Reality feels more like a nightmare, Clint decides as he soundlessly slips out from underneath their sheets and tiptoes over to the bathroom. After five years of fighting he suddenly got his life back, but even three months later it still doesn’t feel real.
Something in him just keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop. The other hand to snap. The other rude awakening from a wishful dream, exposed as the soul-crushing lie it has to be.
He’d thought that it would finally be over, that he could finally go home, only to find his messed up mind unable to believe the truth of what he fought so hard for. Turns out it’s not that easy coming back to a life you’ve mourned for five years, no matter how badly you wanted it back.
Shivering, Clint stands underneath the scalding stream of the shower, rinsing away the cold sweat that never seems to completely disappear.
Thanos’ shitstorm wasn’t the first time he lost part of himself. Even before Loki, he barely qualified as a human being. Now, after everything, after Nat, he finds himself wondering if there is enough of himself left to continue existing more often than he is comfortable with. More often than he should, given the fact that he has a family depending on him.
Clint digs his fingernails into his scalp, roughly distributing shampoo over his head. It stings, the soap seeping into shallow scratches, and he tries not to dwell on how comforting he finds that. He dunks his head underneath the water and blinks away the burning in his eyes as he watches the soap bubbles circle the drain. Around and around and around and away.
He exhales, closes his eyes, and tries to focus on the facts.
- He has to get away.
- He doesn’t want to leave.
- He can’t keep it together for much longer.
- He can’t let his children see him break like that.
Clint pushes himself away from the wall and forces his body into action. He quickly towels himself dry and throws on a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt from the laundry hamper. They’re still drenched with sweat from the day’s work, but he only needs them to last him until he reaches the shed that hides his gear, so he ignores the stench.
Determined, he vaults himself out of the bathroom window and into the darkness.
“You’ve reached the voicemail of ... Laura Barton ... please leave a message after the beep.”
“Hey Laura, it’s me. I’m sorry for disappearing on you, I probably should have thought that one through a little longer, given recent events... Something came up and...” A sigh. “That’s a lie. Nothing came up. I just need some time away. It’s not you, it’s me, bla, bla, etcetera.” A long silence, filled only with shallow breathing. “I know I changed. I’ve noticed you jump when I forget to make sound. I can tell that you barely recognise me. And I can’t let the kids see it too. I’ve been trying not to show it, but I’m—”
“End of message. Press 1 to send message. Press 0 to record a new message.”
Before he can change his mind, Clint smashes the 1 and exits the booth.
It’s just like old times, in a way, and some nights Clint has to remind himself that he has a home to return to. A life, that will welcome him back with open arms. A family, that would probably be all too grateful to see him return.
A wife, who might feel less and less inclined to forgive him with every passing day.
And yet something about the illusion of being alone in the world is comforting. Familiar. It lets him do reckless things he otherwise couldn’t. Lets him ride his adrenaline highs to their highest heights and selfishly revel in the pain when he crashes back down.
On his fifteenth night away, he’s just finished wiping the blood off his katana on one of the thug’s coats, when he hears a sharp voice behind him.
“You think this is wise?”
He has his sword against the woman’s throat before he even has the time to see who she is. When he does, he scoffs, and lowers the weapon. “Do you?”
Wanda purses her lips disapprovingly. Her eyes are sharp and smouldering with a liquid dark red undertone. “Don’t deflect,” she chides.
“I nearly cut your head off.”
“You’re too slow to hurt me. I wouldn’t let you.”
Clint sighs and sheathes the katana on his back. Turning fully towards her, he places his hands on his hips. “What do you want from me?”
“I want to know what the hell you’re doing. I thought you quit.”
“Well, I thought everyone I ever loved was dead, so I guess neither of us have quite the firm grasp on reality that we were hoping for.”
Her expression softens into one of sympathy. “Is this about Natasha?” she asks kindly, her voice losing its edge.
Clint shrugs, and his eyes dart across the room. Idly, he tries to puzzle together the blood spatters with what he remembers of the fight. How incompetent were the yakuza, really? When he could kill eight armed men without a single one of them firing a shot even roughly in his direction.
He’s startled out of his thoughts when something touches his arm, and his hand is halfway to the hilt of his sword when he remembers he was having a conversation with Wanda. He shakes her hand off and walks past her, to the window she undoubtedly entered through.
“I’m having some trouble adjusting,” Clint admits begrudgingly, and then leaps out of the window, catching himself on the curve of a street lamp to halt his descent before dropping to the pavement. Without pausing, he begins to walk away.
“Laura is worried about you,” he hears Wanda say from behind him.
A quick glance over his shoulder confirms that she is gently floating down to the street. He keeps walking.
“I’ll leave her a voicemail.” It feels like the words cut right through his throat with their wrongness, as he utters them.
“You left her a voicemail two weeks ago. Why do you think I’m here?”
Clint ignores her and keeps walking. He doesn’t have an answer, or at least not one he wants to say out loud.
A glowing, red hand on his shoulder forces Clint to a stop. He tries to pull away, but Wanda is using magic and he isn’t strong enough to break her grip.
“They’re your family,” Wanda insists, “and you risked your life to get them back. You got incredibly lucky, Clint . So why aren’t you with them?” Her voice has an edge of desperation to it now.
