"Romanoff, do you copy?" Fury's voice is slightly panicked; clear in her ear despite the clear ring of gunshots, targets falling in the range. Her aim seems to shift to the left just a couple of degrees, and she rolls her shoulders in irritation before she speaks.
"Yes, sir?" Her voice, she notes with a smirk, is always calm. More often than not, it had been her partner carrying the weight of his emotions onto the field, blessedly endearing. He is swift with the recovery, however, and for that efficiency she is grateful.
The Director regains her attention as he seems to pause before he opens the channel again, his words slow and deliberate in choice. She would normally appreciate it, the clarity in the statement, but – "Code 81, Hawkeye."
The inhale is sharp, her posture straightening and stiffening immediately with an unnatural sense of alert. "Sir, you don't mean–" she begins, but Fury is faster.
"Natasha, we don't have time," he cuts her off sharply, and her eyes narrow. "Infirmary, now."
Her mind is already calculating the route to toward them without much effort as a reflex – she offers Fury a quick grunt of acknowledgement as she strips off her major gear and leaves the training room, breaking into swift sprint. The words are ringing in her mind, pushing her forward – there is, of course, perfected control in her movements, but the urgency is evident in every muscle.
"Barton is down."
She is not one for emotion, let alone worry – but he is her partner, and she makes exceptions for that.
The agents guarding the door attempt to divert her, but she is far cleverer with words and careless, seemingly-nervous smiles, utilising the numerous favours she has accumulated over her time within S.H.I.E.L.D.. She hasn't the time for a game, whatever they believe, and they are eventually forced to step to the side and allow her through the doors.
She greets the Director with a nod, and he turns to walk – she follows quietly behind, falling into step, counting them. Her steps are louder on the steel floors of their medical wing, but she cannot complain; they are deafening the sounds of her thoughts ricocheting in her head. It almost takes far too long to reach the bed they are looking for, but she at least she is assured it is well hidden from the prying eyes of the trainee medics.
They pause outside the curtain, and she can smell blood – in a moment of clarity, she notes the extent of damage seems far higher than she had suspected. Before her hand can close on the fabric, however, the Director rests a hand on her shoulder.
"He's unconscious," he tells her. "And–"
She affects a shrug to silence him, not betraying anything, and pushes past his hand to pull the curtain open, stepping inside. The medic snaps his head up and she holds her card out in his sight, not having the patience to be further impeded. He seems to cower at her, and it is well-deserved; he takes a step back for a moment and she allows him an appreciative nod.
The bed is low, but he is definitely still alive – the rise and fall of his chest seems to pacify her slightly, and she approaches with caution. Stripping off her gloves, then her holsters, she bends over to survey the wound blossomed on his bare left shoulder – her calloused fingers on his skin, which would usually incite a complaint about the temperature of her touch.
"Clint?" She queries lightly, near his ear. She doesn't quite expect a response, but somehow, the silence is still disappointing.
His breathing is shallow, and he is unusually pale as he lies there, completely still as she touches him – He isn't injured anywhere else, she confirms after a quick inspection, her fingers quickly trailing along his form. The face she remembers is smoothened out with what she hopes is sleep and she frowns, moving to the other side of the bed to finish cleaning the wound under the medic's wary supervision.
She kneels and immediately begins to count off six times she's been terrified in her life – it rings like a metronome in her mind, and she has always used it to calm herself in the middle of the nights he had been away; in the stressful situations, like he had taught her so long ago. The memories are far worse, she reminds herself, and this is perfectly manageable. She cleans and disinfects the wound quickly, and taps his cheek as if he will rouse at that.
Her hand rests on his face when he doesn't, and she quickly stands, turning to the medic. "What've diagnostics said?"
The trainee, she realises, seems nervous as he replies. "Initial stages say Agent Barton is in a stable coma, ma'am. He'll be fine, but–"
She refocuses her gaze on him at that, her hand resting on her hip as she steps closer. "Details," she says tightly, then she adds as an afterthought – "Please."
"I– well, he isn't responding to pain, or verbal stimuli– Oh, and Miss Foster, his companion, confirmed head trauma," he lets the words tumble out under her imperious gaze, and she takes a moment to flicker her eyes to the form on the bed, then back to him.
