A/N: This story is focused on a character dealing with the symptoms of severe depression, including implied suicidal thoughts and some substance abuse. So, yeah – be warned. Herein lies much angst. Clint is not having a good time. Please don't read this unless that works for you.
"Seriously, guys. When Fury gets to rubbing you wrong – shut up, you know he will – come crash at my place. You'll like it there, I promise. It's like Candy Land. We have all the goodies."
Two months after Tony Stark issued that breezy invitation, Clint "Hawkeye" Barton threw his bow across the training range and almost decided to take him up on it. Sure, Stark never let him forget about the nasty case of evil he'd come down with right before they met, but he also never treated it all that seriously. He tended to act like it had been no worse than a minor case of food poisoning or a rash somewhere unmentionable; something mildly embarrassing but ultimately harmless.
Clint knew better, but he appreciated the quirky billionaire's acceptance. Bruce's, too – hell, if anyone understood what it was like to be trapped somewhere behind your mind while a devastating force with a sick sense of fun wrought havoc with the brain and hands that you could no longer claim as your own, it had to be Banner.
Truthfully, he wasn't certain why he was still rejecting the mad scientists' offer of a spare room. It sure wasn't because of the feeling of warm fuzzy belonging that was his lot at SHIELD headquarters these days. Although, the careful two yards of personal space that his colleagues so thoughtfully maintained for him did make a nice counterpoint to the expressions of careful neutrality and outright disgust that accompanied the maneuver.
It made him feel contagious, but he couldn't blame them. Not when he faced the same expression every time he made the mistake of looking in the mirror. In fact, the only difference was that he could avoid mirrors with just a little effort. Avoiding headquarters was a lot more difficult when you were grounded. And at this point, there was little point in denying it. His wings had been thoroughly clipped.
He'd had barely four days with Tasha to quietly mourn the loss of Phil – their rock, the older brother who had long since replaced his blood brother in Clint's mind and heart. They'd loved him, in their own repressed and neurotic way. But then Tasha had been called in for one of those missions that only she could handle, and he'd barely seen her since.
So, he'd tried to pack away his own grief and return to business as usual. When it became obvious that no one was inclined to trust him with anything more volatile than filing, he'd put on a sardonic grin and filed like the fate of the world depended on it. Ten miles of paperwork, eleven reorganized storerooms, and a thousand hours on the practice range later, the smile had acquired an edge of grim desperation and felt even more like a mask than usual, but he never once complained.
He'd abdicated that right in the wake of thirty-two funerals, a number that almost any agent who wasn't Tasha was happy to remind him of.
All this crossed his mind in the bare moment it took him to follow the bow across the room. He started to lean over to pick it up, then changed his mind and just slid down the wall with a quiet sigh to pull the bow into his lap, hoping against probability that no one had witnessed this latest evidence of mental instability on his part. That was the real problem with inactivity; it gave him far too much time to think, and far too little to think about aside from his own failure and inadequacy.
He leaned his head back against the wall with slightly more force than necessary and almost, almost decided to pack a bag and head out to Stark Tower and the hell with Fury's "recommendation" otherwise, because at least Stark would be willing to find something useful for him to do. He'd gotten to his feet to do just that when, for the first time in two months, his SHIELD-issued cell buzzed.
He actually caught himself staring blankly at the text for almost a full minute before the words finally registered. When they did, he was back across the room without really knowing how he'd gotten there and pelting down the corridor, all thoughts of dignity and proving his sanity forgotten. He didn't care if it turned out to be a milk run; at least he was getting out of the damned building.
Clint wasn't nearly as surprised as he should have been when what had appeared to be a straightforward case of corporate espionage ended up being a would-be supervillain bent on world domination instead. Of course it was; that was just how his luck was running. And of course crazy William Cross had a prototype sonic mind control ray he wanted to test; why not? And of course he would decide that Hawkeye was an ideal test subject. Obviously.
