"Have you seen Agent Barton?"
Steve jumped a bit, his focus so intent on his book that he'd hardly noticed the approaching agent until she'd alerted him to her presence. Not that he'd probably have caught onto her without the distraction of a book in hand.
He blinked, considering her question and thinking as far back as the moment he got up, trying to recall the archer.
"No...no, I haven't. Did you need him for something?"
She didn't answer, instead taking a few steps towards the seated captain to better look at the material in front of him.
Her eyes quickly scanned the first sentence, a brow raising as she reasoned and asked, "Catcher in the Rye?"
He darted his eyes between her and the book.
"Ah, y-yeah...This whole...trying to catch myself up with today is...a little overwhelming. Tony tried to introduce me to that pad thing-" Natasha frowned a moment before understanding he meant an 'Ipad', "but, it just...it's all a little too fast. So-" He raised the book momentarily, shrugging off the rest of his statement.
"Ah, you're trying to slowly catch up."
"Starting with...books. Books, I can grasp at a bit better than-" He motioned a box that Natasha again took to mean an Ipad. Nodding, she turned on her heels, thanking him anyway.
Natasha wasn't beneath swallowing her pride and asking, honestly, the last two people she wanted to interact with. It was in her job description to interrogate and talk, and she hardly ever walked away from a conversation without the answers she sought for, unless they weren't there to begin with. This had lead to some unfavorable conversations, not unlike the one she knew she was about to have.
She respected , that was a given. The proposed housing condition at first seemed to invite chaos, but in actuality was shaping up to be exactly as it was proposed to- a team-building effort. This experience of living in with the doctor also helped improve any earlier cautions and the tension was not nearly as strong between the two as it had been. It was still there, though.
And as far as personality and compatibility went, she flat out hated Tony Stark.
Stark noticed her first, or acknowledged her by lifting his head from whatever tiny model had caught his attention momentarily, while Banner hesitated a moment longer from jotting down some final notes before greeting her as well as she slipped inside the lab.
"Let me guess, you've lost your parakeet and want to know if we've seen him fly by any time soon?" Stark prodded. Standing in the room only for a few seconds and already irritated with his presence, she refused to acknowledge his comment or even look at him. She instead turned to Banner, her question clear upon her face.
"Ah, n-no..." The scientist stammered, shaking his head lightly as he pulled off his glasses, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
"We haven't seen him."
Natasha nodded in gratitude, trying to be pleasant, and turned to leave, thankful to get out of that room without so much as a word.
Stark didn't think quite the same as Natasha.
"You should get him a bell. Or a leash," He added his two-bit sense is, and Natasha fought every urge to just bodily harm him in some way.
Showing restraint that only someone of her kind could, she let the glass door sliding behind her act as a final slap to silence the billionaire.
A good twenty minutes later and she had no lead on her partner's whereabouts. She'd started with the obvious spots-training rooms, his quarters, her quarters, the roof, anyplace high with a vantage point. She'd gotten creative and, just to humor her curiosity, tapped into security cameras in surrounding buildings from Stark's computer, checking the corners of rooftops just in case her partner had flown himself on one of those ledges for a change in scenery.
Not a trace.
To blow off some steam and agitation, she trained for two hours, kicking and punching the shit out of whatever expensive equipment she could in the exercise room. She cleared her mind and focused on one sole goal (break or damage something beyond repair so that Stark was forced to buy an entirely new equipment piece) and accomplished said goal. She also, purposely, refused to look at any clocks while she trained, hoping to not become dependant or concerned with it so much.
This didn't help, as she could easily calculate by looking at the sun's position through the glass walls, or simply timing herself, what time it was. Roughly, give or take a minute or two, it was a quarter past five.
She took her time cooling off, resisting the urge to check anywhere without a proper shower. She even spent a minute or two longer in said shower, letting the conditioner soak in before rinsing, just wasting time leisurely.
When she made her way towards the loft area of the declared-team level (The top layer that sat above the separate quarter levels for each team member, with the training level serving as the basement to their half of the tower), she was surprised but didn't let it show that everyone was present. Except him.
