He heard it coming. His left boot slid across the boards.
A punch to his leg, a wooden thud.
He refused to let his bow waver. Instead he loosed the shot he had ready. It struck a figure in the dark. He tried to take a step forward but found himself anchored.
Then he looked down. And swore.
More noise; he looked up even as he grabbed and set another arrow flying. This one sank into a shadow barely twenty feet from the window. It plummeted.
The comms line in his ear gave a smart beep before it was replaced with a woman's annoyed tone.
"Hawkeye - you're in the open. Get to the roof."
He fired two more arrows, taking out three assailants, before he risked another look at his leg. "Go. I'll catch up." Warm, sticky blood was beginning to make the lining of his trousers feel rather unpleasant.
"Go now," came the order.
"Kinda pinned down here, Nat," he snapped over the stabbing pain. "Go."
"Can you move?"
"Can you see me killing people?" he shot back. He snatched an arrow from behind him and drew the bow, waiting.
There was an uncomfortable silence. His eyes scanned the darkness beyond his window, but all he saw were the unfamiliar rooftops of a city at midnight.
"Secure your position," was her stern response.
He opened his mouth but managed to bite back the pithy comeback. The pain in his leg was making it tremble like a naked bridegroom handcuffed to a telegraph pole in Alaska. He blinked sweat from an eye but still he waited, watching the vista for further attempts to permanently retire him from sniper duty.
There was a noise behind him, but a soft whistle relayed the all-clear. He didn't move from his vigil.
Until a head of dark red hair appeared in front of him, almost obscuring his view of the smashed window. "They're all dead but one," Natasha said, watching the night.
"You sure?" he breathed.
"I'll keep watch. See to your injury," she said.
He let the bow retract as she stood between him and the window. He lifted and dropped the arrow back into the quiver, blowing out a heave of relief. Looking down, he let his bow drop in his right hand. His head tilted as he studied a length of wood - right through the left side of his thigh and buried in the stanchion behind him.
"How bad is it?" she asked, not even turning to look.
His eyes went up to her, then returned to his leg. "Pretty bad." He put a hand on her back to push her forwards.
She took the hint and stepped closer to the window, edging to one side to keep watch. She glanced back at him for a moment; it was a snapshot she knew she'd see with painful clarity when trying to sleep the next time the opportunity came around.
He simply twisted and lifted the bow, jamming it between his leg and the wooden stanchion. He gave a grunt of pain as he rammed it down. It bounced off the wooden shaft pinning his leg to the structural support. He hammered at it again and again; each time it ricocheted off as if daring him to slam the end of the bow into his own foot. "Goddamn-"
"Stop," she said. She backed away from the window, retreating until she was level with him. She crouched, her eyes still on the window, as her right hand went out and touched at the shaft behind him. "What is this?"
"Painful! Can you get me free or not?"
"Wait." She gestured to the window with her chin. He immediately nocked an arrow and covered the weak point in their cover. She shoved her handgun into the holster on her left leg and studied the offending article. "It's a crossbow bolt."
His leg moved under load, causing him to grunt in pain. "And it's still there."
"Hold still," she snapped. "The bolt will remain in place - your leg will not." She grasped the seam of his trousers, pulling them tight across the exit hole of the bolt, in the back of his thigh. "I have maybe an inch to work with. Give me a minute."
"Cut it out," he offered.
"Don't be stupid. I am not digging through the side of your leg." She checked through her arsenal of tiny, shiny knives and other weapons. She came up with a sturdy-looking bar of indeterminate metal. She snapped it open to reveal two serrated edges, which she clamped around the exposed inch of bolt between him and the stanchion. "Keep still." Her hands went to the handle of the device, unscrewing the edge and finding the metal loop made for a finger. Her left hand went to his leg to grip it.
"Ow! Goddamn it, Nat!"
"Don't be such an infant," she said simply, putting her right index finger through the loop of the device. She ignored his hiss of pain as she braced herself against his leg. She drew the loop back and then let it go, drawing it back over and over.
"What are you doing down there?" he asked suddenly.
