Bruce hates people. Or not exactly hates them, but they get on his nerves. They wear him out with their expectations and chatter and gossip. Bruce likes the lab and Tony's office where they jot symptoms on the whiteboard and leaf through books till way past working hours and he likes the cafeteria where he can chew quietly at an apple or a sandwich or poke at a slice of cake and go over cases and keep most of noisy humanity at bay by looking busy and absorbed.
Most of humanity that isn't Tony Stark, anyway, because Tony makes himself welcome with a laden tray, runs a monologue about the meatloaf sandwich and the cheese doodles and the ice cream before starting on some kind of trash talk brag about some patient he has whose symptoms might or might not prove that aliens exist.
Bruce doesn't like noise, or noisy people, but Tony makes him laugh around his apple, because Tony's stupid rambling hides a sharp eye and a brain like a whole medical compendium. And, more importantly, because Tony knows when to stop and let a guy catch a breath even though he only implements that skill when he wants to.
"'Sup Bruce?" he asks, "You have no opinion on this guy's skin? His whole arm is changing color."
"Maybe his bracelet oxidized," Bruce offers, thinking of the cheap costume jewelry some of the kids in pediatrics have, that stain their skin, sometimes. Tony lets out an exasperated huff and rolls his eyes, slouching dramatically. That, too, makes Bruce think of the kids.
"Bruuuce," he whines, dragging the syllable out, and Bruce thinks that maybe he gets on with Tony not in spite of his childish behavior, but because of it. He has a lollipop in his pocket he'd almost offer Tony--as a joke--but he's pretty sure Tony would take it and he's saving it for when he inevitably runs into Clint.
He's already seen Steve wandering around with that exasperated, nervous look he gets when his charges are having what he calls some issues. Clint is always having issues--by which Steve means unauthorized exit form the ward--so Steve looks flustered and stressed out a lot of the time, lately.
"Come on, Happy Man," Tony says, leaning across the table to poke Bruce in the arm with a fork, "What's the matter with you?"
Bruce shrugs. "Lost one today. A girl," he says finally, and means for it to sound a whole lot lighter. They'd known the kid wasn't likely to make it, but he wishes she could have gone better, at least. With less suffering. The price of being in a position to save kids also means being in a position to fail to save them, or, sometimes, to even comfort them. It's the reality of the job, and most days Bruce is okay with that. Other days, it either makes him so sad it's painful, or so angry he feels practically blind with rage.
His anger problems have ended a lot of his friendships and ended his marriage, and nowadays Bruce mostly just sees the kids he works with and Tony Stark. Some staff. Tony's dating some Pepper lady who runs a software company and has calm smiles and somehow, despite her busy schedule, picks him up sometimes. Bruce has had dinner with them and envies her patience and balance. Being a CEO can't be a stress-free job, and dating Tony probably isn't either, but she'd still listened to their hospital stories and hadn't gotten upset when they'd both drunk themselves under the table and ended up in a heap on Tony's couch.
That was the week, Bruce remembers, that there'd been an explosion at a school. Some kind of gas line accident, and innocent tragedy despite the city wide panic and suspicion of more nefarious dealings. It had still cut a swath of trauma through both their units, and when Bruce thinks of burn injuries on small bodies he still has to fight not to smash things.
"Oh," Tony says, and looks deflated, "You wanna be left alone then, huh?"
Bruce shrugs again, and Tony makes a face and grabs his tray.
"I might be in the mood to look at your alien's skin later," Bruce offers, in case Tony's offended, or his feelings are hurt. It's hard to tell with Tony, sometimes.
"I'll have a whole clean whiteboard section for you, doc," Tony says, even though he's a doctor too, and then moves to sit with some nurses, Steve not among them.
Bruce forces a smile and waves and goes back to his notes, but he doesn't get much time to himself before he has another visitor. Clint, this time, who just flops down and puts his feet up, propping his boots on the chair next to Bruce. Bruce offers him the cake from his tray and Clint grins.
"Steve's looking for you," Bruce tells him, and Clint makes a face.
"Doesn't he have any real patients to chase around?" Clint grouses, eating with his fingers even though there's a plastic fork on the plate.
"Probably not to chase around," Bruce says, and Clint's grumpy expression turns into a wry grin. He's dressed in street clothes, almost, boots and jeans with a rip in the knee, but the pajama top and plastic wrist tag mark him clearly as a patient, even with a hooded zip-up thrown over his shoulders, covering the hospital issued top. "Aren't you losing privileges doing this?"
"Whatever," Clint says, "It's so stupid. It's not like I'm a psychopath. What are they going to do? Ground me until my PTSD decides it's had enough time outs?"
Bruce finishes his apple and drops the core onto his tray, and props his chin on one hand. Then looks up as a shadow falls across his table.
"You're supposed to stay," a stern voice says, "in a supervised area."
Clint glances up, then quickly shoves the rest of the cake into his mouth and mumbles around it. Steve lets him, but says, "I've been looking everywhere for you," and leans forward with his hands on the table. It's more in tired exasperation than to be threatening, but Clint's slouch gets a little more pronounced--a combination of tensing and edging away.
Steve backs up. "Clint," he says, like he's said it a hundred times before, "If you want to get out of here, you have to cooperate."
"Yeah, yeah," Clint grumps, "Take your zombie meds, watch your zombie TV with all the other zombies and stay in line so hunky nurse Rogers can look hunky and capable and in control of the inmates." He licks cheese cake off his fingers and tells Bruce, "I liked him a lot more before he started trying to impress doctor Romanov."
"I am not," Steve starts, but turns pink, "trying to do anything but help you, Clint."
"She's a communist," Clint tells Bruce, running his finger over the plate to gather up the remaining bits of cake. Steve frowns.
"It's that kind of paranoid talk--" he starts.
"It's a joke," Clint snaps, and picks up the fork but only so he can toss it down again, "A joke. Jesus Christ." And then he shifts around and reaches under the table. Comes up with one of his boots. "Look at this," he tells Bruce, his voice rising, "The other day they took my shoelaces because I didn't want to watch Wheel of Fortune."
Steve's face goes calmer the more worked up Clint gets. "Because you threatened to hang yourself with them," he says, but gently.
"If you didn't change the channel. It was a joke!!" Clint yells at him, and slams his boot down on the table, "Why is it always fucking Wheel of Fortune?"
"They know it was a joke, Clint," Bruce puts in, "And you know they can't take that risk. And take your shoe off the table, please. I'm eating here."
"Sorry about this, Doctor Banner," Steve says, "I don't know how he keeps getting out. It's a locked ward."
"I don't want to be locked up with the goddamn Wheel of Fortune zombies," Clint grumps. Steve sighs.
Says, "You can watch whatever you want in the nurses' office," he says, "If you come back and take your meds."
Clint puts his boot back on and looks like he's considering it. "No deal," he says, and grips the edge of the table.
"If you want me to drag you," Steve threatens as, at the sound of drama, Tony comes sauntering back.
"You wouldn't dare," Clint says, clinging to the table like a cat resisting a bath, "If you give me a flashback, I'm suing."
"Oh, you chase me away, but you'll have lunch with the entire mental ward." Tony says, watching them and chewing on a popsicle stick.
"It's called the psychology unit," Steve says and sounds righteously offended.
"Lunatic bin," Clint says, probably to offend him further, and then, to Bruce, "Mrs. Rosen gets to leave the floor. They even take her for walks outside."
