Among all the forceful and headstrong personalities that made up the Avengers, Clint was the last person Bruce expected to be having problems with.
When Tony offered, practically shoved him into a room in the rebuilt Stark Tower, Bruce stayed because leaving wouldn’t make any difference to his situation. And, frankly, he didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Bruce made himself comfortable by fading into the background, being inconspicuous. He kept mostly to himself and the labs. Times Square on the days he needed to feel the crowds moving around him. Sometimes he enjoyed working with Tony, but he made sure it was in moderated doses. He was aware that SHIELD had him under watch, but no one was building a cage for him yet. At least not one where he could see it. So basically, he thought he was doing pretty okay.
And he continued doing okay when Clint first moved in, along with the rest of the Avengers, after the big CUBE breakout. (That was the one where Ironman had blatantly disregarded Captain America’s orders and barely survived. The immediate threat was resolved but the following three weeks of cold war might just have been worse. Bruce was honestly grateful when Fury finally stepped in to express some strong concerns about the level of teamwork they were displaying… Somehow it ended up with everyone moving into the Tower and having movie nights on alternate Thursdays, also know as Thorsdays. But that wasn’t really related to Bruce’s problem with Clint)
Initially, Clint Barton Codename Hawkeye had seemed like any other highly secretive, highly trained SHIELD specialist — polite but aloof. Except it quickly became apparent that the guy shared some sort of strange intimacy with Natasha. And he got along with Steve well enough. Thor referred to him as “Bro Clinton” as if the term ‘bro’ was some sort of title. Even Tony mentioned him now and again. True, it was mostly work-related, like ideas for new arrowheads and obscure structural weaknesses in the Tower’s ventilation, but it definitely hinted at some degree of regular interaction between the two.
So Barton clearly wasn’t an emotionless cyborg with standing orders not to attempt friendliness. But somehow his casual interaction with Bruce never extended beyond a sharp nod and a short ‘Dr. Banner’ in the mornings.
It was particularly noticeable because all the other Avengers were trying pretty hard to make sure that Bruce felt included, in their own awkward ways. Even Natasha made it a point to join him for meditative exercises some mornings. And Bruce appreciated their efforts (though he’d really really prefer that Thor never visited the labs again). Only Barton was blatantly not even bothering to try.
Bruce didn’t mind it too much though, because he was used to being treated like social pariah. It came with the tendency to turn mean and green. In fact, he found Barton’s cool and guarded looks more familiar than Tony’s straightforward (and at times overbearing) charm or Steve’s earnest affability. And it wasn’t like Barton was throwing rocks at him. So Bruce accepted the clinical politeness and kept out of Barton’s way.
This worked out for four entire months.
Then the Gamma Ray Incident occurred.
Bruce had no idea what happened while he was hulked out (which was unusual because he usually remembered, if only in bits and pieces), but he knew immediately upon waking up that something major must have gone down.
For one, he was aching all over, like someone chewed him up and spat him out again.
For another, he was staring straight into Hawkeye’s face from less than a hand’s breadth away.
He was also naked except for a jacket draped haphazardly across his lap. Which the other Avenger was bleeding onto, looking as if he’d just survived being run over by a monster truck.
“Finally, Obi-wan,” Hawkeye huffed right up in his face, “You’re my only hope.”
“Okay,” Bruce replied eloquently, finding that level of familiarity disturbingly unfamiliar.
Hawkeye’s lashes fluttered down for a moment, considering, but then he's out of Bruce's personal space and explaining the situation shortly.
They were dealing with the Leader, your garden variety super-powered genocidal psychopath trying to take over the world. Except he also came complete with genius level intellect and crazy gamma ray guns, the latter of which had caused the rest of the Avengers to transform into homicidal mutant monsters. Hawkeye had managed to collect exactly two samples of said guns before beating a hasty retreat. And now they were hiding out in a high school laboratory, the closest and most secure location with any functioning scientific facilities.
Bruce stopped him there and just blinked. “Really,” he said, “You’re asking me to come up with a magic solution, rescue all our compromised superhero teammates, and save the world. Just like that.”
Hawkeye shrugged and informed him they had 4 hours before nuclear missiles were launched.
“Gee, I don’t know where you get all that confidence,” Bruce remarked drily.
“You’re the genius, Doc,” Clint grinned at him for the first time. “You figure it out.”
So Bruce was left to formulate a serum using plastic petri dishes and rusty Bunsen burners while Hawkeye disappeared off to obtain tranquilizer guns. (With a dislocated left arm. But he said it was fine because he was ambidextrous. Bruce knew better than to argue.)
Fortunately, Bruce’s phone was the epitome of the latest Stark technology. This meant that it could sync to JARVIS, and thus everything else. Including all his previous work on gamma radiation. If anyone could have solved the Gamma Ray problem in less than four hours, it was Dr. Bruce Banner, M.D., Ph.D.
So for everyone else, the world was saved for yet another week. But for Bruce, he was only just getting his first real introduction to the problem that was Clint Barton.
It started with Clint doing things that should probably make Bruce angry but mostly just confuses him.
Little things like taking his bland healthy oatmeal and replacing it with fruit loops, uploading Angry Bird widgets into every single one of his digital devices. Or strange and immature things like jumping out at Bruce from around dark corners, dropping out of the air vents when he enters a room. Or deliberately insensitive things like watching King Kong and The Elephant Man and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the drawing room and not changing the channel when Bruce walked by. He even invited Bruce to watch Beauty and the Beast with him.
There was also once when he perched on top of the chemicals shelf and just silently watched Bruce work for an entire afternoon.
“You know you’re starting to make me nervous,” Bruce had spoken up after the first hour.
“Good,” Clint had replied, not shifting an inch.
“It’s not a good idea to make me nervous,” Bruce tried to protest again, but it sounded weak even to himself.
He wasn’t really nervous. He wasn’t even angry. He just didn’t understand why Clint was doing this. Why Clint was doing this now. After they had gotten along for four tolerable months by effectively ignoring one another.
“Hmm,” Clint made a non-committal noise.
He didn’t leave until Bruce had decided to pack up and escape by joining the rest of the team for dinner (it was the first time since the incident where the other guy had somehow broken Captain America’s leg).
And then there was that thing — after every mission where Bruce had to hulk out and wake up in a foreign bed, Clint would come by and slap him hard enough on the back to dislodge his glasses. “Good job, Doc!” he’d say in an exaggeratedly cheery voice and then leave Bruce staring dumbly at his back.
After the third time, he started bringing donuts. Not the plain bagels Bruce usually restricted himself to, but sprinkle-loaded, chocolate-coated capsules of diabetes.
They would mostly be consumed by the rest of the team, popping by intermittently after various medical exams and debriefings, but Bruce would nibble on one or two while he watched Clint scribble out mission reports and listened to one or two tales of the other guy’s ‘brave deeds’, as told by Thor.
All in all, the things Clint did were mostly harmless (would be wholly harmless if not for Bruce’s propensity to turn into a destructive rage monster). But these things piled up. They added up one by one until, slowly but surely, his mind was filled up with them. The sheer confusion of why Clint was doing what he did was starting to cause Bruce low levels of constant frustration. It was definitely a problem. A big one.
Big enough that he talked to Tony about it.
But Tony merely insisted that Clint had always just been that annoying, that it’s his way of being nice. Those first few cordial months? Clint was just being shy. It wasn’t like Bruce had made an effort to get to know the archer better. It probably also didn’t help that Bruce didn’t happen to have Tony Stark levels of charisma.
