A Minor Bird


"Are you going to be alright without me, Nat?"

She doesn't look at him. It doesn't matter, though, because he's not looking at her, either.

He's looking beyond, out the window, at nothing in particular, with his back to her.

She's hugging herself and watching her feet because she doesn't trust her eyes but she nods and smiles all the same, and after a long pause, she remarks with a shrug, "Without you watching my back? I'll survive."

He's already gone.

It dawns on her that he's been gone for quite some time now, when she finally does speak.

This time, though, she thinks, she'll let him go.

She doesn't even remember what the joke was, but she's still laughing ten minutes later. It's an obnoxious laugh, loud and built up from having held in her laughter for months, it seems, now, but no one is glaring at her or muttering "it wasn't that funny."

They're all happy to see her smiling.

Stark determines that the waters have been tested and found warm, and his slow build up into jokes and quips isn't slow at all; he orders everyone another round of shots and then buys the bar itself. Banner swishes a scotch and smirks, and for a moment he appears invested in the conversation. But then he puts his head down and he's asleep and no one tries to wake him because the mood is good but it's not that good.

Even Steve has lightened up and Pepper has loosened her leash on Tony, allowing him a few gabs before she shoots him a warning, "Tony."

It's odd how natural things still seem, even in Clint's absence.

"That's a pretty dress!"

Pepper notes, whenever Natasha steps out. The gathered few give Natasha a proper, admiring look.

The dress is emerald, and Natasha stops to examine the dress herself, as though she's as surprised to see herself in it as they are.

"I haven't ever seen you wear that one," Steve comments, and he's trying to be polite.

And it's true. Of all the covers and dresses she's worn within these past months, Steve has never seen Natasha in this particular dress.

Stark takes a swing of his scotch, pre-gaming before they even reach the bar.

It's the first outing they're all going to; a night out for dinner and drinks.

Natasha takes a step, showing off a small black heel with a tiny bow at the toe as she does so.

"I haven't worn it in a while, have I?"

She smirks weakly, "It's a shame. I do rather like this dress."

It's the dead of night, and she's not tired but she sits on her stomach in bed, with her eyes wide open, and all at once she's aware that Clint is in the room.

He doesn't get into the bed. He doesn't look at her. He stands, or sits, in the corner. He doesn't acknowledge her; doesn't look at her.

Natasha buries her face further in a pillow, whispering into it a question she doesn't expect him to answer.

"Where have you been?"

Because it's been days, weeks, since she remembers seeing him last. Since she last felt him near her.

And he doesn't answer.

There's a long pause before she hears him speak, and it's more to himself than to her.

"You still haven't gone on that vacation…you said you would…"

She doesn't correct him that she said they'd go; together.

"Agent Hansen is in that cemetery."

He points out casually, his eyes glued to the window at every blur that passed. Natasha whips her head to stare at the gated yard, fleetingly. "In the back corner, right by a little lake."

Steve, driving, tenses when he notices Natasha stare.

She blinks as the funeral home passes and then it's gone.

"But, his grave has his real name, his birth name. James or John or something-something generic like that," Clint scoffs, more to himself than to her, and that's it. That's the most he mentions of it. It should unnerve her how casual he is about speaking of death, of a friend; how casual and how distant.

How long ago was the funeral?

"Go away." She mutters. His side of the sheets are untouched; cold. He's standing in the corner, where the dim light from the floor lamp doesn't quite reach, so he doesn't quite cast a shadow on the wall.

He glances out the window, at the pitch black sky that she hasn't bothered covering with blinds. She'll regret not doing so in the morning when the sun bursts through, but then again she's already awake and training by the time the sun does peak. So maybe it doesn't matter all the same to her.

And maybe she likes having a view of the city beneath her, even if a panel of two inch thick glass separates her.

"Do you mean that?" He asks, without looking at her.

"No," she admits.

She picks up missions again. Fury pretends he knows nothing. Like these past few weeks never existed. She's training again, and it's excessive and taxing on her body but it keeps her mind off things. Sometimes, Steve joins her in the gym. He'll spar with her.

Clint watches.

She's eating again, too. Balanced, full meals. The portions are small, but the nutrients are there and no one is telling her to eat anymore so it's a good sign.

She spends less time in her room. She goes outside, to jog; in the air, in the daylight.

Her smiles are weak and forced, but they're there, from time to time. She talks more, to the others.

