The floor was vibrating, and Clint wasn’t sure if it was because the amount of people jumping and dancing or if the music was just that loud.
Whatever the reason, he needed to get out of here. Being in with the cool folks wasn’t worth this.
Natasha had wandered off somewhere within the frat house, but Clint knew she was plenty capable of handling herself. He didn’t feel too guilty about bee-lining for the front door, dodging around sweaty, drunk, handsy people.
It was a relief to finally wrench open the front door and squeeze outside into the blessedly cool air. As soon as the door shut behind him, he pulled out his hearing aids and basked in the lovely quiet. As much as he liked parties, he hadn’t wanted to go to a fraternity party, but Tasha had talked him into it. It was still early into their first semester of college, and what was the freshman experience without going to one big party? He wasn’t sure how Tasha had found out about the party or if she had even gotten an invite, but that hadn’t stopped her from dragging him along.
Clint wandered off of the porch—away from a pair of students aggressively making out by the front door—and walked out onto the lawn toward the sidewalk. In the windows with the flashing strobe lights, he could make out the silhouettes of dancing party-goers, arms pumping and bodies grinding against each other. His eyes drifted a little further up to the Greek letters displayed on the house. He had no idea what they stood for or even which of the campus fraternities was hosting this party, but he couldn’t really bring himself to care.
Movement in the corner of his eye brought his attention back to street-level. There was someone leaning against one of the trees that lined the sidewalk, hunched over. Clint felt his lips pull back into a frown and was thankful that he had taken out his hearing aids; he didn’t want to hear someone experiencing the full effects of too much alcohol all over the sidewalk.
Still, the poor kid had probably never had a lick of beer before in his life and was feeling the consequences. Clint had been there; Barney had let him hang out with some of his friends one night when he was fourteen, and there had been booze involved. He remembered how he had wished Barney had helped him when he was getting sick instead of laughing at him, but at least his older brother had helped him with the hangover the following morning.
Clint stepped toward the other person. “Too much to drink, buddy?” he asked, putting a sympathetic hand upon the other guy’s shuddering back—
The other man whirled around and smacked Clint’s hand away. Clint jerked back in surprise when he came face-to-face with the other guy’s snarl. His eyes were furious and wild, but sober. He looked almost…scared?
That was about all Clint noticed before saw the blood and growing bruises.
In horror, he took in the damage. Possible broken nose, leaking a lot of blood down his chin and the front of his shirt. There was a nasty looking cut on the guy’s forehead and an awful bruise on his right cheekbone and the definite beginnings of a black eye.
“Oh my god, man, what happened?” Clint immediately asked, taking a startled step back. He started to scan the surrounding area. “Who did this to you?”
When he looked back, he realized he had missed whatever answer the guy had given. He didn’t look any less furious, despite his injuries, and Clint didn’t want to ask him to repeat himself. That would only make things worse.
“Uh…” he began hesitantly, watching the guy break off to wince in pain. A shaky hand wrapped around his torso, like he was getting ready to heave.
Clint caught the stranger’s shoulders as the guy curled forward around what were likely more injuries. “Oh my god,” Clint murmured in panicked horror. “Oh my god, were you stabbed? Please tell me you weren’t stabbed. You were stabbed, weren’t you?”
He broke off when the man shook off his hands again and took a staggering step back. When their eyes met a second time, instead of anger, he saw hesitant confusion. Dear god, he hoped it wasn’t caused by blood loss.
“Hang on, let me call—” Clint started to say, digging into his pocket for his phone and his hearing aids, but he was cut off when the guy suddenly looked away.
Clint followed his eyes to the frat house. The door to the front of the house had opened and some of the partiers were stumbling onto the front porch, lighting cigarettes and shoving playfully at each other.
When he looked back, the stranger was looking at him again. The anger was back, only this time it was nestled into a pit of distrustful hatred.
Before Clint could think of something to say, the stranger just shook his head and limped away. Clint called after him, offering to call an ambulance, but if the guy answered, Clint didn’t know.
The following Friday, Clint forewent the invitation to head out to another party.
“I’ve already been to one party,” Clint replied, leaning back on the common room’s sofa as he looked up at Natasha. “I think I’m partied out for the semester.”
Natasha shrugged. “It’s your Friday,” she said airily, “but the chances of you having another dramatic run-in with your injured mystery man are unlikely. Nothing to be scared of.”
“I’m not scared,” Clint protested. “I’m just not in a party mood. Besides, it was way too loud last time. I’ll pass.”
“Suit yourself,” she replied with another shrug. “See you in the morning for coffee?”
“If you’re not hungover,” Clint answered with a cheeky grin.
Tasha treated him to a small, smug smile. “I don’t do hangovers.”
“To have been raised on vodka,” Clint mused wistfully. He laughed when she smacked his feet off of the armrest of the couch.
“Don’t be a loser and stay in all night,” Natasha said before she headed out.
On a Friday night, it was fairly quiet in the dormitory common room. All of the other freshmen were either up in their rooms with friends or heading out to parties for the evening, ready to celebrate another successful week of college.
Clint almost wanted to take advantage of having the common room to himself, but he had seen one of the flyers posted to the bulletin board earlier announcing some kind of card game tournament being hosted here in another half-hour, and he didn’t want to stick around for it.
So, after a quick detour up to his room to grab his jacket and his bag, he headed out to explore more of the campus.
There were clouds overhead, threatening rain. The brick of the campus buildings stood out against the sky, but the changing leaves made for a beautiful backdrop as he walked down various paths on an aimless expedition. He found a little coffee shop that he hadn’t seen before and a convenience store that sold slushies.
Being the adult he was, experiencing true independence for the first time, he couldn’t resist.
Blue raspberry slushie in hand, he continued his journey.
The first sprinkles of rain hit him in the face. It was nearly dark now, but when Clint glanced toward the heavens, he caught the tail-end of a flash of lightning.
“Aw, rain,” he complained before the sky opened up and it began to pour.
Cursing his luck, Clint ran toward the closest campus building. He tried to shake off as much of the loose rainwater from his person as possible before entering, sure he looked like a wet dog while doing it. His shoes still squeaked horribly against the linoleum floor as he actually walked into the building to see where he was.
Looked like he had wandered into the library.
Being a Friday night this far away from mid-terms, it was practically empty. The person behind the front desk gave him a quick once-over when she saw him.
He grinned a little sheepishly at her. “It’s raining,” he explained.
“I couldn’t tell,” she replied with a small smirk.
Clint grinned at her again before he decided to wander around the stacks. He didn’t have a particular thing he was looking for. When a title or a particularly shiny or colored book cover caught his attention, he looked at it for a moment before moving on. As he walked, he sipped idly on his slushie.
And every time he passed a window and saw it was still raining, he made a small sad noise and continued to browse. He eventually made his way up to the second floor.
As he was browsing through what had to be the most boring of the rows he had gone through (some of those encyclopedias were older than him), he saw he was coming up on another row of windows.
Eager to see if it was still raining, Clint stepped out of the labyrinth of books and—
There was a row of small desk-like cubicles along the wall, and only one of them was occupied. Clint glanced at the person and felt his eyes widen.
The guy, who was already staring at him, was the same man Clint had interacted with at last week’s party. The cut on his forehead was now scabbed, and without the blood from the open wound, it looked less like it was caused by a weapon and more like the guy had hit his head on the sidewalk or street or something. The swelling on his cheek had gone down a little and there was a fading bruise left, but his eye was still darkly bruised.
And beyond the healing wounds and in the much better lighting, Clint finally got a good look at him. He wasn’t a particularly build man, but there was something solid about him. His dark hair was a mess of waves and curls, and the eyes behind a pair of glasses were this deep, deep brown.
The feral anger that Clint had seen in his eyes last weekend was thankfully absent now in his surprise, but Clint could see the guy’s defenses were already on the rise.
Clint wanted to diffuse the situation, but his mouth had gone dry. A quick sip of his slushie didn’t really help. “So, uh…you weren’t stabbed, right?”
He internally winced. Some ice-breaker.
The guy blinked at him, momentarily caught off guard, but he quickly collected himself. He cleared his throat and glanced briefly down at whatever it was he had been working on. “No, I wasn’t stabbed,” he answered.
The softness and gentleness of his voice threw Clint completely off. He hadn’t heard whatever the guy had said to him at the party, but he hadn’t imagined for a second that it had been as placid as this.
The man looked at him again, eyes slightly narrowed. “I, uh, I’m pretty sure I told you that, and…” He trailed off when his eyes went to Clint’s ears.
Clint raised a hand to brush a fingertip against one of the hearing aids in his ears. “Yeah, I didn’t have them in at the time,” he explained with a halfhearted shrug. He hesitated for a moment before he pulled out the chair on the other side of the table and sat down.