Bruce remained skeptical because if anyone tried to be ‘nice’ to Natasha like that, she would have broken all their fingers.
“Valid point. But you’d think that I would have thrown anyone who redecorated my lab with Captain America memorabilia outta the house— Yet here I am, building him a new compound bow. It’s just Clint.” Tony shrugged, as if that explained everything.
“You did make JARVIS blast Trouble to wake him up at 4am for a whole week” Bruce pointed out, perfectly legitimately and without the slightest hint of disapproval.
“Hey, he likes the song,” Tony smirked, “It’s like his theme song.”
“Well you liked the Captain America memorabilia,” Bruce replied because he was just asking for it.
“And you liked the Disney movies!” Tony finished triumphantly, “We’re all friends here. We’re allowed to do nice things for each other."
But Bruce knew all this, whatever it was, wasn’t ordinary Clint behavior. At least not ordinary Clint behavior towards him. He knew that something happened that day, during the Gamma Ray incident. While he was hulked out and before he had woken up to Clint’s ridiculous blue eyes just four inches from his.
He knew for sure when Clint went and broke the unspoken rule that you don’t talk about the other guy unless Bruce does it first.
“Hey Doc,” Clint said as he slid into a chair across the table where Bruce was spreading out his experiment printouts. Bruce had no idea when or how he’d gotten into the lab, but he was no longer surprised by Clint’s surprise visits.
“If this is about time travelling DeLoreans again, I can and will use Stark’s electric prod against you,” Bruce answered, not looking up from where he was shifting through the datasheets, even though the numbers always seemed to stop making sense in Clint’s presence. It was just another facet of his Clint problem.
“Anger leads to the dark side,” Clint snorted, “Or the green side. For you.”
“Well then, what can I do for you, young padawan?” Bruce finally gave up on pretending to work and met Clint’s eyes. He recalled the days when he was still “Dr. Banner” and Clint was “Agent Barton” and wondered how they’d ended up trading quips about Star Wars.
There was a long silence. He waited but Clint was giving him a strange deer-caught-in-the-headlights look — which was really unfair because it was Clint who’d come disturbing him in his lab unannounced.
“Clint?” he prompted, softening his voice the way he did when he’s trying to convince people not to freak the fuck out because he’s not freaking the fuck out (but he might if they don’t stop). He could tell that Clint had come with a purpose, and that it somehow involved him. All that suspense wasn't exactly helping with his heart rate.
Something visibly tightened in Clint’s eyes. He was steeling himself, as if he’d come to a decision that he’s not sure if he’d regret.
“Do you remember what happens during missions, Doc?” he started carefully, but even a whisper could knock down a wall, if it’s a very thin wall. And Clint was treading upon a very sensitive subject.
Bruce let his face assume his most neutral expression, smiled blandly and answered vaguely. “Some of it.”
If Clint had caught the hint, noticed the way Bruce had shuttered himself off, he gave no obvious indication of it.
“How much do you remember about the time with the Leader?” He continued asking. At Bruce’s blank look he added, “Five months ago. Gamma ray guns that turned everyone into mutant monsters. You made a serum in a high school science lab.”
Of course Bruce remembered the Gamma Ray incident. It was when everything changed; everything between Clint and him. But he didn’t remember most of the actual details, so he told Clint as much. It was a relatively innocent question and now he wanted to know where this conversation was leading.
Clint nodded slowly, chewed his lower lip and shifted subtly in his chair. As a marksman, Clint rarely made unnecessary movements, so those tiny motions were equivalent to glaring signs of unease. Bruce watched him fidget and, again, waited. He hadn’t realized that he had so much patience until Clint.
“What happened before. I know. Some of it,” Clint finally said. He spoke haltingly, almost timidly, like he was offering up something intensely private. “Do you want to know?”
Truthfully, Bruce wasn’t sure. He didn’t know if it was all right for him to accept something that seemed so personal. But Clint looked like he wanted him to know, so Bruce said yes.
Clint told him: It started as a routine mission. SHIELD had gotten a lock upon three of the CUBE escapees and the Avengers had been assembled to bring them in. Two field teams had already been sacrificed, so they were cautious. Clint stayed up high while the rest of the team breached the premises from different positions.
They had been careful, but nothing could have prepared them for the Gamma rays.
One moment, Clint was watching from the neighboring rooftop, squinting at the strange green light shining through the dusty windows; the next moment, he was abseiling his way down the building as an ugly as fuck, big, green version of Captain America smashed out onto the streets. He had almost made it to the ground when monster Thor decided to destroy everything within a half-mile radius. Luckily, Thorster was up in the air, so Clint didn’t get vaporized. He merely dropped the remaining three stories and would have escaped unscathed, except he ended up being crushed by debris while still reeling from the fall.
Upon regaining his sense, he was greeted by the sight of the Hulk, who apparently couldn’t be mutated any further, facing down the rest of their Gamma-mutated teammates. The Hulk was holding up, but obviously suffering from the disadvantage in numbers. Thorster was particularly pesky and relentless, barely pausing even after taking a Toyota Hilux to the face. And though Clint couldn’t be sure, he felt distinctly like the Hulk was maybe, possibly pulling his punches.
The fight was starting to turn into a beating when Clint made a decision. His entire left torso was pinned under solid concrete, but he wasn’t about to be taken for dead. He couldn’t shoot an arrow, but he was no less deadly with a gun. So when the Hulk’s knee hit the ground, Clint fired a full round into the knee joints of the other Avengers. He didn’t think it was going to be keeping them down, but it should buy the Hulk enough time to escape the fray.
He had one more gun and two magazines for refill, though he probably wasn’t going to be able to reload. Worse come to worst, he’d start throwing rocks.
Clint had done the math. Five is greater than one. Hawkeye never missed a target, but he wasn’t capable of reversing the effects of gamma radiation or whatever the fuck it was. He could only hope that Bruce Banner, certified genius, would eventually come back and fix everything with his powers of science. Hopefully before Hawkeye got ripped apart (but failing that, the numbers still worked out).
Except things didn’t exactly proceed as planned, because while Clint was firing uselessly and chattering deliriously at an approaching Ironmonster (“your goatee makes you look like wannabe Italian outlaw. I keep waiting for you to paint black tights onto the ironman and shout ‘Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line’. And how is it even your suit turned green? It’s totally not your color”), the Hulk slammed down in front of him and swiftly dispelled his imminent death with a lamppost thrown like a javelin.
The Hulk hadn’t left, even though Clint had been so nice as to hand deliver him a well-aimed opening. It boggled his mind, but the Hulk was somehow still there. Right in front of him. He wasn't hallucinating.
Clint was half dug, half wrenched out of the concrete slabs by sheer brute strength. His entire left arm was dislocated in the process, but he was probably getting it as gentle as it could get, all things considered.
“Then the Hulk tossed me into a telephone box and smashed up a building,” Clint smiles here, a crooked quirk of his lips, “Brought the entire thing down on himself and the freak show Avengers. I managed to make it there just as the dust was settling, saw him crawling his way back out of the ruins like a scene out of The Living Dead.”
Bruce kept his face impassive, though his insides were churning. He hadn’t said a single word, not even when Clint was trying to rationalize his stupid suicidal plan.
