Title: When Words Fail
Author: SLynn
Rating: T (language)
Fandom: Avengers (movieverse)
Characters: Steve, Natasha, Tony, Pepper

Spoilers: Standalone fic that takes place about a year after the movie with an established team.

Summary: One mission reaffirms everything.

Notes: Thank you Tripp3235, you always find my 'your'! Thank you readers, reviewers, favoriters and followers. I appreciate your comments so very much! Hope you like this one. Enjoy!


By the time Natasha and Steve arrived it was all over.

The hanger was destroyed and a particularly large Hulk-shaped hole had been punched through one of the walls. Various structures were still smoldering and several helicopters and planes had been, for a lack of a better word, scattered across the field. A lone Quinjet was taking off nearby, and there was Tony, already half out of the suit, and engaging in what could only be called a screaming match with Agent Hill. When Steve picked up his pace and began to jog across the tarmac to meet them, Natasha didn't have to ask why. She knew. What she wanted to ask was something else entirely, but he beat her to that, too.

"Where is everyone?"

"They're going to be fine," Maria said, looking shaken as she turned to face them.

"That's not... what happened?" Natasha asked. "Tony?"

"She's right," Tony said, which only served to alarm Steve and Natasha more. "Everyone is... Pepper!"

Tony pushed past the three of them and met Pepper on her way over. Steve, without being asked, followed, and so did Natasha. Maria was the only one who hung back, already on her communicator and back in touch with SHIELD.

"I got hold of Cedars-Sinai and Happy is already there," Pepper began, the words coming out of her mouth so fast, she practically stumbled over them. "Their top guy is coming. Happy's bringing him to the base."

"I want a specialist," Tony said as they met, but neither of them stopped. Pepper just turned back around and walked with him towards the waiting car.

"I know that. I know," she assured him. "They told me she's the one. She's the top otolaryngologist on the west coast. If we had time... I could see who's available back east, but Tony..."

"You're right. There's no time for that," he agreed, sounding exhausted.

"Do you want to tell us what this is about?" Steve asked as they stopped at the waiting limo.

"We'll talk on the way," Tony said, failing to look either of them in the eyes as he held open the door and ushered them inside.

"Pepper?" Natasha asked, stalling as Steve reluctantly slid into the vehicle.

Pepper met her eyes and Natasha was startled to find the other woman near tears. Pepper wasn't the emotional rock Natasha was, but she was solid and rarely rattled. And right now she looked shaken to her absolute core.

"Ladies," Tony urged, and the two of them got into the car. "Hill? You need a lift?"

"Yeah," she hollered back, jogging to catch up. Tony waited for her, climbing in last and shutting the door behind him.

"Let's go," he called to the driver.

Before anyone could speak, Pepper's phone rang, followed closely by Hill's. Steve's eyes bounced from one to the other, trying to keep up with their conversations. Oddly, it seemed as if they were having the same one. Natasha didn't bother. She'd locked eyes with Tony and assumed the worst.

"They've landed," Hill said as she ended the call.

"Happy's got the doctor and they've already patched her through to SHIELD," Pepper said, having also hung up her phone. "They're keeping him stable until they arrive."

"Rhodes broke his arm," Hill continued, dragging Tony's attention away from the staring match he'd been reluctantly engaging in with Natasha. "He's awake and going to be fine. Suit probably saved his life."

"Can someone please tell us what happened?" Steve asked, having long since passed his patience threshold.

"Did they get this guy?" Natasha asked, also concerned, but her focus had to be elsewhere. Unlike Steve, she didn't want to know who was hurt or how bad it was. She didn't want details or diagrams or anything but revenge.

This whole mission should have been routine, but they'd obviously underestimated the situation.

"How are Bruce and Clint?" Tony asked Maria, momentarily ignoring everyone else's questions.

"Stable," Maria confirmed, "but... Banner seized on the ride. They don't know what to do for him. They don't know what..."

"You were there," Tony pressed. "What..."

"I don't know how it went so wrong," Maria admitted. "We landed. All the Intel said... it said shit. We just didn't know what this guy was capable of and he blindsided us."

"This was supposed to be routine," Natasha said, shaking her head.

