Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is half over when Jarvis announces that Coulson is on his way up. Tony, who's been out for a film and a half, jerks awake at the quiet words and scans the room with wide eyes.
"Stark tower, medical wing," Pepper says, squeezing his hand where it's been locked in hers since they got him settled into bed.
Tony turns toward the sound of her voice, awareness dawning in his expression, before taking in the rest of the team. Steve left near the middle of Raiders to dig up some food for everybody, but no one else has moved from their seats. Tony laughs hoarsely. "I would have sent you all down to the theater room if I had known you actually wanted to watch something."
"Just making sure you're doing okay, Stark," Steve says with a smile, holding out his fifth box of Cracker Jacks.
Tony grabs a small handful as the door opens and Coulson steps into the room. The agent's hair and suit are perfectly in place, but the hollows beneath his eyes are darker than usual, and he sinks into an empty chair with less than precise movements.
Clint straightens in his seat, shoulder bumping against Bruce's. "Sir?"
"There have been some...concerns about how to best handle this situation," Coulson says without preamble.
"I'm assuming you mean the situation with figuring out who was behind the blackout," Tony offers around the popcorn in his mouth. "That's the only situation here that SHIELD has the authority to be concerned about."
Coulson levels his gaze at Tony. "I'm not going to dignify that with a response. We are all on the same side in terms of wanting both what is best for Bruce and what is safest for everyone he comes into contact with, so we need to have a civilized discussion about how to make that happen. Agreed?"
There's a pause, before the team begins to nod in assent.
"Good, because Fury's been talking with the WSC, and they're less than thrilled with the idea of Bruce living freely in the heart of New York. There need to be contingency plans to cover anything that could go wrong. Bruce, you are welcome to be here for this, of course, but if you think it might be too triggering, feel free to offer your input and then leave us to sort out the details."
It's a nonviable option from the instant Coulson strings the words together. Bruce would much prefer to not have to go over all the ways he could take out half the city, but if he's going to even pretend that he deserves the freedom to be sitting here with the others, then he needs to be able to do basic human acts, like participating in a discussion. "I'm okay," he says. "I'll let you know if it becomes too much."
Clint reaches out and grabs Bruce's wrist, fingers gently massaging over his pulse point, the touch an echo of their meeting with Fury on the Helicarrier all those months back.
The feeling of not having to carry the weight of his symptoms alone makes Bruce want to cry.
In the end, their talk with Coulson lasts two and a half hours, and only ends because Tony drifts off for the fourth time and Thor is snoring loudly enough to make it hard to hear.
Coulson bids them goodnight on his way out the door, a tablet full of the plans and guidelines they've pieced together in hand. It's nearly all focused on how unexpected Hulk appearances will be handled, who will be notified when, and how he'll be contained. For now, the only actual changes to Bruce's life will be the return of a pulse monitor—Tony's already started drowsily assembling schematics for a better version, and Bruce doesn't even have the first one yet—and a daily check-in with Coulson, Steve, and Jarvis on how he's doing.
The knowledge that this is all too good to be true weighs down his bones and sits solid and mountainous on his shoulders. It is one thing to be here, physically present with the team, but Bruce knows better than to get used to this. You can't be crushed by the removal of something you never thought you'd be able to keep anyway, he reminds himself.
Clint, who follows Bruce to his floor, to his room, to his bed, is going to make that a challenge.
"I know I've been gone a while," Bruce says, as Clint sits down on the edge of the duvet and starts unlacing his boots, being careful with his knee. "But I'm pretty sure this is still my room."
"Someone's got to hang around to make sure you don't go disappearing on us again."
"I almost killed you, Clint," Bruce reminds him. "I had to do whatever it took to make myself less of a threat."
Clint doesn't respond. He finishes with his shoes and adds socks, arm guards, and uniform to the pile, until he's sitting in nothing but his boxers, his injured knee dark and swollen against the pale skin of his leg. "Did you miss us at all?" he asks quietly.
Bruce doesn't mean to start laughing, it just happens. He laughs until he's doubled over, tears in his eyes. It feels almost like sobbing. Clint is almost to the door before Bruce gets a hold of himself. He practically runs to block the exit from Clint's approach, chest heaving and cheeks wet. "Every second," he breathes. "Every second of every day I was in that place. I tried not to, because I couldn't settle when I was constantly waiting for you to come find me, but I couldn't stop it. My time here, with the team, not having to hide who I am or constantly be looking over my shoulder, has been one of the brightest experiences of my life."
"Not bright enough to keep you here in the first place, though," Clint notes. "Masochism isn't a virtue, Banner, even if you can dress it up like one."
"I'm pretty sure your version of masochism is what most people would consider temperance, which is one of the big seven." This close, Bruce can see the pale line of a scar running from about an inch above Clint's right eyebrow back into his hair, one he didn't have the last time Clint was here in this room with him. Bruce traces it with ginger fingertips, and Clint jerks away from the touch.
