Work Header

The War That I Can't Win

Work Text:

Clint is great at being in the hospital. Or that’s what he keeps telling Fury, anyway.

Sure, it’s probably true that he has a greater-than-average propensity for stir-craziness. There was that one time he’d tried to figure out how to play songs with the chime from the nurse call button. And that other time he’d torn up the edge of one of the sheets to practice tying specialized knots. There was also the time he’d gotten into a heated argument with the kitchen over whether or not a grilled cheese sandwich ought to qualify as a side for a hamburger. And that one night he’d made a game out of seeing how many chocolate chip cookies he could request, hide, and then claim never to have received before the hapless Food Services cart-pusher figured him out. (Six, for the record.)

But when it comes to medications, and fall precautions, and all the many prescribed courses of therapy, Clint is a model patient. Because the truth is, he knows all too well that he doesn’t have one god-damned bit of choice.

Losing his ability to do his job--or worse yet, simply take care of himself--is not an option. He’s seen how that goes, seen fellow agents forced into retirement, or into a state of perpetual convalescence, by infected wounds, or failures to complete PT, or depression so deep that consequences don’t seem to matter anymore.

Clint’s already decided that none of these things will happen to him, because he doesn’t have the luxury of a family to step in if the doctor rules him unfit to live on his own. And he’ll be damned if he’s going to end up in a facility somewhere like an old man, either. So he’ll do everything the whitecoats ask of him, and trust his body to cooperate in return.

Clint knows it’s bad when he wakes to the familiar yellow ceiling tiles and antiseptic scent of Medical and no recollection of getting here.

Correction: with no memory of doing anything that might have landed him here.

He blinks blearily at the fluorescent light overhead, waiting for the disconcerting double-vision halo around it to resolve. When it doesn’t, he turns his head gingerly, immediately regretting it when everything begins to swim dangerously, his stomach twisting like it might actually be trying to grasp for purchase against his other organs.

“Fuck,” he croaks reflexively, then grimaces again, horrified by the sound of his voice and the way the words tear from a throat that feels like very thin paper ripping under too much pressure.

“Agent Barton?” comes a voice from somewhere over his left shoulder, the opposite direction from where he’s trying to focus his vision.

Clint knows better than to try to turn his head again right now, doesn’t feel like vomiting on top of everything else. Instead he manages something that approximates a grunt of acknowledgement, hopes the owner of the voice understands. Apparently he does, because a moment later a young man in a white coat appears in his field of view. The doctor has dark hair, glasses, and a slightly wrinkled shirt--exactly the kind of medical cookie-cutter clone he’s started to suspect S.H.I.E.L.D. grows in tanks somewhere down in the basement.

“Agent Barton, can you hear me?”

“Aren’t you supposed to ask my name?” asks Clint, swallowing hard as the words catch in his throat again. “See if I know it? Kind of spilled the beans there, doc.”

The young man looks unconcerned. “If you know that I was supposed to ask that, I’m not particularly concerned that you knowing the answer.”

Clint rolls his eyes, pain and disorientation flaring into irritability. “Great. I get the lazy baby doc. Did I draw the short straw before I hit my head?”

“Do you know where you are?” asks the doctor, ignoring that barb.

“S.H.I.E.L.D. Medical,” says Clint without pause, then glances up at the ceiling again. “Room 971?”

The doctor looks down at his clipboard, frowning. “Do you remember being told the room number?”

“No,” Clint admits. “Just know 971’s the one with the water damaged ceiling tiles that look like they want to cave in and give me an asbestos facial. Admit it, this room’s secretly reserved for me.”

“You have a head injury,” says the doctor, without further pretense. “You were unconscious for nearly twelve hours. You also have three broken ribs, and a broken collarbone. I think it’s safe to say that you’ll be in this room for a while.”

“Maybe,” says Clint, “if I get really lucky, the ceiling will collapse after all and finish the job.”

“Do you have any questions?” asks the doctor.

“When does the nurse bring me Jello?” asks Clint, because if he stops talking, then this will all become real. He isn’t sure what to do if it’s real. “Do I have to wear the ass-less gown, or can I get some pants? If the ceiling collapses, how much can I sue for?”

The doctor nods curtly, crossing off something on the paper that graces his clipboard. “Okay. No questions, then. Physical Therapy will be coming by shortly to begin your evaluation.”

He turns to leave.

“Am I going to remember you?” Clint calls after him, panic crawling up the back of his throat. “Am I going to remember any of this conversation? How many times have we had it before?”

The younger man pauses, halfway out into the hall, and turns back over his shoulder. “We haven’t. And--We’ll see.”

The day--there isn’t a window or a clock, so Clint has no more specifics than that--crawls by in a haze of nausea and pain.

At first he focuses on the details, tries to burn them into the scrambled goop he’s currently picturing as his brain. He’s determined not to forget again, not to lose any more time. But as he makes his way through one evaluation and exam after the next, he begins wishing for the opposite, begins to think that he might welcome oblivion in the place of the next few days, during which it’s becoming increasingly apparent that walking is out of the question, standing is tenuous at best, and he probably ought to consider it lucky if he’s allowed the opportunity to wipe his own ass.

He has the peculiar sense that everything’s changed somehow, that his body’s forgotten how to be in the world. If someone appeared right now and informed him that he’d fallen through a wormhole and into an alternate dimension, it would seem more natural than the things he’s been feeling since waking up on the other side of a blank space.