"Yeah, well, it wasn't," Maria returned, feeling her frustration. "Bruce and I stayed onboard as Clint went to work. He climbed the building next to the warehouse and Rhodes made plans to go in directly and confront Wright. Before he got there the whole place exploded. It threw them both back, but they responded to the calls. Bruce told me to stay put and make a call for reinforcements as he... well... you know."

Tony nodded, he'd gotten the call first, since he'd been the closest. He and Thor had arrived at the same time and Thor had ridden back to base on the jet with the others. Neither had gotten there fast enough to do any good.

"The next thing I see are these... things. They were like two giant cats, but they were hairless and... I don't know," Maria said, shaking her head at the memory of the monstrosities she'd witnessed. "One took Rhodey by the arm and shook... it shook him like a rag doll. The other leapt onto the Hulk and clamped down on this throat. They were so quick. It wasn't until they'd been taken care of that I realized Clint had gone quiet on the comm. Wright had been trying to use the explosion and his little pets as a distraction and escape but Clint had followed him. Rhodes noticed first and went after him. The Hulk did the rest but..."

"Did they get him?" Natasha repeated, her voice was so calm Pepper actually shivered.

"Yeah," Maria confirmed, just as they'd arrived at the local SHIELD base.

"Alive?" Steve asked, because the way she'd said it hadn't made that point very clear.

"For now."

Tony didn't bother with chivalry this time around and exited the vehicle before heading straight for medical without waiting for anyone else. Rhodes was sitting in the first bay with a couple of nurses hovering nearby and a new cast on his right arm.

"It's a scratch," he said as soon as Tony's eyes met his own.

Tony couldn't even respond. He just tipped his head from side to side, as if he wanted to disagree but no longer knew how to do so.

"Colonel," Steve said, standing up straighter than usual, something that Tony particularly enjoyed, but not this time. "How are you, sir?"

"Steve," Rhodes said, shaking his head, but in a friendly way, "we've been over this. Don't call me sir. And don't call me Colonel. I think your time in service more than makes up for the rank difference. But, since you asked, I'm fine. Really. Suit took most of the damage. I got off pretty easy, if you ask me."

"Thank goodness," Pepper said, moving in and giving him a quick hug and a peck on the cheek.

"Those things were poisonous," Rhodes said, looking past the three nearest to him and speaking directly to Agent Hill. "It must have still been in Bruce's system we he reverted back. Thor's in the operating room with him... just in case."

"Can that happen?" Maria asked, somewhat alarmed as she looked around her for an answer.

"It was a close thing on the ride back," Rhodes admitted.

"What about Barton?" Tony asked, surprising Steve and Natasha who hadn't realized how little Tony had known. "How's Clint?"

"It looked bad," Rhodes answered. "When we got to him he was still conscious but..." His words wilted under Natasha's gaze.

"But what?" she snapped.

"The comm had been busted," he tried to explain, "but we still heard him. That scream... Hulk got to Wright first, I got to Barton. He was in shock, I think. I don't know. I wasn't even sure what had happened at first, just that he was bleeding badly."

"Wright stabbed him," Maria interjected, speaking as if the words were forced from her mouth. "He'd taken one of Clint's arrows and... and he stabbed him," she finished, unable to say it completely but motioning towards her left ear. "Clint was already down at that point. He wasn't a threat. His leg was already broke so... I don't know. I just don't know."

"When he finally passed out," Rhodes picked up again, "that's when the Hulk changed back. Clint had started to convulse and then just stopped. We thought... Hill had the first aid kit but there was nothing she could do," he said. "None of us knew what to do. Then Thor showed up and SHIELD and, right about then, Bruce began to react to the poison. It was a mess. It was a complete mess."

Natasha attempted to swallow down her fear as she felt the eyes of the team on her. She knew they were looking to her for some kind of reaction but she wouldn't be giving them one. Especially not now. Now she needed to be stronger than ever, for Clint. He'd be expecting that from her and she wouldn't disappoint.

They all knew what her reaction would be, more or less, but it didn't stop Steve from offering up some show of support. He couldn't help himself. Without thinking much about it, he reached over and squeezed her shoulder. As he did it, her head whipped around, but whether she was angry or upset, no one got the chance to discover.

"Pepper! Tony!" Happy called out, rounding the corner and bounding down the hallway in their direction. "There you are. I've been all over this place. Come on. I'll take you to doc. She's in with Barton now."

Everyone moved at once.

