But Not Worth Writing Down

Summary: Of lessons in humanity, the wisdom of drunkards, the people that keep you whole and finally having that chat with your partner. Sort of. The Avengers show affection unconventionally.

"So what?" Stark spoke not out of callousness but a respect earned under impossible conditions. "She'll escape in, what, twenty minutes? We just need to remember to bring enough body bags when we go pick her up."

Hill sighed. "Not this time, Stark."

"Why not? Why are you even here? Forget your email password again?"

Steve paced uneasily. He did not miss this process, though he has been involved on both sides of it, feels certain of an eventual positive outcome. "Same tired old plan? Torture her for information concerning us and SHIELD?" This is something all of them have endured and the group activity scheduled for tonight is wincing. She'll tell nothing followed by masterfully crafted lies. During their viewing of The Hunger Games she had informed them all with disdain that 1 in 24 odds of survival are "not that bad" around a mouthful of kettle corn. She'll survive, if only literally.

Clint thumbs through the file up as gently as though it were whimpering, freezing at a grainy picture of an icy blond man in hospital scrubs. He chuckles until he wheezes and everyone freezes and stares because that sound indicates something, but amusement is not the word.

He holds up a hand. "Stark, because this file only exists in print. It's against SHIELD policy for it to exist in any digital medium." Translation: It concerns an unusually terrifying individual, which, by their standards means a lot.

They all take a moment to gawk at the novelty that is fear on Barton's face as he continues. "Second, Cap, he's not going to ask her a damn thing."

One time, someone tried to lock each of their minds in a personally tailored world. They talked about it, because Stark went first and paid for enough hard liquor to send an entire college dormitory to the hospital. He admitted that he dreamed of both coming from a whole family and then creating one with Pepper. Then he slurred a demand that the rest of them follow suit to a joint, buried relief, and the results were muttered and heartbreaking.

Three years later, Steve's home was still a when not a where; Thor wanted his brother sane and his Midgard peaceful. Banner wanted bloodless hands, and "that one fateful night in the lab" to be the time he cured all mankind of disease. Clint would not say, endless guilt-tripping and extra shots of whiskey pried not one word from him (they'd been together long enough to know that the fact that he doesn't simply lie to them is a sign of deep respect that borders on love).

Natasha escaped first and easily, because her perfection kept changing: One instant it was parents that are actually related to her, the next herself alone and everyone who could ever harm her a bloody corpse, then some ridiculous saccharine scene with waffles every Sunday. It's only the first two she owned to and that last one that woke her, because she knew in someplace deeper than her head that that's something she would never, ever have.

It hasn't happened in years. There was a spate, when the small percentage of the world population that was genuinely evil realized it was possible, where every team member had been kidnapped at least once, either singly or in groups.

Several things had reversed this trend: Tony's security was upgraded from nightmare-inducing to 50-foot-shark with more teeth than brain cells, higher mortality rate than Ebola, pants-wettingly terrifying. Additionally, the team had murdered or maimed every individual involved in each incident, all way the way down to the janitorial staff. Natasha and Clint had already possessed the wariness borne of hard lives and weekly encounters with hitmen. The rest of team, especially those who had previously been considered invulnerable, learned that when faced with the power of human intelligence and innovation they were anything but. They learned caution.

In honor of the team's fifth anniversary, an old nightmare resurrected.

When Hill arrived they were all already awake, performing activities that bordered on rites.

At the beginning, they lied about it. Steve would happen to get insomnia the same night that Tony and Bruce were at the cusp of breakthrough that demanded an all-nighter in the lab. Coincidentally, of course, Thor would feel an overwhelming need to stargaze and Clint and Natasha were both really behind on target practice. Allowing for variance, of course, based on whoever was out on solo or paired mission.

Later on and as with many things, they had a system. They would play board games, learn how to throw knives, perform auto-surgery without anesthetic or cook eggs, read short stories out loud. Anything, anything at all to make the waiting for someone tired but, God willing, not broken to stumble through the door pass faster.

They were and are bound, among other things, by the nightmare of burying one of their own.

Tonight it was Natasha who was out. Bruce reads To Kill a Mockingbird aloud while Clint juggles knives with devastating accuracy. When she gets home there are plans to eat cheesecake, play Monopoly, and pretend desperately to be normal for a few hours. To a man, they are looking forward to it.