It’s more or less fine, as long as he’s lying down -- just the vague throb of pain in his head, the sour feeling of nausea sitting stagnantly in his stomach. It’s the moment he starts moving that the bottom falls out, the world tries to swim away again. He’s been dizzy before but never like this. He has the sense that gravity’s stopped working correctly, can’t quite place the familiar feel of the floor beneath his feet or the way that his limbs move through space. Everything seems to be spinning and tilting, listing to one side like he’s aboard a ship on a particularly angry ocean.

It’s all he can do stumble through the various evaluations, knows he’s being told things about his condition, his prognosis, what sort of future he’s going to have, but there’s no way he can pay attention to any of it when simply remaining conscious takes such momentous effort. By the time he’s allowed back into bed, the view of the ceiling seems a perverse comfort.

Clint’s lost track of the flow of time again when he wakes, has another moment of breathless disorientation in which his mind fails to process where he is. Then his eyes catch on the moldy, bowing ceiling tile, and the reality slams back into him so hard that he actually tastes bile in the back of his throat. He sits up in a rush, which makes the room spin, and tries to blink through it as quickly as possible, to find some sort of evidence of how much time he’s lost during this latest all-too-pleasant period of blackness.

The room looks just as it did the first time, be that eight hours or eight days ago, he has no idea. He has the distinct impression that something’s disturbed him, pulled him from sleep, though, and his first thought is that it must be the return of the young man he’s begun to think of as Dr. Asshat. He turns carefully toward the doorway, trying to move slowly enough to avoid any more spinning than strictly necessary, then freezes, a bolt of adrenaline rocking through his gut.

Natasha is standing in the doorway of his room, the light from the hallway igniting the edges of her hair. She looks oddly small in a nondescript black hoodie that falls halfway down her thighs, but not afraid. The last time he saw her in Medical, she was the one in the hospital bed, and her face had been positively haunted. That’s what’s so unsettling about her sudden presence here, he realizes--he’s not worried for himself, but for her.

“Sorry,” she says, almost too quietly to hear. It’s not immediately obvious what she’s apologizing for, and Clint frowns. This sort of vagueness from her isn’t so unusual, but the remorse that’s practically radiating off of her definitely is.

Clint swallows, fights the urge to tell her to go away as quickly as possible. It’s instinct rather than sincerity. He actually does want to talk to her, to find out what’s going on as much as anything else. But he’s used to licking his wounds in private, learned in childhood that it’s far too dangerous to let anyone else see your blood or your bruises.

“Come sit,” he manages finally, because he doesn’t actually have the heart to reject whatever this gesture is outright, but he certainly doesn’t have the energy to yell across the room, either.

She nods and crosses the room, ignoring the folding chair that’s propped against a wall and perching on the edge of the windowsill instead. He doesn’t miss the fact that the position gives her a direct line of sight to the door.

“They said you woke up this morning,” she says, after a long moment. “Really woke up. I wanted to see for myself.”

“I was sleeping when you got here,” Clint says lamely, as if that wouldn’t have been entirely obvious to her. Everything still seems to be moving too fast around him, leaving him struggling to catch up. “Sorry to disappoint.”

“You’re awake now,” she counters, and he remembers the look of regret on her face, wonders suddenly if that’s what she was apologizing for.

“So I’m told,” says Clint. He swallows again, throat uncomfortably tight, though whether it’s from dryness or something else, he can’t quite say, doesn’t want to examine.

“You’re awake now,” she repeats, then gets to her feet in a decisive motion that makes him jump. For a moment he thinks she’s going to leave, perhaps has realized that she can’t tolerate Medical after all, but then she makes a detour to the utilitarian nightstand in the corner, pours a cup of water from the pitcher he hasn’t even noticed and hands it to him.

Clint takes hold of the cup very carefully, doesn’t entirely trust himself not to slop it everywhere. He manages to drink successfully enough, though, and the words come easier when he speaks again. “Thanks.”

She nods, taking the cup back when he’s finished with it, and returns to her seat in the window.

“I don’t suppose they told you what happened to me?” he asks finally, though admitting that he doesn’t know feels foolish in the extreme. This is a woman who trusted him with her life, he reminds himself, who allowed him to be present while she was being deprogrammed. “I mean, I’ve heard the scrambled brain and broken bones part, but the rest is--kind of hazy. And by ‘hazy,’ I mean completely gone.”

She nods, a look crossing her face that he can’t quite parse. “You were on assignment. I’m not cleared to know what the mission was, but it went bad. There was an explosion, and a building collapsed. Apparently you were under for a few hours before the extraction team pulled you out.”

The ghostly fingers of a memory brush over him at that: the desert in the afternoon, a shockwave rushing over him with suffocating force, tiny vicious projectiles stinging his skin and stinking of acrid smoke. He shudders and swallows hard, nausea rolling in the pit of his stomach again.

Natasha frowns, because of course she’s noticed his reaction. “What is it?”

Clint shakes his head, which is beginning to ache terribly, a throbbing pulse behind his eyes, like his own heartbeat’s been converted into a special sort of torture. Or maybe it’s been that way all along, and he’s just now managed to notice. “How long ago was that?”

“Three days,” says Natasha, that odd expression on her face again, still beyond his ability to decode. “You’ve been in and out. Awake but not--really processing things. You got quite the reputation for throwing nurses out of your room yesterday. Kept telling them you didn’t believe anything was wrong, that this was all some sort of plot to take you prisoner.”

“I don’t remember,” he says softly, fear resting heavily in the pit of his stomach. It feels as though he’s hearing a story about someone else, feels impossible, absolutely foreign to him. “I don’t remember that at all.”

“That’s the funny thing about memories.” Natasha crosses her arms, her hands suddenly engulfed by the too-long sleeves of her sweatshirt. “Sometimes I think--Reality doesn’t exist without them.”

