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If You Can’t Say It You Shouldn’t Be Doing It

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How did normal people introduce sex into their relationships? Bruce vaguely remembered the process from his college years - fumbling hands and questions, suggestively deep kisses leading to more, a sock on the doorknob and a roommate (usually him, let’s be honest) in the dorm lounge. And then there was Betty, who ignored the usual social codes with a simple “I’d like to sleep with you tonight” over dinner, and the thing with that guy in grad school, which had started as a one-night stand (not initiated by Bruce, for the record). 

In retrospect, all the stress of negotiating sex in his twenties was a breeze. No map of bad memories imprinted on his skin, no desperate need for control, no knowledge of the horrors his own body could inflict on another person without his permission. 

No careful partner taking it almost condescendingly slow with him to avoid rehashing some trauma or other. He appreciated Clint’s patience, but with their relationship headed into its fourth month, he was beginning to worry that occasional make-out sessions and one post-disaster hand job were going to be the full extent of their sex life. 

For fuck’s sake, he was a grown man with a frankly intimidating number of degrees, publications in dozens of academic journals, and more media appearances than he could even remember crossed off in his day planner. He didn’t need to be treated with kid gloves.

So when Clint asked him “How’re you doing?” for the third time in the twenty minutes they’d been fooling around in bed, Bruce rolled over onto his back and pinched the bridge of his nose, willing himself not to snap. 

Heart rate elevated. Stomach churning with frustration. Other Guy growling faintly down in the dark. Jesus, what was wrong with him? 

“Okay,” Clint said, sighing. “We’re gonna do this again, huh?” 

Bruce glared up at the ceiling, privately satisfied at the annoyed edge to Clint’s voice. He’d take annoyed over accommodating any day. Annoyed was easier. “Do what?” he replied.

“The thing where you get mad at me for reminding you that you’ve got limits and I go take care of myself in the bathroom while you mope.” 

Bruce scoffed. “I don’t mope.” 

Leveraging himself upright, Clint shot him a skeptical look. “You are the king of Mopetopia. There’s a bronze statue of you frowning in the market. The children of Mopetopia draw pictures of you in school.”

“You can stop now,” Bruce said, crossing his arms.

“Is that a royal decree?” 

Bruce tried to bite down a laugh. “Oh, fuck you.” 

Cupping his own erection through his jeans with one hand, Clint extended his other arm in a graceful bow. “That’s the plan, your majesty.” He started for the hallway.

Bruce’s chest tightened, and he found himself turning toward the door. “Wait.”

Clint paused, waiting. 

Waiting for—what? Bruce licked his lips, doing a quick mental assessment. Okay, what exactly did he want right now? He wanted Clint beside him in the pool of warmth their bodies had made on the comforter. He wanted to rut up against Clint like a teenager and come in his pants, but that was unfeasible for a variety of reasons. More than anything, he wanted to not lie here feeling like a failure while he knew his boyfriend got himself off in the next room.

Come to think of it, there might be a middle ground here. 

Bracing himself, he said, “You could do it here.” 

Clint’s eyes flicked from him to the other side of the bed. “You want me to get back in bed with you and jerk myself off?” 

Bruce’s shoulders loosened a notch at the lack of judgement in that voice. “Yeah. If that’s all right with you.” 

“All right?” Clint laughed. “You kidding me? That’s the best idea I’ve heard all day.”

“Really?” Bruce said, wincing slightly.

“Yeah!” Clint rounded the bed, retrieving his phone from his hip pocket of his jeans. The mattress dipped as he dropped onto it next to Bruce. “Shirt on or off?”

“Shirt?”

“This is your show.” 

“Uh.” It wasn’t like he’d never seen Clint shirtless - quite the opposite, the guy seemed to have trouble keeping his shirt on after dinnertime when it was just the two of them around the apartment - but he’d never been asked point blank whether it was a state he preferred. It kind of was. Not that he wouldn’t take Clint fully clothed any day of the week, gladly, but shirtless…well, Betty hadn’t been half wrong when she called Clint his action hero. 

“Off,” he decided. 

Clint’s smile went a little crooked, and he peeled his shirt off over his head, exposing the strong, battle scarred shape of his midsection. Catching Bruce’s eyes on his chest, he grinned. “You wanna participate, too?” 

Bruce’s arms crept across his stomach. “I…don’t think so.” 

“Right,” Clint said immediately, nodding. “That’s fine, no pressure. You mind if I, uh—” He waved his phone in the air like that was supposed to mean something, then clarified: “Visual aids?” 

“Oh. Yeah, go for it.” Watching him swipe at the screen, Bruce licked his lips. “You keep porn on your phone?”

“Just my Best Of collection,” Clint said. “Figured I was spending enough time jerking off in the bathroom, I might as well make it portable.” 

Because you won’t fuck me, Bruce mentally added to the sentence, and swallowed down the self-hatred before it had a chance to show on his face. Clint had gone out of his way to make it clear that sex was a lower priority than Bruce’s comfort - if he noticed Bruce guilting himself about it, who knew what aggravatingly kind lengths he’d go to to stop it.

Setting his phone on the nightstand, Clint unzipped his fly and raised his hips to pull off his jeans. Bruce found himself looking away and cursed himself inwardly. Get it together, Banner. This was progress. This was what he wanted. And besides, the words modesty and Clint Barton didn’t belong in the same sentence.

What was the protocol in this sort of situation? Bruce tried mirroring Clint’s sprawled posture, but no, that felt unnatural. He considered sitting up, but that seemed even worse. For lack of a better option, he turned not his side, facing Clint, propped his head up on one arm, and tried not to look like a total voyeur while…well, realistically, being a total voyeur. 

Clint went along with it with the flash of a grin, holding his phone up in the space between them and pulling his dick out of his shorts like this wasn’t a big deal. It shouldn’t be a big deal, Bruce told himself - for fuck’s sake, it was just masturbation. Still, when Clint’s left thumb started the video and his right took a first slow stroke along the shaft of his dick, a thrill raced down Bruce’s spine. 

The night of the gala, the lights had been low and Bruce was too busy reveling in his body’s disarmed security system to pay much attention to the specifics of the anatomy in hand. Now, with late afternoon sunlight streaming in the windows and his hands and mouth kept firmly to himself, he had nothing really to do besides observe. 

Clint had a nice dick. Was that a weird thing to think? Well, it was true. His penis was well proportioned, just as pleasant to look at as it had been to hold onto, with a slight lean toward the right and a healthy shade of pink. It might be the only area of the guy’s body unmarred by scars from his work or personal life - not that Bruce minded the scars, but it was a relief to see that some part of him had escaped this life unscathed. Clint’s body relaxed as he coaxed his dick fully erect, which—okay, Bruce knew that this was the normal way of things, but it usually took him a morning away from the internet and an hour of yoga to get that relaxed, so the sight made his free arm curl in around his stomach, self-conscious.

“Like what you see?” Clint said, his voice going a little husky.

Bruce averted his eyes, his cheeks glowing hot. “I—” he started, and swallowed, realizing he was staring straight at Clint’s phone. On the muted screen, a guy with a physique Asgardians would envy was bound to a bed with leather cuffs and getting enthusiastically penetrated by someone who was only visible from the waist down. Oh.

“Is, uh—” Bruce tried again, and summoned up the nerve to look his boyfriend in the eye this time. “Is that the sort of sex you’re interested in?”

“What, getting pounded in the ass?” Clint shrugged - well, as much as he could in his current position. “It’s not my favorite, but I wouldn’t turn it down.” 

The cheerful indifference of that statement was more of a relief than it should’ve been. Bruce honestly couldn’t imagine his body allowing a blow job without a freak-out. Something as time- and contact-intensive as anal sex sounded like more trouble than it was worth. He nodded toward the phone, sneaking a peek at the pre-ejaculate on the head of Clint’s dick. (Quick to react to stimulation - that would probably work in his favor.) “What about the rest of it? Restraints and things?”

