For a minute, in the heat of battle, with a living legend barking orders and a god fighting alongside him, Clint forgot. The memories were easy to forget, files overwritten on an old hard drive, thin silken things that were only mildly tempting, like cigarettes after that guy in Bora Bora put his out on Clint's neck. But his system still wanted the nicotine.
Afterwards, they picked up Loki like a stray dog, collared him like one, kept him on a leash while they ate. Clint was ravenous. His body actually hadn't remembered it needed food while Loki was controlling it. He didn't let them see, but it was maddening to take small bites while Thor got to wolf his food down. Then he wondered if maybe there was some Loki left in him, grating against the sight of Thor, and he lost his appetite.
They let Thor have Loki. In mythology, Loki got punished with having a snake drip venom into his eyes for all eternity. That sounded better to Clint than anything they could come up with.
Then the after-action report. On something this big, SHIELD had enough eyes on it that all he had to do was say yes or no. He said yes until they left him alone, didn't ask what the deal was with the missile.
Natasha didn't touch him. She didn't take his hand in a clandestine moment or clap his shoulder or say anything, really. They weren't that kind of people. By standing in the room she was there for him. There was no need to repeat herself.
He got back to the Helicarrier, got a new quiver because you never knew, got himself checked up. Bruised ribs, loose tooth, nothing major. He was lucky that way. None of the Chitauri had been as good at being bad guys as he'd been.
The others had drawn maybe a weekend off. There was a sorting algorithm to it. For three days, only contact if there was a Level 7. For another three days, only contact if there was a Level 6 or higher. And so on. Clint gave Cap and 'Tasha maybe a week until they were back in the field. Not him, though. Short of Level 7, he had a month off. Confined to the Helicarrier. Chatting with Dr. Samson.
He took it, nodded, didn't ask how many he'd killed. He was sure they'd tell him later. As part of his therapy. It wasn't important, anyway. One. A hundred. How did you make up for either? You didn't think about it. You buried it. You snatched as much normal as you could, and when it did bubble up, at a hockey game or a bar or in the middle of a good book, that was the price you paid.
Clint went to his room—it still showed the wear of SHIELD agents combing it, looking for clues to what he'd do under Loki's influence, better safe than sorry—and fell back on his bed, boots and all. His arms crossed over his chest, holding his bow and quiver. He wasn't getting sleep either way. Might as well be ready. Might as well have something to hold onto as he kept wondering if there were a way, any way at all, that he could've stopped Loki at the beginning.
The only thing he could think of was blowing his own brains out the second that scepter hit his chest. Would've denied Loki an asset. Made his job a little harder. Now, though, it'd just be closing the barn door after the horses were loose.
"What are you doing here, Widow?" he called out to the shadows.
The shadows answered "I don't sleep."
He knew. Mother Russia's idea. She didn't get tired. Didn't sweat. Didn't age. Could quote the Communist Manifesto in its entirety. All that, and people had still had to line up for bread.
"So you decided to watch me sleep."
"You're not sleeping," she retorted.
"In case?" he asked.
"In case," she confirmed.
No one knew how it worked with Loki. If he'd had a backdoor into Clint's computer, you'd think he would've used it during the battle. You'd think. But no matter how Thor assured him that the scepter was gone, Clint knew. Once you were compromised, you couldn't get the chalk off the board. No more sensitive matters for him. No more covert missions. He'd probably be playing superhero from now until the heat death. It would've been a relief if it weren't for the circumstances.
"So don't hold back next time."
He laid in bed, thinking, trying not to think, until the clock said it was six AM. Natasha was gone by then. He hadn't noticed her leave, obviously. He showered, shaved, changed the bandages. If the watchword was one day at a time, this was day two. Start of a streak.
Coulson's funeral. Steve gave the eulogy. That surprised Clint, until Steve started talking, ran down honor, integrity, loyalty. He'd known Coulson for an hour and that was still long enough for him to sum the guy up. Clint, he'd never thought about the dead. That was more Natasha's game, a Russian thing, drinking vodka and smoking cigarettes and Clint'd been the one who'd cheered her up. Not with jokes, but just by dragging her along to a bar where the music was loud enough or jazzy enough or country enough not to let her be maudlin.
Samson's therapy session. The doc started in on casualties immediately. Only five that he'd been directly responsible for, no family men, no one who'd be missed. Clint guessed that was supposed to be comforting, so they'd given it up front instead of working around to it. It was. Fuck them, it was.