"Mrs. Rosen wanders," Steve tells Bruce, "She's not a risk to herself or anybody else."
"I'm not a risk," Clint shouts and Tony sidles up behind him.
"Aaaand ploink," he says, and jabs Clint in the arm with something.
Clint jumps and snaps, "Watch it, asshole," but then blinks and goes quiet and mumbles, "Aw man. Zombie meds. Thanks a lot, Stark."
"Don't mention it, Head Case. Now stop running away or Doctor Romanov will think that hunky Steve can't do his job and dump him, and then his heartbreak will be all your fault."
Steve, who's starting to get Clint to his feet, stops to frown at him, "Doctor Stark, please don't teach patients to call me 'hunky Steve'. I don't think it's appropriate. And there's nothing going on between me and Doctor Romanov. Don't--" he stops to look at Clint, then says in a lower voice, "Mr. Barton has enough trouble distinguishing reality from--"
Tony ooh-s, then tuts, "I don't think Fruitloop hallucinates tawdry office romances, Nurse Rogers. But that's a nice try. Low, but a nice try."
"Don't call him a fruitloop," Steve scolds, "It's unprofessional and--and disrespectful. He's a soldier, for god's sake."
"And it's mean," Bruce adds, finally getting a chance to pick up his sandwich.
"Oh, get over your combat boots fetish, hunky Steve," Tony says, but snags a wheelchair and helps Steve get Clint into it. "You know it's not going to get you anywhere with Doctor Romanov. She wears the lady shoes."
"You have a combat boot fetish?" Clint slurs, "I have combat boots." Steve glares at Tony, but pats Clint gently on the shoulder.
"Let's hope you don't remember any of this later," he says, and starts to wheel him away.
"They'll probably take them away, though," Clint's saying dispiritedly as they round the corner.
"Well," Tony says, and snatches the other half of Bruce's sandwich, "I saved the day again."
"I don't think you should be drugging other people's patients," Bruce tells him, "He wasn't even that worked up."
Tony shrugs and makes an eh sounds, then uses the sandwich to gesture at Bruce and asks, "Are you cheered up now? Do you want to come see alien skin guy?"
"I might need another sandwich," Bruce says, "But after that, sure."
Bruce gets through Tony bragging about his bizarre patients, and then three kids with a stomach bug that's been going around, an eye infection he sends to ophthalmology and two routine check ups before he realizes that he still has the lollipop in his pocket. He could give it to the kid eying him expectantly, but he gives her a strip of stickers instead and doesn't even feel guilty about it.
He'd go give it to Clint, except Steve--Bruce can't stop calling him hunky Steve in his head now, thanks to Tony--is already complaining about how Clint's routines are fucked. That and because when he pokes his head into psych, he sees Natasha threatening into a phone, low and dangerous and not loud enough to overhear. Even Thor is hiding out in the hall.
"Insurance try to turf one of her babies again?" Bruce asks, nodding through the door. Thor huffs.
"Stark thinks he knows better than her," Thor says, in his European accent. He has the unenviable job of restraining Natasha's out of control patients, and it clearly wears on him the way upsetting children does Bruce. For their own good doesn't actually make being the cause of the distress any less distressing. "He keeps interfering, walking onto the floor, teasing Steve. Giving advice."
Bruce grins. "Oh," he says, "Okay."
"Can I help you with anything?"
Bruce considers it and then says, "No, I don't think so. I'll wait until he breaks out again."
"Ah," Thor says, and smiles, "You should visit. Not right now," he adds, as Natasha slams the phone down and storms into an office where she starts to rail at Steve, who makes calming gestures and looks smitten as hell. Like being yelled at is the best thing that's happened to him all day.
"Right," Bruce says. "So maybe later, then."
The next time he finds Clint, he's in the children's ward. Not entertaining them like patients with hearts of gold in medical dramas, but trading chocolate from the cafeteria for shoelaces. He has to tie two together to make them long enough for a single boot, so he's got a combination of pink and purple as well as a cheap green plastic kazoo.
"Kid in the flip flops felt left out," he explains through it, when Bruce directs him to an empty examination room and tells him to stay while he calls psych. "I wasn't doing anything, Bruce. I tried to trade with the grown ups, but they all know I'm psych now and they just sort of--" he mimes edging away and Bruce smiles.
"I'm still getting Steve," he says, "you know he gets worried."
"Pff. Why don't you get Thor?" Clint says, starting to lace his boots. Bruce considers letting him, but he'll just end up with the laces confiscated again and probably traumatize himself further in the struggle to keep them. He plucks them out of Clint's hand.
"Contraband," he explains, tossing them to the desk, "How do you think I'll feel if you end up hanging yourself over Price is Right?"
"Wheel of Fortune," Clint says, "and it was a joke."
Bruce ignores it and picks up the phone. Dials Natasha's office. "What happened with Thor?" he asks, while he waits for someone to pick up.
Clint shrugs, which is his usual reaction to anything he doesn't like. Bruce remembers the lollipop and fishes it out of his drawer. "Grape," he says, tossing it over, "That's the one you like, right? I had to save that from the candy bowl. The kids love those and we mostly get the red ones."
"Cherry," Clint informs him, but doesn't take the wrapper off. "You're not supposed to give me things when I escape, you know. You're rewarding my disrespect for the rules. It's 'hampering my recovery'." He makes vicious air quotes as he says it, then complains, "Mrs. Rosen took off down the hall today, and she didn't get tackled and put in restraints."
Bruce isn't sure what Clint's thing against the aging Mrs. Rosen is, other than that the staff tend to cater to her love of gameshows--probably because she reminds everyone of their grandmothers. "They put you in restraints?" he asks instead, because as far as he knows, Clint's not dangerous. Hasn't even been a danger to himself, let alone others, aside from the suicide attempt that had gotten him admitted in the first place.
"I may have punched my shrink," Clint says, "But he's an asshole. I think he's trying to fuck me up more."
Bruce sighs and says, "Doctor Laufeyson isn't trying to make you worse, Clint. And what did Steve tell you about making paranoid statements? Even as a joke?"
"That he'd have Thor lock me in the basement, so he can beat it out of me any time he feels like," Clint grumbles, hopping onto the examination table. The paper crinkles, making crunchy noises under him when he shifts. "He says a few good blows to the head would fix me, but medical ethics won't let him try it aboveboard."
Bruce has patients that lie compulsively, but they tend to be ten which as far as he's concerned warrants a gentler hand and some concern. Maybe a referral to a therapist, and, in some cases, a call to CPS. But Clint is an adult who's already living in a safe psych ward. "Clint," he says, but that's when the phone picks up. "Doctor Roma--Oh. Hunky St--I mean Nurse Rogers. I have your runaway. He was fleecing the kids for their shoelaces."
"Bartering," Clint calls, "and it was a fair trade."
"He says you want to beat him," Bruce adds, and Clint glares. "after Thor confines him in the basement."
Steve says, "What?" And sounds strangled. Hunky Steve had probably never been accused of shady violence before. "Alright," Steve says, and sounds tired now, "Don't let him go anywhere."
"Hah," Bruce says.
"Right," Steve says, with a rueful laugh, "Just try your best."
Bruce's late lunch is interrupted by Tony, who's developing something that's probably not ethically sound or properly researched, but knowing Tony, will probably work anyway.