"The target," she frowns down at the trainee. "Is he dead?"
He swallows. "No."
She holds her breath, then another question. "Will he wake?"
"We don't know," he says, his eyes almost pleading with her to stop the slew of questions. "We'll try our best, Agent Romanoff, but there isn't an assured..."
He doesn't seem to observe the way she ignores him from that point, turning back to Clint's form on the bed, ignoring the way his breathing seems far less detectable than before. Ignoring the way the wound begins to leak again. They don't know, her mind repeats, and she allows herself a sliver of pain on her face as she moves back to his side.
Ignoring the way the cycle – six memories in her mind – hovers hesitantly over seven.
The first is the fire. She barely remembers the chaos in the hospital, the fire quickly spreading through badly constructed walls, the people pushing past her on her sixth birthday. She had been accompanying her father to see to a pain in his leg – she remembers sitting with him, her spider of a hand resting carefully on his knee.
She is in São Paulo temporarily, her parents taking them far out of Russia to see beyond their borders, but for now she is praying she was home, the blaze around them catching up as her father pulls her along. She can see her mother up ahead, and her steps seem to increase as they get closer to each other. Her sister is there, too, and the burn across her face is a wound she will never forget.
The fear is building as she is dragged along, suddenly falling and colliding herself with the flame – it licks her, just briefly, across her back, and she begins to cry even as she scrambles to her feet. Forcing herself forward, with the encouragement of her sister, she finally comes into the arms of a stranger as they lead her away from the overwhelming warmth.
After, she searches for her parents – to show them the scar forming, to tell them about the friend she's made while waiting for them to heal her. She pushes through the entire crowd, searching for the bright red hair, but she cannot find them – with the little language her sister knows, they take them aside with kind smiles to tell them her parents have died.
She looks over the bodies, charred to unrecognisable states, with an odd sense of acceptance, far beyond comprehending that they will never wake – Locking herself in her room, she takes an hour to process it, the terror of never seeing them again slowly diminishing, the feeling of grief unreasonably calculated out of the equation. Her mind, too simple, is hardened against it when she holds her sister at the grave, her hand tightly woven in hers.
She no longer fears loss, watching the lilies placed on the ground.
The others eventually come in, briefly, to see him – Thor doesn't quite understand and attempts to shake him awake; Steve has to physically barrier him the best he can. They both take moments to look over him while Tony seems to stare at the wound far longer than he should as he cracks a joke – she asks begrudgingly if he can wake him, and Tony places a hand on his hip as he promises to try.
Bruce, however, offers his condolences over the phone – he had finally been to see Betty, and she is proud of that, but she sharply tells him that Clint will survive. He takes a long breath and sighs, leaving a heavy silence before speaking. "If you say so, Natasha."
She sits beside him after they have left, changing his bandages, peeling the cloth carefully from his skin – the blood that has never bothered her makes her slightly worried, her fingers smeared with it as she wraps fresh bandages around it – just barely, from the ripped scab. She frowns and makes sure the bandage is better placed this time, and counts her memories again.
They have always calmed her; She swallows as she touches his face – so much colder than before, and the hints of terror sink into her again. The doctors have yet to tell her whether he will wake – she has, if she will not admit aloud, a suspicion that they have no confidence in him. She runs her fingers slowly through his hair, and she hopes they are wrong.
The second is when her hands are first bloodied, soaked with her sister – Angelina, she finally recalls, but she hardly remembers her face as it is. She is barely nine years of age, then, and her sister eleven, but she doesn't think of that because they are coming, with guns and weapons she hardly knows the names of. There is terror then, the idea of murder sinking slowly into an innocent mind, but she picks herself up and fear carries her along into the darkness.
And she runs. Her energy doesn't seem to run out, always stumbling forward– When she finally trips, her body does not collide with the floor first, but a pistol. Her hands are too small for it, or so she thinks, until they come around the corner again and she desperately remembers everything she knows and yanks the trigger, aiming blindly, and one of them falls.
A cold chill runs down her spine at that, but when they approach she fires it off again, her aim steadying as threat spurs her to defence – and suddenly, she is covered in blood, the bodies of men around her and her sister's just visible a distance away. How had she known not to run in a circle?
