He is running.
Running, running—Ignoring the aching in his feet, side effect from being crouched in the cold, in the rain, for hours, waiting for the shot. Running—the sound of his regulation shoes smacking against the cool black floors of the hovercraft is just static. He is focused. He has to be. It's all he has left. And he's running and he's panting and sweat—or rain? Or maybe even tears?—is streaming down his face, and he knows he should change but at this moment, he can't stop to consider what is best for him. He is the superfluous one, and as he runs, he knows that this is his fault, no matter what anyone else tells him, and he isn't sure he can ever fix this. If this is to end in a funeral, could he ever stop replaying the last few hours? Could he ever forget? Could he forgive himself? For this? The thought taunts and burns, biting and burrowing into his mind as he keeps moving.
He is running.
His heart is pounding in his chest. Racing—adrenaline fueling his strides, adrenaline keeping him moving. It's been 39 hours—or is it closer to 43 now?—since they've—sincehe'sslept. On his perch, it is the focus that keeps him awake, and sleep is not a necessity, and he functions on reserve, remains on the balls of his feet, fingers poised to twitch, to snatch a thin arrow from his back, to let it fly and pierce skin, crack bone, stop breath. But now the chase is over, the mission is done, and he is still running.
Normalcy—can he even argue that his life has a shred of normalcy?—dictates that he lay his head back against the black seating in the helicopter and sleep as they head back to SHIELD. Normalcy dictates that his partner sits beside him, her breathing lulling him into much needed rest and calm. Normalcy dictates that the fifteen minutes after he lands on the helicarrier are dedicated to Coulson's shortened debrief (We'll have the full debrief tomorrow, but for now, is there anything you two need me to know, or can it all wait?).Normalcy dictates that he is in his shower, hot water massaging aching muscles. Normalcy is not running through the halls.
He is running.
The screaming over his comm was the first clue. Despite the bodies littering the ground, the mark taken care of, the screaming continued and he knew, knew, something was wrong. As his legs pump, as he runs, he remembers that sound he has only heard rarely, only at night, when she is back in the Red Room and he is her only reprieve and only when she knows he's right next to her can she sleep without screaming, without thrashing, without being pulled into her past. Because they are partners, and she can trust him, and he can trust her, and he knows he has let her down. Because despite her strength, her formidable skills, he feels some responsibility, because he is her partner and her best friend, her confidant and she is one of two people he trusts now-the other is Coulson, but who can bring themselves to distrust the tailored man after getting to know him?-and she is his sanity, and his—and all he has. And if she, with bruised cheeks and hair matted with blood, doesn't wake up, he doesn't know if he can ever forgive himself.
He is running.
The tortured sound made him rise out of his practiced position, his voice frantic over the radio (Widow? Widow? What's happening? Widow, do you copy?), and her screams just continue, louder and more indistinct, but more and more blood curdling with every passing second. And he runs, vaulting himself over the railing, sprinting down the metal steps, his fingers readying to twitch the second he sees-and as he runs inside the building, he realizes they miscounted, and there is one left, standing over her, with blood on his shoes and her screaming has stopped now and he's not sure if this is a blessing or a curse, if this is good or bad, but in seconds that man is on the floor and his blood is pooling beneath him, and for once, the arrow remains, as the broken body on the floor nearby takes precedence.
He calls it in, his voice empty and broken over the comm and in seconds he knows that Coulson knows that all has not gone as planned, even before the words are said (Widow is down. Repeat, Widow is down). And moments later, she is no longer in his arms, and someone else is running, yelling for the medical team, and the helicopter is gone within moments, his partner with them, and he is alone with Coulson and the men collecting the dead, and the men inspecting every inch of the building for information, and he has never felt so lost. And now he is back, and…
He is running.
If she doesn't…and if this is his fault…because it is, in fact, his fault, and he knows that, and no one can persuade him otherwise, because if he had turned just a little bit, been a little more attentive, or maybe allowed his eyes to wander just a little, he would've seen that last man before that last man saw his partner, and caught her, somehow, impossibly, unaware, off guard. If he had been a little faster, reacted sooner when he heard the screams, perhaps she— and his heart stops as he realizes that he might not have a partner now, because it has taken so long to get back, and he has been running for so long and he never realized how far the medical bay was from the hanger without the transport. Because he didn't stop to think of using the transport, instead taking off running, ignoring Coulson's yells. His calves are burning now but the familiar scent of ammonia is beginning to leak into his nostrils and he knows he is close, and the adrenaline keeps him going, or maybe now it's just fear and denial and pure terror, heightened by a little bit of adrenaline, that keeps him sprinting all out.