"It's not my fault I get all the weirdos," Tony says, "I have to try weird things because my patients are freaks. Alien skin guy--who's totally cured now, by the way--is the most normal case I've had all year. Oh. Hey, Romanov."
"You can call your patients freaks," Natasha says coolly, "But you have to stop coming onto my floor and stirring things up."
"Oh, you just want Nurse Steve to yourself," Tony says, "Does he bring you coffee and flex when he hands it to you, like," Tony strikes a ridiculous pose, holding out a juice box, "so?"
"He's not a secretary," Bruce says, "Why would he bring her coffee?" as Natasha surveys Tony's pose, then snorts.
"You call that flexing?"
"Well, I'm just a nerdy medico, not hunky Steve. If I was, you'd be calling me hunky Tony instead of doctor. Or, you'd be calling me doctor, but like this; Doc-tor."
As if the place isn't enough of a soap opera without Tony speaking his internal monologues out loud. Bruce tries to ignore them and looks out the window as he peels his orange. In the reflection, he sees Clint peer into the cafeteria, spot Natasha, then leave. Out again, already.
"Why am I not surprised," Natasha says, spooning pudding, "that the inside of your head sounds like a bad porno."
"Now, now, Mrs. Freud," Tony smirks, "Sometimes a hel-looo nurse is just a hel-looo nurse."
"Stop with the nurse business," Natasha hisses, "or I'll kill you with my spoon."
Tony looks unimpressed. "It's plastic," he says.
"Try me," Natasha dares him, and scrapes up the last of her pudding. In the window, Bruce sees Steve and Thor stalk up the hall.
"You better not," he tells Natasha, "I think psych is already going to be in for some drama this afternoon without murder on the list."
He sees Thor that evening as he's seeing off the parents of a new patient--three and newly moved to the city--and walking with them since he's on his way out, and discussing non-doctor things. They're physicists, which Bruce almost was, except he wanted to help kids. Thor has a black eye and looks mournful, and as the parents walk out of the lobby and into the parking lot, Bruce stops.
"What the hell happened to you?" he asks.
Thor shrugs unhappily. "Clint Barton believes my brother is attempting to harm him," he says, "I told him I didn't think he would do such a thing."
"He's paranoid," Bruce says, "You know that." He always forgets that Doctor Laufeyson and Thor are siblings. Or, half-siblings anyway. Thor is so big and blond and athletic, and Loki . . . not. It's like the revenge of the nerds--sports hero big brother tanks his grades and future and needs to be rescued by his nerdy, unpopular, turned brilliant doctor sibling. Thor doesn't seem to hold any grudges about needing his brother to help find him a job though. Thor just seems happy to be there and happy to help, except for when he seems sad as hell to be there.
Thor rubs at his shiner, and Bruce says, "Come on. This is a hospital and no one gave you an icepack for that?"
Thor straightens up and gives an offended sniff that's probably supposed to be macho but comes off oddly prissy. "This is nothing," he says, but follows Bruce back into the hospital anyway.
"Yeah, yeah," Bruce says, "Until your eye swells shut, it's nothing."
He doesn't see Clint for a few days, and it probably has something to do with punching Loki and then Thor in quick succession. Bruce wonders if maybe he's just got something against Europeans, then realizes he doesn't know if Steve had any violence done to him. He hopes not.
It would really ruin doctor Romanov's day if his face was banged up like Thor's, Bruce thinks, and snickers to himself before deciding he's been hanging out with Tony too much.
The cafeteria, when he swings through for coffee, contains the usual morning suspects. Paramedic Barnes, dropping off an early emergency and catching some breakfast on the way out, the parents of some of his patients--who Bruce exchanges friendly nods with--Tony, who seems to be emptying the coffee dispenser into what may be the world's largest tumbler, and Maria Hill, the orthopedics patient who won't stay off her feet long enough for anything to heal, back again from the brutality that is her sports career. She'd been Bruce's patient once, when she was just a teen aiming for a college scholarship.
"No rest for the wicked, doc," she calls, hobbling with her foot in a cast.
"It's like you live here," Bruce tells her, getting a cup and hoping there's coffee left when Tony's done. "Don't you think you could at least take off-season breaks?" Hill pouts, but it still looks fierce as hell.
"I'll rest when I'm retired," she says, "You know I won't look great in lycra forever."
"I think beach volleyball will survive without the sacrifice of your tibia," Bruce tells her, as Tony finally screws on the lid of his tumbler and moves on to scan the pastries.
"I do triathlons," Hill says, like Bruce hasn't been making that joke since she was seventeen.
Lunch is less successful, even though Clint is back on the lam, and hanging out with cop-on-the-mend Phil Coulson, who's mostly just there for PT after miraculously surviving a shot to the chest. He maybe doesn't know that Clint is a psych ward escapee. They're talking about tough-guy shit, guns and kevlar and why Phil wasn't wearing any, and how Clint has a scar that will beat a measly bullet wound any day.
A bunch of scars, so hah!
Phil laughs, then rubs his sternum with the backs of his fingers. Nods at Clint's get-up--still jeans and pajama top, but no hoodie this time--and asks, "Is that what you're in for?"
Clint shrugs a shoulder and says, "I could tell you, but then I'd probably have to kill you," and Bruce thinks Phil is probably the most likely person in the building to notice that Clint doesn't have a belt in his jeans or laces in his boots and put two and two together, but also the least likely to be judgmental about it.
"Bruce!" a voice calls, just as Bruce is selecting a bowl of fruit salad and a slice of cheese pizza. He looks up to see Tony wheeling a whiteboard right into the cafeteria, "What do these symptoms say to you?"
"That you're losing your grip on professionalism?" Bruce suggests, moving a bowl to his tray. Tony scowls.
"The ones on the board, smartass. Come on. This guy is weird."
"You're broadcasting his private medical information to the entire hospital," Bruce says, and turns the whiteboard so it's not facing the seating area.
"Maybe someone will have a suggestion that will make him stop puking," Tony says, "You really think he'd complain at this point? I keep waiting to see if any organs come up."
"There's a stomach bug going around," Bruce offers. "I keep getting vomiting K through sixers." Tony gives him the stink eye.
"Please. My patients don't get your measly little grade school queasiness," Tony says, like he's personally offended that his patient might be easily treatable.
"You really think he'd complain about it, at this point?" Bruce asks, but Tony doesn't stop glaring.
"It's not always about them," he says, and crosses his arms to survey his list with a scowl.
"It's stomach flu," Bruce says, and takes two slices of pizza instead of one. The cafeteria is going to be the death of him.
"It can't be flu. Tony Stark doesn't get the flu. Doesn't treat the flu. Unless it's like, amazing epidemic flu, then maybe."
"Amazing epidemic flu?" Bruce echoes, "I'm sure the virus will be honored that you'd consider diagnosing and treating it, right before it wipes out half of humanity. Until then, could you remove your breach of medical ethics from the food line?"
"Poo," Tony says, and wheels the board to where he can face it to a wall, "There? Happy? Want to hear about how I caught a certain doctor and a certain nurse getting bawdy in the ER?"
"Not really," Bruce says, because he suspects Tony makes a lot of his news up, just to entertain himself. "This place is enough of a drama pit with Thor and doctor Laufeyson. You don't need to stir up the Steve and Natasha thing."
"Why don't you just call him 'Loki'?" Tony asks, eating cookies right off the serving platter.
