ARRRGH IT'S THE END.
Sorry for long wait. Goddamn this was hard to get right.
I can't thank you all enough for sticking with me throughout this hella long journey, for all your kind words of encouragement and brilliant ideas and omg. You are the best, the actual best. Why didn't anyone tell me you were the best? BECAUSE YOU ARE. You've kept me writing, and I thank you all from the wriggly black depths of my heart.
So he could have given away a bit more of himself than he was comfortable with, these last few weeks. Clint might not have cared, once upon a time, but these people... mattered. And that was part of the problem too. The last time people had mattered...
Well. He was hardly alone in having a shitty family, in this company.
Anyway. He'd let stuff slip, in the heat of the moment (unprofessional, fuck, back to school again Barton) and to protect a friend in a time of vulnerability. Fury and Hill had seen it, and they could tell.
Oh, sure, he wasn't the only one. Steve couldn't hide his concern or affection if his life depended on it, and Stark's heart was a neon sign lighting up the world. Natasha was still the one who shocked him. She normally let things – her true feelings, her weaknesses - slip even less than he did. But she was practically flaunting them these days, her head held high in challenge. Fuck with my team, my friends, my chosen family, any of them, her eyes seemed to say, and they will never find your body. She didn't even seem to care that such a blatant declaration of whom and what she valued was a liability. A challenge. There were people who would take advantage of that. She didn't care.
It fucking sucked. Because he felt the same way. When it came to Tasha – he always had.
How did she do it? How come she could show it? He knew how hard it was for her to admit to this sort of thing. But somehow she'd been reaching out to Bruce, and even Stark, all the way through this. Clint couldn't imagine allowing people to see inside him like that. He never thought Natasha would either. He'd never thought she could drop all her masks at once.
He still couldn't show it, not in words. Certainly not in the way Natasha had begun to, with impenetrable face and painful, wrenching honesty. The way Tony and Bruce showed their affection, all small touches and biting exchanges and fierce looks, that made him want to kind of throw up. So open. So vulnerable.
He could show it in actions, though. And oh, how he had.
He'd let it slip.
He'd protected Bruce. He'd blown up government property to keep him out of Ross' hands. He'd stolen a quinjet and flown the thing around half the eastern seaboard to find him. He'd broken into private property. He'd challenged his own boss to keep Hulk with the team. He'd fingerpainted.
Yeah, okay. Maybe he should look into this whole 'expressing' thing a bit more.
So Clint watched. That was what he did. What he was for.
He watched the small touches that passed between Bruce and Tony in the kitchen, the way Bruce would hold onto a mug slightly longer than necessary when passing it to Tony, just so their fingers would overlap on the heated ceramic.
He watched how Thor held the back of Steve's neck in companionable camaraderie, eyes warm and approving.
He watched how Natasha would smile faintly when Tony stumbled as Bruce absently licked his lips.
He watched Steve gazing over them like a proud parent, clucking over sparring practice, watching them eat, badgering them to sleep.
He watched Thor greet Jane with joyous abandon, swinging her in circles through the room and kissing her soundly, his big fingers threading through her hair.
He watched Tony scribble words and phrases for Steve on the fridge door in whiteboard marker, along with meanings and examples and off-colour jokes and an equation or two for Bruce.
He watched Thor leave the last strawberry poptart for Clint himself, and he ate it with a half-smile on his face.
He watched Bruce drape a blanket over Natasha when she fell asleep during a movie, his expression solemn and full of the knowledge of how rare that trust was, and how precious.
He watched Tony clap Happy on the back when the driver told him, grinning broadly with a hint of worry lurking in his honest eyes, that Pepper had agreed to go out on a date.
He watched himself make a cup of tea and leave it next to Bruce's elbow.
He watched Thor and Natasha, eyes determined and alight with challenge and battle, swerving on the couch with consoles in their hands as they tried to knock either the valiant Princess Peach or tricky Mario out of the race.
He watched Bruce fidget in that way he had, his hands wringing each other, one green, one tanned, and Tony slipped his hand in between them and squeezed.
He watched Steve carefully combing through battle footage, marking moments and strategies and strengths, forever chasing ways to keep them safe.
He watched Natasha tap Tony's shoulder when he drooped into his schematics, before jerking her head towards his quarters.
He watched Tony grip her hand and squeeze it, before actually going to bed.
He watched Steve and Hulk laughing uproariously at an old film, Chaplin scurrying across the screen, both their faces screwed up with laughter.
He watched Natasha watching him watch everyone else, a small smile tugging at her lips. She knew, of course. She had always been able to read him, and she could see the signs as easily as he could.
He watched himself falling in horrible, vulnerable, wonderful love with these fucked-up assholes, gods and monsters all.
He watched himself wondering if, one day, Natasha would look at him with that smile and want to hand him a mug the way Tony did for Bruce, their hands lingering together on warm ceramic glaze.
Thor hoisted the slab into position, and the man in the machine gave him a signal he did not understand. The concrete was lighter than he had been expecting. The mortals were still sufficiently impressed by his Asgardian strength to goggle at the sight of one man lifting that which would have required a crane under normal circumstances.
Dusting off his hands, Thor allowed the workmen to secure the slab in its new vertical aspect and stepped back to view the new wall created thusly. Someone had offered him a helmet due to something he called, 'workplace health and safety laws,' and the thing made his hair sweaty. He wiped at his neck with his discarded shirt. Those same laws also frowned upon the removal of one's garments in the heat, but no-one had suggested that Thor put it back on. A small crowd had gathered outside the site's wire fencing, and the flash of their recording devices nearly blinded him every time he turned around.
