A/N: I make promises I can't keep until 3 years later. But hey, I've graduated and so has this story after 5 years, inclusive of 3 years of waiting. Please don't hate me too much. Nonetheless, please enjoy! (Also, what even were my page breakers? I'm actually questioning my 5-years-ago self right now.)
If you like some intense music to go with some emotionally intense scenes (hint-hint), do turn on The Mighty Rio Grande by This Will Destroy You before proceeding any further. It's the full basis of this last chapter.
He lugs the intravenous stand on his short journey around the infirmary. It seems to have expanded itself over the past year, more viewing galleries into trauma rooms - especially with the one-way glass panels he kind of hates, it being the clear distinction between his not-so-distant past and the present.
He barely gets past thinking of how he was ripped wide open on the table, and isn't even close in getting into the question of who watched it happen. It sends a chill down his spine and even into his bare legs, just thinking about it.
Between walking past ICU's and trauma wards, nurse stations and viewing galleries, and not wanting to return to his own ward and bed, exhaustion hits the archer. His knees hurt, the base of his spine aches, and his legs feel like dead weight. Maybe he shouldn't have started getting back onto his feet this soon, Clint thinks, but doesn't regret.
Body tired, he finally chooses to sit in on a surgery doing damage control on a pan-asian woman with a perforated gut.
The clock at the back of the operating theatre clocks in 48 hours, after which, he watches the surgeons and nurses on-call as they swap out of their shifts and the new team swaps in. It's regulation in SHIELD to do it every 16 hours. It's fascinating, while at the same time gruesome, how the medical staff do the swap, hands in a person's body and all.
It's then that he realizes that he doesn't know how long his surgeries went on for. Did they swap shifts, hands in his gut, too? If they did, how many times? He cringes at the thought of so many hands crowding around the cavity of his open torso.
Footsteps shuffle into the room, the sound of black rubber boot soles crunching against the sterile plastered flooring. It breaks his cringe-worthy train of thought. Clint identifies the person right away. Some things he just can't ever forget.
"You're supposed to be in your ward resting, Agent Barton." The man says, coming up beside the battered archer. At least his bruises are starting to heal.
Clint smirks, still eyeing the scene unfolding on the other side of the glass panel. Blood is pooling in the woman's gut. Her predicament looks unsalvageable. But then again, he was unsalvageable for months, or so he heard. "Natasha's sleeping on the bed. She didn't want to leave, and she doesn't do too well on couches, so..." He replies. "You know, director, I'm surprised you're not criticizing me on my adherence for not staying in a hospital gown. You used to do that."
"Who'd you think let you out of that goddamn gown? What kind of shit thing doesn't let you wear underwear?"
They share a brief moment of laughter. Everyone knew that everyone hated the hospital gowns, and in his current situation, Clint had supposedly struck a deal with the chief nurse that he could wear something comfortable as long as he took his IV stand wherever he went. The IV, another thing he hates.
The younger man clears his throat. "Sir, may I ask you a sensitive question?"
"Depends on what you're gonna ask."
"I just wanted to ask- Why me?" He questions. "Out of all the other agents you could have made the extra effort to save, why me?"
"Why? Are you not happy that you're alive?"
"No, Sir. That wasn't what I meant. What I meant to say was, I'm not the best agent. Hell, I make you deal with too much of my bullshit, on too many days of the week. There've been better agents, in the same predicament, that have gone that should've deserved a chance like this too. So, why me?"
Fury sighs. "Is it that hard to see?"
"What?" The archer is dumbfounded.
"You have family here, Clint. Good, kind people that love you, care for you and look out for you and your best interests."
"And that's the only reason?"
"You think there's more?"
"I do," Clint says, inviting awkward silence. The younger man clears his throat. "Um- I think you've had my back, and significantly more than others too, since the moment I was brought in. They're not the only ones looking out for me, I think that you are, too."
Fury scoffs, amused. The agent may have seen a small remnant of a smile through the reflection of the glass pane. A smile. Fury's smile. Nobody ever seen the director pull anything but a scowl. But now, a smile.
"Well, you're a good kid, Clint. No matter what, your heart's always in the right place. Kinda hard for anyone to fight with that."
Clint lets the words sink into his skull.