“Yes. Very yes.” Glancing over, Clint added: “I’m subby as shit. That gonna be an issue?”

“No, no,” Bruce said, processing the information while he watched Clint’s thumb work a small circle on his glans. Kinks weren’t something he’d put much thought into before, but it did make sense. The way Clint reacted when they were making out, pliable, needy, and eager for instruction - it wasn’t a stretch to imagine him submissive in bed. Or an unpleasant mental image, to be honest. BDSM wasn’t exactly Bruce’s comfort zone, but then again, what was these days?

“What about you?” Clint said, focusing hard on his phone. “You lean any particular direction?”

“Not that I know of,” Bruce admitted. “I’ve done some light kink in previous relationships, but it was never my idea, and after the Other Guy showed up…” There was no sexy way to finish that sentence. 

“Yeah,” Clint said, “he strikes me as kind of a mood killer.”

“You don’t know the half of it.” 

“Well, I’m into a—a lot of different stuff,” Clint said, his hips hitching. “Make you a list sometime if you promise not to laugh.” 

Bruce shook his head. “I won’t laugh. Who would laugh at that?” 

“You’d be surprised.” Clint’s hips settled back against the comforter, falling out of rhythm as a frown furrowed his brow. He closed his eyes and blew out through his nose, like he was trying to get his mind clear again during a session at the shooting range.

Bruce wanted to strangle whoever he was thinking of. Leaning in close, he kissed Clint’s bare shoulder. “I’d love to see your list, and I promise I won’t laugh. If something matters to you, we’ll work it out.”

When he leaned back, Clint was looking him in the eye with an expression like he was some sort of miracle. That was…uncomfortable. Suddenly, staring right at the action seemed like the least embarrassing option, so Bruce opted for that, studying the motion of Clint’s hand. Clint’s fingers pumped at his dick in a quick, steady rhythm to match the men on the screen, his hips stuttering back into motion. 

“Bruce,” he said, his breath shallow. “Kiss me?” 

Between the warmth spreading behind his navel and the fix-it urge that small request inspired in him, kissing actually sounded really good right now. Bruce obliged, deciding at the last second to try to be sexy about it. He ducked his head, but before he could kiss his way along Clint’s chest, his forehead smacked into the guy’s chin. 

Clint cursed softly.

“Sorry,” Bruce said, carefully raising his head. 

Clint just laughed, rubbing the hand his phone was in across his chin. “You’re fine. That’s—yeah, good. Do that.” 

Bruce ducked his head again, slower this time, and trailed his lower lip along a few inches of skin before planting an openmouthed kiss on Clint’s sternum. A sharp intake of breath told him that was more than fine, so he did it a couple more times, working his way along the arch of the clavicle. The sheen of sweat there tasted oddly satisfying. When he heard his name again, higher and quieter, he raised his head and kissed the mouth that was waiting for him.

Clint was open and pliable beneath him, his body eager for contact but held at as cautious a distance as he could manage. His hips thrusted up, meeting his fist with a jerk that reverberated up through the rest of him, making the soft vowels in his throat waver. Voice hitching, he pressed his head back into the pillow and came.

Bruce waited for the quivering to stop, kissed his cheek, and leaned back onto his own side of the bed. Grabbing a hand towel from the top drawer of the nightstand, he wiped a wet spot off his own neck, double-checked his shirt, and handed the towel to Clint. 

Clint wiped down his belly and chest half-assedly and lay there holding the wadded up towel near his navel, his limbs limp and his dick twitching against his thigh. Sighing up at the ceiling, he said, “That was…a really great suggestion. A+, doc.” 

“Maybe you could do it again sometime,” Bruce said. 

Clint chuckled. “Oh, I am definitely doing that again.” 

That’d be nice, Bruce thought, smiling up at the ceiling. This was progress toward something real, a step away from being handled with care. And the view it came with, well. He could get used to that.

“I’d like to watch you sometime,” Clint said. 

Bruce tried to swallow down the nerves that idea brought up his throat. “You would?” 

“Yeah.” Clint let out a luxurious sigh and stretched his arms, grazing his fingertips along the headboard. “Get to see you go all flushed, hear the sounds you make when you come.” 

Bruce tried to summon up an eloquent response, but all that came out was “Ah.” 

Then there were fingers hovering over his brow and a soft “This okay?” to which he nodded.

“Can I ask you something personal?” Clint said, brushing curls off his forehead. 

“You were just contemplating the sound I make at orgasm,” Bruce said. “I think we’re already well past ‘personal.’”

Propping himself up on his elbow, Clint gave him a studious look. “You’ve mentioned before that it’s the loss of control during sex that gets to you. Could you break that down for me? I mean, is there an actual concern that the Other Guy’s gonna bust out when you start enjoying yourself, or what is it?”

Bruce frowned up at the ceiling. God, how to word that? “I don’t think there’s much of a chance that he’ll show up, it’s just that…well, first off, I’ve been keeping such a tight control on my body for so long that any loss of that control feels like I’m doing something wrong. Second, a lot of the physiological responses to sex are similar to the responses I get when he makes an appearance - I mean, I used to use my heart rate as my primary method of keeping a lid on him, and that climbs the second I get into something.” Bruce locked his hands together in front of his ribcage. “On my own, with everything in my control, I can sorta make it feel manageable. Add another person in? That’s too many variables. Starts to feel unstable.”

He half expected Clint to laugh in his face, but instead the guy just nodded and said, “That makes sense.” 

“It does?”

“Yeah. I mean, listening to you talk about your body, you always describe it like it’s a crime scene or a tightly regulated experiment. You live in a place like that, of course you don’t want someone else traipsing in like they own the place.” Clint caught his eyes and offered him a sympathetic little smile. “I’m not asking you for an all-access pass. Your shit’s your own. But I’d love a guided tour sometime, if you’re amenable.” 

His fingers walked down the length of Bruce’s nose and landed on his lower lip, the pad of one index finger a soft pressure drawing his lips apart. It really didn’t help with the pressure in Bruce’s khakis - a pressure he had no immediate intention of relieving, but…maybe one of these days. Letting Clint into the disaster zone of his life in other ways had worked out pretty well so far, although Bruce still couldn’t really fathom why. It took more than sniper’s patience to put up with his shit, he knew that, and adding sex into the mix made everything ten times worse. Clint probably deserved some sort of medal of valor for dealing with him like this, even if he did swing too far in the careful direction sometimes.

Frustrated or not, Bruce was grateful. He hoped like hell he could show it. Kissing the fingertip against his lips, he said, “I can maybe arrange that.” 

 

 

Arranging that was more difficult than he’d expected. Not for lack of desire - as neglected as his sex drive was, it definitely reasserted its presence every time he caught a whiff of Clint’s sweat or felt his boyfriend’s familiar weight pressed against him. The more Clint got off in bed next to him, the more difficult it got to ignore. But the thing was, Bruce had made more than a habit of ignoring the things his body wanted. He prided himself in learning any material presented to him inside and out, and if there was one thing the Other Guy had taught him in his long years on the run, it was that desire was dangerous. 

Desire for Betty led him into the path of the US military and the infamous Harlem incident. Desire for vengeance brought out the worst in him, over and over, in the ugliest manifestation imaginable. Desire to prove himself the best in his field got him into this fucking mess in the first place. No, it was easier - safer - to remain quiet even in desperation, keep himself calm and empty. 

He’d already taken too much with Clint, reached out too far and much too fast. They’d been half a step from living together since week one, and he was so attached that he wasn’t sure he could untangle himself if he had to. Clint made him feel satisfied and stable and more human than he’d allowed himself to be in a decade. Around Clint, he felt himself wanting, in every sense of the word.

For a while, he tried not to think about just how much he wanted to engage in sexual activity with Clint, but while he was avoiding the topic, Clint jerked off beside him in bed two, three, six more times. When Bruce started pulling away during the activity, planting his nose in a book and studiously pushing down his own libido, Clint took notice. 