The Lady Darcy often told him that he was 'built' and 'insanely ripped', which presumably was a good thing. He supposed it had something to do with all the devices now pointed in his direction. Thor occasionally found it baffling, this human propensity towards the observance of bodies rather than the observance of deeds. Jane simply sighed at him, and kissed him.
He had missed her so, these last few terrible weeks. It was good to have her back home.
"Shouty Thor!" hollered Hulk, grinning at him from across the site as he took great beams of steel from a vehicle. He then drove them into the soft mud that was the first stage of the concrete material the humans were so fond of. Thor couldn't help but notice that no-one had suggested the Hulk wear a helmet. "Is like game, look!"
"I see it, my friend!" he called back, lifting his hand in response. The two of them were the Avengers assigned to this site, the most damaged of all the affected buildings. Hulk in his frenzy had stampeded directly through it and had brought the (thankfully, empty for the night) office building to the ground. It was to be replaced entirely. Their other teammates were scattered at other points around the city, assisting in other reconstructions. The workers directing the Hulk in his efforts had been standoffish and leery, and it had saddened Thor to see his bestial teammate so ostracised, especially after that which he had so recently suffered and the great strides he had made in communicating with others.
And so, the Thunderer had initially stayed close to Hulk, interacting with him in front of their new comrades, trying to gently school them. When they first arrived, the area around them had cleared in seconds and Hulk's shoulders curled a little as he looked to Thor and rumbled rather sadly, "Always not-good, Shouty Thor. Always the humans hate Hulk. Always the smell of scared of Hulk."
"We do not," Thor reminded him gently. "I am no human, but the rest of our teammates are. They do not fear you."
Hulk sniffed. "That different." Then he squinted, his eyes flashing brown. "Bruce says to ignore the humans and do the fixing."
"Aye," Thor said, and nudged his green friend. "We could do that."
Hulk frowned slightly, and it was the good Doctor's frown rather than his own. "Or?"
"Or we could begin the work and show them that you are an ally in their endeavours. What say you?"
Hulk shifted from foot to foot, and then he nodded sharply. "Good. Where does Hulk start?"
"Ask Bruce," Thor suggested.
Hulk rolled his eyes. "Bruce wants plans and papers. Boring."
"Didn't know he could talk," said a handsome black man with grey-touched hair and a weathered, cheerful face. He was standing by a great greasy machine, tipping back his helmet and squinting at them with wariness in his eyes, but no outright terror. He was the only mortal yet standing close to them.
Thor leapt onto the opportunity. "He can follow direction also. Would you give us a task to perform? We are here to assist after all."
"He's not gonna knock anything else down, is he?"
Hulk scowled. "Was stopping stupid big head talky small man. Saved Bruce. Hulk didn't mean to hurt Team or smash stupid building!"
"Peace, my friend," Thor told him, laying a hand on the Hulk's bunched arm. Even with Bruce's new influence, the Hulk retained his legendary anger. "We are healed now, and you carried the day. You saved this city and its people. They will all know this soon. Now we must help rebuild what was broken."
"Hang on, what?" the man said, his voice growing slightly sharper. "You sayin' he saved New York? That it wasn't a rampage like the news said?"
Hulk snarled aloud, and his hands bunched. Thor gave the man a quick warning look. "We will be making a statement soon. In the meantime, we should begin to amend what our rescue cost your people. Put us to a task. I assure you we are more than capable."
The man scratched at his face. "Yeah, yeah, uh. Okay? You can get started on pulling out all that rubble if ya like. What do I call you?" Thor tilted his head and gave him an amused look. "Oh, right."
"We will do as you ask," Thor told the man, and bowed his head slightly. "What is your name?"
"I'm Roy Barratt, Site Foreman," he said and held out his hand automatically, before whipping it back. "Ah. Do you..."
Thor extended his own hand, and Roy took it gingerly before giving it two hearty pumps. "It is an honour to meet you," Thor said.
Roy gave his freed hand a bemused look. "Well this is gonna be something to tell the kids."
Then Hulk stretched out his own massive hand, and the man balked at the size of it. He swallowed, his Adam's Apple bobbing, before taking hold of Hulk's finger. The giant shook very, very carefully, and then gave him his vicious-looking smile.
"Roy," he rumbled, and the man let out a gusting breath of pure reaction as their hands parted.
"You boys are a bit much," he said shakily, lifting his helmet to rub at his close-cropped hair. A smile crossed his face. "All right. You come back to me once you done that rubble there. I'll give you something else after that."
"Our thanks," Thor said politely, before leading Hulk to the half-shattered building that was to be replaced.
The rubble had taken no time to clear, and the reactions of the workers to their efforts had been awed and excited. Before long they were put to other tasks, and their new comrades became more confident in interacting with them and in trusting their strength. At first the men and women of the site had brought out their phone devices, clicking repeatedly as they worked (when Hulk lifted a truck aside with one hand, the clicks and flashes became nearly as bright as Mjolnir's skyfire) but by the end of the day these had grown less frequent. Thankfully.
Though it had started up again the minute he removed his shirt, of course.
The wide berth given to himself and Hulk ever so slowly shrank, and eventually men and women were approaching them directly, asking questions and requesting signatures. It pleased Thor. Hulk was bemused by these 'autograph hunters' as Tony called them and grunted at them in dismissal. He did, however, tie an I-beam into a knot for them at their request. He straightened his shoulders at their expressions of awe and delight, his chest puffing proudly. A short roar of triumph caused them to pause momentarily, but the chattering began again almost immediately and Hulk was careful not to do it again.
Thor removed his helmet and took a long draught of the cool water left for them, wiping at his sweaty forehead and slumping into a chair. Roy came to stand beside him, crossing his arms and grinning. "I've never seen a tilt-slab building go up so fast."