Her grip on his leg squeezed and she felt muscle stiffen and tendons tense. "Sawing through. Be quiet."
"Hurry it up."
She dragged the loop back and let it go over and over. Eventually there was a ksshk. The weight of the device made it drop, dragging the end of the sawn-off bolt down with it.
"Gah!" Clint collapsed to the wooden boards on his backside, his left leg out straight. His right was almost folded under him, but his bow was now horizontal over his knees, the arrow still ready to fly. "Thanks for the warning."
She retrieved her tiny saw and slid it back into the pouch on her belt. "You're free." She pulled her handgun and knelt to watch the window.
He let the bow slacken and set it down along with the arrow, releasing the catch on his quiver. He let it fall to the boards so he could lean back against the stanchion, concentrating on breathing beyond the pain in his leg. The unpleasant sticky feeling had turned into hot, palpitating dizziness, sending out invitations to its friends Nausea and Passing Out. He swallowed and made the ceiling keep still before laying the bow on the floor by him. He sniffed, cleared his throat professionally, and then looked at the few inches of bolt still sticking out of his thigh.
His hands went under his leg and propped it up higher. He braced his right boot against the sole of his left in a bid to stop it from sliding across the floor. His hands went to the end of the bolt and he shoved downwards.
Natasha ignored the sounds of struggling and the pained panting that was going on behind her. She scanned the night scene out of the window, but nothing was moving.
"Is it still in?" she demanded.
An agonised wheeze of effort, and then: "Can't you tell?"
She kept her left hand up, her gun ready. She sidled back to him, glancing down at the bloody mess of hands and torn uniform. "Again," she ordered.
"It won't budge," he panted.
"Try harder," she snapped.
He frowned at her for a long, long moment. She simply looked back at him, until both her eyebrows raised. He glared at her; she glared back. His hands went back to the bolt.
She put her right hand out on top of his. He considered how much smaller, how much cleaner her hands looked. "Be a man," she said.
His jaw stuck out for exactly two seconds. Then he sniffed, shifted on the boards, and stretched his neck first right, then left. "Ready? One," he counted. Her hand was warm, ready, and very sure of itself on top of both of his. "Two." Her eyes were on the window, her gun still ready in her left hand, but he was trying to find something to look at that wasn't about to be a huge hole right through the left side of his favourite leg. He made his gaze settle on her hair, the way it bounced as she adjusted her line of sight, the way it waved at him in cheerful obliviousness. "Three."
She dug her nails into his skin and pushed.
"Ow!" he accused, but it made him shove his hands down harder to avoid the damage her nails would surely make otherwise.
The bolt slicked down. He let go; she lifted her hand and instead grasped the bloody inches now sticking out of the underside. "Ready?" she asked.
She yanked it down. He couldn't help a rude word or two as it was pulled out of his leg. She dropped it to the boards and shuffled forward, eyeing the window.
He tried to concentrate on the relief, but the burning pain was clamouring for his attention. "Let's go," he panted.
"Stop the bleeding first."
"What with?" he snorted.
She turned and in one fluid motion had holstered the gun and grabbed the studs on the strip of leather at the neck of his uniform. She had the left one undone and her hand on the zip before he could snatch at her wrist.
"Excuse me?" he accused.
She shook him free and ripped the zip down a few inches, smiling rather too vindictively at the grey shirt he had on underneath.
"Nat - wait - this is a new-"
"Don't be a girl."
"Use yours," he said, his hands coming up. They fought for control of the zip for barely three seconds before she had his left thumb bent back far enough to make him cry out and curse at her. "Wounded man, here!" he protested.
"You will be more wounded if you do not co-operate," she said - but she was almost smiling.
"Is this about Prague?"
"Why would this be about Prague?" she asked tonelessly.
"Because you lost a shirt." His hand was still attempting to fight her submission hold on his thumb.
"Lost?" she echoed with righteous indignation. She cleared her throat, and her tone of all emotion. "Your shirt is larger than mine."
"This is about Prague," he nodded.
"You replaced my shirt when we reached Kandahar. I don't see why it would remain an issue."