She turns the head of one of her victims, his eyes wide open, and begins to thread through his hair as her hands are bloodied further. Somehow, her heart drains, and she remembers not why a smile began to spread on her face. Her small fingers tighten, and the tears dry up.
His heartbeat accelerates in the eighteenth hour, momentarily, but despite the scramble of medical staff around his bed, she does not move from her place just against the wall beside him, watching cautiously as they attempt stimuli again – vocal, at first, where they attempt to call him out, and then the pain they inflict. She forces herself to remain still, however, until they finish with furrowed brows and sighs of disappointment. They leave, one by one, each giving her an unwarranted look of pity. She represses the urge to sneer.
She doesn't understand what spurs her, but she kneels beside his bed again and moves closer to his ear. "If you can hear me," she murmurs, even though she is well aware he probably will not. "I'd very much appreciate help on the mission to France on Tuesday."
Fury had come in with the file earlier in the morning, in an attempt to remove her from the room – she had, of course, declined quickly, and he had left her by his side, but she couldn't help but feel a sense of obligation to invite him on a job. She continued to sit on his bed for another hour, taking his hand gently in hers as she squeezes it, looking off toward his bow and arrows left in the corner. It's a sentimental gesture, a gift, but she hopes he will appreciate it when he wakes.
Again, she counts. She hasn't a reason to be terrified, for he will recover. She has nothing to fear.
The third is when a man stands over her, twelve years old, kneeling to straddle her lithe form, crushing her under his weight. He bends down to her ear, a broken Russian promise to make her a woman with a trailing, calloused hand on her face. She bites on his finger – he lashes back and strikes her, harsh, the bruise blossoming on her face a dark purple.
For that, she remembers, he reverts to his accented English, and she struggles to understand him as he slides his hands under her dress, his nails drawing patterns on her legs – she tries to escape, but he makes sure she is tied down before he proceeds. Single-handedly, he strips her down; he gags her, the taste of acid in the cloth imprinted in her memory. Blindfolded, too, she begins to panic.
He breaches her with no warning, and the pain pulls a scream from her. Without a moment to adapt, he thrusts repeatedly, animalistic and unrelenting – her voice cracks and falters after minutes, and she is hoarse before anyone comes to her rescue. No one can hear her, she knows, through the tight binding in her mouth, and her eyes slide shut as it sinks in.
She schools herself into a quiet, limp form as he has his way, and she can no longer feel pain where he violates her – he soon loses interest in her, and he leaves her to bleed. When the pain stops, however, she picks herself up and nurses the wounds herself – there is very little that can shake the logic ingrained into her mind, that she cannot call if no one can hear. In fact, since she is broken, she begins to use it for her purposes; as a temptress, to kill her targets at their most vulnerable.
It is eight o'clock – twenty-six hours – when Steve brings her food. She hasn't quite remembered to eat yet, the hunger barely surfacing as she sits by the bed. (Sometimes, she swears he moves, but she waves it off immediately as a hallucination of a tired mind.) Steve offers her some of Tony's beloved shawarma, recently heated, with a pat to her shoulder and a short word of reassurance.
She smiles at him, then, and takes a bite. For a moment, she looks away and up to the Captain, remembering vaguely how they had managed to recover his body out of the ice, reviving him. She supposes the comatose state of an archer has no bearing over that. Bruce returns to S.H.I.E.L.D.. at midnight, too, and he sits with her for another three hours while she keeps vigil.
They say no words, but Bruce speaks to Clint. She listens as the doctor tells him of the arrows Tony has developed for him, and the necessity to wake as another threat prepares to strike New York – The Avengers will be needed, and Bruce says Natasha cannot fight alone. She snorts and interrupts him then, a roll of her eyes obligatory.
"I'll be fine," she says, and proves it in the cycle of memories, caged in her mind. After all, she has seen worse – hasn't she?
The fourth is when a man is again stood over her, around the age of nineteen – but this man has an arrow trained just above her heart, aim unwavering. He cannot be much older than her and the lines of his face tell the same story of acclimatised killing – she takes some comfort in that.
She had, of course, been threatened with knives and guns before, held to her throat as they tried to extract information. By now, she has mastered tears and manipulation, pushing them to believe they have broken her; they believe they have taken everything from her and slacken – but she knows she cannot affect him. Not like the others.
