Bruce had considered buying a sofa for his lab; it would probably fit under the window, if he moved things around a little. And the light that pooled incessantly through the wide glass panels would almost certainly turn it into a very nice place to be. In fact, it could probably become a great thing of comfort if he used it properly. It could act as a diminutive speck of calm amongst the constant chaos that came with being an Avenger. But, then again, buying a sofa for his lab also meant that he’d have to run it past Director Fury first and he really didn’t feel like doing that. For a lot of reasons - nearly all of them personal.
S.H.I.E.L.D were watching Bruce close enough as it was; he didn’t want them catching on about this too. He wanted this one thing for himself and for his friends. They already knew everything there was to know about him; they’d already seen him at his most vulnerable and his most broken; and most of the agents still shunned him and branded him as a dangerous, reckless monster. No. This wasn’t for them to know about - this was for the people who‘d fought for those suspiciously Hulk-sized cages to be removed from the building, this was for those people who’d argued and argued with Fury over Bruce’s right to leave the building unsupervised, like an actual adult, this was for his friends. It had nothing to do with business.
Yes, Bruce could say that he needed it as a place to take a nap every once in a while; or he could even say that after Hulking-out he found it much easier to work while sitting on a softer surface - because it really did give his body quite a nasty beating. But that wouldn’t be the truth and telling the truth in this case would undoubtedly be a direct breech of his rigid moral code. So, that was an overwhelming ‘no’ to the sofa idea but that didn’t stop Bruce from going out to the store, by himself, and buying an extra-comfy stool instead. It was something small enough to be unnoticed, it wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb, and it was much better than nothing.
You see, after a few months of being thrown, somewhat forcefully, into The Avengers line-up, Bruce found that he was no longer lacking in the human company and social interactions that he‘d actively shied away from for years. In fact, quite the opposite was true. Because, for some unknown reason, the team had decided that Bruce was the guy to go to if they needed to vent, or if they needed to mull something over, or if they needed a friendly face, or just a smile and Bruce was willing to oblige them. He wasn’t about to turn anybody away. He wasn’t about to slam the door in the faces of his friends.
And he wasn’t saying that the team hadn’t realised that he was a scientist - and not a psychiatrist - but he thought the way in which they all addressed him as ‘Dr Banner,’ as the snuck into his lab, meant something too. He also thought it said an awful lot about S.H.I.E.L.D‘s lacklustre approach to mental health and the idea of building a healthy community.They’d all done it, they’d all come to Bruce, all of them, and he didn’t mind it, not really. How could he? They just wanted someone to talk to, someone who would listen to them and keep their secrets and Bruce, well, he knew a thing or two about keeping secrets.
So, as soon as he heard his lab door creak open - because they never ever seemed to knock - he’d stop what he was doing, no matter what he was doing, and he’d smile over at them before he sent them a welcoming ‘Hi’. Then they’d usually walk a little further into the room, glancing around like they were looking for something tangible in the air, before they'd hover awkwardly around his desk for a while.
Some of them started talking to him by talking about something outwardly insignificant first: ‘Why does the Man of Iron speak so much?’ ‘What I don’t get is, why are tomatoes a fruit?’ While some of them just got straight to the point: ‘Do you think I’m weaker because I’m a woman?’ ‘I don’t understand this world anymore.’ ‘The dreams wont stop; I‘m dead on my feet here, Doc.’ Either way, they all had a tendency to stay for a while, talking it out of their systems, and Bruce had started to feel really, really bad for their feet and legs. Hence, the introduction of the stool - which they now sat down on out of habit - sure, he’d had to offer it to them all a few times at first but eventually they just took a seat and that always made Bruce smile. He liked being that one, single person for them all, it helped him to weigh and measure his own worth whenever he needed to.
It was Monday afternoon when Natasha slipped through the door, a soft ‘Dr. Banner’ acting as the only indication that she was even there at all. Bruce smiled and put his new, purple pen down, pushing his sleeves up to the elbow while nodding at Natasha in greeting as she sat on the stool across from him, “Hi, Nat.”
