Patch You Up
The jungle around them was thick and eerie, no one would deny that. Even Clint was wary of the landscape which grew randomly and dangerously around them. Even in the broad daylight there was an aura of death around the leaves and the branches of the jungle. From the small clearing where they had set up camp, he couldn't have seen further than a few inches into the rainforest, and that unsettled him. His sight was his prize possession, along with his bow, but his aim and his skill were useless without knowing what he could see. It unnerved him. The sound of the place unnerved him, too. During the first hours of their journey the forest had been alive with rushes of noise, but not the air felt too still, too silent for anyone to relax fully. A rainforest should be alive with sound at any time of day, but the birdsong had gone, the scurrying had stopped. It was odd, to say the least.
Fury had them tracking an Unknown into the thickest part of the jungle. They weren't sure if it was a mutant or a creature from god knows where, but it was causing up a stir in the local villages and they seemed fairly certain that this was some kind of curse upon them. So in comes S.H.I.E.L.D. and their dispatch scouts. Only the best that were available, of course, in this case, Clint himself, Natasha Romanoff, and Steve Rogers. Tony Stark was waiting back at the main camp with the flight transport. They'd crossed so many borders that he could barely remember which part of Southern America they were now in. It was so dense that they had gone as far as they could go before setting up camp for the night; even they could only go so far. So they decided to wait it out and keep watch; if this person/thing was going to show themselves, it would be at night, so they found a patch where they could keep themselves armed and alert and took turns keeping watch. The locals warned them that no one moved in the jungle once the sun went down. No one except the darkness.
He didn't blame them for their suspicions of a great evil lurking in these trees, because partly he felt them himself. He and Natasha had strayed a little into the jungle from their campsite just to get a view on their immediate surroundings, but after no more than thirty meters it was agreed that this was a trip not to be done in darkness. That was when they felt the sensation of being watched. They arrived back at camp moments later, but no more reassured and an hour later the two of them had succumed to the three-day trip so far while Steve took the first watch. Clint had tossed and turned for a few hours, the feeling of being watched never leaving, but Steve was competent and would wake them if need be, so he forced himself to sleep.
But they awoke to a scream. Steve and Clint both shot into seating positions from where they had been laid out on the ground at opposite ends of the cleaning. Hands instantly shot to their weapons when they realised that they were alone. Natasha was gone.
"Natasha," Clint mumbled, looking around them. It only took a further second to panic when he gazed upon her boots, carelessly tossed aside beside her jacket. She'd been carrying it the whole trip or shoving it into the gaps in her backpack because of the humid heat, the last he'd seen she'd been using it as a pillow. Her gun was visible beneath it, and when he kicked the jacket aside and picked up the weapon he saw her backup gun and her knife lying beside it. He's been working with Natasha long enough to recognise the sign of trouble.
And the noise again. The scream. Louder. Clearer. And the bile rose in his throat.
"Is that her?" Steve asked.
They immediately took off the in the direction of the scream. Natasha's scream. He'd never heard her scream before, but he knew it was hers. He was even managing to keep up and sometimes overtake the soldier where he was putting all his strength and energy into the sprint, ingoring the branches that scratched and grazed the skin on his forearms. Because of the scream, that gutteral, awful scream that he could never have imagined coming from Natasha. He tried to tell himself that she was using her voice to alert them, that she'd realised the danger, needed back up, and had screamed as loud as she could to ensure that they would hear her. After all, she had been taken during her watch and she knew they were both sleeping. But not a single part of him believed it. It sounded to pained, afraid, even. It had awoken a part of him previously unknown, an ache and an indescribable pull towards wherever she was.
But after three minutes of sprinting and screaming, the constant echoing screaming moving further away from them dropped to silence. Clint stopped along with it and listened, the sound had been so close but the abrupt stop sent a chill down him. They had to be close, but without the noise they wouldn't know what direction to keep going in. He'd already lost all sense of direction and had no idea how far they were from the camp.
"NATASHA!" he called out into the jungle with his remaining breath.
