Natasha thinks the panting she hears is her own. In the stillness of the explosion, she’s not sure of anything but the pain lancing through her back and the cold air on her toes. That’s good... right? She wishes she could remember what protocol she should be following so that something goes as planned. Was she supposed to meet Clint at the top of this building that’s now only rubble around her? Was he going to be on the next one over? The one on the next block?
There are sirens in the distance and all she can think of is finding Clint so they can get the hell out of there. No way is she doing to spend time in a normal hospital again. No way...
There’s a dull roar in Clint’s head that shouldn’t be there. He distinctly remembers putting his hearing aids in this morning. Tasha’s going to kill him if he loses them again. That whole week he went around scowling at people while trying to get by on reading lips earned him more than one thinned lip frown from the redhead.
It’s one thing for everyone to know he’s deaf and another thing altogether for them to remember to turn to him when they’re talking. Everything in him fights against being made the middle of every conversation, as if he’s somehow more important because he can’t hear. It’s always been the sidelines for him and always will be.
Trouble with the dull roar is it’s making it hard for him to keep his eyes open. The light hurts and there’s a lot of it. His left arm’s dead weight and his right isn’t much help but he finally gets it up so it’s covering his closed eyes, keeping out the harsh glare until he can handle the brightness.
A hand covers his, making him jump in shock. He’s so stressed that he didn’t even realize anyone was in the room with him. There’s a buffet of sound against his skin but there’s no way he can make out what’s going on. Without his eyes to fill in the gaps for his lack of hearing, he’s useless.
That’s all it takes for panic to set in and he tries lashing out. His left arm is absolutely no help and the tingling sensation as his right tries to wake up is making his whole body spasm to the same tempo.
There’s more evidence of sound around him but he’s past the point of caring. Since his arms won’t work, he begins to fight against the restraints holding down his legs. As he keeps scissoring them back and forth, working on making a larger opening, he lets his arm flop back down beside his body.
Hands hold him down and he fights and fights until a shadow falls over him, blocking out the light, and he can get his eyes open just enough to see Cap standing over him, his mouth opening in a shout. The panic instantly recedes enough that he can make out part of what he’s trying to say.
won’t hurt you... down and... Natasha needs you.
He’s instantly still. “What?” he screams, moving his mouth with as much precision as he can because nothing is getting through to his brain, not even his own voice. “What? Natasha? What’s wrong with Natasha?”
Cap steps away and the light is sending shivers of pain through his head and neck. It’s too much overload and he tries to shy away from it, pushing back into the pillows in an attempt to get away.
Someone figures out his problem and the light dims enough that he can open his eyes without the pain overriding everything else. Bruce is hovering over him now, the doctor look in his eye as he seems to be examining something on Clint’s face. Clint’s eyes, to be exact.
He hands Steve something, his lips moving so fast that Clint is hard-pressed to get anything specific. It is possible to extract a sense of urgency from the conversation because Steve’s not even bothering to butt in. This is all Bruce’s call to make. That, in itself, is starting to concern Clint.
The tablet screen comes to life. IS YOUR VISION BLURRY?
He shakes his head but then reconsiders, giving it more thought. He lifts a shoulder, tingly with strange sensations, in a shrug. It’s no worse than normal but that’s not an answer. At least, not what Bruce is asking him.
YES OR NO?
He gives up trying to lie about the severity and nods his head. It doesn’t dawn on him that he has a voice he can use but it’s as far away from being a part of his body as his left arm. As long as Bruce keeps asking him yes or no questions, he won’t have to resort to using something that could betray him without his knowledge.
PAIN IN YOUR HEAD?
He tries shrugging but stops as Bruce’s lips curl into a growl he doesn’t need to be able to hear. Instead, he nods. He continues to nod as Bruce works his way through every body part. Weighed individually and not as a whole, Clint feels like he’s falling apart. Everything hurts. Everything but his left arm.