“Hi.” she said politely, shifting a little as her hand automatically reached out to the small, red stress ball that Bruce kept on his desk. He’d intended to move it a few weeks ago but the fact that Natasha held it in her hands, every single time that she came in to speak to him, meant that he’d left it exactly where it was.
“Do you think I’m smart, Bruce?” she almost whispered then, focusing on, and squeezing the small ball between her agile fingertips. Bruce’s soft smile split into a subtle frown and he absorbed her self-deprecating words. He didn’t like it when she questioned herself like that, he didn’t like it at all. It made him feel incredibly protective; it made his heart race.
“Of course! I think you’re whip-smart, Nat.” he offered kindly and she smiled up at him, her bright, red hair softly framing her beautiful face and her even features.
Natasha was never quite the same inside Bruce’s lab as she was outside of it. Sure, she was always - always - a master assassin, with a no nonsense attitude, but she was also an incredibly vulnerable person and, honestly, it worried Bruce a little bit. If she hadn’t possessed such a rock-hard exterior it would have been far too easy for someone to take advantage of her. And, in a lot of ways, she reminded Bruce of a lost child, wondering around in the bitter blasts of winter, and he wondered if he was the only one who saw that part of her. Because Clint, who had known her for years and years, must have seen this side of her too. So, in turn, Bruce often wondered if it made Clint’s heart pound too; if it made his breath catch in the back of his throat sometimes because it always seemed so damn unexpected.
“It’s just, sometimes,” she begins carefully, “I see all of you guys and you’re all so smart, with your sciences and your technologies and I just.. I wonder if I ought to be.. more.” She offers honestly and it draws a muted noise of disbelief from Bruce - who’s soft eyes have softened even further in concern.
“Are you kidding me?” he says instinctively, rhetorically, and Natasha just shrugs a little, like she‘s suddenly embarrassed or ashamed.
“No one - and I mean, no one, Nat - is a quick and rational as you are in a crisis. I think that’s really smart. Maybe it’s not ‘science smart’ but it’s something just as important; it’s probably more important actually.” Bruce says decisively and Natasha’s eyes widen, “You-- you really believe that?”
“Yeah, of course I do. Nat, the decisions you make in a millisecond would be bouncing around in my ‘science-brain’ for days. We need your type of smart. It saves our asses on a daily basis.” Bruce concludes honestly, with a hint of determination and then she smiles. That soft smile that he always hopes to put back on her face, right where it belongs.
“I’ve never really thought about it like that.” she reveals openly and Bruce can see something inside of her balancing itself out again then. It’s the calming of a storm and he’s so, so grateful for that.
“You’ve got a gift, Ms. Romanoff.” Bruce articulates then and Natasha nods and says, “Thank you for your time, Dr Banner.”
“It’s always a pleasure, Nat.” he replies and then she sets the stress-ball down on his desk, bows her head once, and leaves the lab.
Later that day, when Bruce gives up on his work for the night, he’ll look up from his writing and notice a bag filled to the brim with homemade cookies on his desk. He’ll smile to himself as he reads the note that’s been carefully taped to it and he’ll wonder how she managed to place them right in front of him without him even noticing.
Then his eyes will trace over her neat letters once more, as he reaches into the stuffed bag and pulls out a large double-chocolate, chocolate-chip cookie. The note reads:
‘Don’t work too hard, Dr Banner. Live a little; eat the whole bag. You deserve it. Natasha. x’
And he will. Because they’re delicious.
No one comes to visit him on Tuesday. He doesn’t mind though because, in a way, what that really means is that they’re all feeling okay in themselves. Which is obviously the greatest thing he could hope for. And he sees them all anyway - whenever he leaves his lab, that is - and they greet him like an old friend and he can’t imagine anything better than that. He can’t imagine anything better than sitting down to eat his lunch next to Clint and Steve as they watch Tony complain about the worsening weather with an colossal frown on his face.