He took off in the direction he had been running in anyway, barely giving Steve a look to let him know the plan. His partner was in trouble, the plan had gone out of the window. Plan B. Regroup. Retreat. Come back later with reinforcements. If Natasha had been caught off guard they were in a whole boat load of trouble. She was almost certainly the most focused and arguable the strongest of them. He ran until his legs ached and his chest burned and he still didn't stop then. He didn't care how much pain he was in, all he cared about was his partner. If the situation had been reversed she wouldn't have given up on him. S.H.I.E.L.D. trained them to make any sacrifice necessary to the mission, but they had made an agreement long ago at the start of their partnership that they wouldn't leave each other behind for anything. He couldn't possibly have given up on her. She was more than just a partner. She was his friend. She was his best friend. She was his...
He stopped in another clearing surounded by a close-knit grouping of trees. From what he could see the only entrance into the clearing was the one he'd just burst through, almost completely covered by large plants and vines. He wasn't even sure what had driven him to launch himself at it anyway but somehow he had made it into the clearing. These same vines covered most of the trees, winding their way into any and every gap they provided. Wound together, they stretched up high, covering the height of the jungle where the sky was barely visible, and in a flash of red to his side, swinging from a solitary vine leading from a crossing of branches was a noose...and hanging from it, as still as the morning air, was Natasha.
Clint's cry was filled with anguish and escaped without command when he saw her body hanging, bruised and broken from the branch. She wasn't fighting. She wasn't lashing out. She wasn't removing herself from the situation with her usual graceful strength. Her arms were limp at her sides, her bare feet covered in dirt and blood just inches from the ground. Her face was covered with her curtain of red hair, curled and yet infused with mud and leaves from the ground. So unlike herself yet so undoubtedly her. She was just hanging...hanging...
When Steve fought his way into the clearing beside him, Clint had knotted his hands into his hair, staring at her still form. He was vaguley aware of Steve shouting his name but didn't react until Steve moved towards the tree and grabbed for the rope, climbing it with Natasha's own backup knife in his hands. It then that Clint snapped out of it and lunched forward to hold up her body so that when Steve cut the rope she wouldn't fall to the ground. It was odd, he would think thater, that her feet were only inches from the ground and not higher. He could easily stand level with her and stare into her eyes, but not like this. Barefoot, he had to lift her to bring her to her normal height, but it was when her hair moved that he saw her eyes were covered with a dirty rag tied around her head. He wasn't satisfied with this hold on her and lifted her bridal style in his arms, instantly loosening the rope around her neck.
Steve cut through the vine, and Clint gently bought her body to the ground along with his own. He loosened the knot with trembling hands and slipped it from around her neck. Steve was calling for back up, screaming furiously into his communicator for Stark to bring around the transport jet as soon as possible, no, sooner than that. Clint's stomach turned as his actions revealed the horrific rope burns and the bruising around her once perfect skin. Placing both hands behind her head to loosen the rag around her eyes, he spoke to her with a trembling voice. "Tash...Tasha?" She had to respond to that. She'd know it was him.
He leaned on close after a lack of response, horrified to feel that none of her warm breath hit against his skin. "She's not breathing," he mumbled, and he laid her flat and begun to give her compressions. "Steve, she's not breathing, she's..."
He couldn't finish the sentence, but Steve was still shouting to Stark. Instead, he kept his hands pressed to the centre of her chest, trying not to think that the body beneath him was Natasha. He'd taken the same emergency first aid courses as she had, and they'd gotten the same use out of them. They'd spent a lot of time patching up grazes and icing bruises in the back of the S.H.I.E.L.D. trucks. Neither of them were good for considering personal safety in the field, which is why they relied on each other to act as a personal infirmary. But revive her? He'd never considered it. He couldn't have. He always imagined that if something so horrible had happened in the field they wouldn't survive it. There would be life or death, there would be no endless hanging in between...hanging...he could still see her hanging, eyes covered, limbs still...the image killing him. This was Natasha. The warrior. The black widow. The fighter. The assassin. She'd had his back. She saved him countless times and now she was-
"Clint, let me-" Steve tried to take over, but he shrugged him off. The seconds were passing and he was becoming more desperate, but a strangled sound something like a sob came out of him with each compression. He hadn't cried since he was a child. But he needed her to live. He needed her to survive this. She could not leave him alone in this hellhole of a life. She could not leave him to take her body back to the quinjet. She couldn't leave him to debrief Fury and Coulson on what had happened, on what went wrong, on how she had died. He couldn't allow her to die. They were good because they were a team, and she was the better half of it. Why should she be allowed to stop fighting? She couldn't. She needed to live.
