When the medical staff have stopped looking grim and worried, when they've finally removed Clint's IV, forced him to drink one last Ensure and issued him with a printout of a diet plan, a short curvy sub with a retro-forties wave to her bobbed hair turns up with orders to take him to another building. She's cheerful and somewhat of a chatterbox, and she doesn't seem to expect him to offer her more than the occasional tight smile, so for the ten minutes they're in each other's company, they get on fine.
The sign on the wall of the corridor says Orientation, and Clint knows like a sucker punch that it's nothing to do with getting a welcome pack, having to sign a whole stack of legal documents, or watching a badly made health and safety video. Not that he's ever had a job that required any of those things, but he's aware that they exist.
Just that word, stark and impersonal, and his body's locked in place, frozen in the middle of a hallway that smells of cheap synthetic carpeting and instant coffee.
“Hey, it's okay,” the woman says. He'd forgotten she was there the moment his ears started to ring and the world went a little grey at the edges. “You've had a rough time, I get it,” she says, and twitches up the edge of the suede cuff on her right wrist. There's a thick band of gnarled scar tissue there, deep, old enough to be glossy white.
“I get it,” she repeats, low and serious. “But the department; they're good people. If they weren't, I'd be breaking you out right now.”
“Seriously?” Clint asks. His voice cracks. He tries to remember when he last spoke aloud, but his memory's shot.
“I'm good at exit strategies. Haven't met a cage yet I couldn't get myself out of, given enough time,” she says proudly.
“Okay,” Clint says eventually, and steps through the door.
There's a camera in the corner of the bedroom ceiling. He hones in on it instantly. He knows what to look for, and his eyesight's too sharp to miss the wink of the lens reflecting light.
“There's a twenty-four hour watch, in case of self harm,” the doctor tells him smoothly, when she realises what's caught his attention. “You're not being recorded, and no one outside of this department can watch the feed, not even Director Fury himself.”
“I'm not going to hurt myself,” Clint says. “I'll be good.”
“You already are good, Clint. The cameras, the program, and your schedule here aren't based on merit. They're to give you the tools you need for the world outside,” she says.
“Sorry,” he says reflexively.
“You never have to apologise, either. Not unless you want to,” she says, and leaves him to get his bearings.
Given that it's just four walls and a bed, it takes longer than he thinks it should.
The first word they tell him he has to learn is no.
It sounds so easy, so simple, until they arrange for one of the department Doms to step one foot inside the room, and he's automatically down on the floor so fast he overturns a chair and skins a knee on the carpet. The pain doesn't sharpen his mind at all, just makes everything wash out into a thick soup of hazy awareness.
There's a bite of lemongrass in his nostrils and the fog clears. Someone's holding a scent bottle under his nose, and the clock tells him that he's lost twenty minutes.
“Christ,” he hisses, gritting his teeth to stop them chattering as he trembles through the drop.
“Back with us?” the doctor asks, and when he nods, she gives a kind smile and caps the bottle.
They try it again, and when he's only out of it for fourteen minutes this time, he gets a holographic sticker and an enormous ginger cookie covered in a thick layer of tart lemon frosting and silver cachous.
When Clint frowns in bafflement, she admits, “I used to work with kids. And when I switched to working with adults, I found that they got the same benefits from non-sexual and non-orientation based reinforcers. So I'm not going to use orientationalist language to reward you, or culture a subspace reaction. Those are things we'll address in your de-sensitisation, but they're not a part of my technique. They're really nice,” she says, nodding at the uneaten cookie in Clint's hand. “I made them yesterday.”
She reaches into the jar and pulls out one for herself, and takes a large bite. It's the reassurance Clint needs, and he dares to nibble the edge of his own.
Stop is the second word they want him to work on. It's like walking uphill, through half-set cement.
It takes seven sessions before he can eventually croak out the word in the presence of the Dom. He's sweating hard, on his knees, his hands flat on the floor. He's halfway to subspace, he can't bring himself to lift his head no matter what he does, but he says it.
He gets a violently pink jumbo cupcake with purple frosting and a blue candle on it.
The doctor shrugs. “It was my niece's birthday.”
She lights the candle even though they're both smiling like they know it's ridiculous, and Clint doesn't care.
He blows it out, and wonders what to wish for.
He learns I don't want to even though he's battling night terrors.
He loses virtually all the weight the cookies and cupcakes and Ensure put on. His eyes are hollow, and when he grins at himself in the mirror, he looks like he's baring his teeth.
He does push-ups and pull-ups and lunges and anything else he can manage in the confines of his room, because he's not sleeping, and he hasn't seen his bow since the Dom with the gentle hands who cradled him took him away from the people who'd used him. He'd looked at Clint with a cold, assessing gaze and smelt of gunpowder, and Clint had almost breathed thank you, sir when the man had told him to close his eyes.
It had been quiet in those heartbeats in the darkness, when Clint had simply accepted he was going to die, and at that man's hands.
When he dreams, it's about him, not his captors. Half the time, he kills Clint. The other half, he claims him, cinches a collar around Clint's neck and leads him home.
Clint wakes up screaming, whatever the outcome.
