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“Bruce?”

Bruce looks up from his sandwich (peanut butter and Frito Lays on white bread, because Clint claims to be trying to educate his palate by way of circus delicacies) and turns to his boyfriend, who’s lounging against very expensive lab equipment like a displaced James Dean. “Yes?”

“Do I…if you could change one thing about me, what would it be?”

Bruce gives Clint a long once-over. Clint cocks his hip and shoots him finger guns. “I’d revoke your kitchen access,” Bruce decides.

“Whatever, you love when I cook for you, don’t front.”

“This doesn’t count as cooking—”

“Yeah, yeah. Tell it to the judge.” Clint comes over and kisses him, licking a bit of peanut butter from Bruce’s lips, and spends the rest of Bruce’s lunch break on his knees underneath the lab table.

*

The weird thing is, Clint seems to take his words to heart. For a while, breakfast becomes Kashi cereal and croissants from a café down the street that Clint’s apparently in love with. (“Have you ever had espresso? For some reason, I’ve never had espresso before. I looooove espresso.”) Despite Bruce’s concern over Clint’s burgeoning caffeine addiction, he has to admit to enjoying the benefits of his culinary maturation. After about two weeks of bought breakfast, it becomes homemade omelets, and French toast, and crepes.

Lunch goes through the same transition once Clint has breakfast under control. For a few weeks, it’s prepackaged food or take-out, but then Clint starts dragging him out of the lab to feed him pasta with vegetables, fresh fruit, homemade iced tea. It seems like—like Clint is learning how to cook. Because of Bruce. For Bruce.

Every time Bruce tries to bring it up, Clint just talks over him, bragging about his burgeoning culinary skills. “JARVIS is jealous,” Clint says. “I could teach him, but I’d have to charge.”

Clint hums the milkshake song and sits cross-legged on Bruce’s desk the rest of the afternoon.

*

After the third weekend where Clint stays in the mansion without complaining, not trying to drag Bruce to a rave or a comic book convention or a children’s museum two counties over, Bruce starts to worry.

“Are you sick?” he asks.

Clint frowns at him. “Because I want to watch Casablanca? I like classics. I have layers. I’m like an onion.”

“You’re quoting Shrek.”

“Doesn’t make it less true.”

“And you don’t even like onions.”

“I do if they’re caramelized. Which, let me tell you, takes way more than five minutes; the cookbooks lie to you.”

Bruce scooches over on the couch until he’s got Clint trapped in the corner. Clint looks half-nervous, half-turned on, eyes flicking first to the exits and then to Bruce’s crotch.

“I’ve been meaning to ask about the cooking,” Bruce says.

“You don’t like it?” He can see Clint’s throat move when he swallows.

“I love it.” Bruce forgets to eat more often than he remembers. Time in the lab slips by him, the way Clint says it can happen for him when he’s on a mission. Bruce can’t be with Clint in a sniper’s nest, but Clint doesn’t seem to mind taking care of Bruce all the same.

“Then…what’s the problem?”

“I just want to know why.”

“Why what?”

“Why are you cooking for me?”

Clint breaks eye contact and shrugs. It’s about as big a tell as Clint’s ever let him see. “I like you,” Clint says.

“Good. I like you too.”

“And I want you to—you know. I want you to be happy. With me.”

He leans forward and bites Clint’s throat, right under the corner of his jaw. Clint gasps and then laughs. “So—no Casablanca?”

“I’d like you even if you didn’t make me food,” Bruce says, like he’s explaining gravity to a very slow child.

“I know,” Clint says. “You’re really…” He shrugs again and leans forward to kiss Bruce. Bruce moves the bowl of popcorn out of the way and settles between Clint’s legs, scraping his fingernails through Clint’s stubble the way Clint likes.

“You’re a confusing man,” Bruce murmurs.

Clint laughs, even though really, it’s not very funny.

*

Clint apologizes for his nightmares, which is maybe Bruce’s least favorite thing about him. That’s what he would change, he realizes, as Clint slips out the door with his bow in hand, murmuring Sorry as the door closes behind him. Clint wakes them both up, thrashing in the sheets, choking out words in languages Bruce doesn’t understand—and then he leaves.

