Stay with me
Don't fall asleep too soon
The angels can wait for a moment
In hindsight, it was ridiculously suspicious how easy things had become. Four guns to eleven, so to speak; the four belonging to Black Widow, Hawkeye, Captain America and Iron Man. It was a Sunday, and the job had been a last minute call in for intel interception, and Fury simply didn't want to wait until he the intel had been passed and they had a more stable location. No, they were sent to the cliche warehouse in the middle of the meat-packing district and tasked with taking out both groups, securing the intel and bringing in the leaders of each group. Now, seven men lay on the ground with their arms above thier heads as they waited for their back up team to arrive and transport them back to the S.H.I.E.L.D. base.
Tony was standing over them, hands extended with repulsors glowing ready as a constant and very real threat that they could end up like one of their four dead buddies if they attempted to move. Beside him, Steve was there with his shoulders thrown back at full height, ever the leader, and though he wouldn't admit it, ever trying to remind Tony that in the field, he was in charge.
Natasha and Clint were stood off to the side. They'd planned on already beginning the clean up but instead were verifying the intel had been secured in full and that the documents were true. Natasha had only needed to glance over the files once to confirm this, and had gone back to leaning on her partner partially, taking the weight of her injured foot. She'd none-too-gracefully taken a tumble through the roof of the warehouse and while she'd managed to land in a way that hadn't shattered her spine on the impact she was finding it increasingly hard to bear any weight on the foot.
The sound of metal scraping across the ground was heard, a sound that long-time spies were all too familiar with, and Clint whipped his head around with lightening speed, seeing that one of their captives was still in possession of a weapon - damnit, Steve still wasn't entirely up to date with weapons concealment after all - and that the gun was aimed directly at the back of Natasha's head. Instinct took over, the desire to protect his partner, his friend, and he pushed her to the ground.
A gunshot ran through the building, then the harsh sting of several repulsor ray blasts.
Natasha groaned as she hit the ground, her already injured ankle taking the full weight as she collapsed onto herself. Pain shot through her lower half, causing her to phsyically cry out. She waited on the ground for a moment until the initial sting subsided, trying to work out whether it was already broken to begin with or whether it was somehow still just a sprain or bruise. Either way, moving around and walking on it as she had been struggling to do before no longer seemed advisable. She was about to turn and hurt Clint for throwing her down when he knew she was injured but there were voices that distracted her.
"Stay there, don't move-"
"Put more pressure on it, Rogers, I'll make the call in, emergency team are on their way."
There was Steve's voice...Tony's...and then...
It wasn't his voice, she tried to tell hismelf as she sat on the ground. His voice was full of teasing, pride and unsaid inappropriate comments. His voice wasn't a harsh, coughing gag that struggled out her name.
"Romanoff's fine," she heard Steve tell him.
"No, she's hurt-"
"Barton, stop moving!" Steve snapped forcefully.
That confirmed it. The first gunshot hadn't been a retaliation from Clint. The repulsor rays that followed had killed the remaining captives, all of them, but she had been thrown to the ground for a reason. A bullet meant for her. It was supposed to hit her. But it hadn't. It had embedded itself in someone else, someone who didn't deserve it.
She turned her head over her shoulder somewhat, her leg useless unless she was going to drag herself along the ground, but it did nothing to prevent her seeing what had happened. Lying on the ground, squirming in pain, was Clint. Blood had already pooled around him even though Steve was knelt beside him trying to staunch the sickening flow with Clint's jacket. Tony was gone, clearly to make the emergency call team. She'd been pushed to the ground by Clint. Clint had taken her out of the bullet's path, placing himself directly in it. He had saved her life. Sacrificed himself. For her.
She wasn't sure if she had said it out loud or not, as the shock started to set in. She'd seen him in far too many situations, far too many injuries patched up in seedy hotel bathrooms, but he'd never stepped in the way of a bullet for her.
"Tasha..." he choked out, his voice already strained from pain.
"Clint, stay still!" Steve told him.
"Where is she?"
"She's right here...right, Natasha?"
Steve was looking at her now, but she was frozen in place, staring at her partner. This was her fault. If it wasn't for her, he wouldn't have a bullet in him. She couldn't see the wound clearly enough to figure out if it was deep, if it was life threatening, but she could see that it was in his chest all the multitude of damage that could be caused was choking her like his blood was choking him. It was more likely than not that the bullet had his something vital, and there was a high chance that the emergency response team wouldn't get there in time. What if he-?
"Natasha!" Steve called again to get her attention.