Clint shudders again, wonders what the monitors currently charting his vitals would do if his heart suddenly gave out. It feels like all the air’s been sucked from the room.

“I should let you rest,” says Natasha, looking suddenly apprehensive about being here at all. She gets to her feet, pauses at the edge of his bed and doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with herself.

He has the sudden urge to reach for her hand, to beg her to stay like the sick child he hasn’t been in decades. He doesn’t, though, just nods dumbly, and the next thing he knows, he’s alone with the ceiling tiles again.

His memory, it turns out, is not miraculously fixed. Nothing, it appears, is going to be magically fixed here, nevermind his years-old suspicions that S.H.I.E.L.D. is working on technology to cure pretty much anything, perhaps even bring people back from the dead. None of that is available to him, though, and by the time he’s managed to move on from that thought, he’s forgotten what it was that spurred it to begin with.

He isn’t losing time anymore, or at least he doesn’t think so. There aren’t the same profound holes in his awareness that he experienced upon coming out of the fog for the first time. The slips now are more subtle, more insidious -- It’s not being able to hold onto the names of the nurses, though he knows they’ve introduced themselves at least a half dozen times. It’s being unable to keep track of what day or time it is, never knowing quite what’s happening next, though he’s been given plenty of information regarding the expected routine on this hospital unit, has even been here in the past. It’s pressing his call button for the nurse, then failing to remember what assistance he wanted when it’s offered.

Clint is picking at a dry piece of chicken on his dinner tray when Natasha appears in his doorway again. The too-large hoodie’s been replaced by a more fitted t-shirt, but she still manages to look small, diminished somehow in this medical domain that’s clearly so far from her comfort.

“Don’t worry,” she says, before he has the chance to speak at all, “you weren’t supposed to be expecting me.” She’s carrying what appears to be a grocery bag in one hand, and she brings it over to the side of the bed, depositing it on the folding chair instead of sitting down herself.

“Want a cookie?” asks Clint, pushing his dinner tray toward her. He still doesn’t have much of an appetite, knows that part of the reason he’s both weak and exhausted is from the lack of his usual caloric intake, but that does absolutely nothing to prevent the nausea that surges through him every time he changes position.

She shakes her head. “You should have it.”

“Yeah,” Clint agrees, “too bad my stomach doesn’t agree with you.” He glances at the bag again, because it’s sitting very close to the edge of the bed, and at the moment is easier to look at than the food. “You bring your own personal arsenal or what?”

Natasha snorts softly. “Yeah, that would play well with the field clearance I’m trying to get.”

He shrugs. “It would be some kind of clearance. But hey, congrats. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s turning you into a regular rule-follower.”

She gives him a mildly disgusted look. “Ability to follow orders was never my problem. Madame made sure of that.”

Clint winces, regretting the clumsy attempt at humor. “You going to show me what’s in the bag? Try to draw out the suspense for too long and I might forget it was there to begin with.” He offers her a tight, bitter smile.

“It’s for you,” says Natasha, avoiding his gaze as she picks the bag up again and hands it over. “Nothing special, just a few things I thought you could use.”

“Sit,” he tells her, because he can’t take the way she seems to be poised for a hasty retreat, as though she might be anticipating that the contents of the bag will cause him to turn on her somehow.

She does as instructed without comment, in the folding chair this time, and Clint carefully raises the head of the bed to a sharper angle, willing his stomach not to betray him. When the room stops spinning quite so violently, he pulls the bag open and glances cautiously inside.

The first item he sees is a travel alarm clock--the kind with oversized numbers standing three inches tall, day and date displayed underneath.

“It’s accurate,” says Natasha, still not quite looking at him. “I set it. I thought--To help you keep track.”

Beneath the clock are several sets of t-shirts and pajama pants, brand new from the store with the tags still on them. There’s also a bag of hard ginger candies, and in the very bottom, a sticker book with a bow-wielding knight on the cover.

Natasha,” he breathes, suddenly unable to get any other words past the lump that’s lodged itself in the back of his throat. It isn’t surprise at her capability, so much, as at her willingness to make such a gesture. He has never doubted that there is kindness buried somewhere beneath all of her armor, but he’s never expected to find it so readily directed toward him.

“You brought me in when I had nothing,” she says simply, then snags the cookie from the edge of his tray and leaves before he has a chance to get in another word.

“We need to talk about your discharge plans,” the doctor announces, on the day that marks one week since Clint was apparently brought in, unconscious.

His name is Schuffman, Clint’s learned, and he guesses the fact that he remembers that is a good sign for his brain healing. Either that or Dr. Schuffman’s just managed to make that much of a shitty impression.

“Really?” asks Clint. “Because I was thinking about signing a lease. You know, moving in here. Mr. Moldy Tile and me are getting to be good buddies.”

“You’ll need to have 24/7 assistance at discharge,” says Schuffman, writing on his clipboard again. He doesn’t look up. “And until we clear you for safe independence.”

Clint scoffs. “Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.” He hasn’t actually considered getting to go home so quickly, can’t deny the stab of anxiety that chills his stomach at the thought of it. He’s been making progress, he knows, has gotten past standing in his last few PT sessions and has begun being able to walk, as long as there’s someone or something to hold onto.

Schuffman frowns. “You aren’t safe to go home on your own right now. Probably in a few weeks, your recovery will be sufficient to clear you, but there’s really no way to predict a definite timeline.”

“Then keep me for a few more weeks,” says Clint, irritation flaring as his head starts to throb again. This conversation is a waste of time, and he wants it to end immediately.