In the operating theatre, the ECG wails. The woman's blood pressure is dropping. The medics remain surprisingly calm as they try to put a finger on the hole in her system, throwing sponges into her open gut to soak up the blood. Clint turns to face the director.
"What if it ends up being all for nothing, Nick?" He asks.
"Why?" Fury retorts. "Are you planning to do something stupid?"
A smile graces the archer's features. "I plan to do a lot of stupid things after I get discharged." He says, grinning, but the grin falls as fast as it comes. "It's just... Not all of them are necessarily the good kind."
"You'd have Natasha by your side. I believe she's proven to have made the right decisions more times than not."
"It's not something I plan to tell her."
Fury returns the archer's glance. "If you're not telling her, then she already knows. I'm not even gonna throw a 'probably' in there. She's a smart one."
He replies the director with a perplexed frown. They both turn to look back at the operating theatre. A surgeon seems to have gotten ahold of the hole causing the last left of the bleeding, and he attempts and succeeds in closing it up.
A small discussion in the theater concludes with the medical team ending their damage control, ruling it a success. They begin to close her up.
The director sighs, and almost too silently says, "Don't do it, kid. Just don't." He says it knowingly. Of course he does. Fury has held his seat as Director for this long, and for good reason. He knows people.
"It's my mess, Sir. I should be the one to clean it up. They're coming. I know they are." Clint argues.
"I'll take care of it. Just trust me. You know how to do that, don't you?"
"It's an order." The older man commands.
The younger man just nods curtly.
"If it's anything," Fury begins, "the first stupid thing you should do is buy your wife a meal. She hasn't been eating enough the past months, and obviously, neither have you. You both look like shit."
The archer's mind lingers on that order, as does the faint smile that reaches his lips, as the director stalks out of that room, nothing more left to be said. The only sounds that resonate in the room for the rest of the hour is the faint drip-drip-drip of his mobile IV.
Man, he hates the IV.
He returns to his ward, met with a familiar scene. Natasha's taut fingers grip onto the pillow, clinging on like a death grip. Her expression is that of many, all thrown in together like a quality cocktail.
Like he hasn't forgotten the near-silent footsteps of the infamous Nick Fury, he hasn't forgotten this. Her nightmares. The panic attacks she goes into right after she wakes up. How could he?
Steve, however, is a change of scenery. The captain sits on the chair by the bed, bent over and trying to talk sense into Natasha and silently pleading that it'll work. His hands soothe the tight grasp of her fingers, and roll out the tension in her shoulders.
Clint thinks: It's exactly what he would have done, as well. The archer can't believe what Natasha and the team must have went through, for them to pick this up so quickly.
The archer stands by the door silently until the redhead's whimpering die down. The captain barely notices he's there, and only does after a nurse calls out for "Agent Barton" to get his ass back into bed. Steve smiles in greeting.
"Clint," he nods.
Steve offers the battered archer the seat by his partner's bedside, but the archer declines. "Came by to catch you, but Natasha was here instead. Figured you were out stretching your legs. How are you feeling today?"
"Meh," the archer shrugs. "Like I'm back from the dead. Everything hurts like hell, but it feels good to be up and about again."
"It's good to see you up and about as well. Maybe when you're better we could g-" Steve's cell pings with a message.
He pulls his phone out, briefly struggles to unlock the screen to read it, then pushes the device back into his back pocket. The man then stands up and stretches his knees.
"Something come up?" Clint asks.
"Yeah," says the captain, as he walks towards the door to meet the archer. "Got called in by Hill. Something about a previous mission I was on. Got to get to D.C. by 0800HRS tomorrow. Sorry I couldn't stay long."
"Nah, it's alright. I'll walk you out?"
"No, stay," Steve says. "You look tired. Get some rest. You need it."
The archer sighs, and nods his head. All he can wish in his head is for everyone to stop walking on eggshells around him. "Yeah, sure. I'll see you when I see you. Hope things go well in D.C."
"Thanks." The captain smiles, crystal clear blue eyes glistening with subtle exhaustion under the fluorescent white lights. As soon as he closes the distance between the two, he claps Clint on the shoulder. "I'm really glad you're here, Clint. I don't know what any of us would've done without you."
Clint returns the smile. "Good to be back."
"Take care of yourself." Steve says pointedly before turning the corner and leaving into the hallway.