He ignored the defensive and suspicious look on the other man’s face and peered out the window, sighing at the sight of the pouring rain. “So,” Clint began conversationally, since he wasn’t leaving the library any time soon, “what are you doing in here on a Friday night in the encyclopedia section?”
There was a long beat of silence as they just stared each other down. The student had that same distrustful look in his eye from last week, but at least it was lacking the rage that had startled Clint so badly.
Finally, the guy glanced back down at whatever he was doing. “Working,” he answered simply. He peeked over the rims of his glasses at Clint and Clint had to ignore how his stomach flipped curiously at the sight. “What are you doing here on a Friday night?”
“Me?” Clint asked, confused.
“Yeah,” the other guy replied. “I’m sure your brothers are hosting another party or something. Why are you in the library?”
“My brother?” Clint repeated. He was about to ask if this guy knew Barney, but he stopped. “Wait, do you think I’m with that fraternity?” At the man’s questioning look, Clint raised his hands and shook his head. “Nah, man, I’m not with any of the frat houses. My friend dragged me along to that party last week and—hey, wait, was it a frat guy that did this to you?”
An irritated look appeared on the guy’s face.
Clint hastily put his hands back down. “I’m here because I got caught in the rain,” he answered at last, peering over at the window to confirm that yes, it was indeed still raining. “I was exploring. There’s a lot of the campus that I haven’t seen yet and I want to learn my way around, y’know?”
“Hold on,” the guy said, now sounding confused, “you’re a freshman?”
“You’re not?” Clint asked, eyes shooting back to the other student.
“No,” he answered, making a face. “I’m a junior.”
Clint stared at him. “Oh,” he answered eloquently. “I never would have guessed.”
The guy snorted softly to himself, and if Clint didn’t know any better, it sounded almost amused.
Clint felt himself begin to smile. “So you’re, what, like twenty-one? Twenty-two?”
The junior’s eyes instantly met Clint’s again, suddenly looking completely unamused. “No,” he replied shortly in a clipped and unfriendly tone, “so I can’t buy you beer, so take your requests somewhere else.”
“I wasn’t going to ask you for that!” Clint exclaimed, insulted. “I’m just curious and trying to make conversation. Jesus, you’re confrontational,” he muttered as he looked back out the window.
“Well, I didn’t come here to make conversation,” the other student replied crossly.
“That’s for damn sure,” Clint grumbled before the guy could go on.
He jumped when the desk suddenly shook and the other student let out a sharp breath in agitation. When Clint looked over, he saw the guy slamming his notebooks and textbooks shut.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, you don’t need to pack up!” Clint said in a hurry as he jumped up from his seat. “Look, I’ll leave you alone. You’re obviously very busy with your—” He peered down at one of the textbooks. “—uh, Mesoscopic Physics and Quantum Information Processing. I just happened to see you and wanted to make sure you were alright, since, y’know, I never found out.”
When he looked up from the textbook, he saw that the other student had paused. The anger in his expression was fading, and in its place, caution began to appear. “You…” he began quietly, unsure, “you wanted to make sure I was okay?”
“Well, yeah,” Clint replied, like it was obvious.
“Dude, you had blood all over you,” Clint answered, gesturing at the student’s entire body. “Your face was wrecked. Your face is still kind of wrecked.”
For whatever reason, that prompted another snort of a laugh out of the other student. “Thanks,” he said, somehow both sarcastic and honest.
Clint grinned at that, a full toothy smile, but he faltered when the man made a face at him. “What?”
“What the hell have you been drinking?” the guy asked, still staring at his mouth. “Your teeth are blue.”
Clint smirked around another sip of his beverage. “That’s the price to pay for a blue raspberry slushie,” he said sagely before sticking out his tongue.
The man snorted another laugh and looked back down at his books, but Clint caught the way he was biting back a smile. “You’re ridiculous,” he replied.
“You’re ridiculous,” Clint shot back, grinning victoriously at having gotten the grumpy stranger to crack a smile, no matter how small.
It prompted another snort of laughter from the other student before he started absently thumbing through his notebook, casually flipping through the pages. “Look,” he said after another moment, “I really do need to get back to work. I’m not sure how heavy the freshman workload is for whatever classes you’re taking right now, but I have three different papers due next week. But…” He glanced briefly at Clint over the rims of his glasses before focusing on his books, “but as long as you let me work and stay quiet, I don’t mind you sitting here until the rain stops.”
“Wait, really?” Clint asked in disbelief.
The stranger rolled his eyes and started to flip his books back open. “Sit down before I change my mind,” he threatened, but there wasn’t any heat in his words.
Clint felt himself smile and he slid back into the chair he had recently vacated. He took another sip of his drink and watched the student flip back to where he was before he had slammed his books closed. “I’m Clint, by the way,” he offered.
The student glanced at him, looking cautious and a little taken aback. His dark brown eyes lingered for a moment longer before he ducked his head to get back to his notes.
“Bruce,” he finally answered.
Clint smiled to himself. As Bruce got to work, Clint sat back in his chair and pulled out his phone, setting it to silent. He opened one of the ongoing games he had started and played, listening to the raindrops hit the window and the scratching of Bruce’s pen.
“Oh, sweet!” Clint said happily as he stepped out of the stacks of encyclopedias the following Friday. “You’re here!”
Bruce looked up from his books, surprise etched across his features. “And so are you,” he replied slowly in a much more subdued tone. The confused look on his face only grew when Clint plopped down his stuff and sat down in the chair across from him.
“I hope you don’t mind the company,” Clint said as he got comfortable. “It’s just that Tasha insisted on taking me to another party tonight, and I panicked and said I was hanging out with a friend tonight instead, and she’ll know if I lied, so,” he concluded with a flourish and a grin, “here I am.”
Bruce blinked at him.
A beat of silence passed between them, in which Clint spotted a few new bruises on Bruce’s body and his grin vanished. There was a nasty one creeping up from the collar of his shirt, but the wounds on his face were nearly gone. His arms were lined with bruises, one disappearing into the sleeve of his t-shirt.
After another beat of silence passed, Clint grew anxious. “I, uh… Do you mind the company?” he asked, looking down to fiddle with the straw of his slushie, “cause I can leave if you’d rather be by yourself. You seemed busy last week—How did your papers go, by the way? Anyway, if you’re busy, I can go. I just can’t take another party like that, man; it’s just way too noisy and way too many people, but she’ll know if I lied. Tasha has a knack for reading people and she’ll—”
Clint immediately paused and looked back.
Bruce was still staring at him, looking a little overwhelmed, but one of his hands was raised in a placating manner. “I don’t mind the company,” he said.
Clint grinned wide. “Yeah?”
“Sure,” Bruce replied. He then made a face. “Are blue teeth just a standard for you?”
With a laugh, Clint stuck out his tongue. “I have no self-restraint,” he said.
“Clearly,” Bruce said, but there was no mistaking the small smile on his face.
That was how Clint found himself in the library on Friday nights. Bruce always seemed surprised to see him, like he thought there were better things he could be doing with his time, but after the first few times, he seemed to welcome the company. Even if they spent the hours together in relative silence, it was something Clint found himself looking forward to.
And the more Fridays that passed, the more they began to talk. Conversations started slow, but before long, they would chat a little bit in between strings of silence. Clint learned a little about Bruce each time.
He learned that Bruce was consistently getting beaten up. Clint would step out of the encyclopedia stacks and immediately spot new bruises almost every Friday. He hated seeing them, hated the thought that Bruce kept getting his ass kicked, but when he asked, Bruce would close off.
Something he did notice was that Bruce’s knuckles weren’t ever bruised or roughed up. On a night when he was feeling daring and Bruce had another nasty black eye, Clint asked why Bruce didn’t fight back. Bruce had looked at him for a long moment before responding.
“If I did,” Bruce had started slowly, like he was carefully picking his words, “I’d get angry, and then I’d really hurt someone.” He had looked down. “I don’t want that.”
Clint had pondered over the cryptic response, but he didn’t push. He had learned that Bruce wasn’t someone who liked to be pushed on a subject he didn’t like talking about.
He also learned, on a different Friday, that Bruce’s favorite color was purple, which tickled Clint to no end.
From their first meeting in the library, Clint had been able to intuit that Bruce was a physics major, but after having a few good conversations with the guy, he learned that Bruce was brilliant. It turned out that he had skipped a few grades in primary school and had started college early with his roommate, so he was only about a year older than Clint. They had a great talk about the physics behind archery one night after Bruce had caught the title of a book Clint had found among the shelves. It was one of the best conversations Clint had ever had.
Somewhere along the way, they had traded phone numbers and would text each other throughout the week. Their schedules were insanely busy, what with Bruce’s work-load and Clint’s archery practices and gym-time, but Friday nights were theirs.
