Fandoms: The Avengers, The Incredible Hulk
Characters/Relationships: Bruce Banner/Betty Ross, Clint Barton, General Thaddius “Thunderbolt” Ross (Natasha Romanov, Steve Rogers, Maria Hill)
Word count: 3,269
Content Advisory: violence
Disclaimer: Not mine, just playing.
A/N: In the same ‘verse as Worthy and The Captain and the Soldier
Summary: Where Bruce Banner didn’t experiment on himself, but a volunteer soldier named Clint Barton. And when things go wrong, he won’t let his mistake ruin another’s life.
On Ao3 or below the cut
“I’m going to do this myself,” Bruce said, turning the notes over to General Ross could see the projections. “We’re working at very low doses of gamma radiation, so Betty- er, Dr. Ross’ serum should be able to easily handle the absorption for the first test.”
General Ross looked down at the projections briefly, then transferred his gaze to Bruce with the vaguely disgusted expression he tended to wear whenever he had to interact with his daughter’s boyfriend. He made no bones about the fact that he didn’t consider a backwoods country boy without two dimes to rub together to be worthy of Betty, regardless of his doctorate. Happily, Betty didn’t let her father dictate her love life, so both Bruce and the General managed to maintain some level of icy civility, at least on a professional level.
“Not you,” Ross said. “If this works, even a little, we’re trying it on a real soldier.”
“General, this is still just in the first trial phase,” Bruce protested. “I don’t want to try this on someone before we know-.”
“Surely you aren’t that worried, if you’re willing to risk your own life,” Ross countered swiftly, with a small, snide smile. “Because for better or worse, Banner, you’re the best expert we have at this type of radiation, and I don’t have time to find another if this doesn’t go as planned. I already have a volunteer, and you’ll be using him. Get your test together; he’ll be in tomorrow for your data collection or whatever the hell you have to do to get him ready.”
Bruce Banner had learned very early on in his rocky relationship with the General that arguing never really changed his mind. Not even Betty could move him much once he’d made his decision. With a sinking stomach, Bruce got the paperwork together for whatever muscle-bound doofus the General had managed to wrangle into this trial. The poor man deserved full disclosure, despite whatever half-truths the General had undoubtedly told him to get him to volunteer his life.
He wasn’t a doofus. Muscular, yes, because he was a soldier, but not muscle-bound. Surprisingly agile, actually, because Corporal Clint Barton used to be-.
“An acrobat?” Bruce repeated, hands hovering over the keyboard as he typed in Barton’s answers. Yes, he could have had one of the techs do this, or even had Barton type in his own information, but damn if Bruce wasn’t going to get to know the man who would be the center of the experiment.
Barton smiled, an unexpectedly bittersweet expression. “And trapeze artist. I was in the circus.”
“Why did you leave?” Bruce asked. If he’d had something like that, a build-in family of people with a common purpose, he probably wouldn’t have grown up as friendless as he had.
A shadow crossed Barton’s face. “My teacher. And my brother. Bad news, all around. Didn’t go well.” He shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You’re a sniper?” Bruce asked instead, keeping his voice soft.
“Top of my class,” Barton said, a hint of pride, no more, coloring his tone. Whatever else he was, he wasn’t arrogant, which was actually quite a surprise, considering Ross.
“Why volunteer for this? You know what we’re doing?”
“Making soldiers immune to radiation by changing their cellular biology,” Barton said. “And believe me, I want that. I end up waiting a long time in a lot of bad places in my job, and wouldn’t mind the extra protection. I’ve been angling to get myself into this program since I heard about it.”
Bruce was surprised all over again and smiled genuinely. He’d been expecting… well, one of General Ross’ pet soldiers, someone who just followed orders without question, who’d volunteered because the General told him to, who hadn’t had the least idea of what he was getting himself into. To find someone who’d done his own research, who’d tried to get into the experiment for a good, solid reason, well… Bruce didn’t get pleasant surprises like that too often. Maybe Ross hadn’t had as many volunteers as he’d implied if he’d sent someone so reasonable to Bruce.
“Do you want Dr. Ross and me to explain what we’re going to do?” Bruce asked.
Barton spread his arms wide and beckoned. “Lay it on me doc. I’m putting my life in your hands.”
