The moment a hawk ceases to hunt, it is destined to die.
It doesn't matter why. Damage to the eyes, or the beak, the talons or the wings or tail, all of it would cripple a bird, leave it struggling and fighting even as it descends into starvation and death. Until the elements and predators finish what hunger has begun.
If a hawk cannot hunt, it is destined to die. The only question is, how long it will suffer before it does.
He thought about that, as he crashed through the window, as he bounced across the carpet, trailing broken glass and blood in his wake. He had a moment to think about hawks and windows and failed hunts, and then the pain overwhelmed him, driving him into the darkness.
It was Natasha's voice that brought him back. It was fitting, somehow. It was Natasha who'd pulled him back from the nightmare of Loki's control, it was Natasha who set his mind to rights, and it was Natasha who who'd told him he was dying. It was Natasha who loosed him for one last flight, one last hunt, who saw to it that he had one last chance to clear his ledger before the end came for him.
And now it was Natasha, yelling over the commline about the Tessaract and the portal and the Chitauri, that dragged him back to consciousness. Agonized, he rolled over, trying to drag himself up, or forward, trying to move. Ignoring the sharp bite of the glass in his palms, in his arms, the metallic smell of blood and fear, he scrambled for his weapon.
His fingers closed on his quiver.
The shafts were gone, used up, but the arrowheads were still held in reserve, double and triple the number of shafts that he carried, because he could reuse recovered arrows, because he never knew if he'd need to fire every one of them as a barb tip or an explosive or an EMP. The shafts were gone, but...
He fumbled it open, his fingers slick with blood, and he didn't notice the cuts, he didn't notice the pain, he only noticed that his fingers couldn't get a grip on the slick surface, couldn't get it open, and he wanted to scream, but he didn't have the air. Somehow, he got it open, wrenched it out flat, fingers tracing the arrowheads when his eyes failed him, because if they came, when they came, he would not die easy.
One last explosive arrowhead, clutched in bleeding fingers, would make sure of that.
He laughed, and it was humorless, it was brutal and ugly. Let him be the bait in one last trap, one last suicide by proxy. He might die here, he might leave blood staining the wind and no other trace of having been alive, but if they came for him, they would not find him an easy kill. He never had been, and now, glass in his skin and blood in his mouth and his brain a wasteland of agony, he had rage to propel him. Rage to sustain him. Rage to carry him.
To keep the guilt and pain and grief at bay.
There was a shriek of noise outside the shattered window, and he wasn't sure what it was. Another attack? A retreat? He couldn't seem to focus, the words in his ear and the shattering sound of brick and metal and glass coming apart were rattling inside his head. He couldn't focus, couldn't understand. Head injury, he supposed, when a rare moment of lucidity allowed him to recognize his position, his back braced against a desk, some small bit of cover.
He tried to pull himself together. He tightened his fingers on the arrowhead, letting it bite into his skin, letting the pain clear his cloudy mind. Bombs. Death. Natasha's voice, sharp and hard and edged as she waited for the order. Rogers' voice as he gave it, resigned and strong despite it.
And the Hulk's roar carried from the street without the help of the comms.
From a distance, he listened to Stark talking, and that was good. That was right. Phil had always liked Stark, for all his whining, all his complaints, Phil had... Liked Tony Stark. Liked his bravado and his stubbornness and his brilliance. He'd believed in Stark, had gone head to head with Natasha about the man. Stark was talking, and Phil would be glad. And Clint was glad, so glad, not to have one last death on his hands.
“And shwarma after.”
Natasha's response was a breathy sigh, partially relief, partially disdain, and that was nice. That was normal. “I've got Selvig, and a line of sight on our last problem.”
“Selvig's with you, Stark, Banner and Thor are here with me,” Rogers said, sudden urgency in his voice. “Where's Barton?”
“He's not with-” Her words stopped, silence descending. “The rooftop he was on is gone. Hawkeye, I need a check in.”
He stared at the arrowhead, rolled it over in his fingers. The building wasn't stable. Wasn't sound. This little explosion might be enough to end it, to bring it down. They'd never know what happened. Even if the explosion was traced back to one of his arrowheads, there would be no way of knowing if it was triggered deliberately, or went off for some other reason.
He flexed his fingers against the arrowhead until his skin went white.
He closed his eyes, his world narrowing to the weight of the arrowhead in his fingers, and the grip of his bow in his other hand. His fingers flexed against the controls on the bow's grip. He could do it. He could trigger it, a flick of a thumb, a quick squeeze, and he wouldn't have to think about this any more.
He wouldn't have to think about anything any more.
Clint took a deep breath, ignoring the tearing pressure on his ribs. The air tasted like dust, and blood, and burning ozone. It was a layer on his throat, a film that wouldn't go away no matter how often he swallowed. His jaw flexed, and he choked on a cough, not wanting to give away his position. There were words, in the earpiece, and he thought about taking it out.