She even goes out with them, occasionally.

Sometimes, though, when she returns to her room, Clint is waiting.

Sitting at the window, watching everything beneath him; like he's been there ever since she left.

They keep her. Each night, just as she tries to escape-no doubt Jarvis is tracking her every move-one of them appears and needs her assistance in some way. They distract her; they confine her. First it's Stark; he needs a model, someone close to Pepper's size, for a new mold. And his chatter tip toes around anything important but it's still enough to suspend her at the tower.

Bruce needs her language skills to translate a paper, an essay, of a fellow physicist.

Steve needs help with the modern world.

Girl's night out with Pepper, because it's been too long.

Stark needs to adjust the frame again. You're not doing anything tonight, are you?

No, I can help.

Nights pass, and pretty soon she finds herself staying at the tower, regardless of whether someone asked her to or not. Barton still won't look at her, but she swears she almost catches him smiling. That, or it's a figment of her imagination.

"Natasha?" She hears Steve's voice bleed through the door, followed by a light knock. She hesitates for a moment, but by the time she's resolved to answer him, he's already opening the door and peering inside.

Barton throws him a quick look, at least in his direction.

"Are you alright?" He asks softly, like he's disturbing something important.

"I'm fine," she lies, and they both know it but he really doesn't want to argue with her again.

"We're all waiting for you..." he trails off, nervously glancing a bit as he does so.

"We'll join you in a moment," She supplies. Steve throws a quick glance towards the window, the corner, before silently agreeing to her conditions. He doesn't nod, but he doesn't argue either.

The door clicks shut, and the moment it does, Barton runs a hand through his hair.

"You didn't have to-"

"Let's not argue. Again." She adds, and she really is tired of arguing. Her throat is sore and she feels drained from yelling for hours.

Clint slowly nods.

"Alright then, no more yelling," he promises, passing by her as he makes his way towards the door.

"You promise?"

She looks up from her lap, but he's already gone.

"You went out again tonight?"

He's managed to sneak up on her and she honest to God jumps. He's been doing that a lot lately. Or maybe she's just been more jumpy as of late. She pushes that thought trail away. She won't go down it, not tonight.

"So what?" She counters. She doesn't want to have this conversation again.

"Do you feel better from it?"

"Does that matter?"

"Natasha." His voice hasn't risen, and it drives her crazy how he can convey so much disappointment, so much anger towards her reckless behavior, yet not fluctuate his tone at all. She does enough of that for the both of them, she thinks.

"What? What the hell is wrong now?"

She knows she's irrational and unreasonable and that she's taking out all her anger and frustration and everything on him. And he stands there, behind the counter, dressed in his uniform still, like he's been waiting there all afternoon for her.

And his face never betrays how hurt or frightened (for her mostly) he must be feeling. Even without looking at her.


"-can go to hell."

"Director Fury is going to find out-"

"-I'm doing him a favor. I'm doing all of them a favor."

"It's not doing them a favor if you get yourself killed."

She almost snaps back some retort, but stops herself just as Bruce walks in. He cautiously eyes the whole perimeter, the room, then settles his eyes on the gun still in Natasha's hands.

"Where'd you go?" He asks casually, directing his question to Natasha. She narrows her eyes but levels her voice and replies, "out."

Like an angsty teenager. Clint scoffs and Natasha throws a glare in his direction.

Bruce ignores it.

"Why the..." He motions at the gun. He's not afraid of it for himself. He knows the other guy would have her half across the room if she tried anything on him. He's more worried for her safety.

Barton scratches his nose.

"Nat...Can you please just tell us where you went..?"

"Shut up!" She suddenly yells, though neither Bruce nor Clint flinch.

"...You killed again, didn't you?"

"It is my profession," she quips. Barton slowly shakes his head.

"We've killed before. We've never outright murdered or massacred."

"Speak for yourself," she hisses, but she knows neither of them had an easy time before Shield.

"Natasha...what you're doing-"

"I know exactly what I'm doing-"

"-it's going to have repercussions. This...this isn't how you should be handling-"

"Banner, if you're honestly going to lecture me on morals-"

"-Natasha, just listen to him..."

"This isn't going to fix anything, Natasha. You're just retaliating and it's a spiral into a dark place, believe me-"

"They had it coming," she finally counters, and again she's uncharacteristically being unreasonable and narrow minded and just all-together stupid about the decisions she's making.