“This is an acute care unit,” says Schuffman. “You’ve progressed far enough to be safe with assistance, and you no longer require hospital care, which means it’s time to transition you off of our service.”

“So what you’re telling me,” says Clint, “is that I’m too screwed up to go home, but not screwed up enough to interest you anymore. Congrats, doc. That’s some impressive nonsense.”

“If there’s nobody to help you at home, then we’ll have to consider other options.” Schuffman jots some more notes on his omnipresent pad, and Clint wonders, not for the first time, what judgment he’s passing in his writing.

Clint sits up further in bed, as though he might somehow be able to will himself into being completely healed. “Other options? What are other options?”

“A skilled nursing facility,” says Schuffman. “Unless you’d like to hire professional help for your home.”

“What,” asks Clint, “a nurse escort?” He sighs. “S.H.I.E.L.D. gonna pay for that?”

“Your benefits cover a facility,” says Schuffman. “Other options would require private pay on your part. I’ll have Social Work come and review the details with you this afternoon. I’m confident that they can find you a placement by tomorrow. This is really quite standard practice for our agents who aren’t fortunate enough to have anyone supporting them.”

“Right,” Clint calls, as Schuffman starts for the door, conversation dismissed. “Right, I sign my life over to serving S.H.I.E.L.D. Get all the talks about how I’m an agent first and a person second. How I’m going to have to make personal sacrifices. Then you ship me off to a rejects facility because I did exactly what was asked of me. That feels real great. Maybe next time don’t bother to pull me out of the rubble.”

Clint is still reeling when Natasha visits in the evening. He’s managed to stumble through his daily therapy sessions--because he’s not actually enough of an idiot to sabotage the disappointing amount of progress he is making in his recovery--but he’s been utterly unable to focus, head spinning even more than his current usual.

“Oh good,” he says irritably, by way of greeting. “She returns for another round of her signature disappearing act.”

Natasha pauses halfway to the chair, but if the words or his tone have stung her, it doesn’t read on her face. “Hello to you too. I take it therapy went well today?”

“What,” Clint scoffs, “didn’t do your recon on me? Didn’t talk to the nurses? Falling down on your job, Widow.” He’s being unfair and he knows it, but he can’t shake the feeling that he’s become an unwilling sideshow act, a vaguely pathetic freak that makes the rest of the world incapable of looking away. No reason she’d be any different, especially given that he’s pretty sure Natasha was created entirely without empathy.

Natasha ignores him, planting herself squarely in the bedside chair, as though he’s just given her a challenge. “Anything on your mind?”

“Why are you here?” Clint counters, her impassivity only inflaming his anger further. “You don’t stay. You don’t care. You run away the minute you approach anything like basic human decency, yet you keep coming back. So what the hell do you want from me? Because the things I have to offer right now amount to a little less than zero.”

She studies him in silence for a moment, pursing her lips, her gaze feeling downright surgical. “Something happened. What is it?”

“Apparently,” says Clint, “a building fell on my head. Or so I’ve been told.”

Natasha sighs. “I’m not going to interrogate you. I just want--”

“What?” Clint breaks in, realizing at the sick sense of triumph that blooms in his chest that he’s managed to play her into the exact words he’s been wanting. Because, apparently, hurting people is one small thing he can still manage to control. “You want what, to help? Pretty sure you’ve got no idea what that means.”

She flinches, almost imperceptibly, but it’s there and Clint sees it. “Okay. If you don’t want company, then I’ll go. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

She gets up, starts for the door before Clint speaks again, the words still seeming to come of their own accord.

“No you won’t.”

She pauses, looks back over her shoulder. “No?”

“They’re shipping me off,” says Clint. “Putting me in a nursing home, where S.H.I.E.L.D. conveniently won’t have to look at me.”

She turns back, folds her arms over her chest. “Why not your home?”

“Not safe,” says Clint, parroting Schuffman’s tone. “I ‘require 24/7 assistance,’ you know, in case I forget how to dress myself again. And who’s gonna do that for me?”

“I will,” Natasha says simply, her answer to immediate that Clint blinks, feeling vaguely like he might have whiplash. “Although you could have just asked.

“You,” says Clint, the surprise of it making him feel foggy. This is a possibility he hasn’t even considered, can’t picture even now. Natasha is a weapon, made for breaking people down into tiny fractured pieces. He can’t picture her building anyone back up, much less him, with needs that seem alternately pathetic and embarrassing.

“Yes,” she says again, as though it’s already been absolutely decided in her mind. “You need somebody to help you. I can’t go on assignment until I’ve cleared probation. Seems like an ideal arrangement to me.”

“I can’t,” says Clint, swallowing hard. “I can’t ask you to do that.”

“You’re not,” she says firmly. “You’re not asking. I’m telling. And I’m not giving you a choice.”

Clint’s had plenty of practice leaving the hospital, or at least that’s what he would have said before this particular time.

A week of PT has gotten him far enough to do the tentative stand-and-shuffle without the indignity of a walker, which is a small blessing, but for once he doesn’t fight the requirement that he ride a wheelchair out to the hospital’s front door. His body still feels vaguely wrong somehow, like the ground might fall out or the world might turn sideways at any moment. When he steps out the sliding-glass exit and into the New York City afternoon, it seems like both of those things happen at once.

The sunlight hits his eyes like a pair of simultaneous explosions, street noise roaring in his ears like the soundwaves might somehow be another set of crumbling walls, crushing him. It’s all he can do to remain on his feet, to swallow down the nausea that’s roiling in his stomach as Natasha takes his elbow, guides him into the waiting cab.

