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Precious Midnight

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The night he goes to Natasha’s room, he realizes what’s been holding him back since Wakanda. In Wakanda, in the ash at the site of destruction, she was eating, sleeping, seeking threads to tie together, wounds to staunch. There was grief, but channeled into what she excelled at: taking action, undertaking the hardest jobs. People were more than their primary strength, though, just as grief was a demon with many forms.

When they returned to the New Avengers Facility, Natasha’s fight drained. Leaving ground zero and entering the next phase of the aftermath showed that Thanos had made a ruin of the entire planet. There was no sanctum, no escape, no emptiness unhaunted. Every house, every skyscraper, every farm, every abandoned car, the alleys, hospitals, schoolyards—all were graves now, and they had to somehow live on in of them.

The Avengers crumbled. One way or another, they broke, because Thanos took parts of them that were integral to the whole. That included him, included Steve, Thor, Okoye, included everyone left.

It also included Natasha and, as horrible as it might be to admit, he cared about her in a different way than he did about Thor, Tony—

He cares about Tony and Thor, every one of his teammates. Whatever has happened, whoever’s alive or not right now doesn’t change that. This terror has not shaken him of his care for Natasha either, and she’s hurting. Her walls keep her stoic, somber in front of outsiders. The suffering she confines to within, to a solitude that will strangle her—that he knows that all too well.

It’s been a full 24 hour cycle since he’s seen her. At hour 28, he goes to her room, hoping her breaking point hasn’t beaten him there. He knocks and it resonates in his ears, yet isn’t loud enough. If she’s asleep, if she’s listening to music, if she’s doing anything besides standing or sitting still, she could miss the noise. If he was stronger, bolder, more of a maverick, maybe he’d know of something better and do it. But that’s not him. How he is now is what he has to offer, and he’ll give her all of it if it will help.

With a soft gasp, the door opens. Natasha reveals herself in the entryway, showing him a glimpse of what she’s been hiding for days upon days.

He has absolutely no plan for this.

“I hope this is okay.” He says, stitched together with dozens of questions revolving around her. If she needs him to, wants him to leave, to go far away, he’ll do it.

She responds in a murmur, soft but clear, “Probably not.”

He’s ready to turn on his heel when she pulls him in by his hand.

Once they’re both in, they both turn to close the door, both refusing to yield their grip on each other. To reinstate the lock, however, she requires two hands, which means their touch is feathery and brief.

With the door secured, the world—what’s left of it—narrows. It doesn’t disappear completely—he can’t pretend it does and shouldn’t—but air feels a lot less like a burden around her. Maybe—if he doesn’t completely drop the ball—he can provide the same. The way she’s looking at him, as though he’s the thread she’s clinging to, makes him think that maybe just being here is enough.

They reach for each other at the same time. He extends his arms in the question of a hug and she’s already got a hand at his waist, tugging him close. He curls her into him, carefully hovering his cheek above her head, and doesn’t have a clue where to start or what to stay. Right now, he manages to stand there, and that’s enough to keep her breathing, her heartbeat strong enough for him to just sense it. All the weights hooked into her mind are there, and she’s leaning them against his chest. He’s glad for that.

It’s like that for a few seconds, the kind of long moments that don’t blink but blur into each other, the ones that feel longer than minutes do. He holds her and tries to think of something to say. He tries to be enough.

Eventually, he tells her, “You did everything you could.”

Her devastation comes in a whisper, “It wasn’t enough.”

“It will be.”

She shakes her head, as though she’s already accepted the plummet. He wants her to hold on.

Instead, she says, “There’s no way to win.”

He leans away from her. It’s him asking her to look at him and his desire for her to see that he won’t break, she won’t break, they won’t break. That’s lost in an unspoken translation, and she retreats from their embrace entirely. For a tremendous mountain of reasons he doesn’t do it, but he wants to take her by the arms and wrap her back in, to tuck her into his chest and learn how to exist in this immense, marred hole of loss.

She takes a backward step, trying to be subtle about how she puts distance between them. “We have to focus on fixing what Thanos did. We didn’t stop it—”

“You’re punishing yourself.”

“Shouldn’t I?” Hurt scatters across her face like ash. “Fury’s gone. Everything’s in shambles. I have to be—”

“Beating yourself up won’t bring anyone back.”

He’s fully prepared to meet every objection with a reason to hope, the vast majority of them involving her. They may have been apart for two years, but she’s still the most fearsome and resilient woman he’s ever known. If she wants to calm a volcano, she can do it. If a continent, or a self-selected, power-hungry god, is in her way, she’ll move it. The universe has been robbed on an unprecedented scale, but it has the best person on the team to avenge it.

She doesn’t protest, though. Silence makes her stone and it’s so much worse.

She is worthy. She is strong. She is human. He raises a hand to her jaw and tries to tell her this.

Before the courage comes, she covers his fingers with her own, then folds them in and pushes his hand back. She places his palm over his own heart and lingers, her touch like an apology.

She stares at his chest, right through to where his heart should be, watches the spot like a star that’s burning out. It’s unclear who she speaks to—herself or him. “We can’t.”

Deep in his chest, somewhere between his ribs, an ache blooms. Above that, though, worries flutter like a horde of moth wings. If he could gather her grief and his, release them all like doves, he would do it and, in his doing, hopefully reveal a space where she could be at peace. It doesn’t matter what he feels or what selfishness wants right now; what matters to him is that she doesn’t make an island of herself.

Even if it’s just to cup her cheek, he doesn’t force his touch on her and won’t until he has her permission. With his hand anchored where she placed it, where her own palm lingers, he promises, “I’m not running away.”

