"Damned If You Don't"
Phil's eyes slowly met Bruce's again. He considered it. He wanted this; he wanted to say 'yes', so much. But it wasn't just Bruce's heart he'd be risking. It would be his.
Yet they were hurting more by being apart. Was it some inane, selfish desire to be a martyr again that was keeping him from doing the right thing? He wasn't doing right by his soul-mate, and that was the one thing he'd wanted to avoid.
"I see. You don't want me," Bruce said, standing abruptly. "You know what? I get it. I do. I'm not the catch of the century, far from it."
What? Phil thought. No, wait. It's me. I'm not—
"…just wanted to have another chance, but if you're not willing to…" He sighed heavily. "But damned if I'm letting you go without getting one kiss."
Phil's jaw dropped, just a bit. Bruce leaned over him, one knee on the bed and his arms caging Phil in either side. Phil's heart-rate sped up considerably as his soul-mate leaned closer, giving him time to say 'stop' or 'no', or push him away. If this was the only time they'd kiss – the last time they'd touch – Phil would also be damned if he passed up this chance.
When their lips met, it didn't seem any different from the usual lightness associated with soul-mates touching. Maybe it was because Bruce had already kissed his forehead, and they'd had contact while Phil was semi-conscious? If that was all—
Then Bruce's tongue darted out, and Phil gasped. The kiss soon deepened, and Phil was rapidly losing control.
And he didn't care. It was time to let himself fall.
His hands found their way to Bruce's shoulders, pulling him closer, and stopping him from moving away when they had to break the kiss. Without meaning to, they came back together, and Bruce climbed on top. The touch turned electric as Phil caressed the back of Bruce's neck, one hand lingering there while the other stroked its way down to the collarbone. He could feel Bruce's pulse. It was fast, but there was no Hulking out going on, so he made the most of it.
Then something happened. Something he'd thought would never happen.
"Yes," Bruce murmured against his mouth. "God, yes. Finally."
Buttons were swiftly unbuttoned, shirt fronts opened, and their breath continued to mingle with kiss after deep kiss. Bruce insinuated his arms under Phil's back, pulling him close until they were pressed together. The Bonding lit a fire under their skin. There was barely any opportunity to pull away, but Bruce managed to, just for a few seconds.
"If you don't want this, we have to stop now," he panted. "Before it gets any further—"
"Can't," Phil said, winding his arms around Bruce's shoulders. "Want this. Need it. Don't stop again."
Bruce groaned, then dropped his head to Phil's neck. He sucked a bruise into the skin over Phil's pulse. It leapt, and Phil arched his back, trying to get even closer. It should have been impossible, but he felt like they literally merged for a moment, becoming more than just flesh and blood. It was exhilarating.
"Will you marry me?" he asked.
"Yes," Bruce said softly, and he licked his way back to Phil's mouth. They breathed out together. Pins and needles struck every place they were pressed to each other, increasing in intensity until their hearts beat as one, and the Bond formed. There was a burning sensation around Phil's ring finger, and he knew that Bruce was feeling the same thing as a mark branded itself into the skin. Words of love spilled from their lips to mingle in their brains as shared thoughts, and they couldn't pull away until everything slowed with one final kiss. Then Bruce fell onto the bed beside his Bonded one, both trying to catch their breath.
"Gotta say," Phil muttered, "it was worth the wait."
"Yeah," Bruce said. His head flopped around to face Phil. "Did you mean it? About wanting to marry me?"
Phil managed to nod. "We've wasted too much time. Now I know I can't live without you."
They were silent for a long while, fingers entwined, hearts still beating simultaneously. Then Phil ventured to speak again.
"I've imagined that night so many times," he said. Bruce's fingers tightened. "I've rearranged it, rewritten it. All the different ways it could've gone. I've left the heroics to Jasper in favour of staying with you. I've found you while exiting the building. I've left the director behind to meet up with you and explain." He was ticking each off as he went. "I've questioned every guest about their plus-ones, instead of just looking up their profiles. I've roped the cops into finding you. I've knocked the director out as soon as he's told me that I won't get a promotion, and run back." He sighed. "But I always reminded myself that you'd left. If anyone there that night could've found you, it would've been Jasper."