However, the person who stumbled through the door was smaller, darker, and shorter than the one expected. "Good evening, gentlemen," Hill offered and handed Clint the file.

She signs to him with her left hand only, but, regrettably, the message gets across. Why today? which is admittedly a much easier question than, for instance, Why?. But he answer to that question includes with what it was like for the weeks she was missing. That is a sad, boring, story riddled with tension and feelings as well as thoughts that he regularly has that would, realistically, get him disemboweled. It also includes a vague memory of drunkenly telling Bruce how he was actually holding up immediately before vomiting on the carpet, the sound of Steve sobbing through a thin wall, the conviction that if he closed his eyes for a moment he would be leaving her for dead or worse.

He starts to sign back on a topic entirely unrelated when Banner appears with a syringe (these days, her flinch is probably a reaction to the syringe. Her and Banner are past the whole smashing and chasing incident, finally, mostly.) "We're going to have to rebreak that."

She looks at her left forearm, which has healed into the shape of a 145 degree angle. Obviously. Her right hand is still a fist, it has been for the entire (dead-awkwardly?-silent) car ride home.

"Nat, what have you got?"

A raised eyebrow is her only response, then, with one last look at Clint she indicates that she is thirsty. He hands her a flimsy paper cup of water as Banner sticks the needle decisively into a vein. She downs it.

"Your clothing..." Banner starts.

Clint doesn't even bother translating her economical hand motions that still manage to be disdainful. "She knows the drill, doc."

Clint shifts and pulls out a hooked knife, one of six currently on his upper body. "You want help changing into the gown?" It will be better to cut off her clothing than to try to tug it gently around the lacerations, the cracked scapula, and that's just the damage they know about. Her right arm dangles uselessly, but that fist stays clinched.

He cuts the clothing off with hasty care, unable to divert his eyes out of fear of gutting her he instead focuses on purely harmless stretches of skin. An ear, an elbow, an ankle; never her face because of what she might see in his. He cinches the hideous pastel garment around her waist, considers briefly how she she still looks very appealing even in the modern-day equivalent of a burlap sack.

Clint notices her eyes trailing the paper cup and refills it with water. She takes it with her left hand, drinks it greedily. Last she spits into it and empties the contents of her fist with a quiet rattle. The saliva is mostly red.

Later today, Steve will sit with her. "You already knew sign language?"

He'll hand her a notepad with which to respond and sit with the posture of someone prepared for wait for the heat death of the universe, or her response, whichever should come first. She'll simply write that she's tired and then go to sleep right there to prove it, in essence leaving the pad blank rather than populating it with a lie. This, unlike a majority of her actions, has little to do with a lack of trust-it isn't her secret to tell.

In honor of the second year of their partnership, a grenade exploded in intimate but not deadly proximity with Clint's head, leaving him incapable of hearing anything quieter than a jet take-off. Hearing aids left him able to continue in his professional life after a brief interruption. Personally, they hurt his ears when used for long intervals. He missed a casual evening of music, the sound of a whisper, the security of knowing he would awaken the moment someone opened any door or window in his apartment, and being just a bit average. Clint despised the pitying looks and very loud and slow health-related inquiries his colleagues and doctors foisted on him and explaining over and over again that it was in fact possible to be injured on mission with but not by Natasha.

He walked into Natasha's quarters, highly annoyed by the fact that he had no measure of how loud his footsteps were, not sure why he was visiting.

She was curled on herself in a chair, sipping a mug of tea. On the table next to her was a small pile of thick paperbacks.

"What were you reading?"

Her eyes flickered up but judging by the lack of knives in his neck she was already aware of him and his identity based on footsteps alone. Nat grabbed the notebook off the top of the stack and wrote. A book. Dinner?

"Sure." He shrugged, speaking as someone who had eaten an average of one meal daily for the past month, wallowing and avoiding his colleagues leaving him little spare time.

She shifted to her feet and casually set the notebook so that the title of the top book was nearly indecipherable. Natasha strapped more weapons on in preparation of leaving her lair, stood in front of her closet and took a moment to decide about the shoes.

He shifted the notebook and saw the title beneath. Sign Language for the Absolute Beginner. Clint froze and stared at this irrefutable evidence that she genuinely gave a damn about him, as a person rather than an asset.

Her eyes followed the path of his; any lesser deceiver would have flushed. She groped for a pen and wrote Next month's mark has a deaf son.

The lie was so blatant. He responded, with complete ignorance of his own intonation. "Italian?"

