It’s funny, how everything starts in blue but ends in red.
Everything starts as one but ends in pieces.
It’s almost poetic, in a way that only insane people would call poetic, but Clint doesn’t have anything against being labeled as such.
After the battle they all eat together; Clint can’t taste the food, he almost can’t hear their voices, can’t feel the pain in his hurt body. There is still the blue lingering at the edge of his consciousness and he doesn’t want to let it go. He should, because it is Loki and mindfuck and death, it’s fear and responsibility and self-loathing, but the blue is mesmerizing and cold and smells like the ocean.
Natasha takes him back to Headquarters, he is looked at by the resident doctors and fixed in all ways that can be fixed, elbow orthosis on for two weeks, cuts cleaned, bruises under control. During the examination Clint sits obediently with his head cocked, stared at by the people in front of him, and laughs inside. Theirs coats are blue, how fitting.
In his room, Clint lays down and plays some music that reminds him of the color, The Animals and lots of Bruce Springsteen; he is not sure why it feels right but it does. He doesn’t want the blue to go away. It’s wrong to want it. Blue is painless and thoughtless and separated from the whole world, and everything that isn’t blue is too vivid and too obtrusive and makes Clint want to hide in a deserted place, like in wild mountains or in a rainforest or by the sea.
There is no way he can be cleared by psych anytime soon, and he understands. Not that he minds, not for now. It’s understandable.
For your own good, how noble.
The sleep doesn’t come, it’s so predictable that Clint can’t stop laughing for some time. He puts on his old clothes and sneaks out of the building. Then he runs, breathing ragged from the laughter, every single one of the marks on his body shouting, every single of his sore muscles and tendons and bones singing.
There is this moment before sunrise when it starts to get brighter and the sky looks like topaz and he almost falls over a few times because he’s staring up at it until his neck starts to hurt too much.
Next few days, the one-man race continues, Clint is sure he is trying to outrun someone but when he looks closer, it’s just him and the blue at the edges of his vision.
Then they send Loki off and Clint holds his gaze, the eyes blue as the scepter was, even though logically they should be different color. Loki smirks and Clint smirks back. Loki looks confused by that, for a moment, but then his smile widens and it’s an invite. Obvious. The few days under his control were enough for Clint to figure the man out, and it was mutual.
The gods disappear and he has a killer headache.
Starks invites everyone to stay in his tower. Everyone refuses. Banner is more or less bribed to do so, Clint learns later.
The next days pass and it is scary because the hours seems to melt in one and disappear. Clint is pretty sure he does nothing and nothing and nothing – besides running at night – and yet his head is always full of memories.
The blue is fading, never goes away completely but it’s fading and it’s leaving him alone and vulnerable. The blue walls crumble slowly and Clint is terrified and even more terrified by his own reactions, because he still has some common sense left.
The blue from a friend turns into an enemy.
Clint figures one thing can substitute it, and the answer has been obvious for some time at the back of his head, it just takes him a few weeks to acknowledge that. It is pushing the blue away, by force, with an opposite – not as much as in color though, that would be orange, while it is red that catches Clint’s attention. Red and warm and alive.
But his limbs are cold and detached and he is frozen in timespace and no one can interrupt that, so he decides to see if he really is still human inside, under the pale surface.
A scalpel is unsurprisingly easy to obtain. The first cut feels good – the second one even better. Clint observes the blood seeping and the wall springing up anew from the fallen pieces. Red is the color of passion and emotion and energy and strength and aggression and it fits more than blue to the person he used to be. He is just a shadow now, and shadows don’t get colors, they just mimic the movements of something real in the fullness of their gray beauty.
It’s crime and punishment and it feels grand to feel like a man from such a timeless work of art.
Stark is not a team player, but he is an eccentric billionaire who does what he wants, so he claims he wants the whole team to meet and have some food and drinks together. They refuse four times, well, everyone but Rogers because he is too polite. The fifth, they decide to accept so that Stark would just leave them alone.
Clint is not a team player either, he’s just been conditioned to act like one when it’s necessary.
He and Natasha take S.H.I.E.L.D. car and give Rogers a lift, since he lives close to the HQ. The Stark Tower gate opens smoothly as the car approaches. Clint is thankful all the interior is in whites and beiges and grays and mirrored surfaces and the elevator buttons glow green.
The expected feast is nowhere to be seen or smelled when the elevator, but an artificial voice tells them to take the corridor on right and then go up the stairs. It’s almost like having someone whisper inside your head, and Clint wonders is maybe Stark would know what he means by that, because no one else seems to pick up the subtle hints.
Stark turns out to be the cook for the evening and they eat in the kitchen instead of a pompous dining hall with crystal glasses and silver cutlery like was expected, although Clint wonders if the cutlery is not by any chance ivory-handled, but he’s not sure. The lasagna is good, although a bit too garlicky for his taste, and the side dishes are nice. It’s much more than Clint would have expected of a man who could easily hire ten best chefs of the world to cook for him. Everyone drinks red wine, even Rogers, and Clint doesn’t really want to think about how much it must have cost, he is just glad no one is drinking water, because water is transparent but it reflects blue.
The talk is shallow and awkward but pleasant because it doesn’t involve anything remotely psychological. Stark’s girlfriend comes later, straight from work, and asks everyone questions, makes coffee and tea and invites them all to make their own dessert. She says she didn’t know what they like, so they can just construct their own trifles from the selection of ingredients. Clint chooses chocolate custard, vanilla meringues, crushed shortbread chocolate cookies and glacé maraschino cherries. Stark puts a ridiculous number of cherries on the top of his trifle. Their eyes meet and Stark smirks challengingly. Clint puts one more handful on his and goes back to the table. Natasha whispers something to Potts and they both laugh and keep talking and picking at their fruity girly desserts.
None of the food item are blue, but many are red.
Biting into the vividly colored cherry feels perfectly exalted.
When Clint is done, he gets up to get a second helping because he loves the sweet taste on his tongue and he can’t be bothered to buy or cook anything that isn’t essential for himself. Stark appears on his side just as he scoops the custard, putting it gracefully into the cup.
‘Like the cherries?’
‘Sure,’ he replies and moves to the meringue.
‘Want some liqueur? From the best Croatian Maraska cherries, don’t believe if they say Italian is better. Scientifically tested by me.’
‘Natasha would have my head.’
‘So, she your keeper or something?’ Stark asks, throwing a handful of the crushed cookies into his cup, covering them with whipped cream and stirring with his spoon until it resembles a black goo.
‘Nah, I just do a very mellow drunk, and she refuses to drag me back to HQ by herself again.’
‘You don’t have to get drunk,’ Stark points out when Clint puts on another scoop of cherries and wonder if it’s possible not to feel sick after suddenly eating that much sugar.
‘As if I’d believe you,’ he mutters. Stark chuckles.
‘I guess Pepper would prefer if I stick to wine and water. Ah. Sounds wrong.’
It’s Clint’s turn to snicker.
Just before they leave, Stark catches Clint, hands him a jar of glacé cherries and tell him this:
‘You can always come over sometime, when the girls are out of town or whenever.’
Clint nods and disappears into the elevator. It’s dark outside and he doesn’t look back to glance at the tower as the neon name, he knows, shines blue.