It was toward the beginning of November when Clint learned Bruce had never tasted blue raspberry.
“What do you mean you’ve never had it before?” Clint asked, scandalized. “There’s a shop like five minutes away!”
He could see Bruce trying not to get defensive, but there was still something tight in the shrug of his shoulders. “I just never had the opportunity, and when I did, it never seemed that important,” he said, focusing a little too hard on his textbook.
“This is a travesty,” Clint said.
Bruce was about to respond, but he paused when Clint pushed his slushie toward him. They watched each other for a beat of silence.
“Try it,” Clint insisted.
“Oh no,” Bruce said, leaning back and putting his hands up, “you were sick last week. I can’t afford to get sick.”
“Alright then, you heathen, let’s go,” Clint said as he stood up.
He grabbed his bag in the time it took Bruce to blink ponderously at him. “What?”
“Keep up, Banner,” Clint said, slipping the strap of his bag over his shoulder. “There’s a shop that sells blue raspberry slushies literally down the street. We’re getting you a slushie.”
Ten minutes later, they stepped out of the little convenience store, a small blue slushie in Bruce’s hands. He stared down at it like he wasn’t sure how it got there.
Clint eagerly watched as Bruce took a tentative sip. “Well?”
Bruce swallowed and gave the cup another brief glance before looking over at Clint. “It’s okay,” he said solemnly, but the façade was quickly broken with a laugh at the indignant squawk Clint made.
“It’s okay,” Clint repeated disgustedly as he finished off his own slushie and sadly threw the cup into a nearby trashcan. “Don’t know where you’re from, man, but it’s delicious.”
“It’s just chemicals,” Bruce replied.
“But it’s delicious,” Clint said again. “Delicious, delicious chemicals.”
When Bruce just rolled his eyes fondly, Clint leaned into his space. “What, you think you can make something better?”
“I know I can make something better,” Bruce replied.
“Oooh, big talk for a guy who’s never had blue raspberry before tonight,” Clint said with a goading grin. He let out a happy noise when Bruce handed him his slushie. He threw an arm around Bruce’s shoulders and tried not to feel unnervingly thrilled when Bruce didn’t flinch or immediately duck away. “Blue raspberries aren’t even real, man. How can you make something better?”
Bruce raised an eyebrow, clearly accepting the challenge, and Clint felt something in his core flutter.
“Here,” Bruce said as he arrived the following Friday. He put down a lidded coffee cup down in front of Clint.
Clint looked up from his book at the cup. “What’s—No, you didn’t,” he said, eagerly leaning forward.
“I did,” Bruce said. He pulled a paper-wrapped straw from his bag and handed it over before he started taking off his coat and unwinding his scarf.
Clint pulled the lid off of the cup and peeked inside. What was inside was a fascinating color—not the unnatural blue of his raspberry slushies, but definitely blue. “Holy shit, you actually got a blue color!” He looked up. “How on earth did you—?”
His question grinded to a stop when he saw the awful bruise on Bruce’s chin. There were a number of fist-sized spots of discoloration all along his arms and a brace on his left wrist. He was holding himself in a way that bespoke of the ache that came with taking a beating. “Oh, Bruce,” he said mournfully.
Bruce paused in placing his coat over the back of his chair and glanced over at him. When he saw the look of Clint’s face, he ducked his head and crossed his arms defensively across his torso—where there were probably even more bruises hiding beneath his t-shirt. “It’s fine, Clint.”
“It’s really not,” Clint replied softly.
A deep sigh escaped from Bruce and he sat down, tilting his head in concession. “It’s not,” he agreed quietly, “but it’s nothing you need to worry about. Please don’t worry.”
“It’s kinda hard not to,” Clint said, eyeing the different bruises along Bruce’s arms. His eyes settled on the brace. “Is it broken, or…?”
Bruce looked down at his wrist where it was resting upon the desk between them. “It’s just a sprain,” he said in a low murmur. He stared at it for a moment more before he looked back at Clint with a smile that was only a little bit forced. “Now come on, I didn’t come all the way here with that just for you to worry about me.” He slid the straw closer to Clint. “Try it.”
It was a clear sign that he didn’t want to talk about it. Clint was amazed he managed to get that much of a conversation about Bruce’s injuries, so he guessed he could let it slide for the moment. He promised himself he’d ask again before they went their separate ways for the night.
Still, Clint narrowed his eyes on Bruce as he accepted the straw. “Alright,” he said slowly, drawing out the word. “But just…you know you can ask for help if you need it, right?”
Bruce sighed again. “Clint—”
“Just an offer,” Clint cut in before Bruce could go on. “I’ll leave you alone about it now if that’s what you want, but just…don’t feel like you need to deal with whatever it is alone.”
They watched each other for a long moment. Clint held steady and didn’t look away, so he saw the moment Bruce’s hardened expression softened into something almost vulnerable and open before he glanced away. Seeing such an expression made something in Clint’s chest clench. It astounded him that their friendship had gotten to this point in the two months Clint had known Bruce. He knew Bruce struggled with opening up, so it made him unspeakably happy that they had even reached this point and it made something in his core warm.
A faint and almost reluctant nod brought Clint out of his thoughts. “Okay,” Bruce said in a whisper. He looked embarrassed and self-conscious, but there was still gratitude in his eyes when he met Clint’s gaze again. “I, um…thank you.”
Clint smiled at him and he felt that warm feeling within him glow a little brighter when Bruce returned it. The feeling was intoxicating.
Intoxicating and distracting.
Clint shook himself from his drifting happy thoughts and finally pulled the straw from its paper wrapping. “Okay, let’s see what you’ve made,” he said, pulling the conversation back into safer waters. “How did you get it this color?”
Bruce looked relieved to stop talking about his injuries and his smile turned playful. Clint almost got distracted by the feeling that smile sent through him. “Give it a try and tell me what you think,” Bruce said. “Then I’ll tell you how.”
“Fine, fine,” Clint said. He picked up the cup and brought it to his nose, sniffing it. It smelled really good. There was definitely a hint of raspberry in there, but other fruits as well. He dunked the straw in and took a sip.
The flavor wasn’t as strong as his slushies and had a thicker consistency, but his slushies didn’t taste anywhere like real fruit as this did. He was hit with the taste of raspberries and some other berries and something earthy, like carrots or something. It was, quite frankly, delicious.
“Holy shit,” Clint said after swallowing. “What’s in this? How did you get it blue? Because last I checked, there are no fruits that can make this color. Did you use food coloring?”
“The blue is from red cabbage,” Bruce said.
“Bullshit,” Clint replied with a smirk.
Bruce grinned. “It’s not!” he shot back. “You boil red cabbage for like twenty minutes, then boil the water until it reduces. It starts out purple, then you add sodium bicarbonate—baking soda—until it turns blue.”
“You nerd,” Clint said fondly. “You turned this into a science thing.”
“You’re the one who challenged me,” Bruce replied.
“Hey, I’m not complaining,” Clint reassured him, taking another sip. “I’m just saying, and I kind of love it.”
Bruce snorted a fond laugh and then launched into the ingredient list. Clint listened as he sipped on the drink. When Bruce was finished, Clint looked down at the drink. “There are a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables in this,” he said. “I thought you were a broke-ass college student.”
“I am a broke-ass college student,” Bruce replied airily, “but my roommate isn’t, and he has just as much trouble saying no to a challenge as I do. That, and we both have a tendency to forget to eat sometimes, so these smoothies help to make sure we are getting vitamins.”
“Bless your stubbornness,” Clint said reverently, which brought a gorgeous smile to Bruce’s face, which in turn brought that giddy feeling to his stomach again.
And then, with dawning clarity, it hit him.
Clint watched Bruce start to pull out his study materials while his mind was a whirlwind of thoughts. How long had he been finding these smiles of Bruce’s gorgeous? How long had he loved it when Bruce went on science tangents, when he let himself get lost in his excitement for just a little bit? When had he first started getting those warm happy sensations when Bruce just looked at him?
How long had he been feeling like this?
As Bruce settled in to get some studying done, Clint pretended to continue reading, sipping on the drink Bruce had made specially for him. He let his mind wander over these new revelations, wondering what to do with them. It wasn’t the first time he had developed a crush on someone, and not the first time he had developed a crush on another man. He liked what he had with Bruce right now, and he knew he wanted to hang out with him more than just on Friday nights.
He decided to keep his newfound feelings to himself for now. He didn’t want to jeopardize his friendship. He’d mull these feelings over and decide what to do later.
For now, he was happy to spend his Friday night with Bruce.
Clint hesitated the following Friday.