Thor grunted, before cupping his palms with water and splashing it onto his hot face. "The work goes well, then?"
"Hells yes, I'm thinking of offering you boys a job. Of course, you got no formal qualifications so you'd be taking home a bit less than all these ticketed riggers and scaffolders..."
Thor glanced at him before realising the man was being humorous. "Naturally," he said dryly. "However, I find I am amply provided for in the way of work, so as kind as your offer is..."
Roy laughed. "Probably for the best. I hear you lot come with a whole heap of insurance issues." Then he gave the God a measuring look. "Didn't peg you as the type to get your hands dirty. Aren't you some sorta prince or something?"
Thor bobbed his head. "Of Asgard, indeed. But I have striven to be a better man since my banishment, and I no longer believe myself to be above anyone, be they mortal or god. I am honoured to be helping here, friend Roy."
"Huh. Well, glad to have you." Roy turned back to where people were sweeping out the dust from the new wall, securing and cleaning.
"Hot!" said Hulk as he lumbered towards them, and he shook his curly head before groaning loudly. "Too hot. Bruce now."
"Are you sure?" Thor asked, and stood to take the Hulk's shoulder in his hand. "There are many of the devices to record your change."
Hulk wrinkled his nose and let out a gusty, irritated breath. "Is already on interwebs. Tony showed us."
"Hulk come back soon," he said, and growled a little uncomfortably. "Too hot." Then he began to deflate, losing mass and colour and form until a man staggered in his place, drenched in sweat.
"Holy..." Roy said, staring with his mouth open.
Thor smiled to himself.
"Didn't think there was this much concrete dust," Bruce said, and coughed a bit before reaching for the bottle in Thor's hand. "Any more of this?"
"Welcome back, Bruce," Thor said, and gave him a flat look. "Do help yourself to my water."
Bruce gave him an absent smile. "Thanks. Sorry. God, I'm boiling."
"In the fridge," Roy said, sounding rather stunned. "Am I goin' crazy, or did the Hulk just turn into a regular guy in bike shorts?"
"I don't know you well enough to make that call," Bruce said, and Thor smothered a laugh.
Roy rubbed his face. "Didn't know you did that, I've never heard about it before. You do it often?"
Bruce's eyes flicked to him, and flashed green momentarily. "Sometimes whole hours go past when it doesn't happen at all, Roy."
"Shit, you know my..." Roy said, and then he laughed suddenly. "You're really him then?"
"Bruce Banner," Bruce said, and held out his hand, shaking Roy's even as he gulped down more water.
"Lemme get you some more of that," Roy said, and shook his head in amazement before ducking into the site office briefly, returning with two bottles in hand.
"Ugh," Bruce said, and collapsed into the chair beside Thor's, dusting himself off a little. "Oh, I wish he wouldn't get stuff in our hair. Feels like I've got half a sandpit in there."
"How's that work then? That shrinking thing?" Roy said, handing them the bottles. Thor cracked his immediately, but Bruce placed the cool plastic against the back of his neck and sighed.
"Complicated and classified, I'm afraid," he mumbled. "Could I have a look at the specs?"
Roy blinked. "Uh, guess so? Don't know how much you'll be able to figure, but you're welcome to take a gander." He indicated a table outside the site office upon which large blue charts could be seen fluttering in the hot afternoon breeze. Bruce's eyes narrowed and he hauled himself to his feet and began to paw through them immediately.
"My new friend," Thor said, and clapped Roy on the shoulder, "there is very little the Doctor does not understand."
"The Hulk's a doctor?" Roy's eyebrows shot up. "Now there's another surprise."
"Is that..." whispered a man behind them, and Thor turned to see many of the other workers staring once more, this time at the mostly unclad Bruce.
Bruce looked up from the plans at Thor's nudge, his eyes refocusing after squinting down at the incomprehensible white lines. "What?"
"You have attracted interest once again," he said, and jerked his head at the new crowd. Bruce glanced over his shoulder.
"Oh." He winced. "I'm getting good at that, it seems."
"You are not tremendously fond of it, I see."
"It wasn't that long ago that Hulk just wanted to be left alone," Bruce said wryly, before turning back to the plans. "These are pretty straightforward, but I want to have a word to Tony about getting some of his materials in here. It looks as though Brooklyn's a bit of a hotspot for villains right now, and I kind of think that some of these buildings should stand a chance."
"Uh, excuse me?" ventured a woman. "I don't mean to be rude, but we saw you... I mean, are you the..."
"Courage, Bruce," Thor murmured as he saw Bruce's shoulders tense. His friend forced his muscles to relax before taking a deep breath and turning around. His eyes met those of the assembled workers, and he set his jaw.
"Yes I am. Doctor Bruce Banner," he said. "Nice to meet you."
"But... you already met me," she said, and then seemed to check herself. "I mean..."
"No, no, hang on," Bruce said and pinched his nose as his eyes closed. Thor knew that underneath his eyelids there would be a flash of green. "Dommy. That's short for Dominique, right?"
"Right," she said, and seemed pleased. "I never knew you were human. I mean, like a person. I mean, oh god, I'm saying everything wrong, I mean that the Hulk was actually a human being and..."
Bruce held up his hand, and the smile that flickered over his face was calm and amused. "It's fine, I know what you mean. Believe me, I'm not all that easily offended any more. Turning into a nine foot tall green guy on a regular basis kind of has that effect."
A quiet ripple of laughter came from the small crowd of workers, and the man Roy and the woman Dominique began talking to Bruce with more animation. It was with a deep and profound pride that Thor folded his arms and watched as, together, Bruce and Hulk took their long-overdue first steps in rejoining their people.