He follows Clint down to the shooting range one time and watches him through the window in the door. Clint fires every arrow in his quiver, collects them, and then does it all over again. Bruce doesn’t know if he should interrupt, doesn’t know what he would say, doesn’t know how to handle this violent side of Clint that the other man usually hides so well. Bruce is used to going between two extremes, rage and calm. Clint makes him wish he were better at the in between.

Steve stumbles upon him in the corridor when Clint’s just started his third time through his ammunition. Steve takes stock of the situation and sends Bruce on his way, promising to make sure Clint stops before he does himself any more harm.

*

“I don’t get it,” Stark yells, waving an empty margarita glass in Bruce’s face. Clint and Thor are onstage singing Wind Beneath My Wings. Thor doesn’t quite understand the concept of karaoke, so Clint’s bellowing the melody while Thor improvises creatively around him.

“Don’t get what?”

“You,” Tony says, “and him.” He nods at Clint, who’s got his arm slung over Thor’s shoulders, pulling them both off-balance. “I mean, I’m happy that you’re happy, if you are happy, but I just…don’t get it. He must be brilliant in the sack.”

Clint is actually very talented in bed (“Lots of experience,” Clint had said, with a smooth smirk that had made Bruce feel kind of sad for him), but that’s not the point. “He’s nice to me,” Bruce says, because that had been the most surprising thing about Clint. His tenderness, his thoughtfulness, his small smiles and tentative kisses in the morning.

“He should be,” Tony says, with a warning finger waving unsteadily about a foot to Bruce’s left. “If he takes advantage of you, I’ll—I’ll—I’ll tell Steve on him,” Tony decides, before wandering off to get another round.

When Bruce looks back to the stage, Clint is smiling at him, his hair a sweaty mess and his cheeks flushed. Bruce relaxes and smiles back.

*

Everybody likes Clint. It’s hard not to; his energy is relentless. He jumps into everything headfirst, a smile on his face and Geronimo! on his lips. He’s the first out of the plane on the way to a mission, the first to order a round for everyone afterwards, always ready with a joke or an anecdote or a distraction.

But Clint can sometimes…miss the mark, when he’s using his words instead of his weapons. Sometimes he’s too loud when no one else is feeling boisterous; he doesn’t notice when his jokes fall flat or his jibes hit too close to home; he’ll laugh when no one else is laughing. Clint covers his confusion with a smile when he gets cold shoulders, or if people roll their eyes behind his back. He might miss the mark, but his eyes are as good as ever.

It’s after the roughest of those days (which are almost always prequels to nightmare nights) that Clint will talk to him about his past. “I was never a very good performer,” Clint confesses one night, running his fingers through Bruce’s chest hair, which he has an odd fascination with. “I mean, I always made my shots, I really was the best. But I can’t…read the crowd. You know? I don’t—I had to learn how to get people to like me. Trickshot said I got dropped on my head too many times.” He shrugs. “Might even be true, you know. I’m a little…I can be kind of slow about some things.”

Bruce stays quiet; he’s learned that sometimes Clint’s silences are pauses while he figures out what he wants to say.

“Barney used to watch out for me,” Clint says quietly, “at the orphanage. He knows—knew—how I make people mad.” He grins; it’s lopsided. “I’m really good at pissing people off.” Clint rolls onto his back and sighs. “Anyway. It’s better to be a bad clown than nothing, right? At least then people pay attention to you. Even if it’s not always…”

He trails off but doesn’t pick his thought back up.

Bruce kisses him, slowly, kisses his earlobe and his cheek and the side of his mouth. “You’re a shitty clown,” he says. Clint huffs out a laugh so breathless it sounds like it hurts. “But you’re a really great person.” Clint looks at him like he’s lost his mind a little bit.