It wasn’t really what Clint was saying though; it was the way he was saying it. Honest, intimate, and just a bit reverent. It made Bruce feel like someone was peeling back his skin, exposing muscles and sinew and bright, emerald green. It wasn't right, he should calm down. Clint probably didn't mean anything by it. Except Bruce just didn't know what the fuck Clint did mean. He never did. The pressure was building behind his eyeballs, the heat rising in his blood.
“He crawls all the way back up and just collapses, right in front of me. But not before I got a good look at him. It was the first time. I looked him straight into the eyes. And I saw —“ Clint’s voice trembled but he held Bruce’s gaze, didn’t even blink, “I saw you. You were in there. You’re the Hulk.”
Bruce froze as the silence dragged out. It was like someone had suddenly turned the spotlight on him. He was on stage but he didn't know his lines. He abruptly dropped his gaze because he couldn’t take anymore of that plaintive look in Clint’s eyes.
When he finally spoke, it was a disaster.
“Is that all you have to say, captain obvious?” He tried for a chuckle but it died in his throat.
Clint shut down hard and fast, eyes narrowing and back snapping straight. Bruce wouldn’t be surprised if he immediately disappeared back up the ceiling or however it was he infiltrated the lab.
Again, Bruce found it highly unfair because Clint was the one being downright inconsiderate. He shouldn’t look so betrayed just because Bruce didn’t want to talk about it. People didn’t talk to Bruce about the Hulk. Not like that.
People who cared about Bruce didn’t care that he’s the Hulk. People who cared about the Hulk didn’t care that he’s Bruce. It’s always been mutually exclusive. It’s neat and simple and it’s necessary. Bruce Banner was the Hulk, but not really. He didn’t want to be the Hulk. He couldn’t be the Hulk, not if he wanted to be Bruce Banner.
And the Hulk just wanted to smash. It didn’t give a shit about being Bruce Banner.
“Yes, I turn into the big green monster. That’s why I’m here or they’d have to put me in a cage,” Bruce could hear the sharp edge bleeding into his tone. His carefully maintained mild-mannered front was cracking, but he felt like he had keep speaking -- let the rage all fall out of his mouth, or he would fucking lose it right there.
When Clint just kept looking at him with those eyes, Bruce didn’t know what to think so he decided to take offence. He didn’t deal well with anger but he was goddamn familiar with it.
“So the other guy saved you. You had an epiphany. But maybe you should have paid more attention to the fact that it has also been saving the world on a regular basis. You think it’s all Barney and friends because right now it’s playing by your rules, but only right now. For now. Because it can stop – at any time, for any reason, even without any reason. And when it stops, you are going to have to save the world from it. Oh. No. I apologise, I mean from me. Surely SHIELD has some protocol in place for the eventuality when their pet monster goes feral. In fact, I really think it ought to be on my file. Maybe you should go read it again. Remind yourself of what you’re dealing with, agent.”
Then he stopped because Clint flinched — visibly recoiled at the last word. They’d been working together for more than a year and Bruce had never seen Clint so much as twitch when facing down would-be alien overlords and giant killer robots.
So when Clint flinched Bruce stopped dead in his tracks, the anger rushing out of him like air from a deflated balloon.
“Clint. I’m sorry,” he tried, unconsciously taking a step forward and reaching for the other man’s arm. Strange echoes of his first meeting with Natasha flashed through his mind. I’m sorry that was mean and the fear feverish bright in her eyes.
But there was no fear in Clint’s eyes. There never had been any, not even in the first few months of cold cordiality. There was just distance. The gaze of a marksman eyeing his target from somewhere far, far away.
Clint took one step back, away from him.
“He’s not a monster, Dr. Banner,” Clint said and the address hurt almost as much as the look in his eyes, “Not unless you are.”
He left by the door.
Bruce didn’t see Clint for the next four days. Didn’t see anyone at all actually, because he had shut himself in the laboratory. He was trying to work something out, he just wasn’t sure what. Tony sent him four messages on the first day, ranging from sarcastic to concerned, then regular meals the next three when he didn’t reply.
He had been awake for fifty-six hours straight, keeping his mind occupied with experiment hypotheses and perimeters. The lab was becoming so stifling that he felt ready to crawl out of his own skin. He knew that he needed to get out of this self-imposed lockdown soon, before the solitude swallows him up and he loses sight of all the somehow important things that held him down to reality. Because here, where it was just him and the steadily beeping machines, things like ‘civilian casualties’ and ‘collateral damage’ seemed entirely meaningless. He was starting to forget why he ought to care.
He’d been staring at the digital clock on the far wall for two hours and forty-three minutes when Natasha stalked in.
She moved across the room like a jungle cat — which was odd because she usually kept her stance relaxed and casual around him. (He knew full well how dangerous she was, but if she thought that masking it would make him less nervous, he wasn’t about to disillusion her. At the any rate, it made her less nervous.)
“Now’s not a good time,” he informed her because honesty was always the best policy when the other guy was concerned.
She stood with her hands on her hips and arched an elegant eyebrow at him. It spoke volumes. Thanks for pointing out the obvious. I don’t want to do this either, but you’re giving me no choice. It made him feel like a kid in kindergarten, about to receive a lecture on why he shouldn’t break all the nice toys.
“Clint’s an idiot, but I always thought you’re supposed to be a genius, Bruce,” she said. She said it in such a matter of fact manner that it didn’t even sound like an accusation.
“I’m good at nuclear physics, Natasha. But apparently not at Clint,” Bruce replied. He finally gave in to the fatigue long enough to scrub a hand over his face. It felt rough and disgusting because he hadn’t shaved in three days and hadn’t washed in as many. It had been a while since he was last in such a state. Not since he’d joined the Avengers.
When he looked up again, Natasha held his gaze. She always tried to look him straight in the eyes. He knew it’s because she needed to be constantly certain that he wasn’t losing it, that he wasn’t about to throw her through a metal wall again, but that didn’t make her unabashed stare any less soul-piercing. If he had been possessed by evil spirits, they’d probably all be burning right now.
“Obviously you’re not trying,” she stated authoritatively, “because Clint is easy.”
He tried to stare her down even though he knew she wasn’t going to budge unless the other guy came out to play. He wasn’t about to let that happen. So, inevitably, he relented.
“Enlighten me. Please,” he asked as he spread his hands in a gesture of peace.
She took the chair Clint had vacated and did as he requested.
Natasha told him about Clint’s childhood, or what she knew of it. The abusive father, the orphanage, the circus. Some of it sounded oddly familiar, and if he dug deeper, he would probably have found them dimly reflected in his own memories. But Bruce left those memories alone because they tended to mess up his already tenuous control.
Thankfully, Natasha was neutral, efficient and almost detached in her dissertation. Her stoic voice rolled over him, a steadying influence, and gradually the rage receded. So when she told him the same story Clint had told him not all that long ago, he didn’t feel raw and exposed and desperate to lash out, not like he did the first time.
Instead, he felt hollow. Empty and used up. Almost like someone without a savage, wrathful beast inside him.
It was a disorienting experience, hearing their story from someone else’s mouth. It made it seem like those things happened to other people and really weren’t all that complicated. He could see clearer now. Clint really hadn't meant anything by it. He came to tell him all those things because it was something they shared, an unlikely connection bridging the space between two unlikely people. And Clint just wanted him to know so that Bruce would have all the cards, so that they could actually, properly share this thing together.
Except Bruce went and threw it all back in his face.
