Fandom: Avengers, Marvel Cinematic Universe
Characters/pairings: Bruce Banner/Clint Barton, Tony Stark, Natasha Romanov, OC
Warnings (including spoilers): Spoilers for Avengers, CA: Winter Soldier
Wordcount: 10,957 words
Author’s note: THIS BANNER! IDEK, because it’s cool colors and well-shaded and I should be much calmer about this, but I literally will just open it on my phone sometimes to stare and be proud that my story inspired it. Thank you kuwlshadow!!
Written for wipbigbang, eventually.
The show Mystery Science Theater 3000 is mentioned herein. I have no idea how this came into my head, I just looked up and it was there on the page. And then I looked it up, because I had no idea what it was, and it fit perfectly. And… well, I must admit, that was a bit unsettling.
Summary: For the first time in a long time, Bruce is in a good place. That makes it easier to agree when his sort-of teammate, Clint Barton, asks him for a favor. But the simple request turns into something more, and with dark forces are preparing to burn down every inch of peace Bruce and Clint have found, they may not have the strength to last til the end.
~ ~ * ~ ~
“There are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematician that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.”
― G.K. Chesterton
Bruce is several hours into the purest of science trances, running an experiment while looking over freshly harvested data, when he feels a familiar tingling sensation on the back of his neck. It’s been months since this particular discomfort- three to be exact; Bruce walked into Candyland and hasn’t really come up for air since- and he reacts badly. Instead of taking a deep breath and remaining calm, Bruce immediately looks over his shoulder and flinches so hard he knocks some glassware off the lab bench.
His unexpected guest manages to look sheepish, heels bouncing quietly where they hang off a lab bench. "Sorry doc. Didn't wanna announce myself, you seemed pretty focused on your work there."
Bruce disguises a few deep, calming breaths by collecting the chunks of glass and disposing of them in the proper containers. "Don't worry, Agent Barton. What can I do for you?" There's an undertone there- 'What will you ask me to do for SHIELD, and do you really think I will?'- but most people wouldn't notice that.
Despite having only seen Bruce three times since the battle, in group situations, Agent Barton seems able to read between the lines. He scowls, though Bruce can't tell if it's a government patsy scowl or honest annoyance. "Man, we fought together, and I don't hate your guts. Call me Clint, or at least Barton."
Bruce nods at the floor, returning to his lab bench for something to do with his hands. "Sure."
"I… I need a favor."
Bruce has never heard Barton’s voice waver with uncertainty like that. He locks his gaze on the holographic screen. "What kind of favor?"
"Personal, not SHIELD."
There is a pause. Bruce glances over at Barton, who looks neither carefree and jocular nor battle-calm and focused: the two settings Bruce has seen him in. Instead, he's fiddling with a cell phone, lips pursed. Uneasy? Anxious? Manipulating, probably.
"I'm just-" Barton slips off the empty lab bench, fingers performing a quick staccato drum on its surface, and blindly tosses the phone from one hand to another, lightning fast. "I'm gonna need some help for a while. Nothing major. Help a buddy out?"
Bruce divines that he's not going to get any more information, and curses- for easily the hundredth time- his decision to accept an invitation to the Tower of Weird. But he doesn’t say "I'm going to be busy for a few weeks. I'm consulting on a project in Seoul," because he abruptly sees something in Barton's expression: something old and familiar as hard-packed ground, aching and carefully hidden; something he's nearly forgotten to look for since returning to America, that he hadn't realized might exist among the high-flying Avengers.
He asks, "Why me?"
Barton's expression gives away nothing. "Help me out, doc?"
This is Stark Tower. This is a first-world country where water and electricity and meat and relatively clean air and uncensored media are taken for granted, prerequisites to daily existence. This is a SHIELD agent. Bruce should know better.
But it’s also a test, the kind Bruce has been offered before and been forced- by circumstances, not a lack of willingness- to fail in the past.
So instead of a reasonable, polite rejection, he says, "Sure."
Barton gives him one of his toothy grins. The shadow Bruce recognized is covered up so easily he thinks he might have imagined it. Barton says, "Cool, thanks," and walks out of the lab, tossing a "Seeya 'round!" over his shoulder.
