A Minor Bird

Chemical Reaction

His smirk is unnerving and despite the man's best efforts to remain as placid and cold-faced as he can, he can't help but grimace at the man before him. A spy, the man spits at his feet at the thought.

Some foreign scum, and not a particularly good one at that. Easily caught, he hardly put up a fight. At least, a decent one. His footwork was sloppy and with a solid blow to the back of his head, the spy had gone down, cold.

He had hardly even been armed. A handheld, a standard boot knife, a clip and a round in his pocket. It was insulting, the man thought. That whoever sent this spy looked so down upon him and all his work, all his enterprise that he'd raised from the ground and ash singularly by himself (And the few casualties that had gotten in his way. Business was business, sacrifice inevitable).

His lips pursed into a smile. Speaking of which, he thought, eyeing over the spy as he came to it. He blinked twice, still half out of it from the mild concussion. He shook his head, then smugly grinned a big, toothy excuse of a smile that seemed to sum up the suited man's impression on Americans in general.

He rolled his eyes, already disgusted beyond capacity. Here he was, in such an elegant city, surrounded by art and culture, and he was forced to waste his time seeing to it that this spy was interrogated and executed without a hitch (Unlike last time; like he'd ever make that mistake again). The quicker he got through this, the quicker he could return to a gala that had peeked his interest earlier this night (Mostly because of a vixen who suggested interest in some activity later that night).

He nodded to one of his own men, standing near by, and the man took two large steps before he was at the spy's side.

With a swift blow to the gut, the spy was instantly better, focused and no longer smiling.

So he thought.

Turning back to face the spy, that damn smile was still there. He spat out some blood and continued to smirk like he was medicated (Well, he was currently attached to two IVs), his teeth now glossed in red, making him look all the more dumb.

"You work...America, no?" His accent was thick and he hardly knew any English. He nodded to another one of his men, who babbled on it even more grotesque English before hitting the spy, suspended, in the back of the head.

He took the blow just like the one before. With a quick shake of his head and a smile.

Irritated, with patience wearing down and the prospect of the woman from earlier grinding in the back of his head, the man in charge made two swift nods at his men, unconcerned, before turning back towards the table laid out for him. This was short notice, so none of his favorite toys were nearby. He had the spy's gun, knife and a couple of choice tools. He went for the final piece of equipment-a syringe.

"You...don't talk, no?" He smirked, mock familiarity in his voice. The spy said nothing, keeping quiet.

"I'd...love to play," the man sighed, "But," he shrugged, "Quite frankly, I have no time." With a smile, he pointed accusingly at the spy. "You have no time."

Without any other signals, the two men at either side of the prisoner yanked him back, flattening him against a make shift cot set up. The spy grunted, but that was the most noise he produced.

The man, toying with the needle in hand, approached the prisoner, a wicked grin on his eyes.

"It's...shame, no? No...final words," he pouted, "No scream. No name?"

He swore he saw the man wink, and he felt anger flare up, even if he was sure he'd just imagined it all.

"Pity. Under any other...circumstance," he fumbled for the right words, "would've tried to get more...information..? Seeing as is, not quite the case," he frowned, the gesture a mockery of empathy, "Not that I'd get much," he muttered under his breadth, in native tongue.

He popped off the cap and gave the needle a light shake. The liquid inside was an unnatural green, and the American's eyes studied it, widening. Satisfied by the fear filing those grey eyes, the man approached.

"W-wait-" The spy finally stuttered.

He caught himself, pausing as he quirked a brow.


The American's eyes darted between the needle and his executioner's face, back to the needle, and finally smiling as he rolled his head back and yelled out, "You're not even going to buy me dinner first, eh? Cheap bastards, and here I thought you Europeans were classy-"

The man flinched as either guard flexed, trying to contain the squirming vocalist. He cackled under their grips, a vein flexing in his neck as he strained his head.

"I have a joke for you! Three guys walk into a bar-"

One man punched the spy in square in the jaw. This only halted his performance for a moment as he smirked, his nose now bleeding, before continuing,

"You're more a 'knock knock' joke kind of guy, huh? I know, maybe some karaoke?"

He was breathing heavier, but doing one hell of a job keeping calm. He was stark mad, the man decided. A complete lunatic. He gripped the younger man's wrist, turning it over in his hand as he brought the needle down.

"Singing this will be the day that I die," The spy sounded exasperated. Tired and drained, his voice was lowering and all his attention was drawn to the needle, mere inches from a prominent vein in his skin.

It pricks the surface.

"This will be the day that I die..."

A part of him thinks she actually will miss her cue. He bitterly wonders if she's waiting for a invitation. After the first punch in the gut, a sucker punch that he can't do anything about without blowing his cover, he remembers exactly why he hates being the bait. She's better at this than him, though he won't ever admit it to her. He will admit that the client always seem to...warm up more to her than him.

Case in point when the guy "regrettably" informs him that he doesn't have the time to torture any useful information out of him, so he's just going to off him right here right now. This does throw the plan forward a couple of minutes, and he hopes that she's already in position, otherwise he will only serve the purpose as an example when he's shipped back in a bag for SHIELD to examine.

Barton will give him this much, at least it adds a bit of a challenge. He isn't a psychopath, and it's not like he's inviting death any closer, but he was starting to understand why Natasha always complained at how tiresome these types of interrogations went. No one was creative anymore and, apparently, no one had time to do a proper interrogation (He hadn't gone through the training and everything in order to handle torture and interrogation only to be told "sorry, let's skip that part").

But, things are moving quickly and he hasn't gotten the signal yet. He thinks up some make-shift distraction, to stall for just a minute. He knows this guy has an opinion already formed in his mind of him-some rookie spy from America with half the whit as he has muscle. So, he plays on that.

"I have a joke!" He's loud and obnoxious and everything he knows this guy will hate. What's more, he's loud and only half the fear in his voice is acting and he's hoping she'll hear it. He doesn't admit it, but he chooses this particular song just to irk her.

"This will be the day that I die.."

That, and it's a befitting song.

He's the only one not surprised when the doors burst open, the locks picked and discarded, as lights flash through the window, alerting the presence of, at least in counting, three choppers.

Clint relaxes his head against the table, not because he's relieved at the rescue, but because his throat hurts from belting that tune and his arm is starting to fall asleep, his veins pulsing quicker as blood is drawn when the needle is yanked back.

She's picking at the lock and from what little she can make out, she knows things aren't going exactly as planned. Because she can't make out his voice and there's too little of talking. Then she hears him singing and her first thought is "that bastard," because he knows she doesn't care for that song.

He next thought is that they need to act now.

The lock snaps and she jabs the com line open.