He is slowing.
As he skids to a halt outside the medical bay, sweat—or rain?—dripping onto the floor, he stops, body suddenly numb, frozen, muscles suddenly immobile. If she really is… and if it is really his fault, can he go in and… can he face the idea that… he killed his partner? That this is his fault? Can he stand over her broken body, devoid of breath, knowing that he could have saved her, but failed? Can he stand knowing he failed? And suddenly he is moving again, out of control of his own motions, opening the medical bay doors and rushing in, and no one looks up, and it's as if they've been waiting for him, expecting that he would run in, and he realizes that Coulson probably radioed it in minutes ago, (because it has only been minutes since he started running, not hours or weeks as it seemed to be,) and they have been waiting for him to arrive. And so he moves slowly, his body tight with fear, the unfamiliar emotion embodied in every step, every motion, until someone comes towards him and he braces for the worst, expecting to hear those words (I'm sorry) and he waits—
—and he waits.
And when instead he feels a soft hand on his arm guiding him, instead of those words, he feels something inside of him breaking, because who could possibly put into words what he does not want to hear? Instead he'll see it…see her for himself, and he'll know that it is his fault that she is gone and the medical bay will be void of their favorite redhead forever, and he will never be able to face any of them again, because it will be his fault and he can't forgive himself. But with eyes blind to the world, he lets that soft hand lead him to the back of the infirmary, where critical injuries are repaired—and where, sometimes, like this time, they are not—and he braces to see a white sheet over her face, and he doesn't know if he can take that image, because it will never leave his mind and it will haunt his nightmares and his every waking moment, because he will never be able to close his eyes without seeing her broken, cold, dead body waiting there, blaming him.
The hand lets go.
And he stops, unwilling to progress further without someone to tell him what he is waiting to hear, that SHIELD will take care of funeral arrangements, but does he know if she has any family (No, her parents were killed in a fire when she was a child, and Petrovitch is dead and even if he wasn't, he wouldn't be welcome) or friends (Just me, and Pepper, and the Initiative) who should be informed. Because he is the closest thing to next of kin that she has and he is all she has, and she was all he has—had.
A piece of him goes cold, his heart slows, and he wonders if he'll ever fully recover from losing her, because he needs her like he needs air, because she is more than his partner, she is his best friend and his other half and he loves her and… the thought catches him off guard and all of a sudden it is clear, of course he loves her, and how could he have been so blind for so long? And he realizes that she is gone and will never know that he loves her and needs her like the earth needs the sun and the moon needs the stars. And as that sinks in, he wonders if what he was told, once upon a time, when he was very young, is true, and that the dead walk among them, because maybe then, maybe, she could hear him. Maybe, even if she is gone, she can still realize, understand, what she meant to him, even though he knows that love is for children and maybe this isn't love, but it's something only they can have.
"I love you."
Broken, bruised, and battered, but he doesn't remember moving his mouth to form those words. And his heart stops and his eyes fly open and yes, there is a white sheet, but it's only pulled up to her chest, and bandages are wrapped around her torso and her arms and her head, but her eyes are open and her voice is hoarse, but she is speaking, or at least she was, and he stares at her like he has never seen anything more incredible, more beautiful, in his entire life (and he has seen a lot of incredible and beautiful things in his time). And he knows he must look positively stupid right now, but he can't find it within himself to care because all he can see right now is his partner, his living, breathing partner, and he has never felt such relief, and it feels like a weight has been lifted.
"Say something, dolbo yeb."
He drops into the seat beside the bed, looking at her, dumbfounded, living up to her affectionate curse. He reaches out and her hand is in his and they remain like that, because right now they are not the Black Widow and Hawkeye, and somehow, he isn't sure that they ever were when they were together. Because when she is there, he is just Clint Barton and when he is there, she is simply Natasha Romanoff.
And he can breathe again.