Wondered, idly, if he still had that voice mail on his phone, Phil bitching him out for leaving the laundry in the washing machine until it had fused into a mildewed ball of hate. Phil's dry, unemotional delivery of just how this was inappropriate had sent Clint into gales of laughter at the time; now he just wanted that voice. The earpiece burned, and he reached for it.
He didn't really want to hear anyone else's voice. Not over this. Not ever again. The only voice that had ever seemed comfortable in his ear had been reduced to a mechanical memory.
Phil Coulson would never again call him home. Or call him off. Or call him an idiot. The agony was so overwhelming that he would've screamed if he'd had the air left to do it. Instead, he folded forward, wrapping around himself, clinging to himself because there was nothing else to cling to.
“Clint? Let me hear your voice,” Natasha whispered, and that was more than he could stand. His bow clattered to the ground and he ripped the earpiece out. He flung it as hard as he could, a sound like a sob ripping free of him. The comm unit clattered across the ground, and he fumbled his arrowhead, clutching it against his heart, rocking with the force of his grief.
The wind caught him off guard, and off-balance, knocking him back on his haunches, making him scramble for his bow. He brought it up, little more than a blunt weapon, his body a live wire of desperation as the huge blonde man came through the shattered window, sending more of the walls in all directions. Glass and metal rained down, chunks crashing to the floor as the massive hammer slowed, the air humming in its wake.
“Hawk eye'd one?” Thor's voice was raw and exhausted. “Thank the All-Father, you still live.” His hand reached out, his fingers spreading in Clint's direction. “We must go, this structure has not long to stand.”
The reaction was visceral, a wave of terror that was on him without any warning, and he knocked Thor's hand away. For an instant, they just stared at each other, and Clint struggled to get his breathing back under control. “Don't touch me,” he said, and his voice was broken, the words rattling free of the pressure of his throat. “Don't ever touch me.”
Thor nodded, his face serious, eyes tight. “There is no other who can get you free of this,” he said, his voice soft. Almost coaxing. “The man of iron is too badly injured, your vessel is not capable of flight, and no other can reach you. I know you have no reason to trust me, and every reason to bear me ill will, but I cannot leave you to die here.”
Clint wasn't sure how, but he got his legs under him, his fingers scrambling at the ground as he forced his body up. He left behind tracks of blood where his fingers had pushed hard, like gaping wounds on the floor. He dragged himself up, inch by aching inch, forced his joints to lock into place, forced his spine and his shoulders and his entire body into place. “Don't touch me,” he repeated, his voice a raw snarl. “Just- Don't.”
He shifted a step back, and the building shuddered beneath him, nearly knocking him back on his ass. Thor inched closer, jaw tight. “Do not do this,” he said, his voice agonized. “Please, do not do this. There has been enough death, has there not?”
Clint's fingers were digging into the arrowhead, the hard lines cutting into his skin, slicing his palm open. Blood dripped to the floor, down the length of his shaking arm as he held it up between them. “Don't touch me,” he repeated, shuffling backwards. He groped behind him, his fingers catching on some piece of office furniture, and he used it to stabilize himself.
The arrowhead scraped against the metal.
“He's your brother,” Clint seethed, words boiling out of him. “You know what he did to me. What he did-” His jaw ground tight. “What he made me do.”
Thor nodded. “Yes.”
“And if I demand the right to put a fucking arrow into his fucking eye socket, then will you care how many people he's killed? How many lives he ruined?” Clint said, and the tip of his bow scraped against the floor. “If I leave here with you, you gonna let me do it?”
The silence stretched, and Thor laughed, the sound humorless and dark. “Always, he wished to curry our father's favor.” He reached up, pushing his hair away from his face. “Perhaps losing an eye in the wake of a great battle would make him feel a connection. I've lost all hope of creating one on my own.” His armor stretched, and Clint saw the slice, low under his arm, the blood sticky and dried there. “He has no love of me. I make no excuses for him. All I can do is minimize his damage.”
He paused. “All I can do is make amends.”
Clint stared at him. “Some things,” he said, at last, “can't be forgiven.”
Thor's mouth opened, then he paused. His hand came up, his fingers pressing on his ear, and Clint realized someone had given him a comm unit at some point. He'd wonder when, but he found he didn't much care. Thor nodded, his brow furrowed.
“The Lady Natasha,” he said to Clint, “says that the pact still stands. That you have a promise made to the Son of Coul. That you will not betray that promise.”
Clint's fingers tightened on the arrowhead, one last time, and then his fingers went slack. It clattered to the ground, the last out he had. His last escape route. “Tell her,” he said, stumbling towards his discarded quiver, “that I only agreed to that because I thought I'd be the first one to die. If I'd known how things were going to end up, I would've told him to go fuck himself.”
