So here are my WARNINGS: Please HEED: This is Supposed to just be a friendship fic. However, if you put slash goggles on you might see some pre-slash with Bruce and Clint. NOTHING happens here, though. Or you could see two people struggling to come to terms with new people in their lives and making friends. There IS mention of past Clint/Coulson, but only in polite conversation. No slash is shown (wait. Bruce holds Clint's hand in medical at one point.) Clint swears a lot. Finally, there is slight self-harm in the sense of neglecting one's health for self-esteem reasons. As for categories, since only lets you choose two, you can add the hurt/comfort category to the angst and friendship one. If you think I've not warned properly, please send me a PM rather than a review. I will change things right away if necessary because I do respect readers! Thanks for reading!
Miles to Go
"He spends a lot of time on the archery range, huh?" Tony asked around a bite of cherry Danish. He and Bruce were standing on the viewing deck watching Clint practice.
"We spend a lot of time in the lab, Tony," Bruce replied, keeping his gaze on Clint.
"Yeah, but you're socially awkward and I actually hate most peop—Oh." Tony cut himself off and looked at Bruce with a sheepish grin. "More in common with Legolas than I thought. That's cool."
They stood quietly for a few minutes watching Clint's feats with the bow, and then Tony clapped his hands together. "Coffee break's over." Then he pressed a button on the wall and leaned over to the speaker. "Nice shootin', ace!" he called through it. He waved as Clint turned and looked up at them, flipped Tony off, and went back to practicing.
Tony headed down the hall and looked over his shoulder at Bruce, who was still standing there drinking his tea.
"My figures are more interesting than Barton's ass! Come on!" Tony called back to him.
Bruce chuckled and turned, throwing one last glance down at Clint (and seriously doubting Tony's claim about his figures). He followed anyway, leaving Hawkeye where he seemed to feel most comfortable – alone.
That night, Bruce did his second favorite thing and cooked a huge dinner for everyone. Two weeks after the Chitauri incident, all of them minus Thor had ended up spending most of their time at what was being dubbed Avengers Tower. Tony provided full furnished apartments for each of them so they could have their own space, and three weeks after they were all moved in, a team dinner in the common kitchen every few nights was normal.
Clint hardly spoke at all the first three weeks after the Invasion; he just moved his stuff into the Tower and hung around quietly. He'd finally started socializing a little lately, though, and always seemed to be around the common room whenever Bruce was there.
Bruce didn't know a lot about making friends anymore, but he did like to cook, and that drew people in. He'd traded cooking and his medical knowledge for shelter many times before ending up here. Tonight he was pushing his own boundaries and making Italian food.
"Clint, can you pull the bread out of that oven?" Bruce asked as he chopped up some olives for the salad. Clint usually came down to the kitchen early, offering to help. They didn't always talk a lot, but Clint was a good cook and he was good for an occasional 'In the circus they'd cook this dish this way,' story, which often evolved into a story about some crazy-stupid thing Clint did in the circus as a kid.
He'd always finish with a laugh and a "God, I was such a stupid little shit." Bruce would just chuckle and give him something else to do, hoping to coax another story out of him. Bruce realized that growing up in the circus must have been crap a lot of the time, but the stories were outstanding.
Tonight Clint was quiet. They finished laying the food out just as Natasha and Steve emerged from the elevator, freshly showered after sparring together.
"Who got their ass handed to them this afternoon?" Clint asked, elbowing Steve, who shrugged and shook his head ruefully.
"She's really quick," he said sheepishly.
Bruce grinned as Clint made Natasha give him a high five, and the four of them filled their plates, knowing better than to wait for Tony, who would probably wander in later.
"The Reds are playing the Pirates tonight," Natasha told them, and Steve proceeded to put the game on the big TV in the adjoining common room. Everyone settled into a spot and Bruce ate in silence, laughing occasionally at the various 'since when is that rule around?' and 'why the heck would they do that?' comments from Steve.
He watched as Clint finished his food and then disappeared into the kitchen again, and he followed him after a few minutes. He found Clint washing dishes.
"You okay?" he asked, picking up a towel and drying the pile Clint had started.
Clint looked at him and shrugged, digging at a particularly sticky spot on a pan. "SHIELD's got me going out on an op tomorrow. I need to turn in early tonight."
Bruce noticed the deflection of his question. "You don't have to do the dishes, you know. I'll rope Steve into it later."
"Nah," Clint said with a grin. "Nat's got a bet going with him on the game and I'm not really in a hurry to get to bed."
"Is this your first op with SHIELD since the Chitauri? I didn't know you'd be splitting your time," Bruce asked, curious.