"Don't you dare die," he told her breathlessly, as he continued to pound on her chest. "We're a team, Natasha. You do not get to die."
He pounded her chest again, and then tilted back her head, forcing a gasp of air into her lungs. The first time his lips touched hers. "You do not get to leave me, Natasha."
Another breath, and afterwards, his head rested on hers for just a moment, his hand still on her hair. "Don't leave me, Tasha."
Steve was still saying his name, still trying to take over the CPR, but he refused. He went to resume the compressions when he felt her struggle beneath him. Movement. From her. Movement meant life. Pulling his hands away, she gasped furiously for air. As she struggled to raise her upper body to get more air, his arms supported her, bringing her into a small embrace to support the upright position.
"Oh, Tash," he panted, breathless himself but nowhere near as much as she was. "Tasha." He kept repeating her name while she struggled to get her breath back. Her body needed oxygen and she wasn't going to deny it any longer. Her head fell back and her eyes found his once her vision begun to clear. Her eyes were bloodshot and unfocused, but when they found his they stopped flittering around. "That's it," he told her, nodding. "Just breath. Please, just keep breathing."
She was powerless to do anything else - no matter how deep her breaths were she was unable to satisfy the burning in her lungs for oxygen. It seemed like a while later, but eventually her breaths became steadier and less desperate, but she kept her eyes on Clint all the time. Steve placed a hand on her shoulder and went to go and flag Tony down, he'd never find them in the surroundings they were in now. Clint never looked away from her eyes, not when he'd spent a frightening moment thinking he'd never see those eyes again - they really were the most amazing shade of green - and he wasn't at all ashamed or embarassed when he put a hand on her cheek to hold their eyes together.
"Please, keep breathing. Please." He continued this until he felt it was stable enough for his liking. That was when he noticed how much they were both trembling - his was probably just shock and he felt they weren't too bad, but her violent shakes were taking over her entire form. "Hey," he mumbled, bringing his arms tighter around him. Despite the strength in his arms there was a tenderness and that set in a reality for her, he could see something visibly snap in her eyes and a single tear slipped out her bloodshot eyes. He shook his head, keeping his hand on her cheek. "No, no, you're okay now," he told her. "It's okay," he said firmly, though his voice was thick. "You're okay now, Tasha. I've got you."
"Clint," she croaked, her voice hoarse and battered.
It was hard, because it was her. She was always so together, so confident, and now she was hurt, she was trembling, and she was scared. It was heartbreaking. He didn't want to see her scared. He hadn't felt like this since his brother had left. He knew that she was hurt and that he needed to get her out of the clearing and help Stark locate them, and this overwhelming urge to take her someplace safe and never let her go was so new and unreal to him that he couldn't bring himself to move. Something in this jungle had been strong enough to overpower her almost silently and hang her from a tree. Something had waited to pick her off in the dead of night and tried to kill her in a display of dominance, a warning, but all he could do was hold her, and assure her she was alive. "I got you, Tash."
"Clint," she whispered, raising her hand to his face.
They were now in the most intimate position they had ever been in. His heart was pounding and he could easily have pulled her in that little bit closer and kissed her just out of relief. He'd always felt more protective of her in his own way, but this had kicked him into overdrive. He'd never experienced this combination of fear and relief in his entire life, and certainly not for his own life. He'd had an unhealthy level of disregard for his own life in his missions, but never hers; this was different. It was different from a bullet or a fist fight. He'd never had to force air into her lungs before. He'd never held her technically dead body in his arms.
He stood up with her in his arms, completely unaware of where this strength was still coming from but she still didn't struggle. She didn't try to stand, insist she was fine, attempt to walk it off. She was afraid of this place now, and she had good reason to be. He shifted her to get her comfortable and she tried to put her head against shoulder. The movement scratched her raw throat against the shirt he wore and she groaned at the contact. He turned his head, brushing his lips against her forehead as his hands were occupied. "It's okay," he whispered, as she placed her arms around the back of neck. "We're getting out of here, I'll get you out of here."
It took less than ten minutes for Stark to get frustrated with finding a suitable landing site before he just blasted the trees out of his way. Once on the small jet he took her to the small medical bay set up in the corner and went to lie her down, but by now the adrenaline was wearing away and she looked as though she might lose consciousness. He leaned over her, placing his hands on either side of her face.