It took more effort than he would've dreamed to heft his quiver back on his shoulder. “Let's go finish this,” he said to Thor. “Before I change my mind.”
“I figured something out today. I figured out that I'm done with watching good men die and not doing a damn thing to stop it. I couldn't help them. But I'll be damned if I won't save you. Sign the form.”
Clint opened his eyes, but didn't bother turning his head. “Sir.” The word was thick as cotton in his mouth, thick as his head, fragments of memories and dreams and nightmares, caught on the jagged edges of confusion that the medication caused.
He did better without it. Medical, unfortunately, didn't share that view.
There was a faint stuttering unevenness to Fury's steps, the tiniest indication of a limp in the way he moved, slower than usual, something approaching hesitation in the way he crossed to Clint's bedside. Clint stomped down on an annoying spike of panic at the approach. An uncertain, injured Fury was outside of his experience, and he didn't know how to cope with that.
He stared, resolute and blank, at the far wall. If he bothered to blink, he wasn't aware of it.
Fury took a seat in the empty visitor's chair, settling down with a faint sigh. He slumped low, his whole body seeming to give into the weight of gravity all at once. He tipped his head in Clint's direction. “Not going to ask how you're doing. Think we'll leave that bullshit to those who think the question means something.”
Clint didn't move. “Yes, sir.”
“You know that Phil and I, we had a running tally,” Fury said, the blunt force of the words hitting Clint like a sledgehammer in the stomach. “Boons granted. Chits called in. Favors owed.” His lips twitched up in a macabre smile. “As it turned out, I owed him quite a few.”
“With all due respect, sir, it's because you're a son-of-a-bitch,” Clint said, no trace of emotion in his voice.
“Damn straight, Agent.” Fury leaned back, his hands sliding along the thin arms of the chair. His fingers drummed an irregular rhythm. “And no one knew that better than Coulson.” He took a breath, and it was a thin, strained sound in the room. “Right after you were taken, he showed up in my office. With a little red ledger. Every goddamn nasty trick I'd played, every time I'd used him as a pawn, every time I fucked the man over, neatly accounted for.”
He reached into his jacket, fished it out, and held the small volume up between two fingers. “Laid it on my blotter, and named his terms.”
Clint didn't look, didn't react, as Fury tilted the leather bound volume forward and back, letting the diffused lighting play along the spine, glowing like blood. Fury tossed it down on the white hospital linens. “He'd wipe my slate clean, and all I had to do was bring you back. And keep you.”
“He's dead. He won't know,” Clint said. The empty nothing on the other side of the room was blurred around the edges, and he blinked, ignoring the raw, gritty feeling of his eyelids.
“Yeah, but as it turns out? I will.” Fury stood. “He played his hand, he emptied his coffers. Everything he had on me, he traded it in for you. That we find you, and when we found you, no matter what, you stay with SHIELD, and we protect you. And that's what we're going to do.” He tucked his hands in his pockets. “None of this was your fault. I saw it with my own eye, and I'll swear to that.”
Clint's lips curled up, cold and empty. “Until it's convenient for you to change your mind, sir?”
“And that's why I gave you Phil's ledger,” Fury said, grinning back, and his teeth were white and sharp. “Your own little insurance policy.”
He made no move to touch it. “How do you know I'm back?”
Fury shrugged. “We haven't perfected a blood test for magic yet, so we're going on observation, and your actions. If you start exhibiting signs of being out of your own control, then we'll handle it.” Clint didn't have any doubt of how he planned to handle it, and that was bourne out when Fury continued. “We've confiscated your weapons for now. We'll need a little breathing room before you're gonna get 'em back, but we'll work out some range time for you, and we'll go from there.”
“We'll go from there?” Clint echoed. “So, what? I go back to running ops? That'll go so well. I mean, I can try to fill in for the agents I killed, but that's gonna be tough for the rest of the squad.”
Fury's eye was on him, sharp and dark, fathomless. “For the time being, you're going to be on medical leave,” he said, and ignored Clint's curse. “You're going to get back into form, you're useless like this.” He tipped his head at the bruises and cuts on Clint's hands and arms. The doctor had made an attempt at bandaging them; Clint had made it clear that if they got bandaged, he was just going to take them back off as soon as he was alone. “I've arranged for a standing psych appointment.”
“Fuck you, sir,” Clint said with a pleasant grin.
