They go on three more dates (Clint introduces Bruce to the New York Aquarium and, afterward, to self-serve frozen yogurt and sweet, cold-mouthed kisses; Bruce sets up a late night picnic and stargazing on the roof, complete with red wine and candles that he's sure are far too cheesy until he sees the way the light catches in Clint's eyes; and Clint rents a car—Tony is appalled for the second time that they didn't just borrow something from the garage, and Clint shoots back that they need something that won't be a target for break-ins—and drives them out to Bear Mountain State Park for a day of hiking in celebration of Clint's knee being mostly back to normal) before everything goes to hell.
It starts with Tony and Pepper flying out to Malibu to handle some issues with the west coast branch of Stark Industries. Or, rather, it starts with Pepper flying out to handle some issues, and Tony flying out because two of his bots and the majority of his suits are out there, and Pepper's trip is the excuse he needs to go collect his toys. Besides, he explains over a pair of rose-tinted sunglasses just before he and Pepper head up to the jet, New York is nice, but there's nothing like California sun.
Eight days later, Thor gets summoned back to Asgard to deal with some kind of uprising. Jane goes with him, because the revolution is syncing up with a convergence between worlds, and Jane is in astrophysicist heaven just trying to explain to Bruce the little she's learned from Thor before they leave.
SHIELD pulls Steve and Natasha over to DC to run a few missions out of their headquarters a little over two weeks after that, the same day Clint gets a briefing on his latest op. It's some kind of undercover work he's not allowed to discuss. "Somewhere hot and humid where it sounds like I'm going to be stuck for a month, minimum, but at least the coming home part will be great. You'll wait for me, right? Won't run off with some other ex-carny with great aim and and fantastic pecs? I mean, seriously, look at these things, and don't you dare compare them to our resident God's or juiced up super soldier's; I came by these things honestly, I'll have you know, and"—Bruce swallows the rest of his sentence and tries—with hands and lips—to describe how he's not going anywhere. Clint responds with a desperation that undermines his flippant words.
Clint leaves the next morning, the pockets of his bow case filled with squares of chocolate and bags of gummy worms, because Bruce doesn't know how to write a love letter, but he does know that the treats his mom would sometimes add to his lunch bag when he was young were some of the loudest "I love you"s he's ever gotten, and maybe he doesn't mean it quite the way Clint would maybe like—not yet, anyway—but Bruce isn't going to send him off without a reminder that he will be missed.
And then there was one.
The tower had felt big before, but without the others to fill it with their presence and personalities, it grows cavernous; a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Bruce makes it through the first four days on a carefully planned circuit between the main kitchen and the lab. Up the elevator for tea and meals, down to work through the long list of experiments Tony'd been passionately suggesting over the past weeks and email his daily check-in to Steve and Coulson. When the lethargy in his brain becomes too much, he naps on the couch in the corner of the lab, lights all on, and doesn't let himself think about nights curled up in the dark with another body pressed against his own.
In the late evening of day nine Bruce is standing in the kitchen, picking out tea and waiting for the kettle to boil, when his mind draws a neat little parallel between this kitchen and the last two he used under SHIELD's care.
He registers the crack of ceramic on wood, foggily acknowledges that the noise means he dropped the mug he'd been holding. The crash of it is muted by a soothing voice in his ears as vibrations tremble against his wrist. He can't focus on any of it, not with the way the room feels simultaneously too big—thousands of miles of open space, and he's in the middle of it with nowhere to hide—and too small—the walls won't stop shifting in the corners of his eyes, making it impossible to spot the cameras he can feel watching him, pinning him in place like an insect mounted in a shadowbox. His skin is too hot, too tight, and his muscles are straining to what feels like a breaking point, ignoring his desperate commands to relax.
He is losing himself here in the heart of the tower with no enemies to fight and no one to take him down.
The soothing voice cuts off, replaced by crackling and white noise for an instant, before a new speaker picks up where the last left off. "Jarvis, I'm live now, right? He can—Bruce, you can hear me, right?" The voice is hoarse and barely above a whisper, but the sliver of Bruce's mind that hasn't gone green locks onto it with a jolt of homesickness. "I've got a deal with Jarvis where he calls and patches me through if things get bad for you. Probably a—probably the sort of things stalkers do, or would do, if they had the technology for it, but that didn't actually occur to me until right now. Fuck, sorry about that."
The voice—Clint, Bruce's mind finally patches together, Clint Barton—clears its throat. "So you, uh, you're there, right? Can hear me and stuff? Because I don't have the tech to get a visual with me right now and, I'll be honest, it's sort of sounding like I'm speaking to an empty room."
