Clint is part of the team that's been tracking the Hulk.
They corner it, finally, after a seven month chase.
He looks down from the helicopter to see the raging green monster, smashing up the docks and the agents already on the scene. It is roaring wildly, at the sky at the agents, at the world.
Clint doesn't think he's ever seen someone with so much anger inside of them, not even Natasha on her bad days.
"Here we go," Clint says, reaching back to his bag for an arrow. He takes aim and fires and uses his bow to slide down the cable that came from the arrow. Natasha follows and then they are on ground zero, with the Hulk swinging at everything in sight.
Clint readies an arrow and smirks, knowing it will hit its target even as he let it fly.
Hulk turns around just as the head of the arrow explodes in its face. It screams in fury and then spots Natasha and Clint.
"Hey there," He decides on smiling cheekily as he reaches back for another arrow.
Natasha goes at the Hulk, guns blazing. She flips gracefully out of the way of his fists and shoots into his eyes. "Those tranq arrows would be nice now!" she yells at Clint as she lands on the ground.
"Got it." He puts three arrows onto the string of the bow and hits the green creature in the chest.
One more roar and then it stumbles back hazily and falls over.
Clint gets curious.
He's seen the Hulk in its specially designed cage from the observation deck, but he wants to see him up close as well.
The Hulk spent the first day screaming in the cage but eventually quieted down and resorted to pacing back and forth angrily. Now it's curled up in a corner of the cage, scowling out the glass.
Clint is quiet about walking up the Hulk, and maybe that's a bad idea, because all of the sudden the Hulk seems to sense his presence and it stands up and turns around and it's massive. Also, eeugh. Clint's eardrums.
"Okay, sorry, sorry!" He holds up his hands in a placating manner like that will do something. He backs away slowly and puts his hands in the air next to him. "Look, look, no weapons. Calm down, okay?"
The Hulk is not calming down.
Clint backs out of the room slowly and runs into Natasha in the hall.
She raises a questioning eyebrow but then says, "Fury wants us in the meeting room."
"New assignment." She shrugs.
The assignment turns out to be called the Avengers Initiative. They meet Iron Man, who is a bit of a douchebag, and Captain American, who is… well, he's Captain America.
The Avengers mansion is nice.
It has a lot of little hidey holes for Clint to camp out in, even though he's got his own gigantic bedroom.
Clint finds that he can tolerate Stark's constant complaining, and complaining with Steve. Natasha, of course, is like a sister, and that alien god they recruited is okay, too.
They go out and fight bad guys most days, almost get killed some days, and they always come home to the mansion where they live in luxury.
It's luxury that no one but Tony and Thor are really accustomed to.
When Clint thinks about it really hard, it makes him uncomfortable. He always lived in small quarters during his time with S.H.I.E.L.D. Good weapons were the luxury, not clothes and food and God's sake, the furniture.
He's relieved when Fury calls him in for a one-man mission.
"I need you to track down the Hulk." Fury says.
Clint's eyebrows go way up. "He escaped?"
"We made the mistake of allowing Bruce Banner out in hopes of getting him to trust us." Fury replies, clenching his teeth. He's clearly unhappy with the situation. "Just find Bruce Banner. Convince him to come back. You can call in back-up if needed, but it would be preferable if you worked alone."
"Negotiation? Not that I'm complaining, sir, but wouldn't Nat- Agent Romanov be better for an assignment like this?"
"You were the one who found the Hulk last time. You know him best."
It takes Clint three weeks to locate Bruce Banner. The Hulk was last seen in the countryside of Idaho. Clint tracks Banner out of the country, through Europe, and into the Middle East before he loses the man.
After that it's like Banner has disappeared.
Clint spends weeks trailing false leads. Those weeks turn to months and then suddenly it's a bar in Bolivia.
"Four months," Banner says, almost with amusement, as Clint sits down on the stool next to him, "That's much less than last time."
Clint has been so used to dealing with the Hulk, it's never occurred to him that he's never heard Bruce Banner talk before. Sure, he's read the file; Banner's a genius, blah blah blah. But it's different in person.
Banner wears purple a lot and seems to like the color; this is something Clint can appreciate.
Right now, Banner's wearing a purple button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His dark curly has grown wild, and being on the run doesn't give a man the time to shave that often, so he's grown stubble.
"Yeah, well, I don't have others with me to drag me down." Clint says. "I'm here to take you back, by the way."
"To S.H.I.E.L.D? And what if I decide not to go along?"
