There were more rumors about Nick Fury than there were guns in SHIELD’s arsenal, which was saying a lot. The rumors weren’t surprising; it was inevitable, being at the top of such a powerful organization.
People talked; Clint was aware only because he had to be, not because he liked hearing most of it.
They said that Fury was heartless, that he was a cyborg, that he had lost his eye fighting a shark bare-handed. Clint knew that none of these things were true, though he’d had money on the shark rumor before Natasha had disproved it. Clint didn’t make bets with Natasha anymore; he learned his lesson by the third or fourth time he had lost.
They said that Nick Fury played favorites. Clint was less sure about that one.
He knew that Fury had given him and Natasha both second chances. Was it favoritism? Or was it pragmatism, considering all the successful missions they’d both completed working for SHIELD? If he and Natasha were Fury’s favorites, well, they had every good reason to be.
Fury never treated either one of them with anything less than respect, which made Natasha content not to use violence with anyone she wasn’t ordered to, and made Clint reasonably happy to take orders and not to run away. Sometimes it seemed, however, that the line between respect and affection got a little blurry. Every so often Clint got the urge to ask Natasha about the rapport she had built up with their director. Natasha was never going to be overly sentimental, but Clint thought he saw something once; Fury’s hand resting for the briefest of moments on Natasha’s shoulder, an almost paternal gesture, Clint might have guessed. Again, he was uncertain. It wasn’t as if he was the leading expert on receiving fatherly approval.
He didn’t ask her, because what would he say when she saw right through him like she always did? It was better not to hope, anyway. Clint never wanted to take for granted those rare moments when Fury would call him and Natasha into his office for a celebratory drink and a few concise words of praise. Those times didn’t happen after every successful mission, but they happened with enough frequency that people got wind of it. A lot of the talk was driven by jealousy of course. Either the agents with lower clearance felt shunned at never being invited to Fury’s office for anything except a debriefing or to receive assignments, or they felt that Clint and Natasha were trying to schmooze their way to the top, but it was always something.
One time, while Natasha was on a solo mission, Fury found Clint by the coffeemaker, wanting to gulp down some caffeine before heading to a meeting.
“Walk with me, Barton,” he had said, and Clint had followed, abandoning his paper cup of weak black coffee in favor of keeping step with the director.
“Sir,” Clint said, just respectful acknowledgement and nothing more. Fury and Coulson, they were always ‘sir’ with Clint. They had earned it.
They walked silently down the hallway for a few moments, Clint’s hands clasped behind his back as he gracefully met Fury’s long purposeful strides.
Clint was unsurprised when Fury led them to his office, shutting the door behind them. What did surprise him, however, were Fury’s next words.
“Ten years,” he said, without preamble. He didn’t move to sit behind his desk, so Clint merely stood at attention in front of him, tilting his head up to look into Fury’s eye. “That’s how long you’ve been with us.”
Clint nodded, numbers running quickly through his head. It was likely ten years to the date that he’d signed on. Ten years since Fury had given him the choice between joining SHIELD or spending some time behind bars before heading back to his shitty life at the circus. It had been a minor infraction back then, and Clint had been young, but he’d never regretted his decision. He’d likely be in prison by now, or worse. “Yes, sir.”
“It’s a long time, for someone your age. You’re still young. It’s long enough to know where your loyalties lie, wouldn’t you say?”
“Of course, sir.” Clint didn’t know what exactly the director was reaching for, saying things like that, but Clint had never given him a reason to doubt his loyalty. Sure, he’d been insubordinate plenty of times, enough times for him to have gotten a reputation in his earlier years at SHIELD, enough so that his personnel file had enough pages to resemble a phonebook. But those were early days, really, and while he still wouldn’t take any shit from a superior if he thought they were making the wrong call, both Coulson and Fury had made it a solid point to keep that from happening. Working with Natasha helped; bantering with her kept him from getting bored and being mouthy with the other agents, and together they tended to be so scarily competent that, nine times out of ten, they were left to their own devices when it came to running a mission.
Fury turned and walked around his big desk with the expansive glass top that was surrounded by monitors. Clint didn’t doubt for a second that, even though Fury seemed to be completely focused on him, he was fully aware of everything that was going on in his base at that very moment.
“And here’s the part where you’ll want to know where I’m going with this. Right, Barton?”
“It did cross my mind, sir.”
“At ease, soldier,” Fury said, smirking like it was a private joke. In a way it was, the military jargon not being either of their styles. Clint’s official title was agent, not soldier. In a way, it was Fury giving him permission not to stand up so rigidly, or to hold himself so tight. It was his way of saying that Clint could relax a little, even if they were having a serious discussion. “Have a seat.”
Clint did as he was told, and the two men sat across from each other, Clint drumming his fingers on the arms of his chair.
“Now, I’m sure you already know this, but I’ll say it for the sake of clarity, so if it comes into question, you’ll know. You’re one of a handful of agents I consider integral to this organization, and I’m certain, if you only think for a moment, that it will become obvious who the others are.”
“Natasha,” Clint stated, without looking to Fury for confirmation. It had to be Natasha. And who else? “Coulson, and...Hill?”
Clint did look up to gauge Fury’s expression then, and watched him nod minutely. Hill had been with SHIELD for only a few years, less time than any of the other agents they had just named. She’d quickly risen to a position of trust, however, through sheer determination and intelligence. Clint could admire that, even if they didn’t exactly get along.
“And a few others,” Fury continued offhandedly. “It’s not important for you to know specifics right now, but what is important is that you know you’re part of it. My right hand agents, if you will.”
“Thank you, sir,” Clint said, carefully not letting it show on his face how grateful he was to have this all spelled out for him. He knew, of course, that he was one of the best. The top sniper that SHIELD had at their disposal, and in the running with the rest for best and most reliable agent overall. If he had to guess, he would have said that he’d have to fight Natasha and Coulson for that title, not that he ever wanted to do that. A sensible voice in the back of his mind suggested that they’d both wipe the floor with him if that scenario ever came into play. Appropriately enough, the sensible voices usually sounded like Natasha, Coulson, Fury, or all three of them.
Clint wasn’t immune to subtlety, and he at last fully grasped the reason for this meeting. Fury’s time was precious, and not a thing to be wasted, but he’d taken time out of his schedule to let Clint know that he was needed. It was better than the letter of commendation that was the usual thing at the ten year mark, and somehow Clint figured that would get slipped into his file by Coulson anyway. Clint didn’t think he’d ever felt so proud.
“So,” Fury said, rising from his chair and coming around the desk to clap Clint warmly on the shoulder. “We’ll have a drink when Natasha gets back, what do you say? I’d offer you one now, but it’s the middle of the day, and I’ve got a meeting with the president in ten minutes.”
“Oh,” Clint started, a bit stupidly. Fury was going to go meet with the president, after having just spent who knows how long with Clint. Clint, who’s just an agent, really, no one particularly special, even if Fury took the last few minutes detailing the high esteem he holds Clint in. But it’s the president, man, and Clint can’t always wrap his head around the fact that he apparently means something now. He remembered a childhood where he was always in the way, followed by an adolescence and young adulthood where he had to beg, borrow and steal just to find a little space where he might be tolerated, let alone accepted or wanted. “Sounds good. I’ll be looking forward to it. Thank you, sir.”
A few weeks after that meeting with Fury, Clint was on his way to New Mexico with Coulson and a hundred other agents. Natasha was headed in the opposite direction, to New York, and Clint missed her already. They hadn’t had nearly so many missions together lately, and Clint keenly felt the loss. He liked having her nearby.
At least he was driving down with Coulson, and not a group of new agents he couldn’t begin to name. Coulson admittedly wasn’t as much fun as Natasha, but they’d been working together for years, almost as long as he’d been working with Natasha, and Clint was a fan of the familiar.
It was also nice that Coulson didn’t scold him when Clint got a little over-exuberant over the comms. Not that Clint ever got truly obnoxious with Coulson over the radio, or even face to face; he’d learned that lesson years ago, and he wasn’t eager to repeat it.
The mission went well enough, in the end. There was the whole debacle of the guy with arms so big that even Clint had to admit he was feeling envious. And then the alien robot thing had shown up, and Coulson had used his strictest tone to order Clint to stand down from joining that fight. Clint didn’t get to shoot anything the whole time, but none of their own went down either.
Afterwards, Coulson took Clint to a diner so they could load up on carbohydrates before returning to HQ.
It was comfortable, and almost cozy, sharing a small table with Coulson as Clint shoveled pancakes into his mouth and continuously drained his coffee cup. The wait staff gave them a few dirty looks, but Clint amused himself by pretending it was because Coulson refused to take his sunglasses off indoors, and not because they’d been involved in the whole Norse god uproar that had nearly destroyed half the town.
“You can slow down,” Coulson said, shaking his head at him. “We have a little while before we absolutely have to leave.”
“I’m hungry,” Clint said between bites. “Someone had me running laps in the desert all this week.”
“Being on-site is no reason to slack off,” Coulson said for what was likely the hundredth time.
“Yeah, yeah.” Clint didn’t really resent it, though. He kind of liked that Coulson was a hardass and pushed at his limits sometimes. There was a reason Clint was one of the best, and Coulson was right, he couldn’t afford to slack off, not even for a week. “We should still leave as soon as we’re done, right? I mean, Natasha said she might be back at HQ by the time we get back, and she still owes me a rematch at backgammon.”
That got a real smile from Coulson, who then finally lifted his sunglasses off his face so he could give Clint his full attention.
“We haven’t been gone that long,” he pointed out. He was right. As far as missions went, this one was relatively short and painless. Clint will never forget the six weeks he spent freezing his ass off in Siberia. Even with Natasha to share body heat with, he still got chills for months after just thinking about it.
“Yeah, but she hasn’t been around much lately, either. Neither have you, up until this point, come to think of it. How’d I manage to swing this?”
“Hmm?” Coulson took the last sip of his coffee, and miraculously a waitress appeared at his elbow to refill it, topping off Clint’s while she was at it.
“I mean, how’d I wind up with you? Not that I’m complaining, because I’d take you over Hill any day. But you’ve been pretty scarce recently.”
“There’s a lot going on at the moment. It’s a big week,” Coulson answered nonchalantly, which was the way he answered all of Clint’s questions.
“Yeah, tell me about it. I think I’ve had enough of alien artifacts for a while, but something tells me I might not get my wish.”
Coulson just raised his eyebrows knowingly and took a bite of his scrambled eggs.
Upon their return, Clint got exactly one half hour with Natasha before they were both separated again. Natasha was being sent out on reconnaissance, while Clint was stuck being a glorified bodyguard.
She pulled him into a storage closet to hug him before they parted, Clint burying his face into her hair.
“Thanks for humoring me,” he whispered. There were things that he and Natasha talked about, and then there were just things they accepted about each other without actually saying them aloud. The goodbye embrace was one of those things that they didn’t talk about; they just did it for each other. There wasn’t a lot of room for physical affection in their line of work, isolated and violent as it often was. The contact was humanizing in a way that nothing else was.
They tried to keep it out of the eyesight of the other agents, hence the supply closet. People talked, and that was inevitable. Despite both Clint and Natasha being highly skilled at covert operations and being discreet, everyone already thought they were fucking by the simple fact of them being opposite sex friends and standing in the same room as each other; they didn’t need to give the gossips more ammunition.
“I don’t know why they need me to watch over those scientists,” Clint complained as Natasha pulled away, straightening out her hair. Clint caught a stray wisp with his fingers and smoothed it down for her.
“Don’t act like you’re being delegated to basic guard duty,” Natasha said, frowning slightly. “The Tesseract is so, so important right now. I thought Coulson debriefed you.”
“He did.” Clint sighed. “I’m just, well, you know. You’re off to have fun while I stay here and babysit an alien rock.”