"Tasha? Natasha, look at me." Her eyes rolled to meet his and he nodded. "Good, stay awake. Don't close your eyes, okay? Stay with me."
She didn't answer at first but every breath she took was still wheezing in her throat. "Clint," she moaned, bringing a hand to her neck.
"Wait, don't touch it," he instructed quickly, leaving her side to go over to the sink. While he cleaned his hands, Steve and Stark approached him and said nothing. "How long til we get out of here?"
"Now," Stark said, a cautionary look at Natasha attracted Clint's attention and Steve's.
"What do you need us to do?" Steve offered.
Clint turned away from them. "I got this, just get us home."
"I've got her," he repeated. "I'll take care of her, just get us back."
He went back to her sidewith a cup of water and a small scrap of cloth that would do for a washcloth. He dabbed it in the water and bought one of the stools over to the med bunk, moving it towards her neck until she recoiled. "Tasha, don't do this," he told her. "I need to clean it until someone can do this properly. You know the drill, you patch me up, I patch you up. It's going to hurt, I won't lie to you, but you have to let me take care of you now, okay?"
She hesitated but stopped moving away from him, allowing him to apply the damp cloth. Usually she would suck up the pain and grit her teeth against it, but she didn't hide the horrible moan that would escape her strained throat or the few years that pooled in the corner of her eyes. Her scratched hands balled up into fists. When he finished he laid the cloth against her neck to keep it covered. "All done, good girl," he told her, wiping away the escaped tear with his thumb. The gesture just made another escape but he got that one too.
"Try not to talk," he said softly, brushing the matted hair away from her face and keeping the hand on her forehead after. His other arm was rested on the the bunk beside her but he moved his hand to uncurl one of her fists and grip it with his own.
"Is not going to hurt you again," he finished her sentence. "It's going to hurt more if you speak. Try to relax. We'll get you back, the docs will know what to do. They'll patch you up."
"You patch me up," she told him, sticking to their routine.
"Natasha," he started, but she gave him a look that she'd never given him before.
"Don't leave," she whispered, so quiet he almost missed it over the sound of Stark getting the jet in the air, but her eyelids started dropping again as dizziness took her again.
He lowered his head so that their foreheads were touching, his hand still on her face. Their breath was mingled now and if he was any closer their lips would be touching, but instead it was a reassurance. "You look at me," he told her and waited until her eyes met his. "You're going to keep your eyes on me. Do not go to sleep. I'm not leaving, Tasha." He didn't even start to move away, he didn't care what the others might think if they were to look back and see them together. She needed to feel the strange security that she'd only ever felt with her partner and he needed to feel her alive and breathing against him. "I'm never leaving, Tasha."
They stayed there for an hour until they arrived back at the S.H.I.E.L.D. quinjet. Even then, he lifted her into his arms and she wrapped her arms around his neck without a care for Fury's questions. Steve would take care of those. He'd seen what happened to her. He took her straight to the infirmary and glared daggers at the medical technician who asked him to wait outside. He never even let go of her hand. They covered her throat in a thin piece of gauze so the air could still get to it and assessed that there would be no long term damage but that the bruising would be extensive and painful for a while. They gave her painkillers, he knew that she wouldn't take them willingly so pocketted them when they allowed her to leave.
She went to place her feet on the ground to stand, but her toes recoiled momentarily against the metal floor. Her bare feet were scratched and they never had gone back for her boots even though Steve had thought to pick up her jacket and weapons. She looked upcertain for a moment and he stood in front of her, holding out a hand. "You got this?" he asked. She nodded and placed her feet onto the cold floor. There were greater pains and as much as she had felt safest in Clint's arms, she wanted to hold her head high in front of her colleagues now that she was calming down.
He walked with her and when they reached the private quarters he was tugging on her elbow, drawing her into his room rather than her own. "You need downtime," he told her when she gave him a questioning expression. "They'll look for you in your rooms, but not mine." Silently, she accepted this and they went into his rooms. Once inside, he gestured towards his bed and without a second though she went and curled up in the centre of it, drawing the blankets over her lap with a pillow behind her back. Clint just watched her, closing and locking the door and waiting until she was settled before he sat down on the edge of the bed, basically in front of her because of how small the bed was. These beds were ridiculous sizes for military bunks - kind of half way between a single and a double.