She nodded.

One time, before the team, three months after one of his more controversial career decisions, a house fell on her. A small one, but still sufficient cause for extreme concern. When she emerged ten hours later with only dehydration and a corkscrew-twisted arm; Clint forgot himself in his relief for a dangerously long time (half a second second, all told) and laid a hand on her shoulder.

She broke his collarbone and filled his left eye with blood.

He lied on the report about that, because the truth would have slain her (literally) and, really, in the opposite situation he would have hurt her worse.

This time, the liberty he takes is far greater, but, to be fair it took twenty-three days rather than half of one to locate her and the man she was with offered far greater harm than mere concrete blocks. Her hand stays curled, but she doesn't bruise or break him, doesn't even yell. That last allowance may have had more to do with the angry red line across her throat than any personal restraint

The entire team is crowded into the infirmary while the tests are being run. That was the secondary reason Tony just built his own stupid hospital-every room is big enough to reasonably accommodate an entire hysterically worried team, even given how very large several of them are, even when "hysterical" means enormous, grass-colored and deadlier than the average typhoon. The primary factor was that they are forever getting hurt and the five minutes it takes to get to a real hospital could easily be the five minutes it takes a kidney to rupture or a heart to just quit. Finally, what kind of self-respecting medical establishment doesn't have Indian Sea Krait anti-venon on hand anyway?

The reason he never said was the kindest one: Several of them have very good reasons to be afraid of hospitals, so he built one that looks as much like a living room as possible. Terror doesn't aid healing and he would have paid far, far more to never have to see Bruce flinch like that when approached by a man in a white coat again.

There's even a set of trauma medics that theoretically live here, but Natasha had previously made it clear that she'd better be missing a bare minimum of a limb and a vital organ before they allowed a stranger to be in the room with her prone body. Bruce doesn't know whether to be impressed at the depth and duration of her trust issues or flattered that they all have somehow bypassed that barrier.

Banner struggles to clasp a lead-lined apron over her abdomen prior to the x-rays, she waves him away with hand gestures then signs, No need so get on with it. Clint translates and Banner shifts uneasily, then continues as ordered. Stark makes a face at a suspicion confirmed.

Last year, prior to one of the more painful and lengthy ethics reviews the team ever underwent, Tony had been feeling fidgety. When he started tapping his pencil against the desk for the eighth time in the past fifteen minutes, she snapped a guttural order at him to desist.

Tony's response was instinctual, meant to enrage but not wound, "Cool it, Romanoff, are you on your period?"

Her mouth twitched downward for a moment before she slammed on an indifferent mask and then turned away, silent (the normal personal equivalent of hours of tears and opening up about first grade); Clint's body language shifted from bored to aggressive. The look on his face promised elaborate revenge. Tony put down the damn pencil.

There were probably worse ways for him to find out about that.

Natasha lies flat (an agonizing position, but so is every other one) and an x-ray is run over her barely covered body. Even Bruce is beyond commenting on the astonishing number and variety of historical breaks that machine reveals, it's nothing unexpected. He gazes at them clinically and then dictates to Steve while Thor demonstrates his hard-won mastery of the online phone book. "We're going to need an anesthesiologist, trauma surgeon, orthopaedic surgeon, and general internal medicine specialist. Probably someone from infectious disease, that puncture on the calf looks...infectious. Natasha, should we call for a gynecologist?"

This is the most indifferent way he can ask just what kind of wicked she faced alone and during the silence that follows completely impotent rage flickers across every face in the room.

"She says no," Clint translates. "But we'll need a dentist."

Stark, of course, puts it together. He reaches for the paper cup, peers in and says, simply, "Ew."

It contains three molars, glistening in fluorescent light. "Romanov," He begins, "Tell me these aren't yours."

She doesn't.

Thor bent down and kissed her forehead, murmuring, "I will return with those gummy straws you so savor. Recover swiftly, beloved."

Natasha nods and settles more deeply into her blankets, Steve tucks them gently around her shoulders again. These types of exchanges had become average, unworthy of comment, utterly lacking in a hidden meaning.

Bizarrely, it was Banner who first ended a phone call with "All right, bye, love you", years ago. Steve was pretty busy not getting shot at the time and didn't even notice until he was mentally replaying the conversation late that night. He shrugged into his pillow, maybe that was normal between unrelated adults these days.