“Are you into this?” Clint said, frowning at his wadded up hand towel instead of at Bruce. 

How to even begin answering that? Bruce couldn’t come up with the words and let the silence stretch out too long. By the time he managed a quiet “Yes,” it probably sounded completely insincere. 

And there was the annoyance again - letting out a little huff, Clint tossed the towel on the floor and got out of bed with a mutter of “I’m gonna start dinner.” No It’s okay, no little reassuring gestures of affection, no coddling, just a flash of a rejected look and a brisk retreat.

The next time things got a little hot and heavy, instead of settling in and getting off, Clint grabbed his phone off the nightstand and closed himself in the bathroom for ten minutes. And God, Bruce felt like such a disappointment for those ten minutes he could hardly stand to be in the same room as himself. 

This wasn’t working, and he was the problematic variable. Clint wasn’t asking him for much, really. Maybe he could be the person his boyfriend wanted him to be for half an hour at a time, a couple times a week. Maybe he could let himself want this, on a trial basis. He wasn’t on the run anymore. So far nothing terrible had come from him wanting this sort of thing with Clint. All the boroughs of New York were still intact.

Shit. Okay. He knew what he need to do. 

Wanted to do.

It took two hours of yoga instead of one to get himself properly relaxed, stretching out in the blank center of his living room with the past month’s worth of notes scattered around the periphery. He let himself lie in corpse pose for a full ten minutes, settling and re-settling his limbs until he felt just the pressure of his breath flowing in and out instead of the coiling tension and the hardness of the back of his skull against the carpet. Measuring his breaths, he rolled slowly upright, reached for his phone, and sent a text to Clint. 

Please come downstairs as soon as you can. 

No explanation. Words seemed insufficient lately, anyway.

He waited, counting heartbeats and seconds between breaths. It took eighteen breaths before a response made his phone beep. 

something wrong?

No, he wrote back. Want to show you something.

Seven breaths, then: be there in a few

Okay. This would be fine. Bruce set his phone down and padded into the bedroom, touching the corner of the bed to reassure himself that the sheets he’d tidied up earlier still looked all right. Shedding his pajama pants, he folded them and hid them in the closet. He looked down at himself. Oversized Stark Industries t-shirt and boxers. Dammit. That wasn’t sexy. It suddenly seemed really important that he at least try to be sexy. If he was going to do this, he should do it well. Be thorough. 

Just the boxers seemed lazy, though. Abandoning the t-shirt in the bottom of the closet, he rifled through his shirts and pulled out the first thing he found that Clint had complimented him on: a white linen dress shirt that Sylvia’s PR team had gotten him for his last press event. Pulling the shirt on, he headed into the bathroom and snuck a peek in the mirror. 

Oh, that was a mistake. Measured breaths didn’t stop his eyes from flitting back and forth between elements of his reflection to pick out the tired eyes, the unwashed curls on his forehead, and the soft edges of belly where most men with his level of media saturation had defined abs.

No changing any of that now. What could he change? The shirt. Yes. All right, what to do about the shirt? No, okay, the cuffs should definitely not be buttoned. Rolling them up looked ridiculous. Loose and slightly folded would have to do. 

And the buttons? He’d buttoned up to one below the collar out of habit, but that wasn’t exactly sexy. He tried unbuttoning the shirt to his navel, assessed it for half a second in the mirror, and barely managed to keep himself from coughing out a laugh, because all that chest hair peeking out between the plackets reminded him of 70’s porn stars. He buttoned it back up to mid-chest, then down one again, then up one again. Ugh. How did the human race survive when sexual activity involved this much indecision in the prep work?

The front door opened around the fourth time he was re-buttoning, and that was it, no more time for button-related internal battles. 

“Bruce?” Clint called from the entryway. 

“In here,” Bruce answered, giving himself one last glance in the mirror.

Goddammit. He buttoned it to mid-chest, then forced himself to step out and lean against the bedroom doorway. Arm against the door frame, hand on hip. Look casual. 

Clint rounded the corner and stopped a few feet away. He looked him up and down, the usually quick-turning gears in his mind almost audibly winding to a stop. He laughed. “What is this?”

Bruce lowered his arm and slipped his hand off his hip. Too casual? “It’s, uh—” He crossed his fingers in front of the lowest bare patch of his chest. “Well, it’s sort of a seduction?”

Clint blinked slowly. “A seduction?”

Forcing himself to drop his hands to his sides, Bruce said, “Yeah, you know, I was in the mood to masturbate, and I thought, why not make a show of it? Give you, uh—” Okay, Clint really needed to stop staring at him like that. He cleared his throat, hands locking in front of him. “Give you something to think about next time that’s not on your phone. Jesus, say something before I wrap a blanket around myself and take a vow of celibacy.” 

Clint’s eyes wandered into the bedroom behind him and back again, his eyebrows raising. “Did you make your bed for this?” 

“I, uh, I might’ve.” 

The confession was met with a grin. “You’re amazing.” 

“Oh. Well.” Bruce licked his lips, looking down at his fingers. “The sheets get all lumpy otherwise.” 

“How do you wanna do this?” Clint said, stepping closer. “You wanna go it on your own while I watch, or can I touch you?” 

That was something he hadn’t considered. The thought sent a dozen different options careening through his mind. He picked the one that seemed closest to previous experience. “Maybe…would you mind helping me get aroused? I can take it from there.” 

“Would I mind?” Clint tsked. Cupping a hand around Bruce’s upper arm, he angled his head and closed the gap between their lips to all but an inch, letting Bruce make the actual contact. His mouth was eager but not pushy, following Bruce’s lead. When Bruce grabbed fistfuls of t-shirt and pressed him against the bedroom wall, a small, needy sound reverberated up into his mouth, and he wasn’t sure who it came from. 

This was a good idea. This was a terrible idea. What was he doing? 

Part of his brain was still trying to kill his libido even as he pushed his hips flush with Clint’s against the wall, running through images of pathology lab cultures and Icelandic weather statistics. One of these days that mental rolodex of erection killers was going to backfire, and he’d start getting flustered over precipitation levels in Reykjavík. He tried to turn down the volume on that part of his brain and eclipse it with the sensations at hand instead: Clint’s palm drawing a steadying pressure down his lower back, a warm, wet mouth moving in tandem with his own, a pleasant heat traveling toward his groin, his heart quieter than usual behind his ribs. 

Oh God, he wanted this. 

Clint’s hands came to rest at his hips, feeling out the line of his waistband and giving a questioning tap. 

Bruce nodded, not caring how the motion flattened his nose against Clint’s cheek. “Yes,” he breathed into the kiss. 

Strong, broad fingers crept under the back of his shirt to grip his ass, sending a thrill up through his core. His body seized a little friction without his permission, grinding his growing erection against Clint’s hip. 

Fuck, there was his limit. The soaring sensation of pleasure spiraled downward, taking on a claustrophobic edge. Pulling back, he rested his forehead on Clint’s shoulder and focused on his heartbeat, taking slow, full breaths. 

“Christ,” Clint whispered, his hands retreating to Bruce’s arms. 

“Sorry,” Bruce said.

“The fuck are you sorry for? That was hot.” 

Bruce shook his head, his forehead teasing at the fabric of Clint’s t-shirt. “Had to stop. Shouldn’t let my control slip like that.”

“Right,” Clint breathed, leaning his head back against the wall with a soft thump. “Control. Maybe I should just keep my hands to myself and let you get to it.”

“A little contact is all right.” Bruce pushed himself back so there was a safe amount of space between them. Curling a finger and thumb around Clint’s chin, he pulled it down to give him a shallow, careful kiss. “Shirt on or off?” 

Clint sized him up for a second, then said, “I’m thinking on, but open.” 

Bruce cursed himself inwardly - of course the buttons were wrong. Well, at least that was easy to fix. Looking him firmly in the eyes, he said, “You want to take care of that?” 