Even Pepper had made an appearance, though it was strictly business as she tried to convince Stark, who would only hear half of it before discarding the files she'd painstakingly organized and alphabetized for him on her way over here across the counter, strewn without so much as a care.
Natasha said nothing, but her eyes betrayed her. She watched the couple intently, taking in their intimate moments (Stark had no shame in front of anyone) and watching with a drawn breadth and the two indulged in whispers and giggles. Her mouth twitched in slight disgust, but Banner saw through it.
"Ever find Agent Barton?" He cut in, distracting Natasha away from the couple. She shook her head in response, but again her eyes flashed something different-a thank you. They both knew if Tony had caught even the tiniest hint of emotion, she'd never hear the end of it. Banner smirked knowingly, then nodded empathetically as he turned to interrupt Tony for a moment to discuss a last-minute, detailed thought he'd had on a spur of the moment.
Steve was lounged on the couch, legs up as he flipped a page. Judging by the thickness of it, Natasha suspected it wasn't the same book as before. Pepper had gone to pour herself another drink while Banner and Stark lit up in some ridiculous conversation that, despite all her training and intelligence, Natasha could not follow.
Thor was eating...something. Again, Natasha felt the failure of her field in that she couldn't identify all that Thor had combined from heir stocked pantry to create. In all honesty, it looked like either a lasagna stashed between a sandwich and alfredo pasta, or a Chitauri.
It was Pepper who nonchalantly asked, to no one in particular and everyone present, "Where's Clint?"
Banner and Steve both shot a quick glance to Natasha, who ignored both. Tony shrugged, smiling at the mere appearance of alcohol that was in Pepper's hand.
"I don't know. Maybe he...flew the coop!"
The bird jokes were getting annoying, and Natasha almost said something but Banner cut her off.
"Has...anyone tried asking Jarvis?"
Pepper looked between Tony and Banner, muttering more so tot he former, "Has he been missing for awhile now?"
"I don't know, just all day," Tony shrugged off, stealing a shot of Pepper's drink despite her half-hearted efforts to pry it away from him.
"Well, isn't that kind of serious-" Pepper began, like a worried team mom that she'd unknowingly and almost naturally fitted into the role to be, but Natasha cut her off, quickly demanding, "Jarvis?"
A moment's hesitation, then a monatomic response, "Yes, Agent Romanov?"
"Can you display security camera footage earlier this morning?"
"How far shall I go back?"
Natasha thought a moment.
"Three or four should be fine."
Tony made some side remark, appalled that anyone would be awake at that hour, though Pepper reminded him he usually didn't go to sleep until six anyway. Natasha ignored them and focused her eyes on the blank screen that blinked alive with activity. She had a hunch, she just hoped she was wrong...
The television showed the very loft they were in, the time at the corner reading three AM, minutes ticking away like seconds as Jarvis sped through the tape. Again, Tony made some remark on why Jarvis was following orders not directly given by him, but everyone else was as intently watching the screen as Natasha was.
Sure enough, as three forty-five rolled around, so did a shadowed figure along the wall. The lighting was dark and the screen was hard to make out, yet unmistakingly it was Clint Barton. More so disturbingly, to Natasha in any case, was what was slung over his shoulder.
A duffle bag and his bow and quiver.
The two agents were light packers as it was, and upon moving into the tower (Begrudgingly-Fury had insisted, rather ordered, that they take up the offer) they carried less between the two of them than Banner had in a single suitcase. Even then, though, what Barton carried was only a portion of his packing-a light enough supply to sustain him for a trip.
He was on a mission.
Banner, being the observant fellow that he was, instantly looked to Natasha and easily read that her expression, as masked as it was, still was emitting dangerous irritation and anger. Steve, being the closest to her, even heard her knuckles pop as her fists tightened. Thor thought to say something, but stopped when he caught the expression on both Steve and Bruce's faces, stopping mid sentence before he'd even opened his mouth.