"I'd left as soon as I saw you getting into the director's car," Bruce said. "I'm so sorry. Should've stayed to give the police a report—"
"Instead you ended up working for the military, which ruined your life," Phil said. He looked at Bruce. "Can you forgive me for that?"
"Can you forgive me for not waiting?" Phil nodded. "Then I can forgive you for that. So easily." He squeezed Phil's hand. "I'm sorry I wasn't there when you heard about your father."
"I'm sorry I wasn't there for when you became… the Other Guy. If it's any consolation," he gave Bruce a small smile, "it's made you a hero. A superhero. I'll never let you forget that. And I love every part of you, even the parts you hate."
Bruce ignored the prickling sensation at the corners of his eyes, and rolled onto his side.
"I love you, too," he said. "And it's not just the Bond."
"I know," Phil said. "I know your heart now."
Bruce leaned over and kissed him again, smiling into it. They kept kissing until Phil began to slip back into unconsciousness. He sensed Bruce joining him, and the adoration he felt nearly overwhelmed him.
Surprisingly, the main reaction Bruce and Phil were faced with was that of relief. Relief and joy, but especially relief.
"I was this close to building a time machine so we could go back and fix this whole thing," Tony said, fingers barely an inch apart. "Seriously."
"It wouldn't have worked," Bruce said, raising an eyebrow.
"Yeah, but it would've shown you how desperate we were."
"For you two to pull up your socks and just… Bond," Steve said. Bruce nearly snorted at the excited fanboy voice in Phil's head squealing at 'pull up your socks'.
"You really were concerned," Phil said, outwardly composed, glancing at each of them. When they nodded, he blushed, and sank back into the sofa cushions. Bruce stayed pressed up against him, marvelling over how adorable his soul-mate could be. Phil flashed him a look of annoyance at that thought, but Bruce just smiled back.
"How's the Big Guy taking all this?" Clint asked.
"That's the thing," Bruce said. He was tracing patterns on Phil's thigh. "He hasn't stirred at all. I think he just wanted us to be united, and that's why he didn't let me be with anyone else. I don't know what'll happen with him in future, but he's happy. I can tell."
"So can I," Phil murmured. Bruce nodded, and then smiled up at their friends.
"You're happy for us, right?" he said.
They were inundated with a slew of reassurances until they were fit to burst from happiness. Phil sighed as he snuggled into Bruce's side without realising it.
"God, this is sappy," he muttered. Bruce chuckled.
With Bruce's (literal) healing touch, Phil recovered in leaps and bounds. He couldn't wait for their wedding, and for the wedding night. It would all happen as soon as he was well enough for that kind of physical exertion. Not that that stopped his brain from working overtime as he and Bruce planned the wedding, fending off the increasingly ridiculous and alarming suggestions from their friends.
"At least we're fairly low-profile, compared to the others," Phil said, lounging back in Bruce's arms on the loveseat in the doctor's room. Tony was in the process of creating a shared living space for them, although they were already decorating their own apartment away from Avengers property. It was going to be their own retreat when real life got too much and they needed somewhere to crash where they wouldn't be disturbed.
Bruce hummed, chin resting on Phil's head as the agent tapped away on the A4-sized computer screen, swapping between websites and scrolling down pages at a dizzying speed. Phil had been given a good bill of health. He was continually gaining strength, and the wedding had been scheduled for one of three days in two weeks' time. They had to be prepared for something dire to happen on any one of those days; Susan Richards had recommended contingency plans.
"Has your brother replied yet?" Bruce murmured into Phil's hair.