He said it in farewell to Thor two days later, and the larger man grinned, clapped him on the shoulder and said, "I hold you in equal regard, adored comrade." Then he disappeared into a blinding-lit sky, pretty much proving how ridiculous it is to hold him as any kind of standard for normal.

A week later Thor said it to Tony when the latter was leaving for some godforsaken engineering conference in Utah for a few days. Tony stopped completely and asked, "What, are we a soprano church choir now?"

Thor looked baffled and said that he thinks that none of those nouns apply to the team, actually. Tony gave up on explaining halfway through with a sputtering sigh. At the other man's sincere and expectant look he finally muttered, "Love you too" on the way out, wincing and wondering how explaining to Pepper why he says this to a man wearing curtains but not her is going to go.

(He ultimately solved this by just saying it to Pepper later that month because it was simpler and it was always true.)

Most of the team had gotten so into the habit of it that the next time Clint is sent to murder some dictator in a tropical hellhole Tony said, "Be safe. Love you." without a thought.

Clint froze on the way out the door and turned around slowly, wondering if they needed to talk. "In a brotherly way," Tony continued with an eye-roll.

Clint weighed this for a second and then shrugged. "All right then. It's mutual. See you in a week."

He never said it to Natasha, even though this was a chance to do so under the guise of friendship, because of the distant paranoid possibility of all the (accurate but repressed) things she might be able to read in that statement. There was also the simple fact that even if on a particularly cold day in hell she said it back she wouldn't mean what he wanted her to. He dances around it sometimes, calling her "Home" in Russian, or "Adored one" in Farsi, but avoided those particular words and their fallout.

Clint also never found out which one of them actually said it to her first, but evidently she didn't castrate him because now it's something the whole team exchanges regularly, a casual reminder of what anyone can see is true.

There is one thing he was right about, a notable exception: Natasha never responds in kind, not even "You too" or "Ditto", even before, when that would have been a physical time, as with all previous, she nods in acknowledgement but doesn't say a word.

Natasha is napping or pretending to do so and they would all sooner have a group root canal than disturb her hard-won peace. Banner flips through her chart, filling it out for the benefit of the battalion of doctors that will be arriving in fifteen minutes. The gummy straws remain uneaten, chewing far beyond the scope of her ruined mouth.

The remaining team is crammed onto the couches and the armchairs while Clint teaches them basic and useful, if specific phrases in ASL in preparation for the weeks or forever of Natasha trying to make herself understood silently. These range from "thirst" and "hunger" to "I want vodka,"and several crude suggestions for where they can shove their painkiller. Thor is especially entranced and Steve thinks it's a good project generally-who knows when they'll need to speak without words?

Banner notices some strangely basic information missing. "Do any of you know her birthdate off hand?"

All eyes turn to Clint. "No. It's unknown."

"Okay...Medical history?"

"Classified and redacted."

"Blood type? We really need to have that."

"O negative." It's Steve who addresses that inquiry. After a confirming nod from Clint, Banner makes a careful note.

It had taken forty minutes for the team to find them. Natasha barely managed to flourish a gun at Steve when he walked in where they had holed up, a Czech children's clinic, crouched beneath a wooden bench.

"Let's go," He said and had almost turned around by the time it was clear that neither could move. He knelt down. They both looked like they've been shot out of a cannon, which was probably too close to accurate for anyone's comfort. Clint was still and curved awkwardly.

There was a smell Steve couldn't quite place in the air

He tapped Natasha's shoulder. "We're okay," she told him, and then, the opposite, "He needs a medic."

The only genuine soldier in the bunch barked into the still-mysterious com link for a team of medics to be on stand-by, because God help them if even Natasha, who has a thing about needles and white coats, says bring a doctor. He shifted and his knees came away sticky. He finally noticed what precisely he's kneeling in.

"What happened?"

"A bullet clipped his femoral artery," She leaned her head against the peeling wall, her words slurring. That was strange, she was not obviously ripped or broken anywhere. "I stitched it."

A wound to that particular tube means death in minutes, Steve knew only too well. How had she bought him that time...oh hell. A skinny, dirty-looking tube, nearly invisible among the rubble and smoke coating everything here, began in the crease of her arm and terminated in Clint's bicep. Very little blood was flowing from her to him, because she was running out. He yanked the needle out of her arm and pressed his fingers against the hole that left, she whimpered and slapped at him. The nonsense she spewed made it clear that she objected not to the pain but to the termination of the donation.