"Whoa, Colonel," Maria said, gently putting a hand on Rhodey's shoulder and halting his progress. "I'm not sure that's a good idea. They've given you some pretty strong meds. Maybe you should just..."

"She's right," Tony agreed, giving his friend a brief smile as he shook his head. "I mean, you can't even hold your scotch so, take it easy. Unless... would you like a wheelchair? Steve would be happy to push you wherever -"

"Screw you, Stark," Rhodes said with a laugh.

"Guys?" Happy said, gently reminding them that they had places to go. Natasha was already impatiently tapping her foot beside him.

"I'll stay," Maria offered. "As soon as the doctor clears you, we'll catch up."

"Yeah, go," Rhodes said, shooing them away with a wave of his good arm. "We can find you in a little while."

Tony nodded and turned back to Happy, not exactly wanting to leave Rhodey behind but needing to know how Bruce and Clint faired. "Lead on," he said to Happy, following just behind Pepper and Natasha with Steve at his side.

"How bad is it?" Pepper asked quietly to Happy.

"Haven't seen him," Happy admitted as he picked up his pace. "Dr. Singh went right in and I went to find you. Banner is down that way," he said, pointing down a corridor on his right, as they headed left.

"Who's taking care of him?" Steve asked, pointing over his shoulder as they continued on.

"Crap... I forgot his name," Happy admitted after a few seconds of silence. "He's the head surgeon here. Works for SHIELD. Pearlman? Paulson? It was something with a P," he finished, before coming to a sudden stop. "This is it."

Tony frowned as he looked at the window. All the curtains were drawn, blocking their view.

"So we just stand here and what exactly?" Natasha snapped.

"Hold on," Happy said, leaning over and hitting the intercom button nearest the door.

A few seconds passed before the door buzzed and a young woman pushed it open.

"Dr. Singh is almost finished with her initial exam," she said without preamble. "You can wait inside, but no one is allowed into the operating room."

With that, she moved out of the way and ushered them into the small room that had the look of being somewhat hastily assembled. There were two love seats that didn't match, a few chairs that looked as if they'd been dragged out of a conference room, and a card table with a coffee pot already brewing, but no cups. The furniture was all arranged to face another set of windows, but they were also blocked, this time with blinds.

The assistant, or nurse, whoever she was, didn't stick around. She used her identification card on the door nearest the newest bank of windows and slipped out of the room.

"So, I guess we wait," Tony said, looking around the room and already feeling restless.

"Happy," Pepper said, as she put down her purse and looked around the room. "Why don't you go back to Rhodey and Agent Hill. Make sure they can find us when they're ready."

"Will do," he said, already in motion.

"Also, if you see Director Fury..."

"I'll ask him nicely to come see you," Happy finished, giving her a small smile as he exited.

Pepper began to search the nearby cabinets, thankful to find a small stash of paper cups and a few packets of sugar, and set to work arranging them on the makeshift coffee table. She threw a quick glance at the windows that blocked the view to the hallway and decided to leave them shut. It may not have registered to anyone else, but Pepper had already figured it out.

This wasn't just a waiting room, it was a grieving room.

As Pepper kept busy, as best she could, the three remaining Avengers stood around, not quite sure what to do next. Each of them was used to taking action.

No sooner than Steve attempted to sit down and settle in for a long wait, the door to the operating room opened again.

"I'm Dr. Singh," the woman said as she entered, not quite able to keep from being surprised by the audience she had gathered. "Um..." she faltered.

"Pepper Potts," Pepper said, introducing herself and shaking the woman's hand, knowing she'd just become the unofficial spokesperson for the group. "Thank you for coming. How is he?"

"He's stable," the doctor said, visibly relaxing at the prospect of having someone not dressed in spandex to talk to. "Mr. Barton is in excellent shape, so surgery shouldn't be an issue. As soon as the second MRI is complete and my colleague arrives to assist, I'd like to begin. But, I need to tell you that, even with surgery, the odds aren't very good."

"The odds of what exactly?" Natasha asked.