He reeks of danger, too, and she allows herself a moment to shudder in fear.
"Your friends are dead," he says, after a long pause. "Don't suppose you mind if you join them?"
Her eyes, still searching his for an opening, are sharp. "They aren't my friends," she spits.
"Handlers, if you prefer," he agrees easily.
"I'd suggest you don't delay it," she murmurs with a forced smile, closing her eyes as the arrow is lowered slightly to touch her skin. There is slight resignation to this, amidst overwhelming fear, but her facade of calm stays in place.
He chuckles then. "Tell me, Romanoff," he says, condescending, and her eyes snap open to watch him. "If, by some miracle, you survived – where would you go?"
"I don't see how that's a useful question," she replies flatly, her eyebrow raised. "Seeing as you've killed them, I expect you know they're shifting the base as we speak."
"And, obviously, you won't know where," he says, and the arrow is still pressed into her skin. "It tells me you're a dead woman, with enemies like yours."
She freezes and tenses under him. "You know nothing of my enemies."
"I can hear guns being loaded outside, if you'd like to try," he tells her, almost bored.
She makes a daring move, slowly breaking their gaze to look out the window. Frosted glass covers the faces, but she sees the shadows pacing past. She looks back up. "So you'd rather not soil your hands, and leave me to them?"
"Yes," he responds without hesitation. "On the other hand, you could walk away alive in my debt."
His eyes still haven't shifted, and the bow is still drawn, but she falters in her act just a moment. She searches the ground for her weapons, spread out wide at a large radius. She is still wounded, fresh, and if he doesn't kill her – she'll probably bleed out anyway.
"What have you to offer?" she asks him, not seeing herself a loss. She has always been a creature of preservation, anyhow.
"Your life," he says vaguely, and she hates the way a smile spreads on his face. With a pointed pressure to her ribs, he pushes off her and slowly lowers his bow, unafraid. "Listen. The building is surrounded; two planes, armed men at every possible exit," he supplies with an almost smile. "You lay a hand on me, they drop us both."
"You threaten me," she smirks up, slightly appealed to.
"There is a choice," he shrugs.
"Impossible," she retorts, brushing hair out of her face. "You know I would choose to live."
"I do now," he pauses a moment with a frown before he extends a hand to her, obviously unarmed.
"Why do you bother?" she has time to tuck her hands behind her head, looking up. He hasn't a reason to spare her, nor has she a reason to accept it – except that they offer her a way to live.
He rolls his eyes. "Does it matter?"
She waits a long moment before she shakes it off takes his hand, careful – she has never known co-existence or dependency, not since she had started in her lifestyle. But he grips it tight and hauls her up, an arm around her waist to support her – she pulls immediately out of his grasp and limps ahead. The fear is still evident in her flinch from his touch, is it not?
The man follows her without complaint, and she is stiff as he walks beside her. "Natasha–" he begins, but she turns her eyes on him.
"Don't call me that," she says, voice firm.
"Nat, then," he responds without missing a beat. "Welcome to S.H.I.E.L.D.."
The presence of the nickname throws her, and she finds herself relaxing slightly as she surveys him. Her peripherals are able to take in her surroundings with little effort, but she wills herself to focus on him. "And you are?" she finally asks, polite.
"Clint," he slings his bow on his back and replaced the arrow in his quiver. She observes the bleeding gash in his arm, from one of her knives, and allows herself a smirk of pride. "Or, if you like, Hawkeye."
"Stupid name," she snorts, and he glares.
She learns to depend on him, somehow. He teaches her slowly, too, until she allows others to depend on her.
She chooses to accept the French mission prematurely when she wakes, at thirty-seven hours, if only for a reason she can convince herself is reasonable to walk away from the bedside. She silently berates herself as she boards the jet, chiding herself for allowing that attachment to him – to tell herself to cut her emotions from the equation and to execute the job.
Leaving him a file explaining her absence – if he had woken to an empty room, she wouldn't quite have forgiven herself – she flies herself, alone. In the air, she finds herself a temporary calm, wondering absently if there is a pain of prison in his sleep – if he is fighting a barrier he cannot pass to wake up.
The target is a boy of nineteen, a drug-dealer and trained assassin – the irony is not lost on her as she drives a bullet into his heart, still younger than the time he had come to her in St. Petersburg. He falls to the ground, and she removes the evidence in an hour.