In stark contrast, Wednesday is what Bruce would call a busy listening day. First there’s Thor, who practically throws the door off it’s hinges as he enters the lab, thunder explodes violently in the sky, and Bruce nearly jumps out of his skin.
“Forgive me.” Thor says quickly and apologetically as he storms over to the stool and sits himself down with an almighty thud, “I forget my own strength.”
Bruce moves his hands away from his keyboard and smiles, despite his increased heart rate, and reassures Thor that it’s all fine, “It’s okay. Its just a door. Are you okay? I care more about you. You‘re causing quite a storm out there.”
Bruce tilts his head towards the window, where the dark skies are washing out the remaining blues. Thor breathes a weighty sigh then and places his hands firmly on Bruce’s desk, fingers spread apart, “My brother is at his childish tricks again, Dr. Banner.”
“Is he in some kind of trouble? Does he need help?” Bruce asks instantaneously because, sure, Loki is a pain in the ass but he’s Thor’s pain in the ass, he’s Thor’s brother and that still means something around here because it still means something to Thor. And he respects that, one hundred percent, no questions.
Bruce watches as the angry blonde’s fingers edge over to the shimmering, green paperweight that sits on top of his piled paper work. Thor picks it up with expected ease and frowns deeply at it, like it’s somehow implicated in the situation. And it’s another one of those things that Bruce just didn’t have the heart to move during his clean-up, because it clearly reminds Thor of something. Of someone. It’s not that hard to deduce. All you have to do is look at his face.
“He's in no more trouble than usual, Doctor.” Thor mutters then, testing the objects weight in his hand, “Loki, he plays with our Mother’s emotions, he always has, but now his childish games grow dangerous.” Bruce frowns, his body subconsciously leaning forwards.
“He wouldn’t hurt her, would he?” he asks hurriedly because family is something precious, family isn’t something you should just throw away, it’s not something you should purposely break or hurt.
“No, he would not hurt her knowingly.” Thor says with firm reassurance, “Loki loves her very dearly, despite what he would have anyone believe. But she has not been well; she needs her rest. She does not need Loki spinning one of his vicious tales.” he explains as another bout of thunder shudders through the sky. Thor winces, “I am sorry; I do not mean to.”
“No, it’s okay. Maybe you should go home for a while.” Bruce suggests, “Maybe you could talk to Loki, reason with him.”
“Loki no longer trusts me.” Thor says then, as he stares thoughtfully down at the paperweight cupped in his large palms.
“You can always regain his trust. He loves you. He’ll listen.” Bruce offers thoughtfully.
“Loki does not listen. Loki does not love.” Thor counters with a painful scowl on his face.
“Now, I don’t think that’s true. In my limited experience with your brother, something always stands out about him: and that’s the way that he constantly looks at you like you’re his hero.” Bruce imparts honestly.
“You mistake his hateful glaring for love, Dr. Banner.” Thor says then, his eyes briefly flickering up to Bruce’s, almost hopefully.
“No, I’m not talking about the glaring. I’m talking about the way that he looks at you when you’re turned away from him.” Bruce clarifies.
“Does he not simply continue to glare hatefully at the back of my head?” Thor asks gruffly, with a hint of confusion added into the mix, his thumb subconsciously stroking over the smooth surface of the shiny, green paperweight.
“He looks at you like he’s hurt you beyond your forgiveness, Thor. Like he‘s let you down again; like he’s disappointed you. Like he‘s used to it.” Bruce answers sincerely and Thor’s forehead creases.
“He hasn’t looked at me that way since we were children.” Thor offers quietly, half-lost in memories.
“He’s always looking at you like that.” Bruce counters and then Thor stands, pauses in thought and declares his intentions. Loudly.
“I will go to him, I will go home. I will tell him that-- what should I tell him?” Thor enquires.
“Tell him what’s in your heart. Tell him that you love him, tell him that he’s not a disappointment.” Bruce provides and Thor nods in regretful agreement.
