"Agent Barton was sent to kill me. He made a different call."
Of all of them, Clint had expected either himself or Tony to be the first ones infected. They were too much alike in their leap-before-looking habits, and hadn't been quite as safety conscious as they should have been, especially at the start.
Neither Thor or Steve seemed to be likely to get infected, and it was touch and go whether Bruce would be able to either.
But no one expected Natasha to be the first to fall.
The sight of her stumbling towards them was almost enough to break Clint's heart. His graceful dancer was lurching like a drunkard, her coordination shot through, her eyes glazed over. If Steve hadn't been holding him back, Clint would already have been by her side, ready to pick her up in his arms. Instead, he was standing on the outside of the Hulk cage, watching her as she beat her hands ineffectually against the reinforced glass.
He looked around at the rest of his team. "I know what you're thinking," he spat at them, ignoring the looks of pity and fear that crossed their faces. "I should have taken the shot. You think I should have fired an arrow between the eyes of my best friend. You think I should have killed her."
None of them spoke. Clint knew why – because he was right and that was exactly what they were thinking – but the worst thing was that he agreed with them. He may not be a soldier in the traditional sense, but he knew Natasha better than he knew any other person in the world. And he knew that she would hate what she had become.
He backed away from Steve's grip, not taking his eyes from the mess that had once been Natasha, until his back hit the wall with a dull thud. "I just couldn't," he said, his voice cracking on the final word. He felt his knees give out a second before he found himself on the floor. "I couldn't."
It was Bruce who crouched down next to him, not touching. "We've been studying some of the ... bodies," he said softly. "It looks like this might be caused by a virus. And if it is, we'll find a way to reverse it."
Clint lifted his head and looked over to Tony, who nodded and placed his hand over his arc reactor in a silent promise. Bruce and Tony had already been working with some of the greatest minds in the world, human, superhuman and alien, and Clint knew from the delighted sounds that kept coming from the bio-labs that they were close to a breakthrough. He just didn't know if it would come soon enough.
"And we all agree you made the right call," Steve added, his own gaze firmly fixed on the cage. "Natasha's one of ours. We don't leave anyone behind. No matter the cause."
He couldn't thank Steve, or Bruce, or any of them. He'd never been any good with words or emotions. So he did the only thing he could do, hoping they would understand.