She is by his bedside again at midnight, his head in her lap now as she murmurs a word of thanks for sparing her. He doesn't respond, and she smiles in understanding. It has been some time, now, and the weight of waiting seems to become easier to bear – if not for the ticking cycle of memory.
Absently, she wonders if the six are terrifying at all – repeated in her mind, over and over, until she cannot feel the pain any more. It is forty hours past before the worry and fear begin to set into her skin.
The fifth is when Clint attacks them, under the damned influence of the God of Mischief – she tucks her arms in front of her face as she falls through the floor of the lab, but the debris collapses on her leg as Banner begins to struggle – his skin begins to tint and she cannot struggle out, her leg trapped. There will be an expense of pain if she tries, and she cannot afford that if she needs to run.
She doesn't remember what she says to him, but when the monster growls and she loses Banner, her mind scrambles just for a half-second. With all the strength she can afford, she pulls her leg out and she scrambles to her feet, giving him a look with her jaw slackened. The next moment, however, reflexes are in places and she begins to escape.
By the time she is approaching any form of help, her body screams at her to stop – the monster throws her weight easily to the side and her shoulder smarts as she slumps down the wall, where she will be at his mercy – Thor, however, takes over, and she rolls a bit as she attempts to catch her breath. Her back is curved and she cradles her leg just a moment, but the strength the hulk has to remove her is still a threat and her heart races.
Director Fury's voice, however, pulls her out into clarity. Her body adjusts immediately, and her priorities are re-ordered in her mind before she is on her feet. Clint is in the helicarrier, she tells herself flatly, and she is going to find him.
She finds him easily, bow at his side, and engages him – they both barely land hits on each other, sharpened by familiarity in training – she is twenty-six, now, and she is sure she knows any trick he could attempt with her. Her teeth sink into his arm as she attempts to deter him, and her heart stops momentarily as his head hits the bar – to her advantage, yes, but the risk of head trauma is high...
He puts his hand out on the ground and she is ready for him to use it as leverage, but he looks up and for a moment, his gaze seems to flavour. She stands up just a bit straighter as he calls her name, then makes a rapid decision to deliver another blow to his head, abusing the strength she has over his in the situation without his bow – he had never been a close-range fighter, not one that rivalled her.
When he wakes again, his mind has been restored, and she allows herself a moment of peace as she attempts to calm him again.
It takes her seventy-one hours before she decides that it would be best to use cot they have carefully provided for her, gingerly placed. She holds his hand constantly, now, her skin accustomed to the unusual cold. She doesn't quite know what to say, but she stays beside him and listens hard to his silent breathing for hours – there isn't quite anything so mundane she has ever done, but it hasn't yet truly mattered until now.
She climbs into his bed, slowly lying herself beside him and taking his hand into her lap – she stares at the ceiling and presses her fingers on his wrist for his pulse, assured that he is still there with her. The fan above them does very little to soothe her need for calm again, because she begins to fear. She hates it, the way her mind races with the possibilities of his death – the doctors, still concealing information from her.
Thor leaves for Asgard, she is vaguely aware, and Jane comes to see him for the first time. The brunette brings along more food – Russian, she notes, as a gesture to her – and sets it down as an offering as she sits on the other side of him. Jane tells her the assailant that delivered the blow is dead, and she has nothing to fear. Leaning over to touch her hand, she squeezes it lightly with a word of apology, and then she is gone.
He doesn't shift, even with that, and she grips his hand a bit tighter as she wills him to wake. The cot remains forgotten, and she falls asleep curled into his side. The cycle no longer matters, no matter what he would have told her if he was awake.
Somehow – not that she would ever dare to utter an admission – she stops in an effort to convince him to wake. To tell her she shouldn't, perhaps, with a furrowed brow. It doesn't seem to work.
She falls asleep on his chest. She hopes he doesn't mind.