Bruce huffs a mirthless laugh. "I don't even have to tell you why I have to be so careful, not when it's been carved in your skin."
Clint folds his arms over the contours of his bare chest. "Right, that's one misstep that we're never going to get over, huh? So where are the lines, then, between you and me? I get to hold you and calm you down and you get to shove me away and run every time something good starts to happen in your life? Because I'll take that if it's all your willing to give, but I just want to know where we're drawing up the boundaries."
'You were the one who started this conversation,' Bruce wants to say. Or, 'You know that this is the way things are for me.' He settles on, "I don't know." The confession twists his chest in a way he hasn't felt since Betty. Bruce holds out his hands, calloused and empty and all he's ever had to give away. "I can't explain what it feels like to always have to be braced for the moment when you lose control. Not that the bracing helps, but at least when you're expecting to wake up naked in the middle of a crater there's less mental whiplash to deal with. I can go from picking up a few groceries or waiting at a bus stop to counting causalities in what feels like no time at all, so I think it's at least a bit understandable that I try to be prepared for it. I agreed to be here, Clint; not locked away again, because I'm weak and you're convincing, but that doesn't change who and what I am. I'm sorry, but you have to understand that I make the choices that I make because I have to. Everything else—emotions, wants, all of the upper levels of Maslow's hierarchy—comes second to that."
"You act like there's this bomb in your brain that's liable to go off any second and take half the planet with it," Clint says, voice rising. "The Hulk isn't like that; he learns more every time he's let out, and he wants to be taught. You can't just treat him like some mindless force; he's better than that and he deserves better than that. Honestly, you're the one who doesn't want to change; you're holding him back and you don't even care. It's not fair."
Bruce feels like his lungs are boiling, his heart stoking the fire with every thud. He stares up at the ceiling, counting breaths, and thinks of the stars hidden away far above his eyes. He's excited for the possibility of seeing them again and he focuses on determining which constellations are currently overhead, mind forcefully wiped of everything else, until he's stable enough to risk saying, "I'm sorry you're stuck with me, then. I didn't realize I was the burden you all had to bear for the chance to hang out with the other guy every once in a while. You could have just said something."
Clint grabs Bruce's face in his hands, dragging it down until Bruce has no option but to either meet his gaze or close his eyes. He falls into the trap of the first before his mind has the chance to settle on the second. Clint's face is pulled taunt, lines sharp and furious. "How is it possible," he seethes, "that you can be so smart and so stupid and so controlled and so fucking infuriating all at the same time?"
Bruce closes his eyes against the assault, but Clint's hands rattle his head. "No, look at me; do not check out here. I am done with this 'you against the world' shit conversation we keep coming back to because your brain won't change its default from the idiotic belief that you are somehow unworthy of every basic human need just because of some accident that you were the victim of. There is no pushing me away like fucking everyone else in your fucking life, Bruce, and I will keep saying this to you every damn day if I have to, but I want you to hear that I'm already sick of it, because there is no expiration date on whatever the hell you call this—us—and, yes, you get to call the shots on parameters and definitions and all that shit, but the fact that you think I'm some flighty opportunist or whatever you've categorized me as, whatever makes you think that after all of this I'm still looking for the chance to drop you, is just a little bit degrading."
Clint's expression melts; anger peeling away and revealing a blank canvas. He drops his hands and takes a step back, gaze falling and one corner of his mouth twisting up. "I'm used to not being good enough, just so you know. I've got a whole lifetime's worth of experience in not measuring up, and if that's what this is you can say so and I'll back off. But you're stuck with me friendship-wise, because I'm giving myself that and because you need it, so you can suck it up and deal."
It's easy, Bruce realizes, to let his own world consume him and stay blind to the fact that they're both so splintered and jagged in so many ways, held together with string and broken glass and the shadows of past experiences. A matched set.
The words that he wants to say, things like 'perfection' and 'impossible' and 'heart-breakingly unaware' are all too dangerous to be pursued. "We'll come back here," he tells Clint. "We will never stop having this conversation, ever, and that's not fair. You deserve so much better than I will ever be able to give you."
Clint shakes his head, and something in his eyes makes him look ancient. "I don't want better. I told you; you're stuck with me." He shifts—Bruce can only imagine how much his knee must be throbbing after being on it for so long—and gestures to the door behind Bruce's back. "Look, it's the middle of the night and I've said my piece. Let's sleep on it and we can talk more in the morning if you think we need to."
Bruce remembers that he's blocking the exit. He shuffles aside, picks up Clint's discarded outfit to send with him, and whispers the word, "stay," before he realizes what he's doing.
Clint smiles resignedly. "You're tired, Doc. I'll still be around in the morning, don't worry, and I'll have Jarvis keep an eye out to make sure you're still here, too. No need to be rash." He takes his clothes from Bruce's hands, and Bruce forces himself to let them go without resistance. Clint leans in, presses a kiss to Bruce's forehead, and leaves without a word, door clicking shut behind him.
Bruce looks around at the huge room, at the bed that's still far too large for one, and turns off the light.