It takes some manipulating, some threatening, well, mostly threatening, but eventually the medical staff agree to let her go without overnight observation. The minute she's cleared, Natasha takes off. She stalks down the hallway leading her out of the building, dodging agents and twisting through the maze of turns without hesitation.
She saw Clint dodge the staff and sneak off when they had first returned to the New York base, but she had been swept up by the medical staff before she could follow. She knows exactly what must be running through his mind right now and wants to head it off before he gets too deep.
It's late by the time she makes it back to Stark Towers. The light is still on in his room, so silently she slides his door open and slips inside. Clint is sitting on edge of his bed, head bowed, back to the door. He doesn't acknowledge her entrance at all.
She takes the moment to study him. The two of them have known each other for years and have been looking out for one another almost as long. For two people in the assassin trade, trust does not come easily. But she would give her life for this man, and she knows he would do the same.
These past two weeks though, it seems like all that has become irrelevant. Clint's hiding something, she knows it. Since the day of Steve's near miss, Natasha's been waiting for Clint to come to her, but he's thrown up a wall, smooth as glass, and she can't find any cracks. Part of her is terrified that he won't be coming back.
Natasha crosses the floor and as she comes around the bed to face him, she catches a glint of light. The reflection is coming off the object in his hand and when she sees it, she freezes.
Slowly, she reaches across Clint and pulls the gun out from his slack grip. As soon as it clears his fingers, she ejects the cartridge and empties the chamber, throwing the whole lot to the side where it clatters to a stop in the corner of the room.
The entire time Clint doesn't say a word, hasn't even lifted his head to face her.
Livid, Natasha slaps him across his face. "How dare you." She hisses.
Clint's head snaps to the side. When he finally looks up, he takes in the stark white bandage covering her temple and turns away in shame. "Tasha, I -"
"Don't" she interrupts, sharply. She lets the anger wash over her, furious that it's gotten to this point.
He sets his jaw and nods, hands clenching tight in his lap.
Side by side they sit, tight-lipped and uncomfortable in the cramped room, neither of them wanting to break the stalemate they've entered.
As the seconds tick by, Natasha slowly steadies her breathing, feeling the adrenaline and righteous anger drain out of her system until she's just tired and weary.
With a sigh, she sits next to him on the mattress, the springs creaking under the strain of holding them both up. Now that the adrenaline's gone, her head and ribs have started throbbing again, despite the ibuprofen she downed before coming. It reminds her of the reason she's here. Why they're both here, wide awake in the middle of the night.
She touches his shoulder, away from where it's half-dried and tacky with blood. He tenses under her fingers, but doesn't pull away. She asks, "What happened today?"
Clint shakes his head. "Is everyone -"
He pauses, lost in thought, and Natasha knows he's wandered back into the battle, back into the what ifs, should have, and could have done betters and she tries to pull him back. "Don't do that to yourself, Clint. This was not your fault."
"It was my fault. I -" his voice cracks, and Natasha wishes he would look at her, but he stays trained to the wall, back rigid and tense. "I didn't see her."
"Anyone could have missed her."
"No" He shakes his head and says without a hint of conceit. "Not me. I was suppose to be watching your backs. I should have spotted it. But I couldn't see her. Not the car, not the weapon, nothing. I could have taken her out. I had her in my range."
"Clint." Natasha says softly, catching her fingers under his chin, tilting it up gently and that's all it takes to break him.
His face crumples. Pulling away he scrubs a hand roughly through his hair. When he finally faces her, she's suddenly uneasy and it takes her a second to realize it's because his gaze is not focused.
So quietly, she almost has to lean in to hear, he says, "Something's wrong with my vision."
Natasha draws in a sharp breath. "How bad?" Clinically, her mind continues to whirl, and the pieces from these last few weeks start slotting into place.
"It's been on and off the past few weeks. Right now, everything's blurry and keeps splitting into two." Clint rubs at the back of his neck where Natasha can see the cords of tension in his neck and jaw.
"What did Medical say?" Natasha asks.
"I haven't seen them yet." He shrugs helplessly. His body's taken beatings before, but it's never betrayed him like this. "I'm useless like this. Worse than useless, I'm a liability."
"So you decided a bullet to the brain was the better option?"
Clint's voice is mocking and cold when he shoots back, "Considering the alternative is to let SHIELD know and hope they cover my medical before they kick me out on the street, I wasn't entirely optimistic. What use am I if I can't see?"