"You could run," Clint acknowledges, "But I'd follow you."
"What," Banner speaks in a peculiarly slow way. Almost like he's trying to keep calm –well, he probably is. It would sound threatening, if Clint was the typed to be intimidated. "No tranquilizers? You could always shoot me."
"I don't want to force you." Clint says.
"Then you'll be following me for a long time," Banner tells him.
It's a one-man job, just like Fury said. S.H.I.E.L.D doesn't interfere. No doubt, however, they're watching 'from a distance'.
Clint is no longer tracking Banner so much as he's following him around the world.
Sometimes, when Banner's sitting in a diner or a bar, Clint will sit down next to or across from him. He'll say how S.H.I.E.L.D needs him back.
"You're a genius," Clint says in Hong Kong, "You could work with them."
Banner, for the most part, tolerates Clint's presence. He just seems to accept that he's there.
Sometimes, he'll slip away and it'll take Clint a while –a few hours at the least; a couple of weeks at the most –to find him again. But Clint always finds him.
"Are you planning on spending your life on me?" Banner seems almost irritated when Clint catches up to him in Mexico City.
"Until I get a different assignment. Until you back with me."
"Agent Barton, right?" Banner stares at him with fathomless black eyes. "Hawk-eye?" He draws out the word, making it two. "There's no point in going back. The other guy hasn't been out in months." He smiles, but it doesn't reach his eyes. "I'm not a menace." It sounds like something he's repeated to himself, over and over before. "I'm not going to let them lock me up again."
They're in Brazil.
"You know," Clint says, "Back in the States, I'm part of this team called the Avengers. We basically fight crime all day."
Banner is unmoved.
"You could help."
"As the Hulk." He says flatly.
"As Bruce Banner." Clint says, "We have Tony Stark, but he's a mechanic, not a scientist. And you're an expert in gamma radiation. You could help people.
"Nice try. But there are other people who study gamma radiation." Banner stands up and leaves.
One thing about Bruce Banner: he prefers to watch rather than join in.
At bars, he order water or soda and lets other get drunk. He doesn't eat much, since he doesn't have much money, but he likes to sit in cafes for a long time, looking on as other eat around him. In Argentina, he likes to watch the couples dance in the town square.
"Do you have someone back in the States?" Banner asks quietly.
Clint, who's been sitting at a table nearby, is startled by the question. Banner hardly initiates the conversation.
"Not in that way." He replies. "You?"
Banner looks at him and then a slow smile spreads across his face. It still doesn't reach his eyes. "No time for that. It's difficult to find someone when you're on the run."
"You should come back, then. Settle down."
Banner raises an eyebrow as if to say 'I see what you did there'.
"Agent Barton," Banner says in a café, back in Mexico, "What made you join S.H.I.E.L.D?"
"It was that or prison." Clint shrugs. "And call me Clint. Seriously."
Banner stares at him, long and hard. He spends uncomfortable amounts of time staring at and scrutinizing Clint. He holds out his hand after a moment. "Bruce."
Clint breaks into a smile and takes the hand in a shake.
The corner of Bruce's mouth quirks upward.
"Hi." Clint says.
"Hey, since you're already on the run, wanna go somewhere cool? We can go sight-seeing."
Bruce is properly baffled by this.
They go to Africa first.
Bruce gets a kick out of the pyramids, but Clint's always thought those damn things were creepy.
They move on through India. The monkeys are interesting. Not that interesting; Clint doesn't like 'em. They don't stay long.
When they visit Japan, Clint laughs his ass off upon finding the Avengers action figures and is sure to mail them back to New York, along with the Nick Fury poster.
That's the first time Clint sees Bruce actually smile. It's small and stems from amusement at Clint's total and utter glee, but it's there.
He decides it looks good on Bruce. It makes him look less tired. It makes him look younger –although Bruce isn't necessarily old or anything, stress has aged him quite a bit.
Clint tells Bruce about as much.
Bruce's eyes go wide at that, and then he smiles again, though uncertainly.
In Shanghai, they run into trouble, trouble in the form of ninja assassins. Clint should've known better. There are always ninja assassins in Asia, and they always seem to know him.
Clint has the training, but Bruce doesn't.
He backs up against the alley wall as Clint attempts to fend off the increasing amount of ninjas. Clint's bow and arrows are in his bag, but he doesn't have the time to get them out.
"Bruce-" Clint glances back and sees the man shaking. "No." He whispers as Bruce snaps his head back and roars.