Clint licked his lips, regarding the buttons like he was sizing up targets. “It’d be my pleasure.” 

Then there were fingers expertly unbuttoning his shirt from the chest down, making a trail of gentle pressure down his middle. This was okay - he could predict his body’s responses to this, knew they wouldn’t get out of hand. A long sigh escaped him. Yeah, maybe this was a doable thing. 

Clint opened his shirt cautiously and leaned back, biting down a grin as he surveyed the newly exposed skin, his eyes trailing down to the tent in Bruce’s shorts. “God, you are something.” 

Bruce wanted to dispute the awed tone, but the words were technically accurate. He was something. The nature of that something varied from rotten throughout to only mostly terrible depending on the day, but Clint hadn’t specified. And anyway, now wasn’t the time to get into a semantics argument. 

“Bed?” he said instead.

“You’re a genius,” Clint replied, and, well, he couldn’t honestly dispute that. 

Propping up a couple of the pillows against the headboard, Bruce stretched out with his head and shoulders supported a little, dropped his hands to his stomach, and stared at the ceiling, trying to will his brain back to the post-yoga relaxation haze. It wouldn’t go - too wound up, too nervous. 

At least his erection wasn’t nervous. It got exercised so rarely these days that once it was up it seemed determined to do its job, come hell or high water. 

Clint hopped onto the other side of the bed, watching like a kindergartener at story time. “So, is all touch off the table at this point, or—?”

Inhaling deeply, Bruce thought about it. “Kissing goes south quickly, so that’s out,” he said. “One hand somewhere non-erogenous is probably fine, so long as it’s not petting.” 

Clint looked him over again, then cautiously reached a hand over his right thigh, just below the hem of his shorts. “Here okay?” 

It was one of the handful of safe spots on Bruce’s body that had never been plugged into his internal alarm system. He’d faced militaries, brawlers, mercenaries, aliens, and garden variety muggers, and none of them aimed for the upper leg. He nodded. 

Clint’s hand landed on his bare skin, just light enough to send gooseflesh down his leg. Maybe it was a small gesture, but it felt…nice. Sort of a reminder that he wasn’t living alone in fear and squalor, thousands of miles from anyone who knew him. He had Clint. He had the team. The Tower was safe and familiar. The dark pit in his mind was quiet. 

Although, even as used to nudity as he was, it was hard not to feel how exposed he was like this, cool air striking the flushed skin of his chest and stomach, body prone against the sheets. 

"Pink's a good color on you," Clint said. 

"Vasocongestion of the skin,” Bruce replied automatically, because breaking all this down into physiological terms made it safer. Easier.  

Clint, as usual, took his weirdness in stride. "I love it when you talk science. You need anything else to get you going? A video, a striptease?"

The idea of a striptease was, admittedly, tempting, but unrealistic. With his control already slipping, the last thing he needed was another unpredictable variable in the form of a naked boyfriend. He shook his head, closed his eyes, and reached for the calm of corpse pose as he trailed a hand down under his waistband. 

Deep breath in, and out. He took inventory of his body: the heat of overcrowded blood vessels prickling his skin from his chest to his forehead, heart rate in normal range, testicles tensed, penis fully erect and slightly constricted against the fabric of his shorts. He pushed the waistband down and nestled it under his scrotum - God bless modern elastic, for so many reasons - giving his erection an experimental stroke and trying to pretend he wasn’t getting stared at right now. The hand on his thigh was firm, but he thought he felt a fingertip twitch.

Okay. Okay, this was workable. Relax, dammit. 

His imagination was at least eager to get down to business. He hadn’t gotten off in—what? Two and a half months? And the last time had been in the middle of an insomniac anxiety spiral, with the intention of putting his genetic material under a geiger counter - not ideal circumstances. So his mental landscape lit up the moment he gave it permission, playing enticing images behind his eyelids: the curve of Clint’s lower lip under his thumb, the planes of Clint’s stomach and chest appearing as he peeled away his shirt, the way Clint’s fingers curled around himself and the small, breathy sounds that fell from his lips while jerking off.

While his hand fell into its usual rhythm, Bruce counted his own heartbeats. Too fast. It was always too fast, worryingly fast, when he did this. Disobediently quick pulse, elevated respiration, muscles tensing. Even the flood of dopamine in his system couldn’t distract from the similarities this process shared with the one that had ruined his life. He clenched his teeth and exhaled hard through his nose.

He tried not to think about the Other Guy, or about stopwatches with pulse monitors or the helpless sensation of lying on a cold metal floor, furiously begging his body not to betray him when it was already too late.   

The hand on his thigh shifted very slightly, the thumb making a slow circuit back and forth across his skin, and that was—that helped. The familiar weight of that hand reminded him where he was and who he was with. 

No one is going to hurt him again while he’s with me, Clint’s voice echoed in his mind, insistent enough to drown out some of the anxiety. 

Bruce forced himself to open his eyes. 

Clint was stretched out beside him, steady as ever and smiling at him. “You all right?” 

“Yeah,” Bruce said. “Yeah, just…could use a distraction. Talk to me.” 

“About this, or..?”

Bruce shook his head, exhaling. “Something normal. Your day. Cooking. Archery.”

“Well, I spent this morning shooting,” Clint said. “Had to share the range with a couple of SHIELD’s new recruits. Hotshot kids, barely outta diapers. One of ‘em said she’s gonna break my records on the bow.” 

“What’d you tell her?” 

“I told her when she shoots an alien hover-board out of the sky at a thousand yards, then she can brag to me about what hot shit she is.” 

“Kids these days,” Bruce said, his voice hitching on the last syllable. Yeah, this distraction worked. Without his anxieties leading the charge, his body went on autopilot, hand jerking himself at a steady, increasing pace and small flares of pleasure blossoming in his pelvic floor at every stroke.

Clint went off on a rant about the SHIELD hotshot’s inefficient breathing techniques and the argument they’d gotten into over it at the range, and Bruce let the pull of that warm, pissed off voice and the weight of the hand on his thigh ground him in his own bed, safe and not a threat. It was easier than doing this alone. Funny, he’d expected the opposite. 

After a few minutes, he couldn’t quite hang onto Clint’s story anymore. It all turned into syllables, occasionally interspersed with a pause while Clint looked at him and licked his lips. 

Heat pooled below Bruce’s navel, and the tension in his limbs curled his knees up toward the ceiling. Normally if he paid close enough attention, he could probably estimate the timing of his own orgasm with a five-second margin of error. It was more difficult without the usual ritual, but he couldn’t be far off now - thirty to sixty seconds, maximum. Almost to the edge of the cliff. 

He reached a hand toward the nightstand, realized dimly that it was too far away, and pointed to the box of tissues there, saying, “Could you—?” 

There was the soft brush of paper against cardboard as Clint grabbed a couple of tissues for him, and then a voice near his left ear saying, “You want me to do cleanup for you?” 

That hadn’t been what he meant, but what the hell. Bruce nodded, pinching his eyes shut and drawing a deep, steadying breath as his body braced itself. 

And there it was: that teetering sensation, every stroke pulling his mind a little farther from his body, muscles straining in anticipation and nerves lighting up like they weren’t his own anymore. His breath caught in his throat, and he opened his mouth. Hearing his own voice helped - a small, grounding sound that reminded him this was only a momentary loss of control, that he was still the one steering. 

“Fuck,” he heard himself say, his voice going a little high. “F-fuck.” He tipped over the cliff, testicles tightening, heels digging into the mattress, jaw clenching. A high sound escaped his nasal cavity. 

The pressure of tissues and careful fingers enveloped the tip of his penis, but it was so faint compared to the press of his head against the mattress that it took him a second to process it. Clint was using the tissues to catch his—hadn’t anticipated—differing definitions of cleanup?—okay. 

Jesus. Okay. It was okay. His body shivered, sending little shockwaves of pleasure from his navel down to his toes and up his spine. It was nice. Pure electrical impulses. He exhaled, his breath coming out shaky as his body stilled. 