"Action affirmed, repeat; action affirmative." Her voice is quick and sharp, not because she'd afraid but she's a bit edgy. She knows the shakiness of his voice is all an act. He could be popping grapes in a bath for all she knew. But, she didn't like this mission from the start, because in all honesty it should be her in that role and he should be the one standing outside, waiting for the signal.

So she's not completely surprised when she kicks the door open, her team filling in behind her, and her eyes immediately dart to him holstered down on a table, with a needle which's contents are visible even from her distance.

She doesn't hesitated a moment before she unleashes two bullets, either side of her partner's captives dropping. Free, he jerks up, with enough slack from their loosened grips, to deliver a head butt to his captor, who was standing all too close. The vial drops and shatters, spewing whatever poison it contained on the stained floor.

Clint jerks upright but the shackles suspending him only allow him a radius of a few feet before he's yanked backwards. His captor is recovering and quickly assessing the situation to be one that he needs to escape from, but Natasha's already on it.

A few more stand-by thugs are already making their way to intercept. What doesn't get taken out by Natasha's backup, or flee at the sight of the spotlights, is picked off by Clint.

Twisting his hands around to grip at the chains, he pulls himself up, effortlessly, and twists the chains to swing him towards the pursuers, sending a kick to two of their skulls that sends them crashing back into the tagalong others. The IVs are forcefully yanked out of him when he twists, but he hardly notices.

The operator behind the mess is frantic and sprawls towards his tray of tools, but Natasha is a hell of a lot quicker and she's already landed her heel to his face. Slumping backwards, he rubs at his head as Natasha aims, point blank, directly at his eye.

"Guess we won't get our intimate time together, huh?" She mocks, and he gravely recalls her to be the flirt from the party.

He instantly regrets his wish of seeing her as fast as he could.

The area surrounded and the target secured, Natasha approaches Clint, who is sitting expectantly on the table, hands still cuffed.

"What're you waiting for?" She barks, because she knows he could have escaped the cuffs hours ago.

He shrugs, "Maybe I was waiting for my prince charming to finish the job."

She rolls her eyes, turning away and biting back, "The job is over. Drop the act."

He doesn't respond, chuckling lowly as he twists the cuffs a bit before squeezing his hands out from them, just catching her final comment before she slips out of the room, "And don't ever sing that song again. Ever," she emphasizes.

He starts whistling the tune.

The debriefing is quick and ends with a half-hearted compliment by Fury over a job "well done". He doesn't take his eyes off her cause she looks fidgety the entire time and he knows it' s something to do with the mission. He wants her to be outright with it, but thinks it's been a decent night, successful mission and all, and he tries his luck with a joke.

"If you really hate the song that much..."

She jumps a little as he approaches her, and now he regrets the joke because if she's shaken enough to actually be startled then she's too shaken for jokes. So, he drops it like he said nothing.

She shakes her head, though, "No, it's-"

The two are cut off as another agent approaches and informs the pair that they'll be departing soon. The moment the agent is gone, she turns back to Clint, because she didn't get to finish what she'd meant to say, but he's already turned away as well. He mutters something about checking with the meds real quick, and she assumes he's just playing for sympathy, because she knows for a fact he barely had any bruises on his wrists and that both blows landed on him weren't nearly as hard as their spars.

She doesn't catch, however, how he rubs and nurses a sore spot just below his upturned elbow, where a vein throbs and swelling has started.

Natasha frowns, watching Clint as he picks at the meal, having not even taken so much as a bite out of the plate. She's so intently watching him that she's forgotten about her own meal, and unlike Clint, this doesn't go unnoticed by another.

"Well, damn, Natasha. If you're so hell bent on undressing Clint from across the table, don't mind us!" Stark invites, and instantly she shoots him a glare that shuts him up. Steve chokes from beside Barton, who in all honesty missed the comment and is now startled by Steve's outburst.

Thor booms, confused, "We Asgardians have no magic akin to that of undressing another without physical contact. Is this a unique skill only performed by SHIELD, or do all midgardians possess such..?"

Tony smiles, happy to oblige Thor's question.

"It's something reserved only for the fiercely feminine and sexually deprived creatures known as 'Black Widows'. But, it only works on certain, complimentary species, specifically the ha-"

Bruce doesn't even lift his head up from his meal in surprise when a roll hits its target, square in the nose, from beside him. He burps to himself and quickly apologizes, then reaches for a second serving of peas.

Barton rubs at his temple, because he's only catching parts of this conversation and he's pretty sure he doesn't want the rest of it. Tony is screaming bloody murder and demanding a citizen's arrest of his assailant, and Steve can't decide if he wants to attempt to down a glass or not, considering he might just spit it up and Banner probably wouldn't appreciate the unwanted shower.

Without a sound, Clint rises from the table, his plate a perfect preservation of how it'd exactly been served, and he mumbles something about sleep. Natasha almost stands, but catches Tony's smirk and it bothers the hell out of her, so against her better judgment she lets Barton walk off. Because she can always corner him later and she's not in the mood right now to ward off teasing of Tony's.

But the minute Barton disappears behind the corner, Tony jumps at the chance.

"Dinner and a show! Vegas buffet-" he points to the Captain, "We...are going to have to catch you up to speed."

"Tony, I-"

But Natasha doesn't stick around and she's out of there before she can even catch the rest of Steve's feeble attempts to ward Tony off his back.

She knocks lightly and from inside she hears a quick curse. She can tell by the echo that he's in the bathroom and she hears something fall on the counter before footsteps follow and the door is opened.

Clint looked down at Natasha, surprised at how quick she was to follow him and he throws up a smile that doesn't fool either of them.

"Tasha, what's-"

"You alright?" She pushes past him, into his room, and he holds his breadth when of course the first thing she does is make a beeline for his bathroom.

But he's quick and he catches her at the doorway, exhaling without looking at her.

"I'm fine, Nat." But he sounds aggravated more than assuring and she sounded agitated more than concerned.

Natasha hid her surprise, but it's there. She's startled that Clint is physically barring her from his bathroom, and if that doesn't scream conspicuous then he might as well pin a sign to his shirt.

She looks between the alluded bathroom and Clint, who looks tired in the low light. She wants nothing more than to kick him sideways and make a break for whatever it is that he's hiding, but he looks dead serious about stopping her. What good would it do if she came in to see what was wrong with him only to add to the list by picking a fight.

"Alright." She surrendered.

Barton blinked. Just like that?

Natasha stepped on her heels and walked towards the doorway, pausing just at it and giving Clint a side glance. She starts to say something, but stops, and finally she just murmurs a quick "night".

The moment she's gone and the door clicks, Clint falls backwards, sprawled on the bed. Raising his arm, he eyes the swelling that he thanks Thor's ancestors she didn't notice. He rubs his eyes, because the meds are kicking in quicker than he thought and he doesn't remember the exact dosage they prescribed, so he reminds himself to call in the minute he wakes up.