“What’s wrong with my left arm?” he finally works up the courage to ask. He’s too stressed out to enunciate the words correctly so finally goes for an abbreviated question and a pointed attempt to see his left side. “What’s wrong?”
Steve is talking now, his face impassive but his mouth opening and closing so fiercely that it’s more than evident that he’s giving orders. It’s also evident that Bruce doesn’t want to follow them.
“Tell me,” he finally demands with a glare to Steve.
That isn’t what he wants to hear. More words come up on the screen but he closes his eyes, trying to stop the rising panic. Possible scenarios, all of them ending with him spending the next fifty years of his life on a dirty couch, watching endless reruns of soul-sapping television programming, filter through his brain. No hearing. Iffy seeing. No left arm. They might as well shoot him now and get it all over with because he’s nothing.
A slap against his jaw wakes him back up to the reality that is going on around him. Steve is back to hovering and he’s got one word for Clint as soon as he’s focused on him again. “No.”
Clint tries to turn his head away but Steve’s having none of it, his hand firmly on Clint’s chin so he can’t move either way. “No,” he says again, as the single word fills with multitudes of meaning.
“Where’s Nat?” He needs to see her, to find some sense of grounding in her. She’ll snap him out of this horrifying state of mind faster than anyone else he knows.
This time it’s Bruce talking to Steve, the two of them at odds once again. “Tell me,” he screams, using up the last of his energy to draw their attention back to him.
Steve holds up the tablet, his jaw set to stubborn. With a shake of his head, Bruce enters the information.
When Clint’s had time to read the words a few times over, Steve gives Bruce more instructions that look like, “If you don’t do it, I will,” and more words pop up on the screen.
IT DOESN’T LOOK GOOD.
His only salvation looks to be Cap. Turning his head as far as he can to that side, Clint gets Steve’s attention and does his best to make his words crisp and clear. “Take me to her. Please.”
It doesn’t matter that he could very easily close his eyes and slip away on the blissful clouds of sleep or that whatever meds he on are starting to wear off so that the pain is making itself more aware even when he’s not actively thinking about it or that his head feels like it might explode just from the pressure of trying to make his eyes work properly. All that matters is that Natasha needs him. Selfishly, he needs her, too, but she’s in surgery and hours or days away from being able to ease his burden. Now it’s his time to bear her burden and he’s going to do that, nerve-damaged arm and all.
The first thing she sees when she opens her eyes is Clint. He’s watching her from a TV screen, his eyes dark with fatigue and pain.
“You okay?” he asks and she can tell immediately that his hearing is at zero percent.
There’s still a tube down her throat, helping her breath, and her arms feel like their attached to lead weights, so she blinks twice for yes. It’s a struggle to get her eyes to open back up after the second one but she wants to know why he’s digital and not here in person. She furrows her eyebrows, trying to get her point across with a minimum of movement.
“I’m okay.” She detects a lie but that’s understandable. Either he doesn’t want to talk about it or it’s too hard for him to put in the right words.
She has enough strength left for one message before she lets the nagging tired feeling win. With a shaky hand, she points at the monitor and then begins to fingerspell S-L-E-E-P.
The nod she attempts turns into a settling of her head against her pillow and she is following his orders to the letter.
“...amazing recovery. Both of them.”
“We knew she would pull through it. It was him I was worried about the most.”
“Don’t go congratulating yourself just yet, doctors. Neither one of them is out of the woods yet.” Fury’s voice cuts through the last vestige of Clint’s sleepy haze. He only vaguely remembers seeing the commander during that first fretful day. If he’s back, it can only mean he thinks they’re recovered enough to start talking about the mission and what went wrong.
Natasha is doing better. So much so that she’s curled up beside him, most all of her tubes and wires no longer tangling with his. Five days after her surgery and she’s up and walking, slowly and with aid of crutches, but she’s moving and that’s as good as recovered for most of the doctors around here.