"It's fine," she finally muttered from atop his right shoulder, as he hauled her out. Barton was on a stretcher suspended between Stark and Thor, while Banner flitted around as they walk, preserving him long enough for a real hospital. "I'm O negative. The universal donor."

He was genuinely angry, a rare but cathartic feeling. He informed the medics of her blood type and then snapped at her, "Fine is not the word. We are going to have a talk about this."

"I'd do the same for any of you," She slurred, the admission and subsequent limpness a clear indicator of mortally poor health. For a second he lived the nightmare of telling Clint that those were her last words and then shook it away as she continued breathing.

"That's what worries me," He muttered and moved a little faster, realizing that it couldn't matter less if she can never say that she loves them.

It's late at night. In bygone days Clint would have had to wait for Natasha to be able to defend herself to take care of this, but now she sleeps surrounded by at least three sentient mobile weapons that would cheerfully flay anyone that came for her. All of her surgeries went without a hitch, she is riddled with stitches and beneficial bits of metal and one hefty cast. Her body will fix itself at an unnatural rate, but this will be dealt with immediately.

He breaks SHIELD policy without a flicker of regret, scans a picture, and sics Stark's supercomputer on the blond man. Within minutes he has a list of fifty plausible safehouse locations, places he might have run to after his entire infrastructure and organization was blown up or crushed. Common sense and information Natasha had passed on rule out all but two as real possibilities.

It will take perhaps six days to scout both locations and then to address the problem. Assassinations are only really time consuming when you don't want it known who pulled the trigger or when you object to fatalities among the subordinates.

"I had wondered to what purpose and whither you had left."

His hands fall away from his weapons. Clint doesn't even remember beginning to draw them.

"Thor. Are you going to argue that I should hand him over alive instead?"

The look the smaller and frailer man is giving him holds a threat that should be hilarious, but is instead very genuine.

Once they had captured a woman who was going to release a modified airborne malaria into a major population center, because sometimes people just do stuff like that. Thor and Steve had spent hours of threatening, pleading, attempted trickery and she had parted with not one word. Clint had arrived, told her his name, and all the blood drained from her face. He then received thorough, accurate and life-saving information within fifteen minutes. It had been a bit embarrassing, to say the least.

Thor had tried to ask what she was so afraid of, by what insane standard Clint was more worrisome than himself.

Clint had explained in a single sentence. "The worst either of you would have done was murder."

"Nay. I do not desire that the Lady Widow shall ever ponder in a dark or lonely moment whether darkness seeks her again."

"Okay...If you don't hear from me within two days, maximum, someone should come looking for me. I'll be back within the week."

Thor's smile changes into something that reminds Clint that, no matter how silly, gentle and good natured he may appear, he can lift a semi, walk away from a skydive without a parachute, kill without even trying.

"Neither of us shall be missed and it would be remiss to allow you to hunt alone, brother."

If someone had published a picture of his grin in that moment, the crime rate would plummet overnight.

Natasha slumbers again, napping being the only hobby left to her following a week defined by a marathon of minor surgeries and Clint and Thor's less than mysterious absence.

Tony blurts out his question. "Seemed a little rude to ask in front of Nabokov, but since she actually does sleep and who knew and Hill rudely took the file back, William Tell, what was this guys kink?"

Clint's head snaps around either at the question that hints at some deeply classified information or the notion that Tony would ever restrain himself from asking a rude question. "Hm?"

"This guy. He does all..." Tony gestures at the thick sheaf of X-rays. "That, doesn't even want to know our security codes. So, it's what, a hobby? Mommy issues run amok?"

"Experimentation. Historically, he's been interested in testing the effect of accelerated healing rates on various types and levels of wounds."

"Hm. Creepy. So Capsicle had better watch out."

Thor booms. "That shall not be necessary."

Tony nods and Steve echoes the sentiment. "Good."

When Natasha wakes up again, Stark has departed and returned with his two favorite things (Pepper and a large bottle of scotch). He, typically, makes an asinine suggestion and Clint stands there to translate and ultimately moderate.

"She says no."

Tony is plastered, not that that's any excuse. "Romanov...There are actual females here and this is the best chance Cap has had of getting so much as a caress since the 40's."

"Play without her. Over there." She's gesturing to the outside of a fortieth story window.