"Half-brother, and no. He hasn't. The RSVP date is in five days, and I'm not expecting any miracles." He sighed, and placed the StarkPad on his lap. "I don't really care whether he comes or not. I mean, he'd come if he knew who was going to be there. But he doesn't really stick by 'the whole soul-mates thing', to, uh, censor his actual words. We don't need him." He picked up the computer again. "It was just a courtesy to our late parents, inviting him. I know for a fact that he received the invitation."
"You tracked it?"
"SHIELD is tracking every invitation."
"Creepy," Bruce said, stroking Phil's stomach, because it was right there and he didn't feel like moving his arms very far. He was too comfortable.
"Just good security."
"Hmm. That or paranoia."
"It wasn't my idea," Phil said, holding up a hand. "I think Nick's being overprotective."
"So he should be."
They were able to marry on the first day, and less than ten hours later they were on the balcony of a swish hotel, Phil leaning with his hands on the rail, and Bruce cuddling him from behind. He loved this position. Not that he didn't love being able to see Phil, to kiss Phil. Maybe it was the Other Guy inside him, cherishing and protecting his mate. Bruce had sensed only approval from him since the Bonding. Post-wedding, there was definitely radio silence.
"Damian didn't show up," Phil said. "I didn't think he would. But he's my last link to Dad." He shrugged. "Stupid, I know."
"Maybe he forgot," Bruce said.
"Or couldn't be bothered. Either way, his motives wouldn't be malicious. He's just lazy."
"Now," Bruce kissed Phil's bare shoulder, "why are we talking about your half-brother," he kissed the other shoulder, "when we should be in bed, consummating this marriage?"
"Because it's a really nice view out here?" Phil suggested weakly.
Bruce shook his head, fingering the rings covering their Bonding marks. "Try again."
"Because the anticipation—"
"That's not it, either," Bruce said, and he turned Phil around in his arms. The agent looked unaccountably nervous. "Come on. You shouldn't be scared. The Other Guy won't interrupt us, we've left the past behind, and we're deeply in love with each other. I know that making love to your soul-mate is supposed to be much more intense, but you're strong enough for this. You know, if we hadn't been able to work out how to keep thoughts to ourselves, I wouldn't be stumbling around in the dark, trying to work out what's wrong, so help me out here."
"You don't understand," Phil said softly. "I remained faithful all this time. Except for dates and kisses, that was… it. As far as I went."
Bruce's heart swelled at the blush suffusing his soul-mate's cheeks. "I was faithful as well. Not for wont of trying, but I was too busy studying and performing experiments first, and then the Other Guy interfered. He knew I was only meant to be with you, which is more than I was willing to admit to myself."
Phil sighed, and leaned into Bruce's chest. He stroked the still-fresh scars from General Ross, and made a mental note to send a cookie bouquet to Steve for beating up the general in Phil's place.
"That's over with now," Bruce said, and he tilted Phil's chin up. "Come to bed, love."
He led Phil back into the room and shut the balcony doors. They walked past the other furniture, their suits draped over chairs to allow them to air. Bruce's green tie, and Phil's red tie with the silver stripes, were criss-crossed over the back of a chair. Phil had showered first, and escaped to the balcony in just boxer shirts while Bruce showered, also emerging only in boxers. He tugged Phil onto the bed and gently pulled him close.
"The flowers were beautiful," Phil murmured.
"Red roses were the floral decorations at the ball that night," Bruce said.
"And the drinks were the same."
Bruce shrugged. "It was our beginning. Some kind of beginning. I don't want to forget our… 'origin story'. Well, I do, but this was a way of recreating some of it so that we could start again properly."
"It was symbolic, huh?" Bruce nodded, and he nuzzled Phil's collarbone. Phil shivered, and fell back onto the sheets. He allowed Bruce to remove both their boxers, and shuffled into a more comfortable position, gazing up at his Bonded one.
"You're so handsome," he said. "You were today, and even more now."
Bruce lay beside Phil for a minute, running his fingers over the ever-present scar over his heart.
"Will you let me make love to you?" he asked. Phil nodded hastily, betraying his eagerness. "Okay. Wait a moment."