"Here," the doctor said, walking over to the wall and flipping on a switch. The white board hanging there lit up and she clipped an image in place. "You can see," she said, pointing to the right side of what must be Clint's skull displayed before them, "there was some minor damage on the right side that ruptured the eardrum, but on the left side it is much more severe. Almost complete. There wasn't penetration beyond this point, which was fortunate. Initial scans confirm that there was no injury to the brain, but we'll have to wait for him to wake to be certain. His leg has been set, but won't be wrapped until after surgery. I wish the odds were better, but even acting now... I'd say he'll have between a fifty to seventy percent hearing loss on the right side and a seventy to ninety percent loss on the left, if not complete."

"What about implants... cochlear implants?" Tony asked, the first of them to find his voice and immediately thinking about the future. "Would that... Would that help? Is that an option?"

"That would be up to Mr. Barton," the doctor answered carefully, "but it might be an option. We'll have to see how he heals first. But even then, it would at least be six to eight months down the road."

Tony nodded and Pepper could practically see the wheels turning in his head and made a mental note to start contacting experts.

"But it might not be necessary?" Steve asked, not certain if he was understanding the exact situation. "Is that what you're saying? The loss might not be so bad." Steve heard percentages, the lower ones being close to half. Half had to be better than none, and he had to hope for the best. He wasn't quite sure what Tony had been talking about, but guessed it was some kind of hearing aid, only more permanent.

"No, I'm sorry," the doctor explained. "That's not what I meant. The loss will be significant. There's nothing I can do about that. What I can do is try to save what is left and possibly restore some of the damage. I only meant that the decision to get implants is often a personal one."

"Doctor," the young woman who had greeted them said as she stepped through the door. "Everything is ready for you to begin."

"Thank you," she said, dismissing her before turning back to those waiting. "The surgery will take several hours and as soon as it's done I will let you know how it went."

"Thanks," Tony said, nodding and looking a little paler than usual.

"Wait," Natasha said, just as other woman had reached for the door. "Can I... Can we have a minute with him before..."

"I'm sorry," Dr. Singh said, shaking her head. "He's already prepped. I promise that we'll bring you in as soon as it's possible."

Natasha held her breath and gave her a crisp nod.

For several minutes, no one spoke or hardly moved. Finally, Pepper went back to straightening up the table and Steve sat down again. Tony kept his eyes down, deep in thought, while Natasha continued to stare at the window that separated them from the operating room.

Another half an hour passed, without much change, before the outside door opened again bringing Rhodes and Hill into the room. No one had to ask, it was obvious that they knew the situation.

Happy arrived twenty minutes later looking frazzled.

"Um..." he said, catching Tony's attention. "We might have a situation."

"What kind of situation?" Tony asked as Steve got to his feet.

"Well, it's hard to..."

In the distance they could each hear a muffled roar.

"...say exactly," Happy continued. "But I think it's kind of green."

"I've got it," Steve said, motioning for Tony and Natasha to sit back down. Tony didn't have his whole suit on, he was still just wearing the pants, and Tasha wasn't really up for it, whether she'd admit it or not. Steve wasn't honestly sure how up for it he was, but he'd give it a shot. "Where to?"

"Down that way," Happy said, motioning towards the direction he'd came from. "Just follow the screams."

Steve jogged down hall, passing a few terrified SHIELD agents heading in the opposite direction, and quickly finding the correct location.

The room was much like the one he'd just left, except the both the outer and inner windows had been demolished, with a hospital gurney lying in a crumpled heap against the far wall.

"Calm down, friend," Thor was saying as Steve entered the operating room. "You do yourself no favors acting in this manner."

Behind him stood two nurses who were doing their level best not to scream. In the far corner, there was a doctor, huddled on the floor and past the point of screaming. And, in the middle of the now destroyed room, was the Hulk, occasionally lurching from side to side as he continuously scanned the room.

"Where is he?" he bellowed.

"Hulk," Steve called out, immediately drawing his attention. "Battle's over. The doctors were helping Bruce. They were helping you. There's -"

"Where is he?" he repeated, this time it was nearly a roar.

"Wright's been captured," Steve answered as calmly as he could. "You got him already. It's over."

"It's as I said," Thor added, his hand resting on the handle of Mjolnir, but not yet willing to draw his weapon. "Your part is done."

The Hulk turned, taking in the room again from where he stood, shaking his head slowly back and forth and still clearly agitated before shouting, "No!" The doctor in the corner jumped and the Hulk took a few quick steps in his direction.

It was then that Steve realized he didn't have his shield.