Clint nodded. "Yeah, it's my first one back. Psych cleared me a couple weeks ago and this one needs my particular skill set, so I'll help them out. Besides, Avengers stuff has been quiet lately."
"How did Steve feel about you dividing time?" Bruce asked, considering what Steve would do if something did come up with the Avengers and he didn't have Hawkeye up high.
Clint looked at him sharply and then relaxed a bit. "You guys'll be fine without me if it comes up. Cap knows that."
"Hmmf," Bruce said, noncommittally. They worked on the kitchen mess quietly until it was down to Clint wiping off countertops. Bruce leaned back against the refrigerator. "How long will you be gone?" he asked.
Clint shrugged. "Not sure. Scheduled op time is a week, but there are some variables we have to account for once we get on site, so it might be more or it might be less."
Bruce nodded. Then he decided 'what the hell;' he wanted to be friends with these people, even if he was out of practice, and friends tried to help, even when it was awkward. "Are you nervous about working for SHIELD on an op again?" he asked.
Clint didn't answer right away, deliberately rinsing off the dishrag and hanging it on its hook. He wiped his hands on a towel and then looked up. "A little. I guess." He sighed and then ran a hand down his face. "It'll be the first op without Coulson in a really long time. That'll be hard. Plus it'll be the first time they have to trust me again. Hard for them, I'll bet."
Bruce nodded. "But Fury trusts you, and they'll follow his lead." He paused. "I know it's hard without Agent Coulson around. You worked with him exclusively?"
Clint nodded. "Almost. For about four years. He trained me, too, brought me into SHIELD a couple years before that. It'll be weird," he said.
"You'll do okay, though. I doubt you mess up on missions, huh?" Bruce said.
Clint smiled. "Once or twice. But as long as there's no mythical god with a spear involved, I think I can handle pretty much anything." He shoved himself away from the counter and clapped Bruce on the shoulder. "Catch you later, Bruce. You'll have to manage a few days without a sous chef."
"Be safe, Clint," he replied, and Barton left the room with a wave.
It was a week and a half before Clint came back to the Tower. The Avengers had not been called out, but when Steve saw Clint limp off of the elevator with a butterfly bandage on his forehead and his arm in a sling, Bruce could see anger at SHIELD simmer up on Steve's face. They needed Hawkeye to be mission-ready, and it didn't appear that he was.
Tony, who was standing at the bar having a 'casual lunch' with Pepper over some Stark Industry business and a vodka tonic, saw Clint and called out, "Geez, hope the bad guys look worse than you, Legolas!"
Clint just shrugged and stopped at the table where Steve was drawing and Bruce was reading a journal. "Captain," he said in a tight voice. "Just wanted to let you know that if we're called out I'll be okay. I did mess up my shoulder a little, but I can work around it."
Steve nodded and stood, a worried look in his eyes. "Okay. If you're sure. Hopefully we won't get called out, though. What about that limp?"
Clint stood a little straighter, as if putting weight on it to demonstrate his readiness. "It's just a sprain. It'll be okay."
Bruce set his journal down and pulled his glasses off. "Are you up for cooking tonight?" he asked, hoping to have his company back.
Clint looked at him and Bruce saw exhaustion in his eyes. "Probably not tonight, Doc. Kinda need to crash for a while."
Bruce nodded and Steve sat back down, saying, "Get some rest. We'll talk again in the morning."
Clint looked at the floor and then back at Steve. "They might have mentioned another mission coming up in a week or so." He paused and then straightened his shoulders. "I'll be okay to do it."
Steve just gave him a nod, and Clint just turned and headed back to the elevator.
"See you tomorrow," Bruce called, and Clint gave him a tired grin and nodded.
Nobody saw Clint the next day, though. When he didn't come around for dinner, Natasha told Bruce and Steve that he had post-mission debriefs all day and was still pretty worn out. There was no team dinner for a few more days, but Bruce finally caught Clint at the shooting range one afternoon.
"Should you be doing that?" Bruce called from the observation balcony after watching Clint wince his way through a practice round.
Clint looked up and shrugged as he wiped his face with a towel. "I have to do a few reps each day just in case we get called out," he called back.
"You about done?" Bruce asked.
"About," Clint replied. "What did you need?"
"Some sanity, if you're available. I've been in the lab with Tony for three days and could use a break."
"Okay," Clint called with a grin. "Give me fifteen minutes."
"Come by my apartment?" Bruce asked, and Clint nodded before going back to his routine.
Bruce headed back to his apartment a few floors up and started to brew some tea. When Clint knocked on the door fifteen minutes later, he was wearing the sling again and still limping, but he looked more rested than he'd been a few days ago.