Natasha doesn't even wait for Stark to instigate it when he walks into the kitchen the next morning. She focuses her glare on him, intensely, and becomes fixated with shutting him up before he can so much as tell a knock knock joke.

It works, because he pours a cup of coffee and keeps his mouth shut.

Until Barton walks in.

"Morning sunshine," he purposely yells practically, catching how tired and groggy Barton still looks. Natasha rolls her eyes because Stark is mistaking his appearance to be a hangover, though only Stark ever seems to be conditioned with those.

Barton doesn't flinch at the volume of his voice, but he stumbles a bit and hits the side of the counter, gripping it for a moment. Natasha instantly pushes herself off from the counter but hesitates when he yawns and settles in a stool at the counter, playing off the incident.

Tony isn't done with his teases, but he does miss the stumble and instead attacks his choice in attire.

"You're not going to fly south on us, are you? This," he motioned to the sleeves, "Isn't some kind of weather-predicting anticipation, is it? You're not holding out on us on some special...power or something?"

Barton just furrows his brows and shakes his head at Stark, but Natasha actually gives Tony credit that he's on to something.

It's mid summer and Clint is wearing long sleeves.

"Clint-" She begins, but it seems she can never get a word out because Clint cuts her off himself this time.

"I'm stopping by base this morning. Turn in the report from the previous mission. I reviewed it a bit, added a few comments and Intel I'd like to personally look into."

Natasha cocked a brow.

"I'll go with you-"


It jumped out of his mouth quicker than he'd meant and his recovery didn't exactly help him either.

"I'm just dropping off the files, no reason for two people to go for a job that only requires one."

"If it's just some files, I can have Jarvis hack into SHIELD, upload them from here-"

"Right, I'll be back in a bit," Clint declared, rather uncharacteristically. He didn't need the sendoff, but he used it as an excuse to cut Tony off.

This only enflamed Natasha's curiosity and in a twist of fate against Clint, it also spiked the interest of Tony.

Enough that he was even willing to put aside the golden opportunity of teasing to join in a rare moment of conspiring with the Black Widow.

"I'll have Jarvis pull up Shield's security footage."

"I'm going to raid his room."

Clint anticipated as much, and he'd made a clean sweep that morning of his room and bathroom, something Natasha noted when she entered it. Clint had left not but ten minutes ago.

His room was neat, as always, with the bed made and everything personal packed in drawers and shelves. She didn't waste much time there-her real source of Intel was the bathroom.

Of course he'd swiped the place down, the countertop clean save for a tooth brush and paste and a few other average necessities.

Frustrated, she checked the trash bin. It had recently been emptied. The cabinet; swiped clean of anything but a few standard pain medications and light sleeping pills.

She returned, empty handed, to Stark, who was viewing Jarvis's work on a tablet.

"How long ago did he leave?"

Natasha frowned.

"He should be at HQ by now," what with the New York base set not far from the city setting, "at which, he'll take a right towards the records and debriefing rooms-"

"Really? Because he just took a left."

Tony flipped the tablet to face Natasha, who sure enough found herself watching her partner head in the opposite direction of his intended errand."

"The left..? It's the training facility..." No, he just passed the gym. The cameras jumped ahead each time Clint passed one, Jarvis tracking his identification as Tony instructed. Puzzled, she watched him take a right just before the hall that loops back towards records.

"That's...towards the infirmary."

"Oh, so he's reporting to the doctors, is it? Something not go quite right the other day?"

Natasha frowned. He hadn't sustained any serious injuries, she'd thought. Had he softened so much that he couldn't take a sucker punch to the jaw?

Her doubts were confirmed when he steppe inside an all-too-familiar room designated for patients. Scowling, Natasha leaned in, snatching the tablet out of Stark's fingers.

"Hey, that's-"

"Jarvis, get inside that room."

There was a pause, then the screen jumped to inside. Clint was seated on the bench, an agent doctor (Natasha recognized the face but couldn't match the name) seated beside him. The two men nodded and briefly talked before Clint tugged at his sleeve, rolling it up to his shoulder as the doctor leaned in closer for inspection.

After a quick moment, Clint pulled the sleeve down and the doctor reached back to an array of tools, picking out a few before settling on one needle.

"Jarvis, rewind the footage and freeze the frame," Stark noted off-handedly, pulling the caption out from the boundaries of the tablet to form a screen of sorts in his hand. Natasha didn't so much as bat an eyelid at the technology Stark possessed, but she reminded herself to be wary of cameras, knowing Stark was very capable of this control.

"What's wrong with his arm?" Stark mentioned, pointing out the discoloration (The screen itself was a dingy green, so clarity wasn't exactly present).

Natasha only spared a glance before turning back to watch the live footage and the doctor inserted one needle...and another...and a third. He handed Clint two pill bottles, finally, with a few more curt words that she interpreted to be directions and prescriptions before both men stood, nodding to each other, and going there separate ways.

Stark was busy blowing up the image on Clint's swollen arm, about to make some remark towards Natasha, but stopped when he saw the expression she wore.

She was livid.

Tony was no spy, but he did a damn good job that evening in keeping his mouth shut and the attention off of him. He kept eyeing Natasha, waiting and watching to see if or when she'd confront Clint. Clint himself didn't say a word, didn't look up, and hardly touched his meal. That was anything new.

Tony not talking was.

"Anything you want to share, Stark?"

The older man jumped as Barton lifted his eyes to stare down the man, apparently aware that he'd been tensely watching him. Maybe Stark wasn't that good and keeping suspicion off himself.

But the mistake was Clint's, because looking up at Stark only left him open wide for scrutinizing. With his head lifted and attention drawn to him, even the others caught the flash of paling in the archer's face and the all-around appearance of illness.

Another mistake was his word choice.

"We could ask you the same thing," Natasha spat from under her napkin as she dabbed at her chin. Barton snapped his neck to face her and Tony, seeing an opportunity to jump in, took the chance.

"It is...funny, that you should call out me for being suspicious. I've been home all day," he shrugged, trying to play himself off as obviously nonchalant as possible, "And practically been in the company of everyone set at this table all day; witnesses, you might say. You, however-"

"'We'?" Clint cut Stark off, his eyes still fixated on Natasha as he hadn't heard a word that Tony had said.

Natasha threw the napkin down.

"Stark and I-"

"You spied on me?"

"You lied to me-"

"Good to see I can trust my partner-"

"You can trust me to care when you lie, as a friend-"

"So, what? What'd you see-"

"Why don't you tell me?" Their voices escalated and Barton was standing, his back flexed as he loomed over Natasha, who remained the calmer of the two (Surprisingly), still seated.