“You panicked. It was understandable. Clint will get over it,” Natasha pursed her lips and frowned, “The problem is: what are you planning to do, after? Nice as it is to have a mature third party perspective on your little situation, I’m not going to be hand-holding the two of you through this.”
“I’m not planning to do anything. It’s a bad idea. You might find Clint easy but he – he confuses me. A lot,” Bruce admitted because this was Natasha, being about as caring as she could ever get around him. If he told her, she could at least keep an eye over things, maybe come in for a recalibration when they eventually turn out badly.
“I said Clint’s easy; I didn’t say he’s logical,” she shook her head and explained slowly, as one would to a small child, “Clint is easy because there’re only two choices when it comes to him. You can stay, or you can go. He wants things, but he’s not expecting anything. He just… likes picking up strays. Injured puppies, back alley orphans, former KGB assassins…” she smiled a little here – “But he has problems keeping them. He cuts them loose once they stop being reliant on him. He lets them go because he doesn’t want them to leave. I told him that didn’t make any sense but he thinks it makes a world of difference.”
Bruce felt his jaw involuntarily tighten because this – This, he kind of understood. It made perfect sense even though it shouldn’t. It made the sort of sense that had Bruce drifting from place to place, never taking anything more lasting than a toothbrush.
“That day, when you saved him, he decided to ‘pick’ you up. As he sometimes does. And I think that was all there was to it, except somewhere down the line, things must have changed. I think he found something in you,” She paused and, if he didn’t know better, he would say that there was something forlorn about the look in her eyes, “Something he can keep.”
Her words sank into his mind and unlocked something deep inside. But before he could grasp onto it, understand it, his body took over. His lips twitched, pulling into something between a smile and a grimace. He bit down and tasted blood. He could feel his shoulders convulsing. The tremors started small but then it burst out into uncontrollable laughter. Bruce had to fold over onto himself, he was howling so hard there were tears in his eyes.
At first he didn't know why he was laughing, but then he thought it was pretty obvious.
What Natasha said was ridiculous, an absolute riot. Not because she had essentially called him a stray – he’s not denying that. Not at all. He’s the only avenger on permanent probation. He didn’t have a home, didn’t even have a place in this world. There was a time where he thought he had a family, but now he knew better than to kid himself.
No. What was ridiculous was the notion that, of all the strays out there, he might just be the one that Clint would want to keep.
Natasha waited patiently until he had laughed himself dry, the last guffaw wringed out of him like a spasm. When he finally regains enough focus to look at her through blurry eyes, he could see that she was looking at him in a different light. Her gaze was maybe a little kinder, a little sadder, but mostly it was that hint of marvel, of admiration, that made his insides want to knot together.
Absently, he wondered if something else had leaked out along with the tears of laughter. But he didn’t ask and Natasha didn’t say.
She made him pick himself up and marched him out of the lab for a proper meal and a shower. But before they parted, she whispered in his ear, “I didn’t stay, but I never went far. If you hurt him, I’ll hurt you. Hulk or no Hulk.”
Bruce didn’t see Clint for another four days. Then one fine morning, he walked into the kitchen and saw the other man just standing there, pouring out milk as if he hadn’t been missing for more than a week.
“I picked him up last night,” Tony remarked from where he was seated at the kitchen island, inclining his head the way he did when he wanted to make a significant point, “in Alaska.”
“Should have sent me a postcard,” Bruce said. He was thirsty but he didn’t move from the doorway. Clint was standing by the fridge.
“You know I’m not a taxi service,” Tony continued, “My time is very precious and extremely expensive. And while I’m not expecting a standing ovation, I’m just saying that someone should at least be making me pancakes.”
Clint chucked a bagel at Tony’s head, but he turned to take eggs and butter out of the fridge. Bruce had given up on his hopes of orange juice and started shuffling towards the sink, but he stopped midway when he noticed Clint’s eyes on him. He stood frozen to the spot, although the urge to flee was extremely strong.
“You want some pancakes, Doc?” Clint asked, casual as you please, leaning back against the counter with a tentative half-smile on his lips and something vulnerable in his eyes.
“Can,” Bruce stopped, swallowed, because his throat was so dry, “Can I have some?”
“Only if you watch Fight Club with me later,” Clint flashed him a full grin before turning around to take down the mixing bowl.
And that was it. It was easy. Too easy. Bruce looked helplessly towards Tony, but the other man was too preoccupied with rolling his eyes while typing furiously away on his tiny 3.2inch phone.
Bruce only discovered the messages much later, when he eventually returned to the lab.
Bruce. Buddy. Your face is ridiculous.
You owe one.
no you owe me many. MANY. One for every minute of my heart to heart with Hawtass
*heart to arc reactor
there’s no accounting for tastes but I really hope this is what you want because NEVER AGAIN
not when I’m sober anyway
Thank you, Bruce messaged back because there wasn’t much else he could say.
Tony's reply came almost immediately.
did Natasha threaten you with death by sexy superspy techniques? Cause I promised Clint I will bury him in bird pellets if he screws this up
Things went mostly back to normal, but Bruce soon found that normal just wasn’t enough anymore. Every time he looked at Clint, he couldn’t help wondering what it’d be like to have more. Worse still, he knew he wasn’t the only one wondering.
Because Clint made a confession the first time they were alone together. “Tasha said you find me confusing,” he said.
“I told her that,” Bruce might have been a bit horrified by that statement and it showed, “in confidence.”
“Relax, Doc,” Clint made a face at him, “She didn’t give away all your sleepover session secrets. She was just giving me a heads up.” Then he ignored Bruce’s frown and continued, “But yeah…I just think you should know that I’m not exactly operating with a detailed users’ manual either. In fact, this is way out of my depths. I tend to get a bit lost when I’m not out on the field, or at the range. Life gets so complicated when it’s not just targets and bullseyes and well, you’re…you’re not making it any easier.”
Clint must have realized that he was rambling, because he stopped himself and took a deep breath. Then he stared down at his boots and spoke so softly it was almost a whisper, “If you figure out where this is going, you should tell me. Cause I’m not too sure myself.”
It made things a little awkward between them. They were dancing around each other, circling each other, neither able to make a move. In the meanwhile, they continued doing things the way they used to, except it was getting harder to find the right time to say goodbye after a movie or the right excuse to drop by the shooting range. Even chance meetings along the corridors ended up like some deconstructed tango, two steps back two steps forward, both trying to get around each other but not wanting to leave.
Nevertheless, this thing — this Bruce and Clint thing was somehow happening and it kept happening day after day.
It didn’t feel like they were making any progress but Bruce was learning not to mind. He knew that, in the end, the hours added up. That’s the Sorites paradox, you take a grain and then another grain, you keep taking them until suddenly, you realize you have a heap. Then you can take away a grain and then another grain, but the heap will still be there.
Bruce had told Natasha that he wasn’t planning to do anything, and he held true to his word, but he apparently couldn’t stop the other Avengers from trying to do something about it. The ‘other Avengers’ being Tony. And maybe the rest of them, for the simple fact that they played along.
JARVIS started playing mood music whenever they were together, even when they were in the gym. There were two less places at team dinner and a reservation to some nice, romantic Michelin star restaurant instead. And of course a new lovers seat for movie Thorsdays, along with a drastic decrease in violent cult classics and corresponding increase in chick flicks.