He rolled over and grabbed the lubricant from his bedside table. Phil swallowed, and let his mind open to his soul-mate. Bruce nearly fumbled with the bottle, but he smiled widely, pausing to meet Phil's eyes for a few seconds. Then he finally unscrewed the cap of the bottle, coated his fingers, and pressed them between Phil's legs.
"Yes," Phil hissed, and he pressed his hips closer. "God, Bruce."
"That's partly the soul-mate touch, partly my feelings," Bruce said, feeling a bit dizzy. "I can't take you… unprepared."
Phil nodded, frustrated nonetheless. Bruce kissed the frown away, moving over Phil and scissoring him open. Phil whimpered softly, clenching around the two fingers inside him, and Bruce moaned.
"Can't wait to feel you doing that `round my cock," he said huskily. Phil's eyes instantly dilated. "I swear it'll be good, love. It'll be worth the wait, just like the Bonding. Okay?"
When the time came, Bruce grabbed a condom from the opened box. Phil touched his arm.
"Bare," he said. "Please?"
Bruce nodded, set the rubber aside, and then pushed into his husband slowly. The Bond was singing beneath their skin, humming, vibrating. There was no way it was going to last long, no matter how hard they tried to hold on. The feelings were too intense. Bruce gave a few shallow thrusts, concerned about the pain on his lover's face. Phil wound a leg around his waist and pulled him closer. He gasped as Bruce sank deeper inside, and his eyes snapped back open. He didn't remember shutting them.
"Are you okay?" Bruce asked, voice breaking about five times. Phil nodded.
"Keep going," he said. "Oh, God. Please, Bruce. Love. Please take me."
Bruce rested his forehead against Phil's, gazing into his eyes, and pushed the rest of the way. Phil's hips jerked upwards, and he blushed. Bruce had felt the rush of ecstasy as well, revelling in and damning the telepathic connection all at once. He groaned, and instead buried his face in Phil's neck. He kissed and nipped at the skin, moving in and out with steady strokes. Phil continued to hold him close, never letting Bruce pull out very far. The shared sensations brought them both to the edge faster than they'd hoped.
With a whine and a curse, Phil shattered, tightening around Bruce and triggering his climax. Bruce flooded Phil with his release, and he kissed his soul-mate breathless, not releasing him until they both ran dry. At which point, he collapsed beside Phil and threw an arm and a leg over him.
"You like to snuggle?" Phil said.
"Yes, I do, so shut up," Bruce mumbled, smiling. He sensed Phil's amusement. "Next time, we swap. You've gotta try it."
"Okay," Phil said, and he hauled his arms up around Bruce to hold him in place. "Good night, love."
"Good night, Phil."
Crime doesn't rest for long. The Avengers and Co were fiercer while Bruce and Phil were on honeymoon, as if to compensate for their combined absence. Either that, or to show that there was no way the honeymoon was going to be disturbed, not even for something world-ending.
After Phil and Bruce returned, it was only a few days before the Avengers and SHIELD had to fly to Washington, where terrorists had surrounded the four buildings where the Library of Congress was housed. Other superhero groups had shown up, including the Fantastic Four, and they were assigned different buildings. Phil and Bruce went to the Packard Campus.
"It's either that or the Thomas Jefferson," Fury said through their comms. "The Packard is the furthest away from other buildings. Coulson, keep control of your husband."
Phil rolled his eyes. "Roger that, sir."
"Maybe I should be keeping control of Phil," Bruce said, stroking Phil's hair. The agent leaned into the touch.
"If anyone is responsible for damage to library resources, someone's gonna have my balls, and I don't know who scares me more. POTUS or Nancy Pearl."
Phil could hear Sitwell snort over the comms. He shrugged, and followed Bruce out of the Quinjet.
They were walking along the grounds when he noticed that something was wrong.
"What's up?" he asked.
"The Other Guy… doesn't want to come out," Bruce said. They both halted, and he looked over at Phil. "I don't understand."