The Hulk smashes.
The ninjas retreat quickly, abandoning their fallen.
It runs –he runs.
Clint feels his heart drop into his stomach as he watches the Hulk disappear over the skyscrapers.
It's been seven months.
He tracks the Hulk back through Asia, and finds Bruce Banner on the streets of Beijing. It's March.
Bruce is shivering and half-unconscious.
Clint picks him up and carries him to the nearest hotel.
"Hey," Clint says softly, when Bruce is fully awake.
Bruce, huddled in a mountain of blankets, looked around blearily. "'er m'I?" He tries to ask.
Clint rests his chin in his hands. "Beijing." He says.
"I can't feel my nose." Bruce mumbles.
"It looks fine," Clint assures him.
Bruce clears his throat, "The other guy came out?"
"He saved us," Clint offers.
Bruce sighs. "Is S.H.I.E.L.D on their way?"
Clint frowns. "No, why would-? Oh." He shook his head, "Bruce, only if you want to go back."
"I never want to be locked away again." Bruce whispers.
"You won't be. Promise." Clint says.
But they don't go back.
"Do you have family waiting for you?" Bruce asks.
"Nope. I have Tasha, but we're not blood." Clint feels a pang of sadness. He's starting to really miss Natasha and the other Avengers. Hell, he even kind of misses Tony.
"We've worked together forever. She's one of the Avengers." Clint says. "She's was there, that, uh, well, last time. I don't know if you remember –red hair and"
"Black cat-suit?" Bruce fills in. "I saw her when Fury let me out."
"Yeah, well, that's Natasha,"
Clint snorts, "Most people don't say it that politely."
Bruce frowns. "You miss her?"
"We've been apart for longer than this."
They're in Paris.
Bruce loves it.
Clint's been in the city before –on an assignment with Natasha three years ago. He's weary of the serenading bands that roam the streets.
They attack when Clint and Bruce are eating at an outside café.
Clint is absolutely horrified, and Bruce can see it on his face. He puts and hand over his face and starts to shake and for a terrible second, Clint thinks he's about to Hulk out… until he realizes Bruce is just trying to hold in his laughter. His laugh is this dorky kind of snort giggle snort, and Clint can't help but smile reluctantly.
There's this recurring thought that's started popping into his head every once in a while. Sometimes, they'll be somewhere exotic or just sitting in a bar or something and Clint will be watching Bruce and all of the sudden he'll think 'God, he's amazing' or something like that. And then he shakes off the thought as quickly as he can because damn it, this is a job –no getting Feelings on a job.
When Bruce laughs, Clint thinks he's beautiful.
He gives the band money attached with a quick glare that says 'do not come back'.
They walk through the streets of Paris and its getting dark. "Did you think you ever think you were going to join something like S.H.I.E.L.D when you were growing up?" Bruce asks.
Clint smirks, "No one thinks they're going to join something like S.H.I.E.L.D when they're growing up. I actually grew up in a circus," He says, "I thought I was going to stay in it for the rest of my life." He tells Bruce about the orphanage, the circus, Barney, Trick Shot. He tells Bruce everything. When he's done, he wonders why. It takes years for people to earn his trust. Even Natasha doesn't know some of the things he just said and… Christ, he practically just handed over his soul to Bruce Banner.
They walk in silence for a while afterwards.
"You miss it." Bruce says.
They've stopped walking.
"Kind of," Clint admits.
"Tell you what," Bruce says slowly. "Give me a month. That's exactly four weeks. And then I'll see if I still want to go back."
"Wait, if you still-?" Clint's eyes widen.
Bruce holds up a hand. "Everything you've told me. You've followed me over six continents. I would turn myself in to S.H.I.E.L.D, if it meant you could finally go home."
"One month. I consider you a friend, even if you might not think of me like that. I just want to see if… I change my mind."
"You don't have…" Clint trails off and closes his mouth. He nods. "One month."
"Although," Bruce smiles a little, "I'm probably not going to change my mind. This is just an excuse for a little more time. My decision is inevitable."
Clint's about to ask a little more time for what but Bruce leans forward and covers his mouth with his own and oh. He would've thought that Bruce would be one of those chaste kissers.
Clint's a sucker for passionate kisses.
He leans forward, about to return the kiss when Bruce breaks away. Clint stands there, blinking in confusion and Bruce puts a hand over his mouth, looking horrified in the moonlight, "Oh God, Clint, I'm sorry. I don't know what I was" –He begins to back away and no.