Phil is buried two months after his death and Clint would have protested if he didn’t have as much respect for the man’s decision as he does. Fury said Coulson allowed the medical team to examine his body thoroughly in case the reason of his death involved something unusual, and magical stab wound certainly counts.
Everyone wears black so Clint feels safe. There are S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and Phil’s remote family and his long-ex-girlfriend, there are The Avengers, NYC and government officials, and Coulson is worshipped like a hero.
It hurts to see the coffin being lowered and Phil’s step-sister throw a handful of dirt at it. It hurts more to remember the footage that Clint managed to watch before it was appropriated and marked Level 7 clearance, it hurts incredibly to know it was the same blue by with he was enchanted that killed his mentor.
Clint doesn’t know a better way of redemption than erasing the blue with red. He runs from the service as soon as it’s done, before even Natasha can stop him, and goes back to his rooms in HQ. It doesn’t feel like a good secure place to be, but since he has nowhere else to go, it’s acceptable. He takes the scalper and craves lines into his thighs. He doesn’t have any illusions about hiding them from doctors, there is no place on his body where he could hide scars from their piercing stares. He doesn’t have any illusions about what the psych eval will be like when they learn, but that’s in the future and Clint doesn’t let himself think about the future since he is not sure the present is really happening.
In the morning he wakes up with the cuts cleaned and his legs bandaged, memories of the evening blurry. He is sure no one was in his room though, and since the seductive blue voice is gone from his head, he figures it was just him.
Clint stays in his room all day, listening to this one cracking cassette he’s recorded years ago, he’s never bothered to check what the song’s name is, but there is this part of the lyrics that goes now these thoughts are haunting me – of how complete I used to be, and it seems painfully fitting, and he considers the thought that maybe he is not the only one to feel shattered.
Rational awareness means nothing when you feel differently.
When he starts to feel hungry in the afternoon, he remembers the cherries that Stark gave him, takes out the jar from a cupboard and eats half of it, picking them with his fingers one by one, until they are too sticky to work properly. Clint notices his arms are shaking.
So he cleans his hands, scrubbing them five times until they smell like lavender and soap, and goes to the range to see if they still work, because who knows, if the blue could take away his mind, maybe the red can interfere with his skilled fingers. There is no logic in that, but there was no logic in the magic either.
As soon as he has the bow in his hands, though, it’s okay. He shoots for half an hour with 99,95% accuracy.
For now, red wins with blue. It is almost like healing.
One day he goes to visit Stark because he is just too bored.
The three months he’s bargained with the psych to pull himself together are not over yet and Clint is very sure that after his evaluation, they will not let him work yet; he knows that he is too tired and too indifferent to even try lying. Also, he respects the doctors and his potential handlers and partners enough not to endanger them in a possibly difficult situation.
Clint has been training and running and sneaking around HQ and the city, but he keeps seeing shadows and keeps seeing flickers of blue and then he runs even faster. There is no place where he can rest. And Natasha is cleared for solo ops after a month, so he stays in the HQ alone with all the agents who rightfully look at him as if he was going to snap anytime.
The A.I. – Jarvis, the name helps to distinguish incorporeal voices – directs him to the kitchen. Apparently it is dinner time. Clint has not realized that much time have passed since five a.m. when he woke up.
‘Barton,’ Stark greets him. ‘Feel like steak frites?’
‘I still can’t believe you’re cooking yourself,’ Clint says instead of a direct reply, but Stark starts to prepare two perfect pieces of meat.
‘Don’t be fooled, Agent Barton,’ Jarvis quips in. Tony doesn’t seem surprised by the comment, so it must be a normal occurrence that Clint just didn’t have the chance to experience yet. ‘Sir usually lives on protein shakes and dried fruit when he is working and it’s impossible to force a normal meal into him at that times. You are just lucky to find him eating some proper food for the first time this week.’
It is Friday.
Tony doesn’t seem baffled, just grins in a direction where Clint presumes Jarvis’ camera must be.
‘See, our residential Pythia has spoken – don’t believe everything he says. You know how those can be. Happy when they guess something right and pretending to forget what they said when they are wrong – but what brings you here? Your girl out of town?’
‘I don’t know about girl, but Natasha is in Botswana.’
‘Point taken. And you didn’t get any secret stuff to do, Barton?’
Clint considers his reply.
‘Clint,’ he just says, almost challengingly. Tony just nods at him and doesn’t push, but Clint can’t see his face because the man is leaning over the stove.
‘Tony, then. Does that mean we are getting drunk on Maraschino?’
‘Is that even possible, or do you just throw up all the sugar before you get the buzz?’
‘Well, given your taste in those glacé cherries… It’s 32% alcohol, and by USA standards that qualifies as vodka, but if Romanov’s been feeling you Russian 40%.’
‘She hasn’t, she keeps all the good stuff to herself,’ Clint replies. Tony gestures at him to sit down, puts the meat into the oven and disappears for a second.
‘Shall I initiate workshop lockdown, or are you not going to blow the tower up again trying to prove one of your drunken genius ideas, sir?’
‘We’ll just get a bit tipsy, baby,’ Tony mutters, putting two glasses in front of them, along with a huge bottle of Maraschino. ‘Tell me when the meat is ready.’
‘So, I get the secret of your culinary adventures. You just have your food watched over by the Pythia.’
‘I refuse to acknowledge the name,’ Jarvis comments, his voice sounding rather wounded for an artificial one, in Clint’s opinion.
Tony pours the liqueur and they drink it quickly. The sweet cherry taste along with the alcohol content probably should make Clint feel nauseous, or at least make his throat feel itchy, but it doesn’t. It’s just pleasant burning and a strong aftertaste.
‘This stuff is better than I remember,’ he offers, setting the glass down. Tony pours another round.
‘Been to Croatia?’
‘Been to Bosnia, they had the stuff there, too.’
‘To the Balkans, then,’ Tony declares, raising his glass, and Clint follows the suit.
They drink a few more rounds and gossip about Captain America before the meat is almost ready to eat. There are baked fries to accompany it and some salad Clint can’t name, but it looks mouthwatering.
Just every time things seems to go well, something must be wrong.
And recently, it’s been the certain part of the color spectrum, more than anything else.
So Tony puts the plates on the table and takes off the apron he is wearing – he has an elegant shirt that probably cost few hundred dollars underneath, and old pair of jeans – and Clint sees the arc reactor shining through the thin fabric, obvious and scary and fascinating. He drops the fork and it clatters when it falls, but he doesn’t really notice since his eyes and, following them, all his senses are locked on the reactor.
No, on the blue.
He can remember seeing his eyes that blue when he glanced in any mirrored surface that he’s passed during those few days. He didn’t think it was strange back then.
He thinks he sways, but he doesn’t think it should be possible since he is sitting down; suddenly Tony is behind him, grasping his arms and keeping him from falling down. His hands feel hot and Clint is so thankful for that. Hot is good, hot is red, hot is alive.
‘You okay?’ Tony asks, and Clint is not sure if he should lie a bit or lie a lot.
‘Mhm,’ he murmurs and nods slightly, but Tony doesn’t believe his performance because he doesn’t move.