He was sitting in his dorm room, pondering his plans as he stared down at the dead hearing aids in the palm of his hand. They had crapped out on Wednesday and it had been a long two days. He didn’t have the money for new ones and he didn’t know of anywhere nearby that could fix them. He supposed he should go to the student clinic to see what options they had, but he hadn’t had the time, what with his schedule between classes and archery practice.
But he wanted to see Bruce.
But he didn’t want to shove his otherness in Bruce’s face.
But Bruce already knew he was deaf, and he knew Bruce well enough to know this wouldn’t be an issue.
Just one more reason to like him, his traitorous brain whispered, and his traitorous heart skipped a beat at that.
He had been sitting there for the better part of half an hour, struggling to come to a decision. With a sigh, Clint put his hearing aids in his bag pocket and grabbed his coat.
It was cold outside, being halfway through November. They had just finished up their last full week before Thanksgiving and he was very much looking forward to some time off from classes. Despite the cold, though, he still stopped by the little convenience store along the way, picking up a slushie for himself and a hot chocolate for Bruce.
As they got closer and closer to the end of the semester, Clint spotted more and more people entering and leaving the library. The tables in the main study areas had slowly started filling up as they crept deeper into November, the growing shadow of finals becoming an ever-looming specter.
Clint dodged his way around a group of students on the staircase up to the second floor. The little sanctuary given by the outdated encyclopedias was still untouched by the gathering of students, thankfully, and Clint found himself smiling as he found Bruce sitting alone in his usual spot.
That smile grew when he saw no new bruises, though the bruise on his chin from last week was still present and the wrist brace was still settled on his left arm.
He had paused to just look and Bruce must have sensed his presence, for he looked up from his book and glanced over, a smile spreading across his lips.
It was short-lived, though. He must have also sensed Clint’s hesitance, considering how he was still in the opening between the bookshelves. His eyes went from welcoming to critical as they raced across his features.
Clint watched his mouth move. “What’s wrong?” Bruce asked, and Clint carefully watched his lips to catch the words. “Are you okay?”
Clint felt himself smile involuntarily and finally stepped forward. He handed Bruce his cup to free up a hand, which he used to point at his ears.
“My hearing aids died,” he said, sitting down across from him.
When he looked back at Bruce, he saw Bruce still watching him. “When did they die?” he asked, and even though Clint couldn’t hear him he could tell Bruce had slowed down only a little. He could also tell he hadn’t raised his voice or slowed down to the point of molasses, which Clint greatly appreciated. It always made it harder to read someone’s lips if they were speaking slowly and with exaggerated movements. He was deaf, not stupid.
“Wednesday,” Clint replied with a forced-casual shrug.
“Wednesday?” Bruce repeated. At Clint’s nod, Bruce huffed and looked off briefly before looking directly back at him. “I’m assuming you can read my lips?”
“Mostly,” Clint said, finding himself smiling again. He hid it behind a sip of his slushie. “Thanks for not talking crazy slow or hiding your mouth, by the way,” he added.
“Of course,” Bruce replied, smiling a little. He drummed his fingers along the desk for a moment, Clint’s eyes following the movement. When they became still, Clint looked back up. As their eyes met, Bruce spoke. “Do you know why they died?”
Clint scoffed and retrieved his hearing aids from his bag. “I have no idea,” he muttered, putting them down on the table between them and giving them a look of betrayal.
When he looked back up, he found Bruce staring at him again, but he quickly glanced away, looking flustered for some reason. Clint blinked at him, but Bruce quickly recovered and met his eyes again. There was a faint blush upon his cheeks that Clint found endearing.
“May I?” Bruce asked, gesturing down at one of the aids.
Still bewildered and curious about that look, Clint absently nodded. He watched Bruce pick one up and adjust his glasses to look more closely at it. Clint couldn’t help but smile at that; he always got that happy feeling in his chest when Bruce fiddled with his glasses. Only recently did he realize it was because he thought it was cute.
He was happy to just watch for the next minute or so, sipping on his slushie contentedly. Finally, he spoke up again. “I’m sure there’s somewhere I can take them to get them fixed,” he said.
“Probably,” Bruce replied, “but since we’ve already established being broke college students, I wonder how much it would cost.”
Clint groaned and folded his arms on the table, resting his face there. “Don’t remind me,” he mumbled into his arms.
When a hand hesitantly brushed the top of his head, Clint looked back up. Bruce’s fingers remained in his hair for a second longer before he withdrew to hold up the hearing aid between them. “They might be fixable,” he said.
“I don’t know where to take them,” Clint lamented.
“I do,” Bruce replied, “as long as you don’t mind a little, uh…I guess the right word is flair.”
Clint instantly perked up. “Really?”
Bruce smiled and slid the hearing aids back toward Clint. “Tony can probably help,” he said as he started to pack up.
“Your roommate?” Clint asked.
“Yes,” Bruce said, looking back at Clint as he spoke so he wasn’t blocking his mouth from Clint’s sight, and Clint felt something in his chest grow warm at the thoughtful gesture.
Oblivious to Clint’s thoughts, Bruce went on. “We should be able to catch him before his girlfriend comes over.”
Clint watched Bruce for a moment more before he shook his head. “I don’t want to take away from your study-time,” he said.
Bruce paused in packing up his bag to look directly at Clint. There was something soft in his expression and Clint told himself not to read too deeply into it. “Clint,” he said, “this is important, and I honestly think between Tony and I, we can get them fixed. You’re more important than studying, you know. Please, let me try to help.”
That feeling of warmth shot through Clint again. There wasn’t any mistaking what Bruce had just said and he felt that rush of gratitude for this man’s kindness. For as standoffish as he was when they first met, it astounded him just how kind Bruce could be. He wished Bruce would give himself the same kindness he showed Clint.
It was hardly a wonder that he felt the way he did, really.
With his core fluttering happily, Clint felt himself smile and nod. “If you’re sure,” he said as he stood up. “I…thank you, Bruce.”
Bruce turned another beautiful little smile over at him and that fluttery feeling in his gut intensified.
Together, they made their way out of the library and into the cold November night. They walked along the lamp-lit walkways for a few minutes, not bothering to attempt conversation, and Clint found himself looking around. He hadn’t been toward this area of campus before, since his dorms were on the other side. He honestly had no idea where Bruce lived, maybe somewhere off campus, and—
A hand suddenly grabbed his elbow and yanked him back. As he was whirling around, he caught what must have been the taillights of a car whizz by. Clint stumbled for a moment, crashing back against Bruce with his eyes down, so he got to see Bruce’s cup crash to the ground and spill his drink everywhere. Bruce’s other arm had wrapped around him, pulling him close in an awkward embrace.
“Aw, you dropped your hot chocolate,” Clint replied against Bruce’s chest mournfully.
He felt what must have been a huff of a laugh before the hands were on his shoulders, pushing until they were looking one another in the eye.
Clint was dismayed to see the easing fear on Bruce’s face. “What’s wrong?” Clint asked.
Bruce looked at him like he was mad. “Clint, you almost walked straight into traffic.”
“Oh.” Clint looked to his right and, sure enough, there were cars moving along a one-way street. He spotted the crosswalk signal across the way, with its bright red hand in a symbol to wait.
He looked back at Bruce, feeling sheepish. “Uh, oops?”
Bruce shook his head in disbelief. “Oops,” he repeated, and Clint could just imagine his tone. “You haven’t been down here before, have you?”
Clint smiled a little ruefully and shrugged. “I like looking at my surroundings,” he said, like that was an excuse for almost walking into oncoming traffic.
Bruce shook his head again and looked toward the crosswalk signal, but Clint could tell he wasn’t mad, just worried.
It was then that Clint realized one of Bruce’s hands had lingered on his shoulder. Even with the added layers the winter chill had necessitated them to wear, Clint could feel the pressure of Bruce’s palm against him. He could almost pretend he could feel the warmth from that hand against him, like he had felt the warmth of that hand on his head earlier in the library.
He must have sensed he was being watched, for Bruce glanced back over at him and caught him staring. Bruce blinked at him for a moment before he looked off again, blushing in a way that couldn’t be blamed on the cold.
Clint felt himself smile and didn’t look away.
They stayed like that for another moment before Bruce glanced back at him, a look of determination on his face. He lifted his hand from Clint’s shoulder and, before Clint could mourn the loss, he grabbed Clint’s hand instead.
Clint stared down at their intertwined hands for a heartbeat before his eyes darted back to Bruce’s face. Bruce was watching him closely, still looking determined, but now there was an element of caution and hope.
Almost instantly, Clint felt himself start to blush.
The effect made Bruce smile and give Clint’s hand a squeeze. “You can keep looking around,” he said. “I’ll pull you out of traffic again if I need to.”
Clint grinned and bumped shoulders with him. “My hero,” he said. At Bruce’s fond eye-roll, Clint lightly swung their hands. “Seriously, thank you.”