The final straw came when Tony banished them from the drawing room. “You guys need to go somewhere else because my Safavid carpet is about to spontaneously combust from sheer sexual frustration. It’s an antique. Pepper would be upset.” He had a 42-inch plasma screen installed into Bruce’s room the same day and sent over a bucketful of champagne the very night.
The thing is that, although Tony often made other people’s lives unpleasant, he mostly proceeded with the best of intentions. You couldn’t really blame him and, sometimes, he did the right things.
It was the first time Clint actually comes into his room and the first thing he said was “I see your taste in deco runs towards the Spartan.”
“I spend most of my time in the labs,” Bruce shrugged. And the other guy tends to make a mess, he didn’t add because they didn’t really talk about the other guy anymore.
They watched the Wimbledon semi-finals sitting side by side on the edge of Bruce’s bed. They’re both not big on drinking, for different reasons, but anyone could appreciate a glass or two of fine Stark-sponsored champagne. JARVIS had Nouvelle Vague crooning softly in the background.
By the third set Bruce was spending more time looking at Clint’s profile than the screen.
It only took one sideways glance and a smile – the shy, uncertain one, not the cocksure Hawkeye grin – from him for Bruce to be blurting out, “Why are you here?”
Clint tilted his head and considered the question. “I think it’s because Tony banned us from the drawing room.”
“No. Why are you here? With me?” Bruce was probably a little more influenced by the alcohol than expected, because he would usually have let it go by now, “I’ve been trying…but I can’t figure it out.”
Clint finally turned to face him, but it was only to give him a look of full of complicated emotions he didn’t feel capable of deciphering at the moment. “I thought it would be obvious by now that I just happen to enjoy your company?”
“Yeah. But,” Bruce tried to articulate his problem into coherent words (it wasn't too hard because it usually just boiled down to that one thing), “But there’s the other guy. There’s the Hulk.”
And here would have been a really good place for Clint to say I don’t care or it’s okay or one of the many other variations of answers that would’ve considerately avoided the issue. And then they could have fallen into bed and finally resolved something, if only for a while.
But Clint took a long look at him and said instead, “No Bruce, there’s just you.”
Bruce might have short-circuited for a moment because he just sat there staring at the other man for the longest time. His mind was in a mess, his pulse rate climbing. There was some very important message here, if only he could get through the blaring thoughts of what and no you’re wrong and how are you even real.
It was a moment that could have ended up with Bruce figuring out the question to life, the universe and everything or going green and destroying the Tower. But then the moment was abruptly broken by Clint jolting up from the bed.
“What?” Bruce looked up in confusion at the sudden command.
“Stand up, Bruce.” Clint was taking him by the arm and half-dragging him upright.
He had barely straightened himself when a warm body basically wrapped itself around him. Clint had snaked his arms under Bruce’s and was clinging on tight.
“What,” Bruce repeated gingerly, his entire body rigid from the contact, “are you doing. Clint.”
“It’s called a hug, Bruce,” Clint answered with a perfect deadpan. Bruce can’t see his face, but he could tell that Clint was rolling his eyes, “People give it to others when they’re happy or sad or, you know, just whenever the hell they feel like it. I promise it isn’t anything weird.”
“Yeah, okay,” Bruce had to resist rolling his eyes as well, but he allowed himself to relax into Clint’s hold. Cleared his mind of everything but the feel of Clint pressed up close to him. He even brought his own arms up to loosely encircle the archer’s waist.
Clint was a solid wall of muscles and his grip was just south of too tight. It wasn’t the most comfortable hug in the world (and Bruce didn’t even need a vast collection of past experiences to compare), but it was definitely a good one – strong, warm and comforting.
“When does this end? Because I’m pretty sure there was a three-second rule,” Bruce asked again, long after three seconds.
“I know you’re an angry person, Doc,” Clint mumbled against the side of his neck. It tickled, just a little. “But after all that you have to deal with for just being you, I think you can deal with being treated like a normal human being for just a little while more.”
“Is that what you’re doing? Treating me like a normal human being?”
“I’ve never treated you otherwise, Bruce.”
There was a moment of silence then —
“Do you also shoot plastic arrows at normal human beings from the air vents?” Bruce couldn’t help but ask, because Really?
“Until Coulson made me stop,” Clint laughed and his whole body practically vibrated, “I was trying to make a point about constant vigilance.”
Bruce silently shook his head and resisted the urge to bury his smile into Clint’s short-cropped hair.
Clint made his brain short-circuit and gave him a calm down hugs. Bruce was still confused, but he was also gathering the clues one by one. They were adding up. He just didn’t know when he would be able to look up and finally see the heap.
In association with the following overabundance of feels, may I also direct you to my EMH!Hulkeye video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztOUNErquEM
Bruce didn’t necessarily have to stay in the wards after he wakes up. Of course, he had his problems. Sometimes he couldn’t stop his hands from shaking, sometimes his body ached from phantom pains. Mostly, he’s still a bit shell-shocked from all that pure, unadulterated violence tearing through his system and he needed a moment to readjust.
But he didn’t need to stay in bed for that. He knew for a fact that he could get right up and walk another ten miles if he had to.
So the fact that he was lingering longer and longer inside the recovery room had nothing to do with actual recovery. It was just the easiest place for him to be, in those moments.
See, Bruce was part of the Avengers, but not really. He occupied an odd position on the team. He was maybe a body double, maybe an understudy. But was he part of the actual cast? He couldn’t say. He was there, but not in the way that mattered. Ultimately, it was the other guy out there on the field. The other guy who shared in all the world-saving and ass-kicking.
People thought of the other guy when they talked about the Avengers. They didn’t think about Dr. Bruce Banner, slightly scruffy scientist. He’s the one that gets labeled ‘mystery male’ by the paparazzi.
Bruce didn’t mind it much honestly. Except for those awkward moments where he found himself sitting in a sterile hospital bed, staring at the door and wondering why he didn’t just leave. Eventually, he decided it was because he didn’t want to have to stroll up to the others and pretend like he’d been there all along. Didn’t want to say something false and meaningless like ‘So how did it go? Did we win?’.
He wasn’t avoiding the team per se. He was just avoiding the aftermath, where the memory of the battle which he was-but-was-not in was still fresh in their minds. Then he could reappear the next morning and it would be like nothing was different.
So Bruce lingered in the wards, shut up in his solitary misery, because having to step out and find company was somehow worse.
That is, until Clint happened.
The thing was, Bruce had never doubted Clint’s abilities and place on the team, not even back when he was still 'Agent Barton' and giving him the cold shoulder. He trusted Hawkeye to be up there, wherever he was, eyes on everything and missing nothing. It just took him much longer to fully appreciate what this meant.
Even then, it was the other guy who realized it first.
It didn’t take a miracle. Something similar must have happened before, maybe even multiple times before. But it was a miracle because for that one time, the other guy actually noticed.
They were under attack and out numbered, which was nothing unusual. He was surrounded by about a dozen alien robots, but it wasn’t going to be deadly, just painful. So he was crouched down, braced for impact and ready to be pounded down into the ground… except it never came. Instead, he looked up just in time to see the last arrow explode, embedded dead centre.
He couldn’t see Hawkeye, didn’t know where all the shots came from, but he realized right then that the other man has got his back. He’s got back-up. Better yet, he’s got the best marksman in the world as back-up.
Before, he trusted Hawkeye to watch over the team; now, he trusted Hawkeye to watch over him. (Later, he wondered if maybe this was a little like how Clint felt when he was trapped under concrete, facing oncoming death, but then the Hulk dropped down from the sky for him.)