The orgasm pulsed to a gradual stop, and Bruce inhaled deeply, forcing his limbs to fall flat against the bed. Normally, he’d spend the next five to ten minutes lying in corpse pose and focusing on his breathing to try and reorient himself, but this time the mattress next to him dipped with an extra weight and there were fingers wiping ejaculate off his softening erection, and that was extremely distracting. 

He raised his head. Propped up on one elbow, Clint was gazing at his penis with the sort of studious concentration he usually reserved for cooking blogs. The movements of his hand were efficient but gentle against the oversensitive skin, fingertips circling a clean corner of tissue around his glans lightly enough that it barely registered. 

It occurred to Bruce with a bolt of anxiety through his stomach that Clint had never touched this part of him before. This certainly wasn’t what he’d expected Clint’s first contact with his genitals to be like. Oddly, it felt more vulnerable than manual stimulation. That at least had been old hat in his previous life. This - having careful fingers tidying him up - this was new. He wasn’t sure what to do with it, so he dropped his head back into the pillow and measured his breathing until his heart rate steadied. 

Clint tossed the tissues into the trash bin next to the nightstand. “I’m just gonna tuck you in here.” 

“Okay,” Bruce said. 

That sensation, at least, was vaguely familiar. Clint tugged up the waistband of his shorts and covered him without so much as a comedic grope. When Bruce glanced up, the guy was looking at him with an expression so close to awe that he almost laughed.

“What?” he said instead, trying to keep a straight face.

“You are so fucking sexy,” Clint answered, shaking his head. 

And okay, that time, there was no stopping the laughter. “That’s a new adjective.” 

“It shouldn’t be,” Clint said. “Okay if I kiss you?” 

Bruce nodded, smiling, and then there were lips against his own. They moved languidly, like the guy just wanted to savor every second of this - although, really, what was there to savor? Aborted make-outs and a tense masturbation session? 

“You’ve got me all worked up,” Clint said against his mouth, shifting his hips to press the hardness in his jeans against Bruce’s thigh. “Mind if I take a turn?” 

“Be my guest,” Bruce said, and kissed him back as deeply as he could get away with. 

All in all, this was probably the best outcome he could’ve hoped for. He hoped like hell it was repeatable.

 

 

Turned out it was definitely repeatable - and easier than he’d expected. Maybe Bruce had gone into this with the intention of reciprocating for his boyfriend’s sake, but in the couple of weeks that followed, it became something he actually looked forward to. Also something he was hellbent on improving at, because after that time in his apartment, Clint insisted on upping the ante. 

“You dressed up for me,” Clint said, walking into the living room in nothing but combat boots and tiny red silk briefs. “Had to return the favor, didn’t I?”

And oh, Bruce knew a challenge when he saw it. The next time a make-out session segued into Clint peeling off his jeans, Bruce passed his tablet across the bed and said, “This is for you.” 

Clint paused to scroll through the open folder, the reflections of its contents shining on his widening eyes. “You got me porn. Where did you get all this porn? You don’t even like the internet.”

Bruce shrugged. “Tony shared the porn folder on his server with me a while back—long story—so I put together a search algorithm and copied over the stuff I thought you might like.” 

Clint peered at him over the top edge of the screen. “You got me pirated billionaire porn.”

Trying to look casual, Bruce added, “I don’t know if it’s up your alley, but there’s also an Avengers parody gang-bang in there that looked too funny to pass up.” 

“You are a fucking miracle,” Clint said. 

After that, jerk-off sessions were always accompanied by romantic gestures, each of them trying to one-up the other. If Bruce ordered take-out from Clint’s favorite deli to proceed the activity, Clint made an elaborate meal from scratch and set the table with actual place settings and a centerpiece. If Clint drew him a hot bath with scented fizzes to set the mood, Bruce used lab equipment to combine his own scent with synthetic pheromones and invited Clint to test whether it worked. 

One night Bruce came down from the lab to find that Clint had arranged tea candles in a heart shape on the coffee table around a box of tissues and some lotion. Before he could say “What,” Die Hard started playing on the TV. Bruce laughed until his ribs ached, then politely declined to join in the jerkfest. Instead, he sat next to Clint and stroked his hair while the guy got himself off. 

Clint came with a cry of “Yippee-kayay, motherfucker.” He was either out of his mind or utterly perfect, and Bruce couldn’t decide which. One thing he was certain of: Clint was winning.

Which wasn’t to imply that Bruce was losing, per se. He was putting in one solid, planned out masturbatory encounter for every three that Clint did, and during about half of those, he even managed to get himself off. Really, that should feel like a victory. But Clint had a flair for cheesy romance that Bruce lacked, and all this sexual stuff seemed blessedly easy for him. Bruce tried not to measure his own successes against his boyfriend’s - he really did - but he still found himself using his insomniac periods to research romantic gestures, making flow-charts of how to proceed with seduction, and writing himself sticky notes when he came up with ideas. He even considered asking for advice, but asking Natasha for help meant revealing personal weakness to SHIELD’s most deadly asset, and going to Tony for advice would mean dealing with…well, Tony. 

So Bruce kept his mouth shut, mostly. Until one day when, low on sleep and distracted by a lecture he was supposed to be leading for the R&D interns, he accidentally brought the wrong folder to work. It wasn’t until midday, when his protege Salma was reviewing his notes, that his mistake showed up to bite him in the ass. 

“Uh,” Salma said on the other side of the lab counter, her eyes going a little wide.

“Need clarification on something?” Bruce asked, not looking up from the spreadsheet he was compiling. 

“Uh, no,” she said, shaking her head hard enough to grab his attention. “Nope. Just—this isn’t the Bergman notes.” She slid the manilla folder across the counter to him. 

He opened it, and a sick feeling dropped through the center of him. Inside were the collection of sticky notes and brainstorming webs he’d been using to scribble out new ideas for romantic jerk-off dates. He’d hidden the damn thing among his handwritten notes because inconspicuous seemed like the way to go and the people he least wanted to find it - i.e. Clint and Tony - seemed to have an allergy to reading words on actual paper. 

Shit. Shit shit, oh shit. He slapped the folder shut. “Did you read—”

“StarkIndustries confidentiality clause!” Salma said, her hands springing into the air in front of her defensively. “I saw nothing!”

Likely translation: I’m a speed-reader, I saw everything, please don’t have me fired to save us both the embarrassment.

Shit. He felt his heart rate rising and his ears warming, and goddammit, he was not going to blush in front of a grad student, that was not happening. Dropping his face into his hands, he said to the counter, “Salma, how about you go grab us lunch from that deli up 5th and when you come back, we never speak of this again?”

She did just as he asked, bless her, but Bruce couldn’t help but spend the rest of the day with that folder full of embarrassments rolling over and over in his mind. What if it had been one of the less upstanding young scientists who sometimes strayed into his lab? God, what would that folder look like to outsiders? He and Clint had been all but living together for months, and here he was, taking meticulous notes on masturbatory scenarios because that was as far as he’d been able to go. Super-Strikeout Bruce Banner Can’t Get Past Second Base, the headlines in gossip rags would read. Invincible Man A Dud in Bed. (And fantastic, even his mental headlines sucked. He couldn’t get anything right today.)

How embarrassed must Clint be that this was all they’d done? That thought was the worst. It stuck with him through to the end of the day, whispering his insecurities on repeat until it was hard to hear anything else.

After his shift in the lab, Bruce went down to his own apartment to hide his folder in the depths of a dresser, sighed, and trudged up to Clint’s apartment for dinner. 

