"So," Clint said, dropping down on a stool across the table from Bruce, "how does this work?"
Bruce looked up from the scenario he was running and stared at Clint in confusion. Most people didn't bother him in the lab, barring Tony, mostly because they were mildly terrified of interrupting any experiment with radiation.
"The atomic simulator?" Bruce asked tentatively, eyeing the whirling, multicolored spheres that were dancing above the tabletop.
Clint looked up, smirked, and shook his head. "I think I'd need a few degrees for that, Doc. I meant you."
A shadow crossed Clint's expression briefly. "I missed the initial meet-and-greet, so I never got your preferences, though I don't think anyone did."
"Preferences for...?" Bruce was getting more confused by the second.
"The Hulk," Clint said plainly. "I mean I don't know how you want to be called. You and him? You and you? You and your other half? Basically two guys who happen to share the same space, or one guy that occasionally lets off some serious steam?"
Bruce just stared at him as the simulator whirled around them, the holographic spheres occasionally looping down in their line of sight or even briefly passing through them. Clint waited, seemingly patient enough to have stayed there for hours until Bruce was ready to talk.
No one had asked him that before, not explicitly. Ross had considered him to be two people, one whom he hated and wanted locked up, one whom he wanted and needed to be locked up. Chasing down Bruce had happily served both purposes for Ross' anger and need to control. Tony had considered Bruce and the Hulk to be one, had blatantly encouraged Bruce to be more accepting of the monster inside him.
The answer was never going to be as simple as either of them had thought.
"I call him the Other Guy," Bruce said after a long time. "He..." Bruce looked away and closed his eyes. "He protects me, and people I care about."
"Aw hell, you really do like Stark," Clint said with a wink.
Bruce chuffed out a laugh. "He's one of the first people I'd met in a while that saw me as a scientist instead of a walking demolition crew. It was a nice change." A colored sphere dove between them, hovering in Bruce's line of sight before bouncing up again. "I really don't talk about this much, you know."
"We never got a chance to meet, really. I don't know how much you remember when you transform so..."
"Not much. I know bits and pieces, and sometimes I dream about things. I- the Other Guy saw you first."
"I just wanted to make sure we got off on the right foot." Clint looked away, ducking his head slightly. "I wanted to say I'm sorry."
"Loki would have used anyone or anything to get his revenge. I know something about that. The only one who's at fault is him," Bruce said firmly.
"That's way less angsty that I was expecting, Doc. I'm still reading the Twilight series for my angst therapy." A ghost of a smile flitted across Clint's face.
"That seems like cruel and unusual punishment."
"It’s a start.” Clint went back to his patient stare, clearly not leaving until he’d heard all what Bruce was going to tell him.
Another sphere cross their sight, then three more, and Bruce finally took off his glasses and sighed, letting the tension leave his shoulders as he talked.
"We're not the same, and we're not exactly separate either. We share space but... It's less like two guys living in a duplex but minding their own business and more like having my rowdy neighbor keep coming over every time someone hassles me and throwing them off my porch. Maybe that's not always the right response, but he won't let anyone mess with me. So at least I can count on him for that.” Bruce smiled, his expression bittersweet. “Betty knew that. When the Other Guy saw her, he recognized her. When she came up to him, he protected her. When I was trying something to repress the Other Guy and nearly changed, she got right in my face, fearless, and talked us both down from the ledge.”
“She sounds awesome.”
“She is.” Bruce batted away another sphere. “That’s all I have. I call him the Other Guy, he calls himself Hulk. And all he really wants to do is-.”
“Smash?” Clint suggested, smirking.
“Pretty much. Smash anything that threatens me and mine.”
“Got it,” Clint said. He extended a hand across the table, and Bruce took it, startled, and could feel the calluses on the archer’s fingers and palm. Inside the low-simmering cauldron of Bruce’s mind, he could feel the Other Guy briefly stir, like someone rolling over in their sleep, and heard a faint grunt of approval.
“Thanks,” Bruce said sincerely. “From both of us.”