Anyway, though it worked out for the other guy, Bruce was still sitting around in empty rooms, staring at the door. It was only when Clint started bringing donuts when he finally got a clue.
The biggest change was that he wasn’t waking up alone anymore. Clint would be there, napping in a corner or bitching about paperwork. The donuts gave the others an excuse to drop by and somehow, it was completely different – their coming to him, instead of his going to them. And Bruce didn’t even know how much he needed it until Clint made it happen.
And that’s the thing. Hawkeye watched over the team; Hawkeye watched over the other guy. It made sense, because the other guy was part of the team. But now they’re off the field and he’s just Bruce, yet Clint was still here, watching out for him. What this meant, Bruce could speculate, did speculate. But when he couldn’t find an answer that made sense, he could only conclude that Clint was utterly confusing.
But in any case, he knew one thing: He wasn’t staying in the wards to be alone anymore. He was staying there to be with Clint.
When Bruce shuddered awake, there was no Clint and no donuts. It was rare, but not unusual. Clint was a professional superhero; sometimes he had other things to attend to. Bruce was just concerned because he woke with a sense of urgency thrumming at the back of his head and adrenaline churning in his veins. There was something very important he, the other guy had to do. Some sort of mission he had to complete. Except the details were lost in the fragments of his memory.
He tried to stay in the room. If he waited, Clint might come by. And he ought to try and remember what seemed so pressing and important. A retrieval mission of some kind? He kept himself calm. He was in control. But a couple of restless hours later, he went out, met Agent Sitwell and was promptly informed that Hawkeye was still in intensive care.
Then suddenly, he was having another big, green episode right there in the middle of the helicarrier.
He remembered the mission immediately. It was a retrieval mission and he was trying to retrieve Clint. Trying because the last time he saw the other man, he was laying broken and bleeding at Baron Strucker’s feet. Then and now, his senses were obscured by the emerald tide of rage. He didn't have much of a mind left, he only knew that he wanted to smash his way to Clint.
But all these people were shooting at him, trying to stop him. Thor and Steve among them. A fact which made him exceedingly, indescribably mad. He found it absolutely unforgivable that they were not on his side. That they were hurting him. That they weren’t in fucking intensive care. But even through this turbid green frenzy, he managed to muster enough coherence to know that they were doing the right thing.
He had to stop. Stop smashing. He had to get away. Away from Clint and everything that was keeping him alive.
So he threw himself out of the helicarrier before he could do any real damage.
30 000 feet up in the air and falling, he realized exactly how screwed up this whole Clint situation was getting.
When he woke up again, he was naked in a four by four feet glass box, surrounded by a full platoon of men so heavily armored he couldn’t even see their eyes. It felt so perversely appropriate he almost mistook the familiar sensation of resignation for nostalgia.
This was why Bruce can’t have nice things. Some people had a home waiting for them at the end of the day. Bruce had a cage.
He stared up at the metallic roof of his little box and went through a series of meditative exercises before he sat up. “Sorry,” he croaked out to no one in particular, trusting that he had everyone’s full attention, “Can I at least have something to wear?”
No one in the room moved. He sighed. They had maybe 30 rifles trained on him but they wouldn’t spare him a pair of boxes. Most likely because giving him clothes would mean that they’d have to unlock the cage. Sensible for them, but humiliating (and cold) for him.
After four uncomfortable hours, Natasha finally walked in. Bruce hadn’t moved from his initial position. He sat hunched over into himself, going through partial differential equations in his head. Her uniform was immaculate, but there were dark circles under her eyes.
“Hawkeye’s out of danger,” she said before he could ask, “We’re still dealing with your mess though.”
“Out of danger,” Bruce repeated dryly. It wasn’t very informative, but it was sufficient to take him off the edge. He cranked his neck and looked meaningfully at her through the clear walls, “Can you do anything about this?”
“Protocol says 24 hours,” Natasha stated carefully, “Things will go easier if you… cooperate. I brought your something to wear.”
24 hours eventually passed, but Natasha failed to mention that it was merely Stage One of the protocols. They let him out from the glass box, but they didn’t let him out from the cage. Stage two went on for days while they hooked him onto different but equally useless machines and put him through different but equally useless tests.
Bruce still believed that cooperation was the easiest route, but he was fast losing conviction that it was the best one.
“When can I get out?” he asked Natasha the next time she showed up, “At least give me a time frame.”
“It’s not my decision,” she replied, glancing up at the hidden cameras all around his cell.
“Natasha,” he leaned forward, forcing her to meet his eyes, “I’m not asking because I want to know. I’m asking because I need to.”
She looked hard at him and he could guess what she saw, but to her credit, she didn’t show any inkling of fear this time. Instead, her jaw clenched in silent determination as she bent her head forward to whisper in his ears, “14 days. I can’t promise you anything as a SHIELD agent, but I can give you this much as an Avenger.”
However, it was barely Day 10 when Bruce was startled awake by flashing red lights and full alarms blaring. They had put his entire level into lock-down and he could see the guards and assorted personnel squirming around nervously, trapped between his cell and the bolted doors. At least now he wasn’t the only one unhappy about being here.
But for all the fanfare, nothing else actually materialized that night. Tony didn’t blast his way through ceiling and Thor didn’t coming smashing through the walls. The longer he waited, the more Bruce figured that something was wrong. His fears were confirmed the moment peace and quiet returned to the facility, because Nick Fury himself came striding in through the freshly opened gates.
“There better be a good explanation for why one of my top agents just tried to break into a top security SHIELD holding facility,” the director paced deliberately towards him, “while under medical sedatives.”
It could only be Clint who would be stupid enough to try and break into a heavily secure military site when he shouldn’t even be out of bed for another month. Clearly Bruce wasn’t the only person getting screwed over by this strange and confusing relationship; it was turning out to be a liability for both of them.
Bruce should have known better, but he had always been bad at Clint. Bad at understanding him, even worse at resisting him. But now it was clear. Clint’s life had been a progression of abandonment, so he wanted things but didn’t dare to keep them. Bruce’s life had been a never-ending search for escape. He wanted things too, wanted them desperately, but he simply couldn’t keep them. Because he was Bruce Banner and because he was the Hulk.
So there you have it. Clint was scared of losing things. Bruce was incapable of not losing things. They were terrible for each other. It would never work. Bruce should have known, he really should have known.
“I’m still waiting,” Nick Fury reminded him, single eye hard and glinting in the dim light.
Is he okay, Bruce wanted to ask, but he caught himself. Fury wouldn’t be down here interrogating him about his personal life if Clint had caused any real damage, be it to the facility or to himself. Natasha would be here instead, probably delivering the pain that she promised him. So Clint must be fine, even though he was obviously stupid and suicidal and downright insane to even attempt something like that barely two weeks out of intensive care.
“Clint is an idiot,” he said instead. Fury cocked an eyebrow, but didn’t disagree. “But he’s a good friend.”
“Friend,” Fury spoke the word as if he was trying it on for size, testing out just how much it actually fit the situation. He didn’t look impressed by his findings. “I don’t know what the two of you think you're playing at, but I for one have to answer to a nation. Three hundred million people. Whatever is going on, it may have started out as your personal business, but now it’s affecting your judgments. That’s dangerous. So if you don’t get a grip on it, I will take action.”
