The lab at SHIELD was, if nothing else, well equipped, and Bruce - who had grown accustomed to more primitive accoutrements - was very nearly overwhelmed by it all. Stark had showed him around, gesturing and pontificating like a tour guide, and when he'd finally departed, leaving Bruce alone among the beakers and test tubes and high powered electron microscopes, Bruce had had to sit in the corner for a good ten minutes just to stop his hands shaking. It had been years since he'd been surrounded by this many people, years since he had been able to look up and see men and women passing by his lab, unconcerned, consumed with their own business. It made him nervous, suspicious. Ostensibly, they were all SHIELD agents, but every organization could be infiltrated. There was no way to know for whom they were all truly working, and so for the first several days of his employment, Bruce started every time someone walked past and prepared to run every time someone paused.
By the end of the first week, he had calmed down somewhat. The ubiquitous presence of Tony Stark helped, surprisingly. The man was arrogant and loved the sound of his own voice, but he was also brilliant and charming, and Bruce finally gave up trying to resist. In truth, Stark's utter disinclination to fear the Hulk was what sold Bruce on him; he was the first person Bruce had ever met who tried to draw the Hulk out as a joke.
"Why do you do that?" he asked Stark, rubbing his thigh. Stark shrugged and tossed the electricity wand onto the table, another failed attempt to startle Bruce into losing control.
"Because it will crush you," Bruce explained, puzzled. "And all of this expensive lab equipment."
"That's fine," Stark answered genially. "I can buy more."
"But you," Bruce persisted, not really upset but curious as to how Stark could justify his behavior.
"That's very sweet," Stark purred, leaning across the table, and Bruce reminded himself sternly not to read too much into it, as Stark was notorious for hitting on anyone who so much as looked at him. Still, it was nice to be the recipient of interest of a sort after so long, even if there was nothing he could do about it.
"But," Stark continued, "it's unnecessary. I always have my armor with me." And he patted a briefcase that sat within arm's reach. "It's not as good as the regular suit, naturally, but it'll do in a pinch."
"So you would risk lives just to see what it looks like?" Bruce asked, brow furrowing.
"Risk lives?" Stark seemed genuinely surprised. "No, don't be silly. This lab has a lockdown mode. It would give them enough time to evacuate at least." And then, seeing the expression on Bruce's face, "Ah. They didn't tell you about the lockdown mode."
Bruce turned back to his microscope and, after a moment of awkward silence, Stark left.
Two weeks into his tenure at SHIELD, Bruce had more or less accepted a number of things. First, and most important, was that Fury truly didn't want him for the Hulk, a relief so great that it still nearly knocked him over when he thought about it. Second, that it was natural and okay that SHIELD didn't trust him just yet. They had no reason to, no way of knowing that Bruce's emotions were well under control. They'd scheduled a psych evaluation for him, which he did not doubt he would pass; he still faced a looming anxiety and a strong desire to simply be left alone, but he had accepted that the Hulk was part of his life. It was amazing what a little internalization could do for one's mental state.
Third, and perhaps the most significant on a personal level, was the fact that no one cared. It had shocked him, initially, but gradually he had come to realize that the SHIELD agents passing by the lab were rigorously incurious about what he was doing. Perhaps it was a function of the job, or perhaps they had been ordered not to pay him any mind, but after a while it had become one of the most enjoyable parts of his day. There was a certain novelty in propping his chin in his hand and watching them all walk past without so much as glancing at him.
For the first time in many years, Bruce Banner was actually enjoying his job.
The door swung open and Bruce glanced up, expecting to see Stark or Fury or Natasha, who still came down to check on him every once in a while and who he found simultaneously terrifying and lovely. Instead, he met the gaze of a total stranger, a man who smiled broadly at him and strolled into the room as though it were the most natural thing in the world. He was clearly an agent of some kind; you learned to recognize the glint in the eyes when you were on the run, besides which no normal person had arms like that.
"Hi," Bruce said, pushing back from the table a little. "Can I help you?"
"I dunno," the stranger said, dragging his finger along a table as though looking for dust. "You're a doctor, right? Can you sign a medical discharge form?"