One of Clint's arms raised, grabbing hold of Steve's suit. "Cap..." he struggled, worryingly weak but still enough to use the designated team nickname for him.
"Don't talk, just stay still-"
"She's hurt," he coughed out. "She's hurt, she told me she was hurt-"
"She's fine," Steve assured him again.
"Where is she?" Clint asked.
"Right here," Steve assured.
Clint turned his head from side to side, looking around desperately for his own confirmation that Natasha wasn't hurt like he was, and his entire body seemed to settle when he saw her merely six feet away from him. He watched her with pained eyes, face screwed up against the agony he felt. She found that she couldn't take her eyes off of him, but at the same time she couldn't get up and move tohis side. She knew that he wanted her there, where Steve was, because he had released his hold on Steve's arm and extended it over to her, letting his hand fall onto the concrete ground when she didn't move. His eyes didn't leave hers. "Tasha..."
Usually, this made her smile. Somehow, when everyone else had been too afraid of her to call something other than Agent Romanoff or Natasha, Clint had bought in his nicknames of Tasha, Tash and Nat. No one else dared to use those names, assuming they were part of the partnership that no one could match, and they had stuck. He only used her formal or full names in the field or 'Natasha' if it was something seriously. It had become an unspoken rule that only Clint could call her by shortened pet forms, but this wasn't a time for messing around and nicknames. This was serious now. She could see it in his eyes that she was afraid. Scared. And that was a first.
"Tasha-" he muttered before throwing his head back agaist the concrete ground, crying out loudly from the pain in a way that didn't suit him at all.
She inhaled shaky breaths, ashamed that what kept her from his side wasn't the pain in her ankle but the guilt that flooded through her, numbing the ache in her muscles. She turned away from the scene, looking down at her quickly bruising foot so that it was no longer visual taunts but only the sound. She listened as Steve tried to get Clint to relax, to keep taking deep breaths even though he was going against it, holding his breath in a futile attempt to keep the pain under control. Every few seconds he would groan, sometimes weakly but more often in a sharp, agonising pain that made her shut her eyes tightly.
Then she could hear him struggling, Steve trying more urgently to calm him and repeating his name over and over. His groans became sickening gasps, his body desperate for an air that he couldn't seem to find. The sound chilled her like no other, the realisation that he was dying and she couldn't even turn around to hold his hand. That was all he had been searching for. He wasn't asking her to announce her undying love for him, just to take his hand, transfer some of that strength they provided for each other with ease. He was injured, struggling for breath and yet still only concerned about her. He could barely breathe, essentially dying, and she was too filled with guilt knowing that bullet was supposed to be in her skull to go to his side and be with him in what could be his last moments.
She knew how simple it would be, to drag herself a few feet over, how easy it would be to stroke her hand over his hair, squeeze his hand and threaten to kick his ass in ways he could never imagine if he died and left her with a rookie partner as replacement, jut enough for him to stop squirming and trying to find her. She could calm him enough to keep him alive a little longer, perhaps even long enough for the emergency team to get here, but she just couldn't move.
"Clint, you gotta stop moving..."
"She's fine, Clint, just calm down. Medics are almost here, you're gonna be fine."
She'd been responsible for many deaths over the years; deaths of people who deserved to be removed from the living world and deaths of those who didn't. Some had been contracted, some had been revenge, some had been pure survival. Those who didn't deserve their date, the innocents that shouldn't have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, used to haunt her when she closed her eyes at night, when the Red Room training cracked for a small moment. It had taken her many years to accept that they had made her into a killer and while she was outstanding at taking lives, she needed to be as hardened to the ghosts and shadows that followed her after. It had taken her even longer to accept that following this, she could still be useful for something good. She had done things, questional things, undeniably wrong and terrible and horrific things but this...this was so much worse.
Clint called out behind her again. His cry was filled with more pain each time it escaped him, something he wasn't trying to fight anymore but though more pained, it was gradually weakening. As one particular cry ended in a pitiful whimper, Natasha hung her head. She'd never heard him sound afraid before. She thought she had, after Loki's mind control and the recovery that followed but that seemed like a walk in the park compared to that sound. She knew instantly that if he died from this that whimper would be the one that woke her in the night; not the gunshot, the blood or the agony, but the whimper of her partners surrrender that he would not survive this that she had ingored.
Sirens split the air, signalling that the emergency team had arrived, and when she footsteps of the medics echoed through the warehouse she was surrounded by so much sound that she couldn't hear anything to prove that Clitn was still alive. But there was a voice in her head that spoke clearly enough to explain the situation, one that didn't belong to her or any of her usual haunts, but instead to Clint.