Her gaze remains fixed to his chest. The corners of her eyes scrunch in the slightest, like she’s searching for belief laced into his heartbeat.

He tries to be permanent—as permanent as one human can be—for her. “I’m not going anywhere until the job’s done. I’m not leaving anyone behind this time.” Before he can second-guess himself, he adds in earnest, “Especially not you.”

Her fingers twitch atop his, like ice thawing at the hint of spring. “Have you confirmed that with the other guy?”

“If he wants to take over, he’ll have to kill me first.”

It’s an admission, nothing but honest. The truth isn’t meant to hurt, but her hand retreats and it’s clear that he’s stung her.

Tenacious winter reclaims the crack that a light beam had made, sealing her back in lonely ice. She’s quiet but firm when she tells him, “Don’t say that.”

Away from him, she turns and walks to her bed, where she sinks. She embodies a glacier in her stillness.

He drifts over to her on feet as unsure as his mind. It’s a guessing game with no prizes, trying to figure out whether he should stay or leave—whichever would be best for her. With every motion slowed in preparation for rejection, he eases onto her ledge, leaves a gap between them. He doesn’t cross that space in any way except to say, “Sorry.”

There’s a slight shift—her tipping herself into his weight. They don’t touch—their legs  remain separate, their feet face a mutual distance. He keeps his hands clasped together as though in prayer, as though these moments with her were a chapel.

They don’t touch until she leads her head onto his shoulder. When it happens, he’s half-convinced it’s an illusion, some trick of the air conditioning in this room, but no. It’s barely there, just a corner of her forehead, but it’s settled onto him.

She murmurs, quiet like her touch, “Just don’t go dying on me.”

At this point, the Hulk couldn’t even pull him outside of the stratosphere if it wasn’t with her. They’ll go where their vengeance against Thanos took them and, then, he still won’t leave until she tells him to, until there is a better option for her, whatever that may be.

He says none of this. In fact, his tongue holds still, like the rest of him. He breathes for her, just breathes, a periodic reminder that he is alive and will continue to be that way.

They stay anchored like that until she admits, “I don’t know what to do.”

It’s unclear as to what she’s talking about at this point. It doesn’t really matter because, regardless, he doesn’t have any answers either, though she probably knows that.

Whatever the situation, though, he has an unshakeable faith in her. With that comes assurance, “We’ll do whatever we need to.”

“I don’t know what I need.” Her head adjusts, moves a little further onto him. “I know that sounds selfish—”

“You don’t have to be miserable.” It’s so much easier said than done, he knows. Still, he entreats, “Try not to shut yourself down.”

She lifts her face to look at him, holding a gaze that seems lost after thawing from a cage of ice. “How?”

She looks at him like he’s the first person she’s found after an apocalypse. He so badly wants her to know he’s not a mirage, that he’s here and will continue to be here as long as she desires. If he’s being completely honest, he also wants to bring her close again, to hug her and show that it’s possible—so many things are still possible. Their world is fractured, but not irreparable.

Repair will start with little steps.

He unclasps his hands and places one behind him, opening his body more to her. Her eyes flick down from his; it’s not a retreat, but a wandering, a rediscovery that takes her to his nose, his mouth, his chest. Their last encounter from two years ago hovers around them, a veil that’s both a little claustrophobic but overwhelmingly safe. They rest in their shared gravity. He wonders if they’ll ever come closer and tries not to focus on his selfish desire to do so.

As though reading his mind—or, realistically, simply knowing him so well—she says, “I need a little time.”

“I’ll be there.” He doesn’t ask for more. The vow—in whatever capacity it entails—comes without conditions.

His non-supporting hand rests on his lap. She reaches across, brushes her fingertips over his knuckles, coast back toward his wrist, like a reverse lullaby. He flips his arm so his palm faces the ceiling, an offering to her. It’s a gesture she takes, slipping her hand into his then tugging it and him toward her. With a better angle, their bodies bowed together in mimicry of swans, she intertwines their fingers.

From there, the farthest he goes is to rest his cheek against her temple. They can’t look at each other this way, not directly, but they don’t need to. They remain this way, adrift in a silence with the gentle ebb and flow of their respiration. They stay like that until he can feel her pulse between his fingers.

At no point in particular, she utters, “I’m so tired.”

He gives her hand a small squeeze. “I think you should sleep.”

Her fingers curl further into him, becoming more like a grasp. “I think you should stay.”

He turns into her, not to kiss her, not to do anything but reassure that he’s there and he’ll continue to be.

He does need a little clarity, though. “You mean stay the night, right—”

“Yes.” She pulls back, and he finds the first grin she’s had since the Snap. It’s a small thing, the first flower blossom—resilient, gorgeous, a little lonely—but it’s there. She teases, “You dork.”

For some strange reason, those two words assure him that everything will be alright. They won’t just avenge the fallen, they’ll make them rise from the ashes. It seems impossible right now, in the aftermath. To others, it may seem like they’ll need a act of the gods, some primordial power, even a few miracles. The answer is already here. He knows it, knows that they just have to piece it together, and they don’t need anything more than themselves, don’t need some supernatural phenomenon, to make it happen. He doesn’t believe in miracles because she exists.

Their parting is transient. They ready for the trial of tackling sleep in their respective ways before joining in her bed. She leads the coordination of their limbs. They rest on their sides, facing each other with a narrow creek of cotton between them. In the gap, he places a hand. She covers his with her own.

They find sleep together like that, and wake in the same manner.