He catches a glimpse of her, during a fleeting second of the ride when he manages to open his eyes. Her muscles are taut as she sits beside him, brow furrowed and one hand half-extended into the space between them, like she can’t quite bring herself to actually reach out. There’s a look of utter helplessness in her eyes that seems entirely alien, and in that moment, Clint doesn’t think he’s ever felt so completely ashamed.

Natasha opens the door of the apartment and very nearly stumbles over the pile of garbage bags and empty cardboard boxes that have fallen over in the hallway, her usual grace defeated by unfamiliarity. She turns to Clint and raises an eyebrow. “Miss trash day?”

He feels his cheeks burn even hotter than they have been since leaving the hospital with her, his whole body coated in a paradoxically cold sweat now. He puts a hand on the wall to steady himself as he watches her clear a path. “Recycling. Kind of hard to take it out when you’re stuck in a bed with nurses wiping your ass.”

Natasha shoots him a look that says she’s caught the nonsense in his excuse, but says nothing, offering him a hand.

“No thanks,” says Clint, opting to lurch past her on his own instead.

She allows it, but follows close on his heels. Spotting, probably, which gives him the perversely humorous image of Natasha trying to catch his bulk if he were to fall, if he were to become dead weight.

“I’m going to bed,” Clint tells her, carefully averting his gaze from the disaster that is the rest of the apartment--unwashed dishes in the sink, unwashed clothes on the floor, as if the living room might actually be an extension of his closet. He doesn’t want to think about the state of the bathroom, or the inside of the fridge.

“Probably a good idea,” Natasha agrees. “You need anything first?”

“No,” he tells her, because he doesn’t think he can take being on his feet much longer, or the way that she’s looking at him, with an expression somewhere between pity and pain. There are things he probably ought to do first--meds come to mind, for one--but that would mean asking her for them, and he’d sooner disappear into an actual hole in the ground.

She gives him a skeptical look, but nods. “Okay. Up to you. For now.”

“Thanks, Nurse Romanoff,” he says sourly, holding on to whatever furniture he can as he shuffles his way toward the bedroom. “You can--I don’t know. Watch TV. something. Go through my stuff, see what kind of blackmail material you can dig up.”

Natasha sighs. “You know that’s not why I’m here, don’t you?”

“I don’t care,” says Clint, and slams the bedroom door in her face before collapsing painfully onto the creaky mattress.

Clint dreams of the desert.

At first there is only open space, only sand and nothing, as far as he can see. He looks up into the blinding sky and tries to find the sun, tries to find any sense of direction. As his vision clears, he realizes that he isn’t looking at clouds or air or horizon at all. Above him is more sand, impossibly dense, and deceptively bright, as though it might be emitting light and heat all its own.

As he watches it begins to fall, not incrementally, not like rain--instead a wave, a deluge that stings his eyes, fills his nose and mouth. He claws at his face helplessly as the stuff begins to burn his lungs, coughs until he tastes blood, sharp, coppery, and gritty with still more sand.

He’s suffocating in a matter of seconds, seeing dark black spots from oxygen deprivation. And then he’s on his knees, being crushed by the weight of so much sand, a mountain of it growing up around him as his consciousness fades.

He wakes to blinding hot pain exploding in his head, a weight on his chest and putrid vomit already thick in his mouth. It’s all he can do to pull himself upright and retch over the side of the bed, just conscious enough to be horrified by the sounds he’s making, by his total lack of control over his own body.

He isn’t sure how it happens, hardly knows up from down with the way that the room is spinning, but suddenly it feels like the strength simply goes out of his good arm, fingers scrabbling uselessly at the sheets as his body goes over side of the bed like a dead weight he’s completely unable to direct. His head and his healing ribs scream with hot agony as he lands, stunned, right in the middle of his own vomit.

He’s vaguely aware of the door opening, that it must be in response to the noise, his noise. But he isn’t fully in his bedroom now, has slipped into the liminal space of memory, another house, another shame.

“Look at that damned mess!”

His father’s voice, his father’s frame, impossibly large, and Clint feels smaller than ever, as though he might be shrinking as his body rebels, but never enough to disappear entirely.

“I’m sorry,” he breathes, feeling sick again at the sight of his own puke smeared into the rug, and gagging hard. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it, my head--”

“Filthy,” his father barks. “Filthy animal.” And then he’s lifted up by the collar of his shirt, dropped facedown into the pool of vomit so that it smears across his cheek, so that he’s choking on it again.

“Clint,” comes Natasha’s voice through the haze, and he’s aware on some level that it’s her, but he can’t help flinching away in fear when her hand comes to rest on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” he pants again. “I’m sorry, please.”

He becomes aware suddenly that it’s tears wetting his cheeks, and he covers his face helplessly with his good hand, wishing he might be sick enough to die on the spot.

“Okay,” says Natasha, a rough edge in her voice he doesn’t think he’s ever heard before. “Okay, I’m not going to touch you unless you tell me it’s all right. But--can you look at me?”

Clint sucks in a painful breath, scrubs his hand over his face before letting it fall to his side, acutely aware of how disgusting he is.

“Are you hurt?” asks Natasha. She’s kneeling on the floor a little less than an arm’s length away, both palms raised, a gesture of surrender.

Clint forces himself to draw more breaths, takes stock of his body as the adrenaline fades. “I’m--no, I don’t think so. Everything hurts, but I’m not hurt. Not more than I already was.”

She nods once, curtly. “What happened?”

“I had a dream,” Clint admits. “Woke up sick and I just--I didn’t want to make a mess. I didn’t.”