This was your fault.
A medic was speaking to her, telling her that her foot was badly sprained...she knew the words that followed; no training for a week, ease back in slowly, stay off it entirely for a few days and apply ice when needed...she tuned all the words out, nodding numbly in response. She slipped down from the observation table she had been perched on, testing her foot gingerly to see if the painkillers they'd given her had started working before placing her full weight on it. The resulting twinge made her grit her teeth, she'd had worse, but right now she wanted worse. She wanted to feel a pain deserving of what she had done.
Everything had moved quickly once the emergency response team had arrived. When the medics took over trying to keep Clint alive, Steve and Tony had directed themselves upon her, and they were comforting her in a way she didn't deserve, helping her to her feet and while they said nothing about the fact that she'd barely looked at Clint while he bled out on the floor she could see the questions in their eyes. She made no fight to follow Clint in the ambulance, no attempt to argue with the medics that sped away with his horribly quiet form, but she learned that he was still alive when they returned to their own transport, one man less, and hoped that despite her betrayal of his wishes, that the medics could keep him alive and reverse the damage to his body that was meant for her.
Bruce was standing in the doorway of the evaluation room, waiting for her. She'd not met his eyes and appeared indifference to his presence for the duration of her examination. This happened a lot, medic room trips that assembled the team in seconds, with the exception of Thor who wasn't always present. It had started with the time that Tony dislocated his shoulder in the lab and they'd collectively marched (and when he'd argued and tantrumed like a three year old, carried) him down the infimary and remained in the doorway to make sure he didn't make a fifth escape attempt.
Right now, Tony was handling the clean up, then he would skulk down to the cabinets outside the infirmary units that they marked as their seats when a teammate was hurt. Steve was already there, waiting on bated breath for news on Clint's condition, and Bruce had ensured that Natasha's ankle was given proper treatment, if only to ensure that she didn't go back to her quarters on a broken ankle. She was never one for painkillers and rest, but if Bruce was there for the prognosis she would have to take it.
He waited until the medic had left them alone in the room before speaking up. "They've taken Clint into surgery," he told her softly.
She stopped from where she had been hiding a limp as she walked slowly across to him. She remained silent, her eyes dropping instantly. She hadn't even asked about his condition.
"The bullet hit the side of his chest," Bruce continued. "It went straight through, missed most of his vital organs but it did clip his left lung."
Natasha let out a shaking breath. Clint's lungs were a cause for concern anyway, since he had developed pnuemonia on a stakeout three months ago. This had been the first mission he'd been on since his four week stay in the infimary and a further three weeks bed rest that Natasha had personally supervised.
"As far as damage goes it could have been significantly worse," Bruce told her. "But he did have some blood in his lungs which is why he was coughing up so much blood when Steve was with him."
When Steve was with him, she repeated in her head. When you weren't. When you were supposed to be.
Bruce frowned, stepping further into the room. "Natasha, you're-"
"I'm fine," she snapped.
"Sit down," he instructed her calmly.
Wordlessly she returned to the examination table, sitting on the edge again. She'd been given a thick blanket to wrap around her over the training clothes they'd bought from her locker in the gym, seeing as the clothes she'd worn into the warehouse were soaked through from the Thor-worthy thunder storm they'd waited in for an hour before. It made her look like a small child, even with her head hung as though Bruce was about to scold her.
"Natasha, what happened in there?" he asked her.
She looked up, a little surprised. No one had asked her that. No one had questioned it, not even Steve and Tony. No one witnessed what Clint did for her. Fury or Hill would have asked that question, Coulson definitely, but Coulson wasn't there anymore and Fury and Hill were flying in from Washington right now. "I slipped through the roof," she told him quietly.
"Explains the ankle," he nodded. "As for why Clint got shot, we're all a bit hazy..."
She looked away again. "I just know that he pushed me to the ground and then there was a gunshot. When I turned around, Steve was leaning over him and he was..." she broke off. "He took a bullet for me, Bruce, and now he's dying," she whispered. "This wasn't meant for him."
She had expected him to turn and leave, disgusted at her actions, especially when the words started flowing from her mouth and she continued to to tell him about how she'd been unable to move herself a pathetic six feet to his side even though he was asking for her. But instead he stayed, assuring her that Clint was strong and that he would pull through. She couldn't listen to the words, she couldn't believe them. It was supposed to be a kill shot and he had taken it for her. Clint had saved her life, possibly at the cost of his own.