Smiling, feeling like everything was finally going his way for once, Bruce stuck his head out of the office and called Betty.
“No, no, no, no!” Bruce cried, lunging for the dial and trying to wrench the radiation levels back down.
“Bruce, his vitals! His heart rate is off the charts-!” Betty said, grabbing for the crash cart. Behind her, the General was looking stunned, staring over her shoulder, and Bruce followed his gaze briefly to see Barton’s body starting to grow and warp even as the radiation levels spiked again. Green crept across his skin even as his entire frame thickened, bulking up in height and muscle like something out of a monster movie.
Barton screamed, the changes must have been excruciatingly painful, and fought against the bonds holding him to the chair. Bruce could see his blue eyes become a brilliant green as the bonds, and Barton’s shirt, burst. He roared, louder than a pride of lions, as those huge fists swung out in panic, destroying the lab, the chair, every apparatus… and the window to the viewing chamber. Betty and the General were knocked flying by the debris, and Bruce barely dodged as the huge… Hulk that Barton had become crashed through the wall.
Fear and guilt held him frozen as Barton stared down at the three people lying prone, and Bruce felt his death coming in the next instant for what he’d done. Inadvertently or no, he’d managed to destroy the man’s life, and his own was forfeit.
Barton howled again and ran.
“I have to find him, Betty,” Bruce whispered in her ear. She was going to be in no shape to move for another few days, but she was alive, and wracked with just as much guilt as Bruce. It had been her absorption serum that had been supposed to keep Barton safe from Bruce’s radiation, and both of them had failed so spectacularly they had to do something to make amends. Even something a little crazy, because what had happened certainly fell under that category.
“The General went after him. I heard him talking on the phone when he thought I was asleep,” Betty said, wincing. “He wants Barton as a military asset.”
“Fuck,” Bruce whispered, low and heartfelt.
“Barton needs help,” Betty said fervently. “I don’t know what went wrong, but-.”
“We have to find him before the General does,” Bruce finished. Betty reached out, took his hand, and squeezed encouragingly.
“I wish I could go with you. Call me the second you find anything; I’ll help however I can,” she said, and tugged him down to kiss him hard. “Stay safe.”
“Promise,” Bruce said, and both knew it was a lie. They knew something of what they’d inadvertently created, and getting near Barton was nothing like being safe.
Bruce Banner had one significant advantage over General Ross and all his military assets in finding Barton. He might not have dozens of people, or satellites, or access to government databases, but he had his own unique skills, some of them the very reasons the General disliked him.
Bruce had gotten into college on a scholarship for his grades and intelligence, but it hadn’t been a full ride. To make up for the shortcomings, he’d applied for another scholarship, one that made use of times in his life Bruce would have rather forgotten. Bruce’s family had been poor, his dad an abusive drunk, and they’d been too far out in the country for helpful neighbors. There’d been one way to keep from suffering under his father’s heavy hand or belt, and that had been to put food on the table so that Dad could spend more of his money on beer and less on groceries.
Bruce had been the first Cub Scout in his troop to get a perfect archery score. He hadn’t the heart to tell his troop leader that if he missed a shot in the forest and failed to bring home dinner, he wouldn’t be able to sit down for two days after his dad tanned his hide in punishment. Those years stalking the woods had netted him a small archery scholarship, enough to cover books and lab fees.
They’d also given him the skills to think about hunting Barton like a frightened animal, and not like a spooked soldier. Bruce had seen the fragmented footage of the accident, and the Hulk Barton had become had moved like a wounded and confused bear, not like a frightened man. The General was going about his search all wrong, but Bruce sure as hell wasn’t going to tell him otherwise. Chucking Barton in a cell wouldn’t help him, even if he wouldn’t just smash his way back out again. The man wasn’t a weapon, he was just injured, confused, and twisted out of recognition by Bruce and Betty’s experiment.
No, this was their sin to expiate, not the General’s weapon to capture.
Bruce took his archery supplies with him when he tracked Barton’s trail north, not because he planned on using them against Barton, but to get himself back into a mindset. That, and he didn’t dare let any of the General’s people see his face and guess where he was going or what he was doing. He could, and would, live off the land as much as was possible. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but it could be done, and Bruce wouldn’t let himself fail this time. Because the last thing the General would suspect, given his generalized dislike of Bruce, was for him to succeed.