He briefly wondered if he was wearing a sign that said Easy Target, maybe with exclamation points and a sadistic smiley face for good measure. The thought should have pissed him off, and would have less than three months ago, but now all he felt was a sick sort of regret as he stared into Agent Morse's wide eyes and Cross whispered her death in his ear. Poor Mockingbird was terrified, and who could blame her? He didn't exactly have a sterling record when it came to not killing coworkers while under mind control, and she had to have noticed the increasingly violent trembling in his limbs as the effort of noncompliance increased.
She also had to know that he had no clue how to disable the device. It was an open secret at SHIELD that his formal education was sketchy, to say the least. He barely had a GED to his name, much less an engineering degree. But despite that shortcoming, even he didn't consider himself a stupid man. God, how many years had it taken Phil to pound that belief out of his hard head? And Bobbi Morse was a good agent, a good person, just like Phil and thirty-one others had been. He refused to add her name to that list, to add any names to it ever again. Period, end of story.
"Never again," he grated out, only realizing that he'd spoken aloud when she gave him a startled look. He offered her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "You're worth three of me. You know that, right?" Her fear shaded into something closer to alarm, and he felt his smile turn grim.
He might not know how to disable the weapon, but it didn't take a Ph. D. to figure out how to make that problem irrelevant.
"Cover your ears, Bobbi," he told her, gentle tone at odds with the harsh determination on his face. Much to his relief, she did, and he knew it would be enough. The sonic arrows were little more than an irritant from a minimum safe distance, which was why he'd rarely found use for them.
Within that distance, though…
With the last of his willpower, Clint met William Cross's avid gaze, gave the man the finger, and set off the arrowhead he'd primed but not pulled.
Permanent hearing loss. Ninety percent in his right ear, eighty in his left. When they wrote the verdict on the small whiteboard that had taken up residence at his bedside, he didn't tell them how unsurprised he was. He didn't tell them about the creeping sense of numbness that came with the news, or the lethargy that followed it. It wasn't that he didn't know it was a bad sign; he just couldn't quite bring himself to care. By the looks that most of them were giving him, they wouldn't particularly care either, which was why he also didn't bother to tell them that he actually read lips pretty well – it was a useful skill for a sniper.
Of course, when a worried and angry Black Widow joined the whiteboard a couple of days later, she didn't need to be told. She let him dodge her glare for less than a minute before she just dropped into his lap and caught his chin in an iron grip. There would be no pretending to misunderstand her.
"Why, Clint?" was all she asked, a suspicious shine in her eyes. "What the hell were you thinking?" He'd seen that look in her eyes exactly once before, at Phil's funeral. Since he couldn't begin to see how that tragedy could begin to be compared to this, the memory made him answer more harshly than he'd intended. He tried to pitch his voice low, mindful of her proximity, but he didn't attempt to mitigate the flat pain that he suspected it held as he went down the list.
"Andrews. Avery. Azuma. Bartlett. Berrymore. Chan. Coulson." He felt his voice break on the final name and stopped, swallowing hard. She released his chin and stood, abruptly giving him her back, but not before he saw something very like shame cross her expression. He clenched both fists in the sheets of his hospital bed, worry clawing cold fingers through the soothing fog of resignation.
"Tasha?" He was pretty sure he succeeded in making the word a question, but she just shook her head, turning to give him one of her bright not-real smiles. He frowned at her in return, and she just laughed, the gesture unnerving in its inaudibility.
"It's nothing. Just focus on pulling yourself together, you got it? I want your ass back out there covering my ass asap." She blew him a kiss and was gone, and he felt the fog roll back in as he flopped down onto the pillows and fought the urge to curl up defensively in the fetal position.
They'd promised never to lie to each other, once. He and Tasha and Phil. Even though they knew they wouldn't always be able to tell each other the full truth, they'd promised never to outright lie.
He was pretty sure she'd just broken that promise, and the indication that her trust in him had deteriorated so far left him with a far greater sense of loss than his deafness did.
A week later, he had no idea why he was still confined to Medical. The tinnitus and vertigo had both subsided, they had already done preliminary fittings for the hearing aids he'd be issued when his ruptured eardrums finished healing, and he felt as well as he suspected he ever would. They still hadn't cleared him, though, and his questions on the matter never seemed to get a straight answer.