‘I’m sorry,’ he hears Tony say and frowns, only that the man can’t see his face.
‘I should have thought about that.’
‘You have more important things than to try to guess random things about me,’ Clint argues. The words feel right. He is just a little no one. ‘Besides, it’s not like I told you I’ll come –’
‘You okay if I leave you here and go cover it?’
‘You don’t need to –’ Clint tries to protest, but Stark is Stark and he does what he wants.
It’s only a few minutes before he comes back, wearing some obscure band t-shirt, no sign of the reactor. His forearms are smeared black and bruised under the oil, or whatever it might be. Tony notices his glance and smirks, then sits down and pours them both another shot. They drink it and start eating without any talk. Clint feels strangely comforted by the causality of everything that Tony does.
‘Not a big fan of blue?’ the man asks nonchalantly between bites of the steak. Clint sighs and swallows the mouthful he’s been chewing for too long.
‘Can’t say I am.’
There, the big (not) secret is out, but there is no comment at all. No laughter and no words, Tony just nods again and pours them some more Maraschino and the tension dissolves easily.
The doctor finds out during the next appointment, because Clint can only stay in briefs. His eyebrows shoot up and he looks confused and appalled, and a bit sad, but Clint ignores that.
‘Agent Barton, how am I supposed to clear you for work when you have – these? I thought that going back is what you wanted?’
‘Would you clear me otherwise, sir?’ Clint counters. They both know the answer, so it’s no game.
‘… not yet,’ the doctor admits. ‘But in future –’
‘Future, sir,’ Clint starts with a sigh, trying to keep his hands from scratching the itchy scabs ‘doesn’t exist unless we let it – oh, just write me off and be done with that.’
‘I will not declare you unfit for work – you clearly need some more time and professional help to recover. I will schedule a meeting with a psychiatrist for you, Agent Barton. Is that okay?’
‘What can I say,’ Clint states, putting both hands up in a gesture of innocence.
‘Agent,’ the doctor says, looking up at him from behind his glasses ‘you are aware that you did hurt yourself, made a damage to your own body on purpose, and that it is not a healthy thing to do?’
‘Yes, sir, isn’t that obvious?’
‘I’ve known you for over a decade, Agent, and it just doesn’t seem like something you would be… implicated in. But under those circumstances…’ the man murmurs something to himself and scribbles for a few minutes, before proceeding to the rest of the examination, which is just a boring repetition of what he’s gone through million times before.
Clint meets with the psychiatrist when he is told to.
He’s never been a fan of all the babble.
Guilt, he knows guilt, and he knows pain. He’s had enough sleepless nights to analyze each event of his childhood that he remembers, so Freud can’t say anything new either.
Well, the doctor presents him with a few options for therapy and they do seem strangely enchanting, but he refuses. They both knows Clint has done several rounds of therapy in his life, mostly when Coulson insisted after some very screwed-up ops. And one time when he entered the agency.
It is nice, talking. But it doesn’t help.
Clint can imagine talking about blue, he can imagine the color swimming all around him as the words pour out of his mouth. It wouldn’t work. The vision is vivid enough and he doesn’t need to make it real.
It’s better not to.
Tony learns not too long after, when Clint comes to visit him again, a few days after the psych eval. Clint brings a box of gigantic pizza from his favorite place – given the possibility that Tony hasn’t eaten any proper food for days – and when he goes up to the kitchen, which has somehow been chosen as the background for all the meetings, Tony is sitting there, in his usual greasy jeans and a tank top, but Clint can’t see the blue.
He knows it is there.
‘See, no blue this time,’ Tony greets him, takes out a can of beer from the fridge and throws it at Clint. It feels cold to his fingers, frosty and wet, and for a moment he isn’t sure what he is supposed to do – he almost drops it – but then he calms down the quick breath and keeps it in his hands.
Victory tastes fizzy and bitter.
Someone else might have thought that it would be rude and inappropriate to do something like that, but Clint can appreciate the honesty. It’s different than everyone else’s behavior around him. Clint understands suddenly why Banner decided to stay, why he didn’t mind all the rudeness and games.
‘My evaluator sent me to a psychiatrist, you know. No going back on field just yet,’ Clint tells Tony when he opens the pizza box and offers him a piece.
‘Nothing more than usual,’ Clint replies. Takes a sip of the beer. Still cold. ‘He thinks I am not okay. Told me I obviously need specialist’s help.’
‘It’s never helped before.’
‘Ah,’ Tony sighs, finishing his beer and moving to take another one out. ‘Good pizza. You must tell me where you got this, close to the tower, hmm? Still steaming when you came in.’
‘Five minutes on foot from here.’
‘Jarvis, remind me to ask for the address later.’
‘Of course, sir,’ the A.I.’s flat voice replies. Clint almost forgot he was there, even though the he was let into the building and elevator did take him straight to the apartment level. He waves at nothing in particular, knowing that Jarvis will see the gesture anyway.
‘Are you okay, Clint?
The answer varies from blue to red and both of the options are the same.
‘No, I don’t think I am,’ he decides to say in the end, then reaches for another slice of pizza and puts it into his mouth thoughtlessly.
‘Do you want me to help you somehow?’ Tony asks. The tone is different than anything Clint has ever heard from the man, but it’s not pity and it’s not judgment. It’s just a considerate and respectful question.
Clint marvels at how wrong Rogers was about Tony’s ability of being human.
His hand trembles as he put the pizza piece down.
Yes, he’s gone further, he’s gone deeper into the madness. It was comforting.
It still is comforting.
Tony doesn’t have blue on him, Clint knows, but it feels like the barrier is still necessary, just in case. In case something happens. In case he slips. In case he fails.
The cut is deep, not too deep, no worries. It just hurts and stings and the soft bandage wrapped around Clint’s arm feels like sandpaper. He scratches the arm unconsciously and when Tony’s eyes follow his movement, he moves his hand away quickly.
Geniuses can put two and two together. Tony just raises his eyebrows.
Clint admires the subtle but all-saying gesture the same way some people admire destruction.
‘It’s okay,’ he says in a voice that could fool everyone but Natasha and – Phil, could have fooled Phil. ‘I’d better go.’
Tony watches as he gets up and Clint feels a pang of disappointment, because he apparently had some ridiculous idea about someone being there when he needed them. Not that he does right now. Not that he’s ever really thought there could be someone.
The arm hurts.
Clint is rather sure he has fever and it cannot mean anything good. It can mean just one thing, so he curses his own stupidity.
‘Keep the pizza,’ he says as he approaches the door. When he looks back, Tony is observing him from his vantage point on the high chair, his eyes half open, head supported by one arm.
‘I don’t want to get better,’ Clint adds when he’s standing by the door, just about to leave. He isn’t sure why those words leave his mouth. That is not something he wanted to share.
That’s not even true. He doesn’t want to have to choose between blue and red anymore, but he doesn’t want to forget either.
‘I know you don’t want that,’ Tony speaks up just when Clint turns around and is just about to run to the elevator. He stops mid-movement. Tony’s voice is low and alive and raw. ‘Because it is terrifying how easily a human being is able to adapt. Me, one day I was in Las Vegas…’ he pauses, and Clint figures what he is doing.