Fury arched his eyebrows. “That's how we're going to play this?” he asked, his voice just as pleasant. “Coulson mortgaged himself down to his socks and his soul; he made damn sure that you wouldn't end up in a prison cell or on the run. He did that, and you're going to pitch that in his face?” He leaned back, a low whistle pushing through pursed lips. “Guess you really don't believe in the afterlife, do you? Because that's a bitch move, Barton. Best man I ever knew, and he bought you a safehouse, one last hand up and out, at a monumental cost. And if you can't-
The pain was blinding, and Clint had to resist the urge to take his own fingernails to his eyes, to his ears, to his veins, anything to make the words STOP. “Shut up,” he gritted out. “Just-” He pressed shaking fingers to his face, forcing his eyes shut. It didn't help.
There was a long moment of silence, the faint sound of breathing and the scuff of Fury's boots on the tile the only thing to hear. “You're a suicide risk right now,” he said at last. “You're going to be assigned to Agent Romanov until psych clears you.”
Clint sucked in a thin breath, air like a drug in his lungs. “She on the shit list, too?”
“Always, she's a permanent fixture. She likes it there.” Fury's heel rattled against the floor. “Be real helpful right now if you did something to deny that suicide risk thing, Barton.”
Clint dropped his hands to his lap, kept his eyes on them. “Sir? I had an alien stick his fingers into my brain and rip me apart. Under his cheerful little interference, I took down my own people, I set in motion something that could quite literally have ended life as we know it on this planet, and I killed the only man who's ever believed I was worth anything.” A semi-hysterical laugh caught in his throat, choked him. “I really have no idea why I'm alive right now.”
Fury stood. “Because Phil Coulson went to his death wanting you to live.” He paused. “I was with him. When he died. He didn't die alone.”
Clint's right hand was trembling against the sheets. “Is that supposed to, I don't know, make me feel better?” he gritted out. “He's dead. He's fucking dead, who gives a damn if he was alone when it happened?”
Tucking his hands in his pockets, Fury crossed to the door. “You do.” Before Clint could say a thing to that, he pulled the door open. “Agent Romanov?” As if she'd been waiting for the call, Natasha slipped through the narrow gap, closing it behind her. “Everything set, Agent?” Fury asked her.
“Yes, sir. Paperwork's been filed, medical's released him. I think it's best if I get him out of here now.” Natasha moved around Fury, coming to the edge of Clint's bed. Her eyes were sharp, focused, despite the bandage on her forehead, and on her cheek. Her fingers were gentle as they stroked Clint's cheek, her knuckles ghosting over the jaw she'd punched so often. He spared her a glance. She spared him a smile. “So, you're my responsibility for the time being?”
“You always get the shit assignments,” he told her.
Her smile softened. “Only because I enjoy them.”
“You got this?” Fury asked her, tucking his hands into his pockets. He seemed worn, lines etched deep into his face, but he met Clint's eyes without flinching.
“Yes, sir.” Natasha brushed Clint's hair away from his forehead, the backs of her fingers so gentle against his skin. “I have his schedule.”
“Great. I get a social secretary when I no longer have a social life,” he said. They both ignored him.
“His first appointment with the shrinks is tomorrow. Make sure he's there,” Fury said. “Dr. Blánaid O'Brien. She's been assigned his case, for as long as she can stand him.”
“Don't recognize the name,” Clint said, his fingers flexing, slow and careful.
“She's one of the few you haven't terrorized over the years. That's why she's got this now.” Fury paused at the door. He didn't look back, he didn't even glance in their direction. “Loki took a lot of good men, good men and women,” he said. “But that ends now. He doesn't get you, too.”
The door shut behind him. Clint pushed himself around, working his aching legs towards the edge of the bed. “Let's go,” he said, head down, avoiding Natasha's eyes. “We can be to the border in a couple of hours.”
She caught his face between cool palms, tipping his head up. “If you try to slip away from me,” she said, eye to eye with him, “I will hunt you to ground. Tell me you understand that.”
Clint considered her. “Nat. I'm an international terrorist. I aided and abetted a war criminal, and I'm gonna be the only one they have to prosecute,” he said, his voice gentle. Almost amused. “How long do you think it's going to be before Fury has to choose between keeping my head above water and keeping SHIELD above water? We both know what choice he'll make.”
“We'll worry about that when we have to,” she said, her fingers smoothing down his neck, his shoulders, his chest. “Let's go.”
He went. It was nice, he supposed, to still have someone in his corner.
“If you try to bring me back to Phil's place, I will put a bullet in one of us. Haven't decided which one it will be,” Clint said, his tone conversational.
“You're a class act, Barton, you know that?” Natasha said, settling down in the driver's seat. “Put your seatbelt on.”
“Jesus, you're a harpy,” he said, his fingers fumbling at the strap. He managed to get it in place, and let his head fall back against the headrest, his eyes sliding shut. “So where are we going?”
She waited until his seatbelt was securely fashioned, then she started the car. “My place,” she said, putting the car into gear. The doors locked automatically. Clint gritted his teeth, struggling not to panic, struggling not to feel trapped. Like his last line of escape was swiftly slipping through his fingers.