So he languished in his hospital bed, pulling the covers over his head to block the light in the daytime and then rolling out of bed to wander aimlessly at night, halfheartedly dodging nurses and wondering if it was worth the effort to explore any of the corridors that were actually off limits. The fact that the answer was always "no" didn't strike him as odd until Tasha made another brief appearance and asked him if he was climbing the walls yet.
He didn't have the heart to lie to her, even if she'd done it first, so he just gave her a crooked smile and let her make assumptions. The nurses had obviously warned her that he'd been increasingly nonverbal in recent days, because she didn't seem to find the response suspicious, despite the fact that she'd gotten the same smile in answer to her questions about whether he'd been in contact with the others.
He was perfectly aware of the hundred and fifty-six unopened texts on his phone, and that almost counted as contact, right?
Still, her observation was enough to strike a small, stubborn spark inside him. If Medical was so damned determined to retain the pleasure of his company, then they were welcome to try to catch whatever the hell he decided to throw at them. He nursed that small spark all afternoon and evening, and by the time he hacked the lock on the door marked Level 5 Authorization Required Beyond This Point behind the back of the ever-so-conveniently distracted charge nurse that night, he was feeling surprisingly close to cheerful.
The realization startled him so much that he stopped dead in the middle of the empty hallway for a moment, grinning and shaking his head at himself. Of course he'd just needed a little challenge, a little action, to start to feel like himself again. Now that he knew, he'd be back to normal in no time.
Neither cheer nor grin were daunted by the fact that the top-secret corridor was proving singularly dull, and when he turned the corner to see light shining from a partially closed door, his curiosity was far too piqued to turn back. He positioned himself carefully behind the doorjamb, hoping he wouldn't find himself facing the wall side of the entryway.
He wasn't. Within the room, a pale but alert Phil Coulson lay semi-reclined, ensconced in a nest of pillows and surrounded by a protective circle of computers and files. He was speaking rapidly into his cell phone, and had yet to notice the shadow at his door.
Clint had no idea what expression was on his face as he walked numbly into the room, and he couldn't begin to care; but when Phil met his eyes, whatever they held caused the phone to slip from the bedridden man's hand as his face went from pale to absolutely bloodless. They stood like that for a frozen moment, two, three, until Phil reached blindly for the phone and said something brief and urgent that Clint couldn't quite make out before putting it down again, still holding Clint's eyes with his own.
"Agent Coulson. You look remarkably not dead." It was all that would come to mind, and he had no idea how he'd managed to force the impassive words out.
"Clint… " Phil said his name, lifting a trembling hand in what appeared to be entreaty, but Clint was distracted from the agent's words by the unexpected appearance of a small, strong hand on his arm.
"Clint, you should probably sit down now," Natasha said, raking him with a worried gaze. Him. Not the dead man sitting very much alive in the hospital bed. And Clint's foggy, panicked mind tumbled with a crash into icy clarity.
"You knew," he said. Though he didn't believe that he could possibly sound or look half as raw and broken and utterly defeated as he suddenly felt, she flinched and wouldn't meet his eyes again, and he knew it was true.
Phil was alive. Tasha knew, had known for a while. She probably wasn't the only one. And no one had trusted him with the information. Instead, they'd let him keep believing that he'd helped murder one of his best friends, the nearest thing he had to family.
He didn't realize that he was backing away from her, shaking his head in denial, until his back hit the wall. Jolted, he looked down and saw that he was shaking, his hands clenched spastically into white-knuckled fists. Natasha was at his side again the next instant, ducking low so he could see her mouth clearly.
"– understand, we just weren't sure how you'd handle it. Given, well, everything." She was uncharacteristically flustered, her expression guilt-stricken and her body language distressed, and Clint had the helplessly irrational urge to comfort her. He probably would have given in to it, given in to her, if he hadn't suddenly sensed a fourth presence in the room.
Fury's voice was low-pitched and resonant enough that Clint could almost hear it, and he looked up just in time to catch the tail end of the director's comment. It looked suspiciously like "– for the best," and Clint shoved himself away from the wall, away from Natasha, shaking now for a completely different reason.
