Brooding 8

Clint had been cleaning his apartment with a vengeance ever since his last hypnotherapy session. He needed to focus his energy on something productive before the roiling morass of his emotions burst out with destructive force. He was angry at Thor for what he had done to Loki; angry at Odin for allowing such a thing to happen under his supposedly watchful eye; and angry at Loki (now that he was free to be) for still yearning for his brother who had taken advantage of him.

He was also saddened to find out the truth behind Loki’s motives, for he now realized that his former captor had been seeking recognition and power as a substitute for love. Loki had attempted to control Clint, and others, to ensure that none of them would reject him, abandon him, and leave him with gaping emotional wounds like Thor had before; he had also sought fame (or notoriety) to bolster his damaged self-confidence. The fact that the seemingly callous demigod had broken down in tears at the mere whisper of love told Clint how desperately lonely Loki must have been – and must still be, alone in his prison cell with no one to visit him or cast a kind word on him.

“If he’d had someone to love him – really love him – he wouldn’t have had to do all those things. He wouldn’t have had to prove his self-worth if someone else had affirmed it for him.”

Clint set the last of the trash bags outside his apartment door, holding it steady to balance it on top of the pile of others. He’d been haunted by the vivid memory of Loki sobbing and trembling in his arms, which replayed itself at odd moments until he could almost feel Loki’s slender body against his own again.

“He was so grateful to be loved, even by the mindless robot he’d turned me into,” Clint thought to himself, heaving a sigh. He ached to think of Loki’s isolation, both then and now. “So grateful that he let all his feelings out, then had to erase my memory of them, even though he knew I would never betray him.”

Taking a step back to survey the small army of garbage bags now lined up in the hallway, Clint had an epiphany.

“No – he wasn’t crying because he was happy to be loved by an automaton; he was crying because the only person who loved him was an automaton!”

Stricken, Clint continued to stare at the bags while he recalled Loki’s every look and gesture that night.

“He was miserable… knowing that nobody would love him of their own free will… After all, how pathetic is that? That’s why he erased my memory – because he was too proud to let me know. He couldn’t stand to let anybody know how pathetic and lonely he really was… how unlovable he must have felt…”

Clint could relate to loneliness. He could relate, all too painfully, to being rejected. And he could practically taste Loki’s pain at having nobody else to rely on. Clint had survived and made his own way until he had joined S.H.I.E.L.D., which had given him a purpose and a sense of belonging. Loki had found his own purpose in trying to subjugate an entire planet; he had created his own safe circle of friends – his family, of sorts – by brainwashing a select few of his slaves. Despite their differences, Clint realized, they were both survivors; they had both striven to procure what they needed in order to live.

He was interrupted from his musings by light footsteps coming up the stairs. He recognized them at once and had barely turned to see her before the words, “Hey, Tasha,” left his lips.

“Clint,” she responded, eyeing him cautiously. “How are you doing?”

“All right,” he said with a shrug. “Just getting caught up on some spring cleaning. From like, the last five years or so.”

“No kidding.” Natasha waited for a moment before asking, “So… how did it go?”

“It worked. I remember everything now.” Clint grimaced. “Why don’t you come in? I just stocked up on some beer.”

She followed him into the apartment and took a look around. “Wow. I’ve never seen this place so clean.”

“Amazing what some forced time off can do,” Clint said blandly while pulling two bottles out of the fridge. Natasha sat on the couch and accepted hers, then Clint sat in his reclining chair. They sipped at their drinks silently for a while.

“You were right, you know,” he began. “Now that I remember stuff, I can’t un-remember it. But it’s okay. I’d rather live with my regrets than with not knowing.”

She nodded. “How are you doing with the regrets?”

Clint made a face. “About as good as you can expect, I guess. The past is the past. I just have to move on.”

“Yeah. Not like you can change anything now.”

“Exactly.” Clint took another swig of beer before confessing, “What bothers me more is what I don’t regret.”

Natasha studied his face. “What do you mean?”

Clint swallowed and stared at the floor. “There’s no easy way to say this…” He took another drink, wishing it were something stronger. “When I was being mind-controlled by Loki, I… well, we… we were actually—”

“Oh God!” Natasha burst out, intuitively sensing what he was trying to say. “You don’t mean to tell me…?!”

“’Fraid so.”

“With Loki?!

“Yeah.”

“And… that’s the part you don’t regret?”

“Yeah.” Clint wondered whether it was a blessing or a curse to have a friend so perceptive. “Crazy, right?”

“Yeah. Crazy.” The stunned look on her face said it all.

“Look, it’s nothing personal,” Clint tried to explain. “I had my loyalty switch turned 180 degrees around so that everything he said sounded like gospel truth. I probably would’ve given up my own mother – if I had one. So when he told me to sleep with him, I… I didn’t refuse.”

“And you don’t regret it.” Natasha’s voice was flat, lifeless.

“I don’t,” Clint confirmed. “It was… well, he was… amazing. And now that I remember everything – and there was stuff I had to dig deep to get at – I understand him. I’m not excusing what he did or anything, but… there are some very good reasons why he turned out the way he did.” Clint sighed. “I just wish I’d known them while I was with him… because I would have done some things differently.”

“Like what?” she asked, although she was too shocked to be genuinely interested in his response.

“Like laughing at the gag Thor put on him before taking him home.” Clint’s eyes were remorseful as the event replayed itself in his mind. “He noticed that we were making fun of him… and his shoulders sagged. In all the time I knew him, that was the first time he looked really… defeated. He could handle losing – he’d probably lost fights with his brother any number of times before – but being mocked… that hurt. Sure, he must’ve been hurt before, but… you don’t get over being hurt. Not easily, anyway.”

Natasha observed her former partner’s expression. “You’re serious, aren’t you? You really… care about Loki.”

Clint nodded. “I know what you’re thinking: classic Stockholm Syndrome, right? And maybe that’s a part of it, but what really changed my mind about him was the memory he’d suppressed even while I was under his control. He didn’t want me to know, even then, how lonely he was. And it just makes me wonder… if someone had cared about him – really cared about him – how different of a person he might have been.”

“Wow.” It was all Natasha could manage to say.

“Yeah. Crazy.” Clint finished his beer and set the empty bottle on the coffee table.

“So… what now?” Natasha asked after a few minutes. Clint shrugged again.

“Nothing. He’s locked up in a prison cell in Asgard for all eternity, as far as we’re concerned. So I just have to move on.”

“You okay with that?”

Clint considered the question.

“No. Not really.”

Natasha nodded and took another sip of beer. She didn’t want it anymore, but it gave her something to do.

“Tell Fury,” Clint finally said, “I’m as ready for duty as I’ll ever be. A bit worse for wear, but I want to get back to work. I need something to do. And my apartment’s as clean as I can get it.”

Natasha stood to leave. “I’ll let him know. Thanks for the drink,” she said, then went to the small kitchen to dump the remaining three-quarters of the beer in the sink. Before stepping out the apartment door, she turned to ask one last question – even though she was pretty confident that she already knew the answer.

“Clint… do you think you love him?”

“Yeah,” the answer floated back to her from the reclining chair. “It’s the big ‘L’ – always makes things so damn difficult.”

Natasha closed the door quietly, then fled back to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters.

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