The first time Bruce had complimented Clint—really complimented him, trying to explain how deep his feelings went—Clint had laughed and conceded that he believed that Bruce believed it, as if Bruce was some delusional person, in love—in like—with an imaginary, invented version of Clint. Bruce had flipped out on him a bit, protesting and insisting, trying to convince Clint of something that—he realized later—maybe Clint was hearing for the first time.

Clint never contradicted a compliment again, but Bruce knows that Clint doesn’t believe him. Especially on nights like this, when Clint tells Bruce something honest and Bruce doesn’t laugh in his face or leave him. Bruce stays calm, because he knows that the anger he feels—for everyone who’s seen this little-boy part of Clint and pushed him away—is dangerous. Clint makes something dark burn inside of Bruce, something fierce and proprietary and sad. He fights it back, struggling with his emotions in a way that hasn’t happened in years. Since Betty.

Clint curls up against Bruce’s side and holds onto him so tightly that it hurts. Bruce stays quiet, rubbing his hand across Clint’s shoulders until he falls asleep.

*

Clint comes home the next night with dust in his hair. “Spent the day in the ventilation shafts at SHIELD,” he says proudly, leaning forward for his hello kiss. “I think Fury was more impressed than pissed when he came back to his office to find me there.”

“Fury? Really?”

“I’m a boss ninja,” Clint tells him solemnly. He looks around the kitchen and frowns. “What’re you doing?”

“Making you dinner.” There’s an open bag of Fritos and a container of organic peanut butter on the counter, next to a loaf of whole wheat bread. Clint’s smile is so bright, so surprised, that Bruce has to kiss it, kiss him, pushing him back against the counter until JARVIS warns them that Tony’s about to come in. Clint talked JARVIS into setting up a warning system for them a couple of weeks back. Even JARVIS likes Clint.

(Bruce doesn’t usually bottom, since it’s harder for him to stay in control that way, but that night, Clint fucks him, so slowly and gently that it makes Bruce want to cry.)

*

“If you could change one thing about me,” Bruce asks Clint, “what would it be?”

Clint considers him. Bruce does a vague turn, like a model at the end of a runway. “I guess…I guess, I’d want for you to be more in control of the other guy.”

Bruce can feel himself recoil. He’d hoped that having a relationship with another Avenger would mean that there was less fear, less of a separation between who he wanted to be and who he had to be. It hadn’t been fair to Betty, especially at the beginning, when she hadn’t even been able to disagree with him in case it tipped him over the edge; he’d thought—erroneously, apparently—that Clint wouldn't have the same problem.

“I know it’s hard for you,” Clint continues. “I think—I think you’d be happier if you could be mad sometimes.” Bruce stares at Clint, who smiles at him uneasily before continuing. “Shit. Was I supposed to say ‘Nothing’? Is this like one of those ‘does my butt look big’ questions where there’s no right answer? I swear, Cosmo had an article about that just last week…”

Bruce shakes his head. All of his words are tangled up inside of him, a Gordian knot in his throat. Clint’s sitting on a chair with wheels, so Bruce pulls him over to the table where he’s working and leans against Clint’s side until Clint gets twitchy (too long too still too close) and has to leave.

*

They have a mission on their three-month anniversary, so Bruce gives Clint his present—a Nerf bow and arrows—in the hangar when they get back. Clint hadn’t gotten him anything (he’s still getting used to the concept of presents having anything to do with him; Bruce can’t wait for Clint’s next birthday), so Clint decides that shooting the rest of the Avengers will suffice. Except for Natasha, Bruce insists, because Clint being in the hospital would not be a good present.

So far Clint’s gotten Thor, Steve, and Fury (although Fury had caught the arrow before it’d hit him, so Bruce had declared it only half a point). Clint chases Tony through the locker rooms and into the debriefing room before Tony yells at Bruce to put a leash on his boyfriend. “He’s like a toddler on meth,” Tony says, exasperated. “It’s grownup time now, okay?”

Clint rolls his eyes and bounces off to retrieve one of his arrows from the hallway. A few minutes later he’s in his seat at Bruce’s side, the bow and arrows held in his lap under the table, hidden from view. Clint might be socially inept, but he’s not dumb; he knows when he’s done something wrong even if he doesn’t understand why.