Tapping her fingers on her communicator, Maria looked on in amusement as the throng of reporters backed away from the man who had risen to take the microphone, fiddling with his glasses. He certainly didn't look like much of a threat, but where this man was concerned appearances were vastly misleading.
"Ah, Doctor Banner," said one of them, raising their hand tentatively. "Can you please explain why the Hulk was recently seen rampaging through New York?"
"Rampaging is a very... strong word," he said. On the chairs behind the podium, Stark covered his mouth. Beside him, Captain Rogers gave him a stern look.
"There has been two million dollars in property and municipal damage," shouted another reporter (from the back, Maria couldn't help but notice). "How do you answer claims that you are too dangerous to live in this city?"
Maria felt her back stiffen, and every Avenger visibly tensed in some way with the notable exception of Agent Romanov, whose eyes glittered with repressed anger.
"Uh," said the Doctor. "Well. Hulk was saving the world at the time. I hope that's a reasonable excuse for some broken roads and buildings."
Abruptly the reporters were on their feet, shouting indiscriminately. Banner sent Stark a despairing look, and waved a hand vaguely.
Stark nodded, and an evil smile spread over his face. "Go on," he mouthed. Banner's answering smile was small and self-assured, and for a moment the two men simply held the gaze of the other as something intensely private and powerful passed between them.
Banner turned back and, fast as lightning, where he had stood the Hulk loomed. The change was fluid and smooth and practically instantaneous, and the reporters recoiled violently. One or two screams rang out, and there was the clatter of chairs being knocked over as several made for the exit.
"Hulk has something to say," the giant boomed, his voice easily rolling over the frightened crowd. They froze and fell silent on a fearful intake of breath. Many sank back into their seats, eyes riveted on the behemoth that was inadvertently crumpling the dais beneath his huge feet.
The Hulk was wearing a strange pair of black pants underneath the shreds of the Doctor's suit, and he blinked once before looking over the crowd of terrified reporters with a surprisingly calm, measuring expression. He bent, his massive hand knuckling the floor as he fumbled with the tiny (for him) microphone. "Hulk sorry for smash," he said, and then gave up on the microphone entirely. His eyes blurred brown for a moment. "Hulk sorry for smash," he repeated. "Hulk has been fixing all the smash. There is lots of smash to fix, and Hulk is sorry. But Hulk helps!"
"Why there was so much... ah, smash?" asked a reporter in a very tremulous voice.
Hulk snarled, and they took a step back in concert. "Hulk was stopping big head talky small man. He wants to make lots of Hulk out of all the puny humans. But Hulk smashed. Bruce stopped him."
One reporter, a pretty blonde woman who seemed rather familiar, edged forward. Her eyes were wild with fear, but she lifted her chin and said in a voice that only quavered a little, "Mister... mister Hulk. Can you tell us who the... the big head man was? Who did you stop?"
"Bruce stopped," Hulk corrected. Then his eyes blurred brown again, and he shook his head. "Big head talky small man is in cage now. Talk to one-eye at floating ship. He tells you."
Slowly the reporters seemed to realise that Hulk wasn't going to attack them. They unfroze gradually, asking question after question, trying to parse Hulk's answers. From the glint in his eye, Maria could tell that he was being deliberately obtuse on some issues. Bruce, after all, always tested his interviewers. The Widow could attest to that.
Because it was Banner up there, no matter what shape he wore. She'd once thought that the Hulk was nothing more than a wrecking ball on legs. It had taken a cocky archer to set her straight, though she hadn't really listened at the time. And then she'd looked into those great green eyes without a hint of rage in them in the midst of a hail of bullets - and finally figured it out.
As the conference ended, the reporters began talking amongst themselves in busy whispers. They seemed very pleased with the footage and pictures they had taken, both of Bruce and Hulk. Many were still speaking in excited rapid undertones as they left the foyer of the Tower, their heads bent close together as they discussed ways in which Hulk could assist in the rebuilding efforts. Hulk himself crouched down onto the platform and accepted the slap on the back from Thor with a satisfied huff, lifting one huge fist for Barton to tap with his own. Then he lowered his head for Stark to scratch at his hair, and rumbled, "good?"
"Very good, big guy," Stark said, and grinned at him before bussing his great green cheek.
The Hulk beamed down at him, and Maria smiled to herself.
Her communicator buzzed. Maria glanced down at the screen in her hand, and Nick's face glared up at her. "Well," she said. "The world is still saved and the building's still standing."
He rolled his eye. "Get back here and leave the lovebirds to it."
"You still owe Banner tickets to the Bahamas, Sir."
"You tryin' to be funny?"
"Captain Steven Rogers, you are called to the stand."
Steve smoothed down his dress greens and walked up to the front of the room, feeling the weight of all those stares on him. He placed a hand on the book, swore his oaths, and sat.
The stocky military lawyer fell into parade rest as he levelled a neutral look on the seated Captain America. "Can you describe your relationship with the accused and with the defendant?"
"I'd never met General Ross," Steve said. "Though I'd heard of him. Bruce Banner is a friend and teammate."
"So you were predisposed to dislike General Ross before you'd met him?"
Steve gave him a disapproving look. "That's a leading question, son."
The lawyer had the grace to look abashed.
"To be fair, I didn't have an opinion one way or the other," Steve continued. "Bruce Banner had told us very little of his life before the Avengers Initiative, and it was through Tony Stark that I was made aware of Ross's activities. I don't make a habit of judging people I haven't personally met, and Bruce isn't a vindictive man. So I left it alone."