Fortunately, he didn't need it as the Hulk didn't attack.

"Not Wright," Hulk said, his voice a low and controlled growl. "Hawkeye. Where is Hawkeye?"

"You're worried," Steve said, surprised, although he probably shouldn't be. As it was, Hulk was as much a part of the team as Bruce was.

"He bleeds," Hulk continued, moving back to the center of the room. "He's frail. Like the other man."

Steve nodded and knew what he'd meant. Although Clint probably wouldn't like the idea of being called frail, Steve still understood. He also understood, without asking, who the other man was. Like Bruce, Hulk had his own way of referencing to his alter ego.

"He's being looked after," Steve assured him. "But you need to let the doctors tend to Bruce."

"No," he bellowed in reply.

"I'm not asking," Steve said sternly. "That's an order."

"You lie."

"You know I don't," Steve returned evenly. "I wouldn't. Not about this."

For a moment, it didn't look good. The Hulk stared Steve down, growling and drawing in deep, ragged breathes. And, just as it looked as if things were about to spin out of control the transformation began.

It was always startling to watch. It looked painful, which wasn't always the case. This time the two of them were obviously fighting for control, but finally Bruce won.

He stood there, where the Hulk had been, awake and aware for a split second before his eyes rolled back in his head and Bruce collapsed.

Thor and Steve had both rushed to his side in an instant, saving him from the worst of the fall.

"A little help," Steve started to say over his shoulder, not shocked to find that the two nurses who had been hiding behind Thor had fled the room, but still mildly disappointed.

"Here," the only one left in the room with them, the doctor who had emerged from the corner, said as with a shaking hand he gave them a smock.

"Thank you," Thor returned, still attending to his friend.

"Should we do..." the doctor asked.

"He'll wake up in a minute," Steve said. "I'm sorry if he scared you."

"No one was hurt," the man assured him. "That's the important thing. And... huh," the doctor continued, bending over and giving Bruce a closer look. "He looks better. The scratches on his neck... they're nearly healed. I'd still like to keep him for observation but if his blood work comes back normal..."

"That's not likely," Steve said with a hint of a smile.

"Well, normal for Dr. Banner," the doctor relented, "then he'll be good to go."

"Go where?" Bruce muttered, bringing a hand up to rub his forehead. "Are we going somewhere? What's..."

"Take it easy," Steve said, not wanting Bruce to push himself.

"Did I do this?" Bruce asked, looking around the room with dismay.

"Hardly," Thor answered with a laugh.

"You know what I mean," Bruce returned, not finding any of this amusing.

"The Other Guy paid a brief visit," Steve answered.

"What?" Bruce snapped, finally registering the third man in the room who he did not recognize. "Why? What did they do?"

"No one harmed you," Thor answered. "I made certain of that."

"I think he was worried," Steve said. "About Clint and..."

Bruce let out a short, snort of a laugh. "Me? You think he was worried about me?" When Steve's only response was a raised eyebrow, Bruce laughed again, louder this time. "No. Sorry, but no. Don't give him human emotions. That's not what he is. That's not what he has. He might be concerned about his own survival, but not about me as a person. Not like that."

"You know best," Steve sighed, "but he definitely asked about Clint."

Bruce rubbed his neck, feeling sore from his earlier injury, as he ignored the rest of Steve's statement.

"How is Clint?" he finally asked.

Steve hesitated as he found not just Bruce staring at him, waiting for an answer, but Thor as well. Getting to his feet, he held out a hand to help Bruce up, still looking for a way to say what had to be said.

"You did not lie," Thor finally said, patting Bruce on the shoulder as soon as he was back on his feet. "Did you?"

"No," Steve said shaking his head, "but it's not looking good. He's still in surgery."

"Well... shit," Bruce muttered. "Can we see him?"

Not waiting for the doctor's consent, Steve shrugged and led the way.

"Oh, look," Tony said upon seeing them enter the room. "Bruce is back."

"How are you doing?" Rhodes asked, standing up at the same time as Tony crossed the room towards the new arrivals.

"I've been better," Bruce admitted.

"And more clothed," Tony added. "Are we a pants optional organization now?"

"Yeah..." Bruce stammered, looking down at his toes. The hospital gown they'd put on him to wear just scrapped his knees.