"Come on in," Bruce said, gesturing inside. "Do you like tea?"
Clint stopped for a moment as if caught off guard, but then said, "Yeah. Thanks."
"Do you put anything in it? It's a black tea," Bruce added. These are things people have to learn about each other.
Bruce nodded and prepared the tea. He saw Clint looking around his living room, a large, open space with only a few pieces of furniture. He had a small suede couch, two matching arm chairs, and a coffee table made of dark mahogany. In the far corner was a tall mahogany bookshelf, and Clint was standing there looking through Bruce's books when he brought the tea tray in and set it on the coffee table.
"You have a tea service," Clint said, raising an eyebrow as he sat down in one of the arm chairs.
"Rituals are calming," Bruce replied with a shrug, offering Clint a cup. It was accepted with a solemn nod. The two men sat in silence, drinking tea and listening to the combination of background instrumental music and a trickling fountain that sat in the middle of the coffee table.
"This place is relaxing," Clint said, quietly, after a few minutes.
Bruce simply nodded, figuring that Clint understood the need for a place like this. "Do you play chess?" he asked after a moment.
He saw Clint's eyes widen a fraction and then the archer set his teacup awkwardly on the table and stood, striding over to the bookshelves again, holding his bad shoulder with his good arm. Bruce was surprised, and when he saw Clint run a hand over his face he asked, "Clint? Are you okay?" with worry coloring his voice.
Clint turned and looked at Bruce with a sigh, puffing his cheeks when he did it. He stared at Bruce intently for a moment and then sat back down and picked up his teacup. "Yeah, do you want to play? I know how."
Bruce cocked his head and held Clint's gaze, but the archer clearly wasn't going to explain anything. Bruce really didn't mind; he was used to taking what he could get from people, even if he wasn't used to wanting to so often. "Okay, let's play. It's the opposite of hanging out with Tony and I could use that right now."
Clint chuckled and sipped his tea while Bruce pulled out his weathered oak chess set. They slipped easily into a game and after about half an hour Bruce brought out more tea. "Do you want something else?" he asked as he set the fresh pot on the table. "I think I have a six pack of something in the fridge if you'd rather that."
"No, thanks. This is good tea."
Clint almost beat him the first game, but Bruce beat him pretty quickly the second.
"Genius scientist, genius chess player…" Clint lamented as Bruce put the game away with a smile.
"Well, I don't know about genius scientist," he said, and Clint laughed. "Besides, you're not bad at chess yourself," he added.
"Coulson and Natasha taught me. He was impossible to beat, and she's hard to beat," Clint said with a smile. "You should play her sometime. I'd like to watch that one."
"Sure," Bruce said as Clint stretched his back and then stood.
"I'm gonna bail on ya tonight, Doc. Thanks for the tea and game, though."
Bruce stood, too, and they walked to the door. "Thanks for helping me quiet the Stark-chatter in my head for a while." Clint grinned and headed out the door with a wave, which Bruce now associated with him and exits. Friends recognized patterns of behavior. This was good, definitely a step in the right direction.
Two days and three chess games later, the Avengers got called to assemble.
It was a quick but dirty fight, a HYDRA cell right there in New York that needed to be taken down hard. It was also the first time Bruce had volunteered the Hulk's services for SHIELD. He was nervous as they headed to the site, but as the car slowed to its destination, Clint elbowed his shoulder gently and said, "You can do this." Bruce just nodded, and felt a thrill about the fact that he had people who trusted him this much. A terrifying thrill, but it was something.
As it turned out, the Hulk was something, too. Bruce awoke a few hours later in the holding cell they'd designed at Avengers' Tower for him, with a set of clothes laid out on a cot. There was also, to Bruce's amusement, a travel mug of steaming tea sitting just inside the door. Friends, he thought as he pulled on the t-shirt, jeans, and flannel and picked up the mug of tea, might be worth the trouble.
He let himself out of the cell and made his way to the common room on the top floor, and when he stepped out of the elevator, he saw Steve and Tony sitting at the dining table with what looked like mugs of hot chocolate. He glanced around the room and saw Natasha sitting on the couch with Clint's head in her lap; he was sprawled across the cushions and had an ice pack wrapped against his shoulder and Natasha was pressing another one to his head.
"Is everyone okay?" he asked, looking at Clint, who opened his eyes and offered a tired wave.
"We're okay, Doc," Clint said, but his voice was slurred, and Bruce looked questioningly at Natasha.
"Very mild concussion," she confirmed, brushing one hand through Clint's hair. "Mostly exhaustion, I think."
"The shoulder?" Bruce asked, pointing at the ice pack.
