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So quietly to catch

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After the Loki situation, SHIELD takes them both off active duty for a few weeks. Ostensibly it's until all the paperwork clears, but really, Natasha knows, it's because they're resources, and SHIELD is managing them. It doesn't feel like a kindness.

Even less kind to Clint, who isn't just being rested but also watched. A period of observation is understandable after what happened, a new and inexplicable form of mind control for an extended period of time. They can't take Natasha's word for it that he's back--though she thinks Fury's as convinced of that as she is, but he can be surprisingly serious about following procedure, when procedure isn't stupid.

He might have taken Coulson's word that Clint was himself again, and Natasha would have trusted it too. Coulson had been fond of Clint, in his quiet little way, and it had been mutual. Another reason it's hard to be around Clint now, to watch him forced into idleness with no distractions and no mission.

Which doesn't mean she doesn't stay. She's off active duty but she's free to go, at least as free as any SHIELD agent ever is--which is to say, with eyes on her, but just the usual eyes. And she could go anywhere. But Clint can't. To be sure, they're hardly married or even official partners, and she's spent more time on solo missions than working with him since he brought her in. For now, though, she stays. Trains with him, when he doesn't prefer to be alone. Watches movies--he likes big action films, preferably the kind where the villain is some natural disaster. There's alien invasion movies in his collection too--they've watched most of them together--but she suspects the bloom is at least temporarily off that rose.

(He doesn't so much like the movies where the bad guys are other people and the fights are violent orgies of punching and gunplay. Not--she's almost certain--for any deep emotional reason, but because that kind of thing done badly is annoying, and done well it's shop talk.)

He's being kept in SHIELD's New York facility, because the Helicarrier is in dry dock being repaired and upgraded, and anyway it's not really built for long-term habitation. The New York building is a nice enough place, with a big gym that even has an archery range, if only a small one. His quarters have windows. But it's not enough.

"You have to let me take him out," she tells Fury. "We won't leave the city, but he needs a break. Or a mission," she adds, out of no real hope. On that she expects no leeway; 'agent under enemy control' is three to six weeks of observation, depending on the circumstances, and no time off for good behavior. (The observation period doesn't always end happily, but this one will. Because he's fine. It's just the procedure.)

"Do you know how many routes there are out of this city?" Fury says. "I'm not in the mood to blockade Manhattan because Barton got itchy feet."

"I can keep Barton under control," Natasha says. "And he doesn't want to leave SHIELD. Just this building."

"One and a half more weeks and maybe he can."

"He won't--" She stops herself. It isn't true, anyway. Of course he'll make it. Clint's no more fragile than she is. It only feels true, watching him lift weights, shoot arrows a short distance in a straight line, spar with her in a way that feels hollow now that she knows exactly what he's capable of and remembers the taste of his blood. Watching him flinch and carefully relax when some agents had passed them in a corridor, glanced at him, and then the murmured names of two of the agents he'd killed had floated down the hallway after them.

"You know this isn't necessary," she tries.

"It's procedure," Fury says. "For a damned good reason." He looks at her more closely. "But there's no reason you need to stay locked in here with him."

She hasn't, quite. She goes outside, mostly when Clint's made it clear he needs his space for a while. It doesn't seem fair to take off while he's stuck in there, though. And maybe--she knows her own weak points; she has to. When she's away she starts to feel tense. Anything could happen, without her.

Of course she doesn't say anything like this to Fury. She doesn't say, either, We're off active duty because we're your resources, and resources need to be managed, and that's all well and good but you're killing him, and there won't be anything left to burn out if you don't give him some way out of his own head.

She doesn't say, I can't stand watching him like this, and I can't leave.

She says, "Two hours. We'll go to the park."

But Fury knows her pretty well, and he probably hears the rest.


Clint's been on edge all day--moreso than usual, which is what prompted her to finally confront Fury. So she doesn't go find him right away. She goes outside, walks a few blocks and drinks some tea at a coffeeshop and watches people. The SHIELD facility is in one of the unscathed sections of the city, but there's reconstruction work underway another few blocks down and the growling hum of equipment carries well.