Tony had absolutely no tact and easily mouthed off some remark.
"Well, what to you know. The hawk flies solo. Guess we can all sleep better now, right? Knowing that he's learned to open the cage all by himself and-"
His words were lost as Natasha brushed past him, heatedly, and stormed out of the den, hell bent towards the elevator. Stunned and, for once, silent, Tony hesitated a moment before sighing.
"Do a scanning check for any identification of Agent Barton in any street cameras between the Stark Tower and, oh, I don't know, where ever he's intending to go. Track his path and see where it leads us."
"On it, sir."
"Is...everything alright?" Pepper asked, confused at what exactly just happened.
Tony nodded, but said nothing as he made his way in the opposite direction of Natasha.
Thor momentarily lost his appetite, unable to take another bite as the awkward silence settled in. Steve pretended to return to reading, but he reread the same passage several times over before he shut the book, got up, and called it a night. Banner was quick to follow.
Feeling like she completely missed something, Pepper waved her hands in defeat and glided off after Tony, dazed as ever.
Thor returned to his sandwich, because he never really did loose his appetite, but it still didn't settle quite as right as it did before.
Three days passed and Natasha sat up, well into the morning, wearing a deep scowl. Her arms were crossed and she was dressed in full uniform, her back straight as she watched the blurred lights outside the glass windows. Everyone was long since gone to sleep, and even most of the machines seemed to be hibernating, the only lights being from outside and the occasional blue light of an off-switched appliance.
The conversation with Fury that had followed the moment she'd departed from the group several nights ago hadn't exactly been comforting. It'd taken place over a com link and Natasha hadn't bothered to hide back any emotion or anger, because if there was one person she could unleash her true feelings on, it was Clint. And in his absence, the next best thing was Fury himself.
"You let him go on a mission?"
"I'm not going to ask how you came by that information, seeing as you would find out eventually. I will advise, Agent Romanov, that you do not see any further into this-"
"Where is he?"
"I can't tell you." He emphasized, not exactly pleased that she'd cut him off.
"Don't pull SHIELD clearance on me, Director Fury. You know damn well there's hardly anything that I don't have clearance towards and you can expect I'll-"
"I can't tell you, Agent, not because of standard procedure-"
"Then why not? "
"-As a favor."
She didn't respond immediately at that, but when she did, she didn't bother trying to cover up her disbelief.
"I was asked as a favor not to inform you of any details. Just...wait patiently, agent. He'll be back shortly."
And the line was cut.
The click of the door was subtle and quiet, but it was there. She didn't turn around but she listened for his footsteps. Three steps in, he was rounding the loft corner. Four steps in, he knew he wasn't alone.
He knew she was there, waiting for him, and he didn't bother trying to hide it or sneak past her. He set his travel bag down with a soft thud, his quiver and bow following, and he stood there, absolutely still, for a moment.
No lights were on but the room was lit blue by the moon and she wasn't exactly hidden, sitting in plain view with her back to him on the couch. She took a deep breath in, her face unreadable, just as she turned around.
And all hell broke loose.
He almost winced, but didn't, when she whipped around, her eyes flashing dangerously. For a brief moment, she looked ready to cry. But he knew better, and that passing thought did just that-passed.
"You went on a mission."
No reason in arguing the obvious.
"Yep." He retorted. He hid how tired he sounded. He really wanted nothing more than to walk to his room and sleep, but this conversation was inevitable, and would be waiting for him in the morning regardless. Not that Natasha was just about to let it be put on hold anyway.
"You didn't even tell me?" Her voice was rising, and he almost thought to ask her to lower it, warning she might wake the others. But, he knew better than to try to reason that with her. She'd probably shoot him just for suggesting it.
"It was a short mission, nothing big-"
"-That you failed to mention."
Just like a woman, always circling the conversation back to one thing. He inhaled deeply, conscious of how much pressure he could put on his chest before his lungs expanded too far and hit a sore rib, so his exhale was slow and drawn out. He rubbed at his eyes, hoping Natasha would feel concerned and notice that he was tired. Maybe she'd show compassion and agree to letting him sleep and continue this argument in the morning.