"It's none of your goddamn business," he finally spat, in a half-whisper that everyone heard but hardly believed. And Natasha just watched as he turned around before anger finally broke past her facade and she lunged after him.

"What kind of bullshit is that? That's not an answer, Clint, that's an excuse! You're running away-"

She caught him by the arm and he reacted by twisting it and gripping her right back. In a swift turn, he shifted himself around her and pinned her back against him, bending her arm in discomfort without so much as blinking. She twisted her legs behind his, in a taking-you-with-me stance that pinned them both back against the wall. Everyone at the table was already on their feet, Steve just a pace behind breaking the two apart, save for Tony who hadn't stood or reacted at all.

Natasha brought her free hand up behind her to Clint's face, trying to shove him off, but in that instant he dropped his grip, completely releasing her and tripping back against the wall.

Their feet still intertwined, Natasha fell forward, Steve catching her while Clint slumped into a seated position, back against the wall. He was coughing and he no longer was looking at Natasha or focused on anything in particular.

"Sh-" He tried to curse, but a small trail of foam came out instead, a mix of spit and bile and he coughed as a bit of drool trailed down his chin. Weakly, he lifted a hand at the door's handle, trying to make his way to it. That was impossible, and he knelt over in another coughing fit.

Natasha had a grip on the situation more so than the others, and immediately pushed out of Steve's grip, making her own way to the door.

"The medications, he needs the medications!"

She was out the door and Clint had dropped to his side, his breathing raspy as convulsions took over his body. He was having a damn seizure, and only Banner was reacting appropriately.

Natasha returned momentarily, two pill bottles in hand. She gave up trying to read the prescription and shoved both bottles in Clint's face.

"Clint, which one? Damn it, Clint, which one!"

Whatever little sense he still had he put into pointing weakly at her left hand before the muscles gave out in his forearm. Natasha screwed the cap off, popped two pills (She prayed the dosage was enough, that much she had gotten off of the bottle) and unceremoniously shoved them with her fingers deep in the back of Clint's throat.

She didn't stop moving, setting the pills aside before pulling out her com link and patching through to Shield.

"Get me Agent..." She racked at her brain, trying to remember that damn doctor's name that she'd recognized from earlier. Giving up, she shook her head, not that they'd see it over at Shield.

"It's Barton, something's wrong with him. I need medical attention, immediately, he's not stabilizing-"

Banner was jumping through standard protocol in dealing with patients and seizures, yelling orders that Steve and Thor quickly jumped to carry out.

Stark still remained seated.

No one held back Natasha the moment Clint stepped out from the emergency infirmary at Shield's station. Therefore, no one was able to stop her when she punched Clint directly in the face. Even he didn't react. A small part of them, and Clint himself, knew that he deserved that much.

"You want to tell me now?"

Clint didn't look at her, keeping his eyes away from her and his arm, with which the sleeve was rolled up and a patch signaled some shots had taken place, and at the floor. Natasha kept her gaze firmly on him.

"It wasn't much, just a small prick. Not even half the dosage."

Natasha's eyes widened, because she understood, but no one else got the reference.

"Clint...that's too close of a call-"

"Nothing you can do about it now." She muttered, finally pushing past her. He just wanted to go home and to sleep.

But, Natasha wasn't done.

"So, the medications..?"

"To help flush it out of my system. I told you, Nat, it was a small dose, a couple drops."

She had more questions, they all did, but then Clint turned and gave her a look that clearly looked to beg for peace.

"I'm really tired..." The honesty was unnerving, and Natasha just nodded.

At the tower, after Clint had gone to sleep immediately upon arrival, Natasha was cornered and sat in the center of the den, the other members of their team circled around her as she relayed their mission from a few nights ago.

"As mother of this whole operation," Tony pointed dejectedly around the gathered roommates, ignoring Steve's scowl, "I have to protest, I'm not sure I like you and junior going out on these escapades every other night. Double shifts?" He questioned, raising a brow. Natasha frowned.

"We're first and foremost Shield agents. We're trained for this. The last job just...ran it close."

"Close?" Banner questioned, finally speaking up. "I'm...well, I wasn't there, but from the details you're describing, I'm assuming that the liquid was..." Banner trailed off.

"-not some perk-me-up solution for Sparky over there?" Tony provided. Banner essentially ignored him.

"Barbiturate." Natasha answered.

"Even a small dosage...I mean, it's great that you caught it and all, but..."

Steve sighed, rubbing his neck.

"He'll be alright?"

Natasha nodded slowly. "The doctors say it should flush out of his system in a couple of weeks. The meds are...pretty intense, but he'll live."

"As long as he continues regular doses and the allotted intervals," Tony noted, referring to their dinner time show.

Natasha didn't nod.

He isn't asleep, and she knows as much which is why she doesn't bother knocking to warn or wake him. Because he knew all along she'd slip in anyway and she knows that as well. All he is surprised at is how quickly she shook the others off. Must have given them the condensed report on the mission, because it's barely been any time at all since he left them all in the den, well aware that Natasha was about to be victim to a press conference of questions regarding what exactly was going on.

Clint doesn't say anything, even as she slips up behind him, her hands falling on his shoulders as she presses her face between his shoulder blades in the curve of his back. He shifts a little, not to pull away from her but to straighten so she can press closer to him, because he's not sacrificing that much comfort and to be honest, her presence is the most comforting thing going for him right now.

"You really weren't going to tell me?" She finally mutters, but she doesn't want the answer. Not really. She already knows it, so he doesn't answer.

But he owes her something, owes some kind of words to her, for everything she's done and been through and had to put up with as of late, so he gives her that much. He talks to her.

"I hate being bait."

She scoffs bitterly, and a silent agreement passes between the two of them that he'll remain the distant sniper and she'll handle the up-close interrogations. It suits them better.

"Back up was already there. You could have blown cover, just a second earlier. Don't even pretend that it was a challenge."

He shrugs. To be honest, he hadn't been sure. He wasn't exactly known to follow operatives through and through (Natasha was exhibit A), but he was infamous on the risks he took. And he always made close calls. He was patient and he rode off on last minute calls. That was one of the few irritating things about him, to her.

Along with how he hid things, even from her, though he hadn't managed yet to hide anything from her for very long. Intel was her strength.

"I was distracted." He finally said, and she isn't sure if he is joking or not. "Sitting there..that honestly could have been the end."

"It's always 'could be the end'; that's just-"

"Occupational hazards?" He mocks, but neither one laughs.

"And I kept thinking...how pissed is Tasha going to be when the last thing she hears me say is singing a song she can't stand?"

He chuckles and she taps his back with her fist, no force behind the punch at all, but he knows she's smirking despite herself.