Natasha laughed quietly. “It’s more than that. All right, I better go. You stay safe.”
“Natasha, it’s a block, and a couple of frumpy old scientists. What could possibly go wrong?”
Everything went wrong.
After the adrenaline high dissipated, and after the group meal where, frankly, Clint was still feeling too undone to eat much and basically kept to himself, the group that had finally come together was once again separating.
Thor and Loki were headed back to Asgard, and Clint tried not to think about that too much. He tried to feel relieved that they were leaving Earth, and not to pay too close attention to the god that had attempted to take him apart. He didn’t remember much in detail, from the time Loki had appeared with his spear, to when Natasha had hit him hard enough on the head to knock his sense of free will back into him. It had been like a waking nightmare, and if he closed his eyes or let his thoughts drift too much, he could feel it, being under Loki’s control. He could see himself doing all kinds of terrible things, not in detail, never in detail. But it was like having an out of body experience where he was watching himself fight from a far off place, somewhere removed from himself, somehow detached from his own mind and body.
The feeling of helplessness was also pervasive, right there under his skin. He hadn’t felt that way since he was a child, and he never wanted to feel that way again. He had worked too hard, not to be vulnerable, to take all of his weakness and channel it into his desire to be stronger, faster, better. World’s Greatest Marksman, the posters used to say about him. He didn’t have the posters anymore, but he still had plenty to prove.
Loki had taken his weaknesses and turned them against him, and Clint hadn’t been able to fight it. He hadn’t been able to throw Loki’s control at all, and that had scared him—no, it had terrified him.
For the time being, Clint focused on the present. That was the safest bet, even if all he wanted to do was to go back to base with Natasha, take a million hot showers, and curl up in bed. But he worked for SHIELD, and he couldn’t help but be a little jealous of the others who wouldn’t have to go sit through more debriefings. They’d all been allowed rest and a change of clothes before the most standard and succinct of meetings, but Clint knew there was more in store for both him and Natasha later on.
They said goodbye to Steve Rogers, who was riding off on a pretty sweet motorcycle, if Clint did say so himself. He was a little disappointed to see the Captain go. As a leader, Clint had definitely had worse, and even if the way he inspired near-instant loyalty in those around him was a tad disconcerting personally, Clint couldn’t help liking him. Plus, he was Coulson’s childhood hero, and Clint may have been lurking nearby when Fury had informed Coulson that Captain America had been found, and watched Coulson’s face light up like it was Christmas come early. Then Fury had placed a hand at the small of Coulson’s back in a gesture so intimate that Clint had to slink away before he felt too guilty for spying.
With Thor, Loki, and the Captain gone, Natasha walked over to where Stark and Dr. Banner were having an animated discussion. Clint followed at her side, curious as to what she would say. She’d told him a lot about Tony Stark, but the other man was more of a mystery. Clint knew the basics, of course, but there hadn’t been much time to glean information about him before they’d headed into the fray. Natasha had mentioned that she’d been sent to bring him in, but that was as far as Clint’s information went.
“Bruce,” Natasha said, extending a hand. Bruce looked surprised for a moment before shaking it and giving her a look that seemed both wary and apologetic.
There were times when Clint could read Natasha like a book, and right now he didn’t like the undercurrent of false bravado he could tell was flowing through her. Maybe she’d tell him later on what was wreaking havoc on her usually seamless confidence. But maybe not. Maybe it was nothing.
“Agent Barton.” Clint blinked in surprise as he realized that Bruce Banner was shyly offering his hand, Natasha having led Stark a few feet away to have a private word. Clint was usually more on top of his game, knew that under normal circumstances he’d already have analyzed Dr. Banner down to his toes, scoped out the area, and planned several different escape routes. But these were hardly normal circumstances, and all Clint could do was to grip his hand tightly and let the doctor introduce himself as simply ‘Bruce’.
“Call me Clint. I always say fuck formalities after defeating an alien race.” Clint was being deliberately crude, watching Bruce’s face carefully for his reaction. Out of the corner of his eye, Clint searched out Natasha, who was still deep in conversation with Stark. He wondered if he should push it, try to find out what really unsettled Natasha about this guy. Probably, it was the same thing that unsettled everyone about the illustrious Doctor Banner. One had to be blind and deaf at SHIELD not to know about the scientist, and Clint had seen the transformation in person. He’d likely be shaking in his combat boots right that very moment, if he weren’t more terrified of himself.
“You, uh...always say that?” Bruce asked skeptically. His brows furrowed in a mix of confusion and amusement. The overall effect was actually kind of charming, much to Clint’s chagrin. He didn’t want to make snap judgments based on how open and honest the guy’s big brown eyes were. Appearances could be deceiving, and Clint figured he was staring at the textbook definition of that saying.
“So, that was really you out there, huh?” Clint asked, blunt. “I like your style.” Clint was, oddly enough, telling the truth. It had been vicariously satisfying, watching the Hulk smashing everything to ribbons. Then again, if Clint were honest with himself, he couldn’t decide whether to be grateful or bitter that it was him who had taken down Loki successfully. The two feelings warred inside Clint’s head (as if he hadn’t had enough fucked-up shit in that department lately), simply making him feel defensive.
“Oh,” Bruce answered, his mouth a perfect circle of a pout, like he was actually getting flustered. “Thanks?”
Before Clint could think up a response, because it was hard to remain antagonistic with a guy who looked like he’d stumble over if Clint gave him one good shove, Tony Stark was clapping a hand on the man’s shoulder and declaring, “Come on, Bruce. Let’s get this show on the road.”
And then Natasha was leading him away with a gentle hand on his arm, and all Clint could do was to glance back and watch the two men drive away in a ridiculously expensive convertible.
“So, what’s the deal with them?” Clint asked, purposely leaving the question open so Natasha could answer as much or as little as she wanted to.
“I’ll tell you later. Let’s go check in on Coulson first and make sure he’s not trying to do paperwork while he's supposed to be on bed rest.”
Clint let Natasha enter Coulson’s private hospital room first. He lingered by the door, unsure of his welcome. It didn’t take much to imagine what Coulson might think of him now, or really, what everyone might think of him now. Natasha made her feelings clear on the subject of his possession, but she’d been up close and personal, and had seen just how out of control of his own mind he had been.
Now that the crisis was over, would the others be so understanding?
Clint had been on the wrong side of SHIELD before, but that was years ago. This run-in with Loki had cost him so much, including his perfect track record of loyalty. Would anyone ever trust him again?
“Barton, step into my office,” Coulson rasped from across the room. His voice sounded all at once familiar and strange, hoarse from disuse and being intubated. Clint worked up a weak smile at Coulson’s dry humor and pulled himself away from the doorway, steeling himself to face his handler for the first time since he’d been compromised.
Clint was ready to see a look of disappointment on Coulson’s face; it wouldn’t be the first time, and he knew it was well-deserved. But the only emotion displayed on the man’s countenance was relief, clear as the light of day.
“It’s good to—good to see you, sir,” Clint managed to say, the words sticking obstinately in his throat when he tried to speak.
“It’s good to have you back, Barton.”
Clint nodded, looking to Natasha for direction. What else should he say?
Natasha was looking over Coulson’s chart, but looked up when she sensed both men glancing in her direction. She gestured to the table in Coulson’s room, covered to the very edges with various baskets and bouquets. “Had a lot of visitors?”
Coulson shrugged, and then winced at the movement. “Most of that was brought in by the nurses. Stark came to see me, though. And, uh. Rogers, too.”
The faint smile that just rested on Coulson’s lips was unmistakable. Clint wanted to reach out, wanted to let his hand rest on Coulson’s shoulder just to make sure that he was real. But Coulson, always strong and stoic, couldn’t be Clint’s shoulder to lean on this time, and he’d never seen him like this before. It scared Clint more than he wanted to admit.
Natasha had picked up a piece of paper from the table; from the looks of it, it was covered with a simple pencil sketch. “Rogers?” she asked knowingly.
“Yeah,” Coulson answered, his fingers twitching like he wanted to tell her not to get fingerprints all over it.
Natasha set it down carefully. “We could bring you a frame for it,” she offered.
“That would be great, actually.” Besides the scratchiness of his voice, Coulson sounded so damn normal, like he hadn’t just missed death by a hair’s width of luck. Clint was full of regrets, but at that very moment, he would have given anything to have stopped Loki before he’d gotten to his handler.
Any further conversation was halted as the door to the room opened carefully, and Nick Fury stepped inside.
“Romanoff. Barton,” he said in his level tone, nodding at the both of them as if he had fully expected them to be right there. Probably he had known; it was likely no one was getting in to see Agent Coulson without Fury’s say-so anyway.
Clint met Fury’s eye for a brief moment before lowering his eyes to stare at his boots. Fury was unreadable, but the guilt Clint was feeling was almost too much. He was in a room with the three people who meant the most to him out of anyone, and he had betrayed them all. Never mind that he had been brainwashed—he should have fought it.
“How are you feeling, agent?” Fury addressed Coulson, who answered him with a laugh that ended in something more akin to a wheeze.
“You mean opposed to how I was feeling an hour ago when you stopped by and asked, boss?” he finally said, obviously amused. His eyes, dulled from recovery and the fluorescent hospital lighting, began to take on a bit of a shine.
Natasha slipped silently toward the door, clearly wanting to give their two superiors a moment in private.
“Barton, don’t go far. I need a word with you,” Fury said without turning around from where he was facing Coulson in his hospital bed.
“Yes, sir,” Clint answered, following Natasha outside the door and shutting it gently behind them.
“It’ll be fine,” Natasha reassured Clint in hushed tones outside the room. The hallway wasn’t very busy, and it was eerily quiet. Most likely Fury had threatened the worst on anyone who disturbed Coulson’s bed rest.
“You think?” Clint replied bitterly and apprehensively.
“If Fury was going to lock you up, he’d have done it by now. You wouldn’t be allowed within five hundred feet of this hospital if he didn’t trust you,” she pointed out.
Clint shrugged. Her reasoning was solid as always, but he couldn’t help the sick feeling that was pooling in his stomach. His traitorous heartbeat pounded loudly in his ears; guilty, guilty, guilty, like a murderer in a Poe story.
Too soon, Fury was exiting Coulson’s room, his eye searching out the two agents who were huddled close together against the bare wall of the hallway.
“A word in private, Barton,” Fury specified. “Walk with me.”
Clint sent Natasha one last worried glance before falling into step with the director.
“Stop acting like I’m going to shoot you on the spot,” were the first words out of Fury’s mouth once they were out of earshot.
“I’m sorry, sir?”
“You heard me. And don’t get any half-assed ideas about leaving town, either.”
“What?” Clint stopped in the middle of the hallway.
“In here, Barton,” Fury said, opening up a door and waiting for Clint to enter before following him in and shutting the door with a click. It was just an empty hospital room, but whatever Fury had to say to him, he clearly wanted as few eavesdroppers as possible. Clint didn’t see any cameras in the room, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any. Fury faced him, and Clint met his gaze, trying his best to swallow the fear that was rising up in his throat.
“Just don’t fucking run off, Barton,” Fury said, exasperated. “I know you, and you’re a damned good agent, one of my best, but you better not get any crazy ideas until I can get all this bullshit settled.”
“Wasn’t planning on it.” Clint shrugged. “It’s not like I got anywhere to go.”
“Good. I’m holding you to that. Don’t let me down.”
“I won’t, sir,” Clint promised. It seemed like an easy enough promise to make. He had literally nowhere else to go in the world; no family, no friends outside of SHIELD. He barely had acquaintances outside of the organization.
“I’ve got a lot of pressure from all sides, and everyone’s got a damned opinion on everything that’s happened. They want to stick their noses into SHIELD business, try to force me go to bat for a lot of my people. It’s politics. And it’s bullshit.”