"Until the events of last month."
"Have you formed an opinion now?"
"Can you please describe your attitude towards the accused?"
"I don't think that kind of language is permissible in an open court," Steve said tersely. A small titter ran through the room. The lawyer's mouth twitched.
"Can you describe, in your own words, what happened?"
Steve raised an eyebrow. "We were undertaking a mission. Hulk had a lead. We let him take point."
"Let?" the lawyer pounced. "Even though he caused three million dollars worth of damage?"
"It was that or see the whole of the United States, some of Canada, a good part of South America and god knows where else subject to the kind of radiation that would make Chernobyl look like a birthday candle," Steve snapped back.
The lawyer inclined his head. "And then?"
"Hulk led us to the epicentre and he removed the threat. Once the perp was in custody, Ross arrived with a team of approximately forty paratroopers, three tanks, one of which was an experimental weapon designed specifically for causing harm to the Hulk, and military transports fitted with missile launchers. He was operating under an illegal and unnecessary mandate from the World Security Council to neutralise the Hulk, even though Hulk was acting under the ordinances of the Avengers Initiative."
"Was the Hulk a threat to civilians, being at the forefront of the attack?"
"No," said Steve staunchly. "Hulk wasn't a threat. We had his back."
"So you admit that you were controlling the monster?"
"I said nothing of the sort," Steve growled. "Hulk isn't a monster. He's an Avenger, and he saved the world. And instead of thanking him, some stupid idiots decided to point guns at him. If you ask me you should be throwing him a goddamned victory parade."
"Did General Ross's actions endanger civilian life?"
"Yes," Steve said, and a small murmur rose from the packed stands. "He gave the order to shoot the missiles indiscriminately, regardless of building occupants or even his own troops. He fired on the Hulk and the ricochet wounded one of his own. We're lucky none of those rounds punched through any close walls."
"Was the Hulk threatening him or others in any way, to provoke such a reaction?"
"He was carrying Iron Man. Both his hands were full. He sat down in the middle of the road and didn't move."
"Did he inflict any harm to the opposing forces?"
"He bent the tank's gun," Steve admitted. "But that was it."
"Who was it that neutralised Ross's command?"
"Myself, the other Avengers, and SHIELD agents under the command of Deputy Maria Hill."
"In your opinion, now that you have seen his actions in the field, is General Thaddeus Ross a fit commander?"
"Could you please explain that?"
Steve fixed the bristling General seated in the front row with an icy glare. "He took action against a non-hostile being with no regard towards the lives of the men and women under his command or non-combatants in the area. He refused to withdraw forces or cease fire after he was given specific orders to quit the field, and continued to refuse after he was met with no opposition. He's a man blinded by greed and his own vendetta, and he has no business being in charge of good men and women who wish to serve their country against real threats."
Ross leapt to his feet. "I am serving my country!" he roared. "That monster is a threat, you'll see, just you wait! Banner's got you all fooled, he's a goddamned lit fuse and you're a..."
"General Ross," the tribunal judge said calmly, "please resume your seat."
"Is my testimony over?" Steve asked, glaring right back at the red-faced Ross.
"Thank you, Captain Rogers," the lawyer said. "One last thing."
"Can you describe the... the relationship between Bruce Banner and the Hulk?"
Steve smiled. "Can you describe the relationship your right hand has with your left?"
When Steve got home, his dress greens crumpled and his anger set to 'simmer', there was a little paper packet of boiled candies, the kind he'd loved as a kid that you barely ever saw in these days of brightly packaged mass-produced chocolate, sitting on the foot of his bed with a note.
On one side was an overlarge thumbprint in smudged green paint, and on the other was Bruce's spidery cursive: 'Thanks, Team Dad."
Another day, another madman.
"Always New York," Steve sighed, before squinting at the mess. "All right. Hawkeye, you have the upper levels. Thor, go with him, we need coordinated long-range weapons on these guys. Widow, you're with Hulk. Stark, cover me."
With that, they were scattering. The monsters that had swarmed up from under the ground were being controlled by a dour, dumpy little man who had called himself 'Mole Man' – a singularly uninspiring name for a singularly uninspiring person. The beasts had some sort of venom that could eat through concrete and metal, and they could spit it at a range of approximately eight or so metres. And they smelled repulsive.
"Tasha," Hulk boomed, and she launched into the air, her guns barking, before landing in Hulk's huge arms. He barrelled through the streets, crushing heads beneath his feet as he put his broad green back between himself and the venom. It didn't make a single mark on his dark green skin.
He manoeuvred to a corner, forcing the creatures to attack in small numbers rather than as a horde, and she clambered up onto his shoulders to fire into their yammering, howling midst. Hulk swung his arms to devastating effect, the monsters lying in bubbling piles before him.
Apparently this had caught the notice of their leader, and the Mole Man was sending more and more of the creatures their way. He had evidently decided that of all the Avengers, Hulk posed the biggest threat. Well, it wasn't hard to see how he came to that conclusion. Natasha crouched, steadying herself with one hand on top of his curly head. "Hulk," she muttered. "They're sending more in. We're about to get trapped down here."
Hulk snorted loudly, letting her know exactly what he thought of that possibility.
She glanced up, even as her guns spat at the oncoming waves, to see the Mole Man on his rickety little hovering dais above them. He was gloating (they always gloated, it was becoming boring) as his disgusting little minions swarmed towards them.
"That's it!" he crowed. "Devour them! Reduce them to slag!"
"Who you calling slag?" Hulk growled, and Natasha fought an inappropriate urge to laugh.