"Did he really just say it was for the best?" he grated out. His voice felt shattered in his throat, harsh and dangerous, and everyone else in the room had frozen at the sound of it. When no one responded, he turned to Natasha and demanded, "Did he?"
She nodded once, stiffly, and Clint's fists were clenched again as he launched into violent motion. He didn't stand around to gloat after joining the short list of individuals to knock Nick Fury on his ass, though. He was almost out the door when Natasha reached out to grab his arm again. He spun and intercepted her, one big hand easily encircling her wrist. Not painfully, never that; but not quite gently, either.
"You were right, Agent Romanova," he told her, still with that shattered-glass voice. "I can't handle it." The look on her face was as broken as he felt, and she didn't reach for him again as he left.
He startled the charge nurse when he burst back into the lobby, saw her reaching for the emergency phone with concern and a little fear, and began to run. He kept running, breath coming harder than he liked after weeks of enforced inactivity, until his feet brought him to Penn Station and the crisis pack he'd left in a locker there and hoped never to use.
He hesitated only a moment before slipping into a stall in the men's room and rifling through the backpack. His SHIELD-issued sweatpants and tee were quickly exchanged for battered jeans and a faded hoodie, ancient ankle boots slipped onto bare feet and plain glass wire rims over shadowed eyes. The wallet with its variety of ID and credit cards was next; it would take him a couple of minutes to weed out the ones that SHIELD knew about, and then to try and remember which of the remainder Natasha wouldn't recognize. A couple of burn phones, a handful of protein bars. And at the bottom of the bag, under a second change of clothes, a decidedly not SHIELD-issued .45-caliber semi-automatic.
For the first time since early childhood, Clint Barton froze at the sight of a gun. Finally reaching, almost gingerly, to lift it from its canvas cocoon, he studied the dark metal with an expression that was half clinical and half bemused. Suddenly, it occurred to him that his problem might have a much simpler solution than the one he was more or less blindly pursuing.
He turned the gun over several times in his hands and the thought over several times in his mind, tentatively, before the full force of it slammed into him like a Technicolor nightmare. He jerked as though he'd been struck, the gun slipping from suddenly nerveless fingers as angry, frightened tears stung his eyes. He gripped the sides of the toilet tank, fighting both rising nausea and what he suspected was an incipient panic attack, trying to force his breathing and heartbeat back to a sustainable rate.
Several minutes later he walked with all apparent calm into the station lobby, unobtrusively dropping both gun and useless ID into the trash on his way, and bought a ticket on the next scheduled Amtrak to anywhere-but-here.
He kept moving – Amtrak, Greyhound, hitchhiking, whatever – less because he actually believed that anyone was looking for him anymore than because it seemed healthier than not moving. Not moving usually found him holed up in some seedy motel where he'd collapse like he hadn't slept for a year, barely able to scrape together enough energy to drag his sorry ass to the bathroom and the vending machine once a day and trying his damnedest not to think about how useless he'd become and how quiet the world was now. The inertia would strangle him for a week or so, and then he'd shake it off enough to go hunting his next ticket onward.
He attempted to take up drinking, because hey, if he couldn't live up to his own expectations, he might as well live down to the family example, right? Unfortunately, he didn't seem to have his father's talent for alcoholism. Instead of feeling comfortably numb, he found he just hated himself more than ever. Of course, that might have had something to with the fact that the first time he got really, obliteratingly smashed, he got into – or possibly started, he really couldn't remember – an absolutely brutal bar brawl.
When he came around the next morning with an impressive hangover, an even more impressive black eye, and the makings of what would no doubt be a fairly distinctive scar on his left cheekbone, his guard was too far down to prevent the memory from making its presence viscerally known. Natasha, slyly teasing as she noted their luck that she was more than just a pretty face, since they wouldn't get far on his looks. Tasha, contradicting her words with her actions as she slid a gentle hand along his jaw and gazed at him like she saw someone worth touching, worth her unexpected gentleness.
He spent the next few hours resting his sweaty forehead against the cool porcelain of the toilet and trying to convince himself that the sudden, violent nausea was the result of his hangover and not the mental sucker punch.