"Well neither do I, but ever since then you slice my shirts up every chance you get," he said.
"You refuse to carry essential kit - like the medpack we were issued with. What else is here to use?"
"Where's your medpack?" he asked pointedly. She looked at him - just looked. His eyes narrowed. "This is about Prague," he nodded. Still she didn't reply. He smiled, the sweat turning the hair at his temples black. "It is, right? Because you think I ruined your shirt and it was your favourite."
"Are you going to admit that you used it?"
He studied her for a long moment. "It wasn't mission-critical, Nat. It was just a shirt."
"So you did."
"Bleeding, here," he said urgently.
She tugged slightly on his thumb, making him grunt in pain. "Your bow was covered in a corrosive, oily substance. My shirt disappeared. Then your bow was clean. What are we to deduce from that?" she asked, her voice like ice.
"I got you a new shirt," he said in measured tones. "The exact size, colour, everything."
She raised an eyebrow.
His head rolled around on his neck, and his eyes panned around the run-down room rather than meet her acerbic gaze. His gaze went over the two locked doors, the trapdoor in the floor, the boarded up windows, save the smashed one watching them with amusement off to his ten o'clock. He huffed. "It was just a shirt." He looked back at her.
"I replaced it," he said.
"It's new! It's better than the old one you lost!" he protested.
"My bow is an essential piece of equipment! Your shirt wasn't!"
"Did you honestly want us to try our exit strategy with a defunct bow and a pristine shirt?"
"It was the only way, Nat!"
"Say something!" he cried angrily.
"I'm giving you enough rope. That is the saying, isn't it?"
"Fine! I admit it! I used your damn shirt!" he cried. She let her eyes blink finally but he caught their edgy glance to one side. He tilted his head, swaying it round into her line of sight to catch her eyes again. "Wait - is that what this is about? Are you seriously pissed off just because my mission-critical bow got cleaned off with your replaceable shirt?" he asked.
She wrenched harder on his thumb, watching him clench his jaw and pretend it didn't hurt. "You are bleeding whilst you talk about shirts. Priorities, Barton."
"Hey, you're the one torturing me over a shirt," he scoffed.
"I simply wanted you to admit you stole and ruined my shirt because you were scared that your bow might be dirty," she said, her face blank, her voice impassive. Except for the very slight furrow of possibly distaste in her brow.
"How can you be pissed off with a bow, exactly?"
"It is not anger," she bit out.
He gawped. "Are you jeal-"
"You are going into shock, Barton," she snapped. He simply stared, but when she braved his eyes she was unsure if they were surprised or guilty. "Still bleeding," she said.
He relaxed his hold and she let go of his thumb. She produced a small knife so fast he wondered how long it actually took him to blink these days. Then she was unzipping his leather vest open all the way down, pulling the edges wide open.
"Don't do anything stupid. The doc will notice if I get back to S.H.I.E.L.D. covered in cuts and bruises so far from my harpooned leg," he managed, with an approximation of an easy smile.
She flicked her gaze to his eyes. "You forget - we are both trained not to leave a mark."
"You always leave a mark," he breathed.
She appraised his face, but it was covered with his best impassive almost-smile. She sniffed, as if she cared neither way for his words, and her gaze went back to her hands, now on the grey sleeveless shirt beneath his vest. She tugged the material of the shoulders closer to his neck and sliced the seams open. She palmed the knife and leant forward until her hair was in his face, her hand going up underneath the uniform vest. He lifted both palms in surrender - something that made her smile - as she sliced at the side seams deftly. The slight tickle of the cool blade made him want to flinch, but he knew better with Natasha behind the knife.
She pulled away as she grasped the damp cotton of the shirt. It found itself yanked free, unceremoniously liberated from his skin. She knelt back, considering two pieces of cloth. He was already trying to put the bottom edges of his zip together, but as she glanced up she realised he was having trouble. He was frowning, and she tilted her head. Coupled with the sweat now sheening his neck and his pallid face, she feared shock was in fact taking hold. She set the cloth down on his trousers and put her hands out for his on the zip.