"Spin the bottle is a time-honored American pastime and she has like a one in six chance of getting-"

Clint chuckles but still begins speaking before Stark can finish that sentence. "She says...she already has to kiss unattractive people for work and that's plenty. She isn't doing that during her off-time. Also, if you don't drop it..." He winces. "Wow, Nat, that's a little too specific to be made up."

One of those strange lulls in all the conversations of a large group of people suddenly struck just as Tony arrives at a comeback. He throws his arms out, gesturing dramatically at Clint. "Oh, come on, you let Mockingjay kiss you last week in front of the entire boy band and his timing was way worse."

At these words, Clint smiles gently and disappears, probably into an air vent.

She sets down the gun she has been trying to reload with only one hand for the past half hour and carefully signs, every line of her body apparently relaxed in a way that makes him long for the weight of a weapon. A favor? Well, another one?

When he and Thor came home, she'd thanked them as though they'd gone to pick up bagels and said nothing further on the matter. He knows she never will and wonders when she finally stopped keeping score.

He also considers what it means about a friendship when homicide qualifies as a kindness and then sets down Lysistrata. "Sure thing."

Wash my hair for me? Natasha indicates her plaster-bound left arm and then her impressively greasy hair. There is only so much damp washclothes can do.

His throat goes dry. For moment he wants to say that he'll ask Pepper to do it or can't she manage with one hand? Aren't there are salons everywhere that offer that precise service? But she's his best friend and its him she's asking, so he nods instead.

Everything except her throat and her doubly-fractured twice-broken left arm have healed. According to alleged experts who had signed non-disclosure agreements approximately the length of the Bhagavad gita, if she continues healing at her current rate she'll be talking again next week and be rid of the cast very shortly thereafter. If she had not been tampered with so thoroughly in her youth, she probably would never have gotten completely better.

He allows her to lead the way.

Natasha's bathroom, bathtub, towels are very pink, one of Tony's stupider jokes. She begins tugging off her clothing awkwardly but, thank Thor and whoever else is up there, doesn't ask for his help. Clint runs a bath because it gives him an excuse to turn away and then, noticing the little bottle of salmon-colored bubble bath on a shelf, dumps a pint of it into the immodest water. He pretends with all his might (that is, ineffectually) that he is really interested in the rest of the mostly baffling bottles on this shelf until he hears her turn off the faucet and settle herself in the water.

There is a thick and buoyant layer of foam and the sickening smell of cupcakes. Clint grabs the stupid shampoo, hitches his sleeves up and washes her hair twice. He is careful to splash no water on her awkwardly perched entombed limb or into her steady gaze. The water is so soapy that the shampoo doesn't rinse out, but she doesn't comment. He rubs in conditioner and washes that away too. That's all. He could leave now.

We've been in that situation before and you never...Why did you...

He sinks to sits cross-legged on the damp floor because this room is suddenly void of both air and excuses. Natasha signs again, interrupting herself. My robe?

Clint grabs it. She looks hard into his face, a single furrow crinkles her forehead. Say the word and I'll drop it. Permanently. He stares. She will? That means something, a lot. Surrender does not come naturally to her, perhaps as a result of a youth where giving in resulted in a bullet in the thigh or maybe just her unalterable soul. She could take his guilt and discomfort and twist him around her whims like licorice, he's seen her do far more with much less, but she isn't. He tries to decide why the hell else she would want to have this conversation, but his thoughts twirl in useless ovals, logic does not apply here.

She sighs at his continued lack of response, one of the few vocalizations left to her and splashes the excessive suds off of her face as well as she can, a gesture that is almost frustrated. He speaks. "No. I mean, yeah, we should probably talk. Sorry about that."

He'd certainly hurt her. The sight of her, alive, after weeks of following increasingly unlikely leads to their miserable bloody conclusions and a phone call from Fury informing him that in accordance with SHIELD policy a memorial service was scheduled for next month, had shattered any rational thought.

He'd kissed her forehead, neck, and then her mouth, hard, with teeth and tongue. He'd gripped her shoulders and waist, hugged her tightly, crushing her against him, unconcerned about anything she might have felt or noticed as a result until much later that night. It had been about his need to hold her living body rather than her pain or desires because, to his occasional shame, he's human.

She stares him down, either trying to ignite him with her mind or indicate that an apology was not desired or expected. I did let you.