Natasha feels her frustration creeping up again. When Clint closes himself off, he does not do it in half-measures. But part of the reason they get along so well is that she can give as good as she gets. "Great. So now what? Your genius plan is to sit here and hope that it'll get better?"
"It's cleared up before."
She curses his stubbornness. Coming from someone who lectures her regularly on taking care of herself, he can be a remarkable hypocritical. "That is not even on the table, Clint. At least go see Bruce. He might have an idea of what we're dealing with."
"It's the middle of the night." He argues.
"I doubt he's asleep. I don't even think he's seen his room since Stark showed him his labs."
"Well then he's in the middle of some experiment. This isn't important enough to bug him."
"Not important?" She hisses out a breath through her teeth. Some days she hates Clint and his damn complexes. "How long are you going to go on pretending that everything will just magically go away on it's own?" She says bluntly. "You can't keep hiding this."
Clint is quiet for a moment. When he speaks, his voice is flat.
"About a year before you got here, we got sent to take out this guy. Probably half of SHIELD is in on this mission. I sat out in the desert for three days waiting for him to show up. And I get this headache that I can't shake. I got one job to do, Nat. One job. Three years of intel and 8 months planning this hit and I fucking missed." His mouth twists, "First miss I had on a mission. I got suspended for 2 months while the case went through the council." His hands are shaking by the end of it and his voice bitter. "SHIELD only cares about you as long as they can use you. You know that just as well I do."
"Clint." Natasha resists the urge to shake him. She's been witness to these 'headaches' and knows exactly what condition he must have been in to miss a shot. "I know you don't believe me, but you're more important than a mission."
"No Nat. Not to them." Clint says firmly, "They can't find out about this. Especially not now with the Avengers. You know I've had auras this bad before. It'll be gone before morning. I just need some water and some sleep."
In her line of work, she has little time to waste on entertaining fantasies. But in that moment, she wishes fervently that she could track down every last person who had a part in destroying his self-worth.
It breaks her heart that he can't understand how much people care for him.
She purses her lips, "Two hours. I will give you exactly two hours for your stubborn head to clear itself. If it is not better in that time, I don't care if it's the middle of the night, I am waking Bruce up to take a look at you."
He nods. For a long moment, he's silent, then quietly, hesitantly he asks, "What if this can't be fixed?"
And Natasha has no answer to that. Instead, she wraps her arms around him, feeling the tears as they soak into her shirt.
She waits until he's exhausted himself, then lays him down, climbing into bed beside him. She curls up and tucks the comforter around the them both, laying a hand on his chest to feel the slow drumbeat of his heart under her fingers.
Natasha wakes up with a start. She can't figure out why until she hears a faint moan beside her. Flipping around, she sees Clint writhing in pain, his hands clenched in front of his eyes.
Her heart jumps in her chest. "Clint?"
"Tasha?" He grits out and tries to push himself up, but falls back to the mattress, unbalanced "Oh fuck, fuck, it hurts."
"What happened?" She pries his hands away, feeling the heat pouring off his skin and seeing the tension knotted all over. Examining him, she swears under her breath. His pupils are blown and uneven.
"Migraine." When the hits his eyes, Clint wrenches out of her grip and buries his face into the pillow, teeth biting into the soft surface, and a keening noise ripping out from his throat. When the wave of pain is over, it leaves him panting wetly into the sheets, "Migraine." He forces out, "It's a migraine."
"I'm calling for help."
"No!" He gasps, panicked, "No, please. I can handle this. There's Dilaudid in my drawer. Don't call anyone." He gropes for her wrist and hangs on, almost tight enough to bruise, but his words are starting to slur, the consonants suddenly soft.
Leaning over him, she yanks open the top drawer, sweeping through its contents. Her other hand is already scrolling her contact list for SHIELD's medical team. No matter what Clint says, he's never had a migraine like this. Even when they cluster and he's down for days, he's been able to ride through them without a sound.
She finds the tiny orange vial with his name and Dilaudid in tiny black letters below it and shakes two pills into her hand, but before she can hand them over, Clint makes a gasping, choking sound. His eyes roll back, and he starts to convulse.
Both the phone and the pills go tumbling to the ground as Natasha yanks him to the middle of the bed. Swiftly, she kicks all the bedding off the other side. Clint's head snaps back and his entire body becomes rigid as his muscles contract in waves over and over again, fingers clawing into the bed sheets.
"Bruce!" she screams, praying that he's in his rooms and knowing that he's not. "Bruce!" The rest of the team is too far away to hear her through the soundproofing and for a moment, Natasha is seized with helplessness. She swears loudly, first in English and when that's not enough, in Russian. She curses Stark Towers and curses Tony Stark and curses the fact that she is fucking useless and alone and scared and that Clint won't stop convulsing.