Bruce only responded with another little smile before the crosswalk symbol changed, and they stepped off the sidewalk. Their hands remained together long after they got back onto the sidewalk and Clint cheerfully went back to looking around with the solid presence of Bruce next to him and a warm hand in his.
Their hands stayed connected on the twenty-five minute walk away from campus and into the nearby neighborhoods. The house Bruce led them to was a fairly good-sized house, though there was a fence down the middle of the yard and two sets of stairs leading to two separate front doors. Bruce let go of Clint’s hand to find his keys and Clint took the moment to look more around the area.
Bruce caught Clint’s hand again and Clint turned around to see the front door was open. Bruce was back-lit and looking back at him, and great day, Clint felt his heart flutter. This man was beautiful.
Damn it, he had it bad.
They stepped inside and Clint immediately looked around. They were standing in a hallway with a single door to their right and what looked like a living room at the end of the hall. He could see some clutter of books and what looked like pieces of metal on an end table next to a sofa.
Bruce opened the door on their right and flipped on the light. Clint followed him inside an instantly knew this was Bruce’s room. There were a ton of books and notebooks all over just about every flat surface of the room excluding the bed and parts of the floor. There was a desk next to the door that was a mess of papers, pens, and a few empty mugs. The walls had a few posters of scientific people Clint didn’t recognize as well as a few photographs of people he guessed were Bruce’s family.
Clint watched Bruce deposit his backpack into the desk chair before he looked back at Clint. “You can put your bag down anywhere,” Bruce said.
“You sure I won’t lose it?” Clint asked with a teasing grin.
Bruce gave him a faux-unimpressed look and crossed his arms. “Hey, it might be a mess, but it’s an organized mess,” he replied.
Clint laughed. “Thanks for not apologizing about it. I appreciate your honesty.”
“Why apologize for something I’m not sorry about?” Bruce said with a grin. As Clint laughed again, Bruce smiled that gorgeous little smile that Clint was growing to love. “Seriously, put down your bag. We might be here a while if Tony’s free to take a look at your hearing aids.”
Clint complied, setting his bag down next to Bruce’s desk after retrieving his aids from one of the pockets. He followed Bruce out of his room and down the hall to a staircase on the right before the hall opened up to the living room. They climbed the steps and Bruce knocked on the door to their left.
“Tony? You decent?” Bruce called, and Clint kept an eye on his mouth. He couldn’t hear whatever response was on the other side of the door, but it made Bruce roll his eyes. “I need your help with something.”
A beat passed before the door opened. Standing in the doorway was someone roughly Bruce’s age, with black hair and a black goatee. He was wearing a dark tank top with jeans, and Clint noted he was barefoot. His dark eyes did a quick scan of Bruce before turning a scrutinizing look at Clint.
With a quirk of his eyebrow, the guy (presumably Tony) looked back at Bruce. “You didn’t mention you brought company,” Clint thought he said, because wow, this guy talked fast. “If I had known we were expecting company, we could have spruced up the place a little.”
“Pepper is coming over tonight, so don’t you try that shit on me,” Bruce pointed out, which made Clint smirk. Bruce looked between the two of them. “Tony, this is Clint. Clint, this is my roommate, Tony.”
For whatever reason, recognition sparked through Tony’s eyes and he instantly perked up. “Oh, this is Clint,” he said, giving Clint another once-over with his eyes before looking back at Bruce.
The words made Bruce blush, but he powered on. “Yes, this is Clint,” he said, and Clint could just imagine the tightness in his voice. “We need your help fixing his hearing aids.”
Suddenly, the teasing look vanished and he got that same look that sometimes appeared on Bruce’s face when he found a new challenge. Tony looked back at Clint, who dutifully held up his hearing aids.
Tony stared down at them for a moment before he turned his narrowed eyes to Bruce. “If I get another lecture from Pepper about working during date-night, I’ll end you.”
With that, Tony snatched up Clint’s hearing aids and then shouldered past them to the room across the landing to the staircase. Bruce sedately followed and Clint brought up the rear.
This room was another mess of books and metal. What might have once been a third bedroom had been converted into a workroom of sorts. There were two desks, one with paper and books and the other with metal and tools.
Tony was bee-lining for the one with the tools.
“Uh,” Clint said nervously as Tony flipped on a desk light and sat down on a stool.
He watched Tony make a hand gesture, but he kept his back to Clint as he started getting to work. He almost jumped when Bruce laid a hand on his elbow. When he glanced over, Bruce was looking at him.
“Tony said that if he really breaks them, he’ll buy you a new pair,” Bruce said. He looked back at Tony, but Clint kept his eyes on Bruce’s mouth, so he caught the response to whatever Tony had said. “He’s deaf, Tony. He can’t read your lips with your back to him.”
Tony must have said something else, for Bruce promptly blushed furiously. Tony turned enough to glance at him and Clint before smirking victoriously at Bruce. Clint glanced between the two of them, confused.
Bruce huffed and crossed his arms over his chest defensively. “Don’t be rude,” he said with a glower, but he was still blushing, so the threat behind the words was lost. “Now, do you need a hand or not?”
With another triumphant look on his face, Tony spun around to face the two of them. “Not that I wouldn’t love your help, Brucie-bear, but your wrist is still sprained.” He gave Bruce’s wrist a critical glare, which had Bruce curling his wrist defensively toward his chest. “But you two can keep me company.”
And with that, Tony started working on Clint’s hearing aids. Clint watched anxiously as Tony opened up the first one to look at the interior wiring, wiring that Clint had never even seen before. No one had ever taken apart his hearing aids before.
As Tony had leaned in with a pair of tweezers, Bruce looked over at Clint and must have seen the anxiety on his face, for he touched his arm to get his attention. “Tony is in the engineering program,” he explained once Clint was looking over at him. “He specializes in machinery. If he can’t find what’s wrong with your hearing aids, then I doubt it’s a fixable problem.”
Bruce glanced over at Tony and Clint followed suit in time to see Tony glance briefly over at them. “Flattery will get you everywhere, Bruce,” he said. “But he’s right; I’ve been around machines all my life. Couldn’t really call myself a Stark if I hadn’t, you know?”
Clint blinked and then looked over at Bruce. “You never told me your roommate was Tony Stark,” he said in what he hoped was a low voice.
Bruce just shrugged. “It never came up in conversation,” he said, both as an explanation to Clint and an apology to Tony, who had turned a faux-hurt look over at them.
“Why Bruce, are you ashamed to have me as a roommate?” Tony asked.
“Hardly,” Bruce replied. “I just don’t like going around showcasing who I’m living with.”
He gave Tony a pointed look, and when Clint glanced over, he just managed to catch a surprisingly serious look on Tony’s face before he got back to work. Clint glanced between the two of them, sure he was missing something.
Clint continued to watch Tony work on his hearing aids, but he was less nervous now. It helped to know that he had trusted his ears to the son of one of the wealthiest technology moguls in America. Bruce kept him calm, though, which was helpful. They chatted from time to time, Tony interjecting occasionally.
He got to meet Pepper Potts, who didn’t look surprised to see Tony working. She looked more surprised to see Bruce there, and Clint guessed that Bruce made himself scarce on Friday nights if they were date nights. She introduced herself to Clint with a friendly smile.
About an hour after Pepper arrived and two hours since they got there, Tony offered Clint’s hearing aids back to him. “Moment of truth.”
Clint took them and put them back on. He could feel the three of them all watching him, but he turned them on and waited.
Almost immediately, he heard rock music. He glanced over and there was a little radio he hadn’t noticed at all, and he realized there must have been music playing the entire time. It was quiet enough for them to have had conversations. Outside the window, he heard a car drive down the street and could actually hear the scattering of leaves left in its wake. “Whoa,” he said softly, but he could feel a grin start spread across his face.
Ah, that was a voice Clint missed.
He turned a brilliant grin over to Bruce, who was watching him with a smile. “I cannot remember a time these things worked so well,” he said. He got to his feet and wrapped Tony up in a hug, reveling in the indignant squawk the other man let out and the sound of laughter from Bruce and Pepper. “Tony, you’re the man.”
“Of course I am,” Tony said. Clint filed the sound of his voice away. He pondered briefly over what he had missed earlier, but decided a little bit of missed conversation was worth having his ears back.
As Tony shooed him off of his person and stood up to stretch, Clint returned to Bruce’s side. “Tony, thank you so much,” Clint said. “I owe you for this.”
Tony waved him off. “No, you don’t. A friend of Bruce’s is a friend of mine. Glad I could help.” He clapped his hands and faced Bruce and Clint. “Now, I’m glad to have helped and it’s great meeting you, Clint, but it’s date night.” He pulled Pepper to her feet and pressed a kiss against her cheek.