Bruce vaguely considers throwing himself off the tower.
He gets the first hint of what he’s gotten himself into when, for the second time in a week, he glances up from his work and feels his heart leap in his chest. This time, Bruce refrains from breaking any glassware. Yippee.
Barton is sitting on the soft leather couch in the lounge area that Bruce discovered in his lab when he first moved in. He’s never sat there himself, preferring the ergonomic lab chair, but Barton seems to be enjoying it, head tipped back on the armrest and feet crossed over the top. His eyes are closed, face relaxed, but even from this distance Bruce can see the motion of his chest, deep smooth breaths in-in-in out-out-out.
“Clint?” he calls, awkwardly. Barton’s eyes open and his head turns, serene-looking, but he is very clearly not present. Bruce remembers the one and only time Tony had an anxiety attack in his presence and the rock music JARVIS had blasted. “Would you mind if I, uh- put on some music?” His hands twist in front of him.
“Sure,” Barton replies, shrugging casually and going back to his faux-relaxation.
Bruce clicks up a Pandora playlist for the Foo Fighters and wonders what the hell he thinks he’s doing.
When he looks up a few songs later, Barton’s gone.
Bruce takes dinner one night with Tony in his workshop, where they go back and forth about the nanotech design from Seoul. As most conversations with Tony do, the work talk eventually degenerates, this time to pitting their favorite fictional megalomaniacs against each other in pitched battles across the globe, then to places they would break into and why, and this, naturally, leads back to work.
"I haven't seen Natasha around for a few weeks," Bruce comments, digging for the last of his lo mein with improper chopstick technique and self-disgust. It's been a while since he drank, but not so long that a few glasses of Tony’s scarily expensive wine should cause this level of inhibition to his manual dexterity.
Lost in arguing against his own tipsiness, Bruce misses the response.
"Tell me Bruce, exactly how often do you lose time day-dreaming about our favorite Russian cat-burglar slash assassin?"
He's not blushing, it's the wine. "I'm not day-dreaming about Natasha, I just thought she and Barton were partners."
"They are. According to Pepper, they're just friends. No jock boyfriend to knock your teeth out when you get up the guts to say hi to her."
"I'm not interested in Natasha, Tony."
Tony snorts into his shot glass. "Tell it to Twitter."
"Uh, never mind. What's on your mind, big guy?"
Bruce slumps deep into the leather couch, vaguely wishing people would stop calling him that. "Just, where is everyone? I thought you and Fury and Steve agreed we should stay local."
"First off, please don't imply that the Avengers are governed by triumvirate. I finance everything, I am the most kickass in the field- sorry big green- clearly I rule."
Bruce mumbles something which may or may not include 'massive ego.'
"I am ignoring that. Secondly, that was the plan before some power struggle started up in SHIELD and-- I quote-- 'our efforts and energies need to be focused in a different direction for the foreseeable future.'"
"Wait, what is this? There's a power struggle in SHIELD?" Sobriety starts to return, painfully fast.
"Don't worry your cute head." Tony fiddles with something on a tablet before throwing his feet up on the couch, shoes about two inches from Bruce's knee. "JARVIS analyzed SHIELD’s internal documents and said it's the usual spy agency nose-thumbing. Mainly Fury wanted an excuse to get Cap trained in twenty-first century field maneuvers."
Bruce empties his glass and squeezes his eyes shut. "Steve's part of SHIELD now?"
"Independent agent in DC for the moment, but I think Widow's trying to marry him in."
"So half our team is..."
When he trails off, Tony gives him a sympathetic look- or the closest to one he can, anyway. "They're Avengers first."
Bruce sets his lo mein on the couch beside him, closing his eyes. "Are they?"
Tony doesn't answer. When Bruce looks up, Tony is intently focused on his tablet, expression ambiguous.
~ ~ * ~ ~
There’s a pattern for a while: Barton will show up in his lab without a sound, send Bruce halfway to a dangerous heart rate when he notices, then leave after a few minutes. Sometimes he’ll be poking at his phone, sometimes humming to himself, sometimes curling up into a ball on Bruce’s couch, eyes closed and twitching subtly at any noises.