"I'll see if I can find something," Pepper said, motioning for Happy to follow her as she opened the door. "And maybe something to eat? Anyone?"

Thor was the only one who looked back at her with any interest, but it was enough. Everyone had already settled back into an uneasy silence and made room for the three of them. Pepper didn't think Natasha had even noticed them at all. She'd been standing by that door, staring at the shuttered windows since the doctor left.

Pepper didn't take long, having returned with six pizzas and a pair of sweatpants. By the time they'd finished those off, along with several more pots of coffee and a few liters of soda, Pepper was considering whether or not she should get blankets or donuts when suddenly the assistant was back in the room with them.

"Dr. Singh is on her way," the young woman said, addressing the room as a whole. "She asked me to let you know that it went well and she'll take you in to see him as soon as he's settled and she's answered any questions you might have."

"Thank you," Pepper muttered, still a well of anxiety.

A few minutes more of complete silence followed before Dr. Singh rejoined them. When she smiled, they all visibly relaxed.

"What's the word, doc?" Tony asked.

"Time," she answered. "And patience. It's going to take plenty of both, but I was able to repair much of the damage. He's just going to need time to heal and you will all need to be patient with him and with the process."

When nearly everyone started to talk at once, simultaneously asking questions and generally raising a ruckus, Dr. Singh just politely held up her hands and waited for silence.

"We'll go over specifics later," she said. "We won't know how successful the operation was until the swelling goes down, but I'm reasonably assured we've salvaged what we could. Right now, let me take you to see him. He won't be awake for at least another hour, and when he wakes up it will probably go better if he sees a familiar face or two."

Without any more discussion, Dr. Singh led the group through the operating room and to the recovery area which was still empty.

"They should be bringing him in shortly," the doctor said before leaving them be.

"Thank you," Pepper said as the woman left.

That's when a new problem arose.

At this point they were less a group and more of a crowd of nine, and there was no way nine people were going to fit inside the recovery room, especially when two of them were the size of Mr. Universe contestants.

Maria and Happy were the first two to bow out. Maria just asked to be kept informed and Happy, who really didn't know Clint very well at all, left to attend to Stark Industry matters. Rhodey relented next, also asking to be kept informed, and retreated to a nearby room for a quick nap. At the word nap, Bruce admitted defeat. He was exhausted, the transformation took a lot out of him and he'd done it twice in a twenty-four hour period. He had to take a break. After Tony assured him that, if anything changed they'd wake him, Bruce also left in search of a spare room where he could shut his eyes.

It was still too many.

"We can't all wait in here," Tony said, stating the obvious since no one else would. "Look, there are two chairs so it stands to reason that two is the maximum number of visitors."

"Okay," Steve said with a nod. "That's reasonable."

"Thor," Tony said. "How about you take your watch with Bruce?"

Thor gave Tony a stern look, as if he sensed what was about to happen and decided he wanted no part in it, before nodding and making a silent exit.

"All right," Tony said, clapping his hands together. "That leaves the four of us so..."

"Natasha and I will take the first watch," Steve said firmly.

"Actually, I was thinking Pepper and I would go first and then you two..."

"No," Steve said, shaking his head before Tony had even finished talking.

"Hear me out," Tony said sharply.

"I don't need to hear your selfish reasons..."

"They're not all selfish," Tony interjected, but Steve was on a roll.

"...because it's not up to you to decide."

"Boys," Pepper tried, but neither of them even looked her way.

"So it's up to you?" Tony asked, feeling a bit relieved even to finally be venting some of the day's frustration, even if he knew it was completely misguided.

"Why not? I'm more objective."

"You're an overgrown boy scout."

"And you still act like a spoiled child."

"Stop," Natasha barked, loud enough to make them listen, her eyes on the door.

In the window they could see the tentative gaze of the newly arrived nurse and the room grew eerily quiet.

"Sorry," she said quietly as she pushed open the door. "If you could just..."

Each of them moved out of the way and Tony saw, from the now open doorway that Thor hadn't gone far at all. He'd stayed in the hallway and was now leaning over the still unconscious Clint, clasping his hand with his own and whispering something inaudible. The orderly still outside with them looked uncomfortable and was avoiding the scene by looking at the floor. As that was happening, the nurse had come into the room and had begun to flip on various monitors in preparation for Clint's immediate arrival.