“We’re going to head on back to the library,” Bruce said, leading Clint toward the door to the stairs. “You two have fun. Thanks again, Tony.”
“Thank you! Bye,” Clint called over his shoulder as he was pulled from the room. As they returned downstairs and to Bruce’s room, Clint could hear the soft murmurs of Tony and Pepper upstairs, a door opening and closing, and a pair of giggling. There was a thump and what sounded like a groan.
Bruce saw and grimaced. “Yeah, they’re, uh, really not quiet about their relationship,” he said apologetically in a low voice, passing Clint his bag.
“Is this why you’re always out on Friday nights?” Clint asked quietly. They both started to bundle back up.
“Amongst other reasons,” Bruce replied. “The library is emptier on Fridays, too, which is nice.”
They headed out the front door. Bruce closed the door behind them and locked it before joining Clint at the bottom of the steps. “So,” he said, leading Clint back to the sidewalk, “that’s Tony and Pepper.”
“They’re nice,” Clint said distractedly. He was relishing the sounds around him. He couldn’t remember the last time his hearing aids had worked this well. He could hear the crunching of leaves beneath their feet and a car going by without having to strain to hear what Bruce was saying. He was astounded. “He’s definitely in the right field.”
Bruce huffed a soft laugh at that. “Don’t let him hear you say that, or you’ll never hear the end of it. Especially now,” he added, nodding toward Clint’s ears.
“I’d say it would be worth it,” Clint replied, smiling over at Bruce as they turned onto a different street. He just took a moment to look at him before speaking again. “Thank you, Bruce, for giving up your evening for this,” he said, softer.
Bruce looked over at him. There was something in his expression that made Clint’s chest suffuse with warmth and his stomach give a giddy lurch.
It was a feeling Clint was becoming very familiar with.
Bruce took a breath and didn’t break eye contact. “I’d hardly say spending the evening with you could count as being given up.”
They both blushed and glanced away for a moment. There was a part of Clint that wasn’t completely sure, but in the past week he had given it a lot of thought, and there had been a few instances in the past few weeks that had made him wonder if his feelings weren’t as one-sided as he had initially thought. There had already been a dozen just tonight, and Clint didn’t want to pass up the chance.
Clint looked back over at Bruce as they passed under a streetlamp. There was still a gorgeous blush across his cheeks, and in this lighting, he just looked so soft and warm.
Clint took the leap.
“Hey,” he said, lightly bumping shoulders with him. “I owe you a hot chocolate, for the one I knocked out of your hands.”
“You bought me that hot chocolate,” Bruce said, looking back at him.
Clint smiled. “Bruce.” He took a hold of one of Bruce’s hands and stopped. “Let me buy you a hot chocolate or a tea or something sometime.” His meaning was immediately picked up, if Bruce’s wide-eyed expression was anything to go by. “I mean, if that’s something you’d be interested in,” Clint added, just to give him an out.
Bruce stared at him, surprise etched across his gorgeous face. He turned so he was more fully facing Clint, his eyes never wavering away from Clint’s, and they watched each other under the warm glow of a nearby streetlamp.
Clint vaguely heard the crunching of leaves behind him from what sounded like a group of people passing by. He paid them no mind, keeping his eyes on Bruce.
But Bruce’s eyes drifted away from his to look over his shoulder, so Clint saw the moment dawning panic overcame his features. Bruce’s face went pale and Clint immediately felt a chill go through him. The hand holding Clint’s suddenly squeezed and Bruce’s whole body went tense.
Before Clint could turn around, there was a voice from behind him.
“Well well, it looks like Banner came to us this time!”
Clint twisted around, unintentionally putting himself between Bruce and what turned out to be a group of five muscle-bound guys. They looked vaguely familiar and Clint remembered seeing them at the fraternity party he had attended back at the beginning of the semester. They were walking casually up the sidewalk, but there was an aura about them that just screamed threat.
Clint immediately knew this was bad.
“We’re just headed to the library,” Bruce said in a carefully modulated tone, so carefully even and soft it hurt Clint to hear it.
“Oh, is that right?” the same guy asked with a fake grin. “Seems to me you don’t need to spend any extra time there, being the genius you supposedly are. But for being such a genius, it makes me wonder how someone as stupid as you managed to stay in the program. He’s offered you an out, man. You’ve been an idiot not to take it, but you know what? I think we’re feeling pretty generous tonight,” he said as they came to a stop. The smile dropped from his face as he stared Bruce down. “You know the terms.”
Clint was completely lost, but he knew enough to know it was a threat. He felt himself bristling with anger. These were the assholes who were hurting Bruce.
Bruce took a step forward so he was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Clint. “I’m not interested in accepting his terms,” he said in a low, but even tone. Clint knew him well enough by now to know he was getting pissed. “So, no thanks.”
There was a tug on his hand as Bruce stepped back and Clint remembered they were still holding hands. Bruce tugged again, a little harder and more urgently, and Clint took an obedient step away, but he didn’t turn his back on the group.
Sure enough, they quickly encircled them. This looked really bad.
Bruce sighed and looked at the guy who had been talking. “Guys, can we really not do this tonight?”
“You had your chance,” the guy said, like he was blaming Bruce for what was about to happen while looking forward to it. “And you’ve got your boyfriend involved too, so maybe this’ll teach you to—”
“Leave him out of this,” Bruce snarled in a vicious tone, taking a step toward the guy.
The guy just grinned and roughly shoved Bruce back. “Too late,” he said as Bruce crashed back against Clint.
And then hell broke loose.
One of the other guys rushed forward and his fist collided with Bruce’s jaw, and suddenly it was a free-for-all. With his heart hammering, Clint managed to block one of the fists driving toward Bruce’s ribs as he jumped between two attackers and Bruce. But they were completely surrounded, five against two, this looked bad, and Clint didn’t see the fist that socked him in the face. He hardly had time to register the pain before another punch landed against his side.
He did see the third strike coming toward him, but before he could dodge, Bruce grabbed the guy’s wrist and drove his fist straight into the guy’s nose. There was a vicious crunching noise and a strangled yelp of pain, but it was drowned out by a roar.
“Leave him alone!” Bruce’s voice boomed through the empty street. The last word hadn’t even echoed off of a nearby house before he lunged at the guy who had punched Clint in the face.
Clint stared in awe for split second before he was forced to dodge another blow and reached out to push another guy away from attacking Bruce. He had never seen Bruce this aggressive before. It was like something within him had snapped and all of his previous reservations were gone in the face of the brutal animalistic instinct to fight back and protect.
It was frankly a little scary, a little heart-warming, and, if he was being honest with himself, a little hot.
Clint pushed those thoughts aside to focus on the task at hand. They had to get out of this. They were holding their own okay, but it was two against five. Bruce fought hard and dirty, attacking anyone who got near him. Clint did his best to pull the guys off of him when they ganged up on him while trying to avoid blows to the head. He could already feel his eye starting to swell and there was the taste of blood in his mouth.
Someone kicked Clint in the back of the knees and he went down. Bruce landed next to him a heartbeat later. Clint curled and tried to protect his head from kicking boots, grunting in pain as his body took a beating.
This was bad. This was bad. This was bad.
Clint could hardly hear the panting of their assailants or the wheeze that escaped from Bruce after one particularly aggressive kick. His heart was hammering in his ears and all he could do was hope it ended soon.
Suddenly, a voice called out over them, loud enough to pierce through everything else. “Smile, boys.”
The group of attackers paused and Clint managed to peek up to see Natasha standing nearby, her phone out and her camera pointing at the scene. She looked like a goddess, standing there in her Friday night wardrobe with a deadly look on her face.
A beat passed in which they all stared at her, dumbstruck, which was just enough time for a police car to turn onto the street with their lights flashing.
It turned out, Clint later learned, that Natasha had heard a disturbance and went to investigate. Upon seeing the brawl, she had called the police and then started to record the ordeal.
She, Clint, Bruce, and the five other guys were all taken to the police station and were individually questioned after being treated for their injuries. Clint told them that Bruce had been getting beaten up for months now, but he never knew by whom. He was eventually released from the interrogation room back to the station’s lobby area, where Natasha was waiting. They shared a quick embrace before Clint asked about Bruce, but the receptionist said he was currently in holding.
Clint tried to tell the receptionist that Bruce didn’t start the fight, but it didn’t seem to help.
He had resolved to sit in the receptionist area until Bruce was released when Tony Stark walked through the door, talking rapid-fire to someone on the phone. His hair was a mess and there was a smudge of lipstick on his neck and ear, but he still looked like a force to be reckoned with.
He paused on his march to the front desk when he saw Clint and grimaced as he pulled his phone away from his ear. His eyes did a quick scan of his person before meeting his eyes again. “You’re free?” he asked.
