Chapter 1: Hulk
It had been three years since Hulk joined the Avengers, and he’d learned a lot, maybe. He’d learned that he liked pizza—he liked pretty much most toppings, and could eat ten large pizzas in one sitting, easily. He could also go several days without eating. It probably came part of the package of being an intended military weapon: big guy, meager rations.
Hulk didn’t like the military.
That could probably go without saying.
He liked swimming.
He liked vanilla ice cream with caramel.
He liked beating up people who deserved it.
He didn’t like long hair.
He liked it when Jan cut his hair—but not too short, because he liked a somewhat rumpled look.
Jan liked cranberry-orange muffins in the morning.
Clint had a weakness for donuts.
Cap liked sesame seed bagels.
T’Challa always had tea in the mornings, never coffee.
Tony always took his coffee black.
Bruce always took his coffee decaf.
Bruce also liked making egg sandwiches and carrying them off with him to wherever he was headed next: the lab, maybe, but also fishing, or hiking on his days off.
You’d think that sharing a body with someone else would mean that you knew everything about them, but in a lot of ways it didn’t. Sometimes it just meant that you learned things about them while they were learning it too, and that was assuming that you were paying attention to them. Hulk hadn’t paid attention for a long time. It had taken him two years to let Bruce timeshare more frequently than twelve days out of the year; in other words, it had taken him two years to learn how not to be a selfish brat. He still got angry and defensive about a lot of things, but one thing he wasn’t sure he understood was why Bruce never hated him back for keeping him under.
Bruce had just shrugged and said: he didn’t find Hulk a hate-able person, was all.
There were a lot of things that Hulk didn’t understand.
In tiny ways, he tried to make it up to Bruce.
For one thing: he didn’t comment on the fact that Bruce seemed to keep ending up in Tony’s bathrobes, and enjoying it.
And that should have been an easy shot for him.
Chapter 2: Bruce
Bruce used to be a pretty high-strung guy. Surprise, right? He always used to be one of those undergrads—then graduate student—then professional with a PhD in nuclear physics—who was always in the lab, always working and pushing himself towards that next great finding. He wasn’t really the kind of guy who could give himself a break—and then Hulk had come along, and it’d sort of become one long vacation. If you could call being on the run from the military and assorted super villains a “vacation.”
He supposed that getting out of the lab and ending up with a mate in the head had taught Bruce a thing or two about mellowing out. He found that he didn’t feel that impulse so much, these days, to keep pushing and pushing and pushing—as if there was another great, scientific discovery to be made if he just devoted another hundred hours to the lab.
He’d learned enough over his professional career that he could still be useful to the Avengers in a pinch, and there were other things in life, besides.
Tony had been a bit of a surprise.
Tony liked being in his workshop, and he liked driving fast vehicles, and he liked spending downtime with the people he felt he could trust, his friends and teammates. He had less time for girls than you’d think, given the media hype.
Tony didn’t have time for dating, but apparently he added up all the minutes in between: of running into Bruce at the poolside, or coming into Bruce’s lab to inspect an on-going study regarding gamma radiation, or finding Bruce nearly asleep on the couch while watching a movie.
If Bruce wasn’t always around, well, then that was fine.
Tony couldn’t always be around either.
For some reason, though, they always seemed to be bumping into each other, the moments when they could.
Chapter 3: Bruce
Clint couldn’t seem to spend ten minutes with Bruce without making some kind of caustic remark, and Bruce finally said: “You really don’t like the fact that it’s me around, and not Hulk, don’t you?” Bruce’s tone was as bland as anyone’s could be while nursing a bruised-feeling arm. “I mean, you really don’t.”
They were down in the training room. Clint had insisted that Bruce learn a thing or two about self-defense—and at the same time, he kept making remarks about Bruce not really being an Avenger anyway, you could see it in his limp-noodle attempts at a punch.
Clint stared at Bruce narrowly.
Then he said, “Whatever, forget this, I’ve got better things to do with my time, maybe you can get Captain Patriot to help you out—”
And he’d left.
Chapter 4: Hulk
Hulk had learned a lot of things in life.
He’d learned that the only difference between him and any other person in the Mansion, or on the street, was that he was too big and too green and that his fist could go through concrete.
He hated that people would still treat him differently.
He hated it.
He hated it.
For a long time, he’d gone around being rude, and angry, and laughing when other people got humiliated, and pretty much only being close to happy when he was smashing some villain’s face in.
He’d liked Clint because Clint had never treated him any differently from anyone else.
Clint had never been afraid of him.
“I just don’t like it,” Clint finally burst out.
He and Hulk were eating pizza by the rooftop pool on a Friday night, and Tony was out working, and Steve and Jan and T’Challa and Carol had gone out for Thai food, but someone needed to stay back at the mansion.
Hulk looked at Clint and stuffed another slice of pepperoni pizza into his mouth.
“It always only used to be you around, and now with Bruce—it just feels weird.”
Hulk chewed his pizza. He swallowed. He reached for another pizza slice and said, “You get me, you get Banner too.”
“Yeah, well.” Clint picked up a slice of ham and pineapple pizza and tore into, chewing loudly. Then he said, almost sullenly, and through a full mouth, “So how are things going between... you know, him and Tony.”
Hulk shrugged. “I try not to pay attention,” he admitted. He really didn’t. “They’re fine, I guess.”
“Isn’t it weird?” Clint demanded.
“Aren’t you being weird?”
Clint threw the rest of his pizza slice at Hulk’s head.
Hulk caught it.
Clint liked putting hot pepper and extra parmesan on his pizza.
Clint liked pepperoni, but he also liked fresh vegetables: slices of tomato, and green papers, and olives thick on top.