Maybe he should just call an end to this thing they were doing. It was just starting to feel a little bit normal, and he enjoyed the ridiculous competition - to say nothing of the view of Clint he got out of it - but it was so immature. He was going to be forty-three in a couple of months (or was it forty-four? He was too fucking old to remember), and this wasn’t the sort of thing that forty-something-year-old men did. Mutual masturbation was something teenagers did in the backs of their parents’ station wagons while parked somewhere private. Middle-aged men in stable longish-term relationships engaged in more advanced activities that actually involved their partners’ fingers and mouths and genitals in a decidedly hands-on way. If it weren’t for him and his touch issues, the man he was with would certainly be doing more than this with someone else - something kinkier, more interesting, more contact-focused. Once again, Bruce was just holding him back. 

He was just so mad at his body for this that for a second he thought he might lose it right there in the elevator between floors 34 and 35. His stupid, broken, fucking impossible body wouldn’t let him have one thing that was pure and easy - one goddamn thing the Other Guy hadn’t tainted. No, of course not. Because he shouldn’t be allowed to forget for one fucking second how badly he’d screwed up. 

By the time he stepped into Clint’s apartment, his hands were gravitating toward his stomach and his shoulders had knotted themselves up to the point where looking up for a “Hello” physically hurt a little. 

“Hey, you,” Clint said with a smile. He was chopping vegetables while fresh broth from last night's chicken boiled on the stove, and the place already smelled amazing. 

Bruce sat himself down at the other side of the kitchen island and leaned over his folded arms. Keep it together, Banner. This was so stupid. He was so stupid. 

“What’s wrong?” Clint asked.

Deny or engage? Bruce made a non-committal noise and shook his head.

“Oh, come on,” Clint said, peeling and chopping a carrot with all the ease of reloading a rifle. “You’ve got that look.”

“What look? I don’t have a look.” 

Raising his eyebrows, Clint sang under his breath: “Mopetopia, our home and native land…”

Bruce scowled. “Why is Mopetopia’s national anthem to the tune of ‘O Canada?’”

“Because I’m not that creative, Bruce. And you’re avoiding the subject. What’s wrong?”

Sighing, Bruce dropped his face into his hands. He held it there for a few seconds, silently counting his own breathing and heart rate and willing his body to act normal for long enough to have an awkward conversation. “I’ve been, uh, thinking about the stuff we’ve been doing lately.” 

“What, the People interview? I thought that went well.”

“No. I mean, yes, it went well, but that’s not the issue.”

Clint looked him over like he was searching for clues and apparently found one. “You mean our sex life. What’s up? I thought that was going well, too.” 

“I just…” Bruce shook his head, dropping his arms to the countertop. Sex life. Like they could even call it that. “You don’t think all of this is a little high school?” 

He wasn’t sure what sort of reaction he expected, but it wasn’t a laugh. Clint tilted his head. “What high school did you go to? Can I sign up retroactively?” 

“You don’t have to do that,” Bruce said, frowning at the rolled up cuff of his shirt. 

“Do what?” Clint replied. 

“That thing you do where you act like everything is going in the right direction no matter how badly I’m holding you back.” 

“You’re not—Bruce.” Setting down the chopping knife, Clint leaned toward him. “I don’t know how many times I’ve gotta say it: you are not holding me back. Not now, not ever.” 

The idiot should just take the easy out he was being offered. Bruce pinched the bridge of his nose. “You’re honestly going to tell me that mutual masturbation is the pinnacle of your sexual fantasies?”

“Well, no, but—goddammit.” Clint huffed. “You’re really fucking frustrating sometimes, you know that?”

“Well, you can get condescending sometimes,” Bruce spat back, crossing his arms. It felt good to get that out. He inhaled deeply and let it go. “You act like you know my limits better than I do, like you’re so damn observant you can see me better than I see myself. It’s infuriating.”

“I’m just trying to help you. Someone’s gotta. You don’t always help yourself, Bruce.”

“I don’t want to be helped. Maybe my decisions aren’t always the best ones, but they’re mine to make.” Bruce sighed. “My body and my mind are my own, and I’ve spent years fighting to be able to say that. You start backseat driving, and I start thinking you don’t trust me to hold my own.”

Clint straightened up, his jaw clenching and then slowly unclenching. Pulling away from the island, he ran a hand through his hair. “All right. I get how that could come off wrong. I’m used to trusting my eyes, but I should be asking you what you need instead.” 

“Thank you.” 

Leaning toward him again, Clint said, “So, let me ask you: Do you enjoy the shit we’ve been doing?”

Bruce shrugged. “Well, yes.”

“You want to do it? You’re not just agreeing to it out of some sense of obligation?”

“Yes, I want to.”

“You think it adds something to our relationship?”

“I—yeah, I guess so.” Competition, insecurity, a few surprising moments of intimacy he’d kill to make last.

Clint caught his eyes. “Then how’s that a bad thing?” 

Leaning away, Bruce crossed his arms. “Are you getting what you really want?”  

There was a long pause where Clint braced his hands against the edge of the countertop and stared down at the cutting board like a general in a war room. For a second, Bruce thought he’d done something terribly wrong and his boyfriend was about to let loose the dreaded We need to talk. When Clint raised his head, though, his lower lip was caught between his teeth and he looked almost…guilty?

“Uh,” he said, giving the carrots a quick glance. “Look, I—I’m getting what I need from you and then some. I came to terms with the idea of maybe never getting fucked when we first started going out.” He cringed, barely able to look at Bruce. “But I’d be lying if I said I was getting what I really want, and it’s my own damn fault. I wrote up that kink list for you ages ago, but I’ve been too much of a chicken shit to show it to you.” 

Bruce didn’t know what to say for a second. It had never really occurred to him that the ridiculously reassuring person in front of him, Mr. It’s all right, doc, I’m easy, might get nervous about these things. And judging by the way he was rocking back on his heels like a sprinter warming up to run, those nerves ran deep. 

Bruce rested his elbows on the countertop and forced himself to lean in. “I meant it when I said I wouldn’t laugh.”

Clint shrugged. “I believe you, I just…I’ve believed other people before, too, y’know? You never know what detail’s gonna make someone decide you’re too much trouble to bother with.” 

Dammit, he couldn’t handle the three feet of decorative rock between them. Slipping off the stool, Bruce rounded the island and laid a hand on the guy’s upper arm. “Clint, our first date was in a hospital room. If a little bit of trouble was going to scare me off, we never would’ve gotten anywhere.” 

Clint’s shoulders sank slightly. 

Reaching both hands around the sides of his head, Bruce turned it so they were eye to eye and and gave his lips a firm kiss. “You hear me?” 

Clint nodded. “Yeah.” 

“Good.” Bruce pulled his seat closer, leaning on the countertop and watching Clint pick up a peeled carrot. The smooth rhythm of the chopping returned, and for a couple of vegetables, they didn’t talk. 

“So,” Bruce said, clearing his throat. 

“Hm?” Clint said.

“What is the pinnacle of your sexual fantasies?” 

The peeler stabbed out a rotten bit on the side of the potato. “What, like kinks or general sex acts?”

“Whatever you go to when you’re stimulating yourself without your phone at hand.” 

“Okay.” Clint considered it for a second. “Giving head. The details vary, but most of my favorite scenarios involve me with a cock in my mouth.” 

God, the bluntness of that statement made something flip in Bruce’s stomach. “Really? Not receiving oral, or—maybe anal intercourse?”

Clint gave him a fond look over the potatoes. “Did you know when you get nervous you revert to textbook terminology? It’s adorable.” 

“I’m not nervous,” Bruce scoffed. 

“Look me dead in the eyes and say buttfucking.” 

Bruce laughed. “I’m not going to do that. But not because I’m nervous.” 

“What, because it’s ridiculous? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Bruce, but sex is fucking ridiculous across the board. It’s all friction and silly faces.”

“I’ve noticed.” He ducked his head to try to hide his face and cleared his throat. “Anyway, why oral?” 

Clint smirked at him but didn’t comment on the blush. “Well, first off, you know me - I’m a show-off. This is an area I’ve worked hard to master, and frankly, I’m fucking great at giving head. Of the guys I’ve gone down on in the past ten years, 80% ranked me in their all-time top five.”

“You did a survey?”