Tony joined Steve outside the critical unit, hopping up onto the usual cabinet they would occupy and handing him a coffee. They remained in silence, no questions, no answers, but stared at the doors opposite, doors which no level of clearance would get them through. When Steve had first arrived, directly behind his injured teammate, Clint had been unconscious, but by the time Tony came back they were being the initial examination, the compulsory prodding and poking. Unfortunately during this time Clint had begun to regain consciousness, unaware of where he was or what was happening but groaning in pain from the gunshot wound in his chest.
The agony outside the room was almost as unbearable as it was for Clint. Tony was surrounded by mostly indestructble metal all day, but knew the searing pain of torn chest muscles and aching lungs, but Steve was indestructible himself, a super soldier. It was a chilling reminder of the vulnerability of human life, struck down upon Clint who, unlike themselves, was not biologically altered or weaponised. Clint was, despite his skills, just a man. A brave man who had taken a bullet for his partner.
After what seemed like forever, Hill appeared at one side of them and Bruce at the other. Hill threw questioning looks, asking far-too-professionally for an update but her eyes betrayed her - after all, she'd worked with Barton years longer than they'd even known of his existance.
"Still in surgery," Steve said softly.
"Agent Romanoff?" she questioned, still too professional.
Bruce spoke up, clearing his throat awkwardly first. "Sprained ankle, severe but not a break. She's uh...gone."
Frowns appeared from all directions. "Gone where?"
He shrugged. "She didn't say, just that she needed space to think and that she couldn't do that here."
If it were anyone else, they'd have hunted her down and dragged her to be at her partners side but it was Natasha, so they did nothing. Who were they to question the partnership between them? Who were they to try and force the great Black Widow to show emotion? Hill was more furious than any of them, but like before she retained her stoic face and allowed the emotion to show only in her furious eyes as for the first time she joined the broken Avengers team up on the cabinets. Bruce understood, why she wasn't there, knowing that there was something more than partnership beneath their surface and that the bullets path and Clint's interjection had awoken her to that, but he wouldn't betray that when she hadn't even willingly revealed that to himself.
Another two hours passed and one of the medics came out, the same that had taken charge of Clint's condition when they arrived in the infimary. They were all on their feet in seconds with questions but he held up a hand to signal that he wouldn't talk over them. Once they were silent, he nodded.
"Agent Barton will be fine," he confirmed softly, to the response of many relieved sighs. "The bullet was through-and-through, we've repaired the damage that it made. It's not our main concern at the moment however, given his recent medical issues with the pnuemonia, we're concerned about the combination of weather exposure and the shock his body suffered. His body is naturally reacting with a fever which we're going to monitor with antibiotics, and we're hoping it will have broken by the morning."
"So he's okay?" it was Steve who choked out the question.
"We need to keep him calm once he's awake, or the fever will aggravate. For the moment he's still under the anaesthesia but once it wears off he'll need to be kept calm so any excitement and visitors needs to be kept to a minimum. No more than two at a time, and if he shows any signs of deterioration I'm afraid you will have to leave him in isolation."
They nodded their obedience on the matter, even Tony agreeing that he wouldn't cause any disturbance when usually he would sit in an observation room and tinker with everything in his reach. Steve went to change, his uniform still covered in Clint's blood, and Tony stalked off somewhere, leaving Bruce and Hill to step into the critical unit and sit at his side while he started to wake.
The anaesthesia wore off quicker than the doctors expected, the fever burning through the numbing agent and from the second his eyelids parted softly he was trembling, the fever chilling him even though sweat was pouring from his forehead. They attempted to keep him as calm as possible with soft voices, as the doctor recommended, but it was hard to do so when Clint only had one thing on his mind.
"Tasha..." he mumbled feverishly.
"She's fine, Barton," Hill told him gently.
"Natasha's fine," she repeated.
But all he could do was ask for her, his Tasha. He repeated her name over and over, so much so that they weren't sure if he was even aware of them assuring him of her safety. When the medics came back to check, his distress was a cause for concern. "He needs to be more relaxed," one commented. "If he doesn't calm soon they'll induce a coma otherwise he'll greatly impair his healing and cause further injury to his chest."
Hill sighed and ran her hand over her face in a momentary weakness, looking at Bruce. "Where did Natasha go?"
"I don't know," he half shrugged. "She wouldn't tell me."
"Tasha..." Clint whimpered.
Hill threw the injured man a look and sighed. "Clint needs her. She's the only one who can calm him down. If he knew she was here, he wouldn't be in this state. Find her."