Like hell she'd pity him.
"And you instructed Fury not to tell me."
"No, I requested the mission, and happened to mention your involvement was unnecessary." He corrected, slightly agitated the more he thought about sleep and the more he realized he wanted it.
"Clint," She pleaded. It was the closest link to intimacy the two had-the shared bond of personal names. Few others called him by his first name, and even less dared to use a nickname on her. Despite the hidden meaning, though, it came out harsher than usual and to his tired ears, it sounded more like she'd spat the name rather than speak it. Then again, that might also have been caused by the throbbing in his head already. The pain medications he'd been prescribed had kicked in hours ago and were wearing off. So much for SHIELD having the best medics around...
"We're just recovering from the attack by the Chitauri. It's barely been two weeks, what the hell are you doing taking a mission? How'd Fury let you take one? We haven't been cleared for missions yet, we're still on recovery!"
Clint shrugged, refusing to look at Natasha, though it didn't matter. It was too dark to see her eyes anyway.
"I'm fine. Fury gave me clearance himself."
"So you lied and went behind my back, too?"
God, he was tired. His knee twitched and he felt it buckling. He needed to lay down soon, but Natasha wasn't about to let him go.
"I didn't lie, Ta-"
"Enough, damn it!" She yelled.
So much for not waking the others.
"Tasha, please, let's talk about this in the morning-" He bent to pick at his bag and bow, hoping to settle it at that, but Natasha wasn't having any of that. In a few short strides, she was directly in front of him, well past the boundaries of personal space and directly in his face, blocking his retreat.
"You want to tell me what the hell is really going on?"
Her voice wasn't a shout, but it was still loud and buzzed in his already irritated ears. He lifted a hand to rub at his temples, blinking to clear his vision. He really needed to sit down, feeling the bandages around his waist inevitably soaking through his vest. Another check to add to the list of things the SHIELD agents could really improve on-dressing wounds.
"Natasha, enough. I'm done, let me-"
"No, Clint. You can't do this, you can't just push me aside-" To emphasize her meaning, she touched her hands to his waist. It was a brief contact and she meant nothing by it, but suddenly she found her fingertips soaked. Instead of feeling the scratchy wool of his vest, she was tracing her nails lightly over a sponge, absorbed beyond capacity of something that she knew to be blood.
Clint closed his eyes, releasing the tension in his shoulders. He was beyond hiding it from Natasha now.
"Nat, it's nothing, I'm fi-"
"What the hell is this?" She yelled, pressing her fingers gently against the wound. Clint grunted before snapping a hand up to catch her wrist.
"Tasha, leave it. I'm going to-"
He didn't finish his sentence, toppling over to the side and tripping over his own feet. He almost crashed into the ground before Natasha caught him, slumping him against her just as lights flicked on, all too bright and too fast.
"What's going on?"
It was Steve, and in an instant he was by Natasha's side, shifting the other man's weight onto his shoulder and off of Natasha. Horrified and slightly stunned, Natasha quickly calmed herself and stood with Steve, helping to carry Clint who had slipped unconscious in that moment.
"What..? Natasha? Steve, is that...Barton?" Banner was at the doorway, Thor looming over him, trying to look in as well. Natasha snapped at the duo to clear the way, heeding no second thoughts to any consequence whatsoever in raising her voice. Tony met them in the hallway.
"So, he's back."
Natasha almost snapped at Tony to shut it, but Clint stirred and as a reaction she tugged more of his weight onto her. Steve, thankfully, jumped in to silence Tony.
"Call a doctor, Stark."
He didn't argue.
Clint moaned and Natasha fumbled with a handle to the closest room, which happened to be Steve's. The trio ducked into the room, gently propping Clint onto the bed as Natasha heaved a sigh, sitting beside the archer as al her emotions and adrenaline caught up to her. Steve stood for only a moment more before off-handedly remarking that he'd look around for a first aid kit.