She heads back in the evening and goes to his quarters. Sharing a bed is an old habit, though in the past it's only ever lasted a few days, after bad missions. This was a bad mission, no question about that, but it's been ten days now since she first slid under the sheets next to him. Well, if he wants it to stop, he'll let her know.

His body is tense alongside hers. He tries to wear himself out but it's the same every night; he only relaxes in his sleep, between dreams. A little of the tension slips away, though, when she presses close against his back.

It's not about sex, between them. That isn't who they are. But this is what he showed her about herself: she needs contact. Just like everybody else.

(You're not a machine, he'd said, they tried to make you into one but you're a person, you don't have to--you get to decide-- Hands on her face, in her hair, his forehead pressed sweaty and hot against hers.)

Natasha rests one hand on his bicep. "You've got a two hour furlough tomorrow," she says. "We're going to the park."

For a minute he doesn't respond. If it weren't for the tautness in his muscles--and if they were other people entirely--she might think he'd fallen asleep.

"Fury's sending me on a field trip?" he says finally. "Thought I couldn't break containment. Thought I might try to run off and do more bad things."

"We'll have chaperones," she says. "Best deal I could cut."

She's seen Clint cry before, once--not including tears from pure physical pain, which are involuntary and signify nothing. Only once. She isn't seeing it now, but with her chest against his back the shaking is pretty unmistakable. She holds on to his arm and rides it out.

"It's only eleven more days," he says eventually. His voice is thick, and wavers a little, but not so anyone else would notice. "Not like they're torturing me in here."

"Yes they are," Natasha says, and presses a quick hard kiss to the back of his neck. "You need a break."

"I need a mission," Clint snaps.

"That deal I couldn't make." She sits up on one elbow and looks at him. She hadn't expected him to get up and dance, but he seems somehow worse. "Clint, what's wrong?"

"That…is a damned good question." His body curls in tighter, away from her. Worry creeps up her spine, cold and grey, even before he goes on. "Maybe I should be in here. Maybe I'm not safe."

"Not safe?"

His clenched fist thumps down on the mattress. "I feel--I don't feel right."

She doesn't have to force herself to consider the possibility. This is the kind of scenario her mind runs automatically, whether she wants it to or not. "You think you might still be under some kind of influence?"

"I don't know!" Another thump. He's turned away so much that he's mostly talking into the pillow now. This is all new, this level of--distress. She's held him through so much, helped him back after torture, after worse things than torture--but this is different.

Do you know what it's like to be unmade? he'd asked her.

Of course she knows.

"Come here," she says, and pulls at him until he rolls over. "Look at me."

He looks. His eyes are hurt, and hollow. "Tasha…"

She touches his face, and his eyes flutter closed again.

"I don't even feel real anymore," he says, very quietly.

Natasha has always trusted her instincts. Clint draws in a shaky breath when she slides her fingers into his hair, and then she's kissing him, holding on and kissing him. His arm lands heavily on her back and clings tight.

It doesn't last so long, not even long enough to leave her out of breath. She doesn't move away, lips brushing his cheek when she speaks. "You're real," she says. "And you're going to be all right again."

He doesn't say anything for a minute, just strokes her back slowly, big hand rubbing up and down, up and down, in time with the puffs of breath against her face.

Finally he says, "You learn that technique from the SHIELD psychiatrists?"

She feels the corner of her mouth twitch, and she lets go of him. "Go to sleep," she says. "We're going to the park tomorrow."

"Yaaaay, walkies," he mutters. His grin is only slightly more visible than her own. "You're not going to let me try and slip the handlers, are you?"

"Apparently Fury's not in the mood for an emergency blockade. I even had to promise to stay out of the more wooded areas."

"This fucking job," Clint says, and yawns. The tension isn't gone from his body, but it feels like lying next to a person again, not unexploded ordnance.

Like always, he falls asleep first. Natasha lets herself drift off on the sound of his breath, shallow and steady, close enough to touch.