The words are like blood, seeping from wounds. Only the wounds are different.
But Clint stops, because he knows the story and he would have never thought that they haven’t turned into scars by now.
‘Just wasting money and trying to find a girl to stay with overnight, you know, the usual,’ Tony keeps talking and Clint can’t stop himself from taking a step back and entering the kitchen again. Tony is sitting there with his eyes closed. ‘And I was at the top of the world. The next thing I know, really – I had a hole in my chest and I was trying to figure out how not to turn my own weapons into another bomb. You know the tale – but I was living in the cave for three months, and it just happened. I adjusted. I could almost forget about the world outside of the cave and the tiny piece of desert where I was allowed to go outside,’ Tony says and makes a brief pause.
Clint stands in place like stunned. Mesmerized.
Who would have guessed that Tony Stark has his way with words.
Then Tony removes his arm from the table, opens his eyes and straightens his back. The pupils are brown, not blue. The reactor’s light doesn’t run through veins like magic does.
‘When I came back, I adjusted,’ Tony breaks the brief silence from his seat. ‘There was a man who died for me just before I escaped. I came back and I had his words engraved into my mind. I never thought I would go back to – life, after that, but I did. But there is no moral, it’s just my story.’
When Tony finishes speaking, the silence feels heavy and warm, like sugar-sticky blanket wrapping around Clint’s shoulders.
Red, red, blue.
It’s much more red than blue.
‘Thank you,’ Clint says in the end, words sounding like thunder within the stillness. He shuffles his feet a bit awkwardly, thinking about something more to say, about words that would be suitable and meaningful. He is sure he can’t match Tony’s though, so he decides to keep quiet.
Adjusting is healing is forgetting.
There isn’t any difference between forgetting and letting it go, and he can’t do it.
Clint shakes his head and turns back towards the corridor.
‘See you,’ he throws just before leaving, then he runs, taking a long route. By the time he is home he is sweaty and hot, but takes a yet hotter shower. The cuts burn. Everything is in order.
There is some harmony between the blue and red, Clint makes sure of it, but it is not good enough. It’s never good enough.
Time seems irrelevant.
Clint talks to the doctor and tells her everything but that he’s divided the world in two. He knows he should, but he hates the way they look at him already. Even Natasha and Fury and Sitwell, the three people that he’s more acquainted with out of the hundreds of agents. They give him worried looks again and again and even though Clint understands, he hates it.
He is tired.
He is tired, tired, tired, bone-deep exhausted. He still runs, it is the only thing that keeps him going. Running is rubbing fabric all over the cuts on his legs and it makes him smile.
Smiling is, of course, desired. He gets praised.
Natasha tells him she is very worried and begs him to tell her what exactly is wrong and how she could help him. Clint considers, but doesn’t give her a satisfying reply, mostly because he doesn’t know himself.
‘Don’t you think I would try to do whatever would make me – better, if I knew?’ Clint asks her when she insist. Of course she insists.
Her eyes are gray. Someone could say they are grayish blue, but Clint believes he’s an expert on the color.
‘If you want, I won’t go for the next op. I could stay with you, Clint,’ she tells him.
It’s exactly what Clint doesn’t want. Natasha loves working and hates stagnation, and he feels wrong enough with being grounded himself. He deserves the treatment, she didn’t do anything to take part in it. No crime, no punishment.
Clint is doing okay for a few days, but then he can’t sleep. It takes him four nights to admit something is more wrong that he thought. He doesn’t really leave his room in the meantime, eating the rest of the cherries, energy bars, and drinking tap water. He has no appointment to miss this week, so no one comes to check up on him.
Sometimes, Clint can still see blue, can still hear Loki’s words in his head.
He makes a few beautiful cuts, red and warm and alive. If he was a frost giant, if he was still under Tesseract’s control, he would bleed the topaz blue, shiny shiny shiny. But it’s still red and he is still safe, so he sleeps that night.
It’s scary, the way it does work.
In the morning, he finds himself at Tony’s proverbial doorstep. He was supposed to go for a run, but he got too tired after a few short miles. The sky is still the wrong unsafe color, too, and it’s raining. The rain makes his clothes cling closely to his body and makes the bandages soaked and the red stains his sleeves. It’s fascinating to watch.
Jarvis doesn’t greet him, just lets him in and leads the elevator up to the usual level. The tower seems dead and Clint realizes it is around six a.m.
There is a towel waiting for him on the kitchen table. It’s earth green.
Tony is nowhere to be seen.
When he comes in a few long minutes later, looking fresh and wide awake, Clint is sitting slouched in the armchair, arms closely hugging his chest. They hurt. Clint is sure his eyes must be glimmering blue to balance all the red.
He never wanted it to work that way.
He observes Tony approaching, it all feels like slow motion. It shouldn’t take that long to take a step, Clint is sure, and yet Tony’s movements seem to be slow like honey. Finally, Tony crouches in front of him, their faces on almost the same level. Clint looks him straight in the eyes, but he can’t see the blue in the reflection. Just the usual. Tony breaks the contact, glancing at Clint’s red-stained clothes, and then stares at him again.
‘Do you need medical attention?’
‘Do you need medical attention, Clint?’ Tony repeats in the same unruffled voice.
Clint stares, wondering if that is a trick question. It doesn’t feel like, but he can’t be sure, so he shrugs in response. Moving hurts, so he winces, and he’s sure his face shows the sudden pain, because Tony moves, a tiniest bit, as if he was going to get up. But he doesn’t.
There is little space between Clint and Tony, but enough not to touch the man as Clint stands up abruptly. Not a good idea, since his head swims, but he keeps his posture. Tony gets up too.
‘I’ll better go,’ Clint says a moment later, when he’s snapped out of staring at Tony’s chest and looking for a slightest note of blue as the man moves; there is none though.
‘Hey, Clint, it’s okay,’ Tony counters, standing between Clint and his exit route. ‘Please, show it to me. I can help you. I’m good at handiwork.’
Clint has learned it is easy to obey commands, if you don’t think. He doesn’t know about polite requests, no one has ever done that. Maybe Coulson, sometimes, but Clint had too much fun playing the bad child to be asked instead of ordered.
So he lowers his hands, slowly.
Tony eyes the sofa in the other room, visible through the glass wall, and Clint follows him there. A few moments later one of the man’s robots brings a tray full of medical supplies.
Clint lets Tony roll up his sleeves and unwrap the bandages. His arms look and feel like red set of prosthesis, until Tony cleans them with a warm wet towel, revealing the red angry lines. Now it feels like his own body, Clint muses, isn’t that ironic?
Tony doesn’t even stop for a moment. He cleans the cuts with saline solution and closes them with a handful of transparent butterfly bandages, and all the movements are sure, skilled and precise. His touch is so delicate, no wonder he is so good with creating the most subtle tech all by himself.
‘It is so selfish,’ Clint murmurs when Tony throws away the last bandage’s wrapping. ‘I am just human.’
‘But it helps,’ Tony states, sending the robot away. Clint nods. There is no point in trying to deny it right now. ‘Do you think you are depressed, Clint?’