The lights switched on and Natasha assessed the wound that was bleeding through on Clint. It was his left side, and it was a larger stain than she'd first thought. Knowing he'd need to remove his shirt, she fumbled on top of him, cautious not to move him too much and struggling to lift the shirt over his head. He had an undershirt, but the material was thin and ruined and she didn't bother with maneuvering it off of him, instead settling with simply ripping it apart.
This only served to reveal a mass of bruises and medical tape and gauze that she hadn't been expecting, and if he'd been awake, she would have hit him or screamed at him or cause some form of repercussion on him.
But he wasn't awake, and he wasn't even trying to make light of the situation, or convince her it wasn't as bad as it looked. So she sat there, a quiet mess as thoughts racked through her brain, and waited for the doctor.
Steve gave up after an hour of trying to coax Natasha to go to bed while Barton slept. The doctor had arrived not but ten minutes after Stark had made the call, though there was little he could do. The wounds had been treated, he made note of, and aside from some re-bandaging and a couple of pain meds, he had little to contribute. He did offer his expert consent that the man should be left to sleep it off and take it easy when he did wake up. Bed rest wouldn't kill him, but moving too much might.
Not daring to move him, Barton was left in Steve's room, the former occupant taking a pillow and a blanket and moving to the couch in the den to give the agents some room. His final advice was a warning to Natasha to get some sleep, though he knew she'd ignore him. She did.
She sat erectly up in the small armchair in the corner of the room nearly half the night, watching Clint's chest rise slowly, lightly, and then settle. The room was still rather empty and impersonal, save a few keepsakes and photos, some files and the occasional catered laundry. Steve almost had less to his name than the agents, though that was to be expected of someone who hadn't joined the living for quite yet even a year now.
She wasn't immortal, though, and as desperate as she tried, she was eventually overcome by sleep. The last couple of days had eluded her of the pleasure-the last decent night she'd slept had been the night before Barton had taken his mission, and even then she was a light sleeper that got by on few hours.
So, she wasn't all that surprised to wake well into the morning, the room lit up brightly by the sun, finding she'd slept well over six hours.
She wasn't surprised at that, but rather the fact that she bed before her was empty, the patient missing. She was more hurt than anything and, jumping from the armchair, she wasted no time in making her way to the door. She almost didn't pick up on the fact that sometime throughout the night, a blanket had been spread over her-almost.
She stormed from the Captain's room, not even caring to lighten her footsteps as they stamped, flashing a warning to the oncoming room, making her way directly past the loft.
Steve was still asleep, or had been, until the moment she slammed the door abruptly behind her, causing him to jump awake from his cocoon on the couch.
She was furious that her partner could worry about her and not even think about himself. She was hell bent on dragging his ass back inside, because she had a pretty damn good idea where he'd stumbled off to, and despite all his skill and training, even he couldn't get very far without irritating those wounds of his.
Just as suspected, she caught the man perched on the roof. He had a knee propped up, his elbow leaning against it while his other foot and hand dangled off the side, seated just at the edge of the roof. Anger flared in her for a moment at how careless he was being, but then dissipated when he noticed her and tried to greet her with a weak smile, shifting his body and turning away from the ledge to nod in greeting at her.
She then had half a mind to slap him and push him over the roof, and the restraint showed on her behalf was remarkable that she didn't.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
"It's too stuffy in there," He remarked. It was impersonal and merely a fact, not an opinion. He didn't call her by any name, because she hadn't used his and because he knew she was mad. He also knew he couldn't really fix that, so he waited for her to say something, if just to spare him from aggravating her further if only for another moment.
"Barton," she snapped finally, "I have half a mind to throw you off this roof." And she did, and she could. He knew that. Worse yet, he wouldn't have even struggled if she did decide to.
"But...right now, you need to be resting," she pleaded. She still sounded angry, but the harsh sharpness in her words were replaced with concern, though it was still laced with disapproval.
