A/N: I swear, people, I do actually know what proper grammar is. I apparently believe it to be optional, but I do know what it is. The point being, there's a two-hundred-word long run-on sentence near the end of this. I apologize.
This was born out of an attempt to understand the relationship between Clint and Natasha. It could be as simple as love, but there's got to be more than that, because neither of them are believers and there's something they both believe in holding them together. I still don't understand it, but I quite enjoyed the journey.
When Coulson calls Natasha in Russia, interrupting her mission with news that settles in her gut like a lead weight, she asks a favor of him before hanging up. He agrees, because he knows if he doesn't do it, she'll only do it herself, and she needs to be completely focused to bring in Bruce Banner. So when she does bring in the good doctor and leaves him in his assigned lab to geek out over SHIELD's shiny toys, she takes ten minutes for herself and picks out a secluded computer station in a relatively abandoned part of the helicarrier and logs on.
The security footage from every SHIELD base streams to at least ten different places in six different states, so even though the room where it all happened is now under a couple hundred tons of rubble, she can access the feed and it's almost as if she was there. As if she could stop everything from happening, as if she could save him, by watching it play out.
It's not about love; Natasha has seen people promise to love each other forever, only for one of the two to poke a couple of nine-millimeter holes in the other inside of a year. It's not about the sex- although she's not knocking it, she likes it rough and Clint is one of the few men she's met that can handle her- because that's just stress release and means nothing. She could say it's about recon and strategy, seeing if he's up to his lofty standards in terms of skills. She could say it's about familiarity, that she'll see something no one else noticed because she knows him better than everyone else. She could even be honest and say it's because she wants to and she doesn't know why and if they want a better reason than that they can go screw themselves.
When the tesseract opens the gateway the power kicks out and the feed goes dark. By the time it comes back, Loki is there and already in motion, a blur of green-black-gold amidst the black of SHIELD fatigues and the blue-lit background. She watches bullets pang harmlessly off his- is that armor?- as he oh-so-casually kills two agents, blue fire flashing.
And then all goes still. She finally manages to locate Clint at the exact same second the intruder reaches him. She flinches when that eerie blue light blossoms in his eyes and remembers a previous mission where she'd seen him take a bullet to the chest and drop. She'd known then, without any question, that he was dead, and that had lasted for several minutes even after she reached him and found him alive and not even bleeding because the bullet had hit the buckle of the strap that holds his quiver in place.
This time she knows he's not dead, and somehow that makes it that much worse.
She gives a sharp jerk and a little gasp when, at a single word from Loki, Clint draws his gun, snake-strike quick, and shoots Fury. Then she pauses it, replays the scene again, and again. She lets it play through, watches as Fury sits up and pulls the bullet out from where it had imbedded itself into his vest.
They call him Hawkeye, sometimes, a nickname from his army sniper days. He never missed a shot then and still hasn't now.
She replays the scene again, watches his quickdraw that an old Wild West gunslinger would be proud of, watches the flash of the muzzle, watches Fury go down. She thinks about the name Hawkeye, and how a head shot would have been just as easy, and how he would have known Fury would be wearing a vest because he always does.
Then she gets up, goes and gets changed into her working outfit, confident now that there's still something left to be saved.
She doesn't need to look at it to know he's on the casualties list. She doesn't need to kick up a fuss to know they think she should be grateful no mention is made of his obvious betrayal. They think it's about love, maybe, or maybe they think it's about the sex. They don't know what it's really about, and how could they, when Natasha herself doesn't know and Clint isn't here to help her figure it out.
She feels off-balance the whole time he's gone, like someone had slipped up and stolen away the wall she was leaning on.
- after she cracks his head on the railing and brings him back to himself, after she helps him pick up the pieces and put himself back together, after she saves the world while the boys are piddling around on the streets below, after she eats shawarma and Steve falls asleep in his seat and nearly does a face-plant onto the table and Thor proves himself surprisingly familiar with the Heimlich maneuver when Stark tries to swallow a mouthful the size of a baseball and they eat just about every scrap of food in the place and scare off all other customers but that's okay because the owner loves them because they just saved the world and now they're in his restaurant and Tony handed him his platinum card as they walked in and told him to 'go wild'- after she takes him back to an unoccupied room in Stark Tower and takes him apart with far greater care than normal, after he wakes up fighting from a nightmare she doesn't need to ask about and Thor has to literally sit on him until Bruce can sedate him- after they take their leave of absence and return to find themselves with the label of 'Avengers Team Liaisons', which basically means they're the two members of SHIELD the other Avengers will voluntarily deal with-
After, Natasha finds Clint logged in with her ID- and she doesn't bother asking how he managed that- and watching the security feeds Coulson had queued up for her, back at the beginning. She doesn't say anything, because everything there is to say, she's already said. She also doesn't try to stop him, because now that he's got the idea he won't stop until he's done. Instead she leaves him to it, to find peace with himself as best he can.
The next day she goes to Fury and tells him she won't do this liaison crap, and to either officially reassign her or she walks. He doesn't need to ask about her other half, knowing where one goes the other will eventually follow. It's two-for-one day for the Avengers.
Three days after that Stark has all their stuff moved, without bothering to consult them, into what he fondly calls the Avengers Mansion. He seems genuinely shocked when Natasha tells him they'll be needing two bedrooms. Steve is already living there, and a skittish Bruce has yet to move on to regions unknown and uninhabited, and even Stark will spend the night when he doesn't crash at his girlfriend's place or forget to leave the lab for days on end. It's something of a relief, being the normal one. She hasn't felt anything like it before.
And then Thor shows up again, large as life and just as loud as ever, and he seems far too pleased when he learns the team has somehow held itself together. He's a welcome sight, although Natasha would never actually say so, and when he hugs her so hard he lifts her off the ground and she can hear her ribs creaking, she doesn't stab him in the groin with the knife in her hand as she would have done with anyone else.
One day Clint takes a paintball gun and tags Natasha, Stark, Steve, and Thor in rapid order with brilliant green splashes of paint, to win a bet made earlier in the week. Bruce doesn't seem too perturbed to be left out- rather, he seems extremely amused by the antics, and quite content with his role as spectator.
Natasha is quietly, desperately grateful for it, even though it takes her three hours to wash all the paint splatter out of her hair. Because it's so very Clint, the man she knew before Loki redecorated his mind, and it's nice to see him shining through. Maybe she did save him after all.
She'll save the sentiment for later, though. For now, she grabs herself a paintball gun of her own and sets out to hunt herself a hawk.