The first time they met, they were practically children.
Clint Barton had been fourteen years old and Bruce Banner had been seventeen. It had been one of the few schools Clint had actually attended, one of the few days he had been forced to go. It had been about a month into the school year.
He’d run into him.
Clint had run directly into the side of a hunched over boy in too-big clothes and glasses that didn’t sit right on his face. The other boy had fallen to the ground with a small cry, less one of pain and more one of fear.
“Uh,” Clint had stopped, eyebrows raised to his hairline, then crouched down to gather the boy’s books. “Here. Sorry.”
“Thanks,” was all he got before the other boy took off.
Four days later, the boy had moved away.
Clint never knew his name.
The second time they met, Clint was in the circus.
Barney had done some stupid shit again, was sleeping off the binge from the night before, and Clint had to work with someone he didn’t know as well.
To top it off, they were someplace he hadn’t yet learned the language of, so he was having trouble communicating with anyone. He could garble a few words out, here and there, but it was a difficult thing.
The show was good, though.
A fair crowd, lots of cheering, smiling faces and oohs-and-aahs in the right places.
His act always got a good bit of applause, especially when he practically threw himself from position to position, still keeping up with the targets that his assistant threw up in the air for him.
Clint smiled at the crowd, took a bow, then saw him.
A man with dark brown eyes and darker curls, something about him seeming older than he likely was. There had been nothing to draw Clint’s attention to him, no screams or hollers or whistles, but he had spotted him like they had been magnetized.
(There were no thoughts of a boy who had hunched in on himself like he was scared of the world. Not that time.)
He nodded at the man and the man nodded back.
Clint Barton was twenty-one.
They met, for the third time, when Clint had a name to put to a face and a file to go with it.
A scientist that S.H.I.E.L.D had an interest in and a monster they wanted locked up. The man was on the run, had been for a long time, and they had finally managed to track him down again. He had gone deep underground in his attempts to hide from them.
But they had found him.
Clint dropped down from his perch, an arrow nocked and ready, and stood ten feet away from the man he had been sent to retrieve. “Bruce Banner,” he greeted him. “My name is—”
Bruce’s face contorted, a flush of green growing deeper around his eyes. “Do I need to know?” he growled out, hints of the creature’s rage showing through in his voice. “You’re just going to put me – us – in a cage! Like an animal!” his voice fractured and remade itself, deeper and more of a rumble, a growl. “Does an animal need to know the names of its captors?”
Clint had survived this long, to the age of twenty-eight, by listening to his instincts. They hadn’t steered him wrong yet – he’d lived through Barney abandoning him to go do more dumb shit, he’d lived through the circus falling apart, he’d made it through what seemed like hell and he’d come back out of it stronger and still alive because of his instincts.
And right now, they were screaming at him to leave.
Not so much out of danger to himself, but because this was not the right thing to do.
“Yeah,” Clint let his arrow fall away from the string of his bow, then clicked off his communicator. “S.H.I.E.L.D has some bad methods of doing things.” He tucked the arrow away, then slung his bow across his back. “Get out of here, Banner.” He spotted something lying on the ground and he picked it up as well, then offered it to the man who was very clearly terrified more than he was angry.
Banner took it, cautiously, like he thought it might be a lie – something Clint was doing to get him closer so he could attack. When it was cradled in his hands, Clint could see that it was a book, something that looked old and battered.
“For what it’s worth,” Clint shrugged. “I’m sorry.”
He turned his communicator on again, wincing at the voice on the other end. “Yeah, sorry, must have hit a bad patch. I lost Banner in the trees. Tell the Director the trail’s cold. I can’t find him.” He waved Banner off, gesturing for him to follow a trail that looked more like a deer path than anything else. “I’d recommend going north, follow the river. I think that’s where I lost him.”
After a second, Banner nodded and took off on the trail, in the opposite direction.
(There were thoughts of a scared kid that day, hunched in on himself and looking at the world like he expected it to attack him. They were brief thoughts, mostly focused on a man who had seemed like an animal backed into a corner and injured.
Clint wished he could do something more for the man he’d briefly hidden and the boy he’d never saved.)
They met for the fourth time when Bruce had been in rage-mode and Clint had been fucked over by an insane god.
Just…In the middle of the battle against the Chitauri, the one to save New York, Bruce Banner had ridden up on a moped and approached them, weary and wary and more than a little hesitant, but he had come to help.
He had come to help.
Clint watched as the other man sat at an angle across the table from him, chewing intently as if he wasn’t sure when he would eat again. He was probably exhausted, Clint thought as he chewed his own food. His eyes were trying to close on him, trying to let him slip into some much-needed sleep.
Nat was sitting next to him, stealing half of his chair.
It wasn’t a coincidence that she was sitting on the side he’d lost a hearing aid from – she’d probably known the moment it had fallen out, mid-battle. The small screen on the wrist of his glove had also been smashed in at some point, some very amazing Kevlar keeping the shards from slicing into his wrist.
He’d been a little muddled as far as some of his orders went, but he’d made it through.
Surprisingly, the one to nearly die was actually Stark.