It was almost a week before he caught up with Barton, having tracked him deep into a national park and finding him in a small crater near a lake. Nearly naked save for some ripped shorts, Barton was pale, dirty, and huddled under leaves and branches, a stunned look in his blue eyes.
“Clint?” Bruce said softly, squatting on the rim of the crater. He didn’t know if Barton recognized him, with a week’s worth of scruff decorating his chin, no glasses, in a denim jacket with a bow and quiver slung over his shoulder. He was mildly amazed at finding Clint looking human again, and wondered if maybe, just maybe, this had been a one-time fluke.
Bruce had to call his name several more times before Clint finally blinked and seemed to come back to himself.
“Bruce? Bruce I remember… Something happened, at the lab?”
“There was… an accident,” Bruce said very gently, and swallowed hard.
“I-. Oh God, I hurt you, Dr. Ross, the General--,” Clint said, his voice getting louder and more agitated with every word. “What happened? What happened to me? What the hell is happening to me?”
The last word rose in almost incoherent rage as the change swept over Clint’s body again, bones growing, muscles bulging, skin changing color.
Not a fluke, Bruce thought with despair. This was a repeatable transformation, fuelled by rage, turning Clint into this… other guy, this huge Hulk of a thing.
“Clint, Clint, it’s going to be all right. Betty and me, we’re going to find a cure, we’re going to help you!” Bruce cried, trying to get through to him. He fell back in the next instant as the Hulk lunged forward and slammed his fists into the ground right in front of Bruce, the earth shaking beneath him.
“How help?” the Hulk demanded. “Can’t help. Nobody helps. Chase. Shoot. Nobody helps.”
Bruce looked closer, trying to manage his knocking knees and dry mouth, and saw pieces traces of shattered tranquilizer darts in the bottom of the crater. Ross. The General had been shooting at Clint. The man had volunteered to put his life on the line to be a better soldier, and the General had repaid that by shooting at him without having any idea of what it would do to his new form.
“I’m going to help,” Bruce repeated, searching for some sign of recognition in those green eyes. “I’m going to help keep you safe, and I’m going to help find a cure.”
“Safe?” the Hulk repeated, tilting his head curiously.
“I promise,” Bruce said, holding out his hands desperately.
“You shouldn’t promise things you know you can’t fulfill, Banner.”
Bruce whirled to see the General advancing through the trees, flanked by a dozen more soldiers carrying enormous guns. The Hulk roared to see them, and Bruce flung up his bow and had two arrows knocked immediately. The first round of darts the General had used must have had trackers in them, enough to lead them here to where the pieces were.
“Don’t!” Bruce warned. “Don’t, General, please! He’s angry, he’s scared, just let me try to help!”
“Hold your fire. If either of them advances, drop them,” the General said to his troops, and looked over at Bruce. “Help? Banner you’ve already helped enough. We got what we needed. A little unexpectedly more than we wanted, to be sure, but impressive results nevertheless.”
Bruce’s heart sank into his shoes. “What?” he asked numbly, already guessing the answer.
“Radiation resistance? It was a nice cover story. But what we were looking for were super soldiers. The original formula was lost decades ago, but my daughter found one of the key components. Between that and the catalyst of the radiation I have to say we got a lot more than we bargained for. One monster of a bargain,” the General said, his voice so calm and even Bruce couldn’t believe he was lying.
He… added something to Betty’s formula, had someone override the safeties on the radiation levels… Bruce thought with increasing anger. He’d been used, both he and Betty had been pawns in some top secret military experiment that had ruined at least one life beyond recognition, not to mention anyone who might have accidentally been in the Hulk’s way. Behind him, Bruce could hear the Hulk’s breathing getting deeper, like a bull snorting right before he charged.
“Barton isn’t the monster,” Bruce said, holding his aim steady at the two closest shooters.
“You think that antique toy is going to do anything to my men?” Ross said.
“They’re wearing ballistic vests. Doesn’t do much against sharp force,” Bruce said flatly. “And who I don’t shoot, I think Barton here might smash into the ground, so back off!”