He went to the helicarrier library, found they'd censored his available loans without much rhyme or reason. He guessed something to do with suicidal tendencies, but he couldn't read Stanisław Lem? Didn't seem much point to that. He grabbed some gothic romances—let the psych-techs puzzle over that, they were all about young virgins imprisoned in dark, secretive houses—and spent the day in seclusion. When he went to bed, there was Tasha, in the shadows. No way of knowing how long she'd been there. He kinda liked that.
"So what's Fury got you doing? This?"
The shadows shrugged. "He's aware, but it's more of a hobby."
"And how long are you gonna keep this up?"
"Why? Are you dying to bust out the Finding Nemo pajamas?"
"Just wondering what you're going to do when I have a wet dream."
"I'll give it at least half a page in my diary."
He chuckled and rolled over.
Day three, day three, day three. The days weren't any different, why should he keep track of them? Coulson was still in the ground, Loki was still in Asgard, he was still talking to Samson. They kept going over what he remembered, like the memories of what he'd done could come back, like he wanted them to come back. No. They just kept fading. Five people he couldn't even remember. He went back to his room, read some more Northhanger Alley. This one wasn't a Gothic novel, though. Just about a woman who thought she was in a Gothic.
He got snapped by a summons. It came in through the big touchscreen on the wall, not his e-mail. Suit up, come to the mess hall. When he got there, the Avengers were assembled and arguing. He caught the tail-end of Tony's sentence. "—if it's a problem, I could put an implant in his brain, no sweat."
Fury was the first one who noticed him. Well, there was Natasha, but she never stopped noticing him. He sat down and she sidled next to him. "AIM hijacked one of the trucks transporting the confiscated Chitauri weaponry. We're hijacking it back."
"And I'm cleared for that?"
Steve spoke. Clint wondered if he had enhanced hearing or if he was just a good listener. But then, he hadn't really been whispering. "If you're on the team, you're on the team."
"That mean we're bringing Banner along?" Clint retorted, he wasn't sure why.
Bruce actually spoke up, like he'd gotten a little boost of self-confidence from saving the world. "I'll be analyzing the Chitauri weapons to see if I can shut them down in case AIM switches them on. And if you need the other guy…"
They looked at him. All those eyeballs couldn't compare to Fury's one. It wasn't an angry look. It was a question.
The answer was yes.
He found his nest, found his targets, watched the gods do their work. And Natasha. The goddess. Dancing between the bullets, turning her legs into blades to cut down her enemies, crushing them in arms like metal. He put an arrow in anyone who had an eye for her and a gun in their hand.
They powered the Chitauri weapons on and Banner powered them back down from the Quinjet (Hill was flying, Bruce'd have to learn, now that they were a team). All except for the bomb. It was some kind of psychic; Clint recognized the shade of blue. It made one of the AIM techies, skinny little geek with a Star Wars tie, grab it and run like a mutant.
Clint took aim. The bomb had folded itself around him like a straitjacket, keeping him alive until it could explode him, so he'd have to hit the leg. The Achilles tendon, and wouldn't he bleed out. Not a pleasant way to go. So the neurotoxin on the arrowhead was a small mercy. And it wasn't like they could take chances—another of those things had taken out three blocks of Chelsea.
He pulled the bowstring back, felt the power of the arrow coil, let the world slow and lap up the distance between his weapon and his target. It was what he'd always done. In the circus, in the army, for Loki…
He froze. Clint felt it, he thought so this is cracking. His arm pinioned at an uncomfortable, painful place—he could either relax it or let the arrow go, but he didn't do either, so it just hurt. This was it. It was this.
Then he saw Natasha—she was hard to miss for a secret agent, the red hair (the body poured into liquid leather)—running after the nerd. She wouldn't get there in time. An arrow would. So he fired. And just like that, just like the arrow jamming itself into tissue and muscle and physics doing its job and the body toppling over and Tony defusing the bomb while Banner circled (Cap protecting him, shield at the ready because he was the only civilian there) and asked to know if he needed help and Thor swung his hammer in case he had to carry the bomb away and Natasha not doing anything, trusting her teammates, looking instead in the direction of the glint of sunlight off a sniper scope, catching his eye and mouthing something that could've been a joke and could've been a thank you but didn't really matter because they'd said everything a long time ago, in Budapest and Cuba and Russia and America, and it was all still in them, bullets after the wounds had closed, shifting and throbbing in healed flesh.