Clint nodded. He could see where Fury was coming from; he just wasn’t sure where that left him. “Is there anything I can do, sir?” Clint said quickly before his voice could crack under the strain of too much pretended confidence.
“We’re going to need you to lay low for a while. And you’re not being singled out in this. Everyone who was involved in a major way in this whole thing is going to have to do the same.”
“Are you sending me somewhere?” Clint’s mind immediately dredged up images of crappy motel rooms and small towns. He could deal with it, even if he didn’t like it.
“And there’s the question of the hour, Barton. Your new home for the foreseeable future will be at Stark Tower.”
“How are you not more pissed about this?” Clint demanded of Natasha as he flopped sullenly on her bed while she neatly folded and tucked clothing into a suitcase.
“Why should I be? We’ve been sent worse places than a mansion, for crying out loud.”
“Not permanently,” Clint insisted. “This isn’t a mission, this is a new living arrangement.”
“Everything is a mission.” Natasha closed the first suitcase and started with another one. She was something of a record holder for packing up all her worldly possessions in the shortest amount of time.
Clint scowled. “This sucks.”
Natasha sighed and sat down next to him on the bed, pulling him over until his head was resting on her shoulder. “What’s really bothering you about this, Clint?”
“What if...what if this is just the first step to getting rid of me? Getting me out of SHIELD headquarters, so I’m not their problem anymore.”
“You know that’s not true. Fury won’t let that happen. And neither will I.”
Clint huffed out a frustrated breath. “I don’t deserve it, to have you two fight for me. Maybe I should just go rogue now, save you the trouble.”
“Clint Barton, don’t you dare,” Natasha said, taking him firmly by the shoulders and making him meet her eyes. “You belong here.”
Clint wasn’t so sure he belonged anywhere, but sticking with Natasha was better than going off on his lonesome. The people he was closest to were here, after all, even if there was a small voice inside him, telling him that things had changed, and soon they’d all see what a failure he was. It made his stomach ache.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Clint agreed.
“Team meeting!” Stark announced, three days after Natasha and Clint had moved into the mansion.
Clint had been given the fourteenth floor, and Natasha the fifteenth. It was the largest living space Clint had occupied in his whole life, and even after he’d moved in with his meager belongings, and after Stark had hired some famous decorator to furnish it for him, it still felt empty. Even with Natasha only a floor away, Clint was lonely. He missed the sounds of SHIELD agents walking down the hallways outside his quarters. He could identify half of SHIELD just by listening to their footsteps.
He missed his cramped quarters at HQ, and being able to walk by Coulson or Fury’s office anytime he wanted, and the burnt sludge that was the SHIELD coffee in the break room he’d gotten used to. Here the bed was too big and his room was too quiet, and he wanted to leave, but if he did he’d be getting that disappointed look from Coulson, and fuck if he couldn’t handle that right now.
“We’re all right here, Tony,” Steve pointed out. I
t was true; they were all gathered in the large common room that was situated on the floor directly above all of their living spaces. Clint and Natasha were sitting together on the couch at one end of the room, Tony was standing in the middle as Steve looked expectantly at him, and Bruce was sitting at a table by himself, his nose in a book and his glasses slipping down his face.
“Not here,” Tony said, exasperated. “There’s a limo waiting downstairs. Avengers assemble in one hour—we’re going out.”
“Is this Stark’s idea of fun?” Clint asked, nearly two hours later, sitting in a leather-lined booth in one of the ritziest bars he’d ever been in. He sipped his beer and watched the other team members out of the corner of his eyes. Tony had his arm slung over Bruce’s shoulder while he talked animatedly at Steve, who looked uncomfortable.
Natasha, who was sitting across from Clint, took a drink from her glass. “Actually, this is pretty mild, for him.”
On the other side of the room, Bruce untangled himself from Tony and headed in the direction of the restrooms.
“And what’s his story? This doesn’t seem too mild for our, you know, mild-mannered scientist over there,” Clint pointed out.
“Why? Worried about him?” Natasha accepted another drink from a tray as a server stopped by their table.
“Should I be?”
Natasha shrugged. “I’m not. But you haven’t said two words to him since you moved in.”
It was true. Clint had had several discussions with Steve, mostly involving team dynamics and strategy. Steve was very interested in where Clint’s strengths and weaknesses lay. There was something about Steve that made Clint want to impress him—he’d done his fair share of showing off on the range already, just to showcase his talents and show Steve that he had plenty to offer a team, lack of superpowers notwithstanding. And of course Clint had spoken with Tony, because Tony spoke with everyone, and was impossible to ignore. It wasn’t so much that Clint was avoiding Bruce, but that he wasn’t sure quite what to say to the man.
“I’m sure I’ve said at least two words. Maybe. Anyway, watch my drink. I gotta pee.”
Clint stood and headed off to relieve himself before Natasha could say another word. After using the ridiculously classy bathroom, Clint glanced around for the elusive Bruce Banner. He spotted him by the bar, speaking with another man. From the looks of it, it seemed like he was being chatted up. Clint hesitated for just a moment before sidling up to Bruce and clapping him amicably on the back.
“There you are,” Clint said, like they were long-lost buddies. “So, who’s your friend?”
Bruce looked from Clint to the man at the bar, shifting on his feet.
“I don’t think I caught your name?” Bruce said politely to the man.
“It’s Kevin. Look, I’m sorry, I thought you were alone. It was nice meeting you.” Kevin excused himself from the bar, shooting Bruce a shy smile before leaving them alone.
“Er...I guess we gave him the wrong idea,” Clint said. Without knowing why, however, he left his hand on Bruce’s back in a proprietary gesture.
“Um.” Bruce played with the tiny straw in his drink.
“So, do handsome men flirt with you all the time?” A small part of Clint realized that he was being a bastard, but he couldn’t stop himself. For whatever reason, he hadn’t liked the way Kevin had been looking at Bruce.
“Oh,” Bruce said softly, suddenly very interested in the coasters on the table. “No, they don’t. He’s way out of my league, anyway.” There was a hint of a sad little smile on his face, and it made Clint want to do irrational things, like track down all the Kevins of the world who had ever hurt Bruce, and teach them a few lessons.
“Let me buy you a drink,” Clint offered instead.
“Thanks.” Bruce smiled again, but it was a little less sad this time. “I’m pretty sure Tony owns this bar, and we don’t actually have to pay, but that’s very nice of you.”
Clint snorted. “I didn’t even think about that. Huh. Well, in that case, let me grab a few drinks, and I’ll steal you away to a dark corner somewhere.”
True to his word, Clint balanced drinks in one hand while steering Banner by the elbow over to a corner booth, out of the way of the dancing girls and guys. Bruce let himself be manhandled as he clung to his half-full glass with both hands.
“So,” Clint said, as they took their seats. “You like guys?”
Bruce’s face fell, and he gripped his glass even tighter. “Is that what this is about?” he asked, weakly.
“What? No. No, no, no. I’m just curious. We can talk about something else. Honestly, I’m just trying to prove Natasha wrong. She thinks I’m avoiding you. Which I’m not. Obviously."
“Oh. Well, in that case—I mean, it’s not a secret or anything. That I like men. It just doesn’t usually come up as a discussion point.”
“So, no boyfriend, then?”
Bruce chuckled, sounding melancholy. “Not for many years, no.”
“And no girlfriends either?”
“No girlfriends,” Bruce confirmed.
“Huh. Well, I guess that leaves you plenty of time for whatever it is you do. Lab work and whatever. Wrecking stuff.”
Bruce looked amused. “Has anyone ever told you, you’re very blunt?”
“Er, yeah. Sorry. I don’t really talk to people who aren’t SHIELD agents very often. I’m pretty good with getting the bare bones facts quickly enough. Not so good with actual conversation. How’s the weather, how’s your parents, what kind of ice cream do you like—that sort of thing. At least, I guess that’s what people who don’t spend sixteen hours in a sniper’s nest talk about.”
Bruce laughed. “I’m not sure I can claim to be any better at small talk. Talking with Tony, it’s hard to remember that the rest of the world doesn’t have casual conversations about radiation and structural engineering.”
“I heard my name,” Tony’s voice said from somewhere close by. He stepped out from a group of dancing women and slipped into the booth beside Bruce. “And Bruce, as I was having my fourth shot of tequila, a formula popped into my head—here, let me write it down for you.”
Tony began scribbling hastily on a cocktail napkin.
“And there’s my cue to leave,” Clint said, standing up. “See you around. I’m going to go find Natasha.”
“She’s by the bar,” Tony said absent-mindedly and without looking up. “Somehow she convinced Steve to let everyone do body shots off his abs. Good times.”
In the next week, several things happened to affect Clint’s anxiety levels. First of all, Natasha was sent off on a solo mission. The crushing loneliness that Clint experienced in her absence was nothing he was going to chat about, but it was there. Next, Steve decided to take a more active role as leader, spending training time with each one of the others as much as he could.
Clint couldn’t quite work out how he felt about Steve and their one-on-one training sessions. Steve wasn’t exactly ordering him about, but there was a definite hierarchy in the room when Steve was there, with Steve firmly at the top. Clint couldn’t say that Steve hadn’t earned that position either, but there was something about Steve just taking over like that that made Clint want to push back. He kept his smart comments to himself, however, and did as he was told. Now was not the time for Clint to be making trouble.
And finally, in other noteworthy items of the week, Bruce had an incident.
As far as Bruce’s incidents went, it was practically minor. The way Clint heard about it, because he hadn’t been present for the whole ordeal, was that Bruce had been in the lab when a package had been delivered. Someone, somehow, had found out the lab address, had gotten the package through security, and had set off a bomb. Bruce survived, in his Hulk state. The lab, however, did not.
Stark beefed up security to the max, and had become rather more insufferable than usual in his attempts to make Banner feel safe.
It was four days after Tony premiered his new security system that Clint found Bruce trying to clamber out of a first story window.
“Need a hand, buddy?” Clint asked, offering his.
“Um. Yes?” Bruce attempted to gracefully reach out with his hands so he could climb down and steady his feet on the ground, but what actually occurred was more of an awkward scientist tumbling into Clint’s outstretched arms.
“And hello to you, too,” Clint said affably, patiently holding onto the other man as he got his bearings.
“Hi. Hello. You, uh, you won’t tell Tony, will you?” Bruce looked flustered even after his feet found solid ground. He began to dust himself off and run his hands through his hair.
Clint reached out and fixed Bruce’s collar, which was askew. “Probably not. Where are you going?”
“I just needed to get a breath of fresh air. And it’s not like I don’t appreciate everything he’s done, but Tony’s new system keeps scanning my retinas every five seconds.”
“Well, you do have nice eyes, Doctor Banner,” Clint commented.
“Oh. Ah. You’re very...that’s funny, Clint.” Bruce chuckled slightly. He pushed his mop of hair into his aforementioned eyes and looked around shyly.
“That’s me, a regular laugh riot. So...fresh air, huh? In the city, or were you thinking somewhere less conspicuous?”
“You’re thinking of leaving again, aren’t you?”
“I wasn’t just going to up and leave,” Bruce protested. “Tony’s been very good to me, and SHIELD’s been very nonthreatening, and the labs that haven’t exploded yet are extremely well-equipped.”
Bruce sighed. “But it’s not safe for me to be there. That little gift of a bomb just made it clearer.”
“Can’t say I blame you. I’ve been thinking of running, too.”
“Well, you—you have?”
“Yeah. But I won’t. I mean, what’s left for me out there? Everyone I give a fuck about is right here.”
“Oh.” Bruce chewed thoughtfully at his lip.
“Do you have anyone else, anyone you’re missing?”
Bruce shook his head sadly. “Not anymore.”