"I'm... not really that kind of doctor," Bruce answered.
"Yeah, I didn't figure." The man dragged a stool over and perched on it, extending his arm across the table. After a moment, Bruce shook his hand. "Clint Barton. Pleasure to meet you, Dr. Banner."
"Call me Bruce," he answered, mystified. "Are you supposed to be in the medical wing?"
"Yeah, but it gets boring." Clint shrugged and picked up a bottle which Bruce immediately and gently took away. "Nat was telling me you were down here so I figured I might as well come say hi. You know, meet the new guy."
"Why?" Clint look surprised by the question, then confused.
"Why not? Isn't that what you do when you've got a new guy at the office? You go say hi, bring him some.... I dunno, muffins or something." He waved a hand vaguely. "If you need to be alone, I can leave."
Bruce did need to be alone, but this was yet another novelty for him and so he shook his head. "No, it's fine. You can stay."
"Cool." Clint tapped his fingers against the table restlessly, and Bruce got the impression that he was happier in motion. The lab, which by Bruce's standards was massive, seemed too small to contain him. "So." He drew the word out, forming a comical 'O' with his mouth. "You're a big shot scientist, huh?"
"I suppose," Bruce said. He'd never really considered himself a big shot. Brilliant, yes; he wasn't the type to sell himself short and he really was a hell of an innovator, but big shot? That implied a certain amount of celebrity, and all of the fame attached to his name was for entirely different reasons.
"And the Hulk, too, right?" Clint asked the question guilelessly, as if he were asking whether Bruce owned his own island; the tone of his voice suggested something exotic and yet not outside the realm of possibility. And, Bruce had to admit, it probably wasn't. SHIELD seemed to deal with a lot of things that were beyond the pale.
"Yes," he answered. He did not elaborate. Clint didn't seem to need it.
"Sweet. Is he gonna be on the team, or are you strictly nerd squad?"
"Mmm." Clint began paging through a lab report, his eyes unfocused. He was clearly doing it to keep his hands busy, and he wasn't disordering the papers, so Bruce left him to it. "Fury's putting together some kind of team. I figured he would ask you since you're packing the big guns."
"Oh." Bruce wasn't sure what to say. Fury hadn't approached him about any sort of team effort and Bruce had no reason to suspect that he might. At the same time, the voice of paranoia woke in the back of his mind and even as he spoke, he began to carefully plan his escape. "No. He hasn't asked me."
"Sucks." Clint stood up, having evidently exhausted his need for conversation. "Looks like I'm stuck with Stark." He held out a fist and Bruce, feeling more like an awkward nerd than ever, tapped it with his own. Clint grinned, waving flippantly as he departed the lab. "Gotta keep moving so they don't catch up to me. See ya around, Doc."
And he was gone as abruptly as he'd come, leaving Bruce simultaneously amused and paranoid.
"Barton?" said Stark, when Bruce told him about the brief visit. "That guy is an asshole."
"He seemed nice enough to me," Bruce said mildly. Stark's eyes narrowed until they were mere slits, then popped back open, wrinkling at the corners as he smiled.
"No science today," he declared, tugging away Bruce's notebook.
"What?" Bruce made a grab for the notebook, but Stark was quick and spun out of reach.
"I'm sick of looking at your clothes," Stark said. "You look like you got them from a dumpster. Come on, my treat."
Clint returned the following day, took one look at Bruce, and laughed. Frowning, Bruce pressed a hand to his chest and looked down at himself. Out of all of the clothes that Stark had paid for, these were the least fancy, just a tailored cotton button-up and some dark slacks. Granted, they were designer labels and Bruce didn't even begin to want to know how much it had all been, but surely he didn't look that silly.
"What?" he asked, self-conscious.
"Nothing," Clint answered, grinning. He swung onto the stool across from Bruce and propped his elbows on the gleaming steel table. "But if you're gonna wear fancy clothes, you might wanna brush your hair. Or shave." Bruce touched his jaw and smiled. It hadn't even occurred to him to drag a razor across his face this morning.
"Right," he said. "The habits of civilization are difficult to get back into. You still supposed to be in medical?"