“Take them!” Ross ordered.
Bruce let both arrows go, easy as shooting deer, and unerringly targeted the unarmored thighs of the two closest men. He tried to duck as the others brought their guns to bear on him and the Hulk. With a thunderous roar, Barton sprang in front of him, swatting aside the darts that hit him like so many flies, and then swatting aside the men in the next second. It was over in the blink of an eye, but it took Bruce a long time to convince himself to stand up. Carefully he staggered over and found all the soldiers alive, if wounded, even Ross. He salved his conscience by putting pressure bandages over the two with arrow wounds and trusted to the fact that eventually one or more of the soldiers would get up the courage to call for an extraction.
“Archer,” the Hulk said unexpectedly, and grabbed Bruce in an oddly gentle oversized fist as he finished the last bandage. “Safe.”
With that pronouncement, the Hulk launched himself into the air, bounding through the trees like he was flying, carrying Bruce with him.
It took Clint another two days to finally accept what had happened to him, and only because Bruce had brought along a flash drive with the footage from the accident.
“So that’s what I am now? Whenever I get mad, I turn into that… thing?” he asked, and immediately closed his eyes and went into some deep breathing exercise before any color, red, green, or otherwise, could rise in his cheeks. Sniper training relaxation techniques, apparently, and it was a damn good thing Clint still practiced them religiously.
“Yeah,” Bruce said softly, running a thumb along the soft feathers of an arrow flight. “We’ve got to do some tests, draw some blood, send samples back to Betty so she can start working on a cure-.”
“Can you cure me?” Barton asked a little cynically. “Because I kinda got the impression the… Other Guy is too strong to go away by someone waving a magic syringe.”
Bruce had been contemplating the same thing, knowing it had been an accident that had created the Hulk, knowing there might be no way of even reproducing it, let along reversing it. Even so, even so…
“Do you not want us to try?” Bruce asked, looking at him with entreaty.
“Fuck,” Barton said, turning away. He was silent for a long time, and scrubbed at his face with the back of his hand a few times before turning back, his cheeks a little damp. “No, keep trying.” He took a deep breath. “Please.”
“It’s our fault, we’re so sorry,” Bruce began, but Barton waved him off.
“Look, Doc, I don’t always remember much from when I, um, change, but I kinda remember my former superior officer basically telling you he fucked us all over.”
“That’s… about right,” Bruce said, as angry as Clint had been as the Hulk and trying to not show it.
“Then to hell with him. You came after me to help me, Ross just kept shooting at me. I know who I’m backing.”
“This won’t be easy,” Bruce warned. “Ross is going to be looking for us, I don’t know if I can get my hands on much equipment, but I won’t quit on you. I swear.”
Clint reached over and put his hands on Bruce’s shoulders. “That’s a hell of a lot more than I’ve ever gotten, Doc. I won’t quit on you either, deal?”
Bruce held out his hand and clasped Clint’s, feeling his calluses rasping against the other man’s skin.
“Deal,” Bruce said, and hitched his archery gear higher up on one shoulder. “Come on, I think we better start by getting the hell out of the country.”
“You taking those with you?” Clint asked, raising an eyebrow.
“When all you have is a hammer…” Bruce said, gesturing at Clint.
“…every problem looks like a nail,” Clint finished, and almost smiled.
“I want options,” Bruce said. “Just in case.”
“Then let’s go find ‘em,” Clint said, and shut the door behind them.
“Ok, ok, Stark and Thor were bad enough, but what the heck is this?” Natasha said, looking at the monster rampaging on the screen with a little consternation. If Rogers was feeling any of the same things, he was taking care not to show it, even when soldiers went bowling over like dominos at swipes from the monster’s fists.
“Someone I need you to bring in. He’s traveling with one of scientists responsible for his creation, who apparently isn’t afraid of defending the enormous green rage monster with a bow and arrow, of all things,” Hill said.
“Reasonably stealthy, if a bit awkward at times,” Rogers said, and furrowed his brow for a second before looking annoyed. “You need Stark if things get ugly, don’t you?”
Hill quirked an eyebrow and Rogers sighed. “I’ll go get my accountant clothes out of storage.”