Clint immediately wanted to know what could make Bruce say those words with such repressed emotion. It was strange, how much he wanted to know about Bruce. Not just what was in Bruce’s files, which he already knew, but what Bruce thought, and felt. Clint himself felt an undeniable attraction to the shy, tousle-haired scientist, almost as if they were kindred spirits. But what could Bruce possibly know about what it was like to live Clint’s life? Maybe more than anyone else could possibly imagine, now.
“So, don’t go, then,” Clint said simply.
“What?” Bruce’s eyes peered at him curiously though a curtain of dark curls. Clint’s eyes dropped down to watch Bruce’s mouth pout in confusion. It would be so easy to lean forward and press their lips together, just for a second. Clint wanted to kiss Bruce more than anything in that moment, and only his own self-doubt on how it would be received stopped him from trying it out.
“I said, don’t go. In fact, would you like to go for a walk with me? Get a little fresh air together?”
“Well, okay,” Bruce said cautiously. “I’m not making you any promises for the future.”
“Good. Then you won’t need to break any.” Clint motioned for Bruce to join him, and they set off on a leisurely stroll.
Ten minutes later, they were surrounded by black SHIELD cars on alert to find the ‘missing’ Bruce Banner.
“Damn it,” Clint said under his breath.
“I thought you were still supposed to be on bed rest.” Clint frowned, feeling guilty as hell as he sat across the kitchen table from Coulson. They had mugs of coffee which Clint had insisted on serving them both, even though Coulson gently reminded him that he could get it just fine by himself.
“Fury wanted me to check up on you. On everyone,” Coulson said, quickly correcting himself.
Clint winced and stared down at his cooling cup of black coffee. “Yeah? A couple weeks in and I’ve already got charges for Hulk-napping.”
“You know we don’t believe that for a second. Dr. Banner explained. He’s not on house arrest, Clint. Neither are you, by the way.”
“I know that. Doesn’t change the fact that I got nowhere to go. Haven’t exactly been a lot of missions coming my way. Where should I go, the theater?”
“If you like.” Coulson said mildly. “And just because you haven’t been cleared for SHIELD missions yet doesn’t mean that you can’t assist in less...organized operations.”
“Yeah, yeah. I can help save the world, but I can’t go sit in a sniper nest on the clock for SHIELD, I get it,” Clint replied mournfully. He couldn’t deny that Coulson looked and sounded a lot better.
“We are trying to work in your best interests.” Coulson took a sip of his coffee and met Clint’s eyes.
Clint sighed. “Natasha gets sent off on a solo mission, and I get stuck here. Can I opt out of what is supposedly in my ‘best interests’?”
Coulson rolled his eyes. “Now you’re just being difficult. As soon as we can clear you for active duty, we will. How’s training going with, uh, the Captain?”
That got a grin from Clint. “Why don’t you come watch us sometime?”
“Stop it,” Coulson said, smiling back. “You and Natasha give me such a hard time—he was my childhood hero, that’s all there is to it.”
“Whatever you say, sir.”
After his impromptu meeting with Coulson, Clint went down to the training rooms. Steve was there, which wasn’t a surprise. What was odd was that Tony and Bruce were there with him. Tony had stepped into the boxing ring with Steve, and Bruce was watching from the sidelines. Clint wasted no time in sidling up to Bruce for a front row view.
“Who’s winning?” Clint asked, smirking as he watched Tony barely dodge a punch.
“Why, do you want to put money on it?” Bruce responded, surprising Clint with his humor. It was refreshing, after the more serious discussion he’d just had to sit through. He was glad to see Coulson doing so well, but he still hated having to talk about issues like that. Clint would much prefer to ignore things until they went away. Why couldn’t Coulson and Fury just let him avoid things? He was simultaneously annoyed and touched by the concern, which he supposed was kind of like having family. He brushed the thought away quickly, however. Best not to get hopes up too high.
“Nah, I’m not sure I like the odds. So are you up next, or what?”
Bruce looked Clint up and down, then, as if sizing him up. “Are you offering to go a few rounds?”
“Not sure how I feel about those odds either. I could probably take you in a game of monopoly, though.”
Bruce smiled. “But then I wouldn’t get to see you without a shirt, now, would I?”
Clint tried, very clumsily, to hide his blush. He’d thought they were flirting, sure, but he hadn’t expected Bruce to be so open about it.
Inside the ring, Tony went down for the count.
“You’re up, Barton,” Tony said, shrugging off his protective gear. “Getting sweaty with Cap sounds like a great idea in theory, but in reality it’s exhausting.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Clint said, getting ready. He was already starting to sweat, and not from exhaustion. He hoped he didn’t look too pathetic in front of Bruce, who was still watching him, just as calm as he pleased.
Clint used his best moves, everything Natasha had taught him, plus everything Steve had showed him as of late. He put up the best fight he could before he, too, was flat on his back, staring up at the peak of human perfection that was Captain America.
“You okay, Clint?” Steve asked, giving him a hand up. “Those were some really nice moves. Your form for hand-to-hand has really improved.”
“I’m good,” Clint said, taking the water bottle that Bruce offered him and chugging it. “Thanks.”
The group separated shortly. Clint showered and dressed, trying not to mentally beat himself up too hard for getting his ass handed to him in front of Bruce.
Bruce Banner kept surprising him at every turn, it seemed. It was hard to guess at what the man would say next, what he would do. He had a wicked sense of humor and was sharp as a tack. Oh, of course the man was a genius, but there was so much more to it than that. Clint had a thing for smart guys, but Bruce was like no one Clint had ever met before.
Clint sighed internally and told himself he shouldn’t get too excited over Bruce’s flirting. For all he knew, it meant nothing. The guy was friends with Stark, after all, and Stark’s flirting was legendary. Maybe it was just rubbing off?
Clint didn’t need anything else to worry about, anyway. He needed to focus on training, and getting his mind clear and sharp again. He’d be patient, wait for Natasha to come back, wait for Fury and Coulson to give him the go ahead. He wasn’t letting go of all he worked for his whole life without a fight.
Natasha came back a few weeks later. Unfortunately their backgammon tournament had to be put on hold again due to an alien scouting mission that was uncovered when the aliens in question decided to be a little more proactive and actually blow up a few buildings to see what the humans would do.
The humans, most notably Nick Fury, were not happy.
“We will show them that we are not about to be trifled with,” Fury shouted while picking up a weapon himself to join in the fight. They were sending in everyone (minus Coulson, who Fury had ordered to remain inside despite his protests), trying to shut down the invasion quickly, hopefully warding any backup invaders before they arrived and decided to join in. Fury was right, now the Earth was ‘on the map’, so to speak, and had turned into a magnet for species who wanted more space to dominate.
Clint heard Fury’s voice shouting down below from his vantage point up high. He was both glad to be fighting again, and anxious over what could happen this time. The first time fighting another species, Natasha had told him that it was nothing they had ever trained for. And that was true, and to some extent, the victory had been down to quick thinking and a lot of luck on everyone’s part. Now that they had been training, trying to prepare for when something would happen again, Clint felt the strain. Even with his new arrows, created stronger, better, and deadlier, he knew that he had to be better than he ever had to be, before. There was no room for error.
He saw Natasha down below, fighting off a group of aliens, and sent a couple arrows flying to bring down a few of her attackers. The enemy they were fighting this time were fewer, but more resilient. Clint aimed for their weakest spots, the eyes.
Cap’s shield seemed to be doing the least amount of damage, and Clint held off a few aliens with some explosive arrows while Cap picked up a gun to take them out quicker. The Hulk was effective as always, taking on whole groups of enemies at a time and neutralizing the forces with seeming ease.
The fighting died down gradually, with Clint and Natasha picking up the last few strays while Stark and Cap checked on civilians and the Hulk began to calm down and transform back into Bruce.
Clint had never seen the transformation in reverse before, and it was fascinating. He watched out of the corner of his eye while he scanned the ground for more enemies. When the transformation was complete, Bruce was alone, naked and shivering, huddling in on himself. Clint wanted to go to him immediately, but his orders were to stay in position until he was ordered to stand down. Clint watched over Bruce, feeling protective and keeping his bow at the ready in case any danger appeared while Bruce was in his weakened state. In due course, a SHIELD soldier brought Bruce a blanket and led him away towards the medics.
“Everyone’s okay, Clint,” Natasha’s voice came to him through the comms. “We’re just checking the area, and then you can stand down.”
“Right.” Clint kept his eyes out for any stragglers, but the only movement was from soldiers helping citizens get out of half-burning buildings and to the medics.
Clint stood at the ready until he heard Cap’s voice in his ear, telling him it was all clear. He climbed down from his vantage point and went to help with the clean up.
Stark’s solution to calm the team down and bring them together a few weeks after a battle was, of course, a bar.
Clint wasn’t in the mood to drink, but he went anyway, sticking by Natasha’s side. He hadn’t spoken with Bruce since the battle. He’d been flying too high on adrenaline to go see him directly afterwards, and then once he’d waited that out, he lost his nerve to go check on the scientist.
Despite Bruce’s friendly demeanor, Clint knew that he’d have no chance with him, so why even try?
Okay, so maybe he’d been a bit melancholy and dramatic since the battle. After the biochemical high washed away, he’d been left with a sort of emptiness, feeling like his usefulness only extended from the beginning of a fight to the end of it, and in between he was in some sort of useless limbo. He’d made every shot perfectly, but there was still no word from SHIELD that he’d be able to get anything of his clearance back. It was discouraging, and with that frame of mind, Clint was in no mood to be optimistic about cute, curly-haired scientists.
“Stop moping, Clint,” Natasha said, handing him a soda.
“I’m not moping, I’m being mysterious,” Clint argued. “Gimme a dollar for the jukebox?”
“Not your personal bank,” she pointed out, but handed him her purse anyway. Clint rifled through the contents until he found what he was looking for, gave Natasha a thumbs up for the amount of weaponry she had concealed within her bag, and got up to pick some songs to play.
“No country music, or so help me,” Natasha shouted after him.
Clint pressed ‘Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy’ as his first selection, just to be contrary. Then he picked out a couple Pink songs, Britney’s ‘Toxic’, some Foo Fighters, and last, but not least, some of Beyonce’s oeuvre.
“You’re not drinking,” Bruce’s soft voice drifted close to his ear.
“Not tonight,” Clint answered. He was not going to explain to Bruce just how much he didn’t like to mix misery with alcohol. There were too many painful memories, and his current position in the world seemed too fragile to warrant any risks with breaking down in front of the team.
Bruce cornered him by the jukebox, and Clint tried to lean there as casually as he could, his eyes flicking from Bruce to Natasha. Natasha was sitting at the bar, watching him and the rest surreptitiously. Bruce stood in front of him confidently, dressed in a nice pair of slacks and a black button down shirt. His glasses hung from the collar, and his hair was combed out of his face for once.
“I’ve been meaning to talk with you,” Bruce said, and smiled, boyish and handsome.
“Yeah?” Clint felt weak. He was sure Bruce could read his face like a book, that he could see Clint’s pathetic desires, just as clear as the light of day. He wanted to beg Natasha to take him home.
“I haven’t seen you around lately. How is my favorite archer, anyway?”
Clint scoffed, his cheeks reddening only slightly. “I bet I’m the only archer you know.”
“Maybe, maybe,” Bruce said, giving away absolutely nothing. “How are you? I never got to thank you, you know.”
“Oh, this and that. Helping me out of windows. Having my back in a fight.”
“No more than the rest of the team.”
Bruce looked thoughtful. “I suppose...”
“But you can count on me. I mean, you know that.” Clint felt too warm in the small space between Bruce and the wall.
“Of course. Um, Clint? You’re actually not looking so well right now.”
“Yeah? I think I’m gonna go back to the tower soon, actually...” It was both a good idea, considering the way Clint was feeling, and an out from the conversation.
“I’ll get you a cab.”
Outside, the cool air felt like heaven on Clint’s skin. Then, without warning, Bruce kissed him sweetly on the mouth right before the taxi pulled up to the curb.