Natasha wasn't aware of anyone being with her until they were sitting directly beside her. When she had left the infimary she had come straight up onto the roof, Clint's spot, his favourite place to hide, his nest...she hadn't lied when she told Bruce that she couldn't stay, but when she got to the lobby she'd found that she couldn't set foot offf the base. Knowing that he was in surgery made it impossible for her to leave until she knew whether he was going to survive. Instead, tired, cold and hungry despite her guilt she'd gone to hide on the roof, stealing one of the power bars he'd hidden beside a ventilation shaft. The thunderstorm had ended now and the air was filled with the crisp scent of spring rain settling on the ground.
And then someone was with her, matching her position in Clint's nest with their legs swung over the edge of the tower and arms hanging over the railing. Someone familiar. Someone she didn't want to face. Someone that made her look down at the death-defying height below so she didn't have to look into their eyes.
"Why are you hiding up here?"
She was silent, she had no answer to that.
"I asked you a question."
She looked up, meeting a pair of surprisingly broken eyes. "I don't know," she shook her head.
"You're scared, aren't you?"
She was silent for a moment again. "This isn't about fear."
"Then what is it about?" her companion snapped. "What is so important that you aren't where you should be?"
Steve had never lost his temper with her, she realised. He'd snapped in the field when she disobeyed an order but never outside of a mission. But Clint was in the critical unit in the infirmary and it looked like she wasn't taking this seriously. She was, though. That's why she'd been unable to leave. Because there was this dragging in her chest that made her want to run as far away as possible but the further away she got, the more it hurt. She'd rather be nearby if...if something happened, then be at too far away, too late. This was a fear. A fear she'd never felt before and one she didn't want to feel again.
Without a doubt, Clint's actions had proved something; that he cared about her. Only two days ago they'd been in a bar just a way away from S.H.I.E.L.D on a rare night off patrols and had observed a couple getting engaged. It had lead to a long talk, shots included, about how they were too screwed up for real relationships and normal people. It wasn't really mentioned in detail but Clint assured that that men, as a species, were prone to be assholes even to the women they cared about, and but that he wouldn't dare treat her like the guy by the pool table who was screaming at his wife for suffocating him. She didn't have a response at the time other than to take another shot, but now, after he had taken a bullet for her, she was unable to deny that he cared about her. And that maybe she cared too.
"That bullet wasn't meant for him," she whispered. "It shouldn't have been him."
"But it was," he pointed out. "Why are you beating yourself up so much over this?"
"It was supposed to be me," she stressed. "He shouldn't have taken a bullet for me."
"And then you'd be dead," he said bluntly.
She turned back out to face the sun, now setting on the day without a care for the life it might drag with it. "It shouldn't have been him," she repeated simply.
"Fine, think of it this way," Steve told her. "Say it was you who took the bullet. Say you were standing right next to him and he hadn't pushed you aside. Say you took that bullet and you were in surgery for five hours fighting for your life. Where do you think Clint would be right now if it had been you?"
Bruce sighed, using a damp washcloth to try and lower Clint's fever. Hill had stormed out of the room determined to drag Natasha down here by her hair if necessary thirty minutes ago and hadn't returned. Medics were checking on Clint every five minutes now under orders to prepare for the induced comatose state that might be necessary if he didn't settle within the hour. This concerned Bruce, who didn't think it was necessary if natural sleep was possible. He just needed to calm down.
He needed his partner.
"She's coming, Clint," Bruce told him simply.
Natasha stayed silent for a long while after Steve's hypothetical situation. Steve didn't even understand why she was up here, so far away from the infirmary. She didn't know if he could comprehend how hard it would be for her to see her partner in that state. She'd watched early S.H.I.E.L.D assigned partners and partners back in Russia gunned down instantly, never a prolonged agony like Clint was suffering now. She couldn't go to him and see him waste away, a beeping monitor the only indication that he was still alive, one step closer to an increasingly inevitable downfall. Clint was more than just a partner, he was a friend. Though now she wondered if it was something more than that, because trying to rationalise his possible death in her mind seemed to affect every single part of her life and being.
"I can't," she whispered simply, shaking her head.
"You can't what?" he asked.
"He's my...partner. I can't...lose him."
Steve turned back to face her. "I think it's pretty clear he didn't want to lose you either," he said, his voice much gentler than before, much more like the Steve she was used to. "He did save your life."
"I know," she acknowledged softly.
