For several months he had tried to conceal the change in the way that he felt for her whenever they were in close proximity but he knew that he was fighting a losing battle. Days of not knowing whether she was dead or alive had certainly made him reconsider what was important in life and for the first time in years SHIELD was not it. It wasn't just desire that had driven him while they searched for her, it was something much stronger, something that he had been running from for as long as he could remember.
His feelings for her would likely be his undoing, he knew how she felt about such things, and could quite possibly bring about the end of his career with SHIELD. He had made his peace with that thought and was content to sacrifice life as he knew it if it meant that he could be the one man that she lit up for when she stepped into a room. Now however was not the time for such thoughts, wounded and shaken she needed him more than she had ever needed him before and he was determined that no matter the cost he would be there for her.
Less than forty-eight hours earlier he had extracted her from a hostage situation in which she had been held and tortured for four days. Natasha hadn't needed to explain anything; it had been evident when he found her, naked and bleeding, that she had been beaten. Badly. Her suffering had been extensive and he was sure that there was more to it than had been immediately apparent.
There were a small army of medics and department shrinks desperate to talk to her about her 'ordeal' but she wanted nothing to do with anything that involved verbalising the horrors she had lived through. In fact, Barton was the only member of SHIELD that she seemed able to tolerate being anywhere near her and that was how he had ended up locked away with her within the walls of his New York apartment. When off the grid was essential, he was confident that he could protect her here until she was ready to face the world again.
The biggest of their problems didn't lie in his ability to keep her safe and make her feel secure, it lay in the fact that his rage toward those who had harmed her was almost blinding. Natasha hadn't slept since the extraction and he didn't imagine that she was any closer now than she had been in those first moments after he had got her out of there. He knew how it felt to be afraid to close his eyes. He knew how it felt to fear the horrors in his head. He, Clint 'Hawkeye' Barton, was the perfect choice of companion for her right now because he too had recently had his power stripped away from him by another.
"I need to ask you something," Natasha murmured. Only the quiet of the room made the words carry the way that they did, allowing him to read the reluctance and the insecurity in her voice. He knew what was coming.
He swallowed inaudibly, steeling himself for the words that would fall like rocks between them. "You can ask me anything," he told her. He meant it.
"How did you do it Barton?" she asked quietly, the rustle of fabric announced her pushing herself upright in the chair. Clint turned away from the window to look at her, trying not to think about how hollow her gaze seemed. "How did you find your way back to a normal life when everything you knew of normal was stripped away on someone else's whim?"
Clint closed his eyes briefly, each of her words striking him like a physical blow. When he had realised that she had been drugged he had hoped that she might be spared the full enormity of what had transpired but her mind was too sharp for that. In the silence of the room, she had been turning the facts over like pieces of a puzzle, quietly putting them back together. Her control had been taken from her; he had some experience in that area. Under normal circumstances she wouldn't have asked him about it but circumstances were far from normal.
Taking a deep breath he gave her the only answer he had, surprised by how steady his own voice sounded in the confines of the room. "You take each day as it comes," he replied softly, "it'll take time but it will all start to fall back into place."
"I don't know where to start," she admitted. "When Fury calls you back to base and I'm left alone with this I won't ..." her voice trailed off as the tears started. She held them back for a breath or two, fighting, but ultimately lost. Natasha's entire body folded in on itself as she fought for control before descending into sobs that twisted something deep inside Barton's chest. He'd known her a long time, years, but until that moment he had never seen her break.
With three steps across the room, he had her in his arms, cradling her petite body to his as he rocked her. She didn't fight his embrace, just leaned into him as though he were the only thing keeping her upright. The woman that he had known for the last six years was both fierce and strong; he hated to hear her so broken and lost. Unable to give her anything that would ease her pain, he gave her words, murmuring words of comfort and reassurance. "I'm not going anywhere Tasha," he promised her, "I'm here as long as you want me to be."
When she had regained enough composure to speak, she looked up at him, the air between them heavy with a tension that neither of them had ever felt so strongly. He measured the passage of time through the pounding of his heart, knowing full well that trauma could lead to inappropriate response in both survivors and rescuers. It was not the time for his tangled emotions to make an already complicated situation any harder.
"I'm going to take a shower," she announced, her voice unsteady when she pulled away from him. He watched her walk away hating the limp that ruined her usually graceful stride and the way she clutched her injured ribs with one hand as she moved. Her face when she had looked up at him had been pale and haggard, devoid of light and laughter. She looked like a woman who had been relying on nothing more than the force of her own will to keep herself upright.
When more than half an hour had passed without any sign of her return, Barton padded silently through the apartment toward the bathroom. They needed supplies for the next couple of days but he didn't want to leave without telling her in case it caused her to panic. He also didn't relish the thought of stepping back through the door and finding her Beretta aimed at his head if he surprised her, even under extreme stress Natasha was a crack shot.
