All of them are used to little sleep. They're used to the deprivation of rest when the occassion called for it. It didn't mean that they had to like it, but they're used to it. It means that they can appreciate it more when they manage to get a ten minute nap while strapped to their seat on the way home from a mission, and how it feels to curl into one of the Rec Room armchairs after a long training session. Sometimes sleep comes easy, so easily that they'll have to hide the bruise on their elbow from where they only just caught themselves at the last minute from falling to the ground. Sometimes sleep evades them, usually hidden behind the sights that have burned themselves onto the inside of their eyelids. Tonight, Clint Barton finds that sleep claims him easily, but not for long. The assignment had been particularly hard on them all this time and he had a feeling that this is what bought him away from his bed in the middle of the night and towards wandering the halls instead.
He turned down a corridor, and realising where he was he understood that there had been no aimlessness to his walk, that he had been walking with a purpose to this spot. The door was ajar, but that didn't surprise him; he knew that her door would be left open tonight for a number of reasons, but he didn't expect to see an empty bed when he leaned to look through the gap it created. He'd expected just a small enough gap so that he could look in and reassure himself enough to go back to sleep, but she wasn't in the room at all. He pushed the door open a little more and revealed nothing but an empty room. Frowing, he turned to the training room as his next location, but she wasn't there either.
Where was she?
He went back to wandering the halls, only this time he wasn't chasing sleep, he was chasing her. Slowly, mind. She would be as tense as he was, worse even. Knowing your partner inside and out, especially how their mind works, was extremely beneficial in times like this. Today had been an awful experience for them both, not that the rest of the team had realised. There had been a frantic moment of trying to get to one another, followed by a relieved embrace - partners glad one another was alive, relief, nothing more, that's what the others had seen. That hadn't been what Clint had felt. Sure, he was relieved when he'd pulled her tight into his arms so quickly that afternoon, but it had been more than that. It was the knowledge that she had been hurting and an urge to make it better - an urge that he couldn't fulfill - that had overwhelmed him as he held her against him.
He found her a little later in the kitchen area, standing to one side with a half-filled glass of water before her. Her hands were gripping the worktop for dear life and her head was bowed before her. He wanted to rush to her but didn't want to startle her. She'd probably throw a knife at his head in this mood and location. "Tasha," he said softly instead, remaining in the doorway. "Why are you up?"
"Thirsty," she mumbled back, sounding far too distracted for his liking.
He frowned at her short answer and stepped up to her side quickly. "Can't sleep?"
"Yeah," she said with a false and quiet brightness. "I just needed a glass of water."
"You could have gotten one from your room," he called her out. She said nothing in retaliation, so he moved one hand up and used it to turn her face towards him slighty. She didn't even fight him to hide her face, so when her eyes briefly met his he saw the dark circles around her hollow eyes. He let out a choked sigh. "Tasha…"
"I'm fine," she assured him quickly.
"You're not fine," he shot back. His hand remained on her chin. "You haven't slept at all."
It wasn't a question, but she lowered her eyes and found a bitter tone with him regardless. "No, I haven't. Happy now?"
"No, Tasha, I'm not," he snapped back, his voice increasing in volume. "Look at you, when was the last time you did sleep?"
She was silent.
The use of her full name made her flinch away from him, which he resented but it had been necessary. She had to know. In the past five years of being partners, he only ever called her 'Natasha' when they were in the field or if he was extremely concerned about something. She was too used to 'Tasha' and 'Tash' and 'Nat' from him now to even accept 'Natasha' as something that he called her.
"I got a few hours before we left for New York," she admitted softly.
His hand dropped from her face, falling back to his side. "That was four days ago," he stated.
"Yes, it was," she acknowledged.
"Why aren't you sleeping?" he asked her, his voice much gentler again now and he moved in another step closer to her.
"I'm trying," she told him with a sigh. "I just…I can't."
He sighed, opening his arms just a fraction. "C'mere," he whispered, and when she only barely moved towards him he took one more step and closed the gap, embracing her tiny form against him. He sighed again at the feel of her pulling herself close to him and wrapped his arms tightly around her. "It's okay," he told her in a whisper against her hair. "You aren't there anymore."
"I am," she said in a tiny voice. "Every time I close my eyes."
It was a harsh truth, that the most horrible of experiences catch up with you in the dark of night, where sleep is supposed to protect and renew you from the day. Sleep never came easy after days like this, and for Natasha, it didn't come at all. Not after this. "You didn't sleep for four days last time either," he remembered quietly. "You can't do this again, Tasha, you'll make yourself sick."
She sighed, turning her face into his chest. "I'm trying," she repeated.
His hand found her hair. "I know," he mumbled. "I know you are."