“No,” Bruce shook his head, feeling inexplicably drained, “You won’t have to.”
When SHIELD finally lets him back into the Avengers Tower, he walks straight into his lab to the sedate strains of It’s not easy being green playing over the sound system. He finds a note taped to his computer screen – Kermit ain’t got nothing on you big buddy – written in Clint’s chicken scrawl. There is a fine layer of dust over it, which means Clint had come in to sabotage the system before recent events had so abruptly placed him in the hospital.
Green can be cool and friendly-like, and green can be big like an ocean, Kermit warbles and Bruce would smile if recent events had not so abruptly gone down as they had. It’s one of those things Clint does, the one where he talks to Bruce as if he’s talking to the Hulk.
Which he is.
So that’s it.
Bruce drops onto his chair, Kermit’s weedy voice echoing around the sterile room, and figures it out.
The enigma that was Clint unwraps before him, like the layers of a Rubik’s cube sliding into place, and Bruce wonders how he could’ve been blind so something so simple and perfect.
Sometime while he was out on the field fighting frost giants and hostile aliens, it didn’t matter anymore that he didn’t have armor because Clint was watching his back. Sometime while he was out unconscious during the Mastermind incident, Clint had decided to adopt him and feed him donuts and somehow stop him from being so alone. And sometime while he was still being confused over why that was all happening, Clint had stopped dissecting Bruce Banner and the other guy into carefully segregated compartments and instead tried to fit them together.
No one has done that before, not even Bruce, so he can’t even begin to imagine how it can be possible. But, for the first time, someone wants Bruce to be the Hulk and the Hulk to be Bruce.
For once, something amazing is happening and it isn’t because of the other guy or despite the other guy. There is no other guy. There’s just him. That’s what Clint wants. All of him, as he is.
So Bruce has finally figured Clint out, but he didn’t win any prizes. Instead, he ends up knowing just what he is about to lose. Talk about excellent timing.
“JARVIS, where is Clint?” he asks aloud. He’d planned to leave it for a few days, maybe wait until Clint fully recovers. Except now he knows that it was only going to get harder the longer he lets it drag out. So he decides to end it as soon as possible.
“Mr. Barton prefers that I do not divulge his whereabouts,” JARVIS’s mild voice efficiently answers him, “However he has instructed me to direct you to his quarters if you wish to find him.”
Bruce blinks in surprise. It seems Clint was expecting him. He doesn't let that stop him, gets to his feet and makes his way up the Tower. Eventually he stops in front of a closed door, knocks twice but doesn’t get any response.
“JARVIS, he’s not in,” he observes lamely in the middle of the corridor.
“That is correct,” JARVIS agrees blandly, “Mr. Barton has provided you with full access to his chambers.”
The tiny light on the electric lock flashed twice before turning green. The latch clicked open and the door fell ajar. The room within was dark.
“Do I— do I just go in?” Bruce pauses uncertainly in the doorway, one hand on the knob to prevent the door from opening any further. He knows Clint has given his permission, even issued an open invitation, but it still feels somewhat invasive to enter his room while he is away.
“As you please, Dr. Banner,” JARVIS intones.
Clint must have his reasons, Bruce decides as he softly nudges open the door and steps in.
The first thing he did after entering was to open the thick curtains and expel the darkness. In the light, Clint’s room is no less Spartan than his own. There is almost nothing in the way of personal effects and the whole place would have seemed unlived in if not for the rumpled sheets.
Sitting provocatively upon the middle of the writing table is a large tin box, the kind that could have contained biscuits or other confectionaries. On its lid was a plastic gold ring that Bruce recognizes upon sight. It is the decoder ring that had come out of one of those boxes of sugary cereals Clint had swapped his oatmeal with. Clint had traded him a tiny plastic model of R2-D2 for it, which Bruce had thought was a pretty good deal. The R2-D2 still hangs from his key ring, left in a tray on his lab table.
He picks up the ring and examines it. It looks as cheap and crudely made as it did the first time he saw it, but he handles it with care. Delicately, he sets it aside and opens up the tin box Clint had so deliberately left out here for him to find.
The contents are nothing special. In fact, it is a bunch of random knick-knacks anyone else would have considered junk. A rubber chew toy, a handful of buttons, a sock that has obviously been gnawed on by some animal. A dog-eared postcard of Budapest. A carefully folded up pamphlet advertising The Carson Carnival of Travelling Wonders and its star act The Sensational Swordsman.
Bruce knows what this is. It is a box of junk. Or, more specifically, a box of lost things. All the things that Clint tried to but couldn’t keep.
At the bottom of the box, he finds a faded photograph of two boys— brothers, by the resemblance. Clint and his brother. Clint’s face is young, soft and unlined, but his eyes are not. They gaze out at the world, sullen and brittle. Bruce takes one look at it and is caught in that saturnine but expressive stare.
“I apologise for the intrusion, Dr. Banner,” JARVIS suddenly interrupts, cutting smoothly through his rumination, “Mr. Barton has left a message for you. Would you like me to play it now?”
Caught off guard, Bruce nods mutely before he remembers to speak. “Yes. Please, go ahead.”
“Hey Doc,” Clint’s disembodied voice answers him, and it’s almost like he’s in the room with him, “Welcome back. So a bunch of things happened… and I think you would probably want to talk about them, but… I don’t. I did some dumb shit. I’m not proud of it, but I can blame it on the drugs. I don’t know how you explained your helicarrier hulk-out though. Coulson and Nat won’t tell me anything. Anyway… I know you’ve probably been doing some thinking. More like a ton of thinking since it’s you. I think you’re over-thinking actually but yeah, not the point. I suppose you must have come to a conclusion about this… thing. You know, us. Or not us. Me. And you probably want to tell me in person because you’re that sort of sincere asshole, but I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Clint’s voice is neutral, he could have been talking about the weather or their next assignment, but Bruce feels his blood run colder with every word.
“If you decide that you’re done with this, if you want out. Just, just do me a favor and drop the decoder ring thing into the box. It’s not a biggie. I’ll get the message. You just go back to your lab or whatever and I’ll see you…tomorrow morning or something. We can still be friends or, you know, teammates. Avengers assemble and all.”
Then there’s a pause so long Bruce almost thought the message was over when Clint’s voice starts again. Softer this time, pensive, as if he’s talking to himself. “…if you don’t decide to leave… Heh. I don’t know, Doc. Think that can happen?”
“End of message,” JARVIS informs him but Clint’s final question still hangs heavy in the air.
Natasha is right. Clint is easy, in a sense. He gives you one option and refuses to discuss anything else.
But that’s a cruel and underhanded move.
This thing between them— it’s complicated. They had to think about super-villains and civilians and fraternization conflicts and tactical compromises. They had to think about Bruce’s condition and Clint’s issues and all their incompatibilities. The answer can only be accurate if it is a detached assessment formulated out of a comprehensive and rational balancing process.
Oh, but Clint doesn’t care about all that. He doesn’t want to hear the reasons or justifications or explanations. He just wants to know one thing and that’s the heart of the matter. Bruce has been trying to write an equation, a full-out thesis paper, but all Clint gives him is an Y/N question, stripped to the bare minimum, free of all the variables: Will you put the ring into the box, become another one of those pieces of junk in Clint’s collection of disappointments, or will you not.
Will you leave or will you stay.
The question is stark in its simplicity but it’s also a bloody shameless ultimatum if there ever was one. The hardest sort to answer of them all.