When Clint says I don't want to, his voice shakes, quavers with fear, but he's on his own feet, and he looks the department Dom in the face for half a dozen of his rabbit-fast breaths.
The doctor asks him what he wants, this time, and Clint tells her he wants pie. When she brings it in the next day, it's still hot from the oven. The syrup and fruit burn his mouth because he doesn't want to wait for it to cool. It's easily the best thing he's ever had.
“We call the last section 'or else',” the doctor says with a wry smile. “And I'll be supervising, but I won't be doing most of the work with you. That'll be Natasha,” she says, gesturing to the stranger beside her with a smile.
Natasha is petite, beautiful, and has poise like a dancer, and Clint cannot get a read on her. He doesn't think she's a sub, but she doesn't scream Dom, and categorising her as neutral doesn't seem to fit, either.
“Are you a switch?” he asks, though the moment he does, he winces. He hasn't even said hello, and he's demanding her orientation.
Natasha doesn't seem phased, she just quirks an amused smile. “I'm whatever you need me to be,” she says, which doesn't really answer his question. It isn't until they start to work that the honesty of her statement hits home. In the blink of an eye, she can slip between presentations, with no more apparent effort than changing her expression.
They work out together, hard. Once she judges Clint's physical level, she pushes him to get back the muscle tone he'd lost, the condition that had been frittered away by months of ill treatment. His appetite returns, and he's sleeping better purely because of how tired he is at the end of the day.
Whenever he gets too complacent, too comfortable, or his attention drifts, Natasha strikes, slipping the command of a Dom into her voice.
“Kneel,” she says, and at least they're on mats, so when he slams to his knees, they don't bruise.
A firm hand on the back of his neck and he sways like she's his new centre of gravity.
“Down,” she says, and he sinks like a stone.
“Good boy,” she says, and the wash of warmth from the praise is intoxicating.
“Again,” she says, back to neutral, every time.
It takes months.
“No,” he says eventually, even though his knees tremble.
Her eyes flash. “Maybe you didn't hear me,” she says, and her Dom presence is like the static of an electrical storm, building. “I said kneel.”
Clint's legs go out from under him, but on a huff of breath, he says, “I don't want to.”
Natasha comes up in his space, walks around behind him where he can't see. Her hand appears like an iron band on the back of his neck, forcing his head down.
“Stop,” Clint growls.
“Don't you want to be a good boy?” Natasha purrs, and something in Clint snaps.
He blinks, and finds he's staring down at Natasha beneath him. He's got her arm twisted at an awkward angle. The hand that had been holding him is fluttering like a bird in his grip, and with only a tiny bit more pressure, he could break her wrist.
He has a panic attack-subdrop combo a minute later, but he survives it and is sparring with Natasha again within the hour.
“I want a steak, a real steak,” he says to the doctor, before she's even said a word, and that's how he ends up going outside SHIELD for the first time in six months.
The doctor declines, pleading prior engagements, but Natasha seems keen. They stroll out of the building and off SHIELD property like it's nothing, like he does it every day. They find a steakhouse that serves them both slabs of meat the size of Clint's biceps, with cheese fries and bottomless margaritas. It's decadent and dazzling and so comfortable that it doesn't seem real.
They only get bothered once. Natasha turns on her Dom mojo fast enough that the guy leaning into Clint's space backs up so abruptly he trips over his own feet. It's so ridiculous that it circumvents Clint's impending panic attack neatly, and he giggles all through his attempt to order dessert. The mudcake, when it comes, is rich, dark and solid enough that it could have been used in construction, and so perfectly bittersweet Clint immediately orders another piece to take back with him.
“How did you end up doing this, anyway?” he asks, when they're meandering home.
“I know what it's like to be unmade,” she says, after a long silence. “To have someone twist you up, make you do things. I've been where you are.”
“You went through the department,” Clint realises.
Natasha nods. “People used me. I've got red in my ledger.”
“Me, too,” Clint says.
“You've got choices now, that you didn't have before. You should start thinking about how you want to use them,” Natasha says.
“You're helping the department,” Clint says.
“Among other things. That's my choice. I owe them a debt,” Natasha continues. “My choices aren't going to be the same as yours, though. You'll have your own debts to pay, to collect on.”
Clint thinks of the Dom with the gentle hands. He wonders if the man even remembers him, or if Clint was just another target, another mission, filed away in a dusty drawer.
Clint thinks of his bow, likely thrown away or locked in some vault, uncared for. Clint made that bow himself, a long, long time ago. He knows it intimately, and its lack is like an open wound. His hand twitches and curls on the empty air.
He tries to convey what he's feeling to Natasha. He doesn't know how coherent he is, but when he rambles to a halt, she smiles.
“I'll see what I can do,” she says.
When Clint walks into the range, it's empty, but for a single man, half sitting on a table. His shoulders are slumped, and his tie is crooked. He looks tired, and there's a blossoming bruise on his cheekbone. He's looking far from Dominant right now, but it's him, the man with the gentle hands.
He's sitting very still, watching Clint with a cautious, hopeful expression, and Clint's bow is laid out across his knees. He has the fingers of one hand wrapped around the wood like it's the neck of a guitar. Those fingers had wrapped around the back of Clint's neck while he was down so deep he'd almost forgotten there was a surface to climb for.