Hulk liked sitting around eating pizza with Clint.
He liked when they had to travel quickly, and Clint caught a ride with Hulk, his arms around his neck.
Most people didn’t touch Hulk, if they could help it.
Jan might put her hand on his, or he and Steve might exchange a comradely shake of hands—but as far as familiar touches—well. Hulk had gotten used to a life without them.
Clint kissed him, and that was weird.
Hulk had finished ten boxes of pizza.
Clint had finished one.
It was a light kiss, almost chaste.
Clint sat back, and couldn’t seem to bring himself to look Hulk in the eye.
Hulk sat very still, and then said, as close to a helpless tone as his gruff rumble could get, “I’m not a pretty girl.” Then he said, “I’m a monster.”
“Hey, Jade Jaws, I thought we’d trained you out of that line of thinking,” Clint joked. He tried to joke.
Neither of them moved.
Then Clint had sidled forward, just a little, and laid his forehead against Hulk’s chest.
Hulk let him.
Chapter 5: Clint
Hulk’s expressions came in greater variety than simply degrees of anger or arrogance, although that was what people who didn’t know him would often associate with the Hulk. Those were generally the expressions that came out in photography or television: anger, arrogance, or utter boredom. Hulk didn’t like people staring at him.
On the other hand, Clint had seen contentment on Hulk’s face. He’d seen those long, nearly meditative looks when Hulk wanted to be left alone, lost in his own thoughts. He’d seen fear, and sadness, and sometimes, those days, he saw a strange and softer kind of look. Those were the looks that were harder to quantify.
Clint tended to think of himself as a guy who was more flash and quickness and bravado—you know, all of the showy stuff. He wasn’t the kind of person who would slow down for anything, or for anyone.
One morning, Clint got up early, when the sun had barely risen past the horizon—he’d come back from a mission, late last night, working with Carol and T’Challa, and Clint was still feeling antsy, all of the adrenaline—so he’d slipped out his window and gone on patrol of the mansion grounds, just for the fun of it. He chatted with JARVIS from his perch on one of the trees lining the building (shhh, JARVIS, I’m on a secret mission, to which the AI had replied, in long-suffering tones, indeed, sir).
He’d slipped up onto the rooftop and then sat around, quiet and watchful, as the sun rose a little higher in the morning sky, and then Hulk came out for his usual swims, and then Tony came out and started doing his routine laps as well. Clint watched this all narrowly from his hiding place, now lying on his stomach on the roof of the cabana.
After a while, Hulk just sat on the poolside steps. He was big and green and, well, hulking as he sat there, his hair sticking in slick black coils just at his neck. Clint watched and thought, there it was again, that look that was hard to quantify. It seemed almost…Clint didn’t know quite how to describe it. He thought, maybe, and with a twinge of something unfamiliar, it seemed almost sad. The Hulk looked smaller, sitting there, somehow, and then he was literally smaller because he’d let Bruce out.
Bruce tightened the strings of his too-large swimming trunks with an air of the long-suffering, and then Tony had come up and was sitting next to him, and Clint quietly left.
Clint better understood relations with women. Or most men, even. He could respond better to the commonly understood rules of engagement, the cues from body language, could understand the general expectations of that kind of thing.
He was a little ashamed of this—whatever it was that had started to develop between himself and Hulk, which made him a jerk and a hypocrite, he knew, he knew.
If things had been simpler, he could have taken his person of interest out on dates to see movies or to a nice restaurant. He knew what was expected of that kind of thing, and he knew how to have fun. This… whatever it was… this was different, he kept telling himself, and also this wasn’t different at all, a part of him knew already.
Clint could sit in the leafy foliage of the trees around the mansion, hidden and safe, and he could count on his hands the things he liked.
Clint liked his bow. He liked getting upgrades on his arrows.
He liked being an archer.
He liked being in high places, of seeing without being seen.
He caught a young branch in his hand, seeing the splay of green leaves.
He liked the color green.
There were the things he kept hidden away.
Clint liked the Hulk.
He liked spending time with the big guy.
He liked sitting around at night with Hulk, watching Star Wars or Star Trek or all manner of geeky entertainment that apparently Bruce was enjoying with them, vicariously through Hulk.
He liked playing cards or video games with Hulk. He thought it was hilarious when Hulk got into fistfights with The Thing over certain hands of cards.
He liked the smell of Hulk’s hair, that kind of shampoo that he always used.
He liked when Hulk smiled.
He really liked when Hulk smiled—and he wasn’t talking about that smirk Hulk wore after winning a fistfight, but that softer look that maybe should have looked out of place on a Hulk, but didn’t.
What Clint wanted—
Well, what he wanted were things he couldn’t say out loud, because these were not the things you were supposed to want; no normal person anyway.
Oh, to Hell with it.
What Clint wanted was to run his fingers through Hulk’s hair.
He wanted to press kisses to Hulk’s chest, to his neck , and then to do nothing more than lie there on top of him, his ear pressed to the expanse of Hulk’s chest, and listen to the sound of his breath, to the sound of his heartbeat.
These were the strange and wordless things that Clint wanted, that couldn’t be put together in the pictures of all of the ordinary couples and couplings of the world and—he didn’t know.
They were sitting together by the poolside, on the bare concrete with pizza boxes all around. It was night time, and dark pierced with the lights from the pool and the cabana and the streetlights around the mansion. The ever-present sounds of the city felt farther away, and they were sitting on the rooftop by the pool while the rest of the team had gone out.
They were sitting together, and Clint could feel the movement of Hulk’s breath. His palm was just pressed against Hulk’s chest, and he could feel the steady beat of his heart.