“You don't have a place,” he said, breathing around the words, his jaw tight. “I would know if you had a place, Nat.”
“No, you wouldn't.” She sounded amused. “You always think you know things. You don't.”
“It's not SHIELD property,” she said, cutting him off.
His hands were twitching, his fingers flexing for something out of reach, and he ached for his bow, ached the way he had to imagine that people ached for a phantom limb. He could almost feel it there, solid and strong, flexing like bone and sinew, like a living thing. He forced his fingers into a fist, hard and tight, his nails digging into his palm hard enough to leave. He stopped short of drawing blood.
He had always taken pains to keep his hands intact.
“Fury know you're taking me off reservation?” he asked, concentrating on flexing each finger, one by one, like a puppeteer playing with strings.
“Director Fury trusts me to do what's right for you. And the organization.”
Clint barked out a laugh, hard and sharp. “When does that become putting a bullet in my head?”
“When you annoy me too much. Try not to do that, will you please? I just had this car cleaned.”
That was somehow more comforting than some completely unbelievable speech about how she had his back, how she'd defend him, protect him. There was no defense left to him, nothing left to hide behind. He was exposed, shown for the killer he was, the traitor, the empty shell of a human being. Clint fumbled at the front of his jacket, his fingers digging into the fabric, gripping hard.
“We need to stop,” he said, his voice quiet in the darkness. He kept his eyes shut, not wanting to see anything else.
“No, we don't.”
“I know how you function, Barton. I know your escape routes.” There was the faint sound of strain to her voice, the note he knew and kind of feared, when she lost her clipped, unaccented delivery. A flex of the vowels, an elongation of certain sounds, just a hint, just barely there, and he knew what it meant. “Thor picked it up.”
Clint didn't flinch, but it took effort. “Yeah?
“Yeah.” Her breathing was regular, even. “I told him to do it.”
“Because I know you.” The words were too sharp, too hard, and he heard her suck in a breath between clenched teeth. Heard her struggle to get herself back under control. “You always leave yourself an escape route, always an out.
“How'd you see this playing out? Telling me that you'd left behind one of your explosive tips? And that you had to recover it before it ended up hurting someone?”
He could almost feel the pressure of her eyes on him. “It was a mistake. I wasn't thinking.” It sounded like a lie to even his ears, but then again, he knew he was lying.
Natasha snorted. “You're many things, Clint, but clumsy with your weapons? Not one of them. Just out of curiosity? What would you have done if I'd insisted upon going up with you? If there was a bomb lying between the two of us? Would you have taken me out as well?”
“Fuck you,” Clint said, and it lacked heat. It was matter-of-fact, tired, it ached on his tongue, the words too heavy. “Fuck. You. I've never turned a weapon on-”
And that was a lie now, too. His face screwed up, his fingers latching on the fabric of his jacket so hard that he could feel the zipper digging into his palm. He struggled against the impulse to scream, to howl, to rage. Instead, he swallowed it, huddling down against the car door as he tried to breathe, tried to force himself back into something that resembled control.
“Why do you think I'm the one in this car with you?” Natasha said, ignoring the whole thing. “Because I'm the only one who can take your pitiful ass down.”
Clint felt his lips twitch up, and he let the chuckle out. “Nat?”
“You know he picked it up?”
“I've got it. I know he picked it up.” She was silent for a moment. “I know what you're thinking.”
“You really don't.”
She ignored that. She was good at ignoring him when he was saying things she didn't want to hear; he wasn't sure why he'd always liked that about her. “I need you to not do that again.”
“Yeah, well, I'm pretty sure they're not giving me my bows back for a while, Nat, so, no big deal, is it?” He shifted, arms folded tight in front of his body, legs drawn up, head down in the cradle of his hunched shoulders. He was cold. He considered asking her to turn on the heat, but he knew it wouldn't help. “It's not something I can do for a while, so-”
“Don't take that particular escape route,” she said, and he fell silent.
“Yeah. I won't,” he said, and it was too light, too easy, too glib to be true.
“You're all I have left.”
He didn't look at her. “Nat-”
“I got used to the two of you,” she said, her voice calm. “I'm accustomed to having you around. To not having to do this alone.” There was the smallest hitch in the words, a faint crack between the syllables that sounded like a scream. “I couldn't save him.”
“Because you were too busy saving me,” Clint said, and there was a bang, her fist colliding with the steering wheel, a loss of control that he'd seen only once or twice, and he flinched that time, as if she'd hit him instead. “Nat, you know-”
“I saved you,” she said, and he opened his eyes. He opened his eyes, because the words were an order. She was staring at him, her fingers locked on the steering wheel. “I did what he wanted, I did what Fury wanted, I did what I wanted.” Her jaw worked, skin pale in the moonlight, lips thin and tight. “I went after you.”