Then it's quiet again and his arm itches but he can't scratch it because he was warned not to. So, he sighs instead and throws his arm backwards, the very one that's bruised, so it curves and catches Natasha, pulling her further against his back. She avoids touching his arm but doesn't flinch, scooting closer so he doesn't have to do all the work and she slips her hands around his waist.

It's a breach of any personal space but he's tired and needs sleep and he knows she'll be damned before she leaves him alone, wary that a repeat of tonight's dinner happens and he's helpless, unable to reach the emergency meds. The extra warmth isn't so bad, either.

He's out after a minute, and she knows it's killing Stark, not knowing what the two are doing or what's going on. So, she tortures his curiosity by staying by Clint's side, in his room, until she drifts asleep.

It's been two weeks and the dosages have dropped. He's more open about the verdicts each time he returns from check ups, mostly due to the insistence on Natasha, so everyone at the Tower is aware of his progress from healing. Physically, he's fine. He trains, though Steve frets over 'overexertion' but Clint assures him he's fine. Bruce also is uptight about proper hydration, insisting water will do his body just as much good as the prescriptions. Thor keeps asking 'how fairs he' ad Clint always just nods and smirks.

He's still touchy and moody occasionally, when the doses first start diminishing, but they do their best not to agitate him and Natasha is always right there, right beside him whenever his attitude does flare or peak. Pretty soon, he's rounding out to be almost normal again.

There was a ripple of mixed emotions, then, when Barton revealed he was taking up a mission. Alone.

No one would outright say something against it. It's not that he had a choice in declining or not, when it came to a SHIELD agent and their directors, but they all felt uneasy about him taking off shortly after reaching recovery, and as Banner pointed out he wasn't completely weaned off the doses just yet. Steve sided with Barton's unspoken argument (Because all this debate went behind his back, naturally). It was his job and mission to carry out. If he was deemed healthy enough, he should be fine. Like a true soldier's response.

Banner was doubtful about it. Precautious in any instance that involved drugs, he also recognized it was futile to question the decision-he just didn't support it.

Thor didn't approve of it, but kept any opinion beyond that to himself, oddly enough.

Stark was the most adamant that Barton should stick it to SHIELD and take a jet to Santa Barbara, see what they'd do then. He looked to Natasha to be his ally, since Thor was silent and Banner didn't have enough of a spine.

Disappointingly, he found that she was even more reserved than Thor, answering only with a shrug.

Tony had been banking that, if nothing else, she'd be upset that the mission was a solo one, one that didn't include her. But she reminded him her and Barton did several missions apart-they weren't conjoined at the hip, she reminded him with a light scowl.

Tony mumbled something about where else they were attached, and even though only Natasha caught it, the others didn't bother defending him when all of sudden he found himself in a head lock by the Black Widow.

It's the night before Barton is supposed to leave. They're all gathered in the loft, Natasha pretending to be focused on a book but in all honesty she's calculating how much of Barton's dosages are left and whether he needs a refill or not. He won't disclose how long the mission will take to her, so she makes a note to herself to remind him to see to it that the infirmary supplies him with a full new supply before he leaves.

Her thoughts are cut short when Clint appears, storming from his own quarters, and jerks her wrist after him, pulling her out of the room, which has grown silent as the events unfolded.

Clint doesn't stop, tugging Natasha along behind him and she would've yanked from his grip long ago but it's a light hold and she knows it must be important- he wouldn't act this brash if it wasn't. So she doesn't say anything when he pulls the two of them into his room and slumps to sit on his bed, finally dropping her hand so she's just standing there, facing him as he throws his head in his hands and leans over his knees.

She doesn't say anything, waiting for him to speak first and finally he inhales, rising his head just to prop his mouth and chin in his fists and stare at the corner of the wall.

"I lied." He finally breathes.

"I know," she finally answers, kneeling down to be at eye level with him To be honest, she has no idea what's spurred his behavior and she can't imagine why he's acting this way, but in the broadest terms, she understands. They've all lied, she's lied, he's lied-

"No, I mean before."

She frowned.


"I wasn't thinking bout the song, or regretting what the last thing you'd hear me say..." He stammers off and finally flashes his eyes to meet hers, and she doesn't know what he's looking for in them but he keeps searching her eyes.

"I kept trying to remember what the last thing I heard you say was."

There's a hitch in her breadth but she hides it well and dares to bring a hand up to his hairline. He feels a little clammy and she thinks maybe he pulled off the medication too soon, because he seems a bit shaky and she doesn't think it has anything to do with the mission. There would have been a more wild look in his eyes or more injuries if it was the mission itself.


"I couldn't remember." He blurts out, and she bites at her lip.

"Does it-"

"Yes," he answers before she can even ask. She thinks a minute, then remarks,

"I told you I was sending the target your way. It was just before you let yourself get caught-"

He shook his head.

"There was something else. Wasn't there? I remember saying something to you-a joke or something. And you said something back," he shook his head. He looked more desperate than that day on the table, at the mercy of a poison that was meant to kill him, and she doesn't understand why this means so much to him.

"I can't remember," He confesses.

Natasha moves to sit next to him, quiet for a moment as she slinks an arm around his shoulders and stares at the ground with him.

"'Can't be any worse than you'."


He stares at her while her lips press into a ghost of a smile.

"You asked me, 'What? The guy has two left feet?' and I said, 'Can't be any worse than you'."

Clint blinks, recalling the side joke through the comes and finally smirks to himself, remembering.

"That's what it was..."

Natasha doesn't say anything but slowly she begins rocking and he sways along with her, until finally he feels so tired and drained and she lets him go so he can slide back onto the mattress. She thinks about letting him sleep, but he grips her thigh and she takes the invite to squirm in next to him.

She honestly thinks he's asleep and she feels herself drifting when from the darkness, he blurts out in a quick whisper,

"I love you."

She always knew as much and she expects the words to come out of his mouth every time he opens it, but it still surprises her. She closes her eyes a minute, debating whether to pretend to be asleep or not, but she knows she can't run away from the confrontation for forever. Her breadth hitches and now she knows it's futile to pretend to be asleep.

His back is still to her, and it's dark, so she's grateful for that, but it's also quiet, and he can hear every breadth she takes.

She opens her mouth to say something. To tell him love is for children. To tell him she loves him. To berate and chastise him because this never should happen and it's gotten out of control and she can't risk that. To tell him she's done with Shield and their identities are already compromised after that fiasco with the aliens and she's tired of going on solo missions, she's tired of being pulled away from him and she's tired of all this high risk and secrecy and lies. She wants to propose they permanently join the Avengers, screw Shield, because as much as she'd never admit it to Tony, this team is the closest thing to a family and she wants nothing more than to be happy beside them with Clint beside her.

Natasha, instead, tells him, "I know."

The next morning, Barton is gone.