And she knows it.

"Natasha..." Bruce murmurs.

"You really think this will fix everything? You really want this? All this bloodshed and murder and slinking around at night? Lying to your friends and going behind the backs of people you trust? All this because you feel the need to fulfill some selfish, flimsy little fantasy of yours where everything is righted once you perform enough wrongs?"

"Shut up!" She yells, twisting to face Barton. The gun is locked and she's pointing at him. Bruce tenses and she doesn't even notice him anymore because Clint is making her that angry.

"You really would shoot me?" Barton mocks.

Something is weighing at the edge of her eyes, like lead, and the moment a tear falls she snaps and pulls the trigger.

She misses him by a long shot and strikes three bullets in the counter.

It's a wonder Banner's nerves don't snap then and there, but he's had practice and he's patient. Instead, he yells out for Steve or Tony (Steve being the first to respond, having been just one room over at the moment) and stepping aside as Steve easily disarms Natasha. She doesn't fight him as he hits the gun from her hand, and she doesn't bother struggling when he pins her, locking her arms behind her.

Natasha is crying and Steve and Banner try to calm her, but it's not working.

Barton stares, not having even blinked. He's not looking directly at her. He's looking to the side, out the window.

Some nights, she sneaks back into base. Because Shield hasn't stripped her of her clearance quite yet, and she finds the holding room, with files of reports, and local listings of possible threats. She takes it upon herself to look into some of these risks, some of the 'to watch' list.

Because Shield has their hands full and because she has some free time.

It's more of a distraction, it's more fulfilling, when she determines for herself that these targets are truly that; targets. Pulling a trigger, whether at the wall or a person, is the same motion. But, the satisfaction of executing some murderer over the execution of a wall painting is leagues apart.

Her conscience warns her. This isn't the behavior, the procedure, of a Shield agent. This is the actions of the Black Widow. Of a freelance assassin who is refusing authority.

She knows the second Shield gets wind of her pursuits, it's over. She'll find her file in the local reports soon enough. She'll become the target.

Shield must be going out of their way to ignore her. If they haven't caught on that she's behind the recent murders, they have to be becoming aware that their list of potential (and as far as she's concerned, confirmed) threats are all suddenly dropping like flies as do their files to begin with seem to be disappearing.

She imagines Fury is pulling every string and contact he knows to save her ass. Maybe he secretly agrees with what she's doing (She's getting things done; Shield has been just too slow for her).

Maybe he knows she's too valuable to Shield, or knows that as long as she's on their side, no use loosing agents in trying to take her down (because in no scenario does she go down without a fight and without taking several agents with her, should it ever come to that).

Maybe Fury owes it not to her, but to Clint, and that's why he pretends to have a blind eye to her new-found hobby.

She can't keep these outings a secret for long. Not from Shield, not from the 'Avengers'.

And not from Clint.

She wonders, walking away from her latest victim, how the others must feel; living with a murderer. But, then again, she's always been one.

She wonders instead what it must feel like, living with the dead.

She plays with a lighter. It's fleeting and harmless but Stark watches her because he knows what the start of an addiction looks like and this one has the potential to burn down his tower.

Stark could just ask her to put it away. It's late, they're the only two up. If he was sensitive and polite, he'd simply ask, in a calm voice, for her to put the lighter up.

But he's Stark, not Rogers, and so instead, he brashly blurts out, "Natasha, I think we need to talk about-"

The lighter clicks shut but Natasha's eyes burn with enough annoyance and hatred that there's no difference. And they flicker with as much stability as a flame, too.

"Stark." She warns.

He doesn't heed it.

"We all hear you. The yelling, the fights-"


"Nat? What's wrong?" Clint enters the room (Of course he does; his timing is perfect), and his voice is laced with the frailest degree of concern, but he's already looking beyond Stark and Tasha, out the window.

Natasha wants to ask when he got here, but she doesn't acknowledge him. Neither does Tony.

"You don't think you're any bit out of control? Volatile? You're a hazard to yourself-"

She throws the lighter, but not at Stark.

If anywhere, she throws it at Clint but misses him. She stands up and storms off.

Clint follows her.

Stark hides the lighter, pours himself a scotch, and stays up all night, contemplating on Natasha. Just Natasha.

"I don't need you! Back off-!"