“And look at how that turned out,” he said, tired of this already.
“I'd do it again. Even if this was the result.” She glanced forward, and he realized they were stopped at a red light. “But you don't take that particular escape route, Clint. If not out of respect for me, then out of respect for Phil.”
He wondered how long the name was going to cause his whole body to jerk. “He's dead,” Clint said, because maybe if he said it, if he said it a lot, he could desensitize himself. If he could make it stop feeling like an open wound with the knife still inside. “He doesn't get a vote.”
“I'm casting his vote for him. So go fuck yourself,” Nat said, and she smiled at him. “He was always on my side, anyway.
“That's true.” Clint let his eyes close. “Green light, Nat.”
The car moved forward. “Do I need to get out the handcuffs, Clint?”
His lips twitched. “Kinky.”
He shrugged, the movement quick and shallow. “I'm not going anywhere.” He'd promised. He'd promised Phil. A proper burial. Not some empty ceremony, no pomp and circumstance. There would be someone, two someones, who would stand by his grave with the full knowledge of what had landed him there. How he'd lived his life, what that had meant, really meant.
Clint had no doubt Phil's funeral would be well attended. But the majority of the people there would have no idea who they were mourning, and that was a crying shame.
He didn't sleep, but the next thing he knew, Natasha's door was slamming shut. Too loud. Too hard, she did it to pull him back to the world of the living, because she knew better than to touch him if he wasn't expecting it, or to speak to him if he wasn't replying. He wondered if she had been talking to him. He didn't remember.
Natasha had his bag out of the trunk by the time he'd fumbled himself out of his seatbelt and out of the car. It took more effort than it should've, and he ended up leaning back against the car, his breath coming too hard, too fast. He pushed away from the metal with hands that did not shake, he was determined that they would not shake.
She didn't give him his bag.
“You need to eat something,” she said, leading the way to the elevator. “And a shower.”
He tucked his hands into the pockets of his jacket, head down. “How long have you had this place?”
“A while. It's a bolt hole, nothing fancy. But it's not SHIELD,” she said, and he knew she was repeating that for his benefit, that she'd keep repeating it, that this was not part of Fury's kingdom, but he had no doubt that Fury knew about it. Fury knew everything, in the end. “It's clean, it's stocked, and it's going to be our base for a while.”
“Most of my stuff's at Phil's.”
“I know.” She paused. “You know they're going to have to-”
“Yeah, I know.” Clint folded his arms in front of his chest, folded them up tight, trying to breathe slowly through his nose as the elevator headed up. “Whatever. Nothing much there, anyway. Clothes, that kinda stuff. I kept most of my gear at my SHIELD barracks.” He felt, more than saw, her look in his direction. “I want one of his dogtags.”
There was silence until the elevator came to a stop. Neither of them moved.
“His family-” she started
“Fuck it,” Clint said, rage overwhelming everything else. “Fuck it, Nat, you think I don't know that everything will go to his family? That they're going to sanitize his place, wipe out any trace of me, wipe out any trace of his job, his life, burn bag everything? I know that, I've always known that, but he-” He choked on the word, gagged on it, like he couldn't quite force it down. “He was here when it happened, they have the body, they have his tags, he always carried them, he always had them, I know he-”
He was almost yelling, and with a jolt, he pulled himself back. Natasha was watching him, her head tipped forward, the sweep of her hair curling around her jaw. Clint scrubbed his hands over his face. “Sorry,” he gritted out. “Sorry, I just-”
She shouldered his bag. “I'll get one of them for you.”
She slipped out of the elevator doors, and he fell into step behind her, his feet leaden and too heavy to lift properly. “Shut up, Barton. Eat. Shower. Sleep.”
“In that order?” he said.
“You want to try to eat in the shower, that's your problem,” she said, with a faint smile. “Yes. In that order.”
The apartment was small, clean and modern, and clearly unoccupied. Clint hovered by the door as Natasha set the alarm and paced off the rooms, checking each one. When she came back, she headed for the small kitchen, pulling open a cabinet. “Stay inside, stay away from the windows,” she said, because they both liked rules. Defined limits. “Don't go near the door, and no, you cannot get past my alarm system. Even if you could get out, I'll get you before you reach the garage.”
“I'm feeling the trust here.”
Natasha ripped the cover off a drinkable cup of soup, and put it in the microwave. “This has nothing to do with not trusting you,” she said, stabbing at the buttons with a vicious finger. In the low light of the kitchen, she looked exhausted, her face scraped, her neck rubbed raw. There was a cut through her lower lip, and bruises on her wrists. As the microwave whirred, she turned to meet his eyes. “This has everything to do with reassuring you that you're not going anywhere.”
“Does that even make sense?”