Bruce steals the bow and arrows from him and, halfway through the meeting, shoots Fury in the crotch. He’ll let Clint get his own revenge on Stark, once he’s convinced Clint that Stark deserves it. “Sorry,” he says, fumbling with the Nerf toys. “These things are so tricky! My bad. Please, Director Fury, continue.”

Fury glares at him, and Bruce smiles back, feeling something uncomfortably like anger flex through his body. He’s mad at Stark, not Fury, but it’s safer for all of them if Bruce directs his attention to a different target.

Once the briefing resumes, Clint steals a look at him. Bruce doesn’t know if Clint’s confused because Bruce risked Fury’s wrath or if he just can’t believe that Bruce had done it to make Clint feel better. Given the way Clint’s holding his hand under the table so tightly that his knuckles are beginning to ache, Bruce suspects the latter.

*

After the Nerf anniversary Clint becomes distant. Bruce doesn’t know if it’s because of what happened in the briefing, if the anniversary itself had scared him, or if it’s something else entirely, but he misses Clint.

Clint has never tried to evade Bruce before. He hadn’t realized how hard it would be to pin Clint down if he didn’t want to be found. It takes him days to track Clint down, and even then he only manages it because he convinces JARVIS that Clint avoiding Bruce is a threat to Clint’s health.

Clint’s in the range at three in the morning, his arms shaking with fatigue, dark circles like bruises under his eyes. Nightmares must be keeping him up again.

“Hey,” Bruce says, slipping inside and closing the door. He knows Clint has at least two other escape routes open to him somewhere in the room; Tony had designed this floor of the tower with Clint in mind.

Clint stiffens, but doesn’t startle. He lowers his bow and slowly releases the tension on the string before setting the arrow down.

“Can we talk?” Bruce asks.

Clint shrugs and turns to look at him, a smile on his tired face. “Sure. Just call me Dr. Phil. I don’t have a couch, but—be my guest.”

“You’re avoiding me,” Bruce says.

“Not right now I’m not.”

Clint is. He’s not running, but he’s wearing a mask, he’s hiding. “Are you breaking up with me?”

Clint doesn’t flinch, but it’s a near thing; his grip on his bow tightens. “Sure. Yeah.”

Bruce almost staggers back under the force of that one tired word. He’d been trying to tease Clint, not— “Are you serious? What happened? We were really—it was going smoothly,” he says, thinking about the meals they’d eaten together and the nights they’d spent being honest; he can’t think of what he might have done to chase Clint away. “We’re happy. I was happy.”

“I was too,” Clint says softly.

“Then why are you doing this? Why have you been avoiding me?” He asks, fighting down the urge to yell. “What’s going on?”

“Steve talked to me,” Clint says, his face tense and flat, the way it is when Fury makes him do interviews with the press. “He explained about—about how your behavior’s changed, since…since me. I guess—” He laughs. “I never expected to get a ‘birds and the Hulk’ talk from Captain America, but it’s good that someone pointed it out. You know how I can be a little slow sometimes.”

“Pointed what out?”

Clint actually looks startled at that question. “Don’t treat me like I’m stupid,” he says angrily. “I get it, okay? I’ll leave you alone; you don’t have to put up with me anymore.”

Bruce is silent. That Gordian knot is back, words he hasn’t said out loud since Betty tangled together inside of him.

“It was real—really nice of you,” Clint says, awkwardly formal. “To put up with me for as long as you did. No one’s ever…no one’s looked out for me like that since Barney, and he—I don’t even think he particularly liked me, so. So you went above and beyond, really, and I—I appreciate that.” Clint’s words are making Bruce’s stomach hurt, a sharp pain that deepens with every shift that Clint makes away from him.

“Shut up.”

Clint rocks back on his heels and then glares at him. “Well, fuck you too.”