“I shall not let him forget that again. Not this time.” Thor promises and then he returns the paperweight to it’s place on Bruce’s paper work and bids him goodbye.
Later, at lunch time, when Bruce walks out of his lab with an empty cup in his hand, Natasha will walk past him and say, “Oh, Thor left you something in the microwave.”
Then he’ll walk into the kitchen, open up the microwave, and find a large plate of meat inside. Bruce will smile at that, pour himself a fresh cup of coffee, and take his meaty lunch to the dining table in their communal kitchen.
Bruce wont be alone, he’ll have Clint for company - with whom he‘ll share his food - and it‘ll turn out to be one of the most pleasant experiences he‘s ever had.
On Wednesday afternoon, with his belly full and his spirits high, Bruce gets a visit from Steve Rogers. He knows it’s Steve before he sees it’s Steve because the Captain has a tendency to pull the door open a fraction and then not come in. He’ll just stand and gather his thoughts for a minute or two and then he’ll steps inside the room.
“Dr. Banner, I hope I’m not bothering you?” He asks, just like he always does, and then he pauses halfway across the room. Waiting for permission to stay. Permission that Bruce hopes he knows that he always has. He’s hopeful that it’s more of a forties manners thing rather than an ‘is this really okay?’ thing, though.
“You never bother me, Captain.” Bruce smiles. Neatly stacking a few of his papers and then setting them aside before he pats his desk, “Please, sit down. Make yourself at home.”
“Thanks.” Steve says as he closes the distance between them and perches on the very edge of the stool.
“Relax.” Bruce smiles and Steve visibly tries to.
“I don’t understand a lot of things.” Steve starts carefully and Bruce wonders if he rehearsed this outside of his lab door or whether he just builds his courage up out there. He doesn’t ask.
“I‘m the same.” Bruce offers instead, keeping his voice soft and warm and familiar, hoping that the Captain - that Steve - can find a shred of hope in it somewhere, “This world is at least fifty percent crazy, Steve. Who knows, maybe the numbers are as high as eighty percent.” Steve smiles at that.
“The music is terrible. It’s just.. sustained noise.” He says then, like someone’s forced a bitter lemon between his lips.
“Tell me about it.” Bruce concurs with a soft laugh.
“And the dames. I mean, we had some rowdy women back in the day, you know? But a young woman threatened to cut me open with a rusty knife earlier because I held a door open for her. I was just trying to be nice. She started shouting at me; telling me that she could do it herself before she started cursing like an old sailor. I just-- I don‘t understand modern women. They were confusing enough before the future happened.” Steve confesses. As his fingers reach over to Bruce’s pen pot and pull out the little American flag that he has stashed away in there. Twirling the little stick between his fingers. Making the colours blend and swirl.
“Chivalry. It’s hit and miss these days, Cap.” Bruce confirms and Steve makes a little noise that’s the equivalent to: ‘Pft. You’re telling me!’
“So, anyway, that experience has knocked me for six. I had this grand plan that involved going out on a date this weekend but .. wait, I mean, do people even date now?” Steve asks and Bruce can’t keep the smile off his face.
“Sure. Dating still happens. Have you got your eyes on someone special, Captain?” Bruce teases and Steve just shrugs nonchalantly, even though there’s a smile lingering at the very corners of his mouth.
“I might have.” He says coyly and Bruce’s smile turns into a full blown grin.
“Oh, I see how it is. Do I know this lucky lady, at least?” Bruce asks and then Steve rolls his eyes.
“Oh, I’d like to see you call him a lady, that‘s for sure.” Steve laughs loudly, caught up in the moment, and then his face falls a little and he frowns, suddenly unsure, suddenly defensive, “Is that.. is that gonna be a problem here?”
“What? No. Why would that be a problem here?” Bruce asks, confused.
“Because he’s.. well, because he’s a man.” Steve clarifies and Bruce just shakes his head.
“That’s not a problem. Not here, not at all.” Bruce says and then, “It’s not anyone’s business anyway, right?”