Steve looked at her, taking in the red hair that was unruly and wild from the horrendous weather earlier that day. She hadn't made any effort to tame it to it's usual standard and was still clutching the infimary blanket around her shoulders for extra warmth. Goosebumps littered the skin on her arms and she often shivered despite herself. Her face was pale and pasty, and her eyes were almost as red as her curls which suggested she was taking this harder than they could possibly understand.
He lowered his voice. "Natasha-"
"Bruce said he was in surgery," she cut him off. There was a question unspoken but she couldn't speak it out loud.
He nodded. "He was, he's out now."
She was silent for a moment. "How is he?"
"You could go and see for yourself," he suggested. She raised her eyes, showing the red in them again and Steve sighed. "The bullet went right through him, easily repairable since we got him here in good time. It's the fever that's causing concern. If it doesn't go down by tomorrow then it could be bad news considering the recent sickness...he's too agitated to calm down which is preventing the fever from breaking"
She frowned. "Why is he agitated?"
"Because you're not there," he said simply. Confusion on her face was an understatement. "The fever burned through the anaesthesia pretty quick, the second he came round he started saying your name. It's all he's saying but he's not really aware of what's happening. If he doesn't settle down within the hour they're going to induce a coma to stop him hurting himself more," he explained. "We think if you're there and he knows you're with him, he'll calm down."
Natasha was torn. Clint was asking for her, and if she went to him he would calm down. She knew it for sure, remembering how he had looked at her as he lay on the ground, extending his arm out to her. This was opening their eyes to truths they'd hidden from for so long. He thought he was dying. He'd lain there awaiting his last breath and he'd wanted to look into her eyes as he took it. The thought terrified her, that he'd want her there, of all people.
She hadn't been able to go to him then. She didn't think she could now, either.
"I've lost too many people, Steve," she whispered.
"So has Clint," he countered. "That's why he couldn't let you go, too."
They fell into a silence when she didn't answer and then Steve stood to leave her. "Look, Clint's lying down there, half conscious, begging for you. All he wants right now is you. If you're going to hide away and make yourself suffer then that's on you, but I know one thing..." he said, looking down at her with something akin to disappointment, "if it were you lying down there, he wouldn't have left your side for a second."
She stood outside the infimary with a thumping in her chest that increased every second. She felt like a child again, a child before the Red Room, before the training, before she had learned to accept confrontations and pain as a way of life. Moving towards the door handle, she could do little more than stand and watch what was happening around her when she pushed open the door. She'd not been in the critical unit for some time, not as a visitor of sorts. The room was small and there was a lot of space taken up by the various machines, but she was immediately drawn to the figure on the bed. Clint was thrashing his head on the pillow, every few seconds murmuring a single word over and over again.
She looked away, a burning sensation behind her eyes caused her to blink rapidly, a thick lump choking her throat. This feeling she couldn't handle. This feeling was not something that she was trained to deal with. It made her want to run, to leave and run to Mexico, Moscow or Maui and never look back again. He was in this condition because of her. If he hadn't taken that shot her for he would be fine. She'd never felt this helplessness before, this lack of control.
She wasn't sure how long she stood there for before a hand came down onto her shoulder with a practiced ease. She knew who it was, she only let certain people sneak up on her in any situation, but she did take her eyes away from Clint's feverish mumbling.
"He needs you, Natasha," Bruce told her softly.
"This was my fault," she choked out.
"He's your friend," Bruce remined her. "Like it or not, he's always going to protect you. Go be with him."
She nodded numbly, stepping up to Clint's side, still limping awkwardly because her ankle. She didn't sit down in the chair, rather she hovered over him, watching for a second. She half expected him to give her that smirk to tell her she was letting her guard down by worrying, but he didn't.
"Tasha..." he murmered again, thrashing his head to the opposite side of the pillow.
"Clint..." she whispered.
Hearing her voice, he frowned. "Nat..."
"Shh," she hushed, placing her hand on his cheek softly.
He turned his head towards the touch. "Tasha?" he murmered, more of a question this time, one hand snapping up and grasping her arm to hold her touch in place.
She nodded even though his eyes were closed. "I'm here."
"Tasha..." he whispered breathlessly, a sigh settling on his lips as he took several controlling breaths, still barely aware. "Tash..."
She leaned down, placing her lips against his forehead. The feverish skin was frighteningly apparant, but she was more at ease when she felt him relax considerably under her touch. She let her lips linger there for a long time, regardless of her acknowledge of the presence of Bruce, Steve and Tony outside, pretending they weren't watching the interaction. While in that position, she kept one hand on his cheek, the other grasping hold of her hand that gripped her arm and holding it gently in her own, a tenderness they weren't used to but for some reason felt remarkably easy.