“It’s okay,” says Natasha. “It’s--What can I do?”

“Meds,” says Clint, because it’s not like he’s got any dignity left to lose at this point. “Please.”

She nods again and gets to her feet, coming back a moment later with the now-familiar pills and a cup of water. He fights them down, willing himself not to be sick again, not to make this any worse. Natasha moves wordlessly, going into the bathroom and coming back with a couple of wet washcloths, plus the remaining clean set of pajamas from the stash she brought him in the hospital.

“Let me help you up?” she asks, and Clint nods, knowing it’s his only real choice.

He moves through the haze of blinding pain, doing the best he can to clean himself with the washcloth and one good hand. Natasha doesn’t comment as she helps him into the new pajamas and then back into bed.

He curls into a ball that makes his ribs scream, but somehow seems to keep the rest of him from positively flying apart. He can hear her moving around the room, presumably cleaning up the floor. By the time he feels her sink down on the edge of the mattress, he’s become vaguely aware that his entire body is shaking, the waves of pain and humiliation still washing over him relentlessly.

‘Hey,” she says gently, her tone surprising him in its softness. “Meds helping yet?”

“Can I help you?” she asks, tentatively.

“How?” asks Clint, then opens his eyes and is struck by the unmistakable compassion he finds in her gaze. “Please.”

She moves slowly, taking his hand and just holding it for a moment before shifting to wrap her arm around his shoulders. Clint stiffens instinctively, still half-expecting a blow from the memory lingering around the edges of his awareness, but she doesn’t pull away, and he finds that he desperately doesn’t want her to, even as the gesture threatens to shatter the tenuous composure he’s managed to gather.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers again, but she just shakes her head, not unkindly.

“Relax,” she murmurs. “I’ve got you.”

The words roll off her tongue as though they’ve always been there, an impossible sweetness in them that breaks something in his chest. Clint turns his face in against her shoulder, lets the warmth of her body and the meds carry him away again.

When Clint wakes next, it’s to considerably less pain, and to the mattress shifting with Natasha’s weight. He thinks, at first, that she’s getting up, preparing to leave, which sends him upright with a little jolt of adrenaline. When his vision clears, he realizes that he’s had it backwards, that she’s actually just returned to the side of the bed, a tray of things balanced on the nightstand. It’s also gotten considerably later, the sky fully dark outside the window.

“How long was I out?” he asks, swallowing and running a hand through his hair. His throat feels rough, and his mouth tastes like something’s died in it. He doesn’t even want to think about how disgusting he probably smells after his little display earlier.

“All afternoon,” says Natasha. “You’re due for another dose of meds. And you really should try to eat.”

“Meds are good,” he says softly, acutely aware that he doesn’t want another experience of letting them wear off entirely. He accepts the pills from Natasha and knocks them back with a sip of water.

“I made tea,” she offers, taking a mug from the nightstand and holding it out. “Be careful, it’s pretty hot. But it should help your stomach.”

Clint takes the mug, inhaling the warm scent of ginger, then looks up at her again. “Where did this come from? I didn’t have it, did I? I mean--I don’t even remember the last time I made tea, and I’m pretty sure that’s not just the scrambled brain talking.”

She shakes her head. “I had some groceries delivered. The fridge was a little bare.”

He winces, because he’s pretty sure a little bare means aside from the moldy leftovers, but she doesn’t comment any further and he tries to hide his chagrin by taking a sip from the mug. The tea is mildly sweet and surprisingly soothing. He takes another long swallow before looking up at her again. “Thank you. I’m--sorry about earlier.”

“I know,” says Natasha. “I shouldn’t have left you alone for so long. But--You have to let me know what you need. I know that’s--If it was the other way around, I probably wouldn’t feel safe either. But--”

“Wait,” Clint interrupts, lowering the mug to his lap as he meets her eyes. “Wait. You think--I’m afraid of you?”

She shrugs. “Why wouldn’t you be? Most people are when they’re not injured. You think I don’t see how everyone at S.H.I.E.L.D. looks at me? I know you all think I’m a time bomb.”

“I’m not,” he says, suddenly emphatic, suddenly regretting all the undeserved vitriol he’s been spewing in her direction. “I don’t.”

“You should eat something,” she says again, ignoring him. “How does soup sound?”

Clint swallows, makes a decision that feels more precipitous than any so far. “Can I have a shower first? I’ll need your help to--not break a hip or something.”

She looks taken aback for a moment, like she can’t quite decide whether he’s serious, then nods. “Of course.”

He’s had nearly a week of dressing and undressing one-handed, but it’s never felt as clumsy or difficult as it does now, with Natasha in the room. She isn’t exactly watching, is moving idly around the bathroom, picking up clutter and getting things ready for when he’ll need them later.

“Let me help,” she says finally, when he’s spent several moments too long trying to fight his shirt off without jarring his injured collarbone or his ribs too hard. She doesn’t wait for a response, just steps in and untangles him.

He keeps his eyes on the floor as he steps out of his pants, thinking for a moment of how many men have probably fantasized about being naked in front of Natasha, though probably never under these circumstances. He feels irrationally like he ought to be apologizing for the state of his body, which is a veritable rainbow of bruises in different stages of development, or maybe apologizing for his body itself.

She doesn’t comment, just rests a hand at his elbow, steadying his balance. “We want you sitting, right?”

He’s come home with an impressive set of safety instructions, and he nods, remembering that was one of them. “Yep. Sitting down. Under supervision. Packed in bubble wrap.”

Natasha snorts softly at that. “Okay. Take it slow. Lean as much as you need to.”

