Natasha sat staring at the wall. She had been there since her return from her solo mission. This was not what she had planned on coming back to. The mission was difficult but the last week had been harder. A hand brushed hers and she turned to look at the partially opened grey eyes.

"Hey." It was a hoarse whisper but so much better than the silence that had dominated the room for so long.

"I heard you saved the day," said Natasha. Normal conversation was always much more reassuring. It didn't hold the potential to hide the gravity of the situation like over cheery sentiment and over played relief did.

He could hear the concern and relief in her voice. "It was nothing."

"Not how Pepper tells it." Natasha reached over and placed an ice cube in Clint's mouth.

"Well, it was her first hostage situation; people are prone to exaggerate when it comes to their first near death experience."

The ice helped a little but his voice was still a whisper. "You look like shit, Barton." That was probably the best compliment she could give him. Truth was he looked worse than that. If there was a shade beyond pale, he was it. His hair was matted to his head and the black stitched across his forehead stood out in shocking contrast. Whatever part of him wasn't a sickly pale color was a bright pallet of blacks and purples and his lip was still swollen. She couldn't see them under the sheets, but his torso and leg were covered in bandages.

His eyes started to close again and he sleepily muttered, "Feel like shit."

It wasn't a lot but the fact that he finally made an appearance in the land of the living lifted her feeling of dread that he might not pull through this one.

The next time Clint woke up it was Stark sitting in the chair Natasha had occupied.

He swallowed and licked his dry lips. His voice was just as hoarse as before. "You're not as pretty as my last guest."

Tony's lip curled at Barton's effort. He was pretty sure it was supposed to be his job to sound reassuring and provide the comic relief. "I guess it depends who you ask. You should probably leave that in," he instructed as he stopped Clint's hand from pulling out the nasal cannel.

Barton decided to take the advice; even that small movement sapped his energy. "Pepper's alright?"

Stark had to laugh to himself. Of all the questions Hawkeye should be asking, his first was about someone else. "She's fine."

Clint closed his eyes and took a second to absorb the information. "What's the verdict?"

"What, with you? You mean after your dramatic performance outside the bank, what with the flat lining and all ... doctor says you'll be fine, eventually. You're fighting off an infection from the bullet that smashed two ribs but managed to do no serious long term damage and you'll have to stay off that leg for a while, but you'll live to fight another day. You had us worried there for awhile champ." Stark paused to collect his thoughts. "What you did there, the way you looked out for Pepper, you were there for her when I couldn't be and you probably saved her life. I just wanted to personally thank you for that."

"You don't thank anyone, Stark."

"I know, so that would make this a special occasion. Mark it on the calendar, Chuck Norris."

"Chuck Norris?"

"Well you don't have the money to be Batman, and, even though I haven't seen you stare down a grizzly, I have a sneaking suspicion you just might be able to pull that one off."

Barton was losing his battle to stay conscious once again, drained by the short conversation. His eyes fluttered shut and he was just about to drift off when a thought occurred to him. His eyes snapped open startling Stark. "They had Keres!"

"Whoa, whoa there," cautioned Tony as he placed his hands on the injured man's shoulders to stop him from trying to sit up. "Relax, we got it back; Fury took it and locked it up in another super top secret spy closet. The world is safe; you did good, Clint. Now just take it easy."

Knowing that everything was as it should be, the bad guys taken down, SHIELD property safe and secure and Pepper safe, the injured Avenger let sleep claim him. For a complete disaster, it turned out better than he expected. Just another day in the life of a secret assassin. Really, what else was he going to do that day?

The next morning, he awoke to find Pepper sitting next to his bed. She was busy scrolling through something on her phone and didn't notice that Clint was awake. He waited a few moments to make his own assessment on how she was doing before he reached over and tapped her arm.

She let out a surprised gasp and jumped about a foot out of the chair, then composed herself and offered Barton a warm smile. "You're awake. How are you feeling?"

He did a mental inventory of how he was feeling, coming to the conclusion that shit was a woefully inadequate descriptor, but she didn't need to know that. "Better."

There was that awkward silence again. He knew he was lying, she knew he was lying and they both knew that the other one knew. Pepper decided not to call him on it; she owed him for all he had done for her and if he wanted to continue playing the hero, she could give him that.

Clint spoke first, "I want to apologise, Pepper."

"What do you have to apologise for?" she asked, astonished.

He picked at the blanket that was tucked around him and he replayed their day out. "I should have known something was wrong, seen that guy sooner... I don't know, told you no from the start. Bad things seem to follow me lately., I shouldn't have risked it."

"You wouldn't have been there if it wasn't for me." She pondered his confession for a moment. "Is that why you're so distant? Cause you think something will happen?"

"My failures over the last seven months have been pretty epic."

"Clint, you save the world!"

"Ya, right after I almost brought it down. I don't expect you to understand, just..."

She cut off his litany of self condemnation, "Shit happens! It's how you rise above it that matters and you turned it into a victory. You're a hero, like it or not. A self-destructive hero, but I can help you work on that part and so will the rest of the Avengers. You just have to let them, and accept their own unconventional, weird ways of helping."

Unable to bare the determined gaze she fixed upon him, Clint nodded his acceptance of her summation.

Feeling like she had gotten through to Barton, she added, "I want to take you out to lunch when you get out of here... as a thank you for everything you did."

"Lunch with you? I don't know. If it ends the way it did last time..." Pepper's cheerful expression shifted to a more wounded one; clearly, she wasn't as in tune to his humor as Natasha was. "I'm joking. I'd love to go to lunch, just no more trying to find gifts for Tony!"

Pepper laughed as her face lit up again. "I'll schedule something as soon as we know when you'll be out."

Barton couldn't help but return her smile. If this was what having friends was like, he could certainly get used to it.

The end

(Story 1 of 3)

Thank-you so much to everyone who read this story.

A big thanks to anyone who added an alert, favourite or review (especially anyone who reviewed more than once or every chapter!) it is greatly appreciated and means a lot.

Huge thanks to Tracy137 for the terrific beta work and Red Aurora for continuing the amazing beta job!

I'm evil but I never said Clint died at the end of chapter 14. Tony never finished his sentence about what happened to the archer. High five to Bookdancer for picking up on that.

This is the first story in a series I am working on. The next story is The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions and will answer some of the questions brought up by this story. Sorry to anyone that asked a question in their review but I don't like to give away any current, future or possible plot points by confirming or denying anything, but I do appreciate reading questions and speculations.

As for Clintasha, I have nothing against that relationship but I felt this story was better served without Natasha present. She probably would have handled the situation better than the rest of the team but where would the fun and drama be in the story then?

There were a few people who I wanted to reply to and tell them it would all be alright but again that would ruin the suspense. See it worked out all right, this time.