When he doesn’t show up for four days in a row, Bruce asks JARVIS if Barton has left on a mission or something. JARVIS informs him that Barton was in his lab earlier that day. After that, Bruce has JARVIS set an unassuming pop-up alert whenever his fellow Avenger appears in the lab.
Even then, he doesn’t always notice. The consultation for Seoul turns into a full-on collaboration and Bruce doesn’t notice how much time he’s been spending on it until Barton has to say his name a few times to get his attention away from a spreadsheet.
Bruce blinks up at the archer, who’s giving him a curious look from a few feet away. “You awake in there?” Barton asks.
“Yeah, I- what do y- is something wrong?” Bruce fumbles to clean his glasses, surprised that Barton had gotten so close without startling him.
“You look like shit.” Barton frowns when he says it, but in a puzzled, problem-solving way, like he’s actually devoting thought to Bruce’s appearance and the wherefores thereof.
Bruce concentrates on rubbing away some smears on his lenses and tries to ignore the tightness in his gut stemming from Barton’s words. Why should he care what Barton thinks about him? They’re not friends. “Thanks.”
“No, I mean- you look tired.”
Bruce looks up. Barton’s striking eyes seem like they could see right through him. Maybe they can. Bruce has never forgotten that Barton is a SHIELD agent as well as an Avenger, and whatever he let himself think was happening here, however familiar it felt- he could have just been fooling himself. He needs to stop giving these people ground, because eventually he’ll have none left.
“I’m fine,” he says, calmly. Very calmly. Good job, Banner, no spooking the spook.
Barton raises his eyebrows. He doesn’t seem concerned. Maybe he can’t tell how angry Bruce is right now? “Yeah, sure. You look worse than me, and I’m no spring chicken myself. You been sleeping?”
“Of course, I-” He has to blink twice to refocus his eyes on Barton. Hurriedly, he puts his glasses back on.
“Come on Doc, time for a break. Take it from me, it’s pretty easy to damage your eyesight with computers and shit.”
Barton nods, stretching his lips. Bruce watches, fascinated. Then Barton looks back at him, and that familiar space is there in his eyes. “Take a break and chill with me.”
Bruce looks back at his monitor and slowly, with far too much effort, moves the cursor to minimize the page.
Apparently, the table in front of the couch is stocked with all sorts of odds and ends, from condoms (thanks, Tony) to a paddle ball with Myron Ebell’s face on it. Barton unearths a decades-old scrabble board and sets it up on the table.
Bruce starts yawning before he hits thirty points. He’s winning when he starts all of a sudden, realizing he nearly drifted off sitting there with Barton. The agent, meanwhile, is smirking at him.
“Ready for a nap?”
He looks like Tony when Tony teases people he likes, Bruce realizes, not like Natasha poking at someone to test their reaction. In this half-asleep state, closer to the instinctual side of him than he’s usually comfortable with, Barton reads safe.
Bruce has learned to trust the snap judgements that come from that deeper place in his head, even as he tries to ignore and suppress the other symptoms.
“I’ll wake you up in an hour, how about that?” Barton smiles gently, and Bruce thinks he’d really like to see that when he’s not…
Barton wakes him up an hour later, calling his name quietly, kneeling close but not too close to the couch. A blanket has been spread out over him, though Bruce has no idea where it could have come from.
Barton stands while Bruce sits up blearily. “I gotta go, doc. See you around?”
“Sure,” Bruce replies, still confused and half-asleep.
Barton winks at him and is gone in a half dozen steps.
Bruce reviews the afternoon and calls himself six types of idiot.
When he heads to the upper floor cafeteria for dinner (he has a kitchen in his quarters, but the executive floors at Stark Tower have a private chef overseeing the menus), his usual table is already occupied. The man sitting there does not have any food in front of him.
Barton’s body language radiates tension. His half-smile when Bruce approaches with his plates is normal enough, but his fingertips gripping the upper edge of the chair beside him are white. The other people in the cafeteria aren’t consciously aware of danger, but their hind brains know it’s there, and there’s a radius of two empty tables on every side. The Other Guy senses it, too.
Barton nods. Bruce nods, sitting across the table from the agent, not diagonally across. He knows what it’s like to have people politely distance themselves from you, and Barton seems in control. More than Bruce himself usually is, in any case. Who is he to throw stones?