Just like that, he wasn't cracked. He was sweating and there was no air in his lungs and his eyes were blinking like a hummingbird's wings, but he wasn't compromised. He could've hit another hundred targets, he felt it in the muscles of his arms.
After-action report, sickbay, and a new ritual, drinks with Tony. He bought a round, made them toast. Clint and Natasha didn't actually go "To the Avengers!", but Thor made up for it in volume. Clint allowed himself a drink, nodded to Natasha, and left an hour into the evening.
He stayed in the shower long enough for him to lose track of time. It was dark when he got out, the light in the corridors cut in half. It made things seem quiet. Peaceful. He ran into his fair share of SHIELD agents, silently bustling through the Helicarrier, but the activity didn't seem as hectic as it had over the last few days.
This wasn't catharsis. It wasn't closure. It was ears popping because you'd just yawned on an airplane. Sometimes, it just took your body a while to acclimate to new pressure.
His body felt strung-out, not tired, but he headed for bed anyway. He could wake up refreshed in the morning, get something done. See how long he went before it bubbled up again.
He reached his room, went inside, sensing Natasha even as he opened the door. He wondered if he was like that to her; in tune.
She was in the bed. Her clothes were out of sight, but no doubt carefully folded and ready to be put back on whenever she deemed necessary. The sheet kept things cordial, but if being professional around her in a skintight bodysuit was hard at times, a thin layer of cotton made it impossible.
"You gonna watch me sleep again?" he asked, a little suavely.
"If you sleep," she answered, a little more suavely.
"I'll be fine without this. You know that."
"Would I be here if it were the other way?"
He made sure the door was locked behind him. It was. He undressed. She didn't react to any of it. The scars, the muscles, the tattoos. She did raise an eyebrow when he took his pants off, which was nice of her. Then she pulled the sheet back.
He did react. Didn't have her poker face. She'd always been better at this part of the job.
One last thing: "Is this a reward?"
She didn't look insulted, but she did tease mulling it over for a second. "No. You know I don't work that way."
He didn't think she did one-night stands. Compromised her feminine wiles bit. That was why they sent her after Stark, after all. For a good bit, he'd thought she was asexual, because he was an intelligence agent and he'd only heard one person talking about bedding her, and they'd ended up in the hospital. Because of an accident.
It wasn't a feminine wiles thing. It wasn't a one-night stand, because even if she did those (and he was willing to concede that if she did, he wouldn't hear about it if she didn't want him hearing about it), she'd pick a better time than when he was coming off a mindbender. Which left the other thing. Which she also didn't do.
"I thought you didn't believe in love," he said, kneeling on the bed. The L word made her eyes get a little wider, scoot around a little more. They settled quickly. "You got a tattoo."
"I don't," she clarified, with the air of a lecture, a prepared speech. A record her mouth was playing while she concentrated on her hands, moving them into place on his body, moving him into place beneath her, squaring everything away. She was like that. Even if they wrecked the bed, the walls, the floor, she'd be happy knowing there was a moment where it was pretty as a picture.
She said: "I believe in electrical signals in the brain, chemicals in the blood, pheromones in the air. They mix affection with attractiveness and layer it with ownership so the species can continue. But most of all, it makes you feel good instead of numb. That's what you need right now."
"And you?" he asked, because otherwise, what was the point of asking questions in the first place?
She didn't shrug, but there was something of that in how her eyes shifted. Running over his face with more fondness than he was used to from her. Very little, but close to the surface. "I'll never need it. But I can enjoy it."
He felt her. No corded muscles. No blades secreted away. Nothing held in reserve. He could've snapped her throat before she stopped him. He didn't think of that till after. Laying in bed, not spooning, but her facing the door (curled up into a kittenish ball, unexpectedly endearing, her hair scattered across her back in vivid red counterpoint to the now faded scars) and him facing the window (lying on his side, an arm under his head to cushion it because he didn't always have a pillow, rarely in fact). Funny. Even before they went to sleep, they watched each others' backs.
"You should be careful," he told her, when she was maybe-asleep enough for him to risk it. "I believe in love."
Fair warning. But she was still there in the morning.