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Balancing the books

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There are few things Natasha hates more than feeling helpless.

She’s learned to control as much of herself and her surroundings as she can, and she has the skills to outrun, outwit, outmaneuver, or destroy anything that might do her harm. Helplessness is a rare sensation, and she hates the way it makes her skin crawl almost as much as she hates Clint for making her feel it in the first place.

The beep of the hospital monitor is quiet, an unobtrusive reminder that yes, he’s alive, yes, he’s asleep, and yes, he’ll be fine. Natasha doesn’t bother to pretend she isn’t watching it, watching for the green line to stutter or stop, and Steve, keeping vigil beside her, doesn’t pretend not to notice.

Steve opens his mouth, closes it, and Natasha waits for him to decide on the appropriate platitude until he finally says, “I can stay, if you want to get some rest.” She shoots him a look. “Right. Nevermind.”

The monitor beeps on, a steady refrain to tell her that again, he’s hurt, again, she wasn’t there, and again, there’s nothing she can do but wait.

"He'll be alright," Steve says, because patience isn't his strong suit, and he doesn't like silence.

"Of course he will," Natasha replies. "He owes me dinner." Natasha started the tradition, but the whole thing was Clint’s fault.

The first time Natasha found herself in a SHIELD medical room, Clint had stayed with her. She hadn't been seriously injured or in need of watching over, but he'd stayed all the same, playing cards and telling stories and napping lightly in the corner. Natasha had hated every minute.

"This was maybe a month or two after... after he'd brought me in," she explains. "I felt like I was watching the meter on a taxi. Every minute was one more thing that I owed him."

Steve nods like he understands. Maybe he does. "You don't believe Clint thinks of it that way, do you?"

"Of course not. He does those things the same way he eats: constantly and without thinking," she replies. Steve snorts, and she gives him a smile. "We were still sleeping together then, which made it worse."

Instead of reacting to the revelation about their relationship - either because he's unsurprised or unimpressed - Steve asks simply, "Why?"

Natasha opens her mouth to answer, but stops short. There are too many pieces for a short story, and there is too much history for her to give it up without Clint's consent. "Because it did," she says. She shakes her head, smiling at herself. "You know, I always felt a little silly that I gave up the freelance life for a boy."

At that, Steve laughs, loud in the small room. "Natasha Romanoff, Secret Romantic," he teases, and she punches his arm.

It's more complicated than that; it always is. Still, Natasha knows that the reason she'd gone to SHIELD instead of going to ground is because Clint wanted her to. She would have gone anywhere if he asked her to go with him, and she wants to hate him a little bit for that. She can't.

"The next time he got hurt, I sat with him, and he said we were even," she tells Steve. "Then he got hurt again, and I stayed with him again. He promised to buy me dinner."

Steve's smile twists. "I'm guessing he's bought you a lot of dinners over the years."

Ninety seven. "One or two. We have a system."

Waiting in medical equals one dinner, unless the wait is returned in kind within a month. Two days in medical equals dinner, plus at least one load of laundry. Three or more days equals a shared vacation to a location of choice. A rescue in the field nullifies all debts owed.

"Most debts," Natasha amends.

"Most debts," Steve agrees. "Some don't get wiped out."

Natasha doesn't respond; she doesn't need to. The machine continues to beep in time with Clint's heart, and her skin continues to crawl with helplessness.

After a moment, Steve laughs. "How long did it take them to defrost me?" he asks.

Natasha thinks back. "A week, maybe. Why?"

"I think I owe Coulson a vacation," he says.