‘Dunno, I – I don’t think so, it just – doesn’t match enough. I’m just… anxious. Restless,’ he admits. It’s vague enough to be safe. ‘Why ask?’
‘I just know a thing or two about that.’
‘What do you mean?’ Clint asks, frowning. He looks away from his arms and notices that Tony has moved away and it by the window, looking outside. It’s still dark.
‘I was treated for bipolar disorder for a few years when I was a teenager. I’ve been off meds for over twenty years now.’
That was something Clint didn’t really expect to hear. Kept away from the files skillfully, of course.
‘Twenty years – but your parent’s death –’
‘At twenty one, yeah, but it didn’t trigger a relapse or anything,’ Tony explains, staring to pace around the room in a slow deliberate rhythm. ‘There was just – grief. Anger. Sadness. Mourning. Everything that is called healthy emotions.’
‘Have you ever done something like – this?’ Clint asks before he can stop himself.
Emotions are red, but he is not sure if the words will be.
‘Are you asking me, the king of public self-destruction, if I have?’ Tony questions, never stopping, and snickers lightly. ‘No, I haven’t,’ he admits, and Clint wants to speak up, but before he can, Tony continues. ‘I only ended up drinking myself almost to death lots of times, always with the grand finish of stomach pumping. And I overdosed – when I was eighteen. And twenty four. But none of that is public.’
‘You have what?’ Clint asks incredulously. Tony is the last person Clint would have considered someone who would –
‘Overdosed. Half of it was stupidity, other half was intent. I had good some friends though. Rhodey knows. That’s why he’s so cautious around me, more than he rationally should, you know. Also in public. Even though he knows that I would never… not after Afghanistan. But it is not something you forget.'
‘So… how do you go on?’
That isn’t the real questions. Clint can go on. Clint can move ahead and pretend and play the game he’s been playing all his life, only that he doesn’t want to. He could play nice with his psychiatrist and other doctors and show improvement and be back at work, and it would be easy. He just doesn’t want to.
He is tired, after all those years. It’s time to find a solution.
‘You pick yourself up,’ Tony tells him simply. ‘Let someone else pick you up. Stop being afraid or ashamed. There is no shame in trying to find yourself – you get up and go on, you force yourself to get out of your bed in the morning until it becomes natural again.’
‘Well, medicine helps, too,’ Tony admits, glancing at Clint. He looks… simple. A bit tired, his hair now ruffled from all the times he run his hand through it, but he is still full of soothing energy under his worn-out clothes.
‘You are completely different from what I have expected of Tony Stark,’ Clint comments aloud, glancing at him head to toe again.
‘Oh? What have you expected, arrogant, annoying, self-absorbed, mouthy?...’
‘Something like that?’ Clint answers with a question. It seems more polite, even if he is sure Tony wouldn’t mind any rudeness.
The man smiles and it’s his radiant I-own-the-world face.
‘Everyone has something to hide, Clint. A mask only makes sense if it’s convincing enough.’
‘So… Pepper stayed with you,’ Clint wonders aloud, ‘despite everyone’s comments and expectations, because she figured that out first?’
‘I guess. Pepper is… something else,’ Tony adds and laughs lightly.
Everything about him is so calm and smooth, it makes it hard to believe in Tony’s previous words, in his failures and wounds; it’s hard to believe in the Byronic equivocation. But somehow it works, and Clint can only admire and envy. Maybe one day he can be like that, too.
When he leaves, he realizes he hasn’t thought red – red – blue for what feels like such a long time.
During the next meeting with the psychiatrist, Clint says he wants to try medicine. The doctor seems relieved and happy with him. It gives Clint this warm feeling, knowing that for once someone isn’t disappointed with him.
They try to get it right for two months, but nothing makes Clint feel remotely better.
It’s half a year since the – incident.
Red and blue still struggle.
There is an Avengers-level crisis.
Natasha goes, Tony goes. Everyone is gone, fighting the evil on the other side of the country, and Clint stays in HQ and pretends that he isn’t there.
It turns out to be the Chitauri again, having found a wormhole. No Loki, Loki is still imprisoned in Asgard. But they have a Tesseract-like thing and it powers all the weapons. Clint only sees two of three minutes of the footage on one of the screens in half-deserted operation control room before he runs away, throws up in bathroom and wonders how much red would he need to balance the colors.
Too much, he decides, more than he could ever give.
Clint considers giving it a try anyway, but he remembers Tony’s bitter words when he said half of it was stupidity, other half was intent. He wonders how much stupidity would his action be. He gives up on calculating after a few minutes, but figures it would be too much.
He doesn’t want to make yet another mistake.
The Avengers come back sooner than Clint has expected. Or at least it feels like sooner, because he’s been closed in his room, engulfed by quiet stillness and comforted by the flushed anger. Feeling like being alive is consuming, time flies, maybe it was days.
Tony calls him and tells him to come over to the Tower for a food. Clint protests, because he is not part of the team. Tony laughs and hangs up.
Clint is too fascinated with him not to come.
He takes a bus voluntarily for the first time in years, wearing black sunglasses that make everything look dark and gray. No one recognizes him, it’s a relief.
During the twenty minute ride he figures that somehow, Tony knows how to get to him. Coulson was the only one who knew before. Natasha, she is sweet and capable and perfect, only that she’s never learned how to push the right buttons.
The meal is long and loud and great. No one mentions the fight. Clint knows they are being considerate around him, but he’s not sure if he should feel wounded or grateful.
When everyone goes away, or just downstairs, like Bruce, Clint stays.
He goes to the kitchen and pours himself a glass of peach juice. Orange color.
‘Let’s get drunk and trade stories?’ Tony half-says, half-asks, coming into the room a few moments later. Pepper has gone to sleep too, apparently, after a few long kisses that Clint didn’t really see, but he can tell. ‘You clean for alcohol?’
Clint has learned by now that Tony doesn’t like direct questions, when he can ask them same in a different manner. All he says is so effortless anyway.
‘I am,’ he informs Tony and they sit down by the kitchen table, with some snacks stolen from the leftovers, and glasses in front of them.
‘When I finished MIT,’ Tony says maybe half an hour in the drinking, and both of them are pretty tipsy ‘I was seventeen – I basically run away for a few months, you know. Travelled the country with my people, wasted my money whenever I could, spent most of the time with girls, you know. Drugs, alcohol, sex, it was perfection for the eighties. We were listening to outdated rock music and feeling decadent and elegant and acted like the idiots who possessed the world.’
‘When I was seventeen, I run away from the circus and travelled the country. I went around alone, mostly hitchhiking or just walking. I was addicted to crack before and I threw all that I had away before I left. I was trying to make the world forget I existed,’ there, Clint admits it because Tony deserves honesty.
Neither of them comments, but they both know the stories are exactly the same.
Another half an hour later Clint is at the point of being mellow and honest and surprisingly lucid mind. He feels quite sure that Tony isn’t feeling much different, but they can both pretend.
‘I have no control over what is happening to me,’ Clint suddenly states, ‘Everything is slipping from my grasp and I don’t know where to look, I don’t know where to begin, and I find myself in the middle of – I shouldn’t tell you all that,’ he decides, cutting his sentence in the middle. He knows he shouldn’t, it’s enough his therapist must deal will all the mess he is and, see it changes nothing, it’s just a waste of time.