“Right.” Steve smiles.
“So..” Bruce leads.
“So.” Steve repeats, his head tilted to the side a little.
“So, who’s the lucky fella?” Bruce asks.
“I couldn’t possibly tell you that, Doctor.” Steve smiles.
“Ten questions for me to work it out?” Bruce suggests and Steve’s eyes widen before he says, “Oh, I know this game!”
“I’m taking that as a yes, Rogers. So, do I know him?” Bruce begins curiously.
“Yes.” Steve says definitively, as a soft pink blush heats up his cheeks.
“Oh, okay. So, does he work here?” Bruce continues playfully.
“Yes.” Steve says then, a little reluctantly, and Bruce thinks that he loves this game because two questions in and he knows, without a doubt, that Steve Rogers is lusting after Tony Stark. He’s not blind. He’s not dumb.
“Does this man happen to be a bitingly sarcastic gentleman?” Bruce asks in earnest before Steve laughs and rolls his eyes.
“That's a huge YES.” Steve says and Bruce smiles over at him knowingly. In a way which he hopes reads as, ‘Good for you, man.’
“And does your dream man - Mr. Biting-Sarcasm himself - play well with others?”
“No Sir. No way.” Steve says, with a huge grin plastered on his extremely handsome face. And then there’s a soft, silent moment where they both just look at each other with gentleness.
“Does he make you happy, Steve?” Bruce asks then, with a tender smile that fills his eyes up hopefully. He wants Steve to be happy, he knows that he has a rough time adjusting to the modern world sometimes. And that he feels just as thrown into the situation as Bruce does most of the time.
“Yeah, he makes me very, very happy.” Steve gushes and suddenly it‘s almost too much for Bruce to handle. A man like Steve blushing and sighing over a man like Tony. It fits, somehow. Somehow, it’s perfect.
“When are you asking him out?” Bruce enquires and Steve shrugs shyly. His eyes fixed on the miniature stars and stripes between his fingertips.
“I was going to do it today but that dame, no, that woman, no, I mean, that young lady threw me off course.” Bruce laughs and smiles sympathetically at his friend, tapping Steve’s free hand with his as it rests on his desk.
“I say, go for it. Tony likes you, Steve. And who knows, maybe he’s the reason you slept for so long?” Bruce offers and Steve smiles over at him fondly.
“You believe in that stuff? In fate?” he asks Bruce then.
“I think a man ought to believe in something.” Bruce shrugs and then Steve smiles, wide and honest, before he stands, offers Bruce his hand - which he shakes firmly - and returns the tiny flag to it’s home amongst the newly sharpened pencils and the purple pens.
“Wish me luck on my next mission, Dr Banner?” Steve smiles.
“You don’t need any luck, Cap. There’s not a chance in hell that Tony’s gonna say no to this.” Bruce offers and Steve just laughs, “Keep your fingers crossed for me anyway, soldier.” And then he’s gone.
Later, when Bruce’s has stopped working, he’ll get a text from Tony filled with far too many smilies and exclamation marks for a grown man; and he’ll be gushing about his impending date with ‘America’s hottest super soldier’ and Bruce will smile as his heart flutters. He’ll smile almost as much as he does when he sees how happy Steve is the next day. Because, suddenly, America’s greatest anachronism has found himself something worth staying in our timeline for. And mainly, more than anything, it’s a genuine relief. Steve can’t spit the bullet out.
It’s not until Thursday afternoon that Bruce gets his next visitor, but that doesn’t concern him. Not as much as the exhausted look on Tony’s face does. He looks horribly gaunt and way too hollow around the eyes to be healthy. It’s almost like he’s got the thousand-yard stare and it’s extremely unnerving. Bruce drops his purple pen this time, rather than puts it down, and furrows his brow as he contemplates rushing over to help him, “Tony?”
“Dr. Banner.” Tony mutters in greeting as he enters the lab, his arc reactor gleaming brightly through his thin t-shirt, his legs more than a little unsteady. It’s very worrying.
