Clint's running a deep cover operation in Sevastopol when he sees Bruce Banner again. Banner's working on the docks, carrying a stack of boxes, and Clint skids past him with fifteen armed and dangerous drug dealers in pursuit. Banner looks busy, and Clint is definitely busy, so he doesn't stop to say hello. Clint does a dive off a pier instead, and maybe the drug dealers think they managed to shoot him or maybe they heard about their warehouse burning down (finally, Clint set it on fire about an hour ago), because they head out again after ten minutes of Clint shivering under the planking of the pier. March is not warm enough to be doing this. Also, his guns are probably getting wet, and they're definitely dragging him down. Clint shifts his grip on the underside of the pier, and contemplates how long he's going to have to spend disassembling his pistols.
Banner sticks his head over the planks.
"Hey," says Clint. "How's it going?"
Banner shrugs, upside-down. "Do you want a hand?" he asks.
"It might take two," says Clint, but they get him hauled back out of the water pretty quickly - Banner's a sturdy guy, even when he's not rocking the angry, super-strong alter-ego. Banner gets a little wet in the process of extricating Clint from the water, but Clint is soaking, dripping, and his Kevlar under-vest is ruined, so he's not feeling sympathetic. Especially when Banner looks him up and down, Clint doing his best drowned-rat impersonation, and Banner with that little smile that is either reassuring or mocking, Clint never could decide.
"You seemed like you were in a hurry," says Banner. "Do I want to know?"
"SHIELD stuff," says Clint, and hesitates. Banner's looking at him with sleepy curiosity, but Clint didn't get where he is now by volunteering information to anyone.
But 'where he is now' is tired and wet in Ukraine, and anyway, Banner's some kind of SHIELD operative now. So Clint elaborates, just a little. "Picking on one gang to impress another." Clint nods in the direction that he and the gunmen came from. "I didn't mean for it to get quite so personal, though."
Bruce nods, like it could happen to anyone. "Need somewhere to dry off?"
"You," says Clint, fervently, "are my best friend."
Banner's expression doesn't change, but his shoulders hunch a little into 'wary.' Guy's not good at taking a compliment or enthusiasm, but it's not Clint's fault that he is extremely enthusiastic about getting dry. Banner leads the way to some apartment building a few minutes walk off the docks. There's an older man sitting on the stoop, and he nods at Bruce, saying something in a language that's not quite Russian. All Clint catches a word that sounds like 'wet.' That's pretty accurate, anyway.
Banner answers the man, waving to Clint and then the dock. The man laughs, says something else, and Clint waves.
"What did he say?" asks Clint.
"You don't speak Ukrainian?" asks Banner. He leads the way past the stoop and down a narrow flight of stairs.
"Nah," says Clint. "But most everybody in Sevastopol speaks Russian anyway."
"Depends where you are, I guess," says Banner. He didn't answer Clint's question, but Clint decides to let it pass. Whatever the man said probably wasn't very complimentary, and Clint doesn't need to hear more about how he shouldn't have taken a dip in the Black Sea.
Banner is living in a basement apartment, a bit dank and really dark, but he's got towels, which is what matters.
"I can lend you some clothes, if you want to change," says Banner, as Clint towels off his hair.
Banner's rummaging in a cardboard box that seems to be subbing in for a proper chest of drawers. He's about Clint's height, even if Banner's doing his best to hide it by slouching, so borrowing something from him should work without an embarrassing belly-shirt or giant baggy pants situation.
"Yeah, awesome," says Clint. Sooner he's dry and back on the job the better. Kuznetsov is going to worry if he's missing for too long, and if Kuznetsov worries then he won't give Clint the passports, and Clint's too tired to set another warehouse on fire. He put his guns to one side and strips off his wet clothes as he thinks, wrapping the towel around his waist to preserve Banner's modesty.
"How did you find me?" asks Banner. It takes Clint a few seconds to focus on the question, away from the mission.
"Didn't," says Clint. "Weird coincidence, huh?"
Banner's mouth twists. "I don't know if I believe that."
Clint holds up his hands in surrender, or pacification. The towel around his hips loosens, but that's not Clint's concern right now. Banner says he's got his life and the Hulk under control, told Natasha that often enough, but Clint's not going to stake his life on that when his bow and tranquillizer arrows are at a safehouse and his pistols are seeping water. No sense letting Banner work himself up with paranoia.
Not paranoia if they really are after you, Clint reminds himself. Well-deserved suspicion, then.
"I didn't know you were here," he says. "I thought you were in New York, with Stark."
Banner's working his hands, wringing them, Clint had never been sure what wringing meant before he watched Banner do it, and he looks like he's going to question Clint's innocence again.