‘You can talk to me, Clint. Just talk to me. It will be better,’ Tony tries to convince him, sounding surpassingly sober behind the slightly rounded words.
‘No,’ Clint replies quickly and drowns another shot.
‘You are such an idiot,’ Tony relies, sighing. Clint considers and agrees.
‘You are such a cliché,’ he counters.
‘I will take this as a compliment, man,’ Tony laughs in his usual natural way. ‘There is this song I like, and it goes like this: and you assume you got something to offer, secrets shiny and new, but how much of you is repetition, na na na…’
Clint feels like a man out of a book. Tony feels like a man out of a song.
‘Sometimes the most obvious words are the most powerful ones,’ Tony adds seriously and Clint has to agree. ‘You really can talk to me.’
Try to refuse Tony Stark’s charisma, you are bound to fail.
So Clint talks, and says everything. There is nothing, no one, that can forbid him but himself.
Clint wakes up in a place that is not his room and for a moment, he panics. He jumps out of the – bed? – and looks around frantically. The last time he didn’t remember what happened was back then. It could be days later, he could be somewhere –
‘Good morning, Agent Barton. It is November 30th, six twenty six a.m. and you are in a guest suite in Stark Tower. Mister Stark tells me to inform you he will be here shortly,’ the familiar computerized voice says.
Clint, through his cotton-candy mind and slight headache, tries to put the pieces together, but before he does, Tony is there. He has tired circles under his eyes, but otherwise he is looking as good as ever. Jeans and t-shirt, arms scraped and dirty like always. Arc reactor still covered –
Fuck. He did tell Tony about – that, too, right? He did.
It’s bad. It’s like the walls crumbling, the ones that were blue and then red, the ones that were there, transparent, long before they acquired a color.
‘I won’t pretend to understand completely,’ Tony says, sitting down at the edge of the armchair. ‘But everything you said, it makes sense.’
‘It does?’ Clint asks instantly, blinking, disbelief obvious in his voice.
‘It does to me,’ Tony continues. He is observing Clint closely, making him suddenly self-conscious about the several neatly wrapped cuts that make big an obvious sign, visible to the whole world, since Clint only has his tank on. ‘What do we do now? You did tell me before that you tried medicine. It didn’t work. And the therapy didn’t either, but then you were not honest with your doctor, so that probably made it impossible to make you better. Do you think you can trust them and tell them everything? What do we do now?’
‘I don’t know,’ Clint replies, wondering if the blue wouldn’t just take his free will away, like it did before, but then he realized what the man has just said. ‘We? What do you mean, we?’
‘I mean exactly what it says. We. Me and you, and whoever you might want in this –’
Clint shakes his head, trying to get his thought straight.
Tony apparently thinks it’s a no. Maybe it really is a no. No one else.
‘You have Pepper and your life with her, Stark Industries and being an Avenger and S.H.I.E.L.D. consultant, and isn’t that enough for one person? I will be okay on my own. You don’t need to bother yourself with me.’
‘Ah, but you are mistaken here,’ Tony replies in the voice he uses when he talks with a particularly persistent journalists. ‘It is no bother. In fact, I don’t see anything more important than trying to help a friend.’
A friend. The words glows red.
‘Don’t you have some better people to call friends?’ Clint asks. The words feel surreal. In fact, everything seems to feel surreal.
The place is shiny and cool but it feels good.
‘Let’s see,’ Tony states pensively, as if he was playing along. ‘Pepper, she is my girlfriend and my lover. Rhodey – he has passed to being my brother like decades ago. Happy, I would say we are… buddies? Something like that.’
‘And Bruce?’ Clint prompts, playing with a tv remote that has suddenly found its place in his hands.
‘Ah, Brucey,’ Tony replies with a theatrical sigh, turning around to look at the sunrise starting to form on east. ‘We are good with each other. He is brilliant and funny and cute, but he – keeps disappearing. He has known that from the beginning, that even though we seem to fit, we are too different, on all fundamental levels. We aren’t really honest around each other, we just work together. It’s the best collaboration I’ve ever had, but it’s not much more.’
‘Can I call you a friend, Clint?’
‘If you want to.’
‘Will you call me one, too?’ Tony inquires, never moving his eyes away from the view outside.
‘Isn’t that a bit… kindergarten?’
‘… I guess you are the closest to a friend that I have now. Natasha, she’s just a big sister,’ Clint offers quietly. ‘And before that, Phil –’
‘I wouldn’t want to step into his shoes –’
‘I know you wouldn’t,’ Clint interrupts. ‘I know, it’s just that… you know, at the moment, I’m not the best person to be around –’
‘I don’t want to quote cheap maxims, but you know how it goes. Let me try to help you. You’ve been hurt enough.’
‘I don’t know if I can – heal completely, even if I try. Besides, how do you ever get over that? Killing your colleagues, killing your best friend by extension, and don’t tell me I didn’t, being a puppet for a madman who wields magic?’
Clint never thought he would say those words. They are honest and intimate and it’s making himself vulnerable, it’s showing his deepest wounds.
‘You don’t. You know what my therapist told me back then, after my first – attempt?’ Tony asks, finally tearing his gaze away from the sun, now starting to appear on the horizon, somewhere between the maze of buildings. ‘When I asked her, what if I will never be sane, like other people, what if… She gave me this quote: there is no great genius without some touch of madness. Seneca. I thought it was fine, fitting right in the greatest philosopher’s thoughts. It shouldn’t really help, but it did.’
‘So what do I do?’
‘I would say you learn to control the blue instead of letting it control you.’
It makes perfect sense.
‘Like you?’ Clint asks, because he can’t stop himself; he knows he is shivering, but he can’t push the memory of the cold web-like feeling running thought his body.
There is no mocking in Tony’s voice.
Tony has blue instead of his heart, but he is still a friend. He is the perfect balance, effortless and obvious and offering a smile whenever you need one.
He has learned to control the blue, too, and it hurt, too, and even if nothing else matches in the two stories, it is still enough.
Clint tells Natasha he is moving out as soon as she comes back from her last op somewhere in Asia, too classified and not exciting enough for Clint to inquire. She asks him of he is out of his mind, to which he replies that yes, he is. Natasha apologizes and gives him an embrace – something no one ever is allowed to know – and asks him to explain. He does, telling the story devoid of countless details that he doesn’t feel like sharing, because they are too much between him and Tony.
‘Are you sure it is a good idea?’ she asks when he finishes, but she must see he has a point because her voice lacks its usual fierceness.
‘Yes,’ Clint replies truthfully.
‘Okay,’ she says, and it’s much sooner than Clint has expected. ‘I will help you pack.’
She does and she insists to take his two heavy duffels and carry them for him to the car, not saying anything, but he knows it’s because he has this still painful cuts on his arms. He lets her. Then she drives him to Stark Tower.
‘Tony invited all of us to come, you know,’ Clint reminds her when the car approaches the building. ‘Back then, just after we sent them off. I know we thought he was just being the silly billionaire self, but he really wasn’t.’
‘I will think about it,’ she replies and takes the car to the underground garage, from where Jarvis directs them to the penthouse.