"I don't really like him," Bruce says.
"Oh? Is it because Clint thinks he's being brainwashed? Has he turned you against your fellow medical professional?"
"Clint's paranoia is a part of why he's here," Bruce points out, "You better not be encouraging him."
"I may or may not have agreed to get Loki drunk and then ply him for information. He might be working with that soviet spy lady."
"Doctor Romanov? Your friend Doctor Romanov? Who you've known for years?"
"Everyone's a friend until they turn on you. You never know in these dark times, doc." Tony snags a piece of chocolate cake and starts breaking pieces off of it to pop into his mouth. Bruce isn't at all sure he's planning on paying for any of it.
"Don't talk like that around Clint," Bruce warns "You'll give him an episode, and then Steve will be so upset with you."
"Hah!" Tony snorts, "Steve's not capable of being upset right now. Did I tell you about the thing in the ER?"
"Yes, Tony. Go away, Tony. Don't you have a stomach flu to deal with?"
Tony makes a pff sound. "If that's all it is, he better at least puke up a piece of liver. Or something. Stomach flu. I'm bored already, just thinking about it."
The day's slow downward slide picks up momentum, because later, when he's back to grab a snack and some candy to use as bribes, Bruce gets a call and loses it. The way he hasn't in a while.
It's a patient, and another no-surprise. They'd known the boy wasn't going to make it, but for a little bit it had felt so close. Like he might just pull through this time, again, and make it a little longer. For a little bit, Bruce had believed it. In a completely unprofessional way, had believed in the clinical trials the way the kids believed in magic, even though he knew better.
It's a mercy that the kid hadn't made it, just to struggle on another day, or two, or twelve, but when someone says something vaguely, tangentially related to it's better this way--possibly even about their aging pet. Bruce hadn't caught the whole conversation, just the end bit--he feels the rage rise up in him and throws a chair, and then another and then starts yelling at some some poor jerk who's probably just had to put his cat down.
He almost breaks a window before the rage leaves him, and then he stands there panting and wiping treacherous tears from his eyes, and is just with it enough to be grateful that the cafeteria is otherwise empty except for some patients that aren't his and a handful of staff. At least they know what happened and will explain it away to the patients as Doctor Banner cares so much, poor guy. Tony comes over--because his office seems to defined by 'near coffee' instead of what door has his name on it--and pats his back and rates his tantrum a seven out of ten. He's starting to feel better when he sees Clint.
Clint's gone quiet and frozen, still hanging out with Phil, who doesn't have a ride home from PT until later and nothing to do at home, anyway.
"Oh, shit," Bruce says, as Clint gets up and beats a retreat, nearly losing an unlaced boot as he stumbles toward Steve.
Steve, who is blessed with a cool head. At least that makes one person in the damn hospital. He takes Clint gently by the upper arms--still wary of Clint's new tendency to resort to hitting, maybe--and pulls him into the shelter of Steve's hunkiness, as Tony would call it. "Are you alright?" Steve asks, and Bruce feels a wash of shame, just about as bad as if he had gone off and scared one of the kids.
Clint nods, but he clearly isn't alright, because he's going to Steve instead of evading him like he's the long arm of the law and asks, "Can we go back now?"
Steve gives Bruce a look, and even though his face is mild, Bruce can feel the reproach dripping off of him. "Sure," he says to Clint, "Of course we can. I've only been trying to catch you and bring you back all day. Think you'll take some meds today? Maybe have a nap before your appointment with Doc Loki?"
"You know he's trying to kill me," Clint says, but nods.
Bruce feels exhausted and guilty, and it's not helped by Phil saying, "Oh. I was wondering about the boots."
Bruce goes back to pediatrics and fishes around everyone's offices until he finds another grape lollipop, and deals with another puker and a case of chickenpox that he hustles out of there before half the hospital gets it, then wanders over to psych, where Thor is wearing sunglasses to cover his bruised face. The television in the day room--just like Clint said--is showing Wheel of Fortune, half ignored by the handful of patients sitting out in the common area.
Steve is in the nurses's office--a tidy little room with a large window and a couple of desks, running through paperwork, marking off items. Administered meds, maybe, or filled appointments.
"Hey," Bruce says, and Steve lets him in.
Says, "You scared Clint pretty good," and without a patient he's responsible for right there, he lets the disapproval into his voice and lets it show on his face. Bruce winces.
"I know. I came to see if he's alright." Thor sees him and gives a little wave and Bruce waves back. Just with his fingers, not even really lifting his hand. Steve frowns.
"If he had anyone coming to see him," Steve says, stern, the right hand man of the Romanov regime, "I'd kick you out on your ass, Doctor Banner. But," he shrugs, "you're kind of friends, right?"
By Steve's tone, Bruce knows the answer he wants is 'yes', so he obliges, saying, "Yeah. Kind of. Based on aiding his escapes and feeding him cake, but yeah." Then, "Nobody comes to see him? No girlfriend or anything?" It's hard to imagine, but then, Clint has been paranoid and suicidal, and it probably hadn't contributed to building a lasting relationship. Still.
"His CO," Steve offers, "The one he tried to kill."
Bruce raises an eyebrow, "I thought he was in for a suicide attempt?"
"That was afterwards," Steve says, "when he realized what had happened." It makes sense, then, why Clint is on a locked ward. Bruce had wondered about that, because Clint's seemed mostly cranky and sad at worst.
"CO doesn't come anymore?" Bruce asks, and thinks he was probably just making sure that Clint was securely locked up. Steve seems to read it in his face because he snorts, softly.
"It upset Clint to see him," he says, "Clint asked him to stop."
"Oh," Bruce says, "That's--" No wonder Clint's always hanging out with Tony and Bruce and unrelated patients.
"Room eight," Steve says, "on the left. Call if he seems upset."
Clint doesn't seem upset. He seems sleepy. There's a television--small, locked into place, and with a shortened cable--playing in his room. Some kind of action movie, turned down low. His boots are kicked off and messily tossed apart, one by the side of the bed, the other in the corner behind the door. Otherwise, the room has the spartan look of risk control--locked dresser so Clint can't make a noose out of his clothing, no flowers in a vase in case he smashes it and tries to hurt himself with the shards. Even his water is in a paper cup.
Bruce would break out too, if he had to live there.
"Hi, Clint," Bruce says. There's a sturdy chair by the door, so he pulls it over and sits down.
"Phil knows I'm mental now, huh?" Clint asks, and Bruce feels guilt wash through him again.
"I think so. I'm so sorry, Clint. I didn't see you were there," As if it would have made a difference, Bruce thinks, with bitter self-loathing, "But. You know Phil's a cop. I'm sure he's seen his share of trauma reactions. I don't think he'll hold it against you. I think he'll understand."
"If I was just crazy," Clint says, "but not that I tried to kill my CO. That kind of thing doesn't go down well. Even with cops."
"You don't have to tell him about that," Bruce says, and pats Clint's arm. Clint, like Tony, reminds him a bit of the kids, but in a different way. Struggling to blend safely in, where Tony struggled to stand out and monopolize any scrap of available attention, to be more brilliant a doctor than his father had been an engineer--because, as Tony said, fuck machines. They could be cut apart and soldered back together, no harm, no foul. A cheatingly easy science.
Psychology, Bruce thinks, for all that Tony makes fun of it and Natasha, might be even harder--trying to cure an intangible thing.