He's not listening to her. He's staring out the window; maybe watching for someone to enter the tower. Maybe Stark or Rogers.

"Listen to me!" She screams, and in an instant she's at his side clutching the arms of the chair. Still he doesn't say anything. Maybe it's not worth it to argue with her. All he said was she needed to take better care of herself. Get some sleep; eat.

She looks like a corpse.

And she thinks the same thing. Of course she does. This all started because she passed a mirror. She saw the fade in her curls and the circles under her eyes. And so did he.

"What do you prefer, Nat? That I leave you alone, or that I acknowledge you? What do you desire more? How can I obey?"

She wants to slap him, she's so angry and upset at him. He's mocking her, but she refrains herself. She grabs whatever is closest; a set of keys, her keys, and throws them. Vaults them at the wall. She grabs a stack of letters, envelopes; the mail. They fly above her. She grabs a vase, a dish-whatever's closest. A pillow hits the painting on the wall-a cup tears it.

If Clint sees something interesting, through the window, he doesn't tell her about it. He continues to stare, allowing her to tantrum without intervening.

Stark walks in later, notices the painting, and says nothing. Natasha sits, unmoving, in the corner she's retreated to. Barton still perches in his chair, without acknowledging anyone. Stark brews two cups of tea and leaves one for Natasha before he takes his leave with the other, heading towards the lab. Barton doesn't drink tea.

She feels stretched thin. Fury has sworn her off any high risk mission. She's been attending balls and galas for the past month; keeping up an image of a socialite to appear a regular and gain favor. She's never been picky before but she's tired of these superficial conversations; of heels and pearls and flattery. It's affecting her nerves, and the others can tell.

Stark avoids her like the plague. She avoids Banner (Their temperaments do not need to collide). Pepper is understanding but rarely around. Thor is still unaccounted for. Steve confronts Natasha the most, but they're never pleasant. Something always ends up broken.

Barton is the only one Natasha will talk to level-headed.

"Wear the green one. You look nice in it." He's not even looking at the dress; any of them. They're sprawled on the floor, the bed. She's curled in a corner with her head down and he's at the opposite end of the room, looking casually to the side, out the window. He has her wardrobe memorized.

She doesn't say anything, so he tries again.

"You like the green one. You wore it that one time, remember? That Gala event in Beijing? With those heels with the black bow on them..?"

Minutes later, Steve taps on the door, muttering that the car Shield sent is here, waiting for Natasha. She steps out in a navy blue dress, with gold heels that have no bow. Clint doesn't move from the window, doesn't look at her.

Her room is eerily clean. She hasn't touched anything. The clothes she leaves stranded on the floor always seem to vanish at some point in the day. She suspects Banner secretly does her laundry. The bed is always made, because she hardly sleeps on it.

She hardly sleeps.

She has a few scattered guns, ammunition and knives-weapons-hidden throughout the room. She's polished them all at least twice, but never touches them anymore than that.

Barton's quiver and bow stand against the wall. They're untouched, because she wouldn't dare more them. She's waiting for Barton to.

She's neglected the plants, most of which were gifts, and the only reason it doesn't surprise her they haven't all died is because she assumes Banner also is caring for and watering them as well.

She takes hour long showers, but never washes her hair. Or anything for that matter. She finds herself standing under the shower head, and time slips by her just like the water does off her shoulder, down the drain.

She knows Stark is having Jarvis surveillance her.

Books remain untouched, only ever dusted (by Banner).

There's two picture frames in her room, and one has been set face down. Even Banner won't touch it.

She trains, in the mornings after her hour of 'sleep' (they always end in some fitful nightmare that jolts her awake and aware quickly). The sun rises an hour or two after that, in which she makes her sole appearance amongst the others, to grab water or a fruit, if she feels up to eating. Sometimes, she'll prepare herself a bowl of cereal, pour a glass of orange juice and everything, and then leave it untouched after a bite or two or none.

Then she returns to training. Or sitting in her room. Alone. Always alone.

Except with Clint.

Sometimes, Clint will be with her, when he can. She doesn't know where he goes, when he's not with her. She doesn't know what any of them do when she's not with them-not anymore.

She'll talk to him, the most out of all of them. But even then, they spend so many hours in silence. Sometimes, without looking up, she doesn't know if Clint is still there or not.

Then again, she always knows when he's there.

"Have you eaten yet?"