As their eyes met, they shared a look for the longest moments until he looked down at her hands, noticing that her wrists held the same bruises as her own and were still trembling. The words that the medic told him about shock dawned upon him and he reached into the dresser beside the bed to pull out one of the hodded sweatshirts and handed it to her, wanting her to be warm even if it was a size too large for her. She slipped it over her head without allowing it to brush the dressing, and once the sweater was oh she appeared smallered before him. Her hands were still shaking though, from shock not from cold, and he took them in his own to hold them still, his thumb brushing against the bruises. "I'm sorry, Natasha. I should have gotten to you sooner. We should have taken the watch in pairs. I should have-"
She leaned forward from the bed, resting her head on his shoulder to silence him. His arms fell easily around her, understanding that she was trying to convey that it was okay but not able to put it into words. Someone, something, had nearly killed her. And it wasn't in the heat of battle. It was a pinpointed attack on her, she had been picked off, dragged away and overpowered. That was unsettling for him, but he couldn't even imagine how that would feel to the woman whose strength and control was everything to her. When he had first bought her into his arms, she had been dead, and that was something that hadn't gone away for either of them.
She could remember fear, for the first time since she was a small child feeling a fear that rendered her unable to move. She'd wondered at first if it was something else, some other force causing the motionlessness, but then again they never did know what they were up against when they were sent to investigate. But once she realised that she was afraid, she had felt fear towards the possibility of dying for the first time. She'd never considered herself afraid of dying, but then again she'd never come that close. She'd been in the path of bullets before that had clipped dangerous places, but she'd never been forced at gunpoint with time to consider what it might mean to die. This was much the same as that, she remembered darkness and the feel of a rope around her neck, and then a screaming that she hadn't realised immediately was coming from her. Then the real darkness set in, different to the one caused by whatever was covering her eyes. Darkness. Darkness. And then everything was coming back and Clint was there. Clint holding her. Clint talking to her. Clint sounding like he was close to tears. Clint saving her life. Clint protecting her. Clint. Clint. Clint.
She spoke his name out loud and in this embrace she felt the shudder run through him and the thick swallow that revealed the lump in his throat. "God, Tasha, I really thought you were dead," he spoke through the thick throat, placing a hand on the back of her head to hold her against him. Neither were sure whether that action was to comfort her or him. "I thought I'd really lost you this time."
"You saved me," she whispered.
"I was nearly too late," he admitted. "You can't ever scare me like that again, okay?"
She nodded against him as much as she could without hurting her neck.
"I'm sorry I couldn't stop this," he whispered, his hand knotting in her hair but not causing pain.
"It wasn't your fault," she told him.
"I saw you hanging there and I...nothings ever hurt like that before. I thought you were gone. I thought that was it, that I'd not even got a chance to try and save you. That I'd slept through someone hurting you...and God, you're all I've got left, Tasha. You're all I have."
"No, you are," he insisted. "You're not just my colleague. This is more than just being partners, we both know that...without you here there's no reason for me to be here."
She said nothing back to this and just held herself against him. She was still trying not to speak too much but she found that after the pain of the immediate trauma the speaking part wasn't too much now, the bruising pain was starting to set in but it no longer hurt to gasp for breath or to swallow. Speaking was only hurting if she raised her voice, and keeping the whispered words between them was certainly helping.
It took Clint a long time to release her, but he knew that she was in pain and she certainly wasn't going to ask for the painkillers that the medics had provided. But his words were grounding them together even though he thought that they might have been brushed aside in the heat of the moment. He'd been hiding from emotions he refused to feel for long enough, but now he couldn't hide anymore. He'd almost lost her, for a few moments he had, and after holding her lifeless body in his arms he wouldn't pretend for a moment longer that he would only be losing a partner if that were to happen. When he finally did pull away, he looked at her slightly calmer eyes and leaned forward to kiss her cheek, his lips lingering for a moment longer than they should have. "I'll get you some water," he told her quietly.