“Careful what you wish for,” says Clint, grunting in pain as his ribs protest the movement. But a moment later, he’s made it into the tub, goosebumps erupting across his skin at the feel of the cold porcelain and the sensation of being utterly exposed. He turns the tap on too quickly, gets a jet of ice cold water, and bites back a curse before quickly adjusting it, shivering violently all the same.

He’s distracted enough that he loses track of Natasha, assumes she’s just going to stand back and watch until he looks up from fiddling with the water temperature and realizes that she’s slipped out of her own clothes. He looks away again instinctively, feels the blood rush to his cheeks again, as though he’s somehow infringed on her privacy, as if this wasn’t her choice.

“Bodies are just bodies,” she says calmly, climbing over the lip of the tub and sitting down behind him. “I promise I’ve seen naked ones before.” She snags the shampoo from the corner nearest her and opens the top before handing it to him.

Clint swallows hard, can’t help glancing at her as he takes it. Most people, he thinks, perceive Natasha as all sex and danger, fundamentally intertwined. Right now, though, she strikes him as neither. Every inch of her is stunning, it’s true, even without her usual polished makeup, with her hair half wet and curling wildly around her face. But what he feels from her presence now is only comfort, a warmth that goes beyond simple proximity. He is learning her body not as a temptation but as a solace, he realizes, and wonders if she has ever considered that possibility before.

“What is it?” she asks, when he’s been silent for a moment too long.

He shakes his head. “I’m just--glad you’re here.”

Something that isn’t quite a shudder runs through her at that, something deeper, more profound, as though his words have touched something at her core. She takes a breath, speaks almost gingerly. “Earlier--You thought I was someone else, didn’t you? When you first woke up?”

For a moment he actually considers lying, in spite of everything. But he can’t bring himself to do it, can’t betray her again after everything he’s just witnessed. “My dad,” he says flatly. “He liked to drink. And the alcohol liked to hit people. Was how my mom put it, anyway.”

“You dreamed about him?” she asks, brow furrowing.

“No,” says Clint, his thoughts feeling too slow as he puts the pieces together. “No, I--When I was eight, he knocked me down the stairs. I hit my head. It wasn’t--Not as bad as this time, but bad. I got sick on the good living room carpet, and he was furious. He--” Clint breaks off for a moment, swallows down the memory until he can speak the words aloud. “He rubbed my nose in it before he made me clean it up. Like I was a fucking dog.”

Natasha draws in a long, slow breath, and takes his good hand, pulling it to her side. Clint opens his mouth to protest, confused, before she presses his fingers to her skin and he realizes that he’s feeling the raised line of a long, ragged scar.

“Being punished for getting hurt?” she says softly. “I think I know what you mean. It’s--hard to feel safe after something like that.”

Clint runs his fingers along the puckered skin and swallows again, tears pricking at the backs of his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

She shakes her head, rests both hands on his shoulders. “May I?”

“Yes,” he whispers, and allows himself to lean in as she begins to gently work on the taut muscles of his neck.

Two days later, the fog begins to lift in earnest, and Clint finds himself able to make his way back out to the living room without holding onto much of anything at all. He’s still exhausted by the time he manages to get to the couch, and it takes him a moment longer than it ought to realize that he barely recognizes the place on account of it being so clean.

“What did you do?” he asks Natasha, feeling more sheepish than anything else. It isn’t that he minds her touching his things, but the thought of her cleaning up his months of detritus feels like a failure on a level beyond all the other completely embarrassing things he’s needed help to with.

“Took out the recycling,” she says dryly. Then, “don’t worry, everything else is still here. Just not on the floor waiting to trip you.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” says Clint, looking at his feet, which at the moment happen to be clad in fuzzy blue socks.

“I know,” says Natasha. “Do you want soup or a sandwich? Or both?”

He blinks, trying to get his bearings again. “You know this isn’t--You don’t owe me this, yeah?”

“I know,” she says again. “I’ll bring you some of each.”

“When was the last time you did laundry?” asks Natasha, coming in with a basket of clean clothes balanced on her hip. She looks surprisingly relaxed, natural, like she hasn’t spent most of the morning carting his dirty underwear to and from the basement.

Clint shrugs, looking at the floor. “Been busy. In the field a lot. I don’t--sometimes it’s just easier to buy clean underwear than wash them, you know?”

“Oh,” she says lightly, “is that why you have so many? I was wondering. I think you have enough boxers to clothe an army.”

Clint sighs, forces down his discomfort and turns to face her, sliding to the edge of the sofa and letting the blanket fall from his shoulders. He gestures to the basket and then the space on the cushion beside him. “Put it there. Let me help you fold.”

“One-handed?” asks Natasha, though she does as he’s asked, watches him shake out a shirt and fold it in his lap. “Impressive, actually.”

Clint grins at her. “Occupational therapists would be proud, right?”

She smiles, sitting on the other side of the basket and beginning a pile of her own folding. “You’re looking a lot better, you know. When they first brought you in, I thought--I was worried.”

“You?” Clint teases, feigning surprise. “Worried about another person?”

Her face falls at that, and he regrets the joke immediately.

She takes a breath. “You’re all I have, you know? You’re--You gave me this chance.”

There’s something in her voice that makes a shiver run through him, and Clint gives her a hard look. “I gave you a start. You’ve earned all the rest.”

“This apartment,” says Natasha, gesturing vaguely at the living room, which is now cleaner than it’s been in months. “It’s more than just messy. It’s--You were sick before you ever got hurt. You weren’t taking care of yourself.”