She doesn't want to leave him, but this is so completely out of her league and it's absolutely terrifying. She know when she needs to call for back-up. Hurriedly, Natasha manoeuvres Clint into the recovery position as best she can, gets up, and sprints.
Even Stark's high speed elevator's too slow for this, so Natasha takes the emergency stairs, taking the 3 floors down at the run, leaping the last half of each flight, stumbling into the wall from momentum and using it to push herself towards the next flight. From there, the lab is a few doors down and Natasha's never been so glad for Bruce's predictability.
Racing into his lab, she finds him lounging idly at the counter, chewing on a back of a pen while JARVIS runs algorithms on the computer behind him. Upon noticing her, Bruce straightens, immediately taking in her panicked expression, a stark change from her usually unflappable face. "What's wrong?"
Natasha is breathless, hair askew in a fiery halo around her head. "It's Clint, he's having a seizure."
Bruce abandons his work, getting up so quickly that he knocks over his stool. "What happened?"
"He said it was a migraine, then right after he started to seize."
They hit the stairs, jumping up two, three at a time, Bruce continuing to pepper Natasha with questions between breaths. "Has this ever happened before?"
"Fever? Flu-like symptoms?"
"Nothing like that. His vision's blurry, his balance is off. When I woke up this morning and he could barely talk through the pain. Then he started convulsing."
"I don't know," Natasha says helplessly and hates herself for not prying more out of him last night. "I just found out last night. The vision for probably a few weeks. He gets migraines sometimes, but never this bad."
"JARVIS." Banner calls out calmly and so controlled that Natasha was to hit him, because this is Clint and he could be dying, "Alert Medical at SHIELD to expect us at the carrier and have them send a team to pick us up from Stark Towers."
JARVIS acknowledges. After a brief moment, it announces, "ETA 20 minutes."
Bruce flicks on the light to Clint's room and jumps on the bed, where Clint has, thankfully, stopped convulsing. Gently, Bruce eases him onto his back and tilts his chin up, opening his airway and checking his breathing.
"Clint, can you hear me? Can you open your eyes?" When he receives no response, Bruce flicks on his penlight, peeling back an eyelid and peering in close. He frowns. "His pupils are uneven. Did he take anything?"
"Painkillers, most likely." Natasha snatches the pill bottle from where it landed on the ground and shows it to Bruce. Then she yanks open Clint's bedside drawer and riffles through it, coming up with several more prescription bottles dated from a few weeks to a few months ago.
Hurriedly, Bruce flips through them. The assortment's made up of painkillers, migraine meds, and nausea meds. He tosses them back into the drawer and shakes his head. None of those would cause this. He asks, "Did he hit his head recently?"
"No." Natasha says, raking her memories of the last few weeks. "Wait.. a couple of weeks ago - the Sentari mission. He got that concussion." She shakes her head, "But Medical already cleared him."
And Natasha doesn't think she's ever heard Bruce swear like that before. "They should have checked him again after the symptoms didn't clear."
"I doubt they knew. He hides it." Natasha explains, "He's afraid of getting pulled from active duty. Keeps saying he's fine. But this has to be the worse headache he's ever had."
"The worst…" Bruce pauses, something sparking at the back of his mind. The way she words it triggers a memory and the symptoms rapidly start to align. Bruce swears loudly. "Forget SHIELD, he needs to get to a hospital, now." Bruce says forcefully and the urgency in his voice is alarming. And Natasha is suddenly scared in a way she hasn't been since she was six years old, watching flames devour her home with the rest of her family trapped inside. Her breath catches in her throat and she freezes.
"Natasha!" Bruce says sharply, and she jerks out of the memory to see him holding out a phone. "Call Stark, tell him to prep the helicopter. Then call the New York–Presbyterian and tell them to clear out an operating room. They need to page the neurosurgeon on call and prep a team. If they refuse, call Dr. Stanley Montgomery, he's the chief of neurosurgery there, and you tell him that I'm calling in my favour." Bruce rattles off and thrusts the phone into her hands.
Natasha desperately wants to know what's going on, but she catches sight of Clint, unnaturally still and small against the sheets and snaps to do as Bruce says.
From there, time passes in a haze. Bruce summons Steve with the help of JARVIS, who arrives at a run, barefoot and half naked. Steve hoists Clint's limp body into his arms and they start for the elevator at a fast clip, heading for the roof where Tony's already in the pilot seat and warming up the helicopter.