Neither of them talk while Bruce eats his food. Barton stares at Bruce’s plate, then seems to zone out at one of the multiple news channels playing on the wall-mounted screens.
When he’s finished eating, Bruce pulls out his phone and answers emails and reads research notes for a half hour. He’s had enough people walk away from him, too.
JARVIS pings his phone, and he looks up to an empty table.
The next time Bruce has dinner in the lounge on the erstwhile team communal floor- the lounge that has never seen more than three people at a time, and only two Avengers- Barton shows up in an intimidatingly black, slick-cut jacket and thick black khakis. His eyes look sunken in the light from the city and the Nova documentary Bruce has been casually heckling. He slumps on the opposite end of the couch and tucks his knees under his chin.
Bruce focuses on the juxtaposition between the agent’s sturdy arms and the self-hugging pose to distract himself from the deep-seated urge to comfort. Barton is staring at the television screen like he’s extracting intelligence from it. Or like he’s in the middle of a desperate internal battle and the cultured British announcer’s voice is the only thing keeping him alive.
Bruce lasts about fifteen minutes, until Barton starts rubbing his cheek on his knee.
He moves along the couch, slowly. Barton’s attention had leapt to him as soon as he shifted his weight, and the agent watches his progress without reaction. The dead look on his face takes Bruce back to a dozen bad situations in four different countries, back to a wide white landscape and the insides of his own eyelids.
He reaches out hesitantly, and when Barton doesn’t move, drops his arm across Barton’s shoulders. Then he goes back to watching the documentary like this position isn’t getting more uncomfortable by the minute, and like his head isn’t swirling with self-recrimination and second-guessing.
Barton sighs into his knees and leans into Bruce’s side. They adjust for a few seconds, and when they settle down, it’s probably the most comfortable Bruce has been in years.
The documentary ends and a new one about black holes comes on. Bruce orders pizza on his phone, letting Clint poke the screen to choose his own toppings. The food arrives and they eat in silence, then sit close again to keep watching. One of Barton’s arms has found its way to Bruce’s knee, his head half-resting on Bruce’s shoulder. The enhanced olfactory capabilities Bruce inherits from the Other Guy mean he can smell Barton’s shampoo, his aftershave, his depression, his fear, and his happiness and surprise.
He tries not to think about it; fails; tries harder.
When the second documentary runs its credits, Clint sits up and smiles at Bruce more honestly than Bruce had ever seen. He hugs Bruce, who hugs him back, feeling washed clean by simple comfort. Clint kisses his cheek and Bruce jumps.
“Sorry,” Clint says, but he’s still smiling. His hand is on Bruce’s shoulder, and John Greene has started talking about the base units of the universe, and Bruce’s mind is whirling in a way he barely remembers. ‘Yes,’ he thinks, without knowing why.
“It’s okay,” he says back, swallowing. They haven’t spoken this whole evening, he realizes. Bruce can’t remember ever being quiet with someone for this long outside of a lab.
Clint’s eyes dart between his. Clint’s eyes are gray, gray-blue, and so much more animated than when he arrived in the lounge. Bruce watches Clint’s eyes as the agent leans forward again and brushes another kiss across Bruce’s lips.
The kiss sends a shiver through Bruce’s whole body and he leans into the sensation. Clint’s mouth is warm and the heat of his body, which has been relaxing for the last few hours, is making Bruce feel awake and sensitive of every inch of skin.
His fingers tighten in Clint’s jacket; Clint’s hand slides up to hover over Bruce’s jaw. They kiss again, inch closer, kiss again. John Greene is still talking in the background, with a typical Nova music-track. Clint’s hand slips into Bruce’s hair and his fingers curl. Bruce shivers and pulls him even closer.
He hasn’t kissed anyone in years. He hasn’t kissed anyone like this, fresh and unknown, in decades. He smiles into Clint’s mouth and breathes in Clint’s breath and feels twenty years younger.
The kisses grow deeper. Their noses brush, and Bruce discovers that Clint is ticklish to light stroking on his sides. Clint pushes him against the back of the couch and strips off his jacket in economic movements, holding Bruce’s gaze the whole time. Bruce’s heart is pounding, but harder, not faster. It feels good.