“You still can’t sleep?” Bruce asks then, in concern, and Tony practically collapses onto the stool in front of him. Bruce is starting to wonder whether he should have lied to Fury about that sofa. Maybe Tony would be able to sleep a little if he knew that someone was right there with him, watching over him while he was so vulnerable. Because if Bruce knows anything, he knows that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a nasty, messy business.
“Oh, I fall asleep easy enough and by ‘fall asleep’ I mean that my body shuts itself down every once in a while, which probably isn’t so good. But I also have this really annoying tendency to wake up terrified out of my mind and surrounded by the ghosts-of-terrorists-past.” Tony says far too pleasantly; too flippantly.
“Is there anything I can do to help you?” Bruce asks genuinely and Tony smiles at him, thinking.
“No, I’ll be fine. It comes in waves, Doc. Hopefully tomorrow will be better, hopefully my hot man date will take over my subconscious instead.” Tony says hopefully as he reaches out to pick up the small screwdriver that’s lodged into the pencil pot; right next to the little flag. He taps it gently on his thigh, looking around himself a little. It’s a nervous habit, just like talking too much is. He’d had to explain that to Thor once.
“Yeah, your date with Captain Rogers.” Bruce smiles and a wide, warm grin spreads across Tony’s tired face, his features suddenly becoming a mix of overwhelming fatigue and complete happiness.
“Who knew, right? Captain America wants to take on someone like me.” Tony laughs and Bruce smiles.
“I think we all saw that one coming.” Bruce offers playfully before he adds, “And there’s nothing wrong with you.” Tony just raises an eyebrow as if to say, ‘Can you even see me right now?’
“What I mean is, you’re quite the catch too. You’re a good man, Tony.” Bruce explains and Tony smiles gratefully.
“Not quite Steve Rogers good.” Tony concludes.
“Good in a different way. He was in here yesterday, you know? Asking if people even dated each other anymore.” Bruce smiles.
“Poor little Steve. Confused by our big, messed up, modern world.” Tony says lightly.
“Where are you going on your date?” Bruce asks and Tony can’t stop himself from blushing a little.
“Oh, I don’t know, he wont tell me, he says it’s a surprise. That I should just behave myself and do as he says: dress up nice and meet him at eight.” Tony conveys as he glances out of the window.
“You’ll be fine.” Bruce says supportively, “You always are.”
“But what if this doesn’t stop, Bruce? What if I can’t get a handle on this?” Tony says, clearly referring to his sleepless nights.
“Then you’ll figure something out.” Bruce says, because it’s true.
“What if I fall asleep on him or something and when I wake up I’m scared shitless?” Tony asks slowly and he’s much quieter now, muted even, “What do I do then? What‘s gonna stop him from walking away?”
“Steve fought in World War II, Tony. If there’s anyone in the world who could understand what you’re going through right now it’s him. He’d have seen soldiers going through this, his friends even, having it hard, just like you. It’s not going to scare him away, okay? He’s not a child and he’s not going to snap under the pressure of your problems, he’ll help you through it.” Bruce explains and Tony looks right at him.
“His friends stared into the face of death for months at a time. Literally.” he states firmly.
“And you were kidnapped by terrorists and had your life threatened for months on end. Literally.” Bruce reminds him. There’s a silence then and Bruce hopes that he hasn’t sent Tony back into that cave in the desert.
“You really think it’ll be okay?” Tony asks eventually, nervously tapping the screwdriver against his thigh again.
“Yes! Okay, let’s try this a different way. Give me three words that describe Captain Rogers?” Bruce suggests.
“Compassionate. Strong. Sexy.” Tony reels off easily and Bruce smiles over at him.
“And there we have it. He’s a good guy, Tony. And good guys don’t give up when it gets a little hard, especially the strong ones.”
“I’m lucky to have him.” Tony says thoughtfully.
