He keeps laughing as he comes out of it, and it's amazing how normal it sounds just through his nose. She's seen men broken before, done her share of the breaking, and she recognizes it for what it is. His reality has been warped in the cruelest way possible, and his brain's trying to reconcile itself.
He's thrashing, fighting the bonds, and it's not safe to bring a blade near him. So she talks, just talks, tells him about Stark and Banner and Rogers and Thor, about the team Fury managed to put together, how they're going to save the world. She doesn't believe it, but it's something to say. She doesn’t mention how Stark and Rogers bicker like children or how the Hulk nearly killed her or how Thor may just be dead. She never mentions Coulson; she locks that away for another time, a safer time. She tells him everything good instead, the most positive spin she can put on things. From the way his fever-bright eyes follow her, she thinks it might be working.
She dips a bit of medical bandaging in water and wipes at the little trails running down his chin, but the cloth turns deep pink long before she’s made a dent in the crusted blood. He sighs and leans back into the bench, eyes slipping shut.
“Do you remember Osaka?” she asks, running her fingers through his short hair. “We had to burn our clothes. I thought we were going to clear Medical out of o-pos.”
That gets her a snort, and when he opens his eyes again, the person who’s looking back at her is once again someone she knows. She reaches over and unlatches his cuffs, lets him rub the raw skin of his wrists.
He makes a noise, and she thinks it was supposed to be her name. She can see in his expression that he’s startled when his mouth doesn’t move the way it’s supposed to. His fingers fly up, run over the ridges of the cord, and she realizes that he thought it had been part of a dream just before he starts screaming. It’s a horrible sound, caught deep in his throat, strangled by flesh and thread. He’s tearing at his mouth with blunt nails, ripping at his lips like he can pull the stitches out himself.
She quickly gathers him to her chest, pinning his hands between them so he can’t make his wounds worse. This has never been her area of expertise, but she rubs little circles between his shoulderblades anyway, murmurs reassurances into his ear. He makes a low keening noise that transitions into a sob, and his shaking rattles her. This isn’t the Clint she knows. All she can think to do is keep holding him, wait for it to settle in. He’s always bounced back before.
Finally she’s able to guide him to the en-suite bathroom, let him look in the mirror. The black cord is piercing each lip in a dozen places, sewing them together. The lower half of his face is a mess of swelling and crusting, and his panic reopened most of the holes so that fresh, warm blood oozes sick-bright under the fluorescent lights.
“We’ll get them out,” she promises, standing behind him. He turns around, stares at her, presses a finger into her collarbone. You. She’s done the hard stuff for him before, and if their positions were reversed, she knows there’s no one else she’d trust more than him. She nods. “Okay.”
She grabs a washcloth and runs it under warm water as she moves him to sit on the closed lid of the toilet. Slowly, she begins dabbing at his face. She starts easy, wiping at his bruise-dark eyes, hiding the salt-tracks of tears like they’re a secret she’ll never share. A pass over his brow removes a layer of sweat, and he leans into her touch. She drops a kiss onto his forehead as she begins working under his jaw, using her nails with the cloth to scrape off the dried droplets that never quite fell. Finally, with another rinse out and the gentlest touch she can manage, she cleans his cheeks, chin, and nose. She can tell by the tenseness of his shoulders that it hurts him, that even the lightest pressure is an agony, but he never tries to stop her. She holds his gaze as she slips the cloth between the stitches, chasing the last bits of blood.
When she’s done, he looks, well. He looks grotesque, puffy and bruised and twisted, but at least he’s cleaner. She slips a tiny knife from its holster and tilts his head left and right, trying to figure out how best to tackle this puzzle and cause him the least amount of pain.
She frowns and drops Clint’s jaw before poking her head out into the main room. Rogers is standing in the doorway, mostly back into his Captain America gear. “We need to head out,” he tells her. “Can you fly one of those jets?”
She glances back at Clint, and nearly smiles when she sees how different his demeanor is. Both of them have always worked better when there’s something that needs to be done. He nods at her, just one sharp dip of his head.
“No,” she replies, stepping out toward him. “But Barton can.”
“Barton?” Rogers repeats, surprise in his tone, as though he’s just realized that the med bench is empty. His eyes slip past her, the color draining from his face, and she knows Clint has followed her out. “Christ,” he mutters, an instinctive hand going up over his mouth. She’d bet even money on whether it’s sympathetic or an aborted attempt to squelch the blasphemy. “Is he--are you all right?”
Clint gives a complicated little gesture with his eyebrows.
“Can you fly us like that?” Rogers asks, and she can tell by the way he cuts straight to the chase that there’s no time for pleasantries, for worrying about things that aren’t life-threatening. It means that Clint’s going to have to wait. She looks at him out of the corner of her eye, gives him the out.
He just nods.