"Okay," she called and Thor stepped back, allowing the orderly to do his job and wheel Clint in the rest of the way.

The all watched in perfect silence as the nurse set about fixing him up. Once done, she turned, clearly confused as to who to address, before deciding to just talk to them all.

"The controls for the bed are here," she said, holding up the remote. "He needs to keep his head slightly elevated. His leg, too. Sorry, there's no television. Um... if you need anything, press this button and the nurse on duty will be right in. We'll be monitoring his vitals from our station. When he wakes, please buzz the intercom and we'll alert the doctor."

"Thank you," Pepper said quietly, but she doubted if anyone else heard a word she'd said.

The nurse dipped her head in response and practically fled the room.

Natasha was the first to move, the first to take to Clint's side, although she did so reluctantly. She didn't touch him, didn't say anything, just stood over him and watched for a moment, hardly recognizing him. He looked almost the same, except different. Peaceful.

His skin took on the look of sour milk, and there were dark circles under his eyes. One leg was in a plaster cast from mid-thigh down. His head was wrapped, neatly covering all of his hair, in gauze and other thick padding. He was attached to a dozen different machines and IVs. It was her worst nightmare, yet somehow Clint looked so calm. Like he was still out on a mission waiting for a shot.

And it hit Natasha suddenly that the reason why he looked that way was because he didn't know.

If he knew, when Clint found out, Natasha didn't know how he'd react and she wasn't sure if she wanted to be there to witness it. She wasn't sure she could be there to witness it.

"I need..." she said, turning on the spot and without finishing her sentence, rushing from the room.

Tony and Steve locked eyes, performing some kind of mental tug-of-war, before Steve nodded and made to go after her.

"We'll text you ever thirty minutes," Pepper called after him.

"Make it fifteen," Steve returned.

"I regret teaching you that," Tony fired back, before sighing heavily and taking a seat in the chair nearest Clint's bed.

Pepper watched for a moment as Tony sat there, looking completely vulnerable now that they were practically alone. He only, rarely, let his guard down, even around her. And right now he looked just like Natasha had a second before she'd bolted. Like he wanted to run, too, but didn't know how.

She knew he wouldn't let himself.

"Tony?" she said softly.

"I keep thinking that if I'd just made him a suit..."

"He'd of never worn it," Pepper finished for him.

"Still, I could have tried. I could have made him."

"Are we talking about the same Clint Barton? Because the one I know can't be made to rinse his cereal bowl no matter how much I threaten him. And I am very good at making threats."

Tony let out a sharp laugh as he shook his head.

"I don't know. I just feel so..."

"It's not your fault," Pepper assured him.

"I wish I could believe that," he returned quietly before sinking back into silence.

As Pepper and Tony sat wordlessly, waiting for Clint to regain consciousness, Steve raced after Natasha, down the hallway and out the back door onto an adjacent patio off of the main hospital's emergency center.

He found her standing, hands clamped tightly on the railing, taking deep, steadying breaths.

"Natasha," he said after a long pause.

"I can't do it."

"Yes, you can."

"No," she said, her back still to him as she shook her head. "I can't. Not after Phil. Not... I can't lose him, too."

"You're not losing him," Steve gently argued, moving a few steps closer.

"Did you see him?" she snapped back at him in response.

"He's just gotten out of surgery, Tasha. Sure, he looks a little rough now, but he's going to be fine."

"Fine," she laughed. "Yeah, sure. He's going to be fine. And who's going to tell him that? You think... you think he's going to believe that after... Hell, he won't be able to even hear us. He won't..."

Natasha dropped her head to her chest and let out a near moan of grief and frustration.

"Hey," Steve said, drawing closer and putting an arm around her shoulder as he spoke. "We'll get him through this. We'll get each other through this."

"I know," she said, quickly wiping her eyes with the back of her hand but allowing him to pull her close. "I know I have to be strong, for him. For everyone. And I know we will get through this but... but when I saw him there... I saw him and it hit me. I realized that it's too late. I'm too late."

"It's not too late," Steve replied, not fully understanding what she was saying.

"Yes, it is," she sighed, shaking her head and his arm off her shoulder at the same time. "I never... I never told him. I never told him exactly how I feel... what I feel for him, and now... now he'll never hear it. He'll never hear me tell him... He won't know. It's too late."