When Clint looks down at their clasped hands, he tries to find any sensation below his aching shoulder that gives some indication of her touch. Her thumb is sliding along his palm, the only indication that she’s awake because her body is still pliant and soft against his.
With his shiny new hearing aids in place (courtesy of Tony working overtime on some new improvements), he can hear the shuffling of papers and feet, a sure indication that Fury is using his glare to upset the doctors. He wants to tell him to leave them alone, that they’re doing the best they can with what they have to work with, but he doesn’t want to do anything to break the beauty of their last minutes of solitude. One word from Fury and he’ll lose Natasha to more than just a few hours of physical therapy. He can drown them in paperwork and desk duty until they only see each other right before they fall into bed, exhausted.
He’s willing to admit that he’s been more needy than usual for this round of recovery. No one has said it out loud, not even Natasha, but he stands to lose everything. He doesn’t have what it takes to be good as a desk jockey and he’s too temperamental to be a decent handler. Maybe, if he learns how to cook something more than soup and hot dogs, Tony will hire him on. It’ll give him a reason to get up in the morning.
“Quit thinking.” Since he’s been staring at the ceiling, Clint completely missed her hand unhinging from his. Now it’s on his neck, tracing a pattern as familiar as their first meeting. Two triangles connected at one point. The Widow symbol that she proudly displays but it’s also harkens back to another rune when turned on its side. Dagaz. Illumination. Change.
“Thinking too loud again?” he whispers as he strains to put a kiss on forehead.
“Your whole body is tense. You’re telegraphing everything that you’re thinking and feeling. It’s the wrong frame of mind for healing.”
“Going to get all zen with me, Tasha?”
She looms up over him then, her eyes angry slits on a face tight with her own pain. “That isn’t zen, Barton. That’s fact. You’re in a bad place in your head and it’s not helping your body any. You’ve already given up.”
“That’s not-” he tries to protest but she cuts him off with a shake of her head that clicks his jaw together as good as any slap.
“I’m looking in dead eyes right now, Clint. Don’t try to lie to me. You gave up the moment you heard Bruce’s prognosis. That was days ago. A lifetime. This is a medical facility that can bring people back from the dead. Bruce has been in twice to talk to you about options and you’ve brushed him off both times.”
For a moment, there is the barest hint of moisture in the corner of her eye that belies her own thoughts. “We don’t quit, Clint. We don’t give up. This is a setback. Nothing else. When you decide you want to start moving forward, you give me a call.”
Before he realizes where this is going, she’s up and on her crutches. It’s slow going to the door but he can’t think of a thing to say to bring her back.
“Natasha?” It’s hard to surprise Fury but he’s got a question in his voice as he holds open the door for her.
“Ready to get back to work, sir. You got anything for me?”
Clint looks away as Fury throws him a questioning look. He’s not ready to think about the ramifications of letting her walk away just yet.
It’s been a day of filing, something that Natasha hates. She’s got PT in an hour but she’s already tired. That’s just going to make her exhausted but she’ll come back for more of this torture after, just because she has nowhere else to be. Maria offered to take her for coffee but that will mean conversation and she’s not up for that right now. Not with Clint’s silence hanging between them.
The very last thing she wants to do is talk about Clint Barton with anyone. She’s so angry with him that she can’t even see his name on files without feeling her blood pressure spiking.
This is how this plays out, though. Every time he gets hurt, they go through this same song and dance. Each time, he takes a little bit longer to heal as his aging body struggles to put everything back in order. This time was bad, she’s not going to lie to herself. She’s read through Bruce’s notes, wanting to see the prognosis in black and white, and there’s only a slim chance that he’ll come out the other side with any semblance of his old life.
There is a chance, though. A chance is as good as anything in this life of theirs.
“Come in,” she says without bothering to turn toward the door. Instead, she finishes sliding the last of the manilla folders in place as Bruce cleans off the only other seat in the room. “I’m not going to sign off on anything. Not without his permission. You know that.”