Clint lets his eyes drift shut for second before he says mournfully, "He'll find out any way. I'm pretty sure Phil's a spy."
Bruce sighs, "He's not a--Clint, he's a cop. You have to stop talking like this. Nobody is a spy, or a communist, or trying to brainwash you, or going to lock you in the basement. No one here is out to get you."
"If it was me," Clint points out, "yelling and throwing chairs around, I'd be in the hole by now."
"The--You mean solitary?" There's probably an official, friendlier name for the padded cell, but everyone calls it solitary or isolation. "I doubt it. That room is to keep patients from hurting themselves, and you seem pretty calm."
Clint smiles drowsily and touches Bruce's hand, where it's still resting on his other arm, careful like he thinks Bruce might be easy to damage. "I hit Thor," he says, and Bruce can't tell if it's an admission or a brag.
"I saw," Bruce says, "Why would you?" Why would anyone? Thor's like a giant kid, feeling written all over his face.
"I didn't want to talk to his stupid brother. I want a different doctor. Loki is an asshole. He keeps trying to get into my head."
"He's a psychologist, Clint. It's his job."
"Yeah, but," Clint strokes his hand a little. It somehow makes Bruce unreasonably sad, "I don't like him. I want someone else. Mrs. Rosen gets Natasha."
Bruce can't help but smile. He uses his free hand to fish in his pocket for the candy, then shows it to Clint before putting it on his nightstand. "Since you get out all the time and haven't done yourself any harm, I'm going to trust that you won't choke yourself to death with this or anything. So please don't try."
"Sorry about your patient," Clint says, "You can stay here if you want to hide out."
"You don't mind?" Bruce asks, but Clint's careful touch on his hand has turned into a loose grip, so he suspects the offer isn't entirely altruistic.
"Just don't let Thor take me to the basement," Clint says, and yawns.
Bruce sighs, but keeps holding his hand and says, "Okay."
He doesn't really feel better about freaking Clint out until the next time he walks through the cafeteria and sees Clint having breakfast with Phil, eating colorful sugary cereal and showing Phil a burn scar on the back of his arm.
"Sure," Phil says, "but a bullet wound is deep."
Clint frowns, "I'm just getting started here, Coulson," he says. It makes Barnes, who's again dropping off an early commute traffic accident, flinch and blanch. He's a vet and he and Steve were childhood friends and were going to join up together, except that Steve had washed out of boot on account of an asthma attack. Who knows what Barnes might be seeing in Clint's road map of scars.
"Jesus," Barnes says, and Bruce looks over from where he's standing by Tony's table, admiring the latest constellation of symptoms Tony's trying to solve. Clint's showing Phil a collection of scars across his ribs, but stops when he realizes people are watching.
Bruce gestures Barnes over and gets him a juice, and lets Tony talk at him about less intentionally systematic injury until he feels steady enough to head back out to his rig. "I'll have hunky Steve call you," Tony yells after him, which will only serve to spread the nickname further, "to make sure you're okay."
"Stop calling him that," Barnes yells back, "He hates that," and letting people know that, really, will only cement it.
Bruce tries not to smile, because nothing about the situation is funny except maybe the prospect of Steve's continued frustration, but it's been a rough week and he can't help it. Helpless smiling is better, at any rate, then helpless yelling and smashing.
He sees Natasha later that day when he needs a consult on a kid who might be autistic and so she can talk to the kid's parents about diagnosis and what to expect. She has her hair up in an elegant twist and the little girls in the play area peer out into the hall. One of them offers her a sticker, which she presses to the lapel of her white coat.
She's good with kids, for a soviet spy, Bruce wants to say, thinking of Clint.
Natasha sees his patient and sends the parents to set up an appointment, then fixes him with a steady look. "What shit is Stark spreading behind my back?" she demands, and Bruce tries to buy time by pretending to clean his glasses, wiping the lenses with his handkerchief.
"About the same as the shit that he says in front of you," he says, finally, "Why? Is something going on?"
"No," Natasha says, a little too quick, but her face is a little too threatening for Bruce to want to risk contradicting her.
"Okay," he agrees, and her expression turns suspicious. Bruce rummages in his drawer and tosses her a lollipop. A red one.
"Ah," she says, pulling the wrapper off and peering at the candy as she spins the stick in her fingers. "I've been finding these in Clint's room."
"Since he's been breaking into the cafeteria to eat cake," Bruce says, "I didn't think one candy now and then would make a difference."
Natasha snorts and sticks the candy in her mouth. Says, "There's nothing going on with Steve."
"Sure," Bruce agrees.
"Good," Natasha says.
"So," Bruce says, "Just to make sure I'm getting this. You want me to shut Tony up so people won't pay so much attention to the fact that you're pulling your nurse into supply closets in the ER?"
Natasha narrows her eyes at the mention of the ER, and Bruce had really thought that Tony had made that up, or at least just put his own dramatic spin on it, but apparently not. "That's what I said," Natasha says, and Bruce hmm-s.
"With that kind of double speak, no wonder Clint thinks you're a spy."
"Clint thinks everyone's a spy," Natasha says, with a huff, "He's trying to get people to re-enact his trauma with him so he won't have to talk about it."
"Oh," Bruce says. That makes sense. Sort of. Then he says, "You know he hates working with Doctor Laufeyson, right?"
"What are you doing? Telling me how to run my unit? Are you Tony now?"
One Tony is more than enough for everyone. "We're just sort of," Bruce says, "friends."
"Mm-hmm," Natasha says, dubiously, and spins the candy in her mouth. It clicks against her teeth as she does.
"Well," Bruce says, "Sort of."
"Want to see something amazing?" Tony asks him, catching up as Bruce is picking up some mail at the front desk--a copy of a journal he's published in, some sample slides, and a reference book. Jarvis, who mans the desk and the switchboard, hands them over and ignores Tony as he leans over the partition and rifles through the mail cubbies.
"If by 'amazing' you mean 'disgusting', then no," Bruce says, and hefts his packages, "I have new reading that's much more interesting than poking at some poor guy's sores for your amusement."
"My science!" Tony objects, retreating as Jarvis finally has enough of him and raps his knuckles before he can do any real damage to what Bruce is sure is tidy mail organization.
"Sure. Did you remember to tell Steve to call Barnes?" Bruce is pretty sure Tony didn't, but it's not like Barnes doesn't have a partner on the rig, so he's sure everything is fine, even if Clint's new morning routine is to try to traumatize everyone else. He supposes they're all lucky that Phil seems to be bulletproof, at least psychologically. And maybe physically, too, considering the hit he took.
"Might have. Well. There's this. In an. Um," Tony mumbles under his breath, following Bruce for about a hundred yards before suddenly veering off into radiology. Which, Bruce figures, is as much of an admission of guilt as he's likely to get.
"And Natasha wants you to quit gossiping about her," he yells after Tony.
"Sure," Tony yells, "as soon as you stop getting cozy with the mental patients."
It's not funny. It would be a gross violation of ethics, and not even in just a theoretical way, but arguing with Tony would just encourage him so Bruce just waves him off and walks on.
Things go on in the same way, for a bit. Bruce even gets quiet lunches, sometimes with Thor who is surprisingly good company despite his gruff manner and loud voice. Bruce had thought he'd been assigned to psych because his brother works there, but really Thor's got a gentle personality. Kind. The kids like him too, and climb all over him when he has a reason to come to pediatrics. He's probably booked up with story time reading requests until sometime in mid-May.
