you decide."
"I, uh …" Exhaustion crashed in on Bruce, riding along with a wave of nausea; fingers trembled and words became impossible. No sleep, too much caffeine, running too hard,– he'd held himself together for the last 36 hours and now, here with Clint, he finally gave in.
"Holy hell, Bruce." Clint's hands caught Bruce's shoulders and guided him down into one of the overstuffed chintz covered chairs. "Sit down. God, I can feel the pain. I'll be right back."
Gripping the arms of the chair with his hands, Bruce leaned against the cushioned back, closing his eyes and breathing in through his nose. The tiniest of flicker started on the back of his eyelid and then Clint was there, pressing something cool into his hand.
"Take these," Clint said, holding out the four pills. "Tylenol 3 with codeine. At double the dose, it might let you get to sleep before you burn it off."
He had little to lose, so he sat up and took them, swallowing with the cold iced water in the small glass. For a second he thought they weren't going to stay down, but then it passed and he sighed, leaning back again. Clint knelt down, unlaced Bruce's boots and pulled them off.
"Where did you get these nasty things?" He kept his voice soothing, talking as he took off the socks and found the right spot on the sole of Bruce's foot, finger pressing; the waves of agony lessened, flowing down from Bruce's head and out of his body.
"Pickup truck in Davis City, West Virginia." Clint's fingers were tender and yet strong as they circled and worked up Bruce's feet to his ankles, finding another spot, bringing a little more relief. "Tony should have found me there. I used the credit cards for cash advances."
"Tony ordered Jarvis to delay reporting any hit by an hour; he's convinced there's a mole in the system, and he's knee deep in ferreting him or her out. I'd pity the person when Tony finds 'em, but he'll have to wait until I'm done with the bastard first." Bruce was listening, but Clint's massage was relaxing his tense muscles. "Hank's got the video and data from yesterday; he and Carol are on the closed system in the bio lab working on it. No one else has access."
"He said he had someone on the inside," Bruce murmured. Clint's hands paused then he moved to Bruce's hands, pinching the skin in the valley between Bruce's thumb and first finger. The pain flared then receded like the tide rolling out, draining away.
"Who?" Deceptively calm, Clint continued to find the pressure points to release tension, but Bruce felt the spike of anger beneath. Last thing Bruce needed was to stir up the Other Guy and just the barest thought about the General make the Hulk raise his head and growl.
"Any way to convince you being around me right now isn't safe? I'd tell you to stay away, but you have some strange sort of death wish." Maybe it was the codeine or maybe the jumbled thoughts from the lack of sleep and the headache, but, whatever the reason, Bruce's filters were all turned off. "Haven't I already done enough?"
"Come on, Doc, I jump off buildings and fight giant lizards for a living; this is a cakewalk comparatively." Clint's hands were on Bruce's head now, working his way into his hair, skating along his temples to twin spots above his eyes that burned like hell when Clint pushed in; the hurt collapsed under those points, slowly dulling. It wasn't gone, but Bruce was floating above it now. "And, yeah, you've done enough for me, but I'm selfish enough to want more of you. Besides, I'm not that easy to get rid of."
"Clint," Bruce gently chided him. "You know what I mean."
With a little grin, Clint brushed a very light kiss across Bruce's lips. "Come on, Doc, let's get you and the Big Guy into bed. He's tired and feeling cuddly."
"I'm not sure I like you knowing what the Other Guy is feeling," Bruce pretended to complain, but he was having trouble staying awake.
"You love it, and you know it." Gently, Clint pulled him up and walked him to the bed, easing him down, undressing him and pulling up just the light sheet.
"Love you." Bruce sighed as the last tension bled away from his body. The lights went off one by one until the cool room was almost dark but for the glow from outside under the curtains. He heard Clint checking the door, going back into the bathroom, going over the settings on the jammer one last time. By the time Clint slipped into the bed, Bruce was almost gone, hovering just on the edge of a deep, medicated sleep.
"Love you too," Clint murmured, one hand slipping around Bruce's waist. "I'm glad you went through with the plan; I'd have found you anyway and you know it."
"Yeah. I know." He eased his head to the side, feeling muffled, as if it was filled with cotton, but he wanted to see Clint, assure the Other Guy that Clint was there. He raised a hand and traced the familiar plane of Clint's cheek. "Shouldn't have, but happy I did."
"We'll figure this out." Clint sounded so sure. Bruce wished he was that confident. "Get some rest."
Bruce let his heavy lids fall closed and sank down into the very soft mattress, slowing his brain; calculations wound to a stop and the Other Guy drifted off. Clint was just inches away, the cool breeze from the air conditioner drifted over Bruce, and the warm weight of Clint's arm tethered him.
"Who has someone on the inside?" Clint whispered.
"Thunderbolt. General Ross." The name fell into the dark, a threat for the morning; for now, Bruce and the Hulk were safe.