“I’m not here for your permission. I wanted to show you what he just signed off on, though.”
Natasha takes the folder, flipping it open to the first sheet. Her heart sinks down into her feet as she realizes what she’s reading. “This isn’t what we talked about earlier. I thought you were thinking about reteaching his muscles to help the nerves learn to compensate for what they lost. This is... this could kill him.”
“It was all his idea. Well, his and Tony’s, to be fair.”
“And you’re supposed to tell them no, Bruce. You’re the doctor. Not him. Rip this up. Tell him no. This is insanity. Tony needs to keep updating his own armor, not trying to do the same thing to the rest of us.”
It’s to Bruce’s credit that he doesn’t flinch during her onslaught of words and ire. “Don’t you trust me, Natasha?”
No! she wants to scream at him. He experimented with gamma radiation and look where it landed him? He’s always pushing the boundaries, looking for cures and catch-alls and something better than the status quo. She happens to like the status quo which is a breathing Clint who may, or may not, figure out that he can have a life even without his bow.
“You were unconscious for a day after your surgery. It was all Steve could do not to keep him from crawling on your bed to wrap you up in his arms as he waited for you to open your eyes. ‘It’s what we do,’ he kept saying. I’ve seen how the two of you work, Natasha. One of you always has the watch and he did his job. He saw you through until you were able to stay awake for more than five minutes at a time.”
He takes off his glasses, swinging them back and forth as he lets out a huge sigh. “And I understand this part, too. You have to step back so that he’s not smothered. You have to let him work this out for himself. You can’t do his dirty work for him. If he was able to stand, he’d be in the workout room with you, sending you to the mat over and over again until you could best him again.
“Have you ever thought,” and he looks up here, catching her eye with a knowing gleam of what she’s feeling that makes her pull back in surprise to be so known, “that maybe this is him struggling off the mat? That you’ve sent him to his back and he’s fighting back up? The very last place he wants to be is on the sidelines. This gives him options.”
“It could kill him.” She throws the folder at him, papers fluttering this way and that, as if she can reshuffle the facts and get something new out of them.
“Most everything he does could kill him.”
Bruce stands, sliding his glasses back on so that he’s once again Dr. Bruce Banner and not just a friend here on a heads-up visit. “Is it?”
She allows herself the luxury of a single tear before grabbing for the crutches and following after him.
“God damn it, Barton!”
Clint turns in surprise, trying to figure out what he’s done this time to require so much ire from Natasha. She’s got a black bag in her hands that she throws at him. It only glances off him as he shifts slightly, falling to the ground with a clatter of metal. Whatever she’s got in there, it wasn’t intended to hurt him or he’d be clutching something in pain.
“What? I picked up my dirty clothes.”
That has her stopping in her tracks, and he can see that she’s remembering why he came up with that as the explanation of her anger. There’s a spark of something that says she also remembers how they solved that particular argument.
“You told me you were going to tell me before you went to Fury with that stupid idea of yours. I’m sure I looked like a floundering cod when he asked me what I thought. Where was my heads-up?”
It hadn’t been well done of him to go to Fury but it had just come out of his mouth at their meeting this morning, without any real thought on his part. He hadn’t wanted to tell Natasha because he knows she’ll see right through his reasoning for getting it to Fury before he chickens out and chalks it up in the Could’a, Should’a column.
There’s real worry in her eyes as she gets closer, looking him up and down with a practiced eye. He should be used to it by now, four weeks from the sign off date when he got full clearance to get back to the team. The six months before that was nothing but sheer terror and intense pain. He wasn’t promised a full recovery going into the surgery and it had been iffy for weeks. It’s only been the last few weeks that Natasha doesn’t hold her breath as she examines him, looking for a sign that says it didn’t take. That infection has started to spread out of control. That his arm is locked into one place and will never move from the frozen position. That the despair is back in his eyes.