Clint lays above him and lets his weight rest on Bruce. The angle is awkward, but Bruce lets out a quiet moan anyway, the first sound either of them have made. “Oh yeah,” Clint breathes against his cheek, and Bruce repeats the sound, tracing up Clint’s back with both hands. His unformed thoughts are covetous and disbelieving and prayerful, and then he spends a while, for once, not thinking at all.
Their thighs press together and their hands explore for long minutes, drawing quiet gasps and laughter and whimpers from each other, until Clint bucks and gasps and Bruce pulls his hands out from under Clint’s shirt quickly. Clint shakes, eyes molten, and Bruce smiles smugly at him and puts ‘scratching’ in his mental Yes column.
“We should probably cool it down,” Clint whispers, and Bruce realizes that both of them are shaking, but he looks at Clint’s red, wet mouth and has trouble caring about things like professional relationships and heart rates. He can’t remember the last time he felt so far away from a transformation.
“I don’t think so,” he says, reassuringly, or at least he hopes, considering his mental facilities are concentrated on memorizing the taste of Clint’s tongue. He leans forward and pulls on Clint to get them back together.
“No, Bruce,” Clint says, smiling and carefree. His hand plants on Bruce’s chest. “I mean- I don’t feel like a cold shower tonight, and- I don’t wanna-”
There’s a few seconds of delay while Bruce remembers what a brush-off is. God, it’s been awhile. “Oh yeah, sure, I- uh-” He gets distracted again by Clint’s lips, and his tight stomach under the t-shirt, and it’s another few minutes until Bruce breaks away, saying “Okay, I get what you mean.”
Clint snorts and scoots away on the couch, snagging his coat from the floor. Bruce stares at the television until he can identify the subject of the newest documentary. He looks at Clint and feels a warm glow at the sight of the agent’s flyaway hair and pink cheeks.
“So, uh. I guess I’ll see you soon?” Clint asks, rubbing the back of his neck.
Bruce nods. “I’ll put the pizza away. Lunch for tomorrow, right?” He’s smiling way too much, isn’t he? Clint looks almost uncomfortable, he should probably tamp down the stoned smile. Bruce piles the remaining pizza into one box (there’s not much left; an athlete’s metabolism and a calorie-draining alter-ego can really put it away) and tries to pretend like he’s not on cloud nine.
“Hey,” Clint says seriously. “Thank you. For sitting with me.” He makes a vague gesture that Bruce understands as signifying the last few weeks, not just tonight. “It’s been- good.”
“Sure. No problem,” Bruce manages. He nods, solemnity somewhat overtaking full-body tingles.
Clint’s gaze catches on his mouth again before he says goodnight.
As soon as the elevator doors ding closed, Bruce flops back down on the couch and mentally carves himself some much deserved deep-breathing and processing time.
It turns into an hour, and he spends half of it blushing.
The next day, Clint comes to the lab for pizza. Bruce heats it over a bunsen burner and is duly and appreciatively teased.
They play Scrabble. Bruce knows more words, but Clint has a knack for placing his tiles on bonus squares with alarming dexterity. Their fingers brush passing the tile bag back and forth and Clint kisses him quickly, almost shyly, before running off to ‘a meeting.’
Bruce feels like a college freshman again. He can’t bring himself to regret it.
It’s that evening that Bruce finally makes an obvious realization and texts Tony for dinner in the lounge. They haven’t spent much time together over the last month- Bruce busy with his project with Dr. Cho and Tony with his classified project (it’s new technology to keep a helicarrier aloft; Tony mumbles to himself when he forgets Bruce is in the same room)- and Tony doesn’t realize anything is out of the ordinary until Bruce asks him about his romantic history with men.
Tony’s face does something new and frightening, and he squirms as he says, “You know, while you do have the sexiest brain I’ve ever played with, Pepper and I are in a committed- that is to say, monogamous- relationship. If I’d met you a few years ago-”
Bruce chokes on his sushi.
“And, that’s not what you were asking about at all and I just made this horribly awkward.” Tony’s eyes are wide like coins. “Please don’t leave me without any intellectual, purely platonic equals in New York.”