The sixth time isn't quite a time at all, but a year-long desperate cling to sanity. The memories plague her as her eyes slide shut, and her body cannot sustain function without the rest of sleep – the pills lock her down into a prison of images where he stands over her, suffocating her slowly, hands around her throat–
It changes every night, where he sometimes has a bullet, a knife, or his bow-and-arrow – even a poison, on nights where she has tired herself beyond her capacity. The same, glassy eyed look hovers over her as she dies, unable to scream, holding tightly onto him as she attempts to stop him. Sometimes, there is pain – and enough of it, and she sits up covered in a thin layer of sweat as she pants, fingers closing around her gun. The scream seems to die on her lips before she wakes, however, and all she lets out is a pained, staggered breath.
But soon, she remembers she is alone in the darkness and comfort of her room and she lays herself down, amidst the physical aches of her limits, falling further into a dream once more. Perhaps, the God of Mischief was never able to discover she only fears death at his hand, as she always has, and the method does not matter to the subconscious.
Tonight she is locked in the glass cell of the helicarrier – the steel cylinder around her, and he is there, his eyes once again cold with the bright blue of the Tesseract. He murmurs the same words as he does each night to her, the same three words he will never say to her in waking, and his fingers flatten on the button.
The chamber drops, and she doesn't scream, her eyes closing – waiting for her to hit the ground.
But this is different, because the dream doesn't end when the container smashes into land – she feels her spine crack and the pain shifts her into a darkened prison of warmth, arms wrapped around her with the all-too-familiar smell of that damp forest he insists on training in–
She snarls at this new dream, throwing her head back and digging her elbow into his ribs to loosen his grip on her, the rush of combat familiar as his arms slacken momentarily around her – enough for her to turn and push him down, her hand tight on his throat as she pulled a knife out to hold over him. His hands close on her wrist to hold the blade away from his face, and she pushes all her strength against him.
"Nat," he says, forcefully trying to sit up, and she finally gets a closer look at his eyes – not at all the flecked colour she had been expecting, but the same denim blue she is accustomed to. She falters just a moment, and he is able to wrench the metal from her hand and throw it off to the side. He does not, however, relinquish the hold he has on her wrist.
Her hand does not move from his throat as he speaks, digging in a bit more harshly than necessary. "Nat, it's just me."
"You're going to kill me, aren't you?" she insists, matching his gaze. The dream was far too real, however, the sweat in his hand as he tries to push her off usually absent.
He twists. "This isn't a dream."
"I don't believe you," her voice is short and cold.
"I can– Jesus Christ– I can prove it, if you let me go," he says, barely audible now, obviously struggling to breathe. "Please."
She narrows her eyes but her hand slowly slackens, and he pushes her hand off to rub at his neck – he honestly struggles to restore his breathing for a moment, propping himself up on one elbow warily. She watches him with a sense of caution, her back straight, waiting.
He slowly sits up, gingerly meeting her gaze, but his eyes are unwavering as his face comes closer to hers. She doesn't quite understand, but he approaches her still. "This isn't a dream," he murmurs, before his hand comes up to her face and he leans in.
She doesn't quite register that he has pressed his lips to hers until he shifts ever so slightly – then, his other hand comes to rest on her shoulder, but she doesn't understand why tears come to her eyes. The touches she can give him have no meaning, and she hasn't a way to communicate that across, but the comfort that he isn't a danger to her after all allows her to soften her posture.
He pulls back at the first taste of salt, however, and frowns. "Sorry," he says immediately, wiping at her face. "I didn't mean– I won't do it again..."
She retracts her hands immediately to wipe at her face, almost shielding herself from him, and nods. "Leave me alone," she mutters out to him, unable to choke back the tears; Trying to prevent her display of weakness.
He seems to reach out to her a moment before he pulls away. "Sorry," he repeats. "I just..."
"I said," she returns sharply. "Leave me alone."
Somehow, though, she never dreams of him killing her again – her sleep is steady, and she no longer wakes in a stupor of panic – if at the expense of him avoiding her presence, which she cannot hope to remedy soon.
She no longer fears him; She isn't sure why she did at all.
There is no way she comes to terms with it slowly, as she is curled into his side at the eighty-ninth hour, that she has allowed herself a deadly defect. She breathes slowly, trying to match his, but it only frustrates her at the shallow inhale and exhale, and she cannot say a word to spur him if he cannot hear her.
She inadvertently thinks of her interrogation – the maniacal smile of an Asgardian, smirking at her through a glass she does not fear he can penetrate. Yet, he forces a statement out, and she retracts it slowly as she shifts to listen to a heartbeat. There isn't a way for her to believe, nor to accept, but she can close her eyes and let it sink. It hurts, somehow – but she is clear with her sense of fear, the possibility of loss.