He sees Coulson in PT while he's escorting an eight year old who's learning to walk with braces. Coulson gives the kid the whole wounded-cop routine and shows him his scar like he had with Clint and expresses amazement at the kid's surgical sites and calls him 'big man' and 'tough guy', so Bruce smiles his thanks and leaves them to compare wounds.
"Don't worry," the kid's saying, as Bruce heads out, "Yours is just small." He hears Coulson laugh.
Clint's scars aren't small. Bruce has seen parts of his file now, because Tony thinks Bruce's presumed interest is an invitation to break into other people's patients' files and Clint looks like someone may very well have kept him locked up somewhere to beat at their leisure. He doubts it was Steve, though and rolls his eyes as Clint gives Barnes the spies are out to get me spiel, starring Thor and hunky Steve. Barnes doesn't look any more troubled than Coulson had, leaning an elbow on a table, his other hand playing with his coffee cup as he listens.
"Well, Barton,' he says, "sounds like you have a problem."
"Nobody believes me," Clint says, his voice low, "They just. You know. Because I'm a psych patient."
"Because you're ranting about spies," Barnes says calmly and sips his coffee, "And because Steve's worked here for years." Clint slouches and scowls, playing with the crust of a piece of pie, the rest of it long since eaten.
"I'm not ranting," he says, "I'm just saying."
"Yeah, well. You're stirring Steve up. He's got--" Barnes drops his voice and says, very quietly and with a guilty note to it, "he's got issues with other people's trauma already."
Clint frowns and breaks off a piece of crust. Crumbles it between his fingers, "What's he doing working in psych then?"
Barnes shrugs. Makes a what-can-you-do helpless gesture, spreading both hands before returning to his previous pose. "Guy wants to help people," he says, with an expression that's fond but that also clearly says he thinks Steve is an idiot, "And, you know. I think he feels guilty that he wasn't there. Lucky asthma and stuff." Barnes's hand leaves his coffee to he can pull his sleeve up to show Clint a massive scar.
"I had nerve damage. It got better, and it took a bit, but Steve was the one who was a wreck about it," he says, and grins. Clint glances, but looks away. Interesting, Bruce thinks, in Tony's voice.
"I didn't have spies after me, though," Barnes says, pulling his sleeve back down, "Or a doctor who was trying to brainwash me. Is it like some kind of seventies movie in your head?"
Clint crumbles more pie crust, "That's not what I--He doesn't listen."
"And how do you feel about that?" Barnes asks, in a fake-therapist voice. Clint snorts, then glances around and leans over the table.
"I can't talk about everything. You know what I mean."
Barnes tips his head a little, "It depends if you're talking I'm secretly Mata Hari crazy time, or if you mean security clearance, I guess," he says.
"Doctor Laufeyson," Clint says it sarcastically, "thinks I'm a delusional nutbag, or holding out on him, or I don't know what. He won't stop asking."
"Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean you don't think someone's out to get you," Barnes commiserates, and Clint nods glumly, missing the joke. "You want more cake, Barton?"
"No," Clint snaps, "I want to stop being interrogated. I want it to be over."
Barnes says, "Damn," and sits back with his arms folded over his chest, then, when Clint keeps glaring at his plate, gestures for Bruce to call Steve and stays until he gets there before going back to his shift.
"Steve's pretty smart," Natasha gushes the next day, ignoring the photos of bizarre cultures Tony's trying to make them look at. She probably thinks she sounds professional and objective, and even Tony doesn't dare to let his smirk get too wide. "Maybe he should go to medical school," she suggests, and frowns, "Or he could be a first responder like Bucky."
Bruce doesn't ask if Steve is going to get a say in his professional future. He has the feeling that Steve rather enjoys being a nurse, most of the time.
"But then you'd lose your nurse," Tony points out, and manages to sound even and innocent. Natasha raises an eyebrow at him anyway, pursing her lips consideringly.
"But then," she says, "it wouldn't be tacky anymore."
"Ah-hah!" Tony yells, "I knew it. I knew it. Everybody knew it! And now you want it to be classy? Oh, Romanov."
"You know nothing," Natasha says, and flicks her fingers at him then steals one of Bruce's cookies, and uses it to gesture meaningfully at him, moving on, "You. Pay attention when Clint breaks out and talks at you. Tell me if he acts any different. I made a gap in my schedule for him. I want to see if it helps."
"What about Mrs. Rosen?" Bruce asks.
"She'll get on with Laufeyson," Natasha says, "She thinks he's a sweet boy. It's not ideal to trade patients around, but if therapy was re-traumatizing Clint," she shrugs.
"And the whole basement thing?" Bruce asks.
"Classified, apparently," Natasha says, and raises both eyebrows meaningfully.
Tony says, "Damn. This is even better than my weird liver infection. Well, not my liver, but."
Bruce is about to say something when he sees Maria hobbling past, with a wrapped ankle. "That girl," he says, and throws his hands up, "Could she stay off a bicycle for two weeks? Just two? Do you think?"
"Or at least on one," Tony says. Which, Bruce supposes is a fair point.
Clint keeps breaking out of psych to sneak into Pediatrics, where even the nurses have started saving grape lollipops for him, or to collect cake from Bruce. He stops accusing Thor of trying to entrap him for Steve to torture--which Bruce thinks was at least half put-on anyway, probably out of resentment at being constantly rounded up by Steve.
None of it really helps Bruce's temper problems, but continuing to visit Clint on bad days is kind of calming. Maybe because his room has a depressive effect. It's a little bit less minimalist now--some 'safe' personal items cluttering the surfaces--but still empty and looking like a cell.
"I'm earning back my boot laces." Clint says, sitting in the nurse's office with Steve and helping him sort through a pile of pens, tossing the dead ones with impressive accuracy at the trash bin.
"Again?" Bruce says, and Clint shrugs.
"Hunky Steve doesn't have a sense of humor," he says lightly, and ignores Steve's glare. Clint tosses another pen, then tilts back onto the back legs of his chair. He's in his own clothes, but with an inexplicable dressing gown thrown over it. "Mental ward fashion," he explains, probably because it pains Steve, "Wanna go get coffee?"
Bruce glances at Steve, who shrugs. "He'll just break out anyway. At least this way someone's got an eye on him. Bring him back if--"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Clint says, and then, to Bruce, "You'll have to pay, though. I don't have any money on account of being a flight risk."
"You could stop breaking out," Bruce tells him, as Clint jams his hands into the gown's pockets, clearly intending to keep wearing it.
"I really can't," Clint says, and grins. "Wanna get coffee sometime?"
Bruce blinks. Glances at Steve. "Clint. We are getting coffee."
"Yeah. Now. I mean, do you want to get some later?" and then he whispers, "On the outside."
"That would be unethical," Bruce tells him.
"It won't be when I'm better. And really, you're not even my doctor. Besides, Steve and Nat--"
Steve clears his throat. His face is so pink Bruce has no idea how he ever thought he could pull off a clandestine romance. Clint's probably thinking the same thing, because he smirks and pats Steve's shoulder, but tells Bruce, "Bucky got better."
"Bucky had nerve damage in his hand," Steve says, in his Natasha-told-me-to-say-this lecture recitation tone, "It's important to stay realistic about how those things are different, Clint."