Clint got inside, stunned, and watched Bruce wave tentatively to him as the car drove him away.
The next day, Clint stayed in his apartment. He texted Natasha, saying he wanted to be left alone. Some takeout was delivered to his door, but Clint wasn’t hungry enough to eat most of it.
He took a long, hot shower, not bothering to get fully dressed. He had gotten half-hard in the shower, but he couldn’t bring himself to completion. He hadn’t since the mind trip, and that little detail was quickly becoming less trivial as time went on.
It was a day to give Clint’s mood a run for its money; the rain outside was pouring down in handfuls, great big oversized drops splashing down on the New York pavement. Inside the tower, ten stories away from where the drops were hitting the ground, Clint was standing by the windows of his living room, fingers pressed to the glass as he watched the cityscape down below. He was wearing a faded black t-shirt and boxers, his bare feet planted firmly in the lavender shag carpeting.
The knock on his door shook him from his reverie, and Clint went to answer, expecting Natasha, or possibly a pizza delivery. He did not expect Bruce to be standing there, with one hand raised to knock again.
A few awkward minutes later, and Clint had returned to his place by the windows, watching the rain.
“Do you want to be alone?” Bruce asked, coming to stand next to him, placing a gentle hand on Clint’s side, fiddling with the soft fabric of the worn t-shirt.
Clint shook his head ‘no.’ He didn’t want to be alone. Up until this moment, Bruce had been careful to give him space, although Clint wasn’t really sure why. Bruce’s hand didn’t move from his side.
Clint wanted to take his splayed fingers away from the glass and cup Bruce’s face, wanted to kiss Bruce’s lips and cheeks and eyelids. He took a cautious, deep breath instead and blinked.
Bruce shifted, and the hand at Clint’s side moved lower to rest on his hip.
As of right then and there, Bruce had kissed Clint exactly once. Clint kept replaying it in his head, just how it went. Last night, outside a that bar while waiting for a taxi. Clint didn’t drink, but played the jukebox most of the night. Bruce didn’t comment on his song selection, didn’t judge him for drinking only ginger ale.
They had been standing close as they left the bar together. Clint wanted to kiss him, had wanted to since he’d met the scientist. It was Bruce who pulled Clint closer; it was Bruce who pressed their lips together for those brief moments before the taxi pulled up to the curb and they broke apart.
Two days ago, Clint had thought that Dr. Banner would never look twice at him.
Just minutes ago, Bruce had knocked on Clint’s door and asked if he wanted company. Clint had felt under-dressed, but decided it would be more awkward to acknowledge it, and had invited Bruce inside. And for what, exactly?
Clint didn’t know what to say. So he watched the rain and felt small and unsure.
His fingertips were cold, pressed against the thick glass protecting them from the elements. Bruce’s touch was nearly overwhelmingly warm. Bruce does that a lot—overwhelms him. But now was different from last night, and Clint didn’t want to run away.
“I thought maybe you’d want...to talk?” Bruce squeezed Clint’s hip lightly.
“Sorry, not much for conversation today, I guess.” Down below there was a traffic jam. Clint couldn’t hear the car horns, but he could imagine them.
“Oh.” Bruce sounded disappointed, and Clint wondered what was wrong with his brain, that he couldn’t even bring himself to make small talk with the man he has been pining after for weeks. Clint wouldn’t blame Bruce for making an excuse to leave now, if he did. Clint knew that he was not great company these days, not since the battle with the Chitauri, with Loki.
“I mean, I’m pretty good at listening. Do you wanna talk?” Clint tried a little, and frowned, displeased with his own words. Somehow he was going to ruin everything before it even had a chance to start properly.
“Okay,” Bruce said softly. “I’ll tell you a story.”
Bruce’s voice was perfect for storytelling, Clint realized. Perfect cadence. He could fall asleep listening to that voice, Bruce’s fingers trailing through his hair. But he was getting ahead of himself now, like always. Would Bruce even stay, after? Clint has been told that he can be frustrating to be around, that sometimes he babbles after sex.
“A few years ago I was on the run, as you well know,” Bruce paused for a moment to take a deep breath. “It started to rain. Heavily. I didn’t—I didn’t have a jacket, or shoes for that matter.”
Clint nodded to himself, imagining Bruce all alone, getting soaked; trying to keep his spirits up and keep himself safe.
“A woman offered me shelter for the night in her greenhouse, and I accepted. It was warm, and somewhat humid, but drier than it was outside. She brought me some blankets, and she told me about butterflies.”
“They have to take shelter from the rain, or their wings get waterlogged. Rain hinders their mobility. Even a small storm can be dangerous for them.”
“When I woke up, the ceiling of the greenhouse was covered with them. Hundreds of butterflies sunning their wings.”
“I guess there are worse sights to wake up to.” Clint tried to read Bruce’s expression, to see if he was meant to react in some specific way to the anecdote, but Bruce wasn’t giving anything away. “So, what happened then?”
“Nothing, really. The woman gave me bus fare and I moved on. I didn’t say it was, er, a good story.” Bruce seemed a little embarrassed at the innocuousness of it all, actually.
“One time I was in Denmark and I got shot in the leg,” Clint blurted out, immediately regretting it. “Um, that’s not a very good story either.”
“No, it isn’t,” Bruce agreed. His hand was still on Clint, his thumb starting to rub circles over Clint’s thigh. “I’ve never been shot,” he offered up. “But I broke my leg when I was a kid.”
“How did you do that?”
“Fell off a swing set.” Bruce reached out with the hand that wasn’t touching Clint and pulled him away from the window until they were facing each other. “Am I making you nervous?”
“Huh? No, no you’re...I like—this,” Clint said, meaning the talking and the touching and just Bruce’s presence in general. “I don’t really care for rain.”
“No?” Bruce searched Clint’s face for an answer that Clint wasn’t prepared to give. Down below there might have been a car accident. Maybe. People didn’t drive carefully enough in the rain. Clint knew that fact like he knew water was wet.
“Nope. Long story. And really not a good one.”
“That’s okay. Let’s take a, uh, break from that, anyway.” Bruce hands settled lightly on Clint’s hips.
Clint let Bruce hold him for a few moments before asking, “Are you gonna kiss me again?”
Bruce smiled and kissed him on the mouth and the rain outside poured and poured. Clint didn’t like the rain but he liked the way Bruce’s lips felt on his. Clint pressed closer to Bruce, into his warm grip and soothing hands. He wondered if Bruce wanted to take him to bed and fuck him. It had been a while for Clint, but his bedroom was close, and Bruce was closer, and Clint didn’t know if he’d get a second chance once Bruce started to realize that Clint was not...that Clint was not—
Outside the wind picked up speed and threw buckets of rain against the glass with a sick smacking sound. Clint didn’t startle, but he stopped kissing back briefly enough for Bruce to pull back and give him an appraising look.
Clint offered up a hopeless smile and looked back at Bruce through his lashes, a coy little trick he pulled every once in a while, just a momentary distraction while he arranged his thoughts in order. He thought about the best way to get from the living room to the bedroom, how to go about convincing Bruce to fuck him hard enough that there would be the excuse of exhaustion when he asked Bruce to stay with him.
Clint was positively cozy in Bruce’s personal space, but he moved away enough to start walking backwards towards the hallway. Bruce caught Clint’s wrists with the palms of his hands and followed, crowding up against him when they reached Clint’s bedroom door.
“Tell me something,” Clint said suddenly, anxiously. His wrists twitched in Bruce’s steady grasp. The last time Clint had been bound, it was not pleasant. It was not by a handsome doctor who kissed with warm, kind lips and spoke with a soft, slightly hesitant voice.
“Yes?” Bruce was rubbing circles against Clint’s wrists with his thumbs. Clint realized that Bruce was in no hurry, and that thought helped to settle him.
“Tell me...tell me anything. I know it’s dumb, okay, but I like your voice.”
“It’s not...anyway, it’s not like my stories are anything...let me think.”
Bruce loosened his grip on Clint, and Clint used the opportunity to reach behind him and open his bedroom door. Bruce glanced through the doorway, then back up to Clint’s eyes.
“I was in Brazil for a time. I think it must be in my file.”
“Yeah.” Clint easily admitted to reading it. It was not a secret.
“I didn’t know a lot of Portuguese,” Bruce continued. “The language, it has Latin roots, but it’s not the easiest to pick up. I learned enough to get by.”
“I can’t pick up languages to save my life. Believe me, Natasha’s tried to give me lessons in Russian.”
Bruce thoughtfully brushed his finger over Clint’s lower lip, and Clint’s breath caught in his throat.
“Languages aren’t exactly my specialty, either. But they can be fascinating. For instance, the words for ‘to wait,’ and ‘to hope.’ They’re the same in Portuguese.”
“Oh,” Clint said, quietly and standing still in the doorway. The door was open, but Clint felt stuck. He wanted to ask Bruce inside; he wanted to listen to more of Bruce’s stories, no matter the content.
He could see in his mind’s eye what would happen if he took a few steps backward. Bruce would follow, and they would fall into bed, and it would be everything Clint needed at the moment and everything he absolutely shouldn’t be doing, because afterwards, Bruce would leave—he’d leave.
Bruce reached up to trace the shell of Clint’s ear with his fingertip, and Clint suppressed a whimper. It should be unlawful, how much he wanted Bruce.
“I’m not so good at this,” Bruce said, voice low.
“Good at what?” Clint tried to lean further into Bruce’s touch, to get more contact.
“Um, you know. The whole...thing.”
“You’ve, uh, lost me there, Bruce.” Clint gathered up all his bravery and took a step back. Just as in his mind’s eye, Bruce followed him into the bedroom.
“Well, for starters, I must have bored you by now with my...rambling.”
“I’m not bored,” Clint pointed out, confused. He leaned forward and tried to prove his point with a kiss, only, it wasn’t even a proper kiss, because when Clint leaned in, apparently there was some miscommunication, some miscalculation in movement and intent, and Clint’s lips met Bruce’s cheek instead of his mouth.
Clint had perfect aim, except, it seemed, when it involved Bruce Banner.
“Not bored,” Clint reiterated, despite the fact that his face was reddening and he was feeling more self-conscious than before. “Pretty sure you could recite the periodic table and I’d be okay with it.”
That startled a laugh out of Bruce, who walked him backwards until they reached the bed. Clint was used to being the one in control in these kinds of situations, but somehow it felt right when Bruce pushed him gently down into the mattress. Above him, Bruce straddled his legs and gave him a questioning look.
“We don’t have to do this now, if you don’t want to,” Bruce said.
“No, this is good. This is great, actually.” Clint had wanted this for what felt like forever. It was just that today, he couldn’t help but feel vulnerable, with the rain and the memories and the fact that he hasn’t liked anyone like Bruce in a long while.
“You don’t have to treat me like glass, you know.”
“Sorry. I know that. Like I said, I’m not good at this sort of thing. I half thought you were going to punch me after I kissed you outside the bar.”
“What? Why would you think that?”
Bruce splays a hand over Clint’s bicep. “I wasn’t sure I was reading you right. It took me six hours of tinkering in my lab before I could work up the nerve to come see you. I was so distracted I broke a microscope and three test tubes.”
“Really.” Bruce leaned down to kiss him, and it feels right, feels amazing. Bruce bit gently at Clint’s lower lip before pulling away again.
“Oh.” Clint was breathless and self-conscious of how hard he was inside his boxers. With Bruce basically on top of him, there was no way he couldn’t have noticed. Clint hoped he didn’t come off as too desperate, with how aroused he already was from a little making out. “Well, don’t break any more lap equipment on my account. I’m, uh, pretty much a sure thing.”
That got a laugh from Bruce, who moved next to Clint and pulled him until they were facing each other, lying on their sides on the bed.