The bathroom door swung open when he knocked to reveal air that was thick and heavy with steam. "Tasha?" he called over the splashing of the water on the tile, concerned in case she had slipped or fallen. "You okay?"
No answer. Caught between wanting to respect her privacy and needing to ascertain that she was okay, he waited a moment, willed her to respond. She didn't.
Pulling back the shower curtain, he found her collapsed on the tile, knees pulled up tight to her chest as she scrubbed at skin that was raw and bruised. Sobbing silently, she seemed intent on removing her skin entirely with the scrubbing brush that she clutched in her right hand. The reopening of her wounds tinted the water a rusty red, her blood running in red rivers across her skin and down to the porcelain below.
Inwardly cursing the men that had caused her harm, Barton stripped off his jeans and shirt and climbed in behind her, surrounding her body with his own. It was a risk, bigger than most that he had taken with her, but it was one that he had to take.
Gentle reassurances fell from his lips as he prised the brush from her hands and rocked her softly. Natasha turned her face into his shoulder, her arms hesitantly coming up to encircle his neck while her blood dripped into the water that swirled down the drain. He saw the bruises, the ligature marks from where she had been bound, angry red and violet marks that spelled out exactly what her captors had done to her and he bit back his anger. He understood why she was trying to bleach their touch away with scalding water and that brush.
Physical abuse left a legacy in flesh and bone but it didn't cause reactions like the one he was observing here, other types of abuse however would cause scarring that could crack a person wide open and leave them hating themselves. The fact that he had reason to suspect that his partner had been sexually assaulted as part of her torture did nothing to improve his mood. Given the opportunity he would personally put an arrow in each and every one of those who had laid a hand on her.
He let her cling to him for what seemed like an eternity, her slender fingers digging into his skin as if clinging to solid ground in a storm. "That's right," he murmured encouragingly, "cry it out Nat. Get it out. I'm here. You're safe. I'm here."
When she had no more tears to shed, he shut off the water, wrapped her in a towel and carried her to his bedroom. She weighed so little in his arms, and fit there so reassuringly with her head against his shoulder that it was almost as if he had been made to carry her around. He set her on the edge of the mattress and gave her some privacy to dress while he went to make her some tea; the cup that he had made earlier had gone cold and remained on the floor by her chair. Natasha often finished her night with a cup of tea, perhaps a legacy of her Russian upbringing. He hoped that the familiarity of the ritual would bring her some comfort.
He returned to find her dressed in his clothes rather than her own. She had chosen one of his old shirts, a pale blue button down selected from the section of his wardrobe that he gave her free rein over, and a pair of boxers. Trying not to think about how adorable she looked in his clothing, he crouched in front of her and examined her wounds with gentle fingers.
She watched him passively as he cleaned the grazes and wrapped clean bandages around the worst wounds on her arms. She looked beyond exhausted and she trembled slightly from the cold as he settled her into bed and pulled the covers up over her. He sat by the bed in silence as they each sipped from their own mug of tea and felt relieved when her shivers began to subside.
He helped her to lie down and find a position that was relatively comfortable, tucking the covers around her the way he had a thousand times before. After missions and trips to the infirmary it wasn't uncommon for one of them to put the other to bed for the night. As he moved to leave, her hand shot out of the covers and closed gently around his arm.
"I don't want to be alone," she whispered, voice raw from crying. It surprised him that she would want a man anywhere near her after her recent experiences but he wasn't sure that she saw him as a man right now. Right now he was just Barton, the man who had found her and sworn to keep her safe. "Will you stay with me?" she patted the mattress beside her, her eyes imploring him to agree.
It wasn't a good idea but he was powerless to deny her anything that might make her feel better. He nodded, retreating into the bathroom to shed his wet shorts and pull on his jeans. He was shirtless but he didn't think she would mind and it would be more efficient for sharing body heat.
Natasha curled up on her side as he dimmed the lights and slipped in between the covers, wrapping one arm around her waist and spooning his body around hers. He used his free hand to prop his head up so that he could study her as she stared off into the semi darkness of the room, silent tears running from her eyes. He couldn't ignore the way that she shivered and leaned into the heat of his body. On instinct he rubbed his hand in circles on her stomach, soothing her as she warmed up and relaxed against his chest.
"Thank you," she murmured, all resistance fading as sleep crept up on her, "for everything." She squeezed his hand, half turning so that she rested in the crook of his arm. Slowly her breathing evened out and her eyelids fluttered closed. After days of torment and hours of obvious exhaustion, Natasha slept.
Barton eased her damp hair away from her face and tucked it behind her ear, content to watch over her until sleep claimed him or morning came.