"Pessimist," Clint accuses, and slips a pen into his pocket. Bruce fishes it back out and tosses it onto one of the desks.
"That's the new thing," Steve says, like he's not bothered, "I think I prefer it to the lying and ostracizing Mrs. Rosen."
"Mrs. Rosen," Clint says with contempt, but Steve ignores it and waves them off.
"Just don't let him steal anything dangerous or important, Doctor Banner," he says, and goes back to his work.
"So you and the kleptomaniac," Tony says, in his actual office today instead of reigning over the cafeteria so he can monopolize the coffee even as he complains about it.
"That's not why he's doing it," Bruce says, but he's not sure what Clint's casual thievery is about. Tony waves an indifferent hand, the other clutching a box of Chinese food that Pepper had dropped off earlier. He has the happy goofy look that he gets and tries to hide whenever Pepper has a few minutes and swings by.
"You're as bad as Steve," Bruce says, as Tony picks his chopsticks back up and pokes around in the box, fishing out his favorites.
"It's not humanly possible to be as bad as Steve," he points out, but doesn't let himself be derailed, "What will you do if the board finds out? He's a mental patient." Bruce rolls his eyes.
"There's nothing going on, Tony. Are you that desperate for new gossip now that Natasha's come clean? Because I think Thor might have somebody on the outside."
"Puh. Thor," Tony says dismissively, waving a piece of broccoli, "I'm sure he has some sickeningly wholesome, healthy romance. Mutually respectful. Love all around. They probably take walks and hold hands." It sounds not that far from Tony's romance, minus the juggling of timetables and late-night medical emergencies, but Bruce doesn't say so. Tony probably likes to think of his love life as racy and daring, and nothing epitomizes that like one's girlfriend dropping off broccoli beef stir fry and an ice cream sandwich.
"Aren't we here to work?" Bruce asks him, to change the subject, and Tony puffs and puts his feet up on his desk.
"Lunch first," he says, but nods at the whiteboard where he has photos stuck up with magnets and notes scribbled in around them. Bruce wrinkles his nose. It's not alien skin guy, but it's similar, sort of. Discoloration, texture change. He's not squeamish, but he wouldn't be eating lunch over it either.
"It's like they think I'm a dermatologist," Tony complains, without defining who they is. "I'm bored already. I need assistants."
"You don't need assistants because you're bored, Tony," Bruce says, then looks around the office, "Hang on. Is this a consult or are you thinking I'm your understudy? Because this guy," he jabs a finger at the white board, "is not a child."
"Don't be so picky," Tony says, "Here, have this ice cream."
It feels like being bribed, and more than that, it feels like being bribed in the way one would an eight year old. But the ice cream is clearly melting, squishing in Tony's grip, and he's not even halfway through his stir fry so Bruce takes it to keep it from turning into a soggy puddle and peels the wrapper off. The ice cream drips stickily over his fingers and onto Tony's cluttered desk.
"I'm not his doctor," Bruce says, licking ice cream off his fingers.
Tony looks up, chewing, and says, "Mhuh?" around a mouthful of stir fry.
"Clint," Bruce says, "I'm not his doctor. I'm a pediatrician."
Bruce has another tantrum, but in the parking lot this time. He has a patient who keeps getting re-injured, whose parents don't seem to understand the connection between repetitive sports injury and the kid's declining classroom performance and how playing an age division up just isn't worth it.
He's grumbling to himself about it when he sees Maria Hill hobbling from her car for an x-ray and goes off at her. Tells her she's not going to be able to walk when she's forty, at the rate she's going. Tells her she's not Olympic medal material so why, why is she doing this? College scholarship? She's done with that. Has her degree. She's old for an athlete, get a real job.
He's yelling "Protect your goddamn knees," when he realizes he's acting like a lunatic and stops himself.
Maria doesn't seem fazed. She just stands there with a little frown on her face then asks, "Are you okay, doc?" and when he nods--still breathing hard--she lets her frown turn into a face-splitting grin.
"I might have a spot on the national team," she says, "if I can stay off the injury list."
"Yeah?" Bruce says, and smiles weakly and wishes he could take his whole rant back. Not only because it was a little mean, but because he seems to have been wrong, "Just--"
"Protect my knees?" Maria smirks.
"Be careful," Bruce says.
He finds Steve in the staff room, slowly eating a plateful of donuts and peering at a textbook with the sort of expression Bruce gives the photos tacked up in Tony's office--a kind of scared, fascinated, disgusted look. He turns a page and doesn't look up when Bruce enters. Just chews absently, in a way that makes Bruce think he hasn't thought to swallow in a while.
"Back to school?" Bruce asks, pulling his lunch--he'd had time to pack one, for once--out of his bag and looking about for something to use to write his name on the container.
"Doctor Romanov thinks I could do it. Maybe work with kids or something."
"Yeah?" Bruce asks him, finding a sharpie in a drawer and uncapping it to write Banner. If you steal this I will be VERY angry, on his lunch. "You don't look that excited about it. You should stop by my funhouse. See what working with the ankle biters is like."
Steve closes his book and takes another bite of donut. Says, "It's not that I don't want to. But--kids are so little," he says, and smiles a little distantly. Bruce has heard of the health problems Steve had suffered when he was younger, and he can see how pediatrics might be upsetting. A little over-identification happening, maybe.
"At least they're cute," he says, shoving his lunch into the fridge, then rethinking and hiding it behind a wall of mostly empty condiment jars. "Who brings whole jars of mustard to work?"
Steve looks up. "Doctor Stark. He says the cafeteria sandwiches lack 'pizzaz'."
Pizzaz sounds like a Tony word. Bruce hmm-s, and makes sure his lunch is well hidden then heads out to grab some coffee before it's time to tend to the daily influx of if you're not going to school, you're going to the doctor fevers and head colds.
"How do you deal with--with when you can't help them?" Steve says at his back, and Bruce is so not the guy who should be giving Steve advice about that. "It's bad enough with patients like Mrs. Rosen," Steve says, "where you know she isn't getting better, but at least she's had a life."
Bruce turns to lean in the doorway, watching Steve pick sprinkles off a donut in a distracted way. "It's a bit soon to be worrying about that, don't you think?"
"Sure. I guess. But," Steve frowns and taps a finger on the hard cover of the textbook, "you seem so upset, sometimes."
It's a nice way to put it, upset instead raving tantrum. Bruce doesn't know whether to smile or hang his head. Eventually he settles on, "It's not the kids that does it. I mean, it's stuff that happens to the kids, lately, but," he shrugs, "I've been angry for a long time, Steve."
Steve looks like he doesn't know what to say to that. Then he asks, "Anything help with that?"
Lunches with Natasha, Bruce wants to offer, but it's probably not what Steve means.
Steve's medical school crisis of confidence doesn't last. It's not long before he's neck-deep in applications and reading and looking about as studious as Tony pretends to be. Except Tony has taken to peering over Steve's shoulder, popping Skittles and offering commentary on the texts and the writers of the texts, and--in some cases--on the personal, private lives of the writers of the texts and rating their wildness at conferences on a scale of one-to-safari-park.
Steve tolerates it with patience, but it's a patience that starts to look strained before too long.
"You've turned hunky nurse Steve into a nerd," Tony accuses Natasha, "Look at him. Soon he'll have a pair of those little square glasses and a pencil behind his ear."