At Clint’s nod, some of the tension in Tony’s shoulders loosened a little. He nodded in return and stormed up to the receptionist’s desk. “I’m here to post bail for Bruce Banner,” he said before pressing his phone back to his ear.
The next two hours passed at both a glacial speed and in the blink of an eye. Clint watched grumpy-looking adults storm in and leave with their deplorable offspring, all of whom gave Natasha and Clint the dirtiest of looks as they walked by and out of the police station. Tony stayed on the phone for a majority of that first hour, at one point speaking with his father.
“But Dad,” Tony said in a simpering tone, “think of what the news will say if there’s a headline that heir to Stark Industries, Anthony Stark’s roommate has been charged with assault and battery? That’s bad press for the company.”
The triumphant look on his face as he ended the call made Clint smile despite himself.
Tony turned a smug look toward Clint and Natasha. “Bruce just got himself one hell of a lawyer,” he declared.
A spark of hope went through Clint, but he still hated that he was even being held on a possible charge in the first place.
Finally, the locked doors opened and Bruce was led out with two officers, cradling his backpack to his chest and keeping his eyes low.
Clint was on his feet in an instant, moving toward him.
Bruce looked up at the sound of approaching footsteps. When his eyes locked on Clint, he dropped his backpack and moved forward.
They instantly wrapped each other in their arms, regardless of their bruises and regardless of the pain. Clint held on tight, giving him a gentle squeeze when Bruce tucked his face into his neck and held on tighter.
Clint stayed by his side, their hands clutched together, as Bruce signed his order of own recognizance release papers, promising to show up to the court first thing Monday morning for his preliminary hearing.
By the time they finally walked out of the police station, it was almost two in the morning.
Their hands remained together as they and Natasha climbed into Tony’s car. When they got to the dorms, Natasha took a single look at Clint and Bruce in the backseat, where their hands were still together, and got out of the vehicle alone. Tony thankfully didn’t say anything and drove the three of them back to his and Bruce’s place off campus.
After the front door was locked and Tony had retreated to his room, Bruce led Clint to his and shut the door behind them. They stood in the room for a period in silence, and Clint couldn’t help but think how different the room felt, just a few hours after he had been here.
He heard Bruce draw a breath and he glanced over to see Bruce looking down at their clasped hands with a troubled look on his bruised face. Clint gave his hand a squeeze, which brought Bruce’s eyes up to his.
They stared at one another for a moment before Bruce drew another breath. “Clint—”
“Don’t you dare apologize,” Clint cut in.
Bruce huffed and looked off, pulling his hand slightly away, but Clint held firm. “Bruce, they jumped us. We were defending ourselves.”
“That’s not going to matter,” Bruce replied darkly, still not looking at Clint. “It’s their word against mine.”
“Against ours,” Clint corrected. “You tried to defend me back in that fight. Let me try to defend you in court.” When Bruce hesitantly looked back at him, Clint finally released Bruce’s hand so he could instead put both of his on Bruce’s shoulders and look at him face-to-face. “Bruce, I’ve made the offer before and I’m making it again now. You don’t need to do this alone. Please,” he said softly, “please let me try to help.”
He watched Bruce’s eyes dart from feature to feature, no doubt taking in the damage and cataloging it away to feel guilty about, but he exhaled a long breath and just nodded.
Clint smiled and he felt the tug at his split lip. “We’ll get this figured out,” he promised as he drew Bruce in for another hug.
He let out a relieved sigh when Bruce returned the embrace.
Clint woke up the next day in an unknown room with a ray of sunlight splashing across his face. He panicked, sitting up in a stranger’s bed and hissing in pain from injuries he didn’t remember, and—
He spotted Bruce’s backpack next to the door standing ajar on the other side of the room, and the previous night came back to him in a flash. The hearing aids, the date proposition, the fight, the police station—it all came back in a rush. There was the feeling of Bruce in his arms once he had been released, their desperate embrace. There was the warm hand in his on the drive back and the feeling of roughened knuckles under his thumb. There was the memory of curling up next to Bruce on the small mattress, both of them careful not to jostle the other lest they aggravate their wounds.
It all came back.
With a shaky exhale, he closed his eyes in an effort to calm down. Once his heart was back to beating regularly, he opened his eyes back up and glanced down at the mattress next to him to find it empty. A brief touch told him that Bruce had left long enough ago for the sheets to have gone cold.
Clint got out of bed, making a face at the feeling of slept-in jeans and just the general discomfort of the morning after getting beaten up. He reached for his hearing aids, but paused when he saw a note next to them. He recognized Bruce’s handwriting in an instant.
In the kitchen. –B
The simplicity of it made Clint smile and he put in his hearing aids.
As soon as they were in, he could hear the low murmurs of Bruce, Tony, and an unknown third person. Clint ran his hand through his hair and grabbed his phone. He was hoping to check the time, but his battery was dead. He hoped Tasha hadn’t tried to contact him at all today.
He risked a stretch as he yawned and regretted it as soon as he did. After breathing a few heartfelt curses, he stepped out of the room and followed the voices.
Clint walked through the living room toward the kitchen, looking around as he moved. It was still the cluttered room it had been last night, with text books and spare bits of machinery lying around on the different surfaces.
When he got to the doorway leading into the kitchen, he paused and took in the scene. Both Tony and Bruce were sitting at the meager kitchen table, as was the third person he had previously heard. She was dressed in a woman’s business suit and looked like she belonged on the cover of a magazine. Frankly, she looked completely out of place sitting at the also-cluttered table. There was enough space made for the three of them to each have a mismatched mug of steaming beverages.
Clint took all of this in in a heartbeat before his eyes were inevitably drawn back to Bruce, taking in the new bruises. He had another black eye, which looked just as bad as it had last night and was still nearly swollen shut. There was an awful bruise on his cheekbone that looked shiny and terrible. His arms were lined with bruises, and he held himself in a way that bespoke of the pain he was in.
Clint ached all over again just looking at him.
He only had a moment to look before Tony spotted him. He perked up, which immediately made the woman and Bruce turn and glance over at him.
“He lives!” Tony greeted him cheerfully, which made Bruce grimace and get to his feet. “We weren’t sure if we should let you sleep or not.”
“What time is it?” Clint asked, watching as Bruce went about fixing another cup of coffee. He accepted the mug with a grateful smile and then nearly wept in gratitude when Bruce also produced a bottle of painkillers.
“It’s nearly two in the afternoon,” Tony replied.
Clint almost spat both the coffee and the painkiller out. “What?” he sputtered.
“We were going to wake you up at two,” Bruce mumbled as he sat back down at the table, pulling out the last chair in a clear invitation for Clint to join them. “We figured you needed the sleep.”
“It certainly seemed like you had a busy evening,” the woman said, eyeing Clint carefully. “These gentlemen explained what happened.”
Bruce ran a hand carefully over his face, gesturing at the woman with his other hand. “Clint, this is Maria Hill,” he said, sounding exhausted, “one of Stark Industries’ lawyers.” He paused to look over at Tony. “I still don’t understand—”
“Don’t you worry your pretty, bruised little head about it,” Tony said sweetly before turning his laser-like focus back to Ms. Hill. “So, do you think we have a case against him?”
“Against who?” Clint asked. “Against the frat guys?”
“Against Ross,” Tony said with a feral grin. When Clint blinked at him in confusion, Tony turned a look back over at Bruce. “You didn’t tell him about Ross?”
“It’s not everyone’s business,” Bruce said softly, looking into the depths of his tea. “This guy’s vendetta against me shouldn’t be anyone else’s problem.”
“Only now it is,” Tony shot back. “Never mind that it’s been getting your ass kicked pretty much weekly for almost a year now, but now he’s dragged Clint into it. You and his fraternity cronies were arrested, Bruce. It’s time to put an end to it.”
“Which is where I come in,” Ms. Hill spoke up when Bruce looked like he wanted to protest. “If the school has documentation on what happened, we should have a case.”
“I’m sorry,” Clint cut in, holding up a hand. “Who is Ross? What’s been going on?” He turned a look over at Bruce. “You’ve been getting beaten up every week for a year?”
“Not every week,” Bruce protested.
“Just about,” Tony shot back, giving his roommate a dirty look before looking back at Clint. “Bruce and Thaddeus Ross—”
“Thaddeus?” Clint repeated.
“Right?” Tony said with a grin. “Anyway, they’re both in the physics program and Ross tried to steal some of Bruce’s work. Bruce caught him and told him off. The next time he caught him, he threatened to take it to a professor, and the third time, he did. Turns out Ross hadn’t thought Bruce would go through with it, so when he was called to the department head’s office, he was given quite the surprise.”