He pulled away. "Stop the bleeding," he said gruffly.
She picked up a strip of cloth and ripped it in half, folding each piece into four. She ripped at the hole in his trousers, making it a little larger and therefore easier to see in, ignoring the way his fingers couldn't force the zip into the right latch. She took up the other piece of shirt, folding it into a long wedge. Turning his leg slightly, she placed one square of shirt on the entry wound on top, putting the long length underneath and pausing to pick up the other square. She shuffled closer and pressed it to the exit wound underneath, making him hiss for a second.
"Hold it in place," she said.
He let go of the failed zip attempt and put his left hand under his leg to the cloth. His fingers slid over hers and she pulled hers free. Something made her pause as she did so, and she raised her eyes to his. He had his head against the wood, watching her. She put her hand back to his, pressing their fingers into the cloth slightly with her warmer touch. One side of his mouth managed a slight smile of apology.
She let go and wrapped the longer cloth round his leg. She tied it tight, unable to get it round a second time. He flinched but made no sound.
"Now we leave," she said, already pushing herself to her feet. She heard a noise and turned.
She was just in time to see the dark shape of a man coming up through the trapdoor in the boards, against the right-hand wall. He had a crossbow in his hand - and suddenly a familiar-looking arrow through his shoulder. He flailed and cried out. By the time his back hit the boards, Natasha was stomping a boot down on his arm, keeping him flat. She aimed the gun at his face from five feet away.
"Ah! Bl-Black Widow!" he spluttered. "How soft you have become, working for the heroes of another nation state," he added, in Russian.
She heard the tell-tale sound of an arrow being nocked. "Wait," she called.
The man on the floor appeared confused.
"Your call," came a voice.
The man squirmed to see, bending his neck and looking along the boards. He saw a man, slumped on the boards against the stanchion, a makeshift bandage round his leg and his top wide open - and a menacing-looking bow carrying an arrow pointed straight at him. He forced a chuckle. "Consorting with Americans, now? Did I interrupt something or was it too hard to get all of his clothes off? You really are losing your touch."
Natasha's gun ranged down the man's body. She fired.
"Aah! You can't do this!" he shouted, feeling absolute and raging pain in his leg.
"You did. Why can't I?" she shot back in Russian. "Be grateful we need you, or that would have been in your head."
She stepped over him, nearly crushing his arm in the process. She took the crossbow from his hand, tossing it across the room. She put her foot on his shoulder, grasped the arrow, and simply wrenched it free. He shouted in pain and cursed but she left him to flail between his bleeding leg and shoulder. She looked over at Clint and his determination to keep the arrow cocked and ready, despite the trembling of his upper body.
"We take him back," she said.
He eased the arrow back, then let it all drop to the boards. "Like, now?"
She eyed the man on the floor, still moaning and clutching at his wounds. She lifted a boot, swung it back, and rammed it into his head. "Yes," she said simply, as the man faded gratefully into unconsciousness. She looked over at Clint again. "Whenever you're ready."
"I was ready ten minutes ago," he grunted, putting his hands to the floor to struggle up to his feet.
Natasha opened another pouch round the back of her belt and produced plastic cord, tying the insensate man's wrists securely, finishing off with something of a vicious tug. When she looked up, Clint had his quiver back in place and his bow round his shoulder. He leant back against the stanchion, keeping the weight off his left leg.
She crossed to him, about to insert herself under his arm to help bolster his weight. But his hand went out to her arm, bringing her to a stop. She looked up at him from four inches away.
"Little help?" he asked.
She looked down and saw his hands now on the zip of his uniform vest. She took it from him, seating one edge in the other and pulling the zip up. She brought it all the way up to his neck slowly, pausing at the top. Then she took the stud on the opened strip and brought it across. Her warm fingers went down inside the top, against his neck, to counter her thumb pushing the stud home. It snapped shut and she let a small smile slip out.
His hands were at her elbows, neither pulling nor pushing. She made her touch drop clear. His hands had already retreated.
"Thanks," he breathed.
"For the bandages?" she asked, not meeting his eyes.