Natasha stops to look at Steve and maybe pictures it, because then she smiles, slow and wide. It's not a funny smile, and it's a couple points shy of safari park, but Bruce makes himself scarce anyway before Tony can elaborate on it.
Bruce's quiet hiding-from-Tony-and-Natasha lunch turns into cake with Clint, that they eat in the pediatric waiting room while Clint fiddles with a kid's toy--colorful blocks on loopy colorful wires--and yawns a lot. "Zombie meds," he explains, and frowns a little. Then, quieter, "Still adjusting, but--" and shrugs one shoulder.
But he's taking them again instead of spitting them back up, or tucking them into a plant, or whatever it was he was doing while he was doctor Laufeyson's patient. He's still stubborn and uncooperative and regularly escaping, but at least he seems to trust Natasha.
"Should you be wandering around?" Bruce says, "What if you get lost?"
"It's not that big a hospital," Clint says, and flops across the couch on his belly to rifle through a stack of kids' magazines, then leaves them to roll onto his side.
"You can't sleep in my waiting room, Clint. Come on back, and I'll call Steve. You can crash in my office."
Clint looks like he's going to resist, then doesn't and nods instead. Lets Bruce tug him back upright and hustle him down the hall and past the play area. So far, none of the parents have been around enough to realize that Clint is a repeat visitor, so Bruce hasn't had to explain why an escapee from psych is hanging around pediatrics. Even he has to admit that if he were a parent, he might be a bit concerned.
"Have m'shoelaces back," Clint tells him, pointing them out as he makes himself comfortable in Bruce's office. Bruce looks, and doesn't know whether to smile or feel sad for Clint, so he just tosses a blanket at him. It's a kid's blanket, printed with balloons and giraffes and it seems funny as hell to watch Clint spread it over himself. It's not quite long enough. It only just covers his shoulders, and his booted feet stick out the bottom.
By the time Steve gets there, he's mostly asleep.
"Is this an attempt to keep him from jumping the fence?" Bruce asks, even though Barnes and Coulson have started visiting Clint in psych, which has reduces the break-outs a bit.
The question is supposed to be a horse or farm reference--the kids like those--but it comes out sounding darker. Steve probably thinks he's making an incarceration joke, because he glares and folds his arms over his chest. Bruce plows on. "You know he's usually either here or in the cafeteria, right? I'm not sure how you're not always catching him."
Steve huffs. "I am always catching him. He gets out again," and then, with a sly look at Clint to make sure he's out of it, "And talking to Bucky and mister Coulson is good for him."
"Sneaky," Bruce says and finds a lollipop--red--in his drawer to give to Steve.
Coulson's finishing up with PT, and getting ready to start training to re-qualify for duty, but he drops by pediatrics sometimes to let the kids show him their scars and tell him he's less tough than they are.
"You should bring your badge," Bruce tells him, "That might actually impress the little buggers."
Bruce springs Clint for lunch. He's better on the medication, now that he's not climbing out of his skin trying to avoid anything that will lower his guard. He is still snatching random items, though and Steve has a growing pile of confiscated goods in the nurses' office. Bruce wishes Clint would lose the dressing gown, because it's obviously not some kind of weird patient fashion statement, but a place to stow stolen goods.
"We're not going out for coffee, are we?" Clint asks, "Because I steal muffins."
"Tony steals muffins," Bruce points out. Tony also steals cookies and tops up his coffee when he thinks no one's looking. Just treats the service line like his own personal buffet.
"Because he's stingy," Clint says, and gives Bruce a lopsided smile. Clint's not wrong, but Bruce doesn't think Clint's thievery is motivated by anything particularly strange either. He's not Natasha, but if he had to guess, now that he knows what he does, he'd guess that Clint's saving for emergencies, establishing some kind of safety net.
A safety net of muffins, sugar packets and possibly of Tony's fiddly gadgetry--mini flashlights and laser pointers and who knew what else.
Clint's joking about it, though, which is about as good as talking about it, and a big step away from accusing Thor of espionage.
"We can get coffee," Bruce agrees, "as long as you don't steal muffins from anyone but the hospital."
Clint grins, "Ah, so that's a yes for on the outside?"
"If Nat agrees. But no escaping. From the hospital, I mean. I wouldn't expect you give Steve too much of a break. Keep him on his toes."
Clint offers his hand across the table. "Deal," he says.
Maria, predictably, falls during selections but comes up mostly uninjured for once. Bruce almost wishes for a career-ender, just so he can stop watching her limp around his hospital. This time, though, she has a trophy with her so there's no point in talking to her about safety and raining on her parade.
Anyway, Bruce isn't her doctor anymore, so he tries not to be annoyed by it. He only rants at Tony for a little bit.
"Hunky Steve got a scholarship," Clint tells him, later. Much later. "Something about nurses moving up."
"Don't call him 'hunky Steve'," Bruce says, automatically, and Clint grins and leans his chin on his hand. The other plays with his coffee cup. He's not wearing the dressing gown, or even a jacket, but he doesn't seem bothered by the slight nip in the air. The sun's warm anyway, falling across their table and in Bruce's eyes, a little bit.
"He wants to shrink kid's heads," Clint says, "so they don't grow up angry, I guess," and grins at Bruce.
Bruce leans back. "I'm looking into sorting that out," he says, "but these things take time."
"It's important to stay realistic, doc," Clint says and that's true, but he's making progress. Bruce is making progress. His wish-they-were-quiet, anti-social lunches, for one, are now actually quiet, and taking place at a cafe across the road with Clint.
On the days that Clint's been behaving himself, at least.
Bruce's pager beeps, but it's just Tony, so probably not an emergency. Still. He gives Clint an apologetic smile and gets up. Clint knocks back the last of his coffee and, as he pushes his chair back, grabs a handful of little half-and-half containers and starts to stow them in his pockets.
Taking creamer isn't really theft, but Bruce gives him a look anyway.
"It's not that, Doc," Clint says, and hands him one. "It's therapy dog day." Bruce considers that and follows Clint outside and into the crosswalk. Then he slips the creamer into his pocket.
"Show up, okay?" Clint asks, but then flips a creamer packet into the air, catches it, and follows it with, "We'll have to take turns distracting his owner so we can feed him these things."
Bruce grins. Bumps his shoulder into Clint's and says, "I'll be there," then considers the hospital's facade and adds, "Barring medical emergency."
"Great," Clint says, "Because it's you or Thor and he's bad at sneaking."
Bruce isn't sure if he's any more reliable a partner for secretly feeding creamer to a dog, but before he can say so, Clint's got him by the hand and is tugging him through the automated front doors, and across the lobby, towards the elevators. "Come on. Sign me back in. I've got phone calls to make."
"Yeah?" Bruce asks, and braces himself for more spy talk. Clint grins.
"Calling my friends on the outside, doc." That's ... a step, considering Clint was the one that had asked to be left alone.
Bruce smiles and gives his hand a little squeeze but before he can say anything, Tony is on them, throwing his arms over their shoulders and saying, "Bruce. I paged you five minute ago. Come see my cool thing."
"Don't page me for cool things, Tony."
"You want me to page you for boring things?" Tony asks, making a face and Bruce sighs, because he's about to be dragged away to deal with patients and people who aren't six, and people exhaust him.
But, he figures, if Clint can make the effort for normal interaction, he can, too. He drops Clint off with Steve and says to Tony, "Okay. Cool things," and lets himself be dragged, for the second time that day, someplace that isn't a lab.