"It's not..." Steve stammered, unsure of exactly what to say but knowing he had to say something. "It's not too late, Tasha. Just because you never said it -"

"Yeah, sure," she said, dismissively. "He knows. Of course he does."

"He does."

"But it's not the same, is it?" she pushed. "It's not the same as me telling him."

"You can still tell him."

"Now? When he can't even... What will that mean? What will he think? That I was too afraid to say it before but now... No. No, I can't. I can't."

"It'll mean exactly the same thing as it did before," he argued. "If you mean it. You do mean it, don't you?"

"Of course I do," she nearly shouted back at him.

"Then why wouldn't it matter?"

Natasha just shook her head at him blankly, tears forming in her eyes but not daring to fall.

"You can't do this now," Steve said, bringing his voice back down to a reasonable level. "Tasha, you can't over think this. You can't... you can't do this to yourself. You love him and he knows it. He knows why you can't...why you haven't said it before and that's between the two of you, but this thing doesn't change anything about who he is or who you are. It doesn't change a single thing between you two, unless you let it. So don't. Don't let it. So he might not be able to hear you say what you feel. As long as I've known you you've never said what you feel. You show it. Show him. That's... that's all he'll need."

Natasha shut her eyes and bent her head.

"We can do this," he repeated softly as she did something she rarely ever did. Natasha hugged him.

"We can," she repeated.

"Of course we can."

When she was ready, a few minutes later, they went back to Clint's room. Tony, upon seeing them, wordlessly relinquished his chair to Natasha with the pretense of fiddling with a nearby lamp, opting to stand on the opposite side of the room next to Pepper, who knew exactly what he was up to. He didn't like to admit to having real feelings for actual people that weren't named Tony.

The only sound in the room, despite the five occupants, was the steady beep and hum of the monitors.

Finally, twenty-three minutes later, and seven minutes before the time Tony had mentally allotted to notify the doctor on his own, Clint began to stir. For several minutes thereafter, they each watched as his eyes flickered slowly back to life, and after what felt like an eternity more, he opened them completely with a groan on his lips.

The first person he saw, the first person Clint recognized was Natasha, so of course he smiled.

Clint watched as she wordlessly opened her mouth and shut it again just as quickly, nothing but real concern in her eyes. She gently sat beside him and took his hand, giving it a firm squeeze and returning his smile with a sad one of her own.

His head hurt. It hurt so bad that it positively throbbed, but that didn't matter at the moment. The pain was a mere annoyance. Seeing Natasha was a real treat. However, Clint had only one thing on his mind.

"Did we get that bastard or what?" he asked, except nothing came out.

Or at least, Clint didn't hear anything come out, and for a split second he wondered if he'd actually spoken at all.

Natasha's mouth moved again and it struck him. She was talking. He had spoken. A quick look around the room confirmed that they weren't alone despite the fact that he hadn't noticed anyone else in the room before. Tony, Steve and Pepper were with them, each with varying degrees of concern etched on their faces and all, at one point, soundlessly moving their lips.

Except it wasn't quite soundless, there was a buzz. A low, persistent buzz that filled Clint's head and was more worrying than annoying.

Natasha squeezed his hand again, harder this time, dragging his eyes back to hers.

"It's going to be okay," she said, and even though he couldn't hear her, Clint easily read her lips. Ten years and counting, sitting behind a sniper scope, had evidently turned out to be of some use after all.

Still, even if he hadn't understood her words, he'd have understood the meaning. Natasha had that look on her face that not only said it was going to work out but that she was willing to move heaven and hell to make certain it did. Clint had long ago learned not to fight that particular look and he had never once doubted it. So he nodded and knew it was true, without question and without a single doubt.

Whatever happened next, he thought as he looked around the room, would be what it was, good or bad. But no matter what, Natasha would be there. So would the team.

Clint didn't need words for that.

The End


More Notes:

Okay, so I hope this came out all right. I've read in numerous places that it's canon that Hawkeye is deaf. Since it's not addressed in the movies, and I think it's almost a fandom requirement to create some version, this was my crack at it. I set out to write this about Clint and it ended up being a lot more about Steve, Tony and Natasha, which I think is a good thing. Hopefully everyone else thought so as well.

Also, I shamelessly stole the title for this fic from a song in Shrek, The Musical. Don't judge me.