The second and last time he got plastered, it was Christmas Eve and his life sucked even more than usual. His hair, ignored since he'd left Manhattan, had finally gotten long enough for his bangs to fall into his eyes, irritating him and reminding him every few minutes that it really didn't matter if it was in his way, because it wasn't like it would foul his aim. Not only did the ironic thought give him no satisfaction, it also reminded him of the many years of his life when it did matter. This further reminded him, painfully, of Natasha and Phil, and of the several Christmases that they'd managed to spend together, which then led him to wondering what they were doing now. Were they living it up with Tony and Bruce back at Candy Land, enjoying the goodies?
The thought was more wistful than mocking, and it led to further painful musings. Would they be able to get Steve to put his feet up, knock back a beer, and enjoy himself for once? Would Thor beam down from Asgard to ravish his fair astrophysicist under the mistletoe? Would Pepper be able to keep Tony out of trouble? Would Phil smile, and Tasha laugh?
Would he be with them now, if he'd taken Tony up on his offer in the first place?
That was the point at which Clint decided to get very, extremely drunk. Unfortunately, not only did the alcohol not ease his loneliness, it also managed to land him at the bottom of an icy set of stairs the hard way. A pair of concerned local men helped him hop awkwardly back to his motel room. When the elder of the two inquired with obvious worry whether there was anyone they could call for him, any friend or family member, Clint just closed his eyes briefly and shook his head.
"No. There's no one."
"Maybe you should try the hospital then, son?" the man persisted. "That leg looks bad."
"It's fine," he insisted, and eventually the good Samaritans left in search of their own celebrations, shaking their heads regretfully.
Of course, the leg wasn't fine, and by Valentine's Day Clint was forced to acknowledge that he'd be limping until it was re-broken and set properly. And since that officially marked the end of his drinking experiment, he decided to take up chain smoking instead; partially because he knew it would have pissed Phil and Tasha off, and partially because the pettiness of the first motive gave him a new reason to think even less of himself.
He'd started keeping a mental list of them, because everyone needs a hobby, right?
By March he'd taken the Greyhound down South, where the weather was milder and the cold didn't bite his brand new bum leg as badly. Sore, damaged, and exhausted somewhere at the level of his soul, he kinda-sorta settled into a nowhere town where the locals didn't mind passing him odd jobs under the table and watched him with sidelong glances that held only a little pity and curiosity.
He didn't mind the manual labor; it was nothing he'd never done before, and the burn of neglected muscles rebuilding themselves and new callouses tearing his hands was mildly satisfying. The loneliness that hadn't left him since Christmas was harder to deal with, and he began to find himself sitting for hours at a time in random public venues, just tucking himself out of the way with a pack of cigarettes and watching the people pass by at their languid southern pace. After the first few conversational gambits were gently rebuffed with an apologetic smile and a gesture at his useless ears, folks took to treating him with a sort of benign neglect that felt strangely like camaraderie.
He found himself sleeping less and better, eating more regularly, and observing the world around him again with something more than passive resignation. The urge to move for the sake of motion, to move just to keep living – like some sort of mindless, bipedal shark – had finally faded, leaving a vague wordless yearning that he chose not to investigate too closely in its place.
The yearning intensified with the heat as spring crept toward the sultry southern summer. It pricked at him and mocked him, and found him sitting on the roof of his rented room in the warm twilight, staring into the dark over drawn up knees. It kept him right there, waiting and very carefully not hoping, as May tumbled down into June and the card came in the mail.
It was a simple card, a mass-produced Hallmark with a picture of a hawk on the front and his name, his real name, inscribed inside beneath the "Thinking of you!" message in flowing Cyrillic handwriting. He sat the card on the windowsill, packed his small bag and left it sitting neatly by the door, and went outside for a smoke.
He'd settled himself more or less comfortably on the front steps, bad leg stretched out in front of him and expression pensive, while he calmly smoked through one cigarette and lit straight into a second one. Two puffs in, the cancer stick was plucked from his unresisting grasp, and he barely kept himself from smiling as a leggy, disapproving redhead appeared out of nowhere to straddle his thighs.