She doesn't answer. She's curled on top of the sheets. On her side of the bed. His are neat; untouched. He's standing in that corner, staring out the window again. She wishes he'd just look at her, for once. His eyes never seem to find her.

"No." She finally answers, honestly.

"You should eat something. When's the last time you did?" He asks casually.

That she doesn't answer, because she can't. She doesn't remember.

"Why won't you eat?" He asks, his eyes searching the night sky for stars he'll never see in the city.

"I hate walking down the hall."

He scoffs lightly at that. It's an irrational fear, one that has never bothered her before.

"Do you want me to hold your hand down the hall?" He jokes.

"Yes." She answers, serious.

He doesn't reply.

"Natasha...we were, ah...we were going to go out this afternoon-"

"-Have fun."

She doesn't mean it.

"Well, no, I mean...did, did you want to come with us?"

This puzzles her, briefly.


"Well, we were going to stop by_"

She could've just said no. They both know it, but instead, she stands up, quick as a whip, and -in a show of self-restraint- leaves. Her fists are shaking, and she's proud of herself for not knocking something over on her way out, but she holds no regrets in how she acted. She doesn't think he deserved a response to that kind of question. Ridiculous!

She tries desperately to pretend she doesn't hear the others leave the tower, and she refuses to watch the window, to watch them leave and drive off in a direction she looks to frequently.

Clint comes up behind her, when all else is still.

She knows she didn't have to act that way; refuse in such a way. Steve was being considerate. It's not like he was demanding anything out of her, unreasonably, though she acted like such. He was just asking if she wanted-

"You didn't go with them?" She asks, cutting herself off mid-thought.

He shrugs and looks off in the same direction that she can't bring herself to look in.

"I'll meet 'em there later."

She feels in good spirits, that afternoon in particular. She sits up in bed and eyes the bow and quiver that haven't been touched.

"Teach me."

"I can't."

She pouts, but only slightly.

"Why not?"

"I've tried to, before. Remember? You never had the attention," his last comment is slightly muffled, under his breath. She watches him, turned away from her, and catches him blink.

She thinks she can't remember seeing him blink in so long, and it's a strange thought but it's true.

She's fascinated.

He's hasn't seemed so alive, for such a long time, until this moment; when he blinks.

The mission is a success. The target practically drools on her the moment she introduces herself and within the duration of half a waltz, he's already inviting her to his private room. The only hitch comes when she's distracted, staring at Clint by the punch table. He's not looking at her; he's trying to talk to some petite blonde who isn't giving him the time of day. The blonde sips absently at her wine glass, like Clint isn't even there. He doesn't look discouraged, though-


Natasha jumps a little and smiles, taking the offered hand of her victim.

Twenty minutes later, she has the code memorized and the gentleman is unconscious in his underwear on his bed. His lackeys will find him in a couple of hours.

Clint is waiting for her in the car when she returns.

"What was that blonde's name?"

He shrugs, absently looking out the window.

"Don't know."

The car ride is quiet. The limo driver is actually an agent in disguise. Natasha shifts a bit in her dress, adjusting the mink at her shoulder that's too old fashion for her but is essential for this throw back gala event she's attending. Her cover is as uninteresting and bland as they all are. A helpless woman with a lusting eye for any man with a large enough pocket to satisfy her.

She's just grateful Rogers isn't on this mission with her.

The radio barely seeps through the window from the front, some classic oldies from an era she wasn't born in.

"You like this song, remember? We should turn it up," Clint suggests, sitting across from her. His eyes are out the window, watching cars and streets and people blur by as the car speeds on.

Natasha doesn't respond and the radio remains quiet, the driver focusing solely on the route he's been cleared to take.

Whatever reserves Rogers has about Natasha being in the field, and however many times he's complained such to Fury (Because there is no doubt in Natasha's mind that he has been doing so), they must have reached a compromise. Because Fury, slowly but surely, assigns Natasha to a mission, one after the next. But, they're simple missions. Gathering information, low risk; it's what she's best at, and it's what he can trust her with.

"You're getting out more, at least. It's what you wanted, isn't it? Right, Nat..?"

"-Don't." She snaps, and it's the most hostile she's sounded. She doesn't want to be called that, not now.

"Alright, Natasha."

She closes her eyes and tries to calm herself. She had been startled, but she's fine. She's fine.

When she opens her eyes, Clint is gone, and the only company she has