But, Clint thought as he kept chewing, no one had died. He was still alive, despite nearly thirty-five years of a life that seemed to want him dead.
And Bruce Banner was, once again, in his life.
Movement across the table caught his attention and he looked up. Bruce’s hands were moving slowly as he chewed, forming symbols and shapes that Clint had learned almost a lifetime ago.
‘Are you alright?’
Clint thought for a moment. He thought about a young boy, alone and scared. He thought about a man in a circus tent, watching the show as if it were the one happy moment in his life. He thought about a panicked and cornered man that he had given an exit to.
After a moment, Clint smiled and nodded, signing a quick thank-you.
Bruce smiled back, one corner of his mouth quirking upward.
They met, for the fifth time.
It was hard to say how or why – Bruce had been at a gala of Stark’s, one held in his honor, and Clint had been invited by Stark.
“Banner,” Clint had addressed him.
“Agent Barton,” Banner had said it back. There was a hint of warmth in his eyes that betrayed the nearly-blank expression on his face. “Or should I just call you Barton, tonight?”
“How about Clint?” Clint offered his hand. “Can I call you Bruce?”
“I think so. Nothing like saving the world together to breed familiarity.” There it was again, the flash of a wicked sense of humor and an intelligence that made Clint want to know more. “How’re you finding the party?”
Clint looked at him, met his gaze, then shrugged. “Boring,” he said after a moment of silence. “Can I talk to you, outside?”
“Sure,” Bruce’s humor drifted away at that, replaced by a flash of the man Clint had met when he’d been hunting him. He still wished they’d let him go after Banner to bring him in to the helicarrier. They’d sent Nat and Nat was good at her job but sometimes she felt like a predator even to him and he was just about her best friend.
He had a suspicion that it was because of how he’d let Bruce get away.
The air outside was chilly but not freezing and it felt good on his face. “Sorry about this,” he told Bruce once they were on the balcony. “There’s too many people in there, the amount of conversations sort of overwhelms my hearing aids.”
“Oh,” Bruce chuckled. “For a moment, I thought you were going to…Well.”
“Nope,” Clint leaned on the railing, smiling at him. “So I did some digging. On you, in particular.”
“Oh, that’s always a fun topic of conversation,” Bruce mimicked his pose, clasping his hands together. “Before you get into what you found – do you need me to speak slower so you can lipread? I know it helps, sometimes, especially if you’re getting a lot of feedback off the amount of people talking in there.”
Clint smiled at him. “Nah, I got good at lipreading a long time ago. Had a…Friend. He slurred when he was drunk and talked too fast when he was sober, forgot I was deaf half the time. But the digging I did,” he cleared his throat. “Was about where you went to high school.”
“Ah,” Bruce puzzled over that for a moment. “I went to a lot of schools.”
“I know,” Clint nodded. “But for about a month, you went to this school in this shitty little dirtball town. Took me about…God, fuck, twenty-two years? But I remember you now. You were kind of tiny and it should have taken me less time to figure out that the guy I had backed into a corner and the kid that seemed afraid of his own shadow were the same person.”
“…You were that kid,” Bruce frowned at him, pointing a finger. “You knocked me down and I thought you were going to do the same sort of things as a lot of others at other schools I went to, but you handed me back my books and said sorry. I didn’t see you in school after that.”
“That was about two years before I ran away from home.”
“Oh,” Bruce’s eyebrows jumped higher. “Where’d you go?”
“The circus. My friend and I…” Clint let the words trail off. “My brother. His name was Barney.”
“For what? I don’t know if he’s dead or not,” Clint sighed. “That’s not where I wanted this talk to go. I wanted to tell you so we both knew – Aw, words.” He sighed again and buried his face in his hands. “Last thing I wanted was to bring the mood down. What I meant for this to be about was that I went to school with you, briefly, and my life just keeps sort of…Circling around you. Like I built it around you.” He felt the faint blush on his face and groaned. “None of this is coming out right.”
“I remembered you for years, after that moment in school.” Bruce finally cut in and saved him from word-vomiting on himself again. “I remembered this other boy, something about him seeming like something in me, and instead of bullying me or ruining my books, he handed them back to me and apologized.”
He took a deep breath. “I remember seeing a circus performer – had to be you, now that I think about it. You wore a purple outfit and you were the best shooter I’d ever seen. Trick shots with arrows. It was impressive. Several years later, you were the agent sent to hunt me down and then you didn’t.” Bruce smiled when Clint looked up at him. “You disobeyed orders and sent me off in the opposite direction so that they couldn’t find me. When I saw you again, you’d been pulled apart by Loki and you looked exhausted but you still managed to do your part to save the world.”
“So did you.”
“But I had to be coerced into it. Tony appealed to my morals and managed to make me think of nothing but helping out.” Bruce shook his head. “But you just went because it was the right thing to do.”
Their hands, on the railing now, touched for a second and both of them went silent and still.
Neither of them moved.
“Let me get some things settled,” Bruce said quietly. “The last relationship I had ended…Poorly. But let me get myself to a better place, and then let me see where this could take us.”
“Yeah,” Clint grinned almost involuntarily. “I’m up for it.”