“Sit down,” she said.
“I don't need to eat,” he said, not moving away from the door. “Shwarma. It was pretty good.”
Her lips twitched. “Stark. Man's an idiot.” The microwave beeped, and she reached for it. “I keep surrounding myself with them.” She pulled the soup out, slapped the lid on the top and put it in his hand. “Drink it.”
“You like us,” Clint said.
“I don't know where you're getting this impression.” She slid a careful hand through his short hair, the touch too rough to be considered affectionate, but too comforting to be anything else. “I don't like you at all.” Her free hand tucked under his wrist, pushing the soup to his mouth. “You're an annoyance.”
Clint smiled at her. “You can open the shades, Natasha. I've already seen what I did.”
“What Loki did.” She flicked a finger against the cup. “Drink it all. It's been a damn long day, and I want to go to bed.”
He gave up and drank, quick as he could manage. It was hot and salty and it burned the whole way down. She took it away from him. “Clint,” she said, meeting his eyes dead on, “the city's a mess, SHIELD's a mess, we're a mess. This is going to be chaos, for a long time. The helicarrier's a mess, God only knows what Fury's up to behind everyone's back-”
He glanced away, and she caught his chin, forcing his head back around. “Clint-”
“I can't do this right now,” he said, his voice sharp. “Nat-” He leaned forward, and his forehead rested against hers. “I can't do this right now.”
She stroked a hand up his arm, cupping the back of his neck. She didn't say anything else, but she steered him to the bathroom.
He wasn't sure how he made it through the shower and into the bed, but he was pretty sure it had more to do with Nat than it did with him. Pushing, pulling, prodding, cursing him the entire way, she managed to get him through the brief, hot shower, dried, and under the sheets. He had only a moment of mild surprise as she crawled in after him.
“Are we having sex?” he asked, not really interested in her answer.
There was a long pause. “No,” she said, her voice gentle. “If we're going to have sex, Clint, you'll know it.”
“I'll be unbuckling your pants and saying, 'we're having sex now,'” Natasha explained.
Clint thought about that. “I'm not sure if I'll pick up on that,” he said. “It seems pretty subtle. Obtuse, even. I'm a little slow on picking up those kinda cues.”
“Go to sleep, Clint,” she huffed against the nape of his neck. The warmth of her breath was familiar and foreign, all at the same time. Her skin was soft and her lips gentle, and he missed the faint scruff of Phil's jaw, the way he would nuzzle the short hairs at the base of Clint's skull.
The memory was enough to swamp him, put him to sea again.
“So, is this part of the suicide watch?” he said, as her arm slid around his waist, her body curling into the line of his back.
“This is I've lost too many people, and I will not lose you, too,” she whispered against the skin of his shoulder. The brush of lips and breath was oddly comforting, the tiniest sign of life. Her arm slid up his chest, her fingers brushing over the spot where his heart beat, slow and steady, and lingered there. “Don't leave me alone,” she whispered.
The darkness had shades, and he wasn't sure if they were in his eyes, or in his mind, but he could make out shadows and soft edges where light tried to gather. He blinked, slow and careful, letting his lashes fold down all the way against his cheeks for a bare second. “I'm trying,” he said at last, safe in the dark.
Her hair was soft where it curled against the nape of his neck, when she buried her face between his shoulder blades. “Try harder,” she said, and it tried to be hard and sharp, and failed.
Clint fumbled for her hand, catching it in his and weaving their fingers together. He didn't have anything to say to that, and she didn't seem to expect a response in any case. But her fingers clung tight to his, the bones pressing down hard, hard enough to make his hands ache. Hard enough to reopen the tiny scrapes on his fingers, and he wondered if he was bleeding.
It seemed appropriate, somehow. It wasn't as if he could cry.
“Goddamn you, Phil,” he whispered into the darkness. “I trusted you.”
Dr. O'Brien was really hard to hate.
He gave it his best try, of course, he wanted to hate her. He really did. But she was small and soft on the edges, her hair a cloud of pale brown curls, almost but not quite honey blonde, with streaks of paler hair shot through, hints of grey that seemed to cause her no concern. Her eyes were big and warm and brown, like whiskey, with the glitter of ice there in their depths, but her smile was warm. Sweet. Kind.
Clint really wanted to hate her.
“I'm not going to ask you how you're feeling today,” she said, and there was a trace of an accent there in her words, just the faintest hint of something, almost gone, but soft at the vowels and pulled like taffy at the end of some words. “In that we both know the answer.”
He considered her, not moving, not letting his eyes flicker, but he had always been good at picking up the edges of thing, the flicker of long fingers against paper, the way her pinky nail was just a shade off from the others, probably a fake nail, the glitter of a gold chain at her throat, a cross or something else, but tucked discreetly into the neck of her blouse.