"Sleep now," she whispered against his forehead.
"Tasha..." he mumbled again.
"I'm staying," she assured him, sitting down on the stool beside him. One hand remained on his cheek, gently trailing up and down his jawline. "Please, Clint, you have to sleep."
His head settled somewhat, the tension in his neck vanishing. She could feel him relaxing, and as he whispered her name one final time she sighed hersef, remaining in place until she felt him fall completely asleep and then raised her hand to his lips, kissing it gently, mumbling quietly in Russian because she knew none of the men outside understood the words.
In the middle of the night Natasha found herself staring at the heart monitor, the only piece of equipment that displayed the current time in one corner. 02.55am. She had been at Clint's side for twenty-nine hours. He had slept the whole day after she had finally come to him, and his fever had broken in the morning as they had hoped it would. He wasn't trembling in his sleep any more either. For a long time she had gripped his hand, feeling his shakes transfer to her. She hadn't left his side. No one had questioned her staying because of the effort it had taken to getting her there in the first place, though they did tempt her away with sleep and food. She said nothing but insisted she'd be there when he woke up, and that by staying at his side she was resting her ankle as she had been instructed to do.
But now, she was starting to feel concern creep up on her again. He wasn't sedated and the anaestheia had worn off before she had come to see him. But he wasn't awake. The medics informed her that he was resting and that any sleep he was getting was sleep his body needed, and she bit her lip to stop her from screaming in frustration that Clint only needed four hours sleep a night to function because after four hours the memories choked him. She knew his sleep routine as well as he knew hers, though her nightly tolerance was down to three hours now. She had more names on her kill list than he did.
She knew that he was still recovering from the pnuemonia incident though, so she remained silent, forcing the acception that while she wanted him up with his sarcasm and dry humour that what he needed was sleep. But she threw more guilt upon herself. If he needed this much sleep, how hard had he been pushing himself since the sickness? He wasn't any better than she was at following medical restrictions, but should she have noticed this before? If her partner was struggling, should she have picked up on it, done something?
Her direction, as always, was towards him. No matter what, she took no chances in leaving his side. She hadn't believed Steve when he said about Clint begging for her, but standing in the doorway and seeing it for herself had changed everything. She didn't want to leave. She didn't want to leave and come back to see him struggling in the bed again, calling her name.
She didn't have that kind of strength.
She lifted his hand in her own grasp, pressing it against her face and leaning into it. He'd done this in Budapest, when she broke before him for the first time in a classy hotel room that they didn't deserve. He'd found her cradling her own form in the shower, hiding the tears, and he'd not even bothered removing his shirt before crawling in beside her, using the hand he placed on her cheek to turn her to face him and silently tell her that it was okay.
Just like that night, the hand in her grasp moved to cup her face, no longer limp in her grasp. "Tash..." she looked up at the whisper of her nickname, one hand landing on his wrist as she found herself looking up in his eyes. His open eyes.
"Clint," she whispered with a sigh, relief flooding through her now that he was awake. His voice was fragile, but his hand was firm against her face. "Are you in any pain?" she asked.
He shook his head a little. "Just..headache. Chest hurts a bit."
"I'm not surprised," she smirked sadly. Her hand stroked up through his hair and she felt him relax under her touch. "You should sleep more," she suggested. "I'll get them to give you something for the pain."
"How long already?" he asked.
She hesitated, but told him the truth. "Almost thirty hours."
He took hold of the hand that she was combing through his hair, lacing their fingers together and placing them on the unharmed side of his chest, right where his heart was. "Long enough," he decided, still sounding too weak for her liking. "Wanna talk to you."
She shook her head. "You need to rest."
"Wanna talk, not run a marathon," he told her, attempting his usual smirk.
She had to roll her eyes and couldn't hide the smile. "Okay, talk."
"Heard you talking to Bruce before," he admitted. "You didn't wanna see me."
It wasn't a question, but she couldn't lie to him now. "Not in the condition you were in."
"Bad?" he questioned.
She realised, at that point, how he was speaking. It revealed his true lack of strenth because he was using the bare minimum of words. He sounded something like a tired child, but was still wanting to talk to her. She was torn between wanting him to sleep like he clearly needed to, and allowing him to speak because damnit if she hadn't missed his voice.
"Bad," she nodded in a quiet confirmation.
"Still came," he noticed. "You're here."
"Thanks to Steve," she smiled lightly.