He’s not at his best--she’s seen him at his best, and it’s a beautiful and terrible thing--but he holds his own. The reactions of the rest of the team mirror the one Rogers had; Thor is the first to arrive, bleeding from a small stab wound, and when he sees Clint he spits upon the ground. Banner’s face looks like it’s broken open, pity and rage briefly warring for dominance before there’s no more time and the Hulk takes over. When Stark touches down, his metallized voice echoes out as a short but sincere “fuck,” but that's all the luxury they have to spend on it, because when Loki said army, it turns out he wasn't kidding.
Rogers sends Clint up skyward, out of the way, a place where he's got the best chance. Natasha feels a twinge of relief; she hadn't spent so long trying to get Clint back to see him cut down on the ground like a common agent. After that, though, she loses track of him--there's so much to be done, so many steps she must stay ahead in order to survive. As she tries to steer a glider, she notices him a few floors up, firing away. She can tell, even from the distance, that he's ripped the holes larger; his mouth is a bloody smear beside his bowstring.
Later, he is the first to join her in cornering Loki. He knocks his last arrow, and she can't help but notice that even as he drips red onto the ruined floor, his arms are locked iron steady.
"Be very still," she tells him, more for the benefit of their audience than for Clint himself. She'd never hurt him, and she knows he'd never flinch. They trust each other explicitly, but that's not something she wants to advertise.
Banner hands her medical scissors and she begins to cut--two small, precise snips. With a pair of forceps, she gently pulls out the section of cord; it slides easily through the enlarged gouge in his lip. He groans a little, but she made sure Rogers got the good painkillers from Medical before she even thought about doing this. She drops it into the waiting bowl, which should be sitting on a table but is instead cradled in Thor's huge hands like this is some sort of penance for his brother's actions.
Slowly she unravels him, bit by bit. She tells herself that it isn't at all like when they were first assigned together, pulling pieces of their gags away until they found the raw places underneath, but she knows that's not true. He never would've asked her to do this if it wasn't the same. Banner hands her sterile cloth as she works and holds her instruments as she cleans the freshly-bleeding wounds, but he never touches Clint. It's all her, and he watches her with grateful, half-lidded eyes.
The last piece, at the far corner of his lips, doesn't pull out as easily as the others. She tugs gently, and as it begins to slide free she sees it's longer, the tail of the cord. Clint retches lightly as she pulls eight inches from his mouth and throat where it had been sewn in. She bites down a surge of rage and instead murmurs gentle praise for his bravery in Russian, her mother tongue a special kind of nonsense just for him. Her fingers are tacky with his blood, but he’s free.
“How do you feel?” Rogers asks, from where he’s leaning against the wall, still in his burnt and torn uniform. He’d insisted on not changing until Barton had received attention.
Clint touches a few of the two dozen wounds and gives him a look. Then, hoarsely, he slurs, “Honestly, sir? Like shit.”
“The man just got turned into an eighth grade home ec project,” Stark chimes in from the doorframe. “What? I’m just saying. At least let them bandage him up before you start the debrief, Cap.”
Rogers rolls his eyes, but he has the decency to look contrite.
Natasha fills the holes in Clint’s lips with a liquid bandage, one by one. It doesn’t quite match his skintone, so it looks like he has a string of blemishes surrounding his mouth. She supposes, in time, that’s exactly what they will be--dull white scar tissue, the physical reminder of the psychological torment.
They all leave, finally, off to heal their own wounds or toast a safer world and fallen comrades with Fury, until it’s just her and Clint. Once they’re alone, she nudges his legs until he moves over and then climbs onto the bench with him. He wraps both arms around her, fitting his body around hers. She strokes his hair and smiles against the shell of his ear, comfortable in a way she feels only with him.
“So what are your opinions on lip rings?” he says into her neck.
“I don’t think it’s the look for you,” she replies evenly.
“I thought Thor was going to kiss me for a bit there, I really did. He was manhandling me enough.”
It was true; the god had taken this obvious sign of his brother’s cruelty quite hard. After Clint had been bandaged up, he wouldn’t stop apologizing, his hands clutching at Clint’s neck and shoulders. Everything Thor did was big--his rages were fearsome, and his sorrow was profound.
“I’d’ve fought him off for you,” she tells him. “He’d have burst your wounds back open, and I promise you that wouldn’t have stood.”
“Natasha,” he says suddenly, and she would know that tone of voice anywhere. It’s the throes of a crippled conscience, the spasm of guilt coming to the forefront. He’s finally processing, and she can feel the shudder that goes up his body.
“No,” she tells him firmly. “Not tonight. Tomorrow, not tonight.”
He goes limp against her, the building earthquake leaving him suddenly. She twists so that she can get an arm around him, so they’re wrapped in each other. The holes in his lips are a tawdry color even in the low light, and she’s gentle as she traces the line of his cheekbone with the pads of two fingers.
“Don’t leave,” he asks, and she watches the words pull and stretch at his wounds.
She calls it a draw--nothing new to put in her ledger, but nothing to wipe out either.
“Okay,” she whispers, and she doesn’t feel the need to tell him that she hadn’t planned to.