“And he’s lucky to have you.” Bruce says and, as if by magic, the door cranks itself open a little but no one enters. Tony looks a little puzzled. Until Steve steps into the room with a huge smile in his face.
“Dr. Banner, I hope I’m not bothering--” he cuts himself off when he sees Tony sitting on the stool, leaning heavily on the desk, “Oh, Mr Stark, I didn’t realise your were here. Bruce, you’re busy. I‘ll come back when--” but he cuts himself off again when he really gets a good look at Tony, his smile slipping away as he walks closer to the desk, “Are you okay, Tony?”
“I’m fine, Cap.” Tony offers with a strained smile and Steve looks at Bruce who offers him a sympathetic look that says ‘He’s lying. He’s a mess.’
“You don’t look fine. You look like you need your bed.” Steve says honestly and Tony laughs, “Sleep and I haven’t exactly been getting along, Cap.”
Steve moves to Tony’s side then, places his hand on his shoulder and squeezes lightly as he talks, “Do you want me to watch over you?” he asks, like it’s the least complicated thing in the world and Bruce’s heart flutters at the tenderness of it all. That perfect balance between emotional presence and physicality.
“W-what?” Tony stutters out in confusion; turning his head a fraction to look at Steve properly.
“You heard me. And before you start, it’s fine, I’m not busy. I can watch over you. The first sign of trouble and I’ll wake you up, I promise. I wont let anyone hurt you, Tony, out here or in your head.” Steve pledges and Bruce can see the fear in Tony subside a little and melt into love.
“Now, why would you offer to do something like that?” Tony asks eventually and Steve just says, “Because I can. Because I care.” And that’s enough, that’s everything. So, Tony nods his head and Steve takes the little screwdriver out of his hands and returns it to the pencil pot, right next to his little flag. Then he helps Tony stand up with an encouraging, “Come on, soldier, let‘s get you to bed.” And Bruce just watches them.
“Thank you, Doctor.” Steve says, bowing his head a little as he wraps an arm around Tony to keep him steady on his feet.
“Yeah, thanks, Doc.” Tony echoes as they head towards the door and then they’re gone and Bruce is left with a new found hope for humanity beating in his heart.
Early the next morning, as he walks toward his lab, he’ll see Tony and Steve talking away. He’ll see them smiling and poking at each other and it’s good, it’s really good. In fact it’s almost as good as the fact that the dark rings around Tony’s eyes have faded and Steve looks truly at home and at peace for once.
It’s Friday lunchtime when Bruce receives his final guest of the week. He’s halfway down his last sheet of test results when the door clicks open and Clint slips into his lab. Staring casually around the room, his eyes looking around for change, just like they always do. Clint’s curious that way. When he realises that absolutely nothing is different he smiles over at Bruce and gestures at the stool.
“Oh, please, have a seat.” Bruce says genuinely. Shuffling papers and taking his fingers away from the keyboard to give Clint his full attention.
“Don’t stop on my account.” Clint offers. Reaching into his pocket and pulling out a purple pen. He taps it on the desk once and stuffs it in Bruce’s pen pot. It’s what Clint does, he brings Bruce pens like they’re appreciative gifts. They’re always purple on the outside, and sometime their ink is too, and Bruce has no idea where Clint gets them from because he‘s never seen such an expansive range of purple pens in his life, “Thanks, Clint.”
“Pleasure’s mine.” he says before nodding his head, “You can carry on working if you want to.”
“No, it’s okay, I’m almost done anyway.” Bruce reassures and Clint just rolls his eyes.
“If you’re almost done then you should finish it. I’m not going anywhere.” he says and Bruce smiles, looking over the results on the paper before he starts typing away. It takes him ten minutes or so and then he’s done.
When he looks up Clint is staring at him fondly.
“Don’t you feel better now that it’s all out of the way?” he asks and Bruce nods because he does, “Yeah, I think I do.”
“So, how are you, Dr Banner?” he asks then and Bruce snorts.
“I’m okay.” he says and Clint tilts his head.
“Only okay?” he asks and Bruce laughs, “Yeah. Only okay.”