‘Not one of the lower floors?’ Clint wonders aloud; Tony showed him a blueprints of the tower before and he knows there is a floor designed for each Avengers.
‘Sir was clear about his wishes, Agent.’
When the get out of the elevator, they find Tony walking around the room and talking with someone on the phone, speaking Japanese at a speed that shouldn’t be possible. He waves them hello and gestures at Natasha to put the bags down before turning around, staying on the phone for a few more moments.
‘Hey Clint, Natasha. This all your stuff?’ he asks, eying the duffels. Clint nods.
‘You better take care of him, and try to do something funny and I will have your head,’ Natasha growls, eying Tony distrustfully. Clint told her not to, but he can understand how someone who hasn’t seen – the other Tony can think. Tony doesn’t seem to mind.
‘We will be okay here,’ he assures Natasha. She gives him a sharp nod and disappears into the elevator; Clint knows she is leaving for another op in a few hours and the debrief won’t wait.
‘Boy, she is protective,’ Tony laughs, coming over and taking the two bags easily, as if they weighed nothing. ‘I like that. Follow me.’
He leads Clint to a big room next to the master bedroom, that probably, Clint can only guess, was intended as child’s room. Nothing inside indicates that, though, it’s just a logical explanation.
‘There is one rule here, that we’ve worked on with Pepper and we’ve been trying to keep to. Since – since I came back from Afghanistan. No hiding. Okay? You don’t have to be all open with Pepper, because I can imagine it would be uncomfortable. That’s ok.’
Maybe, if he tries hard this time, things can go better.
Clint really hopes they will. He is tired of being a shadow, tired of mimicking what everyone expects him to be, only that he is a poor copy of himself from before. A poor copy of everything the world has considered him to be before.
Tony drags him to the kitchen and teaches him how to make real deal spaghetti alla carbonara, without cream or something as heretic. There are, of course, best quality ingredients involved and the result is scrumptious. Clint vows to learn to make it all by himself, even if cooking isn’t his favorite pastime.
‘Are you going back to work at some point?’ Tony asks him after they are done with the dessert, which was simple almond cookies. With maraschino cherries in the middle – now that Tony knows the significance of the colors perfectly – so Clint can’t stop grinning.
‘If they let me. Or… if I let myself? But you know, I’ve been working for them since I was twenty one. That’s fifteen years. I guess I am entitled to a leave if I want to disappear somewhere.’
‘I could hire you,’ Tony says from behind his giant glass of juice.
‘Like what would I do?’ Clint snickers, amused. ‘A circus act at the next charity ball?’
‘You would do that for me?’ Tony asks, sounding hopeful and childish and making those puppy eyes without blinking, and Clint can’t help himself and burst out laughing. Tony acts hurt, but his eyes are sparkling.
‘I guess I could train you and hire you as my cook. My other personal chauffeur, since I lend Happy to Pepper too often… Or something.’
‘Welcome, my bright future,’ Clint says, deadpan, but then cracks a grin. ‘Thanks for the sentiment, but I like my job. My past job? Or something. My psychiatrist refuses to admit that I’m useless for them.’
‘Because you are not.’
‘Yeah, just imagine me functioning in field during an op. I would flinch at – the blue. I would. And when you are a marksman, that makes a really. Big. Problem. Or, I would get an infection crawling in the mud somewhere, or staying for too long in a rainforest, you never know what can happen –’
‘Don’t worry in advance,’ Tony cuts in and gets up. ‘I’m sorry, but I need to go to a board meeting or Pepper will throw me down from the top of the tower in the evening. I should be back by eight. Will you be all right by yourself?’
‘Just ask Jarvis anything you want to know,’ Tony adds before disappearing into his bedroom, only to emerge five minutes later in a smart suit and a suitcase. He waves at Clint before entering the elevator and suddenly, the space is so empty.
Clint walks around the apartment, taking in all the details he’s never had a chance to look at, running his hands tracing the surfaces, picking up things and putting them down in exactly the same places, like a game.
Most things feel like a game these days.
He ends up reading one of the books from Tony’s library, who would have thought the man whose tech is at least a decade before everyone else’s would have such an extensive collection of real printed volumes. Clint picks up some obscure Russian science fiction and settles down on the couch in the main area. He doesn’t notice when it gets dark, Jarvis’ control of the light is so fluid, just suddenly, when he is almost done, he hears the hum of the elevator and a moment later Tony steps out of it, looking as impeccable as when he was leaving.
‘Zamyatin? You must have a nose for good literature, that’s my man.’
‘It’s good,’ Clint admits.
Dystopian society, people used as tools, mind control… Seems fitting. Clint is surprised by how little it moves him.
They eat some snacks and talk, then go to their room. Pepper is out of town for a few days.
What a sweet simulacrum of reality.
A few days after Clint has moved in, Pepper comes back. She gives both him and Tony kisses and asks – or rather orders nicely – for a nice dinner. Clint agrees to help, so they cook while she bathes and changes and unpacks her bag from the trip.
She is ready just in time for the food to be served, and she comes barefoot, wearing shorts and a t-shirt that looks like one of Tony’s.
Just when she approaches them, she suddenly turns pale and blinks –
‘Tony, the reactor –’ she stops there, clearly terrified.
Cling looks away, than hangs his head down and almost stops breathing.
‘It’s okay, Pep,’ Tony says immediately, his tone warm and reassuring and calm like Clint has hear only a few times before. ‘It’s okay. I just covered it.’
‘Why would you –’ she starts, but then she look at Clint and at Tony again. Clint hates himself for making her feel so worried, he’s just creating confusion –
At least she is not scared of him.
Tony must have made some gesture behind Clint’s back, because she smiles and sighs.
‘Okay. What did you make?’ she asks, sitting down, and gives Clint and encouraging smile, too, as if nothing has happened.
Clint can’t sleep at night. He sees the blue when he closes his eyes, instead of comforting darkness. There are no Loki’s words this time, no you have a heart, just ringing silence. He is shivering and Jarvis must have noticed because he brings the temperature up a bit and it helps. It gets worse as hours pass, even after he’s asked Jarvis to turn the lights on.
Tony has assured him there are no cameras in the room, there is just a special system that is based on heat signature, so that Jarvis can keep the place secure.
He finds the scalpel easily.
In the morning, Pepper is gone to work early and Tony emerges from workshop around eleven. Clint knows he went there in the middle of the night.
‘I can’t keep doing this,’ he states when Tony sits down next to him with his sandwich. ‘I hate it. I hate being weak. I hate giving in. I hate – I hate people seeing me like that. I’m sorry for yesterday. I just can’t –’ he trails off, shaking his head and rubbing the fresh cuts unconsciously.
Tony, being Tony, doesn’t miss anything, but keeps silent.
Clint isn’t that good.
‘Can I see it?’ he says, his voice so quiet he can barely hear himself.
‘Are you sure?’ Tony asks, putting his half-finished sandwich down. Clint nods.
Tony unbuttons his shirt, revealing his bare chest and the reactor covered with thin round plaque. It’s white, makes sense since the shirt is light cream color. It looks as if it was stuck to Tony’s skin, hugging it softly, but Clint is sure it is in some clever attached to the reactor’s casing. Tony presses his fingers on the sides and it clicks softly, and then he removes the plaque and puts it on the table.