After he leaves, the archer sits by the couch by the bed and watching Natasha sleep, until he quickly falls asleep himself.
Between him and her, he's convinced that she has an extraordinarily special talent in not blinking or budging. Usually, he wins stare-downs, but this one is significantly much harder than any average staring match. Is she even human?
How goddamn hard is it going to be for him to get his gun back? It has been four months since he's been discharged. It has also been four months since he hasn't carried.
Eventually, the staring match becomes far too exhausting for him. He gets up from his seat across from her, and makes his way towards the exit of the room.
"Great exercise!" He claps his hands and rubs them together, prepared to take his leave. He clicks his tongue with a grin. "Thanks doc."
"Clint, we're not done." The doctor calls from over his shoulder. "You know that the more you walk out of our sessions, the longer it'll take to get what you want, right?"
"Maybe I don't want it."
"If you didn't want it, you wouldn't be here. You would've have come on routine the past couple of times either. So what do you really want?"
Her voice is calm, and is a voice of reason. Clint stops by the door and simply stands there, contemplating whether or not to leave or to stick around. If he's being honest, the doctor isn't wrong.
When she doesn't hear the air from outside the room rush in, implying that he hasn't chosen to leave yet, she turns in her chair to face him.
She sets her files down on the arm of the chair and reaches out for his arm. "The only way this is going to work is if you talk to me, Clint. Talk to me, let me help you."
Clint shies away from her grasp and reverses back into where he was sitting previously. She licks her lips and bite them, relieving herself of a huge breath. She's frustrated, he can see and sense it.
She picks up her files again, and sets them on her lap. "Thank you for staying. It's a step in the right direction."
"I want back. So the only way around this is through, right?"
"That's right." She smiles subtly. "You've been listening."
"It's hard not to, when you're the only one speaking."
"Then maybe we need to start having conversations, Clint, dialogue. It's a start, isn't it?" The doctor says. After he continues to stay silent, she sinks into her chair. "I can't keep talking to myself here."
The archer sighs. "I..."
"You don't know where to start?"
"I don't know how I feel, Hendricks." He clarifies.
She nods, and looks into his eyes. She can see how worn out he really is, or how little sleep he gets, from the bloodshot shade in the whites of his eyes. He avoids her gaze.
"That's alright," says Hendricks. "Let's start with your nights. Are you sleeping well?"
"As well as it gets."
"How many hours a night?"
"Three, on a good day."
She notes down a couple of notes in his file. He tries not to peek. "What keeps you from sleeping?"
"Always hungry. 4AM always seems like the best time to grab a snack." Clint attempts to deflect.
He sets his jaw, then releases it. There is a dark look of shame in his eyes that he tries hard to hide. Shame and disgust. He powers through a half-hearted grin that barely meets his eyes. "It's just hard, doc."
"Is it because you think about a lot of things?"
"Do you feel like you can control these thoughts?"
"That's okay," she jots down more notes. "What are these thoughts generally about? Are they imaginative? Dreams? Memories?"
"About your mission?"
"About a lot of things." He says.
"Do you want to talk about these... things?" He shakes his head in response, tight-lipped. She smiles warmly. "Okay. How about you tell me how these thoughts make you feel?"
"Like a bad thing waiting to happen?"
He leans back in his seat and rubs his eyes, resting his head on the top of the seat cushion. "Yeah. It makes me feel like I can't breathe. My head hurts, all the time. I can't eat. I sometimes want to drink, or dose, but she always reminds me not to ruin my sobriety. I'm scared to sleep. When I do sleep, I feel like I won't be able to wake up," Clint sighs defeatedly.
"And when you're awake, do you feel like you've woken up?"
"I don't even know anymore. It's so real," he says. Then he rests his elbows on his knees and hangs his head. "It's exhausting."
"It feels like a never ending nightmare. You forget that you're home."
"And that's why you nearly choked her."
The glare the doctor gets is instant. Not even an almost. It comes instantly, as soon as she says it. Faster than a split second. Anger rages behind his eyes. He has to chew on his lip to bite back whatever it is he wants to say. His fingers are balled too tightly in fists, they almost draw blood.
"It's a symptom. It's a reflex to threat, even when you're sleeping. You didn't mean it."