"Clint." The concentration it takes to locate the muscle groups in charge of speech and wrench back control of them leaves Bruce feeling like he's gone a few rounds with Thor.
"Hey! Yeah, it's me. How are you feeling?"
"Ridiculous. I'm sorry; I got worked up over nothing. You should get back to your mission; I'll make some changes so it doesn't happen again." It was Bruce's own fault for letting his guard down in the first place. He should have anticipated being triggered, but at least he can make some changes going forward. The lab is the safest, Bruce is guessing, given how he didn't have access to one under SHIELD's care. Tony keeps the fridge and cupboard near the couch stocked with quick and easy food options. Bruce can camp out there, have Jarvis lock him in, maybe—his chest constricts at the concept, but clear boundaries helped him keep control with SHIELD; maybe they'll help here, too.
A small, horrible part of Bruce wishes he had never agreed to stop running.
"Hey, no, you did great. You should be congratulating yourself; you got control back even without any of us there. You deserve a medal or something, okay? And, trust me here, I would not have told Jarvis to have me on speed dial just in case if I wasn't up for it. I've been doing surveillance for the past week; getting to talk to you in the middle of it is an absolute pleasure."
Bruce opens his mouth to correct Clint's unwarranted kindness, explain to him that people who are currently standing in a self-made sea of ceramic shards, gasping for breath like it's some kind of accomplishment to not totally lose it in the face of their own emotions, do not deserve medals. Instead, he swallows back the words. They're nothing Clint hasn't heard from him before—nothing he doesn't clearly already know Bruce is thinking. Bruce drags himself far enough out of the vortex of self-flagellation feeding self-obsession feeding self-flagellation to say something that actually matters. "I miss you. I'm sorry Jarvis had to call you, but I'm not sorry that it means I get to talk to you."
The crack of Clint's startled laugh cuts through the room like lightening. "I'm on to you, Banner. I'll bet you say that to all the guys."
"Yeah, my favorite pick-up line involves this whole lead up where I almost transform into a giant rage monster. For the amount of effort that goes into it, the success rate is shockingly low."
"Well, there's always a first time."
Bruce finds himself smiling in response to the smirk in Clint's voice. "Statistically speaking, it was only a matter of time before I found someone with poor enough judgment."
"Aw man, again with the sweet talking," Clint chuckles. "Seriously, though, you okay? We kind of all bailed on you, which sucks, and if you think you'd be better off with someone around—no offense, Jarvis—just say the word. Avengers business trumps SHIELD business, which doesn't necessarily mean that I'll be able to get back right away, but Natasha could probably postpone her work in DC and head back to New York until I'm done here, if you need it."
"I'll be fine, Clint; sorry I worried you."
"Hey, as long as you're doing well I'm not complaining. Feel free to worry me a bit more often while I'm away; I've almost hit the point of muttering to myself to pass the time out here and, trust me, no one wants that."
"I'll see what I can do," Bruce says, even as he cements in his brain the new restrictions he's putting on himself. He's aware of the disconnect between the two, knows Clint would object to more rules and more hyper-vigilant control, but Clint's not actually here right now, and it's Bruce's job to hold it together while the rest of the team is out actually being useful to society.
"Good, and I'll do everything I can to wrap this job up as quickly as possible. I'll see you soon, okay?"
"Yeah, see you soon."
"Jarvis-" the speakers go silent as Clint's attention shifts to the AI.
Bruce sags against the counter top, exhausted in the wake of fighting his way back from the brink of a transformation and desperately, pathetically lonely in the gaping silence Clint's call leaves behind. He drops his elbows to the granite, presses his closed eyes into his upturned palms until colors explode in the darkness behind his lids, and lets the sensations drown him for the span of a few minutes.
Then Bruce straightens, tiptoes his way out of the star-burst of broken mug-"Don't worry about the mess, Dr. Banner," Jarvis says before Bruce can start hunting for a broom-"I'll have the bots handle it"-and heads to his room to collect a few changes of clothes. It ends up reminding him of after the fight with Loki and the Chitauri; stuffing the same clothes back into the same bag that Natasha had given him before he'd moved into the tower, except for the addition of the plush octopus Clint had insisted on buying Bruce after he'd spent forty minutes of their date to the aquarium in the cephalopod exhibit.
Back in the lab, he tosses the bag onto the couch, turns to head to his desk, and twists right back again to dig the octopus out. He grabs one of the spare stools and wheels it over to his desk, dropping the toy on top, well out of the way of any potential for splatter from his experiments. He stares at it as he gives Jarvis the command to lock the lab and, barring any sort of assembling-worthy crisis, install an override for any future attempts on Bruce's part to unlock the doors before at least one other member of the team returns.