“I did a survey.” 

“I love that you did a survey.” 

Bagging up all the peelings on the counter, Clint said, “Second, head done right can be one of the most intimate things you do with a person. I mean, it’s a huge display of trust. Your partner’s putting themselves out there fully exposed, their pleasure riding completely on you, trusting the most sensitive part of their body to your mouth and its 120lbs of bite pressure, without the distraction of your voice. It’s one of the most vulnerable positions you can put yourself in, and I think it’s just incredible that so many people treat it like it doesn’t count as sex.” He shook his head. “But then, most common definitions of sex baffle me. People set weird, arbitrary benchmarks for themselves.”

Bruce braced his elbows against the countertop. “What about what we’re doing?” 

“What do you mean?” Clint said, sliding the carrot pieces into a bowl with the other diced vegetables.

Staring down at a vein of gray in the black marble, Bruce said, “Do you count what we’re doing as sex?” 

Clint set the cutting board and knife down and waited until Bruce glanced back up at him to ask, “Do you?” 

Bruce crossed his arms. “That’s not fair, I asked you first.” 

“And I have a very firm opinion on this - which I’ll tell you, but not until I hear your answer.” 

He wasn’t going to bend. Bruce sighed, his arms tightening across his middle. “Honestly? I don’t know. On paper, it doesn’t look like sex as I typically see it defined, but it…feels like it.” 

“It does,” Clint said, smiling. “As for what I think, sex is such a variable word it’s practically meaningless without context, so I say the people who make up the context get to define it for themselves. That’d be us. Motion to call what we’ve been doing sex?” 

“Seconded,” Bruce said, relieved. 

“Motion passes,” Clint said, smacking the countertop with his hand. 

The soup burbled as vegetables got tossed in. Bruce watched the assembly passively, leaning his head on his hand and trying his damnedest not to worry about what was going on in his boyfriend’s head. 

The next time Clint tugged him into the bedroom to watch him get off, the bed was covered in goddamn rose petals.

 

 

This was one of those long, shitty days where nothing was quite wrong enough for Bruce to feel justified getting angry about it. Of course, that never stopped him. He gritted his teeth through a 7AM conference call with a nosy reporter in London, snapped at Salma for coming in an hour late only to feel like a jerk when she confessed to being delayed by a mugging, and spent most of the afternoon holding his tongue on the phone with so-called “customer service specialists” for a company that should’ve delivered his new lab equipment last week. With every prick and inconvenience, the dark pit in the back of his mind yawning just enough to remind him that the Other Guy was just waiting to stretch his legs. 

By the time Salma convinced him to go home for the day, he was practically vibrating from the effort of not snapping at her for her kindness. He took the stairs to try to rid himself of some of the angry energy, and that helped - sort of. As the anger burned off, it left a hollow sensation, like his body didn’t know what to do with itself if it couldn’t be angry. Honestly, he’d almost take the anger over the disconnect. At least when he was angry, he felt human. 

He stepped out of the stairwell into the secure residential floor exhausted and aching to feel something other than this. To feel connected to something. Someone? His memory dredged up the grounding pressure of Clint’s hand on his thigh, and yeah, that—that sounded nice. He wasn’t sure when exactly their masturbatory back and forth had started seeming like a retreat instead of a silly physiological challenge, but right now it didn’t seem worth fighting.

He didn’t have any kind of romantic setup, though. Certainly nothing that could compete with rose petals. 

Pushing through the front door of Clint’s apartment, he let out a huff. Fuck it. He’d lose at romance. He was losing anyway. 

Clint was sprawled across Natasha’s recliner with his feet hanging off one arm, assembling a music playlist on the tablet in his lap - probably something with an overabundance of country songs for his next romantic scenario. Glancing up, he tapped closed the window he was working in. “Hey.” 

“Hey,” Bruce echoed. Leaning down, he curled his fingers into the fabric of Clint’s t-shirt and kissed him deeply.

“Mm!” Clint said in his throat, startling. 

Bruce drew back just enough to let Clint’s lower lip slip from between his teeth. Looking him dead in the eyes, he said, “Can I have your attention right now? I’m too tired for romantic bullshit.”

Pupils wide, Clint replied, “With an entrance like that, you can have anything you want from me.” 

Tempting offer. Bruce licked his lips and looked down at the jersey fabric in his fist. “What if, uh—I wanted you holding me while I got myself off?” 

Clint nodded. “I can do that.” 

“Okay.” His knuckles were warm where they pressed into that sturdy chest. Warm and present. “Yeah,” he said. “Bedroom?” 

Clint didn’t question the constant hand balled in his collar during the walk down the hallway, just let Bruce help him tug the shirt off as the door shut behind them. Deft fingers undid the buttons of Bruce’s work shirt and left it hanging at his sides while the two of them maneuvered themselves onto the bed. 

It took a little awkward negotiating and some tugging at unhelpful clothing, but when Bruce settled in between Clint’s legs, his back and the guy’s chest separated only by a thin layer of linen, his head dropped onto Clint’s shoulder with a sigh. 

“Tell me what’s okay to touch,” Clint whispered in his ear, grazing a kiss along his cheek. 

Bruce closed his eyes, taking mental inventory of his body’s alarm system. Heart rate and breathing blessedly low, conditioned to freak out just a little less by the last few weeks’ experimentation. “Thighs,” he said. “Shoulders. Free hand. Neck and head if you telegraph it.” 

One hand slid across his left thigh, and the other hovered near his forehead, close enough to feel the radiating heat of that palm. When Bruce nodded, the hand made a slow stroke along the side of his face, tidying curls and tracing the line of his jaw. 

God, that was nice. His body wanted to get closer to Clint’s, and he let it, angling his head so the side of it rested against Clint’s cheek and sinking so the weight of his upper body was supported mostly by the line of firm muscle behind him. Quick inventory: heart fine, alarms wary but untriggered, Other Guy as quiet as he’d been all day (maybe quieter). Clint’s breath warmed his ear, slow and sniper steady, and Bruce adjusted his breathing to fall into rhythm with it. Okay.

Unbuttoning the fly of his khakis, he said, “Kiss me.”

Clint followed the order without question, pressing insistent kisses in a trail from his ear to his lips. The taste of Clint in his mouth combined with the press of the warm body holding still against him was enough to get him hard, and the air felt drafty against his flushed skin when he pushed down his shorts. 

“Talk to me,” he said against Clint’s mouth, stroking himself. 

“All right, uh…” Catching his breath, Clint pressed his nose into the hair just behind Bruce’s ear. “MasterChef recap?” 

“That’ll work.” 

With a soft chuckle, Clint launched into a summary of the last episode Bruce had missed watching with him and Natasha earlier in the week. His tone stayed light and conversational, but as Bruce’s arm worked faster, his voice dropped lower, almost hitting the gravely quality it took over the comms sometimes. The hand on Bruce’s right thigh responded to tensing muscles by pressing harder, fingertips kneading slightly in rhythm with him. 

Bruce sank into the physical sensations of his body, letting the touch of that hand and the vibrations of that lovely voice against his back anchor him in the present, in a familiar bed that smelled of week-old sheets and his boyfriend’s shampoo. 

The anger and disconnect bled out of him gradually, eclipsed by an odd feeling of…safety? Ha. Hadn’t expected that one. 

When he hit the involuntary verbalization stage, fingers wrapped hard around his free hand and the voice in his ear slowed, pausing between phrases to listen to him. He lost track of what Clint was talking about - probably something attractive Gordon Ramsay had done - but the strained little “Christ, Bruce” that slipped through was enough to nudge him over the edge. 

Losing control didn’t scare him so much this time. With strong, human arms wrapped around him, it was impossible to forget exactly where or what size he was. He felt contained. Grounded. Held tight, even as his voice escaped him without words or intent attached and his nervous system lit up without his permission. 

He hadn’t even noticed Clint grabbing a hand towel, but as he came back down into himself, there it was cleaning him up. (Heart rate decelerating to normal levels, alarms quiet, breathing matching the rhythm of the lungs behind him.)