When they get to the hospital, there's a cluster of people in the rooftop doorway. The doctors wait until the helicopter safely touches down, then race out to meet them, dragging along a gurney rattling noisily across the concrete. They load Clint on and strap him down, arranging his sprawled limbs on the bed roughly and Natasha bites back the urge to snap at them.
As they rush down the hallway, Bruce half runs alongside, barking out things about LPs and CTs; vision loss and seizures and cerebral aneurysms and Natasha is left frozen in the middle of the hallway, where the lights are too bright and pressing.
She doesn't realize she's shaking until Steve places his hand around her elbow and gently guides her to the waiting room. He leads her to the chair in the corner where she curls up, pulling her knees in tight to her body and resting her chin on top. When he puts a cup of lukewarm coffee in between her hands, she automatically takes a sip, not even remembering to check it first.
Clint is her Achilles heel. She knows that. Since day one, he's managed to slide under her defences in a way she's never let anyone before.
She owes him her life. That may have been the start of their relationship, but it's never defined it. Years ago, when they had finally called off the SHIELD agent tailing her every step, she had sneaked into his room and tried to repay him for sparing her life. He gently pulled her off, rebuking her with a wry grin that she'd come to memorize over the years. He'd commented, bemused "I don't know what you people do in Russia, but here, we just say thanks."
She cares for him more than she thought she would have the right to care for anyone and she's seen it in him too, but SHIELD has no fraternization rules for a reason. Relationships are a weakness, an advantage that she's exploited many times and she's always protected herself first.
But she thinks about Clint in there dying, and she can't stand that their relationship amounts to a pat on the back after a successful mission and the number of bodies they've racked up together. And suddenly she's had enough. Enough of the tiptoeing around each other like they're nothing more than team mates. They've let things be comfortable and safe for too long and now she's scared she won't have the chance to tell him.
Shaking her head, she folds the thoughts away. She can't afford to think about this right now, not until she knows he's safe. Looking up around her surroundings, she finds it difficult to wrap her mind around the absolute absurdity of the situation. In the waiting room alone, they have a half naked Captain America, a de-suited Iron Man, and a former Russian assassin. They saved the world from numerous hostile threats and right now there is not a single thing any of them can do.
Her forefinger twitches slightly against the coffee cup. Nothing except wait. Wait to see if her world has been unmade once more, and if she still has the strength to pick up the pieces.
Hours later, she's jolted out of sleep by the sound of someone clearing their throat. Bruce is standing over her and when he tells her Clint made it though surgery, she has to turn away so he won't see her cry.
The doctors aren't sure when Clint will wake up. He's already woken briefly a few times in recovery, but each time he'd been floating in and out, never fully become awake and responsive. When she asks about brain damage, the doctors refuse to answer, dodging the question with the damnable 'we'll know more when he wakes up'.
As soon as he's moved out of recovery, Natasha sneaks into his room. Clint's laying on his back, tucked in tightly under the sheets and Natasha knows he hates sleeping on his back exposed and thinks about moving him but she doesn't want to disturb anything. She settles for sitting restlessly by his bedside, watching how sleep smoothed the lines of tension away.
The nurses keep trying to kick her out and she keeps sneaking in again until they finally give up and work around her with a disapproving air, as if Natasha gives a damn. As the days go by, she agrees to take turns with the others, knowing they've earned that right in their lives, but she only leaves long enough to shower and eat, the food absolutely tasteless in her mouth.
By day three, Clint starts showing signs of waking again. She sits by his bedside with a book, waiting and reading the same two pages over and over again and wondering when they 're finally going to start making sense.
Periodically, she glances up, but she's still startled when she looks up and Clint's staring back, unblinking. Cautiously, she ventures, "Clint?"
He's silent, eyes fixed on her face. It's unnerving enough that Natasha starts to worry, thoughts of brain damage creeping at the back of her mind. "Clint? Are you awake?"
After a long moment Clint blinks, once, twice and frowns. Sluggishly, he takes in their surroundings and Natasha waits patiently for him to assess and adjust, "Tasha," he croaks out, "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."
Her stomach drops, "Clint" she says slowly, "We were never in Kansas."
He huffs out a laugh and immediately starts to cough, wincing. "Sorry," he says when he recovers, "I forgot you grew up under a rock."
Natasha lets out the breath she didn't know she was holding. Shaking her head slightly, she grabs the water she has set aside and slips the straw between his lips, watching the relief come over his face as he drinks. She says dryly, "At least my rock has culture."