When he does come back, just a few days later, he's groggy and hungry but nothing he hasn't ever experienced before. He's been on worse stake outs-this particular one was a textbook mission, and he's just eager to return to Stark's tower and crash, maybe find that emergency meds ration seeing as how he ran out of the prescription roughly a day ago. The others don't know when to expect him back, and he's hoping to keep it as a surprise.

Instead, he gets a surprise in the form of Agent Hill approaching him, a look of uncharacteristic relief washing over her face.

"Barton, when did you get in?"

He shrugs at his watch, "a few minutes ago."

She nods, looking between Barton and a file in her hand, debating whether to talk to him or not. Catching this, he straightens his back and nods to the folder.

"Something bothering you, Hill?"

She's straightforward with her response and her face is as expressionless as Natasha's at times. He respects Agent Hill, what with her being second only to Fury. But even she sounds slightly apprehensive when she finally speaks.

"Your under-the-table dealer from earlier? He's shipping in from interrogation and intelligence."

Clint cocks a brow.


"Tonight. I have a team assembled to escort him back here to base, but..."

She didn't voice her suspicions, but he understood them anyway. No doubt a fresh team, some new meat with a few rookies thrown into the mix. It was a simple enough assignment. Clint smiled, easing the conversation as he nodded.

"If Agent Hill would request as much, I'll tag along to see to it the extraction is successful-"

She doesn't bother waiting for him to finish, slouching in relief uncharacteristically.

"You are one of the best agents we have, Barton," she nods, and through her speech he knows she's thanking him for taking a load off her shoulders. She hands him the file for the quick debriefing before tapping his shoulder.

"You're fine with this? You did only just get back..."

"I have some time to kill," he shrugs. The others weren't expecting him back... "And this operation will only take a few hours?"

Hill nods.

"You have some time before your team dispatches. You could make it back to the tower..." She suggests, but he shrugs off the invitation. He wouldn't bother returning to the tower, only to leave for another, albeit quick, mission within the hour anyway.

Better to pretend he'd just got in from his first and, as far as the Avenger's 'family' was concerned, only mission later that night than alert them to his over-achieving status as a pushover.

"It'd just upset Nat," He smirks, more to himself than to Hill, who doesn't quite understand his reference and chooses that moment to walk off.

He doesn't know how it got like this, or rather he doesn't understand. He knows that one minute he's hiding his scowl, eyeing the very man who almost lethally injected him only a couple weeks back, and the next minute he's ducking at the sound of gun shots. He hears the spluttering of blood and by the intense jerk and swerve that the truck takes, he knows the driver has been hit. The passenger seat agent is obviously the rookie, no doubt the source of Hill's apprehension, as the instant everything goes under, he's screaming his head off. The second guard stationed with Clint and the prisoner topples over when the truck flips, Barton making a dive for the prisoner.

He gasps out in pain briefly when he shoulder collides with the wall of the truck. His leg twists uncomfortably but he quickly puts pressure on it and the pain disappears. His quiver jabs into his back, Clint shifting the strap when the truck settles, flipped upright once again.

He knows instantly that whoever is attacking, whoever is cutting them off before they can arrive back at base, are trying to intercept them for a reason. He just isn't sure if it's a rescue or a hit.

He catches the flash of a grin of the man, still cuffed to the wall of the truck, but after a moment the grin fades and Barton knows that this man is coming to the same realization that he did.

So even the captive isn't sure if he's wanted dead or alive, or of this interception plan at all.

Barton yells at the passenger seat, who is ducked under the dashboard with his arms held up protectively, yelling an order at him to use the radio and report in to base.

With a snap of his neck, Barton recognizes that the other agent in the back with him is motionless. He squirms to the man's side, checking his pulse quickly under the jaw line. He's breathing, he's just unconscious.

There's gunfire and Barton hears the sparks as the dashboard is hit. He knows the rookie is still alive because he's still screaming. The captive is yelling, trying to alert his presence to his saviors, or to his executioners.

Barton kicks the door open, snatching at his bow (conveniently latched on under his seat, it stayed in place when the truck flipped). He ducks around the side and takes a glance at the attackers, who are encircling the truck.

They're in the middle of no where, some rocky hill coverage providing the cover the assailants' needs. They're quickly surrounding them and Barton only gets a head count of four or five before more bullets push him back behind the truck. He hears the rookie blabbering on about a prayer here and there and a string of curses, but Barton really doesn't want to hear it anymore.

"Get hold of base, have them track our coordinates. Get someone out here, they're after the prisoner! Agent, do you hear me?"

More gun fire and Barton lets an arrow loose. His shoulder is sore where it landed on the quiver when the truck rolled, but he ignores it. He lets shock numb him over and shoots a second arrow.

By the scream, he judges he hit his target.

The prisoner is still caterwauling for his men to find him. Whatever composed facade he held when he was interrogating Clint is gone now because he sounds far more desperate than Clint ever pretended to be. Clint ignores it and continues yelling at the rookie, letting loose another arrow.

His arm throbs and thinks this is the perfect time for it to act up.

He catches wind that someone is approaching from the back and he whips around to stop them in their tracks. He squats and does a half dive, half run towards the driver's seat. He swings the door open as a shield before diving in, almost colliding with the huddled rookie.

He reaches for the radio, but it's been shot to hell and he tosses it out the window. The rookie is shaking and judging by the smell and a trickle down his chin, he's vomited somewhere in his seat. Barton grimaces and yanks the man by the collar, pulling him out the driver's seat door and dragging his sorry ass back towards the other side of the car. The prisoner is desperately yanking at his cuffed arms. Barton tosses the rookie into the bed of the truck, beside the prisoner.

"What's your name, agent?"

The agent is hyperventilating, and he looks no closer to talking than the attackers look to letting up. Barton sets another bow in the string.

"Agent, what's your name?"

His volume is raised, but his voice is calmer, trying to reason with the agent. Shaking his head, the agent mutters something that Barton barely catches.

"Hendricks..? Hendricks, Agent Hendricks? Right, I need you, Hendricks, to calm down. Alright, do that for me?"

It's then that Barton catches sight of blood and realizes that Hendricks may have been hit, but he doesn't see where the blood is from or what part of him is wounded, so he presumes that the man is in shock. Clint looks back towards the doors, knowing from the silence that the ambush squad is approaching. He needs to hold them at bay, long enough until someone at Shield realizes that they've missed their check point and are somehow being delayed.

He knows it's a long shot, but maybe if the ambush is small enough...

He kicks through the truck door and lets an arrow shoot clean and straight towards his target, watching the man drop. They're emerging out into the open, circling the truck with their guns raised and he knows that them inside are soon to be sitting ducks if they get surrounded.

"Hendricks-Hendricks, you have a first name?"

