"Are you nervous, Agent Barton?"
"Remember you must tell the truth for this to be effective. Neither you nor the department will gain anything if you lie."
"Okay. Uh, I guess I'm a little nervous."
Clint tightened his grip around his glass of whiskey to keep it from sliding out of his hand, which had grown slick with sweat.
"I'm just going to ask you a few questions to begin with. How are you adjusting to life after your incident?"
Adjusting? He was adjusting just fine, thanks. Because it was the easiest thing in the world to go back to your regular routine and pretend like nothing was ever wrong after having your mind taken over by some crazy alien bastard and being forced to kill people you cared about.
"Walk me through the interactions you've had with people today. What they said and what you said. Who have you spoken to today? Director Fury? Agent Hill? Agent Romanoff?"
What the hell did what he said to people have to do with anything? Granted, she'd hit the nail on the head there. She must have talked to Fury. As it happened, they'd had quite a vocal argument that morning. The last thing Clint had wanted to do two weeks after the battle of New York was to sit in the office of some nosy psychologist and talk about what was thinking, how he felt, and how his life was going. Fury said it was for his own good. That was pure and total bullshit. Couldn't Fury see that what Clint really needed was to go back to work and pretend it never happened? Maybe if he worked hard and long enough, his mind would be distracted and he would stop thinking about it. But no. It wasn't for Clint's good at all. It was for the department's. Fury wasn't sure whether he could trust Clint.
"Do you have nightmares about your incident?"
Does killing people, people who are important to you, haunt you in your dreams, Clint? What about when you're awake? Because if you're not a rock-hard, impenetrable, inhuman wall, that means there's something wrong with you.
With an unintelligible shout of frustration, Clint hurled his empty glass against the wall of his dayroom. It hit, of course, exactly where he had been aiming-just inches from the doorframe. Naturally, that was the exact moment that Natasha picked to walk through the door. Her quick reflexes and enhanced sense of self-preservation took over as the transparent missile came rocketing toward her and she leapt sideways, cat-like, eyes flicking first to the pile of shattered glass on the carpet and then to Clint.
"Tasha! Holy shit..."
"It's okay, I'm...fine. Good thing you weren't aiming for the door." Her tone had a forced lightness to it, as though she was trying to hide the fact that she was shaken-and worried.
"Yeah..." He lowered his gaze to the ground as she approached, bare feet treading soundlessly across the carpet, and sat down beside him on the sofa. They were both silent for several minutes, she running her hand up and down his upper arm. He could feel her thin, graceful fingers tracing the contours of his well-developed muscles, and he wanted so badly to get lost in her touch and just forget everything that had happened over the past couple of weeks. Or everything in general-S.H.I.E.L.D., his past and hers, the toll their jobs took on them. Why couldn't it just be the two of them, sitting on the couch in the lamplight, silent and touching? Why did everything else have to exist?
But he had to be realistic. He snorted internally as the word popped into his mind. That was probably among the words the psychologist had used when she told him his results. He didn't remember for sure-it all kind of blurred together, and the amount of whiskey he'd drank since then didn't help. Was this what was to become of him, then, now that he had no life prospects? Just another drunk who drowned his sorrows every day and night until one day his liver gave out? Clint wanted to laugh cynically at the thought, hoping it might raise his spirits, but just then he felt Natasha's hand caress his arm again and he remembered that he did still have at least one life prospect. And the person associated with it deserved to know the truth.
He was grateful for her silence up until that point. Their relationship was a quiet one. Neither were big on words-both had less than illustrious pasts that were full of things they wished to bury and leave behind, and that had taught them the value of reticence. They never pushed each other to speak of anything, and that was part of why they got along so well-and why they'd become so close. There was trust and support between them, but along with that came the knowledge that as much space as needed would be given, until the other was ready to share what troubled them.
She regarded him inquiringly, but did not speak. He drew a steadying breath and let it out again before he told her the truth, plainly and simply.
"I failed my psych eval."
The motion of her hand on his arm ceased, and he felt her fingers squeeze his deltoid harder than they had been previously. It took her several seconds speak-she seemed to be attempting to decide how best to respond. Finally, she simply asked,
"So what now?"
He sighed wearily, remembering the psychologist's words, spoken with a deliberate calmness as he reeled.
"I can't come back to work for three months. Then I'll have to take another test, and if I fail that one then I'll be out for another six months. If I fail the third test..." He sighed. "I'm not taking three of those goddamned tests. All I want is to come back to work. I need to go back to work! They're taking away the one thing that's going to make it bearable because they think I can't do my job."
"They know you can do your job," she said, gazing into his tired eyes with her deep, understanding blue ones. "You proved that two weeks ago. But you've been through a hell of a lot in a short time, Clint. Things like this don't just go away. You of all people should know that."
You and I, he thought. His hand found hers and their fingers entwined against the seat of the couch. She hadn't said it, but he knew she was thinking it.
You don't understand. Have you ever had someone take your brain and play? Take you out and stuff something else in? Do you know what it's like to be unmade?
You know that I do.
Clint tried to imagine what it would have been like to go through what Loki had done to him as a child. He was having enough problems now, as an adult with an established perception of how the world was supposed to operate-for example, he knew that killing people, or at the very least the people on your side, was wrong. What must it have been like for someone so young to have their view of reality calibrated so incorrectly, and led to believe that moral wrongs were rights?
He remembered the day he had found her. He had spent two days searching, and when he had had her cornered, he had raised his bow and pulled the string back to his ear, ready to release the tension and finish the job. But then he had made the mistake that he had sworn he never would-he'd looked into her eyes. He'd looked into those frightened, broken eyes-she'd known there was no way out-and he had seen himself. A criminal, surviving the only way they knew how. The difference, it turned out, was that he'd known the errors in his ways. She'd had no idea. It had taken time, years in fact, to undo the damage, to untie the knots that had been twisted in her brain and in her heart. She would never fully recover, he knew, because it had all happened when she had been so young that she had no set point to go back to. But she was better, and now she was the one holding him together as he was faced with what someone else had done with his body and mind.
Clint reached up with his free hand to tuck a stray lock of red hair behind Natasha's ear, and he felt her grip around his hand tighten, ever so slightly.
"You're gonna be okay, Clint," she said, as soft-spoken as normal but with less of her usual, matter-of-fact tone. She sounded confident, but the conviction in her voice was stemmed from her heart rather than her mind. He swallowed, but the action failed to counteract the dryness in his throat.
"You think?" he asked hoarsely. God, he wasn't used to feeling this damned vulnerable. It was all he'd experienced the past two weeks. But he knew he would have hated it all the more had she not been beside him, her hand still holding his.
"Yeah," she murmured. "Yeah, I do."
Neither of them was the type for outward sentimentality, that was for sure. She would never say out loud what she was thinking, but he could read what he needed from the way she'd rubbed his arm, and the way she now held his hand and looked into his soul through his eyes. She knew he wasn't just worried about the eval, or even about going back to work. He didn't feel like himself yet, or at least not like he had before the incident, and deep within the darkest crevices of his mind, the ones that had been brought to light by the touch of Loki's scepter, he wondered if he might never return to how he had been before. But she wouldn't lie to him-they spoke so little that they could not afford any of their words to each other to be falsehoods. There was at least one person in the world who had faith in him. And to Clint, she was the only one who mattered.
He smelled the light perfume of her shampoo-coconut-as she leaned over to rest her head on his shoulder, and he lay his cheek against her hair. It wasn't long before they fell asleep like that, their fingers still interlaced, the shattered glass lying forgotten on the floor.