Bruce’s lips were so close that Clint had to kiss him again, just pressing their lips together softly, reveling in the feeling of it. He kissed the corner of Bruce’s mouth, kissed a dimple, unable to help himself.
“You’re just full of surprises,” Bruce remarked while Clint was busy planting a kiss onto his brow. “You’re a real sweetheart, aren’t you?”
The words startled Clint just enough that he backed off by a few inches, searching Bruce’s face to see if he was being made fun of. “What do you mean by that?”
“I meant it as a compliment. Sorry, is that not...? I don’t have to call you that.”
“No, it’s okay. I don’t usually...but it’s fine.” Clint didn’t usually get called anything nice in bed. If anything, it would be his first name, on occasion, if he was lucky enough to be with someone considerate enough to remember it.
“It’s fine, as in, you like it? Or fine, as in, it doesn’t matter?”
Clint mulled it over for a few seconds. “I guess...I like it. But just, not in front of...”
“I wouldn’t.” Bruce placed a possessive hand on Clint’s hip, and he just barely held himself back from tackling Bruce and covering his face in kisses.
“Can we take this off?” Bruce asked, tugging upwards at Clint’s t-shirt. Clint obliged, sitting up to pull it over his head.
Bruce touched his chest, and Clint couldn’t help it—he felt a flash of something—something cold and dark and so unlike Bruce that he wanted to weep with how unfair the world was just as he flinched away.
“Something wrong?” Bruce asked, taking his hand away.
“No...it’s not...it’s not you.” Clint clenched his jaw and snatched his shirt back up from where it lay beside him. “I’m sorry. I really am, because I want this.”
Clint put his shirt back on, trying not to feel the shivers down his spine. He was soft inside his boxers, and he turned his face away as he burned with embarrassment.
“Do you want me to leave you alone?”
“Not...not really. But it’s not like I’m worth sticking around for now, right?”
Bruce made a sympathetic sort of noise, which Clint kind of hated and also didn’t hate at the same time. “Do you want to maybe go get coffee or something, instead?”
Clint looked up at him, trying to read him. It seemed that Bruce’s interest in him hadn’t waned, despite current events.
“Yeah, okay. Let me get some real clothes on and we’ll go.”
Feedback is always appreciated, especially with WiPs because it feeds my plot bunnies...furry green plot bunnies that turn into the Hulk.
Clint tried to shake the feeling of Loki’s cold touch against his chest. The coffee definitely helped, as did the fact that Bruce was sitting opposite to him in the coffee chop, gorgeous and gentle and smiling.
“I don’t think the junior agents like me much. They scatter whenever I have to walk into SHIELD HQ,” Bruce was saying.
“Don’t take it too hard. I was a junior agent, once upon a time. Everything’s scary and new to them.”
“It’s hard to imagine you as a newbie.”
“Aw, you should have seen me back then. Scrawny as hell, everything to prove...”
“Yep. I, uh, probably wouldn’t have lasted a day without...um...”
“Well, you see, Director Fury kinda took me under his wing, I guess. Don’t really talk about it, but he did. Coulson, too.”
Clint remembered that first day at SHIELD. He had been terrified, nervous out of his mind. He’d never been anywhere like it before. It struck him as being very clean. He was used to the shabbiness of the orphanage, the circus. Not only were the walls and floors and desks pristine, but the people, too. Clint was used to standing out, to wearing an outfit to get attention. The black SHIELD clothes he was given were made to make him fit right in.
Only, even after he put on the clothes, he still felt out of place.
“Don’t look so scared, son,” Fury said to him, perhaps out of pity. “You’re one of the good guys, now.”
“Right. Yes, sir.” At least it was easy for Clint to remember his honorifics. Being raised in the south meant he didn’t forget to say ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ when appropriate.
Fury turned to leave, obviously having something better to do than acclimatize Clint to the environment. Clint resisted the urge to run after him like a frightened little boy. He could do this. He was so young, then, just twenty-one years old. There was no bulk to him at all, no muscle built up whatsoever. The SHIELD outfit was a little too loose, and Clint felt self-conscious.
Then Agent Coulson walked up and introduced himself. “The Director asked me to show you around,” he added.
Clint managed to nod and jog alongside Coulson as he strode purposely down a hallway to show him the main components of the base.
Coulson had a calm way of talking that put Clint more at ease, and Clint’s observant mind picked up the design of the headquarters quickly.
In the back of his mind, Clint wondered about the Director, wondered whether he was going to be foisted off along a string of agents, and if Fury was done with him as far as he was concerned.
Clint needn’t have worried; Fury checked up on him semi-regularly.
Clint trained and focused and at the end of every day he went back to his bunk and felt safe. He hadn’t been abandoned.
“I didn’t realize you had that much of a history,” Bruce said, when Clint finally stopped talking—okay, maybe he was kind of singing their praises, and going on and on...
“Yeah. I’ve known them since I started at SHIELD. Known Natasha almost as long. Didn’t meet her til a couple years later, but still.”
Natasha was a different story altogether. If Fury and Coulson were solid rock foundations, Natasha was wildfire. Clint could steady himself with the Director and his right hand man, but Natasha was the one who pushed Clint to burn brighter. They were competitive by nature, and together they were stronger than apart. Clint had saved Natasha once, but she had been the one to save him ever since.
“You know, we’re best friends, but no one really understands,” Clint said, fiddling with his now-empty paper coffee cup. “How we are, it’s just us.”
“Maybe other people are just jealous,” Bruce offered.
“Pfft, yeah, that makes me sound real mature.”
“Could be true. A lot of people never moved on past high school.”
“Dunno what I’d know about that. You’re talking to a dropout, here.” Clint said the words without flinching—he’d practiced in the mirror enough times to know.
“Lucky for you, then, you never had to deal with popularity contests.”
Clint smiled, appreciating Bruce’s light response to the subject. “All right, I’ll make you a deal. You find one person to admit they’re jealous of me and Natasha, and, uh. I’ll let you pick a prize.”
“What, like door number one, door number two?”
“Yep. Could be a fabulous prize, or could just be a suitcase full of socks.”
“Well, okay, I’m in. Since you mentioned socks, anyway. I’m constantly losing them.”
Clint tried not to think of other items of clothing that Bruce was constantly losing, and reached out to shake Bruce’s hand. “Deal.”
There was almost nothing like taking a good, long run outdoors to clear one’s head. Clint passed his fifth mile, heart pounding, his sneakers hitting the pavement quick and steady. He’d tried to sort out his thoughts in the range earlier that day, but even the sweet singing sound of arrows slipping past his bowstring reminded him of Loki.
And he needed to find some way to get away from Loki’s aftereffects.
His interactions with Bruce only cemented in his mind the fact that he still wasn’t over the head trip he’d been put through. He was used to healing his body after a mission, but this was the first time his mind was having a hard time getting up to speed.
He needed to be at one hundred and ten percent, body and mind working together.
He’d never pass SHIELD’s evaluations to get back into the field like this. Never mind the fact that apparently, he couldn’t let Bruce get close without wanting to push him away.
And didn’t that just take the cake for all things stupid and unfair. Bruce was nothing like Loki. There was no reason that his mind should associate the two.
But it wasn’t Bruce, exactly. It was the closeness, the intimacy, perhaps, that set him off.
Loki had been too close to his heart; inside his mind, aware of all his desires. He could take anything he wanted from Clint, and leave nothing in his wake, if he wanted.
But Bruce would never do that, would never take Clint’s desires and innermost thoughts and use them against him. That wasn’t Bruce. It was clear to everyone who met the scientist that he was more afraid of hurting someone else than being hurt.
Clint’s tracker beeped at mile seven, but Clint only picked up his pace.
What could he do? He couldn’t sit around just waiting to feel right; he needed to make it happen. This was his life that Loki had messed with—his life, his livelihood, and the closest people to family that Clint had. They deserved to have Clint fight for them. Fury and Coulson had poured too much time and energy into Clint to have him give up now. And Natasha—Natasha deserved a friend who had her back, not someone who needed to be coddled.
Even Bruce deserved a chance with someone who was whole enough to give whatever-this-was-between-them a decent shot.
Mile ten landed Clint’s sneakers in front of a bookshop with a whimsical display out in front—a miniature carousel with tinny music playing. Clint slowed to a halt, catching his breath and downing most of his water bottle. Two carts with wheels held a variety of books for purchase, and every time a patron opened the front door of the shop, the smell of cinnamon wafted out into the public.
Two window shoppers strolled nearby, chatting, and Clint caught part of their conversation in passing.
“I’m glad to see places like this are still around. You just don’t see small shops very often.”
“Let’s go inside. I want to see if they have The Little Book of Calm.”
Clint smiled to himself, reset his tracker, and began the run back to the mansion.
Sorry for the tiny update, but I needed something as a bridge gap, and Clint needed some more introspection and a run!
Some days Clint ran for miles. Others he spent hours in the range. The important thing was that he was pushing himself, moving forward in some way he could quantify.
There was no measuring stick for getting his head straight, but he could count the miles, count arrows hitting dead center, one after one.
He tried not to think about how things were progressing with Bruce—really, nothing was progressing at all. They seemed to be at a standstill. Bruce didn’t try to kiss him again—not that the situation had arisen yet where that would be a natural next step. They talked in passing, and okay, maybe Bruce’s hand lingered on Clint’s shoulder in a friendly gesture, and sure, Clint appreciated it. He wanted more. And maybe Bruce wanted more too, maybe he hadn’t given up on him. Clint could only hope that this was their version of taking it slow, not calling it quits.
Clint got a phone call at four in the morning. His sleep lately had been uninterrupted by outside sources, so he was somewhat surprised when he answered with a groggy voice.
“Clint,” Natasha said on the other end. “We need you to come in.”
Clint cleared his throat. “What are you talking about?”
“Be up on the roof in ten minutes. We’ll debrief you on the Helicarrier.”
Natasha’s serious tone ended the call, and soon Clint’s muscle memory was on autopilot, getting him into his gear and giving him the tiny adrenaline spike necessary to jog up to the roof of the tower. Two SHIELD agents dropped from the sky, secured him to the line, and soon Clint was ascending the familiar vertical path to the Helicarrier.
He was brought to a small debriefing room where Natasha was seated at the table already. Fury was there as well, standing at the head of the table.
“Barton, have a seat. We’ll begin as soon as Coulson gets here,” Fury said.
Clint slid into the chair next to Natasha.
“Thought I wasn’t cleared for active duty,” he whispered.
“You’ll understand soon. Trust me, we need you on this,” she said back, softly.
Momentarily, Coulson arrived with a stack of folders stamped ‘classified’ in red.
“Barton. I wish these weren’t the circumstances that we have to welcome you back with. Alex Steel has escaped from our maximum security facility," Coulson explained.
“What? How?” Clint asked, dumbstruck.
They had spent months capturing Steel, one of the most deadly crime bosses that Clint had ever had to face down. In the end, it had been the collective effort of himself, Natasha, and Coulson that had gotten the criminal put away. And, until now, no one escaped SHIELD holding facilities—well, no one without super powers. Steel was completely human, though you wouldn’t think that when dealing with him.
“We’re still reviewing the security footage to find out. What we do know is that we need to track him down as quickly as we can. That’s where you and Agent Romanov come into play.”
“We’ve got other agents on his trail already,” Fury added. “But it’s not enough. Tell me now, Barton, and be honest. Can you do this?”
“Yes, sir,” Clint answered with certainty. “We did it before. We can bring that bastard in again.”
Coulson shuffled some papers nervously. “If you accept this mission, you won’t be bringing him back anywhere.”
“Except in a body bag,” Natasha agreed solemnly. “It’s what we should have done the first time.”
Clint’s heart thudded in his chest. He hadn’t had to break out his sniper skill set for anyone human in a while. But this man was a murderer, and if they didn’t stop him, more innocent people would die.
“Are we sure we have to send both of them?” Fury asked Coulson.