"Dare I ask what you're in for?" Bruce asked. Clint didn't look physically injured in any way, but Bruce had learned not to take things for granted when it came to the superhero community. Clint shrugged, his gaze dropping, shifting to the side. It was definitely something he didn't want to talk about. Bruce didn't press. He knew how that was.
"A thing," Clint said vaguely. "No big deal. What are you working on?"
"A thing," Bruce replied, raising an eyebrow. It was a clumsy attempt to change the subject. Not that he minded, he just had no intention of launching into a lengthy explanation of his project, of which Clint might understand about three percent. If he was lucky. "No big deal."
Clint stared at him grimly. "If you really wanna know-"
"I don't," Bruce said mildly. "If you don't feel like talking about it, we won't. But I don't really care to talk about work, so..."
"Understood." Clint's grin returned in a flash, bright and mercurial. "Seen any good movies lately?"
Natasha came to check on him around dinner time.
"Still working?" she said, peering over his shoulder. It was clear by the tone of her voice that that wasn't what she was really asking. Bruce, adept at being obtuse, nodded his head.
"I'm close to finding something," he said, scribbling away in his notebook. It was nonsense, but he was banking on a superspy not knowing how to read advanced equations. Natasha pursed her lips. She rolled her shoulders. Leather creaked ominously.
"Barton has been visiting you," she said coldly. Bruce stared studiously at his notations because she terrified him and looking at her would give her the power of that knowledge.
"He's dropped by a few times," he admitted. There was no point in lying to her.
"Don't let him drop by again," she said. "He's under observation and isn't to leave his room. Understand?" Bruce nodded and she moved away from him. As soon as the weight of her presence was removed from his side, he exhaled softly. "And by the way, Doctor..."
He looked up finally and was stunned, as always, by how such a vicious creature could appear outwardly so soft and lovely. She smiled at him and blood rushed to his cheeks. "I don't think that the Stefan-Boltzmann formula has anything to do with your research. Have a good night."
Bruce listened to her boots click down the hallway. When the last echo died away, he wisely decided that it was time to pack it in for the night.
Clint didn't return the next day and so Bruce, in a fit of rebellion against the system, went down the street, bought a massive bag of Chinese takeout, and made his way to the medical wing before realizing that he had no idea which room Clint was actually in. Undaunted, he wandered the halls, testing door handles. The locked ones, he rapped on gently. It seemed like a good system; after all of his escape attempts, Clint had likely just been locked in like a misbehaving child.
He received no response from the first few locked doors. The fourth had a woman in it. The fifth and sixth were quiet. The seventh, finally, yielded results.
"If you're the cute nurse, come in!" It was unmistakably Clint's voice, and Bruce grinned a little self-consciously. Perhaps Chinese would make up for the fact that he was neither a nurse nor cute. "If it's Nat, go away, I'm still mad at you!"
Moment of truth. Bruce swiped his SHIELD ID and bit his lip, waiting. After what seemed like an eternity but was, in fact, only about two seconds, the light above the handle blinked green and he pushed the door open.
Clint sat cross-legged on his bed, TV remote in hand, his mouth half open in what was clearly meant to be a clever quip. It died on his lips when Bruce stepped into the room, closing the door quietly behind him, and bloomed instead into an incredulous grin. "Doc! What are you doing here?"
"Well, everyone keeps telling me not to talk to you or disrupt you or whatever," Bruce said, dragging a small card table over to the bed, "so I'm doing the opposite of that. You like Chinese food?"
"Hell yes," Clint answered, laughing incredulously. Bruce watched his face as he unpacked the food. There was a kind of baffled joy in his blue eyes, like no one had ever gone out of their way to be nice to him before. "This is awesome..."
Bruce settled himself on the bed next to Clint and picked up the container of honey chicken. "So. Since I just blew almost fifty bucks on takeout and will probably get my ass chewed over this, how about you tell me about yourself?"
"Why?" Clint hid his surprise behind a mouthful of lo mein.
"Because everyone knows everything about me already," Bruce explained. "It kind of puts me at a disadvantage. So. Where did you grow up?"