“If you say one more word, we’re going to be dealing with serious property damage here,” Bruce says, because his body is starting to feel like it doesn’t belong to him anymore. He clenches his fist and realizes his watch band is too tight. The muscles in his wrist are growing. He takes a long, slow breath; he cannot afford to change now.

“For fuck’s sake, I’m already leaving, what more do you want?” Clint asks, glaring at Bruce like he's somehow become a target on the range. Clint looks dangerous, and tired, and very, very young. Clint starts to walk away and Bruce growls, feeling his muscles pulse with rage.

“Tell me,” he says, his voice a growl like the warning of an avalanche, “exactly what Steve said to you.”

“You’re getting mad right now, aren’t you?” Clint asks.

Bruce makes himself take a deep breath. “Yes.”

Clint smiles at him, crooked and insincere. “This. This is what Steve told me. He reminded about how you need to be calm. To have calm, in your life, and how I…I don’t…we both know that I make you reckless. I break your routines, because I’m selfish, because I wanted…”

“You have been,” Bruce says, each word barely escaping out of his clenched jaw, “nothing but good for me.”

“That’s nice of you to say, but we both know it’s not true. I made you go to a rave, for crying out loud. I made you eat awful food, and you’ve never disrespected Fury before, and—I mean, come on, we both know that a lot of why you were with me was because of the sex, and I’m not always good about giving up control.”

At least that last part is true. Clint had fought himself for every hint of vulnerability, had fought himself and sometimes Bruce in order to let Bruce take care of him. Bruce’s control has nothing on Clint’s.

“I’ll still—I’d be okay with still being friends, if that’s something you want,” Clint says, his eyes flicking up to Bruce’s and then away. “And even—if you want to be, y’know, fuckbuddies or whatever, you know I’m always up for it. I’m easy like that.”

Bruce takes a deep breath and lets his rage fade out on the exhale. “I love you,” he says calmly. He feels like he's just stepped off the edge of a precipice, only to find unexpected ground under his feet.

“What—I’m sorry, what?” Clint’s holding his bow in front of him again, his fingers shifting reflexively, searching for ammunition that isn’t there.

“I love you,” he repeats, “and I love that you make me do things that don’t involve beakers and microscopes, and that you’re not afraid of me, and I love your awful cooking and your good cooking, and I—I love you. You daft, idiotic, crazy, perfect clown.”

“I’m not a clown,” Clint says slowly, eyes searching Bruce’s face. “Bruce, I don’t get it.”

“I love you,” Bruce says, and he thinks maybe he might be about to cry. Even in this, even after slicing through the Gordian knot, Clint doesn’t believe him. “Are you really that surprised?”

“Yes,” Clint whispers. His grip on his bow falters and it clatters to the floor; it's the first time Bruce has seen Clint treat it as anything other than a precious child. “You love me?” Clint asks, each word strung through with confusion.

“Yes,” he says again.

“No one—no one’s ever—are you sure?”

Slowly, Bruce walks over to Clint, who stands as still as a statue. “I, Bruce Banner, love you, Clint Barton.”

“But Steve said—”

“I am sure Steve had the best of intentions. I’m sure he’ll tell me all about them, right before I punch him in the face. But Steve is wrong.”

“No,” Clint whispers. “You don’t get it. You don’t know me, not really. I’m—I’m selfish, Bruce. I’m not good for you, I just keep taking; you shouldn’t give me things I don’t deserve.”

“There is nothing,” Bruce says, moving close enough to kiss Clint’s parted lips, “nothing about you that I would change.” Clint flinches and then surges forward, hands grabbing Bruce’s biceps to pull him closer.

“Even if you’re wrong,” Clint says, “even if you change your mind, I—thank you, I—”

“Shut up,” Bruce says, because he’s seconds away from either crying or Hulking out, and Clint seems a breath away from shattering. Clint needs more from him than a knee-jerk reaction. “I love you. I am in love with you. Nothing’s going to change that.” Clint opens his mouth to protest and Bruce kisses him. “Believe me,” he orders, his words whispering across Clint’s lips.