"Get me up there," she hissed into his ear, and he grunted again in acknowledgement even as he crushed half a dozen of the things against the ground. He gathered his legs underneath him and raised his hand to her, bracing her against his shoulder as he stampeded through the horde. They mewled and shrieked, dying in droves under his feet.
Once he had cleared a breathing space, he turned his head to her. Brown flickered in the depths of his furious green eyes. "Yes?"
She nodded, and went limp as he took her in one huge palm around her waist. Then she was hurtling through the air like a javelin as he threw her, straight and true, to the Mole Man and his silly little platform.
"No!" he shrieked, as her guns took out the wiring. Clips empty, she let them go as she sailed through the air and flipped to land on the ugly little man's chest, her knees gripping his arms to his sides and her wrists pressed to his throat.
"I can snap your neck as easily as breaking a breadstick from this position," she murmured as they began to fall. His puglike face filled with terror. "Call them off."
"I can't!" he blurted. "I can't!"
A tremendous rattle and thud signalled the Hulk catching the falling dais, and she rolled with it easily, her legs spinning to press the pathetic villain's chest against the ground.
"He can't stop them. We have to kill them all," she told Hulk, who sighed.
"Busy, busy," he complained, and lifted a fist absently for a monster to run into. It collapsed into a heap.
"You go, I'll deal with this one."
He huffed a laugh. "Tasha smash."
She nodded, and smiled back at him. "I will."
He leapt back into the fray, and the sound of his roar, joyous, unfettered and full of such rage, came echoing back to her. She turned to the Mole Man, crushed beneath her bootheels. "Now, Mister Villain," she purred, and pressed her thumbs into his throat, "let's you and I discuss attacking New York, and why that's not such a good idea."
Later, when she was handing over a blubbering Harvey Rupert Elder aka Mole Man to SHIELD's rather awed prison detail, she was able to catch sight of Hulk again. He held still as a hose was aimed at him, washing off the majority of the creatures' venom, and then he slumped to his haunches, wiping at his curly head and shaking off the water. She could see Bruce in that action.
Tony landed, and after depositing Clint on his feet and giving the archer a peace sign, he immediately clanked over to Hulk. Clint himself sidled over to Hill, who looked distinctly unimpressed as he grinned broadly at her. He was no doubt saying something flirty and deeply, ridiculously awful.
She signed the release for Elder and caught sight of Thor holding out his acid-eaten cape and shaking his head mournfully. Steve was giving him a sympathetic look, his mouth moving. He was probably offering to make another one. Honestly, such a Team Dad.
Tony's mask unfolded, and he lifted a hand to Hulk, who took in carefully in his own. They looked over each other, carefully, silently, cataloguing the other with serious faces. Then at some unspoken signal, Tony stepped closer to spread his arms as wide as they would go against Hulk's broad chest. Hulk's hand cradled the metal-clad head, and they stood there, still as stone.
Natasha leaned back, her eyes soft and warm as she regarded them, before meeting Clint's gaze. He looked conflicted about something, his hand tightening around the grip of his bow.
"Thought that'd never happen," he said, and his throat bobbed. "Those two. And out here, too, where any muppet can see. It'll be on Entertainment Weekly by sundown."
"Mmm," she agreed noncommittally. "Suppose we can thank Sterns for one thing, at least. They're not hiding any more."
They stood side by side, watching the pair even as Hulk began to shrink, going from the one supporting to the one being supported. Tony's arms curled around the diminishing chest, holding him securely, gently – even possessively.
"Hey," Bruce mumbled, and dropped his head against Tony's armoured shoulder. "Oh my god, I'm starving. I could eat one of those things."
"That venom doesn't exactly smell like the best sauce," Tony said, raising his eyebrows. Bruce moaned.
"Food," the physicist mumbled, audible even over the SHIELD jet's rumble. "Now."
"Welcome back to you too, let's discuss that very sexy noise you just made and how we can get a repeat performance."
"You can get a repeat performance with food."
"I can think of a few things for you to eat."
"Do they involve food?"
"Uh, well, that's like an optional extra."
"I will smash everything in your lab."
"Okay, okay, let's talk about getting something in you."
"Food now, innuendoes later."
"You are no fun."
"I am too."
"Nope, you are a big party-pooping dour-faced sadsack killjoy. No Fun Banner, that's your new nickname. How does Thai sound?"
"Heavenly. Lay on, MacDuff."
"And damned be him who first cries 'Hold! enough!'"
The two grinned foolishly at each other for a moment, and then Tony draped his arm over Bruce's bare shoulders - that old, familiar, deceptively careless gesture - and the two began to move off. Natasha could have bottled the affection and the closeness that radiated from them.
Beside her, Clint made a rough, wordless noise, his throat working rapidly again. She glanced sidelong at him. It wasn't like him to display a obvious tell like that. "Are you all right?"
"Did you ever want that?" he murmured in her ear.
"Want what?" she asked, and then her eyes went wide.
He looked embarrassed, and a little furious with himself. "I didn't... Look, forget I mentioned it."
She drew back, surprised. "Clint, you never..."
He gave her an enigmatic look, one that even she couldn't read. "I'm not saying. But. Think about it, okay?"
She looked back at the two of them; Bruce walking towards the quinjet with mad, ruffled curls, the black pants clinging to him with water, and Tony's arm looped around his waist as they spoke to each other in quick, soft voices. Their hands moved rapidly as they described their respective battles.
She thought for a moment about two men who also found it hard to trust. She thought about the fading shadows in Bruce's eyes, the drinks that Tony left untouched nowadays. She thought about love and debts, and how in her whole life one had always precluded the possibility of the other. She thought about putting away childish things long before she'd left childhood behind. She thought about Clint, and how she had never known what they were to each other.