The towel makes its bid for escape, and Clint keeps his hands and eyes up as it slides to the floor. Banner's gaze flickers after it, and then back up to Clint's face. Clint doesn't stop himself from smirking a bit, because he doesn't have anything to be ashamed of in the no-pants department, and then Banner's smiling again and picking something out of the box.
"I was in New York." Banner tosses a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt at Clint's head, and Clint catches them. "Now I'm here."
Clint steps into the pants, tightens the strings, then shrugs on his shoulder holsters with the wet pistols. "Trouble in science paradise?"
Banner turns to look at him, but Clint is pulling the shirt over his head so he can't see the face Banner's making, just his dim outline against the light of the one working lamp in the basement.
"The city starts to get to you after a while," says Banner. "I needed a break."
"So you're taking it in Ukraine," says Clint. He tugs the collar of his shirt a little, settling it. It has the logo and number for some NYC pizza place on it, but they probably don't do delivery this far out.
"I'm working my way back to India," explains Banner. "Which takes time, if you're avoiding planes. Doesn't SHIELD know all of this already?"
"I must have missed the memo," says Clint. Somebody in SHIELD probably does know all of this. Clint operates on a strictly need-to-know basis, like all field operatives who might get inconveniently captured. He'll need to report this meeting, anyway, but he'll do it in debriefing and not before. If SHIELD really has lost Banner, then it's their problem. "Listen, I would love to stay and chat, but I got to get back to my mission before my contact flips out on me."
"Sure," says Banner. "Keep the clothes, okay?"
"I'll bring them back," says Clint. "Listen, I'll be done with this whole mess tomorrow. Do you want to meet up, have lunch, chat about, uh, Avengers stuff? We can trade clothes then." He looks down at the sopping pile of his old clothes. "I mean, if you're okay with me leaving these here."
"I'll hang them up," says Banner, and Clint heads out, not exactly stylish but feeling a lot better for having dry clothes.
Kuznetsov does flip out, and in the end Clint has to shoot his hand to a table to keep him from running (good thing he retrieved his bow - bullets do not work as well as arrows when it comes to pinning someone in place). But it all works out and Clint doesn't have to burn down any more warehouses, so everyone's happy, except for Kuznetsov, but forget him, guy whined a lot for a tiny hole in his hand.
Banner is gone when Clint stops by his apartment for lunch. The door is unlocked, and the place is totally cleaned out. Clint didn't really expect anything else. Banner's been on the run for years, now, and obviously he's gotten pretty good at it. Clint doesn't think it's necessary - he was going to take Banner to a sushi restaurant, not to an ambush - but it's Banner's life.
On his way back out to the docks, the older man from yesterday spots him and waves. Clint waves back, and the man says something in Ukrainian. Clint smiles, because that's usually a good strategy (except for that one time in Mandeville, but it wasn't Clint's fault that the woman's dog had died, and he learned French after that).
Ukrainian and Russian are supposed to be mutually intelligible, but Clint can't figure out the accent. The man repeats himself, slower for the dumb American. Something about clothes. Clint keeps smiling. It's pretty unlikely that any clothes have died.
Eventually the man gives up and runs into his own apartment to retrieve what turns out to be Clint's clothes from yesterday. They're still a bit damp, but Clint appreciates the thought. Even the Kevlar is in there - Clint should have told Bruce that he could've just thrown it out.
"Большое спасибо," he says to the man, because maybe thank you is the same in Ukranian. The man smiles, possibly operating on the same principle as Clint, and produces a slip of paper.
Sorry I had to run - got an opportunity to move on, and I thought you'd understand. Say hi to Fury for me.
Clint nods at the older man and decides to go to lunch on his own. He tosses the note into the harbor as he goes, trusting the water to get rid of it.
Two days later, back on the Helicarrier, Director Fury doesn't look surprised at all when Clint tells him that Doctor Banner says hi. Agent Hill does, though.
"We're keeping our distance," she says, later, at debrief. "You shouldn't have initiated contact."
"I didn't." Clint spreads his hands, felling like all he does these days is deny other people's suspicions. Life of a superspy. "He's the one who fished me out of the water."
"We don't want Doctor Banner to think SHIELD is after him," insists Hill. "Which, according to your report, is now exactly what he thinks."
"Give it a couple weeks and he'll realize it was totally random," says Clint.
"Just make sure it doesn't happen again," says Hill. "Banner's too important to scare off."
Clint flips her a half-assed salute, and they get back to the actual debriefing.