"Hurts like hell," Clint replied, "But it's okay. SHIELD PT guys are good."
Steve stood from the table and said, "Bruce is back and we need to do a quick debrief, so let's do it before Clint falls asleep again."
"Hey, 'm not sleeping," Clint said, sitting up quickly. Too quickly, as it turned out. A sharp intake of breath and a quiet "whoa" with clenched eyes had Natasha steadying Clint's shoulder and holding him upright. Grasping at his shoulder, Clint said, practically growling, "Why the hell can't Coulson wait until tomorrow for a debrief?"
Natasha went still and Tony looked sharply over at them from the table. Bruce saw Clint realize his mistake right away and then dropped his head and said, "Fuck" and then looked up at Natasha. "Sorry, Nat," he said, softly, "I'm just tired."
She nodded and helped him stand with a simple, "It's okay," and they left it at that.
Bruce saw the sadness in her eyes and weariness in his, though, and wondered again what Coulson had been to these two people who were both so clearly guarded with their companionship.
They all gathered at the table and Tony pushed a button so that a screen rose in front of them and Jasper Sitwell, the Avengers' liaison with SHIELD, appeared, looking just as tired as everyone else felt. He asked a few pointed questions about locations and number of hits and basic statistic information, and then gave his own report.
"The HYDRA cell was neutralized, and thanks to the Hulk there's nothing usable left in the building," he said after giving a basic summary. "We need to work on exit strategy when the Hulk is involved," he said, clearly looking at Clint, "but overall it was a successful mission."
"Exit strategy was fine," Clint insisted, drawing himself up out of a slump. "I was just a little slow on my feet."
Steve looked at Clint, "If you hadn't been on that other –" he started.
But Clint cut him off with a glare and then a quick, "It was my fault and I'll do better next time, Sitwell."
Bruce looked up at the screen to see Sitwell scowling.
"Okay," Sitwell said darkly. "That's the only strategy work for this particular mission. Exit strategies when the Big Guy is on the move. I expect each of you to have the standard report on my desk in two days. You too, Stark." Tony just shrugged and took a drink of his hot chocolate that Bruce thought smelled distinctly like peppermint schnapps.
Sitwell was about to sign off, but then leaned over and added, "Barton. You're expected at HQ in my office at 0730 tomorrow. Got it?"
Everyone looked at Clint, who only nodded tiredly and said, "Yes, sir."
Sitwell signed off and Tony turned off the screen in front of them as Bruce looked at Clint and said, "Exit strategy?"
Clint shrugged. "Yeah, I was on the building when Hulk tore it apart. I should've been quicker getting off." He tapped his head, "Got a smack on the head for it."
Bruce leaned back, frowning, and Steve said, "Not your fault, Banner. I saw the whole thing."
"Yeah," Clint said, trying to reassure him. "Really, Bruce, if I'd been at normal speed it wouldn't have been a problem. And besides," he said, standing from the table, "It wasn't much of a problem anyway. I'm okay. But I've apparently got a meeting at too-fucking-early in the morning tomorrow, so I'm cutting out. See ya, team."
They watched as he disappeared into the elevator, and then Steve said, "He needs some downtime."
"Does he usually get more missions than you, Natasha?" Bruce asked.
"He gets a different type of mission when he's not working with me. Mine are more long term. Plus it's going to be harder for me to do a lot of SHIELD missions now that my profile is familiar. His work requires stealth, mine requires infiltration. They're still figuring out how to use me now that my face is known." She shrugged. "They'll figure something out, but for the moment, he's easier to use."
"To use up, if they're not careful," Tony said, finishing his drink and heading back to the bar.
Bruce stood and stretched and said good night to everyone. Letting the Hulk out on purpose had been new, thinking of the Hulk working with a team and affecting other good people with his actions was challenging, and Bruce needed some downtime of his own. He put on some soft music and hoped that Clint was somewhere in the tower sleeping off some of his exhaustion.
He resolved that if the Hulk was going to be part of a team on missions, it would be Bruce's goal to look after the team a bit in their off hours. It was the least he could do after causing concussions and other mayhem. So he woke up early enough to leave a mug of tea on Clint's car before the archer left for his meeting, hoping little things like that could help. It's what friends did, if he remembered correctly.
A/N: So this is a two or three part story - probably three. It's all written, so hopefully it won't be long before it's all up here. Thanks to dysprositos for her typical beta brilliance. If you all have not read her stories, you should. I'm trying to take Bruce Banner lessons from her, but she's much better at him than I am. If you've not read "This is a story about a cat" you're missing out, or "Four Days" is also brilliant. Of course, I am a little bit biased. . .