He scoffs. "Didn't mean it, huh. You know, she held my hand this morning and all I could think about was how the hand she'd held had tried to kill her a week ago. Every time I look at her, I see the bruises around her neck. I remember how I woke up. I remember seeing my hand around her throat, her gun drawn to her head. Don't even know how I managed to get it. It sucks."
"Does it just suck?"
"Like I want to run myself over with a lawnmower," admits Clint. "I'm so angry. I'm disgusted. I want to get out of this but I feel stuck."
"Tell me what makes you feel stuck."
"I still feel it in my gut that they're going to come back. It gets so hard to leave the apartment at all, sometimes."
"But you know they're gone, don't you?" Hendricks asks, setting her notes down on the table in front of her and clasping her hands together. She leans towards the archer. "Cartel's gone. Nobody got out alive. She made sure of that. The director made sure of that."
He struggles with a simple, "I know."
He grabs his head. His hands are shaking. There are already crescent-shaped cuts in his palm, not just indents. Some are bleeding, others are swollen red. His breaths are shaky.
"Clint, it's been months."
"I know," he repeats again through gritted teeth. He presses his palms into his eyes.
"You know what this is."
"I do." He finally relaxes by fractions. The tension on his body just goes, like feeling defeated.
"Should we talk about it today?"
"Can we talk about it, another day?" He doesn't respond. The doctor sighs inwardly. "Clint."
"What?" He says it defiantly.
"I can't begin to imagine how this feels for you, how this has felt for you for the past four months. I know that there's nothing I can say that will help make things easier for you," she concedes. "But I also know that I'm very good at my job and I want to help you like I have helped others in your same position. That's all I want to do. But it's very hard for me to help you now and still keep things comfortable."
"What are you trying to say?"
"What I'm trying to say is that there are things that we need to talk about that you may not want to bring up, or relive. But we have to-"
Clint stands abruptly and starts towards the door once more. "You know what? This was a mistake. I should go."
"I'm pushing. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have pushed." The doctor trails behind him, apologizing. "I just want you to know that it's fine to push back." She continues at the door.
"I don't want to push back, doc. I want to be done."
"Do you want to hold again?" She questions. He turns to her just as he's about to swing the door open.
"What I want? What I want is to not come here every week, and sit in that awful chair and talk about things that I don't want to. What I want is for everyone to stop looking at me like I'm crazy, or damaged. What I want is sleep, and to not strangle my wife in my sleep. What I want is for you to just sign the goddamn papers and send me on my way." His eyes are swollen pink with hot tears that he tries but fails to hide.
"What I want is normal. What I want, is to be okay. What I want is a little bit of control. What I want is my life back. But you can't give me any of that, so don't ask me what I want!" He's yelling now. He slams a fist into the glass door and the doctor flinches away slightly.
As realization dawns on him, he relaxes his fist and his lips tremble as he holds back more tears. He wipes a hand over his face and breathes. Hendricks places a warm hand on his shoulder and squeezes firmly, searching for his eyes.
"I'm sorry," he looks away. "I'm a little off the hinges right now, trying to feel okay when I know that I'm really not. I, um- I don't mean to push back, I just... I'm so angry. All the time. With my mind. It's damaged." His voice cracks.
"You're far from damaged, Clint," says the doctor. She rubs circles into his shoulder in a calming manner. "You know, sometimes the mind works wonders. It's a mysterious, spectacular thing. It protects you, it pushes back for you, even when you don't want it to. You know why?"
The archer shakes his head, looking down at his feet defeatedly.
"Because that's exactly what it should be doing. Deep down, you know in your head and heart that you're not ready to jump back in just yet. That's a good thing."
"How is that a good thing?"
"Because it's the most human, the most rational response anyone can get in situations like these. It means that you're not fully gone. It means that there's something left to bring back," the doctor explains. "Yes, you may feel that what happened to you has taken everything from you. Your heart, your mind, your soul, your humanity, your sanity. That's what it does. It makes you feel that way, but it doesn't mean that it has. Not everything."
He stares at his feet, silent, teeming with doubt. "There is no doubt that this will destroy you. It's trauma. It's a raw, undying open wound that will feel like it can never heal. It will destroy you, or perhaps it already has. But then we make do with what we have. We'll help you feel okay, with what's left."
"So, um... talking. It helps?"
"Yes. And there's medication, other types of therapy. And the benefit of time. You can take as long as you need. Nobody's rushing."