Sometimes Clint misses Phil Coulson, misses him a lot, actually. Phil would have never let him get away with that. Phil would have pushed him for some kind of promise on the Banner situation, and Clint would have given it, however reluctantly. Clint and Hill don't have that kind of rapport yet. She's much more of a 'wait and see' kind of person, and so is Clint, so they watch each other from their positions of mutual respect and the distance between them remains.
Clint can't decide if Phil is actually dead. Fury's pulled some nasty tricks before, but they've lost agents before too, and good ones. Clint wonders if Agent Hill could look him in the eye and debrief him if Phil was actually dead, if Clint had caused his death by attacking the Helicarrier under Loki's orders.
"When will Kuznetsov regain the use of his hand?" asks Agent Hill, paging through Clint's report. Clint pushes his questions to the back of his mind, where they won't bother him.
"Couple months?" suggests Clint. "Depends on how good a doctor he has. But I didn't shoot his forging hand."
Agent Hill smiles, just a tiny thing, but if she can smile then Clint can grin, and everything is okay.
Natasha's not in her room when Clint's finally released from debriefing, pending a new assignment. Clint lets himself in with the key code Nat keeps for him, and there's a note taped to the underside of her bed frame. It takes fifteen minutes of decoding to get two lines in Russian:
In Yangon, simple interrogation. Back within the week.
Clint appreciates the notice, even if SHIELD would pitch a fit if it knew that two of its top-secret operatives were feeding each other information out of turn. But he hasn't seen Tasha in about a month, and hell if he doesn't miss her. And before that was the Loki thing, which Clint doesn't like to think about and which they still haven't really healed from.
If Clint's honest with himself, he wouldn't be surprised if Nat was managing her mission schedule to keep them apart. Nat has trust issues a mile wide, and Clint has just proved himself to be untrustworthy (given some very extenuating circumstances, but still). He wouldn't want to be around himself either, if it wasn't kind of unavoidable.
There's another note on his pillow when Clint gets back to his bedroom. This one isn't coded and it's in English, so Tasha thought it would be fine if someone saw it. It's not in her normal handwriting, but she's the only one with the code to Clint's room.
Don't mope, I didn't do this on purpose. It's ok to text.
So maybe Natasha knows him a bit too well. Clint puts both of the notes in the shredder and goes to brush his teeth, the whole routine. He snags his phone before he turns off the light, though.
CB: Everything going ok?
The reply takes a few minutes, while Clint thinks about getting a magazine or something, because he's not going to be able to sleep until he hears back from her.
His phone buzzes on top of his stomach.
So that's good. Clint breathes in, out, he gets too worked up about missing Tasha right now, still on edge from his Loki-induced not-quite-out-of-body experience.
It's possible that he skimped on the medical leave, but he hates being idle and he really hates therapy. Mandatory grief counseling - for a man he doesn't believe is dead and for strangers he doesn't remember killing - seems a bit useless.
Nat doesn't ask how he is, because it's obvious that he's on the Helicarrier, since he got her notes. He's in SHIELD's hands and he survived the mission, and that's all they can expect. Nat doesn't ask questions that she knows the answers to. Clint thinks of all the pointless things he could text her, and decides to give her gossip.
CB: Guess who I saw in Sevastopol?
CB: The big guy.
NR: whts he dng thr?
Natasha texts with one hand, usually while doing something else. Clint's always surprised when he gets a half-way readable sentence out of her.
CB: Working his way to India, he says.
No response, after five minutes. But that's fine. Clint puts his phone on the charger and flicks the light off, and he's asleep before he has time to worry about tomorrow.
Agent Hill pulls Clint out into the field with her before Natasha gets back. It's just a surveillance job for some item transfers between the CIA and SHIELD, so Clint leaves a note in Nat's room that says it's okay to call or text, if something comes up. He's not expecting to actually hear from her much, because Tasha doesn't do small talk and she usually waits to tell him about problems until she can do it face-to-face. On the fourth day of talking to CIA guys and being bored and playing goldfish with Agent Hill, Natasha texts him to say that she's headed to Istanbul to make a pick-up. Clint says to have fun, and Hill tells him it's his turn. On the sixth day, Natasha's name shows up on Clint's caller ID.
Well, 'Vivien' shows up on the caller ID, because Clint wouldn't put Natasha's name or any of her aliases into his contact book, but that's not the point.
"Banner's in Turkey," says Natasha, when Clint picks up.
"Huh," says Clint. "That's not much closer to India."
Nat murmurs something away from the receiver, and Clint can hear someone else talking, a male voice, laughter.
"He says he keeps getting distracted," says Natasha.
"Wait, is he there now? Is that why you requested to go to Istanbul?"
"Happy accident," says Natasha, firmly, and hangs up.
Clint guesses that her 'happy accident' is a bit more planned than his 'weird coincidence.' He wonders if Banner is buying it this time.