Clint stared at him for a long moment, as though weighing the pros and cons of opening up to a man he'd just met two days ago. Bruce just waited patiently, not meeting Clint's eyes. He was, he knew, an easy guy to talk to, quiet and not in the least judgmental. Having to deal with the Hulk had cured him of most of that; a little spark of the old arrogance still flared now and then, but Bruce had found it in his best interests to remain as Zen as possible about everything that was presented to him.
Clint finally shrugged his shoulders and answered casually as he speared a dumpling with a chopstick. "In the circus," he said. "But it's not as great as it sounds..."
Hours passed while Clint talked.
Bruce had never been happier.
Coulson came into the lab the next day. Bruce knew immediately what it was about, but he arranged his features into an expression of polite surprise. "Agent," he said, smiling. "What brings you here?"
"I think you know, Doctor Banner," Coulson answered. He had an infuriatingly smooth voice, the kind possessed by all men with the power of a massive organization to back them up. Bruce had learned to hate that tone.
"I'm afraid I don't," he said, opening his eyes very wide and endeavoring to look annoyingly innocent. Bambi innocent. A brief tightening around Coulson's mouth told him he'd succeeded.
"You were told not to have any further interaction with Agent Barton."
"I was told he wasn't allowed to come in here anymore," Bruce said mildly. "No one said anything about not going to visit him."
"Doctor Banner, I'm not accustomed to being disobeyed-"
"I bet you aren't." Bruce was coming to realize that he quite enjoyed the way Coulson's eye twitched when he was angry. It was deeply entertaining.
"And I'm certainly not accustomed to being interrupted." Coulson waited a moment to see if Bruce had anything to add, then continued. "Agent Barton is not well. You're not to have any more contact with him. Do we understand each other?"
"Can I ask a purely academic question, Agent Coulson?" Bruce leaned forward, hands steepled. "How do you propose to stop me? I hear you're pretty handy with a taser, but... that's likely to make me mad. Really, really mad."
He could hear Coulson's teeth grinding from across the room and felt a little twinge of guilt. Just a little one, though. He didn't appreciate at all the seemingly endless parade of SHIELD personnel attempting to order his social life.
"Coulson," he interrupted. "I have two words for you." It was obscene how much he was enjoying this, how delighted he was by this tiny act of rebellion. He held up his fingers, ticking off each word for a little extra fuck you. "Hulk. Smash."
When Coulson left, he slammed the door in an extremely satisfying way.
"You said WHAT!?" Clint was delighted and scandalized all at once, and Bruce was basking in the attention like a cat. "To Coulson?"
"Well, what's he going to do?" Bruce said, shrugging his shoulders. In truth, he'd spent most of the night lying awake, staring at the ceiling and coming up with increasingly horrifying revenge schemes that Coulson might enact. That sort of thing got his heart rate up, though, and he was trying very hard to focus on Clint's admiration instead of Coulson's potential wrath. It had been a harrowing night. He didn't wish to repeat the experience during the day.
"Well, color me impressed," Clint said, turning his face up to catch the sun.
Bruce had come to his room early in the morning, bearing a basket, a blanket, and a firm intention to treat himself to a day of slacking off to make up for his difficult night. At first, when he'd conceived the plan, he'd thought to spend the day on the roof by himself, soaking up the sun and listening to the business of New York as it was conducted far below him. Halfway through packing the basket, he'd realized there was enough for two and so, obeying the heavy, worrying warmth in his chest, he'd sprung Clint from his hospital room and dragged him along.
They'd been on the roof nearly four hours now, talking about movies - they agreed that the Back To The Future series was perfect - and bands - they shared a surprising mutual love of the Pixies - and steadily eating their way through the picnic that Bruce had so painstakingly put together.
And now, because he was an idiot, he'd mentioned Coulson's visit and Clint was looking at him like he was a big damn hero.
"So why'd you do it?" Clint asked. Bruce was puzzled.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean... why'd you do it?" Clint frowned at him. "It's a pretty simple question, Doc."
"Well... he told me not to talk to you anymore," Bruce answered. He'd thought it pretty self-evident, but Clint was clearly thunderstruck.
"You sassed Coulson on my behalf?" He laughed. "Wow. That's... wow." His shoulder bumped gently against Bruce's, the most minute of contact but Bruce flushed nonetheless. "So when do we announce our engagement?"