“You know as well as I do, boss. We were the only agents to have any success the first time.”
“Oh, no. Don't you dare start this 'we' business. I did not agree to you taking this on as well,” Fury said.
“We all worked together last time—“
“You’re still in recovery. There’s no way I’m signing off to let you in the field as well. I’m still having second thoughts about Barton.”
Clint stood straight up at the mention of his name. “With all due respect, sir, I’m going to prove that I can do this. I’ll put an arrow straight through Steel’s eye, and he’ll never see it coming.”
“Sit your ass down,” Fury said wearily. “I’m not worried about your damn aim.”
Clint stared wide-eyed at Fury before returning to his seat. “Then what...?”
“If any of you get killed, I will contact Hela myself and make sure you get reprimanded even in the afterlife. Do I make myself clear?”
The three agents quickly agreed with the Director. Natasha gave Clint’s knee a little squeeze. They had the team back together; they had a mission.
Everything was going in the right direction.
“Barton, if you have the shot, take it.” Coulson’s voice was clear over the comms, and Clint had his eyes on his target.
Clint’s eyes were wide and fixed on Steel. But the fugitive had a hostage. And a gun.
“I can’t get a clear shot. Natasha?”
“I’m not in position to get him to drop the weapon,” Romanov answered in Barton’s ear. “And that’s one of our own he has his hands on.”
“Romanov, do you think you can negotiate with him?” Coulson asked, voice sounding strained.
“That’s a negative,” she answered. “He’s too angry. To erratic. He’s like a caged animal right now. There’d be no reasoning with him.”
“I’ll get the shot,” Clint said, decidedly.
“I thought you said the shot wasn’t clear?” Coulson asked.
“I’ll make it work. I’ve just got to get higher up. Do whatever you can to buy me some time.”
“I’m on it,” Natasha answered.
Clint moved from his position overlooking the warehouse floor. Steel wasn’t leaving himself open much, but if Clint could get enough of a height advantage, he could get to the perfect angle to make the kill.
He moved as quietly as possible along the rafters. Down below he heard Natasha organizing a distraction. If Steel looked up at the wrong moment, it could be all over.
Clint balanced precariously on an old, rusty beam high above them. He steadied himself, drew his arrow back, and waited.
Steel was almost giving him an opening.
And...he let the arrow fly.
Clint sat in one of the main debriefing rooms of the helicarrier with his head in his hands. He was still covered in cooled sweat, tapping his boots anxiously on the tiled floor.
Natasha opened the door and came to sit across from him. “They said we can go.”
Natasha shrugged. “Back to the tower, if you feel up to it. Or we could shower and change here.”
“Nah.” Clint shook his head, but still didn’t look up at her.
“What’s wrong? The whole thing was a success. They don’t care that you got a little lightheaded afterward.”
Clint groaned and shook his head again. Everything had gone according to plan. Until he had climbed down from his perch, went to check with Natasha that Steel was down for good and the agent taken hostage was unharmed...and then Clint had fainted.
There was no other way to describe what had happened. Clint had just...passed out.
“I’ve got enough problems, Natasha. I don’t need them thinking that I can’t deal with the aftermath of, you know.”
Natasha made a thoughtful sound. “So you go get cleared by medical when you’re ready, and count today as a win.”
“I guess.” The truth was, Clint didn’t like to think of that moment when his arrow had connected with Steel’s body and made him collapse in a lifeless heap. Okay, he’d probably saved a life by taking one, but he didn’t have to like it. And that wasn’t a very good attitude for an assassin to have, probably.
“Come on, Clint. You can sigh all you want once you’re showered.”
Clint fell into bed after scrubbing his skin nearly raw with soap and hot water. The tower was familiar now. It felt more like home than the helicarrier did. He shut his eyes and tried not to think of all the things that he would have to do once he’d rested. More debriefings. Reports to fill out. And, if he was getting cleared for fieldwork on a permanent basis, he’d have to be cleared by medical and psych.
He hadn’t seen Fury or Coulson afterward. They were busy with the paperwork, probably. As well as not letting it get out that Steel had been taken care of for good. There was always some underdog villain just waiting for a chance once the perceived head honcho had been taken out. There really was no rest for the wicked. There was more backstabbing going on in criminal circles than Clint cared to think about.
As far as missions went, Natasha was right. It was a success. The target had been terminated. The clean up was minimal, and the press hadn’t got word of anything yet.
Success or no, Clint couldn’t sleep.
The knock on his door was quite welcome indeed.
“Bruce?” Clint asked, rubbing at his eyes as he stared at the man in his doorway.
“Natasha said you were back.” Bruce clasped his hands behind himself awkwardly.
“I can go,” Bruce offered.
“No, stay. I mean, if you want. I was just—I was just gonna try to sleep, but. That’s not really happening anyway.”
“Everything all right with you?”
“I’m not dead. So, there’s that.” Clint tried to smile.
Bruce smiled back, faintly. “Clint, can I...?”
“Come in? Sure.”
“Yes. Thank you,” Bruce said, stepping inside Clint’s apartment and shutting the door. “But, I was going to say, well. I know you don’t need anyone to take care of you. But, you make me want to. Um. Wow. That sounded a lot better in my head.”
“You want to what?” Clint asked, all of a sudden feeling gangly and odd, like his limbs weren’t the right ones for his body. He wrapped his arms around his torso and gawped at Bruce.
“I mean, all I meant was—I’d like to make you a cup of coffee and maybe some toast? And listen? If you had anything you wanted to say. I liked when we talked, and. That could. That could be a thing?”
“Oh.” Clint was oddly touched. He didn't want to be coddled, but then again, he wasn't often handled with care. It could be nice. An offer like that coming from Bruce, it had to be nice. At least well-intentioned.
“I’m sorry. I’m probably being too forward again. But, I worried about you, and I’m really glad you’re back. In one piece, even.” Bruce bit his lip.
Clint rubbed at the back of his neck with his hand. “You know, I’m glad too. You wanna, uh, watch a movie? I’m not sure I wanna talk right now, but company’s good.”
“Yes. That’s...that’s a good idea.”
Clint stumbled into Bruce’s kind gaze and held it there for a few brief moments. He’d gotten up from the couch to get a glass of water, and upon his return was struck by how beautiful Bruce was.
Clint took an unsteady sip from his glass and set it, ungentle, down upon the coffee table. Without thinking too hard about his choice of words, he said, “Any objections if I just climbed on top of you right now?”
Clint straddled Bruce’s lap, running his hands along Bruce’s shoulders and kissing him with more confidence than he felt. Bruce’s hands rubbed at his thighs as he kissed back eagerly.
“If you want to stop, just say so,” Bruce said in between kisses.
“I’m good. This is good.” Clint kissed his way down Bruce’s neck. Soon Clint felt Bruce’s hard-on digging into his ass. It made him blush and press their lips together with more fierceness.
“Clint, sweetheart, I need to...um,” Bruce pulled back, looking embarrassed. “I need to adjust.”
Clint moved back so that Bruce could tug somewhat ineffectually at his pants, trying to make room for his erection.
“I could take care of that for you,” Clint said, then gasped a quick little breath. He hadn’t quite thought that offer through. Past Clint would have already had his lips wrapped around Banner’s dick by now. Present Clint wasn’t so certain.
Bruce looked shocked for a moment, but quickly recovered. “No, it’s fine. I mean, this isn’t the only reason I want to spend time with you. Just...just give me a moment.”
“What if I wanted to try? Nothing too...uh. A handjob, maybe?”
“I’d enjoy that, but what would you be getting out of it?”
“I’d like to make you feel good.” Clint was half-hard, but he didn’t want to chance not being able to come. It would be too humiliating in front of Bruce. But he could get Bruce off without panicking, probably.
“God, Clint. Don’t think less of me if I take you up on that?”
“I wouldn’t. You’re one of my favorite people. Definitely the only person I want to kiss right now.” Clint rubbed his palm against Bruce’s erection through his pants.
“Kiss me while you do it?” Bruce reached out to cup Clint’s face in his hands.
Clint leaned forward, capturing Bruce’s mouth with his, all the while unzipping Bruce’s pants and taking his hardness into his hands.
Bruce felt good beneath his fingers as Clint worked him, jacking him nice and steady while they kissed. Bruce moved his hands to Clint’s shoulders, and Clint could work with that. He sped up his movements, paying special attention to which techniques made Bruce moan softly.
“Do you want me to finish myself off? I’m gonna come soon,” Bruce said, breathing heavily through his words.
“No, let me. God, you’ve got a nice, big cock. Maybe next time I’ll suck you off.”
“Fuck, Clint...that mouth of yours.” Bruce thrust up a few more times into Clint’s hand and came. He let his head fall backwards on the couch pillows and closed his eyes.
Clint climbed off Bruce carefully, grinning from ear to ear. He went to find something to wash off with, but he couldn’t—no, wouldn’t—stop smiling. Bruce looked incredible as he’d come, and Clint felt good about that. He hadn’t freaked out over the intimacy of the situation—in fact, he’d felt completely in control of himself and his actions. Bruce had made it perfectly clear he didn’t expect anything, that there was no obligation. That in itself had made the whole thing so much hotter, so much more desirable to Clint.
Clint wandered back over to Bruce and offered him a tissue to clean up with, though the majority of the ejaculate had landed on Clint’s hands.
“That was great,” Bruce said, taking the tissue gratefully.
“Well...” Clint averted his eyes, smiling at the carpet. “I try my best.”
“And here I meant to make you feel better. If you needed it,” Bruce amended.
“I feel really good about what happened, so. No worries,” Clint smiled up at him. “You can still make me coffee or toast or whatever. Or you can just sit there looking sexy. I’m good with any of those options.”
Bruce laughed. “If only you knew the effect you have on me...”
Clint shuffled his feet. “What do you mean?”
“I...you’re kind of gorgeous, Clint. Stunning, even. You just look at me with those blue eyes of yours and I trip all over myself.”
“You do not,” Clint protested, fighting a blush.
Bruce opened up his arms. “I do. Come here and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Clint woke up in the middle of the night; his head was full of words like can’t and shouldn’t and undeserving.
Bruce hadn’t stayed after the movie, and part of Clint was relieved. Spending the night was maybe going too far, too fast.
Even if things were going all right now, there was no reason to think this thing with Bruce was going to go any further.
Hope was only ever a four letter word as far as he was concerned, as far as he ever let himself be concerned.
But he was so lonely, and he wanted, even though he shouldn’t, because he never gets what he wants. They all leave in the end, don’t they?
Clint pushed his sheets aside and made his way to the bathroom to splash some water on his face. His current train of thought was helping no one, least of all himself.
He pondered his medicine cabinet, taking out the sleep aid and studying the bottle.
In the end, he put it back in the cabinet unopened and crawled back to bed for another try at getting some rest.
Next week, the city was hit hard by an attack. Clint’s comms had gone down in the middle of things, and now he was searching through the rubble to see who or what had survived.
His heart skipped a beat when the first team member he found was Bruce, no longer transformed.
“Fuck, Bruce. Are you okay?”
Clint knelt next to Bruce and gathered him into his arms, looking concerned.
“Yeah,” Bruce answered, then coughed. “I mean, I feel awful. But I’m okay.”
“Hey, c’mon. Let’s get you out of this building before the rest of it collapses.”
Together they got to their feet and stumbled slowly toward an exit. There was the sound of support beams shifting and crackling overhead as they rushed out to safety.
Outside the building, firefighters worked on putting out flames bursting from several structures. They paid no attention to the bruised, limping archer and the naked scientist slowly making their way down the street.
“So...this is what winning looks like?” Bruce breathed in a bit of ash and began to have another coughing fit. Clint patted him on the back a few times, urging him forward.
Clint’s steps got increasingly awkward. “Think I broke my ankle, babe.”