“I’m not-” Bruce shakes his head quickly, putting down his chopsticks before he drops them. “I’m not leaving.” The sentiment feels a lot more taken-for-granted than it would have a few months ago. “I need advice.”
“Great, advice.” Tony nods quickly, cheeks a darker olive than usual. “Whaddya got for me, big guy?”
Firmly ignoring the sudden tension in the air, Bruce continues along his original line of questioning. “Have you ever been with men?”
“A few, why?” Tony shoots back.
“I… I haven’t. I… thought about it. But I’ve never had an opportunity. I just… do you have any advice?” Bruce stares at his meal and pretends that he doesn’t want to faceplant into it.
“Use more lube than you think you’ll need.”
“Tony. I meant…”
“Are we talking one night stand, fuck buddies, friends with bens, cutesy names, or buying rings?” Tony reclines in his armchair and puts his feet on the coffee table, apparently comfortable again with the new track of conversation.
“Umm... “ Bruce gets side-tracked by a split-second fantasy of Clint calling him ‘pumpkin’ like Betty used to. “I think… friends? With benefits?”
Tony is clearly making an effort to keep the derision off his face. Bruce appreciates it. “Okay then. If you’re not sure, don’t make it awkward. A woman usually wants feelings involved if they went to the trouble to get with you in the first place. If she doesn’t, she’ll make that clear. Guys are different. Unless he’s the hearts and flowers type, don’t stress about it. Go with the flow.”
Bruce tries to fit this advice to his- well, with how he and Clint have been relating. It’s difficult. But then, so is trying to imagine hearts and flowers with the way Clint’s hand will jump to his pocket whenever there’s a vibration in the vicinity, and Bruce can read on his face that he’s already half-shifted to black ops agent mode.
Yeah. Probably not that, then.
“Don’t rock the boat. You want more, go for it, but until then, enjoy the ride.” Tony winks and shovels some calamari into his mouth. Bruce tries not to blush, but he ends up staring at Tony’s goatee and comparing it to Clint’s evening stubble and has to forcefully shut down that line of thinking.
“So who’s the lucky guy?” Tony asks. “Unless we’re speaking in the hypothetical, of course.” He raises his hands as though Bruce were about to snap at him.
“It’s… Clint.” Unsure whether he should tell Tony, on several levels, the names feels like it trips off his tongue.
Tony sits up, shocked. “Head case? Bruce, is that the best idea?”
“He’s not a head case,” Bruce retorts, stunned. “And I can see whoever I want.” Of all the people who feel like they deserve to weigh in on his anger issues, Tony has never been one of those advising caution.
“I know, just- Bruce, he’s... “
Bruce narrows his eyes. Tony is unsettled, nervous, apologetic. He sniffs the air and detects traces of happiness, and a hint of fear. “Do you think he’s unstable?”
Tony hesitates. For someone who thinks as fast as he does, that’s basically an answer on its own.
Two days later, Bruce has had a breakthrough in his aspect of the Korean collaboration and works through lunch and dinner. He blinks around 10pm and realizes he’s chewing Chinese food off a fork, with a carton in the other hand and empty boxes and bags around him.
“JARVIS?” he mumbles around the mouthful of confusing sustenance.
Understanding his query, JARVIS brings up the Clint alert from the corner of one of Bruce’s screens, where he apparently minimized it… four hours ago. Bruce swivels around and spots Clint on his back on the couch, with one knee up against the backrest and his arms crossed over his chest. There’s an almost frightening stillness to his pose, jarring enough that Bruce sets down the carton and walks over.
Clint turns toward him when he’s a few meters away, belying the impression of a statue he’d been giving off. His eyes are just as stony, though, and he immediately turns his gaze back to the ceiling.
Bruce stutters to a stop on the other side of the coffee table. “Do you…”
Clint shakes his head firmly. Somehow, without moving a muscle, his body language gets even more closed off.
After a moment’s thought, Bruce nods. “Okay,” he says gently and heads back to his workstation.
In the moments before he sinks back into his project, Bruce tells himself, firmly, that Clint is a grown man, and if there’s anything he needs, he knows he can ask for it.
Another voice, one he tries to ignore, just mutters ‘head case’ like it’s proved a point.