No, no, no. Clint will not allow that. "Hey," He says, reaching out and snagging the hem of Bruce's shirt. "It's okay." He smiles and wonders if Bruce can see it in the dark. If he couldn't, he probably feels it on Clint's lips when he kisses him.
Clint never really knew how much he wanted this.
It's been eight months.
Damn Paris and all the stupid love and lust and other poisonous things in the air. Except not really.
It's no longer Bruce traveling and Clint following along behind. They go everywhere together now. Friends with benefits, boyfriends, lovers –Clint doesn't know what they really are. Mushily, he finds that he doesn't care as long as they stay like whatever it is.
"One more week." Bruce murmurs, resting his chin on Clint's chest.
"You don't have to." Clint says, twisting his fingers into Bruce's hair. "And you said you'd make up your decision after the month was up…"
Bruce sighs. "I can't let you chase me around the world. That's just selfish."
"What if all parties involved give their consent?" Clint asks, sliding his hand down the back of Bruce's neck and tracing a nonexistent circle on his back.
"Now I'm the one trying to convince us to go to S.H.I.E.L.D?" Bruce is amused.
"I could go rogue. Or say you won't ever come with me, and you'll Hulk out on anyone who tries to force you." Clint says weakly.
"The sentiment is appreciated, Clint," Bruce says, his mouth curling into a lazy smile. "You'll thank me later." He rolls off the bed and stands up as Clint protests. "We have a flight in two hours," he shakes his head, "Being fully clothed is a requirement."
"Not officially." Clint grumbles.
Clint can sense Bruce's anxiousness.
They're back in Bolivia. Clint sees this as the place it all started, mostly because it was in this country where he first met Bruce in person. He's not sure what Bruce thinks about Bolivia. Everyone remembers things differently.
Clint hates drug dealers. He hates them. And their stupid gangs. They're always jumping him, Goddammit.
Bruce is safe. He's back at the motel.
Clint's not so safe. He's being held from behind, about to get punched in the stomach or across the face or upside the head or something equally painful. His bow has been snapped in half.
Suddenly there are ninja assassins.
Clint has one thought as one of them sticks a needle into the side of his neck: Bruce.
Then it goes black.
Clint wakes up in a darkened holding cell.
It looks like a S.H.I.E.L.D cell, but it can't be… could it?
He stumbles up and over to the opening, which is barred by a fore field. Clint looks outside to see levels and levels of prison cells. S.H.I.E.L.D agents stand guard.
He's standing in a hallway.
A woman walks by.
"Bobbi?" He exclaims.
She keeps walking.
He's sitting in a circus tent.
He's in his caravan.
The crowd is roaring its approval.
Barney wants to leave.
He's in a dark chamber, chained to the wall. "I don't like mind games." He says.
The lady in the black and red suit turns of the machine and walks over.
"What do you want with me?" Clint says, scowling.
"Your mind." She holds up a needle and looks at it thoughtfully. "Pancuronium bromide." She says.
Then she looks at him and smiles wickedly, "And potassium chloride. You'll feel it for about a second." She raises her arm and jabs it into his skin.
Clint's heart stops.
The sky is blue.
His chest hurts. Broken ribs maybe. Dislocated shoulder possibly. Definitely something broken in his leg.
He closes his eyes again.
There's a strange ringing in his ears and he can't quite pull himself all the way into consciousness.
"Gotta get him to medical…"
The voice is familiar. Clint doesn't have enough have the focus to place it right now.
"Who know how long he's been like this…"
"...Last heard; he was on a mission…"
"…will have to ask Fury…"
"…make him tell us…"
"…here in two minutes…"
The new voice cuts through nearby conversation and Clint knows that voice. He knows it –he knows it! He just can't…
He blinks his eyes open.
"He could still be…"
"Yeah, Steve." The presence that was hovering above him moves away.
"Do you know who you are?" Comes a firm, steady voice.
Clint still doesn't feel the strength to sit up, but he smirks weakly at the sky. "'Course. Y'been… sayin' it…over an'…" His throat is dry. He feels like he's covered in dust from debris. He's pretty sure he is.
Natasha kneels over him. "Clint," is all she says, resting a hand on his arm.
Clint hates hospital beds.
Natasha isn't there when he wakes up.
Nick Fury is.
"What happened?" Clint whispers.
"We've put some of the pieces together." Fury allowed. "What do you remember?"
