Author's Note: None of these characters are mine and this is just for fun.
My thanks to those who left reviews.
Someone touched his shoulder, forcing pain into the blessed darkness, dragging Hawkeye from the comfort of unconsciousness.
"I won't tell you," he muttered. "You might as well… hurt me some more… I still won't tell you…"
The pressure on his shoulder relented. Soft fingers stroked his cheek. "Clint, it's me," Natasha whispered. "No more questions. No more torture."
Barton opened his eye and focused on Romanoff, who leaned over him with a very concerned expression on her face. He tried to clear the disorientation from his mind. The mission… Natasha in trouble… Covering her retreat… Capture…Torture… Natasha… Escape…
Escape… It had really and truly happened. "You came for me?" he asked incredulously.
"I did," she said with a small smile. "But we have another problem now." She indicated the horizon over her shoulder. A towering brown wall of sand and dust dominated the sky. "We have to get inside."
"Inside? Inside where?" Clint tried to rub the dried blood from his right eye and focus his thoughts.
"An abandoned village. You know how people are always fleeing one thing or another in this place."
"Is it safe?"
Romanoff glanced at a solidly built stone hut that still had a door and shutters. "Is anything ever safe? All I know is your friends won't be able to track us in that storm, SHIELD can't pick us up until it clears, and that hut looks more inviting than staying outside when it hits."
Barton forced himself to a sitting position, gritting his teeth against the stabs of pain. "So what happened back there? How'd you get me out?"
"It pays to know ancient tribal enemies. Makes people easy to exploit." Natasha wrapped an arm around Clint's waist and helped him stand. She was concerned at just how much of the archer's weight she had to bear. Staggering, the two entered the stone hut.
Romanoff gently lowered Barton to the ground near the hearth. He groaned softly as he rested his back against the cool stone wall.
Rummaging through the articles left behind, Natasha found a pot with a broken handle. "I saw a well outside. I'll get some water. I need to get you cleaned up."
"Be careful," Barton warned. "That storm is close."
"It's not my first time in the desert," Natasha replied. Secretly, she appreciated his concern.
Barton closed his eyes. He almost slipped back into unconsciousness, but then the first gust of the storm struck the stone hut. His left eye shot open. "Natasha?"
She wasn't there. The door was still open, swinging on its hinges, allowing sand and dust to stream inside. Clutching the wounds on his chest, Hawkeye forced himself to stand. He had to get Romanoff inside. These storms could be blinding and completely disorienting. And Natasha was out in it.
Suddenly, the door slammed shut. "Sit down, Barton. You're in no condition to be wandering around." Natasha set down the pot of water and dropped her rucksack just in time to catch Clint as his knees buckled. She eased him back to sitting against the wall. "See what I mean."
"Thought you were lost," he offered as an excuse.
"You were the one who was lost," Natasha reminded while starting a small fire in the hearth with some wood that had been left behind. She set the pot next to the flames to heat. Offering Hawkeye her canteen, she warned, "Easy with that. The well is almost dry. Probably why the people left."
Clint handed her the canteen after taking a few sips. "Thanks for coming for me. I can't believe Coulson sent you. Too risky. He could have lost us both."
"He didn't send me."
Barton searched Natasha's face. As always, she was carefully trying to conceal her emotions.
"I made my own call," she finally stated. "And don't you dare protest. There was no way I could let you die a slow death without at least trying to get you out." The first small crack appeared in Romanoff's hardened façade. "I owe you many times over. You spared my life when you should have taken it. You've watched my back in firefights. You covered my escape four days ago or it would have been me captured." She didn't mention the ache of worry she had felt when he was missing or how much it hurt her to know he had suffered for her sake. She didn't mention it, but the way Clint looked into her eyes, she suspected he knew anyway. He had always been good at reading her.
"For once, let me take care of you, Barton. You look terrible."
"I feel worse."
That statement alone told Natasha how badly hurt Clint was. In their time working together, he had never once complained when wounded. She unbuttoned the bloody fatigue jacket he wore, worried about what was underneath.
"Easy with the right shoulder," Hawkeye warned. "It's dislocated."
"Anything else I should know?"
"I'm light one tooth. At least I still have twenty-seven for future interrogations."
"That's not funny, Clint."
Barton winced as Romanoff eased the jacket off his shoulders. She gasped at her first good view of the damage.
"What did they do to you?" She couldn't stop the emotion that entered her voice.
"You don't really want to know."
