The Fifth Time

It's not the first time he's held her.

The first time she met him, he had cradled her in his arms as she fell to the ground, bleeding heavily from a gash in her scalp, the neck and right sleeve of her white dress already turning a deep red. He didn't know who she was; he thought she was merely a civilian caught up in the bomb blast with all the rest. He had quickly, calmly brushed away the guilt of being faced with a victim of his own handiwork and set her down in the path of a group of paramedics rushing into the building, then slipped back into the flow of the panicked mob crowding their way to the exit doors of the Venetian opera house.

The second time, they were working together. He had caught her as she fell from a second-story window, having leaped out to avoid capture, more concerned about evading her pursuers than the injury she would undoubtedly cause herself. She had not known he would be waiting there, thinking he was still several blocks away. Her momentum had caused him to lose balance and they had both hit to the ground hard, resulting in a mess of bruised, entwined limbs. This time, he was the one rendered unconscious as the side of his head connected with the concrete sidewalk and she had to half-carry, half-drag him to cover.

The third time, S.H.I.E.L.D. had put them on an assassination mission to Hungary. They had posed as a wealthy couple from Moscow and spent several hours arm-in-arm as they walked through the gilded, high-ceiling ballroom, blending in by making small talk with other guests, dancing, or sitting in the dimly-lit corner, feigning a tender embrace and exchanging gentle kisses to maintain their cover while he watched the room for their target.

The fourth time, he was holding her low to the ground, supporting only her upper body, careful to keep her as level as possible to minimize blood loss. His left arm had been wrapped around the back of her shoulders, his tightly-clenched fingers digging into her left shoulder. In his right hand he had held a scrap of fabric torn from his own uniform, pressing it firmly against the bullet wound in her abdomen in a vain attempt to staunch the blood flow. His own blood had trickled down from a knife wound in his shoulder, streaming down his left arm and turning her crimson hair an even darker shade of red. Her eyes had rolled back and her body had trembled suddenly as an anguished groan had passed her lips, followed by a weak whimper as the contraction of the muscles in her abdomen broke the half-formed blood clot. He had watched, silently, desperately praying to whatever higher power might exist that the bright arterial blood seeping through the cloth and over his fingers, splashing onto the shining pearlescent white marble, would slow so she could be saved.

These "embraces" had always been born of necessity or professional in purpose; never had an embrace been for the sake of comfort alone, to provide a sense of reassurance or safety. Until the fifth time.

Seventy-two hours into her op with only six hours of sleep, she had been tired, no, exhausted, lost her focus, and made a mistake. Frustration colored with self-loathing roiled within her. The ends of her hair, still damp from her shower, dripped occasional droplets of water onto her shoulders as she stared at the city's nighttime skyline out the single window in her SHIELD-assigned quarters, arms hanging loosely at her sides. Without looking, she gingerly reached over and touched the bruises on her arms in agitation, the outlines of thick male fingers still visible in her pale skin. After three days, she had finally gotten close enough to her target to dispatch him quickly, quietly, then rendezvous at the extraction point. But not even she was in peak condition on such little sleep, and she hadn't noticed the man's bodyguard come up behind her until his hands were already on her, pinning her arms behind her back, causing her to drop her syringe just before she could stab it into her target. The hired muscle had followed up with a swift, violent kick to the backs of her knees, driving her to the ground, shifting his grip on her arms every few seconds to compensate for her struggling. The last thing she remembered was his arrow flying from the roof of a nearby building and embedding itself in the soft flesh at the base of the guard's neck before a second guard had knocked her out cold.

She glanced down at the bruises. Physically, she could cope with them; she had sustained many injuries more severe than these. But they reminded her of experiences from days long past, and with that reminder came graphic memories and a mental replay of them stuck on a loop in her brain.

A quiet knock at the door behind her pulled her from her thoughts. She glanced over her shoulder to the alarm clock by her bed.

3:32am. Of course. It couldn't be anyone but him.

She murmured an acknowledgement and heard a click as the door unlocked. He stepped inside and closed the door behind him then walked toward her, the faint light from the window illuminating his face enough for her to see the concern lingering in his eyes. Moving her gaze back to the city street below, she remained silent.

He came to a stop beside her, his arm close to hers, but not touching. "I won't ask you to talk about it, Tasha," he said quietly, his eyes focused on a taxi weaving through traffic two blocks away.

She snorted softly but said nothing. Looking down, she began to pick absentmindedly at the hem of her gray t-shirt. Her fingers abruptly stilled as Barton's hand came to rest in the crook of her elbow, at the small place on her arm unmarked by bruises.

"You'll be all right—"

"I'm fine now," she said curtly.

Not to be dissuaded, he turned his head to look at her, the lingering worry written across his face growing stronger as his eyes came to rest on a bruise high on her cheek caused by collapsing on ground while unconscious. He turned her chin toward him, and the rest of her body followed as she shifted her stance so that she was facing him.

"Clint..." She sighed, trying to sound exasperated and failing.

He could hear exhaustion and the slightest tremble in her voice, indicating that underneath it all, she was shaken. Not permanently, she would be fine in a few days, but shaken nonetheless, and no amount of effort on her part could hide that from him. He knew he was one of the privileged few who had spent enough time with her to know when she was upset, and he didn't want to screw that up by abusing it or overstepping her unspoken lines of personal space and partnership boundaries.

So, slowly, hesitantly at first, he dropped his hand from her chin and released her arm. Stepping forward, he carefully wrapped his arms around her shoulders in a loose embrace.

She tensed at his unexpected touch but did not back away. After several long seconds, she began to relax; her eyes closed and she leaned into him, resting her unbruised cheek against his shoulder. The rest of the tension drained from her muscles and he held her closer, his grasp remaining gentle, mindful of her injuries.

It's not the first time he's held her. But it's the first time that it's been purely out of love.

(A/N: Not really deserving of T, I know, but I figured K+ would cause it to be skipped over. CC is greatly appreciated, but flailing and/or squeeing is acceptable as well.)