“I hope you don't mind,” the man says. “Natasha said you'd asked for it, and she said you were ready to see me. I wouldn't have intruded on your recovery, otherwise.”
“You kept it,” Clint says.
“Of course, I did,” the man says. “It's beautiful.” He strokes the wood next to the grip with his other hand, and there's something like reverence in his touch. The wood of the bow is straight and true with no warping or damage. It's not strung, but that makes sense. He never stored it strung, and he was taken by SHIELD during downtime, not on a mission. He looks at the man, looks at the innocuous picture he presents, remembers the sense of strength behind that gentleness. He wonders if the man could have strung the bow, had he wanted to. Few could.
“Thank you,” Clint says, not because he has to, but because he wants to.
“Here,” the man says, sliding from the table and taking a slow step forward. He holds the bow out to Clint.
“You'd give it back to me? Just like that?” Clint asks, disbelievingly.
“It was never mine to keep. I was just minding it for a while,” the man says, with a small, self-deprecating smile. “I'm not worthy of it.”
“And you think I am?” Clint says.
“Yes,” the man answers, simply.
The bow is warm, smooth, and as familiar to him as his own skin. He checks it minutely for imperfections with eyes and hands, allowing his sensitive fingertips to glide across the surfaces. His calluses are all but gone after months without the daily routine of practice, and building them up again will be painful. Even with Natasha's training, he's certain he'll have to work hard to draw again until his muscles remember how.
“Here,” the man says, and on the table there is Clint's glove, his arm guard, and strings.
It's like coming home, like putting himself back together. His quiver is leaning up against the wall; before he slides it on, he checks every shaft, every piece of fletching, every tip.
The whole time, the man doesn't make a sound. He just stands back and watches as Clint meticulously assembles himself into the person SHIELD chased for months and put a kill order out on, one that the man failed to execute.
“Want to pay a nickel to see the Amazing Hawkeye?” Clint says, mockingly.
The man just smiles, slides his wallet from his pocket. Clint catches the coin the man flicks to him, effortlessly.
“I gotta tell you, I'm gonna be rusty,” Clint warns.
“I'm certain that won't be a problem,” the man says.
Clint can see the hesitance, can see the mistakes, can see the atrophy of his skills with every shot he takes. It's an effort that he can feel in his arms and his back to even draw the bow at all. The overwhelming feeling, though, is of rightness, of a purpose that had been missing from his life. The cluster of arrows could be a little tighter, but he's still hitting where he's aiming for, not missing, never miss...
He lowers the bow, shuts his eyes and just breathes for a couple of long minutes. When the moment passes, he's still standing.
“When you're ready for it, you'll have options,” the man says. “SHIELD will help you, whatever you choose to do, but I want you to know that there'll be a place for you, here, if you want it. You're under no obligation, you shouldn't feel indebted or obliged to accept, but I think you might find it challenging. Rewarding, for its own sake. We do good work.”
“Thank you, sir,” Clint says, the honorific slipping out naturally, without the bitterness of compulsion. “I'll consider it.”
“Phil,” the man says. “My name is Phil.”
“Phil. I know you nearly made a different call,” Clint says slowly, looking down, watching his own hands unstring the bow, slide off the glove and arm guard and quiver, lay everything out neatly on the table. “I remember that much.”
“That should never have happened,” Phil says, and when Clint looks up, he can see he means it.
“I just want you to know that I know. And that if you'd done it, I would have understood,” Clint says.
“It still would have been the wrong call,” Phil says. If Clint feels like he's walking on fragile ground, Phil looks wrecked, as if Clint has reached out and gently touched the darkest, most broken part of him.
“Lot of people out there who'd say it would have been a kindness,” Clint says.
“It wouldn't have been,” Phil says. “There wasn't kindness in my heart.”
“There was, or I wouldn't be here,” Clint says.
Phil looks like he wants to argue, but he just sighs. “There wasn't as much as there should have been. But I'm working on that.”
“Making changes?” Clint asks.
“Where I can. Hopefully where it counts.”
“Me, too,” Clint says. He holds out his hand.
Phil hesitates for a moment, looking from Clint's hand to his face and then back again. His hand is warm and dry in Clint's, holding on but not clinging, not grasping. The handshake only lasts a moment, but it feels weighty, important, and Clint files away all the sensations for later dissection and perusal when he's feeling less overwhelmed by it.
“I'll think about what you said,” he assures Phil.
“So will I,” Phil says. “Thank you.”
The short walk back to the department is uneventful. His room is just the way he left it, familiar, impersonal. He props his bow and quiver in a corner, stretches out on top of the covers, and shuts his eyes, breathing slow and deep. Soon, he's going to have to make choices, look over his options, step out into the world. He's going to have to decide how he wants to live, and what he's willing to do. But not right now.
His bow is close enough to touch. If he stretched his arm right out to full extension, he could just brush his fingertips against it. He doesn't. He doesn't have to. But he can, now, any time he likes, and right now, that's the thing that seems to matter most out of everything. The rest can wait.