"How did you bring him out for Manhattan?"
"I just let him take over!" Bruce said, waving his arms. "It's because I was angry all the time, and… Oh. Oh, Christ. I'm not angry all the time anymore."
Phil winced. "Sorry about that."
"I… I don't actually know. Forget it. Just… come here."
Bruce stepped closer. He knew that Phil was no longer looking at him. He was looking for the Hulk.
"It's all right to come out, you know," Phil said, stroking Bruce's cheeks as he searched for a flicker of green. "I love you, too, and I need you right now. We all do, but I happen to like the Library of Congress, so yeah. I need you. It's okay. I'll be here for you, the whole time. I promise." He stroked Bruce's hair. "Don't be afraid."
It took a few moments before the transformation started. Phil grimaced as he shared the pain of skin tugging and bones morphing, although on a far lesser scale. It ended when Bruce/Hulk somehow managed to shut him out. He waited patiently, and smiled up at his husband's alter ego.
"Good afternoon," he said. "Are you okay, honey?"
The Hulk brightened at that. "Yes, thank you."
Phil noticed the change between this Hulk, and the one before the Bonding. The voice was still gruff – but then Bruce's voice was far from smooth anyway – and he was still large and green. Yet overall, the Hulk was less angry, and more… aware. Even well-spoken.
"We can talk later," Phil said, and he clutched the ring finger of the hand cautiously held out to him. The Hulk's gaze zeroed in on the touch, and his face softened. The lightness of their soul-mate touch apparently extended to the Other Guy. "But right now, I don't suppose you'd mind helping us out with this little problem?"
"You are good to us," the Hulk said clearly, now looking at Phil. "We love you."
"I love you, too," Phil said, and he smiled. "Both of you."
The Hulk nodded, and then glanced at the large building. "Time to smash?"
"Carefully. Get rid of the bad guys on the outside, and protect the building, all right? And try not to get hurt."
Another nod, and then Phil was picked up and put on the Hulk's shoulder.
The agent shrugged, and just went along with it.
This was going to be fun.
"Teach terrorists to mess with our nation's libraries," he muttered, and he held on as his now-green husband leapt along.
When Steve – at the Jefferson building – heard it from Sitwell over the comms, he knocked out his last opponent and called for Thor. The god had barely landed beside him before Steve was throwing an arm around his shoulders.
"They're nearly done here, and we're needed at the Packard," he said.
"Will you give me directions, captain?"
"Yeah. Just hurry."
With a swing of Mjolnir, they were in the sky and flying towards the Packard Campus. When they reached the site, it was in time to see the last of the terrorists taken out. Steve noticed that the damage to the building was so minimal that it was practically non-existent. Mutants and SHIELD agents were flocking around. Reed Richards flew past them in his flight craft and landed near the uneven ground which must have been where the Hulk had been the most active. Tony was nearing the area as well, and Steve and Thor heard the all-clear from Fury over the comms.
"Where's Jolly Green?" Tony asked when they met on the turf. "Sitwell said there was a problem."
"Something about Phil being in trouble," Steve said.
"Stark!" Reed shouted from near a group of people. "You'd better get over here."
They ran towards the group, and Reed stopped them with outstretched arms.
"Before you get closer, I should tell you what I saw," he said. "It was near the end. I thought I heard the Hulk grunt – could've been in pain, I can't say – and then he collapsed. He crushed a few terrorists, which is good, I guess. But then he immediately shrunk down to Dr. Banner again."
Thor, Steve, and Tony looked at each other, then pushed past. Sure enough, Bruce was lying, half over a dead terrorist, and looking just as ashen. Steve helped Reed move him onto even ground carefully, and then let the doctor check him over.
"Got some casualties!" Sitwell said over the comms. "Getting the names now."
"Black Widow was here, wasn't she?" Tony said.