Conservative skirt and blouse, not a suit, not fancy, not designer. But her shoes probably cost about half a year of Clint's salary, so that was interesting.
He kept his eyes on hers, and she let her eyebrows arch, a small upward stretch. “You're going to be meeting with me for an hour every morning and afternoon for now,” she said, calm and precise. “As you go through your recovery, as your therapy progresses, we'll drop that down as needed.”
No schedule for when that would happen. No promises that she couldn't keep. No false hope.
“This isn't 'Good Will Hunting.' You need to talk to me. I don't much care what you say, especially not at the beginning, but the trauma that you've suffered, it's left many of us concerned that you will withdraw from contact.” She paused, her eyes going soft for a second, warm and lit in the sunlight. “Right now, that's not beneficial. You are here to talk. You can choose the topic, we can discuss whatever you'd like. You can recite baseball statistics for an hour, you can go over your favorite Portuguese curses. We can talk about Jack's latest bone headed mistake on 'Days of Our Lives.' But if you don't talk, we'll consider that appointment a wash, and we'll reschedule it.”
Clint felt his right hand tense against his thigh. “How many do we reschedule before you give up on me?” he asked, only mildly curious.
“You mean, how many do I reschedule before Agent Romanov is allowed to join us for the entire hour?” She gave him a faint smile. “We'll leave that up to interpretation, but since she has her own counseling to attend, I'd recommend against making her come to yours.”
This office already seemed too small for the two of them. It wasn't. It was a nice office. All the psych counselors had nice offices. Soothing natural color scheme, comfortable furniture, broad windows and good light. It was laid out so he had his choice of places to sit, and it was nice here. Comfortable. Warm.
His skin was crawling already.
“I'm sure she's overjoyed,” Clint said.
Dr. O'Brien's lips curled up. “One of the crosses that the psych department has to bear, Agent Barton, is that no one is every overjoyed to see us.” Her eyebrows arched. “We understand that going in. The best we can hope for is half-hearted cooperation.”
She was probably right about that. Her gaze was too much to take, the warmth there was disconcerting, not pity or fear or anything else he could identify. His eyes flicking towards the window, to the cloudless sky. But he could still see the haze from the damage. From the fires and the wreckage and the chaos. The recovery would be slow.
And some things would never be fixed. Could never be fixed.
“And if I want to talk to you about birds for the hour?” he asked
“I've always liked birds,” she said. Her head tipped to the side. “Do you like birds?”
“Are you trying to read something into that?” Clint asked, scrubbing a hand over his face. God fucking dammit, this was going to be exhausting. Waiting for her to draw conclusions from things that literally were inconsequential. Having to watch every word out of his mouth.
“No, Agent Barton. I'm attempting to encourage you to speak,” she said, that faint smile reappearing. “Part of how we do that is by asking probing questions that will set you on another potential conversational path. You're going to have to come to terms with that.”
“So you're not going to be psychoanalyzing me?” he asked, disbelief clear in the words.
Her smile bloomed into a full grin, her teeth flashing white. She had a small gap between the front two teeth; he didn't know why he noticed that. “Of course I am, Agent. That is, after all, my job.”
He huffed out a faint laugh, rough on the edges, weak to his own ears. “Why you?”
Clint shifted on the couch, trying to find a position that didn't feel so much like he was sinking. “Why did Fury assign me to you?”
She leaned back, folding her hands in her lap. “Because I am one of the few fully experienced therapists that you have not already dealt with.”
“I have managed to alienate most of the department,” Clint agreed
“It's fairly impressive,” she agreed. “You're very intelligent, and very intuitive. And you have excellent defense mechanisms. It makes you difficult to diagnose.” Her eyes flicked down, and then back up to his. “And even harder to treat.”
His teeth tightened into a richtor of a grin. “I'll take that as a compliment.”
“I wish you wouldn't. But I understand why you might.” She leaned forward, her folded fingers sliding beyond the plane of her crossed legs, and despite the fact that her hands were laced together, their stark presence in midair was disconcerting. “So, ought I bring my bird book to our next meeting?”
“No. But you can brush up on the corvus genus if you want,” he said.
Clint glanced at his watch and stood. “Crows and ravens.”
“Any particular reason?”
His smile felt unnatural on his face. “They are the eaters of the dead on the battlefield.” He glanced at the windows, at the clear blue sky. “They chose you because your office faces away from the damage.”
“No. I moved into this office for that reason.”
It hurt, and he'd known it would, but it still hurt. “Just because you can't see something, doesn't mean it's not still there.” He turned on his heel. “I'll see you tomorrow, Doc.”
“Will you?” she asked his retreating back.
He paused, hand on the doorknob. “You want the truth?”
“I'd put up with much worse than this to get my bow back.”
“I'll keep that in mind.”