'Love is for children, I owe him a debt.' And there is no way for her to sleep, plagued with an odd sense of guilt. She begs him, silently, to wake – so she could attempt, no matter how feebly, to wipe out that red in her ledger. She wonders if he will forgive her for pushing him away, not having known what it would be like without him.
At the ninety-third hour, she cries from the stress, unable to choke back weakness. They come far more freely than she expects, her eyes blurring rapidly – how long has it been? She couldn't – wouldn't, really, allow him to see her in that mess, but she leans up to his ear and tells him she needs him to come back with a voice that shakes. She could give him that.
She promises him many things, if he returns. She wonders if it is enough.
Tony's voice is careful as he speaks to her, obviously having been volunteered by the others. The hundred and thirty-ninth hour, now, and she is seated on the bed as they stand around her. "Natasha..."
Her eyes are sharp and her posture stiff. "No."
They seem to share a look, for a moment, before Stark opens his mouth again. His words are specifically chosen, unlike his usual self, far more considered and patient. The gravity in his voice is almost alien, and she flinches away from it. "He's not breathing on his own... Listen, Natasha, you can't think he'd want to live like that, can you?"
"...You can't think he'd want to die like this, either." Her answer comes softer, her gaze softens in defiance. She had already entertained the thought in the darkness, listening to his imagined voice, but she had pushed it away and schooled herself into nonchalance.
Even now, her voice was cool and collected. She was sure it was unnerving, but she couldn't bring herself to be bothered.
Steve starts next. "Nat, please–"
"Don't. Call. Me. That." Her reaction was instinctive, and she watched how he winced.
There is another long silence where the men look between them, and Tony stuffs his hands deep into his pockets. "We know he's not going to recover, 'Tash," he uses his personal pet name for her, and she resists the urge to punch him for it – for his words. "He's... not going to wake up–"
Her reply is flat. "Your faith astounds me, Stark–"
"You love him," Bruce suddenly speaks up, and she falters at his words – why had it always been his voice, affecting her? He steps forward, and he kneels in front of her.
"He loved you, too," he continues, and she squeezes her eyes shut and tries to keep him out. "But don't you think he'd have wanted you to let him go?"
Her eyes open abruptly and she stares at him a long time, her mind racing with the pain and the fear – she is going to lose him, and his blood is on her hands at this time – suddenly, the cycle races, and they are all completely irrelevant as she drowns in the fact that he terrifies her. Absolutely scares her, beyond reason, and she doesn't hate it at all.
She nods slowly – and she doesn't expect it to sink her heart into pain, but it clenches and she leaves her head bowed. Bruce squeezes her hands, speaking softly. "You make the call, Natasha."
The seventh time, she finally decides, is when she flips the switch.
It isn't anything dramatic, by any standard, but her fingers are weak and she grips tightly on to his hand, unreasonably strong with dry eyes as she looks down at him. She knows she will have some time after the machines die, but it isn't long – not quite nearly as long as she needs. He is now at a hundred and forty-five hours, and she cannot keep him.
Closing her eyes, she flicks it, and the subtle whir seems to stop to leave them in a painful silence, listening to his heartbeat on a monitor instead. She squeezes her lids tighter, and she quietly murmurs a request to be left alone.
As soon as she is sure they cannot see her, she lays herself down beside him and takes his hand, lacing their fingers together. She pillows her head on his shoulder, listening to his heart, and she begins to sing. Softly, in a language he cannot understand, but steady nonetheless – ignoring the way the rhythm under her ear slows, and the machine begins to sound.
She turns her face in, tucked into his cold skin, and her shoulders shake as she sobs, barely able to form words that she wants to say, written like a script in her mind but stuck behind her lips. She pretends, perhaps, that she can hear him, because she has only ever heard him cradle her with his words in the dreams where she dies.
There is a terror indeed someone will hold this against her, but her heart is soon soothed by the idea that he is far more peaceful now, no longer frustrated by machines, nor the pain in his shoulder if he woke at all. She soon quiets, listening now to her own breathing, and the loud heartbeat in her ears that is not his.