Romanoff set the pot of warmed water next to Hawkeye. Starting with his face, she washed away dried blood and disinfected a deep cut above his right eye. Relocating his shoulder elicited a sharp expletive from Barton. Natasha studied a pair of wounds that cut diagonally across his chest. They were several inches long and deep enough to be seriously painful but not life-threatening. Blood sluggishly seeped from them. Lightly touching the edge of one, Natasha studied her fingertips. Small crystals were mixed with the sticky crimson blood.
Hawkeye nodded. "Hurts like Hell." He indicated a livid burn on his right side. "Cauterised that one after packing salt in it."
"I'm all right," he assured with a weak smile.
"If this is all right, I don't want to see you on a bad day."
Natasha resumed her work, cleaning and disinfecting the bloody wounds as gently as possible. Barton was amazed that hands so capable of fighting and killing were also so capable of tender care.
"These should be stitched." Romanoff was reluctant to inflict more pain after all he had already borne.
Barton sensed her hesitation. "Believe me, I've been through much worse."
"That doesn't make me feel better."
"Just do it," he ordered.
Hawkeye sucked in a breath when she placed the first stitch and by the time she was finished, his face and chest were streaked with sweat. Deep lines in his expression spoke of the agony he felt, although he remained stoically silent.
"I never told them anything," Barton finally said as Natasha tied off the last stitch.
"I know, Clint."
"God, I wanted to…" he admitted. "But I couldn't. I love you too much, Natasha." His eyes showed stark sincerity. "I thought that caring… I thought love would make me weak. But it gave me strength."
Natasha had always thought love to be an illusion, a fairy tale for children, a deception that made people foolish. She had seen many people speak of love frivolously, offering empty words that would be forgotten at the first sign of hardship. But Clint was showing her a different sort of love. His love embodied strength and fortitude and a deep sort of connection that could withstand the greatest of trials. He offered her a love she could respect. A love she could share.
Suddenly, Romanoff could explain why she had disobeyed SHIELD's orders. She could understand why she felt such painful worry for him. She knew why things were always better when he was around.
"And I love you, Clint." Leaning close, she kissed him. Slowly, gently, with honesty she had never before revealed to anyone.
When she pulled away, Barton smiled. "Apparently torture can extract important confessions."
Natasha shook her head disapprovingly, but she didn't mind the comment. As long as he was trying to joke, she knew he would be all right. "Rest now," she ordered. "I'm on watch." She helped Clint stretch out, allowing him to rest his head on her lap. She pulled the tattered remains of his jacket over him and watched as he drifted to sleep.
Clint stirred and moaned in his sleep, then awoke with a start.
Natasha placed a hand on his chest, carefully avoiding his wounds. "You're safe," she whispered reassuringly.
"The storm's over. I reached Coulson on the secure phone. Extraction will be in about twenty minutes. Fury is only mildly annoyed."
Barton chuckled at the last statement, but ended up groaning as the movement awakened several layers of pain.
Natasha ran her fingers soothingly through his hair until the worst of the hurt subsided. She was still amazed at all he had endured for her.
"Thank you for not betraying me, Clint. You're stronger than I ever believed."
Barton met her eyes. "I had to protect you. It's what partners do. The way he spoke the word partners said more than the word alone ever could. Natasha felt the promise he was offering. The promise of unfailing trust, eternal friendship, and intimate love. He paused, then added, "Thanks for coming after me."
"It's what partners do," Natasha replied, accepting his offer. She leaned in and kissed Clint with feelings he happily returned.
Barton grinned. "I am going to enjoy this partnership." He set his hand over hers, holding it against his heart.
The sound of a chopper approaching broke the emotion of the moment.
"Coulson's right on time," Romanoff stated, but just in case it wasn't him, she drew her pistol.
"And I was hoping to have more time alone with you," Barton commented.
Natasha shook her head. "You are going to the infirmary whether you like it or not," she insisted. When Clint did his best to look dejected, she added, "But after you get out…" She whispered a promise in his ear that made him smile. "I have a few weeks of R&R coming."
"Me, too. Think we can find a place away from SHIELD's prying eyes?"
Romanoff nodded. "I have a few ideas."
"I can help with that." Coulson stood in the doorway, looking a little out of place in the desert wearing his impeccably clean and pressed dark suit. He flashed that Coulson ghost-smile. "There's some things that Fury doesn't need to know."
Author's note: I think that under that stoic exterior, Agent Coulson is a complex man. I kind of like the idea that he would know about but respect the secret of Barton and Romanoff's non-work relationship. I also think that Barton and Romanoff are professional enough to separate their work and non-work personas, thus the ambiguity of a relationship represented in the film. They were at work, so the hints of a deep relationship are there, but the proof is not. It can be done. My love was on my field team for a year before one of the other members confirmed we were together, although I'm certain they suspected it for a lot longer.
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