He held her for the longest time, the glass of water abandoned beside them along with his intention to walk; after all, he'd found his target now. In the silence that followed, he focused on keeping his breathing even and his heartbeat steady, hoping the consistancy of the chest she held her head against would act as a relaxant and help her start to fall asleep. "I can stay, if you want," he told her. "Even if it's just until you fall asleep."
She shook her head, pulling back from him. "No…no, that's fine. I'm feeling a bit sleepier now anyway, must be how comfortable you are," she smirked at him. The smirk didn't reach her eyes, so he knew that she was lying to protect them both. She wasn't fine and she wasn't sleepier. "I'll see you in the morning," she said, starting to leave the room.
He caught her wrist at the last minute and she looked back to him. "Afternoon," he corrected her. "We're on downtime until further notice, no need to get up at ."
She just nodded and gave him a soft smile, leaving the room and the archer behind. He sighed at her absence, knowing that she would be up at . regardless and that she would probably have not slept in the meantime. He put the glass of water in the sink and followed the route she'd taken to the sleeping quarters, briefly and subtly checking through the open door that she had, in fact, gone to bed. Her eyes were open as she stared at the wall, but at least she was lying down and resting. She knew where he was if she needed anything, not that she would ask. She wouldn't stand at his door and ask for help sleeping, she'd just do what she did last time the nightmares consumed her and she would curl up in his bed with him without even waking him and he'd wake up to a nose full of red hair and her scent.
But she was resting now, and that would have to be enough.
The following morning was a late start for them all, Clint ate breakfast closer to lunchtime and he retired to the Rec Room immediately after checking for a third time if Natasha was still sleeping. Her door was closed, and he'd assumed from past experience that she didn't want to be bothered and had let her sleep. Every hour he walked down the corridor to check for himself in case she woke. In the middle of the afternoon, the others had joined him; Rogers had spent the morning in the training rooms as always, and Stark had been in his workshop and Banner had been in his lab but the four of them gathered together in the Rec Room and watched a seemingly endless stream of movies. Stark would argue against the sheer impossibility of some continuity errors and Rogers would be asking questions about the development of movie technology, and Clint just lay his head on the arm of the couch and gave the films as much attention as he could; which wasn't much.
"So, what's up with Natasha?" Stark asked into the silence while the credits started rolling on From Russia With Love.
Clint's eyes snapped open from where he had been about to doze off. "What?"
"Natasha. What flipped her yesterday?"
Clint settled his head back down. "Nothing flipped her," he defended.
"She came out of that room looking like she'd have been better off with a bullet in her head," Stark said sharply and Clint glared at him - that was never a better option for starters.
"It wasn't a room," Clint corrected him, his arms folded over his chest. "It was a closet. It was too small to be a room."
Something in his tone caused Stark to nod knowingly, and Rogers turned his focus away from chosing the next movie now that the wellbeing of his team was being discussed. "Is she claustrophobic?" Rogers asked.
Clint shook his head. "No."
"But she doesn't like enclosed spaces."
"She doesn't like closets," he corrected. "Especially not ones with locks on the outside."
"Bad childhood experience?" Stark asked casually.
"It's none of your business," Clint shrugged.
"Actually, it is," Stark shot back. "If we get called into the field today with her then we need to know that she's firing on all cylinders, and last time I saw her she was clinging to you with the emotional stability of a car crash test dummy."
The silence that followed was bitter and hanging, but Clint let it go for as long as possible until even Rogers was agreeing with Stark. He sighed. "There was an incident in Moscow five years ago. Our first assigment together. An assassination. Went wrong."
"Missed the target?" Stark asked.
"Target fought back," he corrected. "She was with her cover, stayed a little too long and they were both kidnapped."
Stark gave a wince. "Ouch. Yeah, I know the feeling."
Clint's glare could have cut glass. "No, you don't," he spat. "You spent time in a cave building a robot under the watch of terrorists. You had food and water. Company. She was locked in a reinforced closet with nothing but the scraps of clothing on her back and a dead body of her cover."
Silence, again followed. "They left her with the body?" Rogers asked quietly.
"The guy tried to escape and they shot him," Clint explained. "It was the first time she'd gotten a cover killed and that rattled her. They used it to overpower her and decided it would be more traumatic for her to waste away next to him than kill her straight out."
"How long?" Stark asked.
"Weeks," Clint remembered. "They fed her, gave her water. Bare minimum once a day just to keep her alive enough to die too slowly. We found her after three weeks and four days. Two days before that she'd decided that she needed to die and had refused all food and water, and she lay down on the ground and stared at the wall and waited to die." He took a shaking breath. "I remember finding her like it was yesterday."
"You were on the extraction?" Rogers asked.
"I lead the team, she was my partner," he said. "Fury wasn't happy, said that she'd been compromised and that they wouldn't have left her alive, but I couldn't let it go."
"You mean you couldn't let her go," he corrected.