"I know," He hesitated a moment, thinking whether it was safe to call her by one of the names reserved only for him, but thought against it. That might just set her off again, and she already looked in more pain than he'd like to admit. It was better to just comply with her, even if only half way.
"I just can't lay still," and she knew something was wrong. He had enough patience and training to know and understand when limits had been reached. If he was hurt, he wasn't one to argue and fuss the entire time. That was more her style. He'd calmly wait out the recovery and be back in no time, fully healed and rested.
That's what made this escapade all that much worse in her eyes.
"Clint," she cooed, finally letting her anger flush out as she approached him. In a few steps, she was beside him, knelt, with a hand on his shoulder. Her face was unreadable but her voice betrayed her.
"Tell me what's wrong."
He said nothing, his eyes darting across her face, looking for something. They found nothing. Her eyes were blank and her mouth tightened so not even the slightest quiver escaped. If he hadn't heard her right, she could have easily fooled him to thinking she didn't care at all.
"Say something..." She finally begged, half whispering.
After a moment, he slowly nodded.
"I'll go inside..." He brought his hands up, taking her own in his before bringing it down, off of his shoulder. "But, I can't tell you what's wrong. Not yet."
And she understood. Because he didn't want to share and she wouldn't make him. And because he sounded more in pain admitting that something was wrong than he did lying about his health. Those were physical wounds, and she knew a good week or two of actual rest and he'd be good as new. It was the emotional scars, what he wasn't ready to reveal, that would take time. She wasn't as patient as him, but she could wait.
She stood, nodding as she did so and reaching her hands down to help him stand. He fit himself against her, leaning on her for support. He'd made it fine to the roof when he'd woken, but he wasn't beneath taking her help when offered and he knew it'd be easier just to accept it that fight it. It'd put her at ease, too, anyway.
Steve jumped again when the door opened and in walked Barton, leaning heavily against Natasha. Banner was indulging in breakfast at the counter, watching the pair quietly as they exited the room as quietly as they'd entered. Steve, baffled, looked between the doorway the two had disappeared behind, and Banner.
He almost asked what happened, but the scientist shrugged prematurely, having no answers for the captain, so instead he kept his mouth shut. Rubbing at his eyes, he reached for his book.
Not wanting to overstay the hospitality of the Captain, Barton insisted he could make the trip to his own room. Natasha refused, seeing as Barton's quarters were the farthest. They compromised with her room.
She spread him out on the bed, much like the previous night, and eyed his bandages. They were rust colored and looked to be needed changed, but Barton shook his head when she offered.
"I'm tired. Let me sleep, I'll change them when I wake up."
"We'll change them," She insisted. He could hide the truth from her all she wanted, but she'd be damned if she didn't stick to him like glue these next few days. He didn't argue, sighing and conscious of the pressure against his lungs, easing into the exhale. Natasha dropped a hand on his shoulder, seating next to him as he shifted his neck comfortably on a pillow. For a minute, neither talked at they just sat like that.
"You're not going anywhere." It wasn't a question, and he wasn't offering. He knew her, and he knew whether he asked her to or not, she'd stay by him. She didn't nod because the flicker of her eyes confirmed it and he again tried to adjust his head.
"You'll cramp up your legs if you sit like that."
Her protests came too late as he started shimming over, trying to make room on the mattress for her to slip into. Her hands shot to his sides, helping him shift over before she quickly slipped next to him, squeezing herself beside him and trying to take up as little room as possible. She wanted him to stop moving and her hands gently tugged at his arm to stop moving, as she was comfortable and settled, him having to move minimal distance for her.
His head was cocked to the side to watch her, she laying on her side facing him while he was on his back, and for a long time neither said anything. Finally, he closed his eyes and let out a final, long breadth.
"Thank you," He finally added, sincerely. He meant more than just her staying with him, or even helping him last night. He also meant for caring for him, all this time, and for not pushing him to talk. Because she knew he would, eventually, and because he would, eventually.
She said nothing, snuggling her head comfortably against her arm as she blinked a few more times, watching him to make sure he slipped into sleep before she did the same.