It had started with the papa rellena. Where the hell had Bruce found authentic Peruvian food, Clint didn't know. The deep-fried potatoes were Clint's favorite, and he'd eaten a lot of them when he was assigned to follow Bruce in South America. Clint had kept tabs on him there for over six months, throwing a couple of fake trails when the Army had gotten too close for comfort. A few months in, Clint knew that Bruce was aware of him, but he'd kept his distance like a good little agent, even if the man was maddeningly interesting. Clint had come to realize that this was exactly how Bruce handled things; he simply ordered in lunch one day, enough for two, and pushed the white Styrofoam container over to Clint where he worked on a new mixture for his acid arrows, no talking needed.
Then it was Vonnegut novels, not Slaughterhouse Five, but more obscure ones like Breakfast of Champions or The Sirens of Titan. He'd leave them on the worktable or by Clint's favorite chair in the media room, once even on the floor by the door to Clint's bedroom. Vonnegut gave way to Bradbury (Clint adored Something Wicked This Way Comes) and then Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Clint stashed them in his quiet places; for the longest time he didn't notice the themes, the sense of loneliness, and the need for other people that laced the books.
At some point, Clint realized what Bruce was doing – hell, a wounded hawk is still a hawk – and he thought about putting an end to it, refusing to allow himself to be drawn out. But he didn't. He wasn't exactly sure why, other than he liked the food and the books … and if he was honest, he was enjoying the company without actually having company. He started reciprocating; a couple extra spicy Mexican rolls when he ordered sushi, the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings and a battered copy of The Watchmen. It was, he thought, the easiest friendship he'd ever had. No talking, no sharing of feelings, no pressure to feel better.
When the Big Green Guy got involved, Clint was surprised. Picking Clint up by the scruff of his neck to avoid a blast from a H.Y.D.R.A. goon was just teamwork, but covering Clint's body with his own from debris, with the gentlest of touches from those big hands as he moved "Cupid" out of the way, was more. And then there was the sharing incident, as Tony called it, when the Hulk offered Clint one of his favorite chocolate covered-pretzels. That changed the tenor of things, and Clint got confused, unsure of exactly what was going on.
He decided that a frontal assault would be best, just go ask the man, damn it. So he sauntered into Bruce's lab and perched himself on a stool, waiting patiently until Bruce's brain had a chance to work the newcomer into whatever calculations were circulating at the moment. Bruce looked up, hair messy, shirt rumpled – he'd probably been in that seat for hours – and took off his glasses to focus.
"Clint? Everything okay?" He asked with a bemused expression on his face.
"The Big Guy offered me a pretzel." Bruce's face shifted from confusion to surprise then to a smile. He really was very handsome when he smiled, Clint realized, and found himself smiling back.
"Oh, really." Bruce stood up and moved around the table to where Clint sat. "That's interesting."
"Yeah, look, if this is to get me to talk about it," Clint put air quotes around the phrase, "then you're going to be disappointed."
Bruce laughed. "That's what you think this is?"
"Well, sure. Pretty good attempt, too. Just not going to work."
Bruce braced his hands on the table on either side of Clint, leaning into the other man. "I must be out-of-practice then," he said, "because I thought I was trying to seduce you."
The bottom fell out of Clint's stomach as Bruce dropped a light kiss on his lips, shooting a little jolt of something warm and comforting into Clint's brain while his body stirred, registering its interest in the unexpected kiss.
"You're going to have to eventually deal with it," Bruce said quietly, their faces still close together. "And when you're ready, I'll be around." He looked intently into Clint's blue-green eyes. "I know more about it than you think, about things you never want anyone else to know."
Clint had read Bruce's files and knew of his abusive father, the bullies, the scars. But there was more, he could tell from Bruce's look, a kind of understanding he'd not seen in anyone else.
"I don't know, I mean, I can't …" Clint actually stammered out the words. He cleared his throat and tried again. "I'm a mess. I don't think I can … not right now."
"That's not a no."
"It's a maybe."
"I can live with that. I'm pretty patient. The other guy …. well, he'll do his best."