“Because I should have died!” Clint exclaims, whirling around to glare at her. “I should have died, and now I am miserable. And every fucking second I waste by being miserable is a stain on Nat’s memory.” Tears prick in his eyes, but he can’t look away from Wanda now that she’s broken him wide open. “I know I’m ungrateful. And I know I’m selfish, but I can’t live like nothing happened . ” Bile rises in his throat and he swallows thickly. “It should have been me.”
For a moment, Wanda just looks at him. The gentle understanding in her eyes is painful to look at, and suddenly Clint feels like an even bigger jerk than he already did. Wanda lost everything: Her family to Hydra. Her brother to Ultron. Her lover to Thanos. And yet Clint has the nerve to look her in the eye and cry about the one person he couldn’t save.
“I’m sorry,” he starts. “I know you’ve—”
She doesn’t let him finish, instead pulling him into her arms. Before Clint knows it, he’s sobbing onto her shoulder.
Aww, emotions, no.
“I can’t imagine what your grief is like, just like you can’t imagine mine.” Wanda’s fingers comb gently through his hair as she speaks. “And I’m not going to stand here and tell you that it’s okay, or that it will pass, or that you don’t have the right to run away from something you can’t handle.
“But I also won’t silently look on when I see you self-destructing, Clint. And I won’t let you forget that you did help save the world, even if it came at a terrible price.”
Clint takes a small step back and rubs at his now red-rimmed eyes. “A price I should have paid,” he whispers.
“I know that’s how you feel,” Wanda says solemnly. She gently squeezes his shoulders. “But there’s nothing you can do now.”
“I can keep fighting,” Clint says bitterly, nodding up to the window they just exited. “Make the world a better place and all that. I can be useful.”
“But is that truly what you want?” Wanda presses. “We can’t erase what happened in between, but six years ago, you walked away from all this. You were happy, Clint. Don’t you think you could be again?”
Clint stares at the dark pavement beneath them. All he can see is red. Red, seeping slowly across his mind’s eye. Red, fanned out almost artfully across the stone. Red, hurtling down a cliff, out of his reach. He shuts his eyes tightly, and when he opens them again, it is gone.
“I don’t know,” he admits.
Wanda squeezes his shoulders again, and he raises his eyes just in time to see a flicker of a smile as she says: “Only one way to find out. And it’s not by running away.”
“But what do I do in the meantime? Laura, the kids... I can’t let them see me like this.”
Clint’s head snaps up and he openly gapes at her. “Because—! My kids . They’re still so young. And they weren’t here, those five years. They know about it, but they didn’t... they couldn’t... They don’t know what it was like, for me. They don’t know what I became. They can’t know. I can’t do that to them.”
“You’re not doing it ‘to’ them, you’re letting them in. You’re letting them care for you, and maybe even help you,” Wanda says softly. “Maybe don’t tell them that you wish you were dead, but let them know that you miss Natasha. That you and her fought to bring them back, and you feel guilty for being unable to save her, too. It’s okay to let them know that you’re struggling. They probably expect it, at least a little bit.”
Clint sighs, already shaking his head. “I know all of that. I mean, I know it in here.” He taps on the side of his head. “But I don’t believe I can do that. There’s so much... darkness. I feel like I should protect them from that.”
“The world is full of darkness, Clint. If you keep it from them now, they will still discover it later. You are giving in to your darkness and running away... do you really think that will protect them?”
Her words are like a punch in his gut, and for a moment it seems like the world tilts around him. “No, but I don’t know what else to do,” he answers roughly, sinking to a crouch in an attempt to steady himself.
Wanda kneels in front of him and pulls him into her arms once more. “You stop fighting,” she says, her voice raw and sincere. “Take it one day at a time. Take it slow, and stop fighting. Stop fighting your mind. Stop fighting your guilt. Stop fighting your existence. You’re only hurting yourself more, and that damage will add up until it’s too much to ever overcome. Stop fighting, and give yourself time to heal.”
Clint chuckles bitterly, pulling slightly out of her arms. “I thought I was the parental figure in this relationship.” He gestures between them.
“Well, little kids grow up,” Wanda says with a smile. She rubs his cheek with her thumb, wiping away the remnants of his tears. “But I mean it, Clint. You haven’t stopped fighting since the snap. The pain you’re feeling, the loss... It’s real, but it’s no longer necessary. Not all of it, anyway.”
“I know, you’re right.” Clint chews on his bottom lip for a moment. “I just keep expecting to wake up and find out that they’re all still dead. I’m afraid if I get used to it...” He shakes his head.
“This is real, Clint. There’s not going to be a waking up. No cognitive recalibration.” Wanda smiles at him. “This is it. And I want to help you, but I can’t do that if you’re trying to live somewhere in between the worst of the past and the worst of this new reality.”
Clint lets go of a deep sigh that shudders through him. “I guess I’ll try living in the present, then,” he concedes. “Though I might need quite a lot of help.”
Wanda laughs and lightly punches his upper arm. “What do you think I’m here for?”
“The amazing ambience?” Clint guesses with a shit-eating grin, gesturing at the dark alley that they’ve been occupying for the last fifteen minutes, right next to a crime scene.
With another laugh, Wanda gets to her feet and offers him a hand. Clint doesn’t really need her help, but he still lets her pull him up. It feels like a start.
“Let’s get you home,” she says, her voice warm.
“I think I’d like that,” he says, and he means it.
“Though...” Wanda adds with a laugh. “Maybe you should take a shower first.”
“Aww, blood spatter, no!”