It felt okay. More than okay. He was used to coming down to anxiety and mental checklists. Coming down in Clint’s arms, a warm, half-hard body behind him and fingers carefully stroking hair back from his forehead, felt like being welcomed back into his own body. 

He sank back languidly, angling his head so Clint could kiss along the line of his jaw. “Mm.” 

“Mm?” Clint repeated, pressing a kiss just below his ear. “That’s a good sound.”

“Mm-hm,” Bruce answered. Sighing contentedly, he said, “Exceedingly good.”

“I love you so fucking much,” Clint said, chuckling.

Bruce’s breathing paused, and his ribcage suddenly felt like a vise around words he shouldn’t be saying. This was good, wasn’t it? This was good. A loud, hollow part of him pushed to speak, and he clenched his jaw shut, determined not to ruin the moment. 

The room went still, and it took him a beat to realize that Clint was holding his breath behind him, heart pounding.

“Shit,” Clint whispered, dropping his hand from Bruce’s forehead. “I’m sorry, it’s too soon, I know, I— Look, no pressure. None whatsoever. I love—I like—I appreciate what we’ve got here, and I don’t want you to feel like I need anything more from you to be satisfied. Ah, shit.” 

Goddammit, Bruce was going to have to say something. But the only words that would come out of him pressed so hard against his soft palate that the second he opened his mouth to try to dispel the growing panic behind him, they shoved their way out of him like air after a punch in the gut. 

“No one’s loved me in years.” 

Of course his breath returned just then with a hitch, and a stab of loneliness in his gut brought tears prickling at his eyes. Bruce Banner: moment ruiner. He should get business cards. An 800 number. He’d make a killing. 

Behind him, Clint exhaled audibly. “I’d really like to hug the shit out of you right now.”

“Okay,” Bruce said, and immediately there were arms wrapping around his chest and legs pressing in close against his own, enveloping him in warm limbs. 

Clint pressed a hard kiss against the top of his shoulder. “It’s a goddamn travesty that you went so long without being loved,” he said, dropping his chin to the space between Bruce’s neck and shoulder. “You’re one of the most lovable people I know.” 

Bruce coughed out a startled laugh. “That—that is a blatant falsehood.” 

“Is not,” Clint said, his voice going soft. “You’re compassionate and smart and always trying to add shit to the world, except when you’re ranting at Bridezillas and making me laugh so hard I think I’m gonna die.” 

“I still don’t understand why you watch that train wreck,” Bruce muttered. 

“Mainly to annoy you.” 

Bruce twisted around so he could just see Clint’s smirk. “What kind of person puts on that terrible show just to poke at someone?”

Clint made a considering face. “Same kind of person who’s fallen for the most passive-aggressive guy in the whole of Midtown.” 

Bruce rolled his eyes. “I am not.” 

“Excuse me, but how did we start hanging out? I remember something about wasting SHIELD resources…”

“That was vengeance.”

“And every word that came out of your mouth those first few PR meetings with Sylvia?”

“That was me defending myself.” 

“And that box of HammerTech pens in your desk drawer - the ones you like to leave around the lab when Tony’s driving you crazy?”

Bruce shrugged. “That’s just fun.” 

“Right,” Clint said. “Well, we all make our own fun. Part of mine’s listening to you berate reality TV stars.” He paused, one hand working in slow circles over a knot in Bruce’s shoulder. Pressing his lips where his chin had been, he added, “I love you, Bruce. I don’t need to hear you say it back, but do I need you to not try and tell me I’m wrong about it. Can you do that, for me?” 

For a second, Bruce wanted to say no. He pressed his eyes shut, listening to the relative calm of his nervous system and the soft grumbling of the stomach pressed against his lower back. It was hard to imagine himself adding this much goodness to Clint’s life, but the idea of having that and being told he didn’t stung. Fake it ’til you make it, right? 

He nodded, swallowing back his doubt. “I can do that.” 

Clint relaxed, dropping his forehead to Bruce’s shoulder. “Thank you.” 

“I—” Bruce started, and stalled out. He couldn’t form the words to reciprocate. He knew them, he felt them right down to his core, but somehow forming them into concrete syllables overwhelmed his system, setting off every safeguard he’d beaten into himself over a decade on the run. Caring about someone - feeling anything that deeply - had been a sign of impending disaster for such a long time. The words wouldn’t form. 

He thought for a second, trying to find a gesture that would get the point across without the words. “I’d like to see your kink list.” 

Clint went still. “Now?”

“Would that be okay?”

“Yeah, I—I guess.” Clint untangled his limbs, pulled himself out of bed, and walked over to the closet. Producing a small notebook from his gym bag, he flipped it open. 

Bruce sat up straight against the headboard, reaching out a waiting hand as Clint returned to the bed. 

Clint hesitated, his eyes on the page of his chicken scratch handwriting, and Bruce was startled by the familiarity of that expression. He’d seen it in the mirror a few weeks ago, while he was frantically buttoning and unbuttoning his shirt and trying not to feel like an utter waste of Clint’s time. 

He waited until his boyfriend looked up, then said firmly, “You’re fine.” 

Clint gave a small, nervous nod and got into bed next to him, handing over the notebook.

“Are these in any particular order?” Bruce asked, skimming the list.

“The, uh…starred ones are favorites. Question marks are ones I’m interested in trying. Rest are tried and liked.” 

“It’s thorough,” Bruce said. Not getting a response, he added: “That’s a compliment.” 

“Oh. All right.” 

Bruce read through the list, making mental notes on items that would need further clarification - degree of pain or restriction, tools required, off-limits acts and areas. Yeah, this was doable. More than doable - a lot of it was downright appealing. He’d read a handful of BDSM primers since the topic first came up, and the underlying structure of the practice seemed to be clearly defined boundaries and roles. All the bullet points on Clint’s list shared a kind of careful choreography and manipulation of the central nervous system’s loopholes that Bruce understood, even if he didn’t naturally gravitate toward it. 

“Okay,” he said. 

“Okay?” Clint replied, like he’d misheard.

Bruce shrugged, lowering the notebook to his knee. “I mean, I’ll have questions, and I might need a cheat sheet, but everything you listed here sounds perfectly reasonable to me.” 

Clint rubbed a hand across his mouth, looking off toward the curtained windows. When he turned back to Bruce, his eyes were just wet enough to make Bruce want to track down the guy who’d laughed at him and tear his limbs from his unworthy body. For the first time since the lab, the Other Guy twitched. 

“Okay,” Clint said, breaking into a smile. 

“Can I try—?” Bruce said, reaching a hand toward Clint’s hair. 

“Sure,” Clint said, bowing his head a little. 

Bruce ran his fingers through the short bristle of hair from hairline to crown, then curled his hand slowly into a fist. As the hair grew tight enough to resist his grip, Clint made a soft sound in his throat and deflated very slightly. 

“Is that good?” Bruce asked.

“Little harder would be perfect,” Clint answered. 

Bruce adjusted his grip, and his boyfriend’s shoulders dropped. “Come here,” he said, pulling gently, and guided Clint down onto his side, his head on Bruce’s thigh. He really was lovely like this, relaxed and pliable. 

Bruce opened his hand, ran his fingers lightly across the bit of scalp he’d just been straining, and gave the hair a couple inches over another, longer tug. Clint hummed a little laugh against his thigh. 

“Thank you,” Bruce said. 

“For what?” Clint mumbled back. 

The number of things he was grateful to this man for, if he thought about it, was overwhelming. Bruce shook his head, narrowing it down to the easiest. “For being patient with me. Sorry I fail at romance.” 

“I dunno,” Clint sighed. “Right now I kinda think you’re winning.” 

That tone was so damn genuine that Bruce couldn’t even argue. He toyed with Clint’s hair, memorizing which places and pressures produced which results, and for the first time in a while, felt like he was doing something right.