He’s watched her watch him, looking for his own signs that she’s not going to make it through this with him. She might look at the rest of the world with a closed expression, giving them what they need at the moment, but she’s never done that with him. He knows the moment she does, he’s done for.
“We can do this.” His whisper doesn’t travel far but she hears him and nods her agreement.
“We haven’t tested it in real time.”
“So, we do that tonight. Call Steve and have him meet us at the shipyard. I’m sure we can find some sort of trouble there. Isn’t there Maggia down there we can square off against?”
Natasha smooths a hand over his shoulder, rubbing her hand over the band of scar tissue that hides his nano chip. It should make him shiver, her light touch, but he still doesn’t have any sense of feeling below his shoulder cuff. Too much physical sensation and his brain goes into overload as it tries to process what it knows should be there but can’t find. If she were to plunge a dagger through his skin, he’s probably feel it, but not this delicate touch.
As always, she smooths Dagaz over the scar. It’s certainly worked whatever magic she’s been able to imbue it with because he’s certainly changed since that day when she walked away, her words stinging his heart. She’d been there when he’d woken up from surgery, had stayed with him through the first week as he’d endured test after test to see if the new technology was going to do its job.
As soon as it was decided that it had worked, she began to relentlessly drive him further than any of the physical therapists could. When he yelled, she yelled right back. When he whinged too much, she gave him double the workload just to shut him up. At the end of the day, she turned on the shower and massaged protesting muscles until they fell asleep in a tangle of limbs. When his brain shut off in protest of the overload, she was there to catch him.
The only time she hadn’t been at his side was when Stark came in for the fittings. He’s working on a sort of modified manica that will serve two purposes: protection, certainly, but also as a sort of intelligent armor that is powered by the same nano chip that tells his brain what his arm is doing and sends messages back. It is, for want of convincing Tony to accept a better name, an Iron Sleeve.
Working to make sure that he can shoot his bow with the additional weight on one side has taken up much of his time and energy. Natasha still grimaces when she sees him fitting it on but she puts him through his paces again and again as he struggles to come to terms with the newness of it all.
It bothered him that she wasn’t accepting any assignments during this time, as if he was her assignment and she refused to divide her attention. She needed to be out in the field as much as he did but she kept resisting. This was for her as much as it was for him and as soon as Clint had mentioned it, Fury had grabbed at the idea with both hands. If he wanted Black Widow on assignment, he needed to figure out how to get Hawkeye out there, as well.
“It’s going to be hard, at first-”
“I don’t mind hard,” she interrupted with a shake of her head that sent her braided hair swinging.
“It’s going to be hard but it’s like before. We have to find our rhythm again. So we don’t go out alone for the first couple of times. Steve... Bruce... whoever. We bring someone with us to help watch your back if something goes wrong.”
“What about your back? What happens if-”
Clint stops her with a kiss, long enough that they’re both breathing hard when he lets her go. He leans his forehead against hers. “You’ll be watching that. Like always. That won’t change.”
As she steps away, she nods her head to the unspoken questions. Will it be like always? Are you still in this, for good and bad? Do you trust me to get through this? Do you trust yourself? “So... I’ll call Steve?”
When he hears the acceptance in her voice, he can’t stop the grin that curves his lips up. “And I’ll let Fury know we’re going to give this a try.”
“Tell him he’s going to owe me twenty bucks when this is all over with.”
He salutes before remembering the bag at his feet. “You need to take this with you?”
She grins at him over her shoulder. “No, Stark asked me to bring that to you to see if you like the new changes. Seems you have a new outfit to try on. Better get to it, Sweet Cheeks.”
“I told him that wasn’t the new name. Tell him that’s not the name,” Clint roars but she’s already out the door, her laughter floating into the space she’s only just occupied. He let an arrow fly into a bullseye, dread filling his stomach at the thought that the nickname might fit. Last time he ever lets Stark come anywhere near his PT sessions.