Nat hoists herself out of the water while he tries to explain that it's his problem to respect her right to her own damn body, not hers to fight him off when he ignores it. She puts on the robe before he has time to do more than divert his eyes. She tries to cinch it around her waist, but only the very tip of her left thumb protrudes from the cast and she can't quite grab the belt. It's something that's just a sliver away from pathetic. It's strange and deeply flattering that she's allowing him to witness even this tiny moment of helplessness. Clint stands and cinches it for her, tugging at the robe until it's the most modest thing she's worn all year.

She uses his proximity to lean her body against his and move her lips over his neck. He can feel her eyelashes moving and see that her good knuckle is white where she's clutching his shirt.

Either undeterred by his newfound inability to move at all or already committed to whatever fallout there will be, she straightens, kisses his mouth firmly. The second time she does this, oh, and he's responding and then some. His kiss is focused except damn, this is actually happening, and he makes himself remember which shoulder is all right to grab and use to pull her tighter against him.

A small but important section of his stomach twists and drops when it becomes clear that she is leading him to the adjoining bedroom, namely toward the titular piece of furniture therein.

He stops and then labors. "Is this because...do you actually...well, I do." She meets his eyes and her smile isn't forced or pained, but tiny. Genuine. Suddenly this whole thing feels simple and unbelievably lucky.

Because she is many things, including punctual, Maria Hill arrived at 9 am the morning of the third week of Natasha's absence with two cardboard boxes in hand. "Her effects from her locker," Hill indicated the larger box, then the slim black one, "And from a safety deposit box I was only to empty in the event of her death or after a very specific passphrase."

Four variations on "But we're still looking," filled that silence, but Hill just shrugged, not bothering to explain again under what conditions an agent was presumed (or even hoped) to be dead.

Steve suggested softly that they might allow Clint to sort through the boxes alone, but Thor merely snorted and sat on the carpeted floor beside the man. He ripped the top of the large box off, indulging himself in that small act of violence. It was filled with exactly what you'd expect: things for killing people, things for sharpening and polishing murder weapons, a lot of make-up, books in at least five languages.

Pepper would have known what to say, but all Tony could come up with was, "How about we leave them in her room. She'll want those if..."

A dull-eyed Clint nodded but reached for the smaller box. "There's still this." He opened it himself and up-ended the contents onto the carpet.

Passports, driver's licenses, birth certificates, credit cards, a medium fortune in cash, social security cards, even Student IDs spill out. Dozens of them, bearing an enormous variety of nationalities and ages. Many of them, the oldest-looking used ones, bore some variation of Natasha's face, other's Clints. All were, even according to JARVIS, flawless.

There was a stack of shiny-new papers bound by a rubber band, passports that still cracked a bit when opened. Bruce flipped through one and found his own face attached to the name Bryan Dashwood. A deeper silence within the perfunctory one settled over the room as every one of them found their face on documents informing them that they were South African, two years older, or a professor of a fictitious department in a genuine university.

Tony's Kenyan visa was for a married couple, which would have allowed him to take Pepper; Thor found business cards of plastic surgeons with neat handwriting indicating level of trustworthiness and receptiveness to bribes.

Natasha had reckoned with the possibility that something may slay her personally or that Earth itself may fall. If she perished, she wanted to leave them the safety she had made, the secret only revealed after the worst. When and if the Avengers ever lost, she was going to hide everyone that mattered, any of them that were left. She'd intended for them to survive and fight another day, or hide and live a quiet painless life.

It was left to Bruce to pack them together neatly and deposited the boxes in her dusty room, wishing they were heavier.

The next morning finds her walking into the communal kitchen last, silently. Thor and Stark are either attempting to remove something enormous and metallic from the toaster or insert it more deeply; Banner reads the science section of the paper with his typical saintly calm. Steve sees her first and, face slightly perturbed in concentration, signs carefully Good morning. Coffee?

She signs back, Yes, with cream and he leaps to his feet to get it for her as the significance of that exchange hits her.

Banner asks her about her arm, Thor with a face full of stately bafflement manages to stumble through a sentence inquiring about an appropriate gift to celebrate Jane Foster's aging. Tony, following a glance at her bruised neck, offers to loan her a scarf with a broad smirk. All of them manage this with neither spoken words nor writing.

She gives Clint A Look and he lifts his hands in a gesture of surrender. "I wasn't even here. Fine, I got them started but..."

Natasha sips at her too-sweet coffee and nibbles an apple, watching them with a surge of affection she makes no attempt to quell.