Bruce snorted, but the warmth in his chest swelled like a balloon. It was a feeling he knew well, one he hadn't felt since Betty, and he snuck a look at Clint's profile from the corner of his eye. This was a disaster waiting to happen. It couldn't possibly be anything else. But... why not? After everything he'd been through, everything that had been forced on him and taken from him, why shouldn't he let himself experience a little happiness? It was a harmless crush, and that was fine, it wasn't going to come to anything and the warmth was nice, it was familiar and normal and it made him smile...
...and he was smiling like an idiot, face turned up, eyes closed, just grinning up at the sky and letting the bittersweet ache of unrequited love (love? maybe not, but Bruce felt entitled to some melodrama every now and then) wash through his body.
"Dude." Clint shook him gently. "Hey, wake up there, space cadet. Why are you so smiley all of a sudden?"
"No reason," Bruce answered, lying back on the blanket and pillowing his head on his hands. The sky was vividly blue, interrupted by the jut and loom of skyscrapers all around them. "I just am."
"You look good when you smile," Clint murmured. There was a new note in his voice, a silky warmth that startled Bruce into opening his eyes. Clint's shadow fell across his face. There was no mistaking that little half-smile and Bruce experienced a brief moment of panic.
"No!" he said. Clint looked startled. "No, no. The whole point of an unrequited crush is that it's unrequited."
"You were giving me eyes."
"So. I can't have sex."
If Bruce had been able to liquefy his bones and melt into a puddle of nonresponsive goo, that would have been a preferable option. He'd done the same thing when he and Betty had first started to tiptoe around the idea of dating. Not blurted out that he couldn't have sex, of course; back then, it was the easiest thing in the world to fall into bed and not emerge for half a day. No, he'd loudly informed her that he'd developed an unfortunate Pavlovian reaction to her perfume, which was just as bad.
She'd still dated him, of course.
"Because of the Hulk thing?" Clint asked, totally unimpressed. Bruce was actually mildly annoyed that his announcement had had so little impact.
"Yes. When my heart rate elevates-"
"Yeah, yeah," Clint interrupted, waving a hand dismissively. He leaned closer, blue eyes bright. Half of his body pressed against Bruce, gentle contact that set his stomach to quivering nervously. "That's all in your file. You can still kiss, though, right?"
"I have a file?" Bruce exclaimed. "Why have you read my file?"
"Because you're dangerous." No one had ever stated it so baldly before, and Bruce was momentarily taken aback. So taken aback, in fact, that when Clint posed his question again, he answered without hesitation. "Can you kiss?"
"Yes, of course."
And then Clint's mouth covered his, Clint's tongue teased his lips and pressed past them and delved into his mouth and it had been a very, very long time since there had been a tongue other than his in his mouth and Bruce moaned into the kiss. A hand rested against his belly, warm and soothing, callused fingertips tracing minute circles on his flesh. He kissed back eagerly, cupping the back of Clint's head, nipping his lips. His heart thundered in his chest.
"Okay, woah." Clint pulled back immediately, holding his hands up in surrender and staring at Bruce with an expression of... fear? Disgust? No, and no; it was amusement, and a little bit of fascination, and maybe even a touch of fondness. Bruce still wanted to crawl under a rock and die, but at least he didn't want to suffer first like he usually did.
"Your eyes are green," Clint said.
"Sorry," Bruce said.
"It's cool," Clint replied. Tentatively, he rested his head on Bruce's shoulder. After a moment, Bruce curled his arm around Clint. "I don't mind."
Fury brought him some papers the next day. They hit the table with a thump and Bruce arched an eyebrow at them.
"Since you're not technically an agent, I can't tell you you're not allowed to date him," Fury said. "But I suggest you acquaint yourself with the expected conduct of agents in relationships."
"W-what?" Fury's single eye glared daggers at him.
"Get reading, Doctor," he growled, turning on his heel and stalking out of the room. "It's your job to keep Barton on the straight and narrow now."
Bruce stared at the stack of papers, sighed, and pulled them over. It was a lot of reading to get through before lunch.