"And we have to talk about it. About what happened."
"Oh, I know what happened. I want to know what you felt when it happened. We can talk about how it made you feel, how it still makes you feel. We can discuss how it's affecting you now."
"What if I'm not ready? What if this happens again? What if I push back." He asks, ashamed.
"We'll work on it," she smiles. "Then in the mean time, we can talk about something else. What you plan to do. How you're adjusting. How you and Natasha are. Your wedding plans-"
"My wedding plans?"
"Yes, your wedding plans," he doesn't know if it's a joke or not. Then again, the doctor has been close friends with Natasha for years now. "Clint, now I'd be hurt if you weren't considering extending an invite here."
"My shrink. At my wedding." He says, incredulous. It feels weird on his tongue. He sniffles.
Hendricks laughs. "I'm everyone's shrink. Friends, colleagues, bosses. You name it, I've done it."
"Stark will hate me."
"Oh, Stark can't run away from me. Not this time." She rolls her eyes. When Clint still has a skeptical look on his face, she is almost certain that he's actually thinking about the complete shipwreck of a wedding he'll have if both Stark and the doctor are invited. "Don't freak out. I'm joking."
The archer loosens up and relieves himself of a brief chuckle.
"When's the big day?" She asks.
She finally breaks free from her position at the door to walk towards one of the room's cabinets. Clint doesn't move with her and stays put at the door.
He thinks aloud. "Sometime next September, probably?"
"Looking forward to it?"
"Of course," says Clint. And then a little more quietly, "Okay."
"Okay what?" Hendricks replies. The doctor pulls out a bottle from the medicine cabinet and reads the label as she does so.
She closes the cabinet door with the bottle of prescription in hand. The prescription bottle is cylindrical and a translucent orange colour, with white sticker paper covering its entire circumference. In small print, the label reads as Prazosin.
"Okay, I'll do this. I'll try to do this." The archer clarifies. There's an added conviction to his strained and quiet tone. "I just want to be able to leave my house to attend my own wedding, you know."
"Okay." He tries to smile. His stomach feels weak.
"That's all I'm asking for. A try." She reciprocates a warmer smile herself. Then, she checks the time on her watch. "And that's an hour."
"It is?" She shows him her watch. "That's not an hour. You still have ten minutes."
"About an hour." She corrects. "Besides, if you don't tell, and I don't tell, no one will know."
Clint chuckles a little harder this time and shrugs. "An hour." He says, pointedly.
"Yes, it is. An hour. It's a first."
"Yeah, sorry about that. My previous track records."
"That's alright, Clint. I'm glad you stuck around this time. I really am. Today, it was a great first step in the right direction."
"Don't worry about it. Now, get out of here. Get some fresh air, get some proper food," the doctor pulls the door open and hands Clint the prescription. "Get some sleep."
He freezes for a moment, a thought running through his head. A fleeting moment of panic seems to flash past his eyes. An attack, and retreat. He looks at his feet. "Thanks, again."
She nods in acknowledgement, and gives his arm one last firm squeeze as he takes the prescription with shaky hands. "Clint?" She tries to find his eyes. He glances up at her once, and she makes full use of that one moment. "You're going to be okay. I promise you that, and I don't promise things I can't deliver."
He lets out an even shakier breath, like he's trying hard to control an incessant, anxious tremor throughout his body. "I'm going to be okay."
"You're going to be okay." The doctor repeats. "One day."
Clint looks down now and eyes the label on the bottle, then squeezes it into his pants pocket. He glances back at her once more on the way out. "One day."
Maybe it's because of his new first step, or the reassurance from someone other than his own soon-to-be wife that everything will turn out to be okay. Or maybe it's his momentary, long-lost but newfound sense of some semblance of control in his life, through taking these critical first steps in the right direction. Either way, it's something, and it helps him to manage a wider, more hopeful smile than he's been able to in a long time.
Just then, a transient moment of ease comes upon him. Just for that passing moment, even for a second, a warmth envelops him. I'm going to be okay, he repeats to himself. For once, it comes as easy as breathing, on a good day. For once, he feels normal.
One day, he hopes, it won't be just a moment anymore. One day.
Thank you for reading and keeping up with this for so long. Once again, I'm really sorry it took 5 years. It's finally the end.