"Let's face it, she's my better half on and off the job," he said with a tiny smile.
Rogers shook his head. "I'm surprised she took another job after that."
"It's who we are," Clint shrugged. "Me and her…we don't have anything away from S.H.I.E.L.D. This place is our home, and we're each other's family. But Moscow changed her. That's what made her hard to the job; hard to everyone except me."
"It's the longest twenty five days of my life."
They turned sharply at a woman's voice and saw Natasha standing behind the back of the couch, pale face, darker eyes and a visible tremor in her limbs. Clint's heart dropped at the sight of tear tracks on her cheeks. She hadn't slept at all. She only ever got emotional about this when she was too tired to deal with it any other way. He instantly rose from the couch, mumbling her name as he went around to her side, but she ignored him and continued speaking to Stark.
"You can time it almost perfectly if you're next to a decomposing body."
"Tasha," he whispered, putting his arms on hers.
"Do you know what happens to a body immediately after death?" she asked Stark, her voice dangerously calm compared her to her physical state.
"Natasha, don't do this," Clint told her.
"The heart stops," Tony said, playing her along. "Skin tightens, bladder and bowels empty."
"Not the best environment for someone still alive in a 3x4 room with them," she stated. "After thirty minutes, the skin turns purple and waxy, and the fingernails and lips turn pale. The blood starts to pool in the bottom of the body so the hands and feet turn blue, and you can watch the eyes start to sink into the skull."
"Tasha," Clint mumbled in a pained voice. "Stop. Don't go back there." He used his hand to direct her face towards his, but she looked at him calmly and then turned back to Stark.
"Four hours later, rigor mortis has set in, so when they're lying on the floor blocking the light coming in from under the door and you can't move them because there's nowhere else to put them…you know that light isn't something you'll be seeing a lot of anymore. And after twelve hours they're as good as stone."
"Natasha," Clint said firmly.
She pulled away from him completely, leaning her hands on the back of the couch so that she could stare directly into Stark's eyes. "A full twenty four hours and the head and neck turn green, and it starts to spread. It's the same time they start smelling of rotting meet, because that's what they are then. Rotting meat." She trembled as she gripped the couch with white knuckles and her entire body started shaking. "That carries on for three day, and just when you start to get used to that smell there are blisters that start to develop and burst when the body bloats. The nose, mouth and rectum start to leak fluid as well. The weeks that follow progress further, but when you get to twenty one days, the skin and nails are so loose that you can tear them off by knocking the body when you stretch a leg. Then the skin starts to burst open and in another week it'd be nothing but skeletal remains."
At this her head hung and the tears on her face became two angry sobs. Her eyes screwed up and Clint caught her just when her legs started to buckle. The two of them went to the ground gently at his control and he drew her into his arms. She didn't want to cry, but the tears were already there and fighting with the sobs that wanted to replace breathing made it more painful to listen to. "Shh, you're not there," he assured her. "You're home. You're not there."
"You don't come," she gasps out against his neck. "I close my eyes and I'm there and I'm waiting and that door never opens and you don't come-"
"Shh," he soothes again. He pulls her a little more against him, his back against the back of the couch, and the movement brings her into his lap. She keeps her face hidden in his neck and shoulder, her legs on either side of his hips as they cling to one another. He buries a hand in her hair to hold her in place and keeps his lips close to her ear. "I'm right here. I came, Tasha. I'm here."
"You never came for me-" she choked out again.
"Hey, listen to me," he said gently, lifting her face and meeting their eyes. "I'll always come for you," he told her. "I'm never going to leave you behind."
Her eyes bore into his and she let a cascade of tears escape her. "I can't sleep," she said desperately. "I'm so tired, Clint. And I just…I can't."
"Yes, you can," he told her. "You can sleep. You're safe now."
"They locked me in, Clint," she gasped again. "It was just like-"
"I know," he said, not allowing her to finish that sentence. "I know what it was like, but you weren't there this time, and you're not there now. You're here with me."
He stands up with her in his arms, intent on laying her down on the couch. Once he's standing his eyes meet with the others, throwing Stark a look that suggested it was all his fault for bringing the situation up, and then he goes to the part of the couch he'd settled as his own and goes to lay her down. She clings so tightly to his neck still that he can't release her and ends up laying down with her. She lays along the stretch of his body on the couch, her head against his shoulder and her arms curled up in front of her, resting on his chest. She lets out a sigh but it comes out as another sob and it's followed by another and another until she's racked with them, thick tears soaking the corner of his t-shirt. Now, Clint's arms encompass her completely.
"I can't close my eyes," she whispered with a sniff. "I'm so tired."
"I know," he whispered.
"Clint." He looked up at the voice and saw Rogers leaning close. "If you take her to the infirmary they'll give her something to help her sleep-"
"No!" they both insist quickly, Clint's answer solid but Natasha's coming out in a pained whimper.