Hendricks mumbles, but Barton can't make it out. Shit, he thinks, letting another arrow free as he catches sight of others making their way towards the truck bed.

"Hendricks, you're new, right?" He yells, his brain wracking for how exactly they'll get out of this. The numbers are more than he expected. The truck is off the road, embedded in some crater-like formation that gives the advantage of the high ground to their enemies. There's a small dip in the hills directly in front of them-if they make a run for it, they can duck behind the hills, assuming no one else is waiting in the cover behind them still anyway.

Barton looks around the bed. He has his bow, a rookie who is otherwise useless and is wounded somewhere, an unconscious agent, and the prisoner, still chained to the wall of the truck. Barton fumbles for the cuff's keys in his pocket, tossing them to Hendricks who, some faint trace of instinct and training finally coming into play, catches the keys.

"Release the prisoner," Barton commands.

Hendricks does so and Barton quickly has the prisoner pinned to his shoulder, his bow at ease as a handheld comes up to the man's temple.

"Let's see what these guys want from you," Barton says, swinging the man outside the truck, gun still to his head but otherwise Barton's own body hidden. The man screams, more like whimpers, something and while Barton hears the guns rise, no shots are fired. Barton lets out a sigh.

So, they want this man alive.

Natasha fidgets, her fingers tapping on the mug that she's clutching. Banner is staring at her, bluntly, watching her squirm uncomfortably, as she's been doing the past couple of days and nights. Finally, he sighs, setting his glasses and paper down and clearing his throat, calling her attention to him.

She jumps when he does so, and he knows her alertness is no where near it's usual degrees of professionalism. He can only take a guess as to what is bothering her so much.

"Barton mentioned this mission wouldn't be long," he tries. He sees her hands visibly tense, a dead give away that he's struck a nerve, but otherwise she remains composed. Banner nods slowly, taking in all the clues and hints he can perceive. After a minute of judging and weighing in his mind, he finally blurts out the question,

"He loves you, doesn't he?"

As a testimony to her skill, she doesn't so much as blink. But, Banner isn't a genius for nothing, observant in his own right though not nearly on par as the assassins. He still knows that he's hit the bulls eye in such a way that Barton would be proud.

"And you don't love him?"

To Bruce's surprise, her mouth slips open and he visibly sees the pain on her face, the mildest form of rejection. It looks like she's about to answer him, when at that moment Stark walks in and the mask returns. Her eyes are dry and her lips pursed tight, her face composed. Banner silently curses Tony's timing, but says nothing, respecting the privacy of their conversation.

Tony looks between the two.

Barton makes himself visible, stepping from the truck and raising the gun to the prisoner's temple, eyeing the men surrounding the truck. He leaves his bow in the bed of the truck, along with Hendricks and the unconscious agent, and waits a moment just outside as the men round the truck, gathering in front of Barton and the hostage.

He counts nine, with a possible sniper hiding behind the brush.

"Hendricks, grab-" Barton nods towards the other agent, but Hendrickson is already following up his order. He slumps the guy over his shoulder and limps towards Barton out of the truck. Barton warns the men by jerking the hostage and gun, signaling that they don't make a move as Hendricks slumps out of the truck bed, the other agent in tow.

"Take my bow," Barton says, his voice lowered and calm. Hendricks says nothing but grabs at the bow. This causes several of the ambushing men to raise their weapons hostilely, but Barton shoots them a warning by clicking his hand held in warning. He's a trigger away from killing their target, so they back down, watching as Barton nods Hendricks in the direction of the small clearing.

"Take the agent and get out of here. Get back to base, keep him alive, understand?" He commands. Hendricks is a ball of fretful nerves, and Clint just prays he doesn't screw up this at least. He now can see the blood is coming from his leg, hence the limp, but Hendricks doesn't even seem to be all that aware of the limp. He looks fearfully at Barton, as though questioning him, but Barton gives him no reassurance of following him.

"Hurry," Barton warns, and with that Hendricks limps awkwardly away, his fellow agent in tow. Barton keeps the others at bay, his hostage quivering in his grip. He knows there's a damn good chance he'll be shot in an instant. He can't hope to take the hostage out of here, but he can hold the men at bay long enough to give Hendricks a head start, whether it helps or not. Barton doesn't try to run his luck too long, knowing soon enough the men will wise up and catch him from behind, despite his best efforts to circle and ward them off.

"Hendricks, answer my voice if you hear it. You like knock knock jokes?"

Faintly, he hears Hendricks whimper a half-hearted "Hn" before Barton grinds his teeth.

"Knock knock-"

Natasha scratches at her arm, her elbows clutched tight to her stomach. The conversation plays over in her head and the thousands of responses she didn't say each have their fair share of a turn in her head before she stands up, shaking her head clear. Imagining 'what ifs' and 'what should haves' does nothing to change the circumstance, so she storms out of her room down towards the lab. A part of her knows if Stark is present, she's screwed, but favorably it's only Banner.

Once, she would have dreaded being alone with the doctor, with no cover or back up on stand by. Now, she feels a wave of relief rush over her that they are, absolutely, alone.

"You're not hear to listen to me lecture on the properties of gamma radiation, are you?" He jokes hopefully. Natasha jsut stares at him, saying nothing.

"If it's not that...it's Barton, isn't it?"

Again, she says nothing.

He's out of knock knock jokes, but he still faintly can hear Hendricks straining to respond to him. He knows that by now, this distance, Hendricks can't make out with clarity what Barton is yelling, but he can judge by the faintness of his voice how far out Hendricks is. He's slow with his limp and the dead weight of his unconscious partner, but Barton wants to buy them as much time as possible.

So, he belts out singing, not pausing between choruses to wait for Hendricks to respond. He hopes this serves as a countdown, because his arm is throbbing and twitching. He needs to get to the medications soon, but that fantasy has long since slipped from his mind. He wants nothing more than to get back to the tower, but he doesn't fool himself any more.

He knows he won't make it to the tower.

"You said nothing?"

Natasha shakes her head faintly. "I-I told him...I know." She shrugs, because she doesn't even need to bother waiting for Banner to tell her how dumb that was to have said. Banner doesn't bother repeating what she already knows, so he opts with skipping to the part where he provides advice that will help her move on from the mistake, if she so chooses to accept it.

"Well, if the expected answer to someone telling you they love you isn't the obvious first choice, then that pretty much says how you feel back.."

Natasha shakes her head.

"No, that's not it. I-"

"Natasha," Banner cuts her off. "Whatever you're about to say, to justify yourself with...save it. You're not trying to convince me." He throws his hands up in a sort of surrender, nodding out of his lab. "Save it for Barton."

And slowly Natasha nods, because she understands.

It's just then that the ill-timed Jarvis blurts into the room, "Incoming call from Director Fury of Shield. It's urgent and requests the attention of Miss Romanov, specifically."