Clint can’t take his eyes off the light.
Blue, blue, blue, his mind feels frozen.
It’s exactly the same shade. Clint can see his eyes reflecting, all blue, in the reactor’s glass.
He doesn’t notice he’s trembling until Tony’s warm hands wrap around his shoulders.
‘Clint? You with me?’
‘Yeees,’ Clint breaths out, trying not to blink. When Tony moves, the light shifts a little, the angles change. It’s mind-blowing.
‘Look at me, Clint,’ Tony orders. His voice is strong and overbearing. Clint looks up to meet his eyes. ‘Are you afraid? What are you thinking’
‘The color, it is mesmerizing, it’s – beautiful. Am I scared,’ he wonders, ‘am I scared? Not as much of it as…. of – myself…’ he adds, looking at the reactor again.
‘Do you want me to cover it?’
‘No, it’s okay,’ Clint replies, sighing.
‘How much red do you need to balance this one?’
‘I – I don’t,’ Clint stumbles, surprised by the question.
‘You’ve told me that, Clint,’ Tony says quietly. Soothingly. ‘About the balance. I found my balance the opposite way. I had red on my hands, I had blood on my hands. I balanced it with blue. It’s what made Iron Man and what made it okay. It’s constant reminder.’
Blood in my ledger, Natasha has said that countless times.
‘As is this,’ Clint retorts before he can think, gesturing at his arms. Tony can make out the bandages under the sleeves.
‘Some people have told me that I should hide the reactor, because it’s a tool. A weapon, they said, like you promised the world you won’t create anymore. That it’s gruesome and icky and disfiguring. That I shouldn’t flaunt it. And I didn’t for some time. I covered it up when I went out. But this was after I’ve – healed, in a way.’
‘I can’t –’
‘Just remember that you can wake me up or have Jarvis fetch me every time you need me. Really. As long as I am somewhere around, just call me whenever you need me. Okay?’
‘Okay,’ Clint agrees.
Tony buttons up his shirt, leaving the plaque off. Clint can’t stop himself glancing at it with morbid fascination.
It disappears when Tony goes down to the workshop, and it disappears every time Clint blinks.
Clint asks Jarvis to wake Tony up at three a.m. the next night, and the man is there in two minutes, for once wearing shorts and t-shirt, his hair messy and eyes sleepy. Clint feels a pang of guilt, but Tony gives him a wide radiant smile as he enters the room, so Clint guesses it really is okay.
‘Take this,’ Clint says, stretching out his arm, holding the scalpel carefully between his fingers. ‘Please, take it.’
‘Of course,’ Tony replies, the smile disappearing from his face, replaces by a serious face. ‘Will you be all right without it?’
‘I want to get better.’
Tony’s smile is back in place. He throws the scalpel into the nearest bin, tells Jarvis to have one of the cleaning bots come up and dispose of it.
Little by little, Clint lets it go.
When he goes to Coulson’s grave, it’s a spring day bearing the first thunderstorm of the year, the clouds are thick and dark and Clint notices he doesn’t have a shadow. It’s cheap and naïve, but Clint has learned not to mind.
When Tony goes for a few days for a business trip, Clint spends most of the days in the Tower, unless he goes out to pick some groceries – Jarvis could do that, but Clint just likes to browse the items sometimes, looking for something that would catch his attention – or run, run, run.
One time it is raining, Clint is back from another meeting with the psychiatrist who asked if he was feeling better. He said yes. For the question how, he said he found a friend.
Back in Tower, he is bored, so he types the workshop access code and stands in the middle for a few minutes. He’s only heard tales about how fantastic and futuristic it is, from S.H.I.E.L.D. and from Natasha – not that she would admit it before Stark – but never had a chance to see it himself.
Tony said there are some games he might enjoy.
‘Jarvis, show me some of those things Tony mentioned the other day, hmm?’
There is a short pause before the A.I. speaks up in his usual emotionless voice.
‘The holograms are programmed blue, Agent. Do you want me to change the color?’
‘No, J. It’s okay.’
‘Whatever you say, sir,’ Jarvis replies and the maze springs up all around Clint.
It’s one of the most amazing things he’s ever seen. After a few minutes filled with Jarvis’ instructions, he tests out some games and some options that Tony apparently wanted shown to him, but he really gets hooked when Jarvis shows him holographic archery range.
Clint isn’t sure he’s ever been given something nearly as incredible.
But then, he realized it’s all controlled by Jarvis, and it’s hard to wrap his mind around the idea.
He asks the A.I. about Tony one time, and gets a tale that is longer, more detailed and more bittersweet that he would have ever expected. It’s just as if Jarvis had human emotions.
‘Sir says he built me because he needed a supercomputer to run his number and help him with a handful of other things,’ the A.I. replies to Clint’s question. ‘But he could have done those in a completely different manner.’
‘Then why did you create you?’
‘To have someone he could talk to, of course,’ Jarvis declares easily. Clint smiles in space, wondering if it’s all right that it makes perfect sense.
See, one incorporeal voice broke him, another helps him fix himself.
The world is wonderfully ironic.
But things work.
Slowly, but Clint has learned there is no rush. It’s worth all the time in the world, Tony tells him and Clint believed.
The next time Natasha comes, back from her long undercover op, grounded for two weeks for some sprained muscles, she enters the penthouse just in at the time when Tony and Clint are making dinner. Tony’s been working to finish a project and Clint could experience firsthand how atrocious the man is at taking care of himself at such times, so he insisted they eat some proper food.
Pepper is sitting on the sofa, reading a book, eying them from time to time, like toddlers she expects to break something any minute.
Tony is wearing khakis and a tank top with a hole cut out and the reactor shining brilliantly, his favorite type of casual; he’s just showered and his hair is wet, leaving droplets everywhere he moves, but his arms are still various shades of purplish gray from whatever strange substance he’s been working with recently. Clint is wearing a tank, too, and jeans and he is barefoot. The scars are visible, creating a messy pattern on his arms.
The first time he did that, he was self-conscious and anxious and he didn’t want Pepper to see them, but when she noticed him, she just pulled him into a strong hug and told him that she’s proud, the way a mother does to their child, or at least that’s how Clint would have imagined it.
Natasha stops in the middle of the room, figures out whole situation, and smiles.
She hardly ever smiles. It makes Clint so happy.
Then she comes up to him, embraces him and whispers into his ear that she is glad he is doing better. Says she is sorry that she didn’t know – doesn’t know how to help him. Clint says it’s okay and hugs her back.
The next time Avengers assemble, Clint is on the team, wearing his usual sleeveless gear and giving out smiles, knowing that Tony is somewhere around, giving him thumbs up.
Clint thought that: adjusting is healing is forgetting, and it didn’t work because he wasn’t able to forget. Didn’t want to.
He was wrong; Tony taught him.
The lines, the marks, they let Clint remember. It is enough.
There is a difference between forgetting and letting it go and he’s found it.
Little by little, the red and the blue lose their significance.
It’s the strangest definition of freedom that Clint has ever encountered.