"Bolivia. Drug dealers working with ninjas. Woke up in a chamber. There was a woman. Brunette." He frowned, "She euthanized me. But"
"-the Hand sold your mind-wiped body to H.Y.D.R.A. They've been using you as an assassin. The Avengers have fought you twice. You came to your senses thanks to Charles Xavier. It's lucky the X-Men were visiting New York."
"How many?" Clint asks with a sinking feeling.
"I'm not going to let you torture yourself with the answer." Fury responds.
"How long has it been?"
"Approximately eleven months since you went off the radar."
"I don't remember any of it." Clint says with quiet horror. An image flashes through his mind. Dark curly locks of hair. A beautiful smile. "What happened to Bruce Banner?"
Fury frowns, as if this is not a question he was expecting. Then he sighs, "We lost him. He slipped away a few months ago. He's off the radar." He watches Clint carefully.
"When can I get outta here?" Clint asks, looking down.
He thinks that maybe Bruce thought he ditched him.
Clint had left the motel, promising to be back soon, and he hadn't returned.
What Bruce must've felt when he realized Clint wasn't coming back… it makes him feel sick.
"You're leaving again?" Natasha catches up to him.
"I told you I was serious." Clint responds, leaning on his crutch in the doorway.
"Clint, your last mission can wait until you're-"
"Tasha, it can't." Clint says, clutching the strap of the bag on his shoulder.
"Why not?" She's angry, even if her voice is level. Clint can sense these things.
"We're not supposed to get involved with our assignments." He says quietly.
It clicks. Her eyes widen, "You didn't-"
"I did." He says helplessly. "I fell for him."
She watches him descend the rest of the stairs and doesn't follow as he walks through the gates, leaving the Avengers Mansion behind.
Clint doesn't find Bruce. Weeks turn to months.
He goes to Bolivia. Mexico. Argentina. Brazil. Egypt. India. Japan. China. Russia. France. Back to Bolivia.
He exhausts his resources. No one knows were the incredible Hulk is; let alone a nerd named Bruce Banner.
Clint wants to scream.
It takes four months to track down even a small lead on Bruce. It's a single image, taken by a photographer in Afghanistan. It's a man in the corner of a street full of hungry children and woman and men and it's a snapshot of desperation that makes it into an article in the Times.
Clint is on the quickest flight across the ocean.
Clint's in Egypt and it's hot and dusty and he's hidden under a hood and traditional clothing.
He feels like crying when he sees Bruce standing at the edge of the village, staring out into the deserts.
Bruce doesn't see him approaching and he feels like his heart is breaking in two when he sees the look in his eyes. It's sad, lost, and almost empty. He stops next to Bruce, who doesn't turn. "I wish to remain alone." Bruce says slowly, in Arabic.
"Sorry," Clint replies in the same language. "It's my job to find you."
Bruce whirls around.
"Clint." Bruce says stiffly.
"Let me explain." Clint says immediately, reaching out.
Bruce steps back and Clint drops his arm to his side.
"Why did you leave?" Bruce asks slowly, in English.
"I didn't want to. God, Bruce I'm so sorry. I… I let my guard down and the Hand caught me. Remember those assassins in Shanghai?"
Clint tells him.
They stand on the sandy grounds in silence.
The sun is beginning to set.
Bruce suddenly reaches out and grabs Clint's hand and pulls him closer until he throws his arms around Clint and buries his face into the crook of his neck and they just inhale.
They starve for each other's touch.
Bruce pulls away, "Clint, I went to the Avengers Mansion to look for you. I was told you were out. I thought that meant you'd already returned. I shouldn't have left. I should've stayed. I said I would go to S.H.I.E.L.D, but I never"
"Bruce," Clint says, shaking his head with a smile creeping onto his features, "It's okay. You know I'll always find you."
Bruce keeps his arms slung around Clint's shoulders, fingers laced together behind his neck. His eyes hold life once more. "That's true." He acknowledges, "You always show up eventually."
It's been twenty four and a half months.
This is where the chase ends.
They take the next flight out of Egypt.
The plane ride is mostly silent.
Bruce holds Clint's hand, like he's afraid he's going to disappear at any given moment.
Clint doesn't so much as get up to stretch. He hopes Bruce understands what he's trying to say –what he wants to say, what he doesn't say: You'll never have to be alone again.
Bruce glances at Clint with tired eyes as the captain announces their descent.
Neither of them slept.
Bruce smiles and it says everything Clint needs to hear.