With effort, Bruce tried to take some of Clint’s weight for him. “Lean on...here, lean on me more.”
Clint shook his head. “I can make it. I can’t collapse in the street after all that. This isn’t even that bad--fuck.”
“Where is...where’s everyone else?”
“Dunno. My comms went out. But I’m heading towards the sirens.”
“These attacks just keep getting worse, every time they happen,” Bruce said, his voice nearly drowned out by the sound of ambulances in the distance.
“I’ve gotten worse than a broken bone before.”
“Yeah, but look around you. This is horrible.”
Clint stumbled slightly, and Bruce reached out to steady him. “Thanks.”
“I should be doing more than this,” Bruce mused, his hands firmly on Clint.
“More than what? We got the call, we fought—what do you want to be doing?”
Bruce cleared his throat. “This feels like trying to stick a bandaid on a gaping wound—we stop the fighting after we’re already being attacked, and look at this. There’s got to be some way to prevent, or predict these events.”
“I’m not much of a preventative measures kinda guy. I’m the guy they call when they need something shot full of arrows...”
“I’ll talk to Tony, later. Bounce some ideas off him.”
“Right.” Clint winced as he took another step on his wounded ankle. Bruce’s post-battle thoughts weren’t exactly helping. All Clint had was this hero-ing gig, and Bruce didn’t seem to think that was worthwhile. Bruce would talk to Tony, and they’d probably come up with some sort of genius solution...what would they need Hawkeye for then?
“There’s the rest of the team,” Bruce pointed out, breaking Clint away from his thoughts.
“Let’s get you somewhere so I can have a look at your ankle.”
Clint shook his head. “You need rest, too. I can find another doctor.” Clint stepped away from Bruce’s steadying grip and began to hobble stubbornly in the direction of other medical care. Maybe he was being petty, but he was hurting in more ways than only his ankle. His pride, to give an example, had taken a blow at Bruce’s commentary. And Clint wasn’t helpless; he could take care of himself, leave Bruce to discuss brainy type things with Tony. It wasn’t like Bruce needed him, after all.
Clint's ankle healed up nicely enough in the days that came after the attack. He spent a lot of that time filling out paperwork and attending meetings.
"After weeks of collaboration between Dr. Banner and myself," Tony was saying, "We feel we have come up with a sort of solution to the continuous alien invasion problem."
Bruce nodded along and passed out packets of paper to the team. If he lingered a little bit longer when handing Hawkeye his packet--well, no one but the two of them seemed to notice.
Clint skimmed the information thoughtfully while Natasha sped through the paragraphs in what seemed like the blink of an eye. She could read and retain information so much faster than he could.
"As you might have guessed, I am already aware and supportive of Stark and Banner's suggested project," Fury added, taking center stage, so to speak. "Their proposal is to camouflage our planet as a temporary measure while we work out alliances with the rest of the surrounding inhabitants of the galaxy."
"Camouflage?" asked Steve. "How exactly is that going to work?"
"That's where Banner came in, beautifully, I might add." Tony clapped Bruce on the shoulder as he continued. "He's worked out a way to use reflective space particles in order to disguise the exact nature of our planet. Anyone looking at us from a few light years away is just going to get an eyeful of our sunlight. And if you can't see us, you can't invade us."
"What about the species who already know where and who we are?" Natasha asked.
"For those species, we attempt diplomacy--an alliance," Fury responded. "The time has come where we can no longer afford not to have interplanetary allies. And of course, for those unwise enough to be our enemies--the Avengers are still assembled and ready to deal with such eventualities."
The meeting wrapped up with further Q and A. Clint was more than a little surprised when Bruce, instead of leaving with Tony, hovered by his side until Clint stood and got ready to leave the room.
"I see you've really got your hands full with this project," Clint commented
"The theory is all complete," Bruce said. "All that's left now is the acting out of the plan. And to be honest, I don't have much to do with that. They'll shoot the reflective mini-satellites into space and monitor them from there. I really didn't do a lot."
"Tony seems to think this is all your idea. And...and you have been really busy lately."
Bruce shrugged his shoulders. "It was the best thing I could think to do after seeing you hurt. Throwing myself into my work like that."
"I'm fine. That broken bone was nothing."
"I know." Bruce looked at the ground. "Are you mad at me?"
Clint's eyes went wide. Sure, his pride had been a little hurt at Bruce ditching him for Tony, but it was out of practicality. Clint could respect that. "No. No, of course not. Just giving you space to work. I mean, I'm no genius like you and Tony. I wish I could help more, but I'm just a dumb guy with some arrows."
"No you're not." Bruce pushed him up against the edge of the meeting table. "No, you're not at all. Come on, come see the blueprints for the satellites."
Bruce took Clint down to the lab, turning on all the lights and giving the late night lab an eerie glow. "Take a look," Bruce said, pointing out the blueprints projected in front of them."
"Those are..." Clint said, in wonder.
"I'm shooting the sky full of arrows, Clint. Millions of small, reflective satellite arrowheads, ready to cling to the outer atmosphere. Ready to confuse our enemies. Without you, I never would have thought I could do this. Your trick arrows, your technique--you do more with arrows than I ever thought could be done. And you inspired this."
"You were thinking of me. This whole time?"
Bruce nodded. "I don't suppose you missed me...?"
As far as Clint was concerned, there was no time to waste with more words. He pressed as close as he could to Bruce and attempted to kiss the breath out of him.
“You wanted to see me, sir?” Clint said, ducking his chin slightly as he walked through Fury’s office door. He wasn’t usually summoned solo to Fury’s main office, unless he was in trouble, and he was wracking his brain for anything he could have screwed up recently.
“Come have a seat.”
Fury wasn’t seated himself. Instead he was standing by the large windows, looking down at the world below the helicarrier.
Clint sat down obediently and forced himself not to drum his fingers on the arms of the chair.
“So, our resident mad scientists have made some progress. I assume you’re up to speed on that?”
“Do you mean Bruce?” Clint blurted, then corrected himself. “I mean, um, Dr. Banner and Stark, sir?”
“Indeed. So you know, then? The plan that they’ve come up with?”
“Bruce—Dr. Banner explained it to me, sir. So yes, I understand, mostly.”
“And it’s come to my attention that you are somewhat…how shall I say it. An inspiration?”
“Is that what he’s telling everyone?” Clint said softly, fighting off a blush.
“Well, not everyone, I suppose. It’s not so important how this came about, though. What’s important is that this will make it much easier for our organization to focus on internal affairs for once. You’ll have less fighting on the street and more reconnaissance missions.”
“Natasha too, sir?”
“But I’ll still be part of the Avengers, won’t I?”
“You will. You have a wide variety of skills, much like Romanoff.”
“How are things at the Tower?” Fury finally walked away from the window and came to sit at his desk, opposite Clint.
“Nothing eventful, sir.”
“All right. Well, that’s all, unless you had any concerns?”
Clint hummed thoughtfully, making sure to keep his delight at being asked his opinion inside. He could break out in a full grin right now if he wasn’t careful.
“No, sir. Not at this time.”
“All right. Dismissed.”
“Thank you, sir.”
After being released by Fury, Clint wandered around the helicarrier. He didn’t have anything specific he was assigned to at the moment, but he was on standby for the next few days. He knew he’d miss everyone back at the Tower. Well, especially Natasha and Bruce.
Natasha was usually scheduled on standby opposite to him. He supposed that’s what they got for being so flexible. Their skills sets were wide enough that they overlapped some, although Clint knew that he’d never be as good at going undercover as Natasha. But no one probably would be, truth be told.
Bruce wasn’t a part of SHIELD, and therefore could only ever be asked to join them on the helicarrier. Most times he agreed when they needed him, but SHIELD knew they couldn’t push their luck with him.
Clint thought about going to the gym, but as he’d just worked out that morning, he knew he shouldn’t push himself that hard. He needed to give his muscles a chance to rebuild, anyway.
He was, in fact, a little bored.
He could always do paperwork, he supposed. But, nah.
He walked back to his dorm and sat on his bed, lying back and slipping off his boots. Taking out his cell phone, he began to scroll through his contacts. Calling Natasha was a bad idea right now. It was her day off and he didn’t want to bother her with complaining about how nothing was happening.
Bruce, on the other hand—well, he could give it a shot, couldn’t he? He had never actually called Bruce for social reasons. Because they lived in the same Tower, they never really had a reason to. Would Bruce like to hear from him, or would he be annoyed?
As chill as Bruce was, Clint knew he was busy. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that he really wanted to hear Bruce’s voice.
Clint looked at the clock. It was only seven, which meant that Bruce was most likely still in the lab. Tony was probably there. They would be working around each other like perfect gears. Like they had always known each other.
Clint pushed the jealous thoughts that were beginning to surface aside. He knew that Bruce cared for him. He had shown him that many times, hadn’t he? He didn’t want to think about the idea that he was only a second choice, or even a third choice. That he was available and therefore that was why Bruce was seeing him.
Wrong! He told himself. Wrong, wrong, wrong. He had to stop the cycle of self-defeating thoughts before they really got a hold of him and dragged him down.
He wanted to call Bruce so badly. He missed being within walking distance of him. Even though Clint rarely went into the lab because it made him feel out of place, he still liked knowing that Bruce was only a few floors away.
Clint had always been a tactile person. It was easier for him to feel wanted when he could reach out and touch Bruce on the shoulder or grasp his hand for a brief moment. Bruce’s touches always felt so honest, so right to Clint.
Maybe he should call. He could think up an excuse for why he was calling, allowing him to save face. What should he say? He could ask him a science question. Well, no. He couldn’t. He couldn’t even think of one.
He could…he could…just wing it.
Before he could talk himself out of it again, Clint pressed the button to dial Bruce’s number.
“Please don’t go to voicemail,” Clint whispered under his breath. It would be too humiliating to leave an awkward message.
“Clint, hi,” Bruce answered on the forth ring, and Clint could have jumped for joy.
“Hi,” Clint echoed. “I was just…wondering…”
“How you were doing?” Clint finished. Wow, way to go, genius, he berated himself. Winging it only ever worked for him when he was on a mission. When lives were on the line, it was no problem. When it was just his stupid feelings, that’s when he fell all over himself like his limbs were hitting trip wires all at once.
“Good, I’m good. How are you? How’s the air up there?”
“It’s not very exciting.”
Bruce laughed, “Well, can I at least be happy to hear that you’re bored? Excitement usually doesn’t bode well in our line of, uh, work.”
“You may be right, but, well. You know.”
“You know. That I, uh. Wish we weren’t separated by miles of air.”
“I’ll see you soon, won’t I?”
“Yeah,” Clint sighed.
“Listen, I have a great idea for our next date.”
“Really?” Clint’s heart began to pound in his chest. Bruce had never been the one to plan a date. It was more than nice that Bruce was thinking about that sort of thing.
“Yeah. So, it’s kind of good that you’re out of town, because I’m going to surprise you when you come back.”
“You’re going to make me wait to find out what you’re planning?” Clint complained. That wasn’t fair. He was going to be even more restless.
“Yes, I am. You’ll let me surprise you, won’t you?”
“I’ll let you do anything you want,” Clint admitted. “But I didn’t think you were the surprise type.”
“I’m trying something new. Everything about you and I is, well, new. And I wanted to try something.”
“Okay. I’ll wait.” Clint rolled onto his stomach on the bed, keeping the phone to his ear. “What have you been doing all day?”
“Um, I’ve been in the lab. As usual.”
“Have you eaten anything?”
Bruce met that question with silence.
“I’ll order in some Chinese food or something,” Bruce finally said.
“Will you do it when we get off the phone?”
“Okay. It’s not fair that I’m not there to bring you dinner.”
“I can take care of myself, Clint.”
“I know you can. But I’m going to hang up the phone now so you can get something to eat.”
“All right. I’ll see you in a few days.”