Clint shudders, as if Bruce has exploited some structural weakness in his body. “I love you too,” Clint says, the words wretched and scared. Clint makes a small sound in the back of his throat and presses himself tight against Bruce’s body, like Bruce has become his anchor in freefall. Bruce wonders if Clint ever thought he’d get to say those words, if he ever thought he’d be able to do anything with his love other than use it as another wall in his self defense. All of Clint's layers are shields, and Bruce's words are tied up in knots; they’re uniquely suited to work their way through to each other’s truths.

“I love you,” Clint says again, resting his head on Bruce’s shoulder, his hands still holding onto Bruce’s biceps, forming rows of fingerprint bruises there.

“Yeah,” Bruce says, breathing out fully for the first time in ages, something inside him unfurling like a lotus; relaxing in a way that he’s dreamed about and sought for years. “I love you, too.”

Eventually, Bruce lets go of Clint. He watches his boyfriend put away his bow with hands that are still shaking.

“I’m going to kill Steve,” Bruce says calmly, once they’ve caught their breath and kissed until they lost it again.

“…what?”

“Steve. And maybe also Tony. You and I are going to have a talk—a very long talk—a very, very long talk, about trust and communication—but first, I’m going to go kill Steve. I’ll be right back.”

“That is a very poor life choice, Bruce!”

“You think so? I don’t think so.”

He leaves the room before Clint can say anything else. He’s outside of Steve’s quarters by the time that Clint catches up to him. Bruce pounds on the door, breathing deeply at the same time; he ends up in a sort of syncopated knock-knock-breathe rhythm.

Steve, unsurprisingly, answers the door in his pajamas, half-awake. “What? Are we being attacked? Where—”

“Yes,” Bruce says. “You are being attacked.” Then he punches Captain America in the face, closes his eyes, and takes some cleansing breaths. He feels better. “I feel better now.” He opens his eyes and Steve is still there, hand on his jaw, mouth dropped open. “Nope, there it is again.” He punches Steve one more time and then lets Clint pull him away.

Steve steps out of the doorway, his hands held in front of him, open and unarmed. “What the heck is going on?”

Clint somehow worms his way between them. “Just a misunderstanding, Steve.”

“If you,” Bruce says, stepping forward with each word, Clint stumbling forward along with him, “talk to my boyfriend again, about how he is not good enough, I won’t be in human form the next time I punch you. Got it?”

“Oh,” Steve says carefully. “That is—that was not my intention. I’m sorry if I caused any harm, I was just—I was trying to do what was best for the team. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

“Well, you did cause harm,” Bruce says, putting a hand on the back of Clint’s neck; the tendons there are stretched taut under his hand. “If you have a problem with my behavior in the field, you come talk to me. You have a problem with my behavior in the house, you come talk to me. You have a problem with Clint, you can shove it up your—”

“And we’ll be going now,” Clint says hurriedly, dragging Bruce down the hallway.

Once they round a corner Clint pushes Bruce so that his back’s against the wall. “Should have let me punch him again,” Bruce grumbles. His knuckles kind of hurt. He’ll have to borrow one of Clint’s ice packs.

“You just got in a fight over me,” Clint says.

Bruce shifts awkwardly. Huh. He kind of had.

“You got angry because of me,” Clint says. “I mean, for me, and you didn’t—” He holds Bruce’s hand, laced with his own, up to the light. Bruce’s watchband is loose around his wrist. “You’re not green.”

“Oh.”

Clint makes him angry, and Clint makes him happy, and Clint makes him—Clint gives him the in between.

“Well, it’s hard, being green,” he says, looking up at Clint, who’s examining Bruce’s knuckles in the light.

“Okay, Kermit.” Clint lowers their hands and tugs Bruce closer. “You didn’t have to do any of that,” he adds, “because I can take care of myself, but I still…thanks.” He grins. “Bruce. You punched Captain America for me.”

“Twice,” Bruce feels compelled to add.

“Yeah,” Clint says quietly, looking up at him, bewildered and pleased, before leaning in for a quick kiss. “Thanks.”

*