“Well, ain’t that the worst.” Clint says, “You should be at least splendid or magnificent or wonderful.”
“And, how, exactly, are you today, Clint?” Bruce counters and Clint smiles.
“Oh, I’m supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” he says with a wide grin.
“Of course you are.” Bruce smiles. Clint rarely - really rarely - comes to him with a burning soul searching question or problem. He mainly just brings purple pens and friendly conversation.
“So, I have a question.” Clint starts and Bruce can already feel himself grinning like a fool, “I‘m listening.”
“Of course you are, my charisma’s as magnetic as fuck.” Clint adds and a laugh bursts past Bruce’s lips, “You’re such a modest man, Barton.”
“Jeez, can I get my question out now? This is deadly serious, man.” Clint smiles teasingly.
“Yes, yes, sorry.” Bruce says with faux-regret, “Please, go right ahead.”
“Okay, so, Dr Banner, why, oh why, do onions make you cry?” Clint asks and then he schools his face into something akin to deep concentration.
“Onions.” Bruce repeats, then he clears his throat and pretends to be serious, “Well, Mr Barton, this is a vital question and--”
“This shit’s been keeping me up all night, Doc.” Clint says desperately, and Bruce almost cracks up at that, so he closes his eyes for a moment, breathes deeply and starts to explain.
“When you slice into an onion, Clint, you’re breaking it’s cells. Which releases the cells contents into the air and the amino acid sulfoxides become sulfenic acids. Right? And the enzymes that were once kept apart can now mix with the aforementioned sulfenic acid and they create something called propanethiol S-oxide, which is a volatile sulfur compound that wafts upward toward your eyes. That then reacts with the water in your eyes and creates sulfuric acid. Which then proceeds to burn the shit out of your eyeballs. It all just chemistry, really.” Bruce smiles and Clint frowns in mild horror.
“That was.. terrifying. Can you stop it?” he asks and Bruce nods.
“Sure, you can slow the reaction down by cutting into it under cold water, or by refrigerating it first. And, obviously, when you cook it, it stops anyway.” Bruce explains and Clint nods.
“Well, I never.” he says,
“You found that interesting?” Bruce asks and Clint nods, “Surprisingly.”
“We’ll make a scientist of you yet.” Bruce says and Clint laughs, “I wouldn’t go that far.”
“You never know.” Bruce says and Clint smiles.
“Hey, do you want to have dinner with me tonight?” he asks then and Bruce tilts his head.
“Really?” he say.
“Yes, really, Bruce. I’ll take you somewhere nice.” Clint offers, wiggling his eyebrows.
“Like on a date?” Bruce says offhandedly and Clint grins.
“Exactly like a date.” he confirms, reaching out and covering Bruce’s hands with his.
“Will there be onions?” Bruce asks and Clint shrugs, “I don’t know, man, but I’m terrified of those bastards now.”
“Sorry about that.” Bruce says with a small smile.
“I guess I’ll forgive you if you let me take you out on the town tomorrow night as well?” Clint smiles and Bruce’s heart is pounding. He tries to focus.
“Yeah, okay. I guess you have yourself a deal.” Bruce confirms and Clint looks so damn proud of himself.
They spend the rest of the afternoon talking and smiling until Clint insists that it’s time for him to go because he has to, ‘Get dressed up all pretty for this smoking hot scientist.’
Bruce just laughs and shakes his head and decides that he should probably go and get dressed too because, ‘I have a date with this guy, he’s a gentleman, really modest, really shy, not obnoxious at all.’
And when Bruce is deciding what to wear it’s surprisingly easy for him. He picks out a purple shirt, because it reminds him of Clint and those damn pens, and the decision’s made itself. Bruce knows that it’s the right one too, because when Clint sees him later he actually takes the time to wolf-whistle at him and say, “Jesus, look at you!”
Bruce just blushes under his gaze and decides that he really, really likes the colour purple. In fact, it's fast becoming his favourite colour.