"No," Clint repeated after. "She won't take them. I can get her to sleep, she's okay."
"She needs help, Clint," Rogers insisted softly.
"She won't let anyone else help her," he answered, looking around briefly. "Can you close the door?" he asked. "See if you can get a blanket or something. She's too tired to keep herself warm."
The two remaining men went about taking Clint's orders for a while, and Stark even set the lights to dim - enough, but not so much as to induce more horrified noises from Natasha's memory. Rogers closed the door and bought a blanket from a closet over to where they lay, draping it over the two entwined partners and standing back while Clint then drew it right up around her neck, his hands sliding beneath it afterwards and visibly rubbing along her spine.
"She'll go to sleep," he whispered to the others. "Her room's just too small when she can't escape these memories. It's too impersonal. It reminds her of it too much."
The calm way that Clint was dealing with her completely out of character breakdown was dawning on both Stark and Rogers, and they wondered just how many times he'd seen her like this, how many times she'd gone without sleep to the point of a breakdown. Of course they didn't want her to go to the infirmary, if the S.H.I.E.L.D. medics knew that this was a recurring issue they'd have cause for concern and doubt her ability in the field. Like Clint had mentioned earlier, the job was their lives and all they had, and they were all each other had. They were family in a structured job where outside families were rare and constantly endangered, so they built themselves a small two-person family within the job and over the years had suceeded in standing beside, before and behind each other whenever necessary. If they could work together to keep the nightmares away and get her rested enough to function properly again, then why involve the medics?
"We'll go," Rogers offered. "She won't want us all here."
"No, stay," Clint told her. "The more living people in the room, the better. Put another movie on or something, a comedy. We need to get her as far away from that closet as possible. She was alone and surrounded by silence there, she needs people and background noise."
Stark selected a comedy that he felt was essential that Rogers saw, a soft argument between them as they settled in seperate places further up the couch, enough that their sound would carry through the room but not close enough to disturb Clint and Natasha. Stark insisted that being frozen for seventy years wasn't a good enough excuse for seeing the movie, but Natasha continued to sob softly out of exhaustion against her partner's chest. He whispered gentle words into her ear, keeping his hand trailing along her spine until her muscles finally started to loosen under his touch.
"See," he murmered. "You're safe, you're home."
"I don't have a home," she mumbled in a heartbreaking confession. "I have a job and a room. I don't have a home away from these nightmares."
"Of course you do," he told her, his face pressing to the top of her head.
She rubbed her head against his collarbone as she shook her head. "I want a home, Clint. I want to go home."
Stark and Rogers exchanged a look then glanced over as her new sobs formed the mantra of 'I want to go home'. It was a strange moment for her, as this was a new fear that she'd never revealed to Clint. He knew that outside of this place they didn't have any other home. They went where they were based, there wasn't a house in suburbia waiting for her, a back up apartment in the city they could escape to.
"You are home," he told her with a glance to the men watching her with a new concern. "I'm your home, Tasha, remember?" She didn't answer him, just sobbed and he took one of her hands from under the blanket and placed it palm-down on his chest, his own hand entwining above it, right above his heartbeat. "This is your home right here, Tasha. With me."
She buried her face further against him but didn't allow him to release her hand. Stark stood from the couch and came down to their side, taking a seat on the floor and looking up at them. Clint eyed him curiously, but he drew his attention to Natasha.
"I have a house in New Jersey," he admitted. "Some real estate investment Pepper tried to get started a few years ago. It's been empty for over a year now, never had time to get new tenants in there. Three double bedrooms, good kitchen size, huge back yard with it's own driveway. The front facing bedroom has a walk-in closet and en-suite bathroom. Original fireplace, too."
Natasha's tear-filled eyes flickered to Starks. "Tony-"
Clint's head snapped around to his. "What are you doing?"
"She needs a home," Stark said simply. "I'm giving her one. Both of you, actually. You're clearly secretly married or something and if you're not then you should be."
He expected a smart remark, but instead Clint gave a soft one-sided smile. "Something like that."
"Anyway," Stark continued. "The house is yours. Get away from here for a while. Surely you guys have vacation time. We can survive without you both, you know."
Natasha sighed against Clint, and her breathing calmed down considerably. Clint turned back to Stark. "You don't have to do this."
He shrugged in response. "No one else is using that place. It's too…homely for me. Seems exactly what she wants. Suburbia, white picket fence. It was brown last time I checked, so you'll probably need to paint that."
Clint let out a soft laugh which jerked his chest.
"Careful," Stark said, indicating to Tasha. "I think she's falling asleep."
Clint carefully moved his head and caught sight of her face, where her eyes were slowly drooping. He readjusted his grip on the hand he had on his chest and pressed his lips to her forehead. "Sleep tight, Tasha."