He turned his face into the pillow for a moment then brought his eyes back to her. "You okay?" he asked her.
She was so stunned by the question that she looked at him incredulously. "Clint, you've had surgery, you almost got put in a medical coma for your fever, and you're asking me if I'm okay?"
"Yeah," he said simply. "You were hurt."
Her mind flashed back to the effortless way he'd supported her before the incident, when she'd admitted she was hurt. "Bad sprain on the ankle," she told him. "I'm fine."
"You wouldn't be fine if Dr. Banner hadn't just told me that Barton was awake."
The voice from the doorway held a threat, but there was a gentleness as well to Director Fury's tone. They both looked to him but didn't move their entwined hands. Fury stepped into the room fully, up to Natasha's side. "Good to see you awake, Barton." Clint merely nodded as their boss then turned to Natasha, watching as his eyes settled on the woman who just wouldn't stop looking at Clint's hands entwined with her own. "Romanoff, go take a break."
"I don't need a break," she told him.
"It wasn't a request," Fury told her, causing her to look at him. "You've brushed everyone aside to be here when he woke up and I've overlooked that. To a point. He's awake, and you're going to get some food and some rest."
"Go," Clint interrupted her softly, rolling his head to look at her again. "Go eat, Tash, m'okay."
She turned to him, then nodded, releasing his hands with a sigh. "I'll be back soon," she assured for both the men's benefits, then disappeared without further argument.
Once she had left the room, closing the door behind her, Fury looked back down over Clint with a stern eye. "Do we need to have a discussion about fraternisation?"
Clint smirked. "Have to?"
"Depends. Are you and Romanoff-"
"Not yet," he cut him off innocently.
There was a silent acceptance of the situation and Fury nodded. "You caused quite a panic when you took that bullet."
He nodded, biting on his answer and then cracking under the pressure. "Care about her...more than I should."
"I'm starting to see," Fury nodded. Clint turned his face into the pillow again and Fury placed a hand on the agents shoulder. "Get some sleep, Barton."
"No," he mumbled. "Gotta tell Nat..."
"Tell her what?"
"Took a bullet for her, boss," he said tiredly, as though his mind had settled at the last available option. "Should tell her why."
There was silence until Natasha returned, exactly five minutes later. She assured that she'd eaten something had she had bought a coffee with her. Fury nodded his approval at the most he would get out of her determination and left them alone. She instantly returned to Clint's side, falling back into their previous position with their interlaced fingers on his chest. He awkwardly rolled onto his unharmed side so that he could face her better.
"You should get some sleep, Clint," she urged. He just shook his head. "I'll still be here in the morning."
"Gotta tell you why," he told her quietly.
"Why, what?" she asked with a frown.
"Took a bullet for you. Tasha," he reminded her.
She sucked in her breath for a moment, remembering the image of him reaching out for her, weak and pained on the ground. It was like a punch to the gut. "We're partners, Clint, friends."
"More," he stressed.
"You almost died, Clint," she pointed out, with far more desperation in her voice than she would have liked.
"Yeah," he acknowledged, keeping his eyes on hers.
"Because of me."
"For you," he corrected. "Didn't want you to die."
She sighed, trying to understand how his mind was working. She raised their hands, resting her head on them for a moment to take some breaths to calm herself. "Do you think me losing you would be any easier to bare?" she asked him, hiding her face for him.
He was silent, and she sighed again. She looked up when she heard rustling and saw him moving around, gritting his teeth against the pull in his chest at the moment as he scooted across the bed as much as he could, then tugged on her arms. "Up here," he coaxed her.
She shook her head with a sigh. "Clint, I'm not laying up there. You're hurt."
"Took a bullet for you," he repeated, this time with a tired, teasing smile. "Gotta repay me, right?"
And that was how she found herself lying on the bed beside him, her head resting her head on his shoulder and making sure that her arms didn't fall too close to the wound. He wrapped one arm around her, his head buried in her hair and inhaling deeply as he relaxed again. She had to stay there now, because it was relaxing him like the medics wanted.
"Tasha," he whispered a while later, when she thought he was sleeping.
"Yeah?" she whispered.
"Falling in love," he murmured. "I think, a while now."
She was hesitant for a moment, saying nothing but god, how could she hide a pounding heart from him?
He just sighed into her hair at her silence, and she moved her face into the void between his neck and shoulder. "That's why I did it," he said quietly, just before letting sleep take him.
She felt the change in his breathing, betraying that he was truly asleep this time, before whispering her reply.
"That's why I came back."