The medic peeled back Barton's eyelids, doing a last check with her penlight of his pupils. "So far, so good," she reported to Natasha. "He should still be watched for signs of concussion or distress. I'll send -"
Natasha cut her off. "I'll stay."
The medic looked as if she wanted to object, but nodded after a moment. "Okay. Watch for altered consciousness, confusion, breathing changes-"
"Yes. I know." Natasha wanted her gone, and finally the medic got the hint and left, pulling the hatch closed behind her.
The room lights were dim, in consideration of the headache Barton was going to have when he woke up, but there was enough light to see him in the bed, unconscious. His wrists and ankles were both strapped down, in case he was still in thrall. The look in his eyes when he'd struggled up to his feet after their fight stayed with her: he'd recognized her at last, and he'd been bewildered as if he had no idea where he was, right before she'd punched him. Recognition or no, she'd had to stop him, just in case, but at least his eyes had been clear and he'd said her name.
Loki had confirmed the thrall wasn't permanent, but until that moment when Barton's eyes had met hers, getting him back had been only a hope. And she didn't do well with hope.
Hope was for children, for the child she'd never been. Hope was Saint Nicholas bringing presents, when the real world brought god-like villains who thought nothing of stripping people of their free will. She lived in the real world.
Barton lived in the real world, too, and yet he managed not to let it crush him. He'd held out hope to her, too, and at first she'd shunned it, not feeling worthy or not wanting to take it from him lest he have none, but somehow the more he offered and the more she took, the more he had to give. She had been telling the truth when she'd told Loki that she owed Barton a debt, yet that was the faintest shadow of the truth.
Damn Loki for taking him from her.
Now she had to wait and see if Barton was really back.
The engines made the floor vibrate under her feet, and the alerts had quieted. Banner, Loki and Thor were gone, and the immediate threat had passed. She didn't know where Rogers and Stark were, still trying to find the tesseract perhaps, but that was nothing to do with her. If Fury needed her, he knew where she was, and in the meantime, she planned to stay right here.
With her foot, she pulled the stool beside the bed and sat to watch him sleep. He would stir soon, and hopefully Clint Barton would be looking at her again. If he wasn't, at least he was here, and SHIELD would find a way to undo whatever Loki had done to him and bring him back. That wasn't hope; it was fact, because she refused to accept any other outcome.
His breathing was steady and he was very still, only his chest moving with his breaths and a slight quiver of his lips that she found herself watching intently, making sure the movement continued.
Come on. Wake up and come back. Show me you're in there.
He'd watched over her, too. He'd been the first, watching over her after an injury on her first mission for SHIELD, and she'd tried to deny how nice it was to wake to a familiar, trusted face. She'd pushed at him, been cold, but he hadn't gone away; he'd sat there and offered her water and silent support. She remembered his eyes the most - those sharp eyes that could see so far and so accurately, had been focused on her, and they'd been understanding. Gentle, even. She did not deserve gentleness or kindness, and he offered it anyway, the same way he'd refused to kill her and held out his hand.
"Do you want to change?" he'd asked her.
"You can. I did. You have to choose it, fight for it. But you don't have to do it alone."
She'd found, looking into his eyes, that she believed him. Taking his hand had felt right, and it had been a very long time since she had felt that.
She owed him for that. For that and so much more.
She wrapped her hand around his and squeezed his fingers, releasing them again quickly. Everyone who mattered already knew or pretended they didn't, but there were missions and protocol and most importantly, not wanting to screw up one of the few good things that had ever happened in her life.
So she wouldn't hold his hand on the Helicarrier, not for too long, but she would sit at his bedside for as long as he needed.
And when he clenched his fists, pulling against the straps, and his eyes darted behind his eyelids in the throes of a nightmare, she would touch his arm and try to soothe him.
When his eyes flickered open but held no awareness and he made harsh desperate sounds in the back of his throat, she wanted to do more. She glanced at the door to make sure no one was watching through the small window, and then she leaned forward. Framing his face with both hands to keep it still, she whispered, "It's Natasha, Clint. You're safe. Come back."
He quieted at the sound of her voice and the feel of her touch, his eyes drifting shut again.
She touched her lips to his in a promise for later. There might be demigods and an army to fight first, but now that he was here, she believed there would be a later.
Clint didn't kiss her back, but he let out a sigh and fell back into more peaceful sleep. With reluctance, she pulled her hands back from his face and sat back to watch again. She would wait, patient as a spider, for the hawk to return to his nest.