“Asshole shouldn’t have been stealing my work,” Bruce muttered darkly into his tea.
Tony shot a quick look over at Bruce before continuing. “So as soon as the mark was put on Ross’s records, he vowed to make Bruce regret it. He’s one of the leaders in one of the frat houses, so he’s got a group of guys who are willing to do his dirty work.”
Bruce leaned back in his chair and heaved a tired sigh. “He said he’d call off the dogs if, and only if, I went forward and told the physics department I had lied and gave Ross my work. I told him to fuck off, and well.” He shrugged and grimaced. “Here we are.”
As Clint stared at Bruce in both horror and admiration, Tony looked over at Ms. Hill. “This was back in February,” he said. “February. This has been going on for months. There’s something you can do to make Ross back off, right?”
A smile crossed Ms. Hill’s face. “I believe we have a case,” she said. She held up a hand as Tony let out a whoop of victory. “It’s going to be long, and it’s probably going to get nasty.” She looked over at Bruce. “I hate to say it, but your record isn’t exactly the best, but with your two eyewitnesses—” Her eyes went to Clint. “—one of whom has video evidence, I think I can get the judge to just send you to anger management classes again.”
“It beats jail,” Bruce replied.
“As for the rest,” Ms. Hill went on, “if we can get one of the assailants to confess to carrying out Ross’s personal vendetta against you, I think we can get this sorted out.”
Tony grinned wide and reached across the table to clap Bruce on the shoulder. “You hear that?” he said as Bruce hissed in pain and slapped Tony’s hand away. “We might get this taken care of before the holidays! It’s a Christmas miracle.”
Clint cracked up.
They spent the afternoon going over a game plan to free Bruce from Ross’s aggressions. Tony ordered a pizza at some point after the sun had gone down and before they knew it, it was well into the evening. Ms. Hill collected her things, promising to be in touch with Bruce.
Tony retreated after that up to his room, and with that, Bruce and Clint were left alone in the kitchen. They were both exhausted and sore, and Clint just wanted to go back to bed. He didn’t have the energy to walk all the way back to campus to his dorm.
He didn’t need to worry, though. Bruce hefted himself to his feet and offered Clint a hand to pull him up. Clint took it and groaned as his aching body protested. A look of dismay and guilt flashed across Bruce’s face at the sound, but a pointed look from Clint kept him from apologizing.
Bruce kept a hold of Clint’s hand and pulled him toward his room. He only let go long enough to rifle through his dresser. When he turned back around with a pair of sweats and a well-loved t-shirt to offer, Clint found himself smiling.
Wordlessly, they got ready for bed. Once they were both settled on the narrow mattress, their legs tangled under the covers, Clint propped himself up on an elbow and started to take out his hearing aids, but he paused when Bruce lightly nudged him with his foot.
There was a look on Bruce’s face, and before Clint could tell him not to apologize, Bruce drew a breath. “Clint, thank you,” he said softly, looking up at him, “for helping me last night, for sticking around today, for…just for everything, really.”
As Clint stared down at him, at the livid mottling of purples and blacks across his jaw and around one of his eyes, he couldn’t help but smile. He reached out with his other arm and lightly let his hand rest against Bruce’s arm. “You never did answer me yesterday,” he said quietly.
Despite himself, Bruce smiled even as he lightly blushed. “Forgive me if getting attacked by a mob of frat boys distracted me,” he said sarcastically, but his smile was genuine. He shifted until he brought one of his hands up to rest over Clint’s. “I think I’d like that,” he answered, “going on a date with you.”
Clint immediately grinned and laid back down. “I really want to hug you right now, but I don’t want to hurt you.”
“We can make it work,” Bruce replied with a brilliant smile.
After Clint had removed his hearing aids and turned off the lamp on the little night stand, they curled back up under the covers, gingerly moving closer and closer so they didn’t accidentally push against any bruises. They eventually settled against one another, their legs entangled and pressed against one another in a loose embrace.
Clint couldn’t stop smiling and fell asleep peacefully that night.
Clint attended the court hearing on Monday for Bruce and rejoiced when the judge dismissed the charges against Bruce so long as he signed up for anger management classes. Over a celebratory/work lunch, Ms. Hill promised to speak to the court about contacting the other lawyers for the frat boys to see if anyone would take a plea deal for dropped charges. Things were certainly looking up, but the issue would be ongoing for at least a few more weeks.
Bruce and Clint walked to campus from Bruce’s off-campus house, hand-in-hand and reveling in the change of tides. In between all of the court stuff, they still had their busy schedules to adhere to.
They were about to split ways so Bruce could head to class and Clint could head to archery practice when Bruce paused on the sidewalk. Clint stopped and looked over to find a curious look on Bruce’s face. “You okay?” Clint asked, stepping closer.
Bruce drew a breath. “Do you have Thanksgiving plans?” he asked on the next exhale.
Clint made a face. They had classes today and tomorrow, but then the campus was shutting down for the Thanksgiving holiday for the rest of the week. There had been talk in the dorms of everyone’s plans to leave Tuesday night or Wednesday morning to go home.
“Aside from having free reign of an empty dorm building, no,” Clint replied. “Don’t really have a family to go visit.”
“Would you…” Bruce started, faltering for a moment before he pushed on. “Would you be interested in coming home with me? Meet my aunt, uncle, and cousin?”
The question took Clint off guard and he blinked at him for a moment as the words settled over him. A smile crept across his face. “You want me to meet the family?” he asked in a low voice as he pressed a little closer.
“I don’t want to leave you here alone,” Bruce answered, “and I’d rather not go home alone.”
That smile on Clint’s face grew soft and he pulled Bruce into a hug. “I’d love to.”
Wednesday, at an ungodly hour in the morning, the two of them boarded a bus to take them on a seven-hour drive upstate. Clint immediately fell back asleep once they were settled in their seats, his head cushioned on Bruce’s shoulder and rocked into slumber with the jostling of the moving vehicle.
About half-way there, the bus pulled off of the highway and into a gas station. The patrons on board got out to stretch their legs, buy snacks, or use the restroom while the driver refueled.
After finishing up in the bathroom, Clint stood outside in the cold November air, breathing deep in an attempt to more fully wake up. His hands were plunged deep into his pockets and he used the free time to look around at their fellow passengers. There were a few kids running around while their parents watched, but a majority of the riders were his age.
He spotted Bruce walking his way with two cups a few minutes later. His black eye was still prominent behind his glasses and the bruise along his jaw was still a livid purple, but he wasn’t carrying himself as stiffly as he had been since Friday night. He was bundled up against the cold, but just the sight of him brought a pleasant warmth to Clint’s chest and he smiled.
Clint hooked his chin over Bruce’s shoulder when Bruce came to a stop by his side. “What’d you get me?” he asked.
Bruce lightly bumped his temple against Clint’s in greeting and Clint felt himself grin stupidly. “It just seems like tradition at this point,” Bruce said as he handed over one of the cups.
Clint barked a laugh at that and took a sip of the blue raspberry slushie Bruce bought him. “Nothing like an icy drink in November,” he mused.
“You bought yourself one less than a week ago,” Bruce pointed out, but he was smiling.
The sight made the warm feeling in his chest become fluttery and he cozied a little closer to Bruce, delighting in the feeling of Bruce wrapping his free arm around his waist. “I still have no self-restraint.”
“As long as you don’t give yourself brain-freeze, I’d say that isn’t such a bad thing,” Bruce replied.
Before long, they all filed back onto the bus to continue on their way. Clint had the window seat and idly watched the world fly by as he sipped on his drink. His free hand was holding Bruce’s, who was reading a book.
Clint looked at their reflections in the window. He also had a nasty black eye that was about as healed as Bruce’s. He ran his blue tongue over the split in his lip that was still healing, but as far as face wounds went, those two were all Clint had. He had more bruises along his arms and his torso, but those were easy enough to hide. The ones on his face, not so much.
He focused on the reflection of Bruce in the window and looked at the bruises on his face. They made quite the pair: bruised and beaten.
Clint huffed a small laugh to himself.
Bruce looked up from his book and glanced over. “What?”
Clint smiled and looked over at him. “So much for first impressions,” he said with a grin, pointing at his black eye.
Bruce snorted a laugh at that. “They’re probably going to find your blue teeth more concerning than our black eyes,” he replied, and Clint laughed.
They started to chat together about anything and everything, their heads ducked together to keep their volume level down in respect of their other riders. As they talked, Clint ran his thumb over Bruce’s battered knuckles absently.
They really did make quite the pair, bruised and beaten, but together. They’d be together during the holiday visit, through Bruce’s upcoming legal challenges, and hopefully beyond that. They could wear their bruises proudly, hands together and facing whatever came next, so long as they had each other.
Clint found himself looking forward to it.