Hendricks is long since out of sight, and Barton can only focus on the throbbing of his arm. He knows the moment he gives, he's either shot, or taken hostage, but he won't hold his breadth for the later. He smiles, just as his veins pulse and his fingers tingle numbly.

"Still no dinner, huh?" He jokes, just as the gun drops. In an instant, someone nearby lurches for him, pinning him down as the hostage is wrestled out from his grip. His hands are twisted behind him and he shakes, a darkness swarming over him just as he chuckles to himself, thinking no doubt they'll get their revenge on him for causing more trouble than they'd, hopefully, anticipated.

Barton comes to it twice, momentarily, before consciousness slips from him again. Both times it's bright, like a light shined down on him, and he isn't sure how much time passes between each moment, whether it's even any time at all or if he simply can't grasp whether he's awake or not.

When he solidly comes around, the light is still burning into his eyes and he recognizes it as a spotlight. His eyes close just as feeling returns to his chest and arms and legs. His arm is throbbing and from the wrist down he's numb. His chest is restrained and he's bound at the ankles and forearms to a chair, in an upright seated position. He coughs, but this strain on his chest is more painful than he imagined and it takes him quite a while before he can calm the surge of pain in his lungs and heart.

He hears voices and it's only then he recognizes that he's alive. He's being kept as a hostage, maybe, or simply for some sport of revenge.

He confirms it's the latter when he feels a grip on his jaw and his eyes shoot open, to face an unfamiliar man who generically looks like all the rest. He feels a sharp pain in his fingers and it mildly registers to him that he's being tortured, but he's still half out of it.

His mind floats between the pain and memories until he focuses on a trail of thoughts. He recalls his conversation with Natasha, smirking when he realizes this 'could be the end'. His eyes are closed again, so he doesn't see the look on the face of his captor, but he knows it's not a pleasant one because a moment later he's paying for his smile.

"Can't be any worse than you," he thinks, a trail of blood overflowing from his cracked smile.

No, wait, that wasn't the last thing she said to him, he recalls. That's right, time passed, he survived that.

"I know."

He ignores how his heart tugs a bit at that memory-his smile is still there, but it's only the ghost of one.

At least he told her, he thinks. No regrets there.

"If you die one me," She mutters, and she's thankful that the only one who hears her is Banner. Stark isn't even inside the Quinjet, scouting ahead. Steve is commanding orders through their com links and Banner is fidgeting, keeping the 'other guy' at bay. Natasha has to give him some credit. If she had 'another guy' in her, it would have been released the moment Fury had briefed the avengers on the circumstance.

Agent Hill had off-handedly admitted to Natasha, just before the team had boarded the Quinjet, of Barton's acceptance of the unofficial mission. He wasn't even supposed to be a part of the damn thing, she thought. Agent Hendricks had contacted Shield just a half mile out from where the ambush had taken place, patching through to command. Within the hour, a tracking system had been set up to find and trace Barton, who was missing at the scene, and medical had taken in Hendricks and his partner for treatment.

The moment Barton's trace was tracked to a remote safe house only a few hours out, Natasha was personally flying the Quinjet tot he destination.

Banner coughed, looking back to check that Steve really was out of earshot, before gravely turning to Natasha.

"I'm not an agent myself, and I'm sure there's countless training and preparation for this sort of...scenario. But, as a doctor, I feel somewhat obliged to remind you the chance that we don't make it in time, or that we don't find agent Barton, or worse that-"

"Banner." She snapped, and grew quiet after that.

She didn't need him to remind her.

When Barton woke what he thought was a fourth time but accurately was well around his twelfth or thirteenth, he swore he saw a flash of red locks, characteristically belonging to none other than Natasha. It was a flash, however, and then there was light and he slipped unconscious yet again.

Clint came to it a fifth (fourteenth) time, this time around fully awake and while still sore and in pain, no longer as restrained as before. He felt needles in his skin and the tingle of drugs throughout his body, but quickly realized they weren't as unwelcomed as he first assumed. The bright blur settled to be a familiar room setting of the Shield's very own infirmary.

He sighed in relief when all ten of his fingers flexed and curled at his command.

Whatever else pain he felt was unimportant and despite the pounding in his head that threatened to split his skull, he somehow slipped easily back to sleep.

He knew it was hours later when he did reawaken, this time not alone. Beside him, he could make out the folded over figure of Natasha, sleeping against his side, half out of her chair and half on his cot, and he smirked.

Natasha woke up, instantly feeling a pair of eyes fixated on her. She jumped up to find Barton wide awake, grinning like an idiot at her. She glared at him for a moment, challenging him to question her for her childish behavior of sleeping by his side, before it dawned on her that he was awake.

She ignored his bandages and wires and jumped half on him, gripping him in a hug that he was far from expecting.


Then she slapped him. Twice.

"You bastard!"

Three times for good measure.


"I love you," he blurted out, for the second time. If she wasn't ready to hear it the first time, the second time really caught her off guard.

He knew she'd chastise him again. Worse, he prepared himself to watch her walk out, just leave him and never come back. Resign as his partner, maybe even request his own defection. He'd been compromised. He closed his eyes. He thought he was prepared to watch her walk away, but maybe he was still weak from the drugs and blood loss because he realized he wasn't ready to let her go.

Well, he should have thought of that before he blurted out, for a second time, the one thing the Black Widow refused to want to hear.

In his defense, while the Black Widow refused to acknowledge those words, Natasha Romanov found them almost comforting to hear.

"I love you," she quips back, and he snapped his eyes open.

That's right, how much medication was he shot up on right now?

Her eyes searched his, waiting for him to say something. He was starting to doubt this was a hallucination, so he tried again.

"I love you."

She shook her head, relief flooding over her.

"If that's the last thing I hear you say-" she warned.

"I know," he answered. He wouldn't let it be.

"I love you," she breathed again, and he felt just as relieved as she did, slipping back into contented sleep. She really said it.

It eats away at Stark when the duo walk in the morning for breakfast and act completely normal. Because nothing out of the ordinary happened and there was no reason for them to act any different. Clint pops a pill before gulping down a cup of heavy coffee and Natasha picks at the morning's fruit selection.

No one else seems bothered and Natasha even catches the small smile Banner throws her way when they both take silent note of how strung up Stark looks, trying to figure out just what is between the two.

Natasha just sits back, waiting for Tony to snap and when he finally does it ends in a counter covered in milk and Tony being hit with an apple.

Oddly enough, Clint comes to Tony's defense in chiding, humorously, Natasha for attacking their 'mother'.

"Mama's boy," she mouths, playfully trying to egg him on.

His revenge is far less subtle.

"Bye, bye Miss American pie-"

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