Clint doesn't call Nat back, because she wouldn't pick up, and he doesn't text her 'it's not fair that he gets to see you before I do,' because that would be needy. He doesn't say anything about Hill's no-contact policy, because it's a little late for that. But he has to do something.
CB: Tell him I say hi
He doesn't hear from Tasha for a few hours after that, and then the tech exchange is attacked by a bunch of thugs and a guy covered in yellow-green slime, so Clint gets kind of distracted. Or kind of engulfed in slime. It's the same thing. The sight of Maria Hill covered in slime and firing an assault rifle is certainly distracting, which is why it takes Clint a few more seconds to beat up the slime guy than it should have. (Not an excuse he plans to use, ever. He mutters something about having trouble gripping his bow when his hands were so slippery. Hill gives him a knowing look, but she can't prove anything.)
Eight hours and about three showers later, Clint remembers that he never heard back from Tasha. This may be because his phone is now cracked and oozing, like most everything Clint had on him when 'the Sticker' (what an awful supervillain name) and his goons attacked. Good thing he didn't bring his best bow on that mission. Clint stares at the useless phone, and hopes Tasha didn't need him for anything.
Not that he would be much help, out here, still a bit slimy despite his attempts at hygiene.
Clint has a burner phone with his spare clothes, so he gets dressed and types in Nat's number from memory.
CB: Phone got slimed, sorry. Anything happen with Banner?
No response. Clint has dinner with Agent Hill (whose hair is still a little yellowed from the slime, but he's a gentleman so he hides his snickering behind a hand), then chats with some shell-shocked CIA guys, gets in the plane to return to SHIELD HQ, and tries Natasha again.
CB: Hey, seriously. Everything ok? Istanbul still standing?
NR: stp woryng
bruce is v sweet and nt at all green
CB: Didn't say I was worried about Banner destroying anything. You're a force of nature, Tasha.
Clint can imagine Tasha making a face at her phone, subtly, almost imperceptibly, but he'd know it was there, that shift in expression from 'blank' to 'amused.' He hopes it's an amused expression, anyway.
He starts three texts:
Are you ok alone with him?
Why did you track Banner down?
and sticks the phone in his pocket, texts unsent. It isn't his business. He huffs out a breath, and Maria Hill glances over at him from the bench across.
Clint nearly misses the vibration of his phone against his leg in the vibration of the plane landing.
NR: bng deployd agn immdtly
hv to go silnt
Wll tlk to you abt bruce soon
"Yeah," mutters Clint at his phone. Hill is looking at him again, unbuckling the seatbelt that Clint didn't bother to wear. "Yeah, I want the scoop."
There are people who would say that the Black Widow is fearless, but Clint knows that's wrong. Natasha's afraid of stuff. Not a lot, but she's afraid of losing control, or having it taken from her. Of being left without an out. Of wasps.
Not like Clint can talk. He's afraid of dentists.
But Nat keeps her fears close to her, under her skin and behind her eyes. Clint once saw her eat a wasp - caught in sugar, dead, and danger-free, but still. He doesn't think he could eat a dentist.
Tasha's afraid of the Hulk. They talked about it, after New York, the way she froze up when Banner transformed in the Helicarrier. Nat pushed through it to fight Clint, and Clint is damn proud of her for stepping up and taking him out before he could do any more damage on Loki's orders, but that doesn't erase the fear. Not just of the Hulk, but of Banner too, because Tasha's never been very good at keeping clear divisions.
Clint keeps a lot of divisions in his head. It comes from growing up as a circus kid, surrounded by stage names and the real people underneath. The Magnificent Steiner isn't the same as Wolfgang, the guy who plays him. Clint didn't really figure that out until he was ten, why Buck Chisholm didn't answer to Trick Shot after his act was over, but he gets it now. Hawkeye is a facet of Clint Barton, not the whole. Natasha is Natasha, but she's also Nat, who organizes and plots and keeps a level of security that's either ridiculous or appropriate, depending on who you listen to. And there's Tasha, who drinks syrupy sweet coffee in the morning and leans into Clint's side like they fit together. And there's Natalia, whose name Clint hasn't heard since the day after they met, when they stopped trying to kill each other and started trying to understand each other.
He's gotten distracted. The point is, people aren't coherent, orderly packages. You can be scared of the Hulk and still think Banner's a great guy, and vice versa.
Natasha sees the world in black and white - not good and evil, but threat and safe.
Clint doesn't think that Banner is either one of those things.
When Natasha calls, on an encrypted line in the middle of the night, Clint does not expound on his grand theory of Natasha-Banner interaction.
But he doesn't stop thinking about it, either.