"I'll consider it," she said. Clint's mouth didn't move from its hard line, but his eyes smiled at her, warm and secretive.
"But," she added, "you have to stop flirting with Hill."
"I can't believe you got me to do this," Bruce huffed against his neck, his breathing shot to hell. It rasped and puffed in his ears, and by god it was the best music Tony had ever danced to. Better than the stupid band out there, with their crappy Brat Pack rip-offs and their glassy smiles. This was better. This was real.
"I can't believe you actually went along with it," Tony grunted back, and canted his hips closer. Bruce dug his fingers into his thighs and lifted him higher, and Tony's once-pressed trousers fell to pool around his shiny dress shoes. "Oooh, forceful."
"Shut up," Bruce grunted, and pushed harder into him.
"You shut up first."
Bruce laughed into his neck, and then bit down on the jumping vein. "Make me."
Tony's eyes rolled back into his head, and yeah, good. This was good. This was all the good ever. Fuck, he loved being this Tony Stark. This was him now.
Him now was the kind of guy who got a thorough dicking in the lobby bathroom of a fancy hotel from his brilliant, fascinating, gorgeous and dangerous sort-of boyfriend/lover/whatever, instead of flirting with and fucking people who cared only about his fame or notoriety or money or all three. Him now loved the drag of the cock in his ass because it was Bruce's, not because it was a cock (even though it was a nice cock, good and thick and sort of angry, just like its owner). Him now loved the rough edge of Bruce's voice in his ear, all repression on the verge of explosion. Him now loved the feel of those big fingers pushing into his flesh. Him now wanted to watch the moment when Bruce's eyes bled green, when Hulk joined them at the moment of release for what was basically the weirdest, kinkiest and hottest threesome he'd ever been a part of. Him now loved the taste of anger behind Bruce's teeth, the strange possessive thrill of having an earthquake on a leash. Him now was hard as a fucking rock knowing that somewhere back there in the ballroom there was some bullshit award waiting for him, all those people waiting and applauding for the great Tony Stark, who was currently bent over a sink in a lobby bathroom. Him now also fucking loved that no-one would dare enter the bathroom while he was bent over the sink with the fucking Hulk sinking up to his balls in his ass.
"In the mirror," Bruce panted, and thrust again and again, searching for his prostate. "Now."
Tony lifted his eyes to meet Bruce's in the mirror, and let out a moan. There were green flecks dappling the brown of Bruce's irises, and the strength in those hands abruptly went from forceful to inhuman. "Hey there, big guy..." he managed, and arched into the thrusts, pushing back as hard as he could.
"He's so close, Tony," Bruce said, and his voice was deeper, thicker.
"So am I," Tony garbled, and Bruce's laugh was low and wicked.
They'd worked it out, eventually. Hulk wasn't a child, not the way Bruce had thought of him. He was Bruce and vice versa, and even though his understanding was childlike, everything else about him wasn't. The differences between them shrank every day. They woke at the same time, spoke at the same time. They learned to share. And he loved Tony too.
There was something overwhelming and otherworldly in being loved by them.
"Up a bit," he said breathlessly, and Bruce lifted his hips again, pushing into him and then circling around with the tip to find the magic button. "Ungh, there, there... oh god, fuuuuuuuck."
Bruce grinned, eyes glowing in the fluorescent light, and massaged the spot with the head of his cock, hips barely moving. "There?"
"You are an asshole, I swear to god," Tony gasped, and his hands gripped the sink so hard he thought it might crack under his hands.
"I know." Bruce pulled back a little and thrust back in, and Tony bit off a strangled noise. He was angled perfectly now, and holy, Tony actually thought he could come without a single finger being laid on his own dick.
Bruce wasn't that much of an asshole, though. His hand circled around to play with the slit, his thumb pushing into it even as his other fingers slid the foreskin back. Tony bucked into the loose fist, and Bruce's laugh sounded again, echoing through the bathroom. "Oh, I will fucking kill you."
"Can't help you with that, I'm afraid," Bruce said, and gave Tony's cock three or four solid strokes. Holy shit, so close. shi—t!
"Uh-uh-uh, nope," Bruce said, and his free hand rose to grip the hair at Tony's nape, pulling upwards steadily. A perfect little edge of pain, oh god yes. This was the best, Bruce everywhere, Bruce enveloping him. "Eyes on mine, no closing them."
"Bossy," Tony groaned, and met Bruce's eyes again. Hulk was closer, the eyes flickering hazel, and this was as close as Bruce ever got to being truly whole. This was the nearest Hulk could get to human. This right here.
Hulk would touch minds, right at the moment when they were closest. Oh god, oh Jesus fucking god, the hottest thing Tony had ever seen and it was still sort of the saddest. Everything about Bruce – hot and sad and angry and Jesus, Jesus, fuck. Right here, right now, in a bathroom in a hotel, with three hundred people waiting for them.
The hand around his cock tightened, still slightly slippery from the lube used to prepare him, and Tony kept his eyes fixed on the glowing hazel ones in the mirror even as he lengthened, hardened, close, so close...
Bruce jerked his head back even higher, craning his neck backwards, big fingers tightening in his hair. And yep. Gone, fuck it.
With a loud groan he came all over the underside of the fancy porcelain sink, and Bruce's fingers smoothed along the shaft, pumping him for every last drop. He didn't let go of that gaze, and it was a claiming of Bruce just as surely as Bruce claimed him. His hold on those shifting eyes was an acceptance and a demand of everything Bruce was. He could be a rock to Bruce's maelstrom, keeping those eyes still and steady as they lost control.
He owned this man. These men. This monster.
(Yeah, well. Tony was still a greedy guy.)