Clint smiles at the inside joke, "I think you failed to notice, but I'm so awesome, my brain blew up."
Natasha winces. She doesn't think he knows just how close that remark was to the truth.
"Too soon?" Clint asks, "That was too soon, wasn't it."
"Much." She confirms. "What do you remember?"
Clint brings his hand up heavily to rub at his temples. "Pain. And panic. And you. That's about the gist of it."
Natasha nods, "You had an aneurysm. Bruce suspects the concussion a few weeks ago may have caused it to develop. The symptoms started when it started leaking. Right now, we're at New York-Presbyterian. Bruce knew the neurosurgeon and they got you in pretty quickly when it burst."
Clint holds up his IV hand. "The would explain the good drugs."
"Yeah. Bruce wanted to tear a strip out of Medical for missing it, but he was afraid the other guy would show up, so Stark's going to do it instead. They're both going to come by to lecture you when you feel better."
"But I'm the victim here." Clint protests.
In reply, Natasha levels him with a look he's seen many times before, the one he interprets as, you're too smart to be this dumb.
With a sigh, Clint admits, "I think I knew at the back of my mind how serious it was. But all I could think about was what I stood to lose. We're not superheroes, Tash, and I don't know how we ended up on a team with them. And I can't help thinking that if I get injured, or if I show weakness, someone's going to notice they made a mistake and kick us off."
And Natasha can spot a lost cause when she sees it. She's been working on his self-esteem issues for years. "Clint, I want you to listen to carefully. You don't have to beat yourself into the ground to prove anything. You're and Avenger and will continue to be an Avenger regardless of your ability to shoot. You're more than just your eyesight."
Clint hums, noncommittal.
Natasha sighs in resignation, "One day you'll believe me. Either way, if you ever try to hide something like this again, I will snap every single one of your bows in half. As it is, I'm checking over you myself after every mission."
He leers, "Promise?"
Usually at that point, Natasha raise an eyebrow then take the invitation to move away from serious conversation. This time however, as she opens her mouth to reply, the thought of him convulsing on the bed flashes through her mind and she decides he's worth the risk.
She leans over, fingers gripping lightly under his chin and brushing her mouth over his chapped and cracked lips. Hardly spectacular, but the intention is clear.
Eyes widening, Clint says warningly. "Natasha. I just came back from near death. Don't mess around with me here."
She meets his gaze unerringly, feeling raw, exposed "I'm not."
"You know this is going to end badly. Neither of us are emotional adjusted enough to be able to break up without blowing up half of New York. We both have more baggage than a freight train." His face an indifferent mask, voice dry, but his eyes have always been a torrent of information. Oddly enough, it reassures her to see he's as nervous as she.
He examines her carefully, a slight furrow between his eyes. "This isn't you. Sex is a job to you."
"Relationships aren't. Besides," She adds wryly, and just knows he's rubbing off on her, "I can compartmentalize."
"Tasha…" Clint says, a hint of disapproval in his voice.
She shakes her head. She knows not to take his hesitation as rejection. Knows he hasn't had the past three days to process this like she has. "You nearly died -"
"We nearly die every day." Clint points out.
"This is different." She says, frustrated. She can twist lies with ease, letting them flow from her mouth with barely a thought, but this, for this she finds herself at a loss for words.
Clint is silent, contemplating. `He worries at his lip. "I need time to think."
Natasha nods. "That's all I ask."
"Okay." And because he's Clint, he has to add with a quirk of his lip, "If I knew nearly dying was the key, I would have done it sooner."
Later that day, after practically half the medical floor has been in to see him, Natasha slips back into Clint's room. She's carrying a small bundle and when she tosses it onto his outstretched legs, he sees that it's his clothes.
"Get dressed. We're moving out."
Clint raises an eyebrow. Gingerly, he pushes himself to a sitting position. "You do realize I just had major surgery." But he's already peeling back the tape from his IV.
"It was endoscopic. They didn't even have to crack your thick skull. Besides, Stark and Banner have it covered. And leave that in, Stark says he'll pay for any equipment we steal." Then when Natasha speaks again, it's clear it's not to him. "Cap, we prepped to move?" She gets the affirmative over the comm.
"You know," Clint says wryly, "I could just sign out AMA."
Natasha laughs and the sound is so light and uninhibited, Clint feels something jump in his chest. "Now what would be the fun in that?"
She drops the railing on the bed and comes in close. And as her hand anchors to his cheek to fit in his comm, he slides his hand around it and presses a kiss to her palm. When he smiles at her, it's a promise. "All right. I'm ready."