Everything will be fine, he tells himself as Jarvis voices his acquiescence, he can do this.
Six days later, it's a Tuesday, and Bruce is waiting for his cup noodles to finish saturating. The octopus is now a goggle-clad lab assistant who listens to all of Bruce's ramblings, but there hasn't been another close call since the kitchen, so Bruce figures he can let his lesser quirks slide. He's explaining this aloud as he peels off the paper lid and pokes his chopsticks around the styrofoam cup, when Jarvis' voice resonates from the ceiling.
"Dr. Banner, Ms. Romanoff is asking to speak with you. Should I put her through?"
"Yes, please, Jarvis." Bruce sets down his noodles and runs his fingers through his hair.
"Yeah," Bruce breathes. "Hi. What's up? How is DC?"
Natasha snorts, "I take it you haven't been following the news recently."
A shiver runs down Bruce's spine. "I told Jarvis to let me know if I was needed, but I've been staying away from as many potential triggers as I can. Are you and Steve okay?"
"We're both a little banged up, but hanging in there," her voice is wry, but there's an edge to it that makes the hairs on the back of Bruce's neck stand up. "There's kind of a lot to explain if you've missed it, and I don't know how comprehensive your knowledge of WWII is, but the short version is the Nazi organization Hydra managed to infiltrate SHIELD, and we've been dealing with the fallout. There's more to tell, and a lot to do, but I'll be flying back to the tower in the morning to plan my next move, so I can give you the details then."
"Okay," Bruce says, trying to process. "Good. It's good that you're okay. If there's anything I can do to help..."
"I appreciate that, Bruce." Natasha's voice is soft, gentle in a way that sets off every warning siren in Bruce's brain. "Listen, I've got some news that I need you to stay calm for. I thought telling you as soon as possible would be the best route, but if you think it would be better to wait until I'm there in person, that's fine, too."
Bruce wraps his arms around his torso, as if he can hold himself together against the barrage of sound bites he can hear in her silence. It's no great challenge to filter the reasons she would call, the concerns that wouldn't keep until tomorrow. "Clint."
"From what he told me before I left, it was a standard undercover op; the sort of thing he and I used to run constantly. But I haven't been able to establish contact with him since this whole mess started, and I've been through all the files on all the databases we've got and can't find a single record of his assignment anywhere. I got a hold of Phil, but he didn't know anything, either."
Bruce's throat is a desert. "Fury?"
There's a pause, before Natasha says, "We've got all his records, but Nick didn't make it."
It's easy to form the words, "I'm sorry for your loss." Easy to let his body run on autopilot while is brain tries to catch up.
"It's been a rough couple of weeks." Natasha lets emotion leak into her tone, saturating the words with grief and exhaustion. "But I didn't call to share sob stories. To the best I can figure on my end, Clint has been missing for eight days, and I don't even know which continent to start searching. I was wondering if he'd said anything to you that might help."
Bruce closes his eyes, counts back twice to make sure he's right and lays his thoughts in order before he says, "I spoke with him six days ago, probably around 11:30pm Eastern time. He said he'd been doing a week of surveillance by that time, and before he left he had told me it was somewhere hot and humid. I don't...I think that was everything. I'm sorry."
"That's more than I had before I called," she assures him. "I'll see if I can shake anything else loose and see you in the morning, okay?"
"Sure, yes. Is there anything I can start on in the meantime to help? It's not like I'm going to be able to fall asleep tonight, anyway."
Natasha huffs a laugh. "I know the feeling. All of SHIELD's files are now a google search away, so you're welcome to do some digging, if you want. I'll send you anything I find that might be helpful. The biggest thing is probably going to be staying calm until I get there."
It's a question and a warning in one; Bruce has to appreciate her tact. "The Other Guy likes Clint, I think, and we can't be helpful unless he lets me hold it together." Speaking slowly, Bruce prods the corners of his mind, testing the validity of his words. It's new, insane territory; he usually stays as far from the dark sea of green that surrounds his rational thoughts as humanly possible, but somewhere in the chaos and rage he can feel an undercurrent of agreement. "I think we'll be okay until you get back."
"Good," Natasha says. "Talk to you soon."
The line cuts off. Bruce brings his hands to his face, hiding for a moment in the darkness behind his cupped palms, before straightening. "Jarvis, catch me up; I need the highlights of what I've been missing and all the information you can find that might have even a remote connection to Clint."
"Of course, Doctor Banner."
The counter beneath Bruce's cup of noodles glows as Jarvis activates the touch screen beneath it, and Bruce forces himself to eat as he scans the articles and video clips, emotions muted except for the long, low growl he can't seem to drown out.