Bruce feels a rush of indignation as he glares down at the gaudy plastic ring. He had come here with his mind made up. It wasn’t exactly a pleasant process, convincing himself that this was the right thing to do and mastering up the determination to actually try and do it. He was incarcerated for a month and Nick Fury was involved. It wasn’t fair for Clint to tell him to throw all that out of the window and just set him a brand new test.
Now he has to put a stupid ring into a stupid box, on top of a photograph of ten-year old Clint looking balefully up at all the rubbish things that had ever abandoned him.
It wasn’t fair because he finds that, when it boils down to this, he just can’t do it.
He can’t join the ranks of the tin box and add another trophy to Clint’s fucked-up collection.
He’s gripping the ring hard enough to crush the flimsy plastic, so he shoves it into his pocket as he marches out of the room. He has a retrieval mission to accomplish.
He finally finds Clint in the roofing of the quinjet hangar. It didn’t take too long. If you can’t find Clint in the usual places, you just have to start looking in the high places.
“Hey Bruce,” Clint greets, “Why are you here.” Again, he’s casual as you please, as if he wasn’t the one to cause Bruce such unhealthy amounts of stress. He's lounging on one of the wide horizontal beams, presumably looking up at the skylight.
“We need to talk,” Bruce answers. He has calmed down as he methodically combed the Tower and feels almost patient by now.
“Didn’t you get my message?” Clint asks, but it’s not really a question.
“Clint. Come down.”
For a second it seemed like Clint was just going to ignore him, but then he sits up and slides down the length of kernmantle rope. He lands neatly before Bruce, only the bandages peeking out from his sleeves and collar gave away the fact that he’d merely been released from medical for a couple of days. “Okay,” he says, “talk.”
Bruce opens his mouth, but his throat clenches up because he sees that far away look in Clint’s eyes again. He thinks of the photograph in the box. Clint didn’t have happy eyes even back then, but they were so much more emotive than this guarded, dispassionate stare.
“Should have just done it my way,” Clint sighs and turns to go, but Bruce catches hold of his arm. Clint shifts his eyes from Bruce’s face to the hand on his arm. Somehow, that makes everything a lot more bearable.
“I can’t do it,” Bruce blurts out the first thing that came to his mind. Clint’s eyes flicker back to his face and the muscles under his fingers tense, straining to pull away, but Bruce doesn’t let go. “The box was a low move, Clint. I can’t do it.”
Clint’s arm slackens and his face scrunches up incredulously, “It’s not like I put a lock on it.”
“You can’t make it so simple. It’s not just about the two of us. There’re three hundred million people –“
“What does the population of the United States have to do with this?”
“Fury came by to make a point. A point I agree with. This,” Bruce squeezes Clint’s arm, “is dangerous. It makes me volatile, more than I already am. And we can’t have that. We’re supposed to be the world’s last line of defense. I’m not supposed to be smashing up those on my own side just because you got hurt.”
“You know Bruce, for a genius, you’re a fucking dumbass,” Clint sneers at him, furious and aggressive all of a sudden. Something Bruce said must have come out wrong, maybe everything. “People get into car accidents all the time, doesn’t mean they stop driving. I know you’re a special case, but cutting off all ties and building your own cage is a pretty stupid way of resolving anything.”
“I don’t have a choice!” Bruce snaps right back, temper flaring up immediately at the taunt, “I’m a walking disaster zone! If I don’t back off, things get destroyed. Even if it’s not by my own hands, it’s by the people trying to get to me. SHIELD sent Natasha to get me with a full infantry company and they were being fucking polite!”
“But look at where you are now, Bruce, you blockhead. You’re a superhero on a team of superheroes and the Tower isn’t going up in flames,” Clint hissed, not at all deterred, “If you just stop condemning yourself to eternal solitary for a moment, maybe you’ll see that.”
“I just spent one month in a literal cell,” Bruce grits out. He vaguely knows that he didn’t come here to have an argument, but somehow this is happening and he has a lot of anger to go on.
“What did you think I was doing, the three months after Loki?” Clint’s voice goes quiet as he dropped the bomb, “You’re a special case, Bruce, but not that special. Remember that time in your lab, when you mentioned those protocols for the contingency that the Hulk goes feral? Well, you know about them now. But did you know that we’ve got protocols for Thor as well? And Tony? And for god’s sake we’ve got them for Steve. Whatever applies to the Hulk, applies to Captain fucking America too. You're not the only dangerous element around.”
Bruce is left silent as the rage slowly chills under his skin. Clint is visibly exhausted by their heated exchange. He must have somehow convinced medical to let him out early again.
“Forget it,” Clint says with an air of finality, “I know that once someone makes up their mind to leave, there's nothing you can do to make them stay. I didn’t want to argue over this, Doc. You should have just done it my way.” He tries once again to tug his arm out of Bruce’s hold, but is baffled when Bruce still doesn’t let go. He looks up at Bruce uncertainly.
“I already told you, I can’t do it,” Bruce is clutching so tightly he is probably going to leave bruises. He digs into his pocket with his free hand and holds up the plastic decoder ring. “Clint, I’m not leaving.”
“I tried to. Reason told to me. I still think maybe I should,” Bruce lets out a helpless chuckle, “But fuck that. I can’t do it.”
Clint’s face is a wonder to behold at that moment – a vivid mix of pure shock and disbelief, part stunned puppy, part lost lamb. “Then what. What was all that?”
“I just... I need you to know it’s not so simple. The choice between leaving you and staying,” Bruce finally gets to say what he’s been meaning to, “You can’t just see it like that. There can be reasons. You need to understand that, Clint. I don't want to leave, but staying is no good either. I’m going to hurt you, if I stay.”
“You’re going to hurt me if you leave,” Clint shrugs, “But you know what? It's okay cause, either way, I don’t mind. I gave you the right to hurt me when I gave you my trust.”
“It’s not okay,” Bruce frowns because he can’t believe this crap is coming out of Clint’s mouth, “It’s not okay for me to hurt you.”
“Everyone I’d ever loved has hurt me,” Clint is grinning but his voice is flat, “Not always with my consent. But I’m much more discerning now. At least I’d like to think so.”
And just like that, Bruce knows why he cannot leave. This isn’t just about him and all his problems. It’s also about Clint. Clint, who thinks that loving someone is the same as handing them a revolver aimed at his heart but still does it anyway. So many times, Bruce had run away from those he love in order to protect them, but there’s no such option when it comes to Clint. The moment you leave, the damage is done. The only option is to hold on harder and make sure you never let go.
It just also happens that Clint is the one guy who actually likes him when he’s angry.
Who was he kidding? They were perfect for each other.
“No. I know for a fact that you still have terrible tastes,” Bruce murmurs as he covers Clint’s lips with his own. He keeps it sweet, gentle, holding Clint back when he tries to deepen the kiss, but they still come up gasping like drowning men seeking oxygen.
They’re two lost souls anchored onto each other, both so familiar with loss yet so desperate for a sense of belonging. There wasn’t a shore that could take them, so they’ve decided to take each other. It hasn’t been easy; they’ve crawled their way together by the inches, cautious and afraid. But because it is gathered grain by grain, once the heap is built, it is not going away. This, here, is something he can keep. Something they can both keep.
Bruce doesn’t know how to maintain a functional relationship, but apparently neither does Clint. Luckily, he’s a genius, he’s a master assassin. They can figure it out together.