"Holy crap, you fucking gorgeous son of a bitch," he wheezed as Bruce's thrusts grew more ragged, bottoming out longer and balls slapping against his bare buttocks. He was over-sensitised and his knees felt a little loose and shaky, but he pushed back and clenched around Bruce and panted like a dog. "Come on, Brucey-babes. Come on, you bastard..."
Bruce honest-to-god growled as he came, his eyes still locked onto Tony's. Hell, he couldn't look away if he tried, saliva pooling in his mouth and his ass twitching from his own orgasm. Those eyes flared green, and then brown, and then Bruce was thrusting hard as he rode out the spurts, holding deep inside him on the last one and pushing Tony hard against cold, smeared porcelain. His hand in Tony's hair was stained green, and there was a dark flush against the thick column of his neck. His bared teeth were blunt and square. Tony could see Hulk's face in that snarl.
"How do you even work?" Tony mumbled, and then threaded his fingers with Bruce's come-stained ones.
Bruce's other hand slowly relaxed in his hair, and he bent over to kiss the bones at the top of Tony's spine. "I'm positive you'll figure it out before I will," he said, his voice still rough.
Tony brought up their joined hands, watching the green leech out of Bruce's skin. "You are insane. I can't believe you agreed to that. You're awesome. You're a complete bastard. You're incredible."
"That's what they say," Bruce said, and Tony laughed hoarsely.
Bruce went very still.
"You said it."
Tony smiled at his own face in the mirror. "I did, didn't I?"
Bruce's hands tightened around his, and he could feel the bobbing of Bruce's throat against his back as he swallowed. "Love you too," he said.
"Of course you do. I'm Tony Stark," Tony said, and Bruce laughed against his spine, and fuck yeah. This was who he was now. This was who they were.
And if he went and accepted his bullshit charity award (because, fuck, these things were only held in order for rich people to sit around and congratulate themselves, and frankly other rich people were deathly boring after superheroes and gods and stuff) with a stiff gait and sex hair and bite marks on his neck? Well. Rhodey would give him an unimpressed look, and Pepper and Happy would smirk at Bruce, and Tony himself would sit gingerly when retaking his seat, and Bruce would fidget with his hands and make himself small. Everyone else would think it was just a repeat of the Tony Stark Show.
Everyone would be wrong.
Because okay, the people who mattered knew it was stranger and more wonderful than that, and the Team knew who Bruce really was. But even then, they didn't know everything.
Only Tony got to see him strut.
"Are you happy?"
Bruce smiled, and poured the tea. "Yes. You look great, by the way."
Betty smiled back, and fiddled with her ring. "Thanks. So do you."
"Now that I don't believe."
"No, you look..." she broke off and frowned, searching for the words. He'd always liked how precise she was. "You look more relaxed than you ever have before. Comfortable. And... I hope I'm not being offensive? You're more... confident. And I have never heard you use happy to describe yourself. Ever."
"Ah," he said, taking a sip of his own tea. "That's a new development."
"Well, whatever it is, I'm glad."
That morning, Tony had staggered into Bruce's lab, fired up a screen and flipped a set of specs over to Bruce's own screen. Then Tony yawned, before grinning at him, groping his ass, and then staggering out in search of coffee.
Bruce shook his head, before opening the new files. It was the plans for the arc reactor.
The implicit trust in that action had almost floored him. He'd had to leave his experiment and sit down for a moment, breathing hard with Hulk crooning and crowing in the small places of his mind. Then he'd stormed out of the lab and found his Tony and had done his level best to suck his brains out through his dick.
He patted Betty's hand, smaller and less scarred than Tony's. A dream no longer. A friend, now.
Tony, said Hulk, when once upon a time he had only ever known her name.
"So am I," he said.
The place is big and warm and smells like home. A special place, just for Hulk. Tony made it for them, and they can come here in the flying bird thing and smash and roar and no puny humans will be scared. The red dirt clings to Hulk's skin, just like when he was first out of the small places, and the sun is warm but not hot, not like at the fixing place.
There are no guns.
Bruce is happy now, and so is Hulk. Because Hulk is Bruce is Hulk is Bruce and they are like paint that is too close together, the colours running into each other. When Tony touches them, it is almost like they are fixed.
Bruce still wakes in the night. Hulk still roars in the dark. Bruce still hates, and Hulk is still angry. They are broken, but it is better to be broken together. Their shattered pieces fill the empty gaps. Hulk thinks better with Bruce. Bruce feels better with Hulk.
Hulk has learned a new word. It is 'I'. Tony taught it to him. Hulk likes it.
I, me, mine.
(Us, we, ours)
Hulk leaps into the sky, and Bruce is laughing, laughing. Hulk laughs too, and the sounds meld and melt and they are laughing together and it rings inside their heads like a great bell, like fists striking a shiny room. The sun is warm, and Hulk's arms lift and it is like flying, like Metal Man.
Their heart beats to the rhythm of Mummy's song, and their head pounds to Tony, Tony, Tony, and Mummy laughs and sings and cries and dies and Hulk can remember her and be angry here because no puny humans will be scared. No puny humans will be here at all, not unless Hulk wants.
It is Hulk's place, Hulk and Bruce's. They can fill it with their rage and their joy and their freedom, and nothing will ever stop them. Nothing can ever stop them. They are together.
Hulk leaps again, and Bruce says, there! Let's see how fast we can run!
Bruce is good at running. Bruce always runs. But Bruce has stopped now.
It could be an experiment?
Hulk is good at experiments. Hulk runs.
Tony flies beside him, and it is good.
They are together, and they are broken, but they are free.
It is good, good, good.