He stepped into the bathroom that lead off from his room, it was little more than a closet size, containing a small sink, a toilet and a shower cubicle for his own personal use. There was no door to the area because of the privacy to the room in the first place, but even though she could have seen him the whole time her hands were trembling when he returned. From the strange look she was directing at her own hands, it looked like she wasn't even sure why they were shaking. He came back to her side and handed her the pills and the water, which she didn't argue against. She might not have asked for it, but she was clear headed enough to know that she needed something to bring the bruised pain down before the muscles seized up. After stretching her neck a little more than she should have to swallow the pills, she grimaced and raised her hand to the dressing as if she were about to press down on it, or worse, remove it.
"No, Tash," he told her.
"It's itching," she argued. "It's making it worse."
"You can't take it off yet, you need to keep infections out of it," he told her. "I know it's uncomfortable but I'll get some replacement dressings and I'll change them in a few hours for you." She looked unconvinced, but he insisted firmly. "Come on, Tasha. We both know you'd rather me do it than go back to the medics. Just let me take care of you for a while, okay? Humour me."
She sighed softly. "You always patch me up, Clint."
"I try to," he whispered. "We should get some sleep," he suggested.
"It's barely morning," she told him.
And she was right, a look at his watch revealed that it was in fact just after seven o'clock that morning. It seemed strange that two hours ago he wasn't even aware that anything had gone wrong, the sun was still rising and as far as he was aware, she was still at their makeshift camp. "Yeah, but I think the adrenaline's about to wear off for us both," he reasoned. "You comfy in that?" he asked.
She nodded to keep the sweatshirt on, but he still turned around politely while she removed the pants and slipped under the sheets on the bed. He'd seen her without them and more on missions before, but they were undercover and it hadn't been about them. Now was not the time to catch a sneaky peek of her backside while she undressed. He pulled the shutter down across the tiny box window but it did nothing to hide the fact that the sun was now fully risen in the sky, and then pulled of his own mud-stricken shirt and went into what small privacy the bathroom area did allow to change into a pair of sweatpants. He desperately needed a shower, as did she, but he didn't want to hassle them with trying not to get the dressing wet and the unbearable pain that would follow if she got shampoo in the wounds, so he pulled a clean t-shirt on, threw some water on his face and went back towards the bed. He fell onto the mattress before he took up a seated position beside her. Despite the strangely sized bed, it seemed to fit the two of them closely rather well.
"You're sleeping too," she told him when she noticed he hadn't lied down like she had.
He shook his head with a far off expression. He ran a hand over his face to clear it and then shook his head a bit more firmly. "No, I know what I'll see when I close my eyes and I never want to see that again," he told her.
She reached over and took his hand, opting for the one on his far side so that their clasped hands rested between his stomach and his chest. "Sleep, Clint."
"Tasha, less than two hours ago I was holding your body in my arms and you weren't breathing. I had to force you to start breathing again, and until today I've never had to force you to do anything other than get a few hours sleep or eat a full meal once in a while." He focused hard on their entwined hands, not able to meet her eyes. "Nothing ever hurt me as much as it did to see you like that. You were dead in my arms," he choked the words out painfully like a cough. "That sight will haunt me for the rest of my life. I can't close my eyes yet knowing that I'll see it over and over again, I need to spent more time seeing you alive first."
At this, his eyes raised to meet hers and she understood what he meant. She was afraid of the darkness to, but she hadn't seen her attacker. She didn't even know what it was. There was nothing she could identify other than that it had human shaped hands, but the sensations were there. She felt afraid of an enemy that she couldn't identify, an unknown evil which had overpowered her so easily and attempted to discared of her as a warning. That scared her. Slowly, she moved closer to him, not stopping until she had wound herself underneath one of his arms and rested in a way that wasn't leaning on her throat. Her chest was pressed against his side so that she knew he would be able to feel her heart beating.
"Take as long as you need," she told him softly.
He was silent and still for a moment but she then felt his arms loosen around her as he relaxed into the position more, no longer sitting upright. "And it takes forever?" he asked.
"Then we do this every night," she told him.
He raised his lips in a smile that didn't meet his eyes, and rolled onto his side. Now, they were facing each other with entwined hands between them, foreheads touching. "It's not night," he reminded her. "It's morning."
"Then we do it in the morning too," she decided.
Her eyelids were dropping now that the adrenaline was wearing away, leaving her exhausted. He wondered if she truly knew what they were both implying, but for now, it was enough to feel her skin against his, her bare legs around his covered ones and her breath against his cheek. She was alive. She was alive, and she was going to stay that way. And that was enough.
"I can live with that."