Natasha's voice came through their earpieces. "I'm with Coulson. He's unconscious. He was knocked out by flying debris. There was a bomb, and no one was near enough to deactivate it, so he used his pocket explosive to cause some of the ceiling to cave in on it and shield the area from the worst of the blast. But he wasn't far enough away in time to avoid…" She trailed off. "How is the doctor?"
"Also unconscious," Reed said. Steve repeated it into his mouthpiece. "No obvious head injuries, so he must be in a sympathetic coma. So to speak."
"Not an actual coma?"
"Whatever it is, it'll last as long as your agent is unconscious."
"The paramedics are loading Phil onto a stretcher," Natasha said. "I'm going with them."
"Keep in touch," Tony said. "I'll go with Bruce."
"No," Reed said sharply. "He and Agent Coulson have to go together. Get the ambulance to wait. Bruce's body will be fine; but Coulson's only chance of a fast recovery is to be near his soul-mate."
"Did you hear that, Natasha?" Steve asked.
"Yes. I'll stop with the medics."
"Good. We'll be there soon." He paused to watch and interpret Tony's frantic hands signals. "Iron Man will bring him to you?"
Tony gave him a double thumbs-up.
The bed in the hospital wing of Stark Tower, so recently used for Phil's recovery, was being used for that same reason again, with Bruce now lying beside him, both connected to monitors. Doctors and nurses from SHIELD were going to be on regular rotation, and Reed and Dr. Strange had offered to check in daily.
"It's just a matter of time," Strange said, watching his former pupil. "The next few days will give us an idea of their rate of recovery. I say 'their'; Bruce will not awaken without his soul-mate. Their Bond is strong. Anyone can see that." Phil and Bruce's chests rose and fell as one. "It may take days. It may take weeks. It may even take months. You can only care for them, and protect them from outside dangers."
"Of course," Steve said, gaze switching from one soul-mate to the other. "Bruce was fine while Phil was in surgery. Then in their first battle after Bonding, this happens to Phil, and they're both out of commission. Bonding with your soul-mate just doesn't seem worth it, in face of this."
"Of course it is," Strange snapped. "You never Bonded with your soul-mate, did you, Captain Rogers?"
"Then you cannot know anything about it. This happened because it is what Bruce desired. As much of an inconvenience as it is to you, their Bond is such that he would not stand for being awake while his Bonded is dead to the world." Steve flinched. "Get used to this, captain. It is the price to pay for the unparalleled ecstasy of being with the person Fate decreed for you."
"Are you Bonded to your soul-mate?" Steve asked, his question halting Strange at the door.
"No, I am not," Strange said softly. "The process began, but she was torn from me before it could be completed."
"But you're still alive—"
"And so is she. That does not mean we are side by side, captain. We are apart, and there is nothing I can do about it, except wait for the day when we are reunited… one way or another."
Steve continued to watch his comatose friends as Strange closed the door behind him.
"You were happy," he said. "We all knew it. I just hope that you can wake up and be happy again. You can do it, men. Just wake up, and we can all be a family, okay?"
He chewed his lip, noticing no change to their stats on the screen, and went to sit beside the bed. He lowered himself into the chair, suddenly feeling every last one of his ninety-odd years.
"Please wake up, fellas," he whispered, and he curled up, as much as the small space would allow. "I can't bring myself to be jealous that you're together. Having a Bonded couple around here reminds me of what I can't have, sure. None of us have that. But it… it makes everything lighter. We need that lightness for the days when everything else seems dark."
Neither Phil nor Bruce stirred, aside from the erratic movements of their chests. Steve sighed, and settled back into the chair for the long wait.
Yeah, kind of setting this up for a sequel, where the focus will be on the others, dealing with Phil's coma and Bruce's sympathetic coma, and the impact it has on all their lives. Thought all this up while I was at church this morning. Must have been during the music after the sermon, or after communion. At least I didn't grin like a loon, which is my usual practise when I come up with plot bunnies in church.
I don't think I grinned like a loon, anyway…
So. Who wants a sequel?