"For helping me hide the fact that I've lost another piece of kit. Fury will have my ass if he finds out."
"It is an inexpensive shirt - not mission-critical," she said, stepping back. Her hand went up and flipped hair from the sweat at the back of her neck. "It can be replaced. Your leg cannot."
"I can't believe I got pinned - with a bolt," he said, his face now annoyed. She looked behind her at the man on the boards.
"How do we get him to the meeting point?"
Clint grinned in a sweaty, slightly giddy way, adjusting the bow round him before limping a few steps across the floor. "Well out of the window would be the quickest way down," he said. Natasha turned and glared at him. "What?" he shrugged. "You can't carry him and I can just about walk."
She looked around the room, then over at the window. "You're right," she said, walking off to the far corner of the wooden room.
"I am?" he muttered, twisting to see behind him. He watched her go to a stack of wooden crates in the corner, and the long coil of rope on the floor by them. "I am," he grinned.
She carried the rope to the window, dropping it to the boards. Then she went over to the unconscious man. She bent down, got her hands under the man's arms, and heaved him toward the window.
Clint interrupted her, nudging her out of his way and pulling the man over himself. The two agents stood over him, by the smashed window. Clint put a hand to the aperture and looked down.
"Seven floors, Nat," he warned.
She crouched and picked up the end of the rope. "Good," she said.
"Are you angry because he got past us, or past me?" he asked, crouching with all his weight on his right leg, his left one out almost straight to help him pretend he wasn't in agony.
"No," she said, threading the rope under the man and over his chest. She tied the first knot of the evening.
"But you are angry," Clint observed. "Why?"
"I am not angry."
"You are. You know how I know?" he smiled.
She raised her head and made herself see beyond the shit-eating grin he was directing at her to something else, that may or may not have been actual innocent enjoyment. Her eyes narrowed. "Tell me."
He said nothing, but his left hand went down and landed on hers. It was pressing the rope across the man, as planned, but somehow it had wormed its way higher up, until it was leaning on his windpipe. Clint's fingers slid under her palm, moving her hold on the rope a few inches south.
She frowned at him. Then she looked down and they finished their trussing of the unconscious man. At last she got to her feet, Clint following suit. He took the end of the rope from her and flung it up, over the beam above. It fell over the other side and she leapt up and caught it, taking up the slack.
Clint took it from her and wound it round his arm, elbowing her to one side. "Let the heaviest person do the counter-balancing," he said.
"You are injured."
"And you weigh as much as my left butt cheek."
She opened her mouth, then just turned and went to the window. She looked down. "Street's clear. Do it."
He heaved and the man was dragged upwards, off the boards. She put her hands to him, steering him toward the window. She began to swing him and then nodded.
Clint let some rope out. "Are you sure this is enough rope for seven floors?"
"Keep going." She pushed and the man was swung out of the window.
Clint let the rope go, hand under hand, grunting with the effort. She leant out of the window into the night breeze, watching the man's descent.
"Uhm, Nat?" Clint said suddenly.
"If we don't bring this guy back, we'll be in the shit, right?"
Clint kept the rope moving over the beam, hand under hand, puffing slightly with the effort. "Because I mean, if he were to drop, say, a floor, I don't think anyone would notice."
"We must make sure he is in a condition to tell Director Fury everything."
He grunted, but she was unsure whether it was with the heavy load or with disappointment. "I know."
"And he must explain the events of tonight or we will not be able to present a report."
"And we need him to confirm his connections to our target tonight."
"Ok, Nat! I get it!" he grumped.
He continued to let the load down, hand under hand. He glanced at the coil left on the boards by his left boot, then over at the window and the way she was staring. "But you're sure this is enough rope for seven floors, right?"
She looked out of the window, her eyes tracing the shape of the man in the darkness, and then back to Clint. Her eyes swept over the sodden bandage round his thigh before she made herself look back out at their captive.
"Nat?" Clint pressed.
She looked at him, a very small suggestion of a smile on her face. "Probably."
Thanks for reading! Hope it gave you a little bit of a smile. Any Clintasha feels depend on how you read it. ;)