He opens his mouth to deny it instinctively, knows that he can’t, that she’s seen too much. “Yeah,” he says softly. “Well. Not sick. Just--”

“Sometimes it’s easier,” says Natasha, “to take care of anyone else.”

He meets her eyes. “Is that what you’re doing here?”

She says nothing, just folds a shirt and hands it to him to add to his pile.

“You’re good at it, you know,” says Clint, and she looks up sharply at that. He gives her his most gentle smile. “You don’t have to look so surprised. Just--Thank you.”

“We should celebrate,” says Natasha, as she finishes unpacking their shared grocery store bounty.

Clint raises an eyebrow, snagging a bag of chips from her and using his teeth in combination with his good hand to open it. “What, the fact that I managed to face the outside world without falling down, getting dizzy, or otherwise turning into an old lady?”

She arches an eyebrow. “Yes. When you put it that way, it sounds even better.”

Clint grabs a handful of the chips and drops several into his mouth before setting the bag on the counter again, offering it to her wordlessly. “And how do you suggest we do that?”

Natasha takes a single chip between two fingers, eats it in a single bite. She grins, pulls something from the bottom of a stack of papers on the counter, and suddenly Clint recognizes the sticker book from the hospital with the smiling cartoon archer on its cover. “How about giving this guy some attention?”

Clint snorts. “Oh good. So I’m not an old lady, I’m actually twelve.”

Natasha throws her head back and laughs.

Clint wakes so suddenly that for a moment he thinks it’s from his own bad dream. He searches his memory, finds nothing, then notices the light coming in through the slit under the bedroom door. The clock on the bedside table reads 2:16 am.

He takes a deep breath, switches on the lamp, and carefully plants his feet on the floor before standing. HIs balance is improving exponentially each day now, but he still doesn’t trust himself with sudden movements, knows that he can’t afford any sort of setback.

He makes his way slowly and deliberately to the door and then out to the living room, finds Natasha huddled in the corner of the couch when his eyes adjust to the light. She has one of the blankets from her makeshift bed wrapped around her shoulders, and the look in her eyes tells him that she’s very far away somewhere.

“Natasha,” he says quietly, waits for her to look at him, then tries again, a little louder. “Natasha? You know where you are?”

She shakes herself, focuses on him, though she’s still shivering visibly. “New York. Your apartment. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“Bad dream?” he asks, though he already knows the answer.

“Bad dream,” she says bitterly. “Bad memory. Who knows. Not like I can tell the difference.”

He nods, cocks his head toward the bedroom. “Come on.”

He’s expecting her to protest, but she doesn’t, just follows silently behind him. Clint holds the blankets aside when they get to the bed, gestures for her to get in before lying down again himself.

“Come here,” he says gently, holding out his good arm.

She hesitates, studying him. “Your ribs are still healing. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Come here,” he repeats, because she’s still shivering, and the memory of losing his own grip on the present is too fresh for him to ignore.

She makes a silent decision and nods once, almost in warning, before shifting closer and curling carefully into his side. Clint wraps his arm around her, weaves his fingers into her hair and feels her pulse throbbing softly in her temple.

“Relax,” he murmurs softly. “I’ve got you.”

“I’ve reviewed the notes from your treatment team,” says Schuffman, looking at the pile of papers from the evaluation Clint’s just completed, back in the therapy gym at Medical.

His reflexes aren’t normal, his strength and coordination still far from what he expects in the field, and it will be a few more weeks of wearing the sling on his right arm before he even gets to try lifting his bow again. Still, he feels almost like a new person compared to a few weeks ago, when walking was a monumental task, and just remembering anything he’d gotten up to do was questionable at best. The days have blurred together, somehow, thanks largely to Natasha’s presence, her constant steadiness in the face of his uncertainty and shame. She is seated beside him now, ready for whatever is to come of this visit.

“I have to say, I’m impressed,” Schuffman allows. “Based on the severity of your injury, and your initial resistance to safety precautions--”

“I never ignored safety precautions,” Clint breaks in. “Getting better has always been my goal. It’s not my fault you’ve got no bedside manner.”

Schuffman sighs. “Case in point. As I was saying, I would have anticipated a substantially longer course of recovery for you. But the fact is, Agent Barton, that you are now meeting all criteria to be cleared for independence in your home, and to begin working on physical conditioning with the goal of returning to active duty in the next few months.”

Clint blinks, actually taken aback by that. He knows he’s been doing well, would have been overjoyed at this verdict just a few weeks ago. But now he finds himself caught unprepared for yet another piece of this recovery, his equilibrium always just a bit too slow to come. “That’s just--it? I’m just--good to go now?”

“Not for everything,” says Schuffman. “But for daily activities? Yes. ‘Good to go’ is one way to put it.”

“I’ll get my things and get out of your hair,” says Natasha, as they step off the elevator, make their way down the hall toward his apartment.

Clint finds that he’s able to keep pace with her easily now, only has a slight headache from being out in the sun, and doesn’t feel like the ground is shifting under his feet. There’s an odd tone in her voice, though, and he’s relatively sure he isn’t just misinterpreting.

“Hey,” he says softly, “you know you don’t have to rush off, right? It’s not--the doctor said I’m allowed to be left alone, it doesn’t mean I have to be.”

She smiles sadly, steps into the apartment as he opens the door for her. “I know. But I’m sure you’re eager to get your privacy back.”

Clint steps into her path, the motion making her look up and meet his eyes. “You’re all I have too. You took care of me, when I had nothing.”

She swallows visibly, then nods. “Dinner?”

Clint grins, feels an odd sense of relief, and something like hope. “I’ll help you make it.”