She took his face gently in both hands and studied it for several moments before beginning to explore the changes, her thumb stroking lightly over his scarred cheek, fingertips skimming down the week's worth of stubble that he really should just give up and call a beard. When she ran her fingers very deliberately through his hair, beginning at his scalp and sliding all the way down to where the longest strands nearly brushed his shoulders, he finally raised a questioning brow at her.
She just smiled and shook her head slightly, so he shifted his weight back to his hands, meeting and holding her eyes as she reached forward again to tuck his jaw-length bangs behind his left ear. He continued to watch her steadily as she extended her hand to the side, palm up, to accept something from the companion that had been lurking just within Clint's peripheral vision. The calm gaze didn't even waver when she lifted the small object to his ear and settled it into the canal – though he would admit, if pressed, to a barely perceptible twitch when she tapped the hearing aid gently into place and a distinct sound resulted.
It was the first thing he'd really heard in ten months, after all.
"Too loud?" she asked, softly. She'd felt him flinch, of course. He shook his head.
"No, it's fine." He almost winced at the sound of his own voice. Months of disuse and smoking like a chimney clearly hadn't been kind to it, and Tasha skimmed her knuckles lightly over his throat with a stern, solemn look before cupping his jaw again.
"You don't seem surprised to see us," Phil observed, stepping into view behind Tasha's shoulder.
"A little surprised that you waited this long, truthfully," Clint noted, and got a double-barreled glare in response.
"We weren't sure you were finished running," Phil replied simply, somehow making the statement sound vaguely questioning. Clint felt his gaze go distant with thought while Tasha went very still against him, waiting.
"Yeah, I'm done," he said, finally sure of the answer himself. "Does that actually make a difference?" Because he really hadn't been sure it would.
"Do you want it to?" Tasha asked, seriously. Clint closed his eyes, momentarily elated that he could do that and still follow the conversation, and gave the answer that the prickly, wistful yearning was demanding.
"Yes," he admitted, and Tasha sighed deeply and tucked her face against the crook of his neck. He pretended not to feel the dampness that trickled down his skin, but couldn't keep himself from lifting one hand to lightly stroke her back. "You both know I screwed up," he had to add, some of the old resignation creeping back. "I screwed up kind of a lot."
"You had more than a little help with that, Clint," was all Phil said, his expression grim and sad. Clint watched him measuringly for a moment, then shook his head again and patted the step next to him. Phil took the hint, moving to sit beside him, and Tasha slid off of his lap to do the same on his other side. They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, and it felt good. Safe. Clint didn't know whether to sigh in relief or kick himself for being such a pushover, so he decided not to think about it. He was really good at denial, after all.
It was one of several scary talents that made him suspect he wasn't quite out of the emotional woods yet.
"Will you come home?" Phil's cautious voice broke through his reverie, and though Clint glanced at him a bit sharply, the agent kept his own eyes firmly on the thickening dusk.
"Home, as in headquarters?" he asked, a little warily. Both of his companions' expressions hardened in response.
"Home, as in Stark Tower. Avengers Tower, now," Tasha corrected.
"So, you took Tony up on his invitation to visit Candy Land after all," he mused out loud, earning a pair of bemused expressions.
"I suppose we did. Will you come?" she persisted.
"I don't know, Tasha," he murmured, only half joking. "I'm not sure that I'm really Avenger's material, these days."
"You are," she told him firmly, though it was quickly followed by a sly grin. "Of course, I'll admit that you might be a bit of a fixer-upper." He laughed for the first time in a year, startled and a little relieved to realize that he still knew how.
"Definitely a fixer-upper," he confirmed. He tipped his head up to look at the emerging stars as comfortable silence surrounded them again. Phil and Tasha continued to bracket him, somehow completely and emphatically there to his senses even without words, without the touch of skin. "It's different now, isn't it?" he observed, not certain whether to be pleased or wary. When they just looked at him questioningly, he clarified, "This. The three of us," and their expressions cleared.
"It is," Phil affirmed, bumping his shoulder companionably.
"It is," Tasha promised, twining their fingers together.
He looked down at their clasped hands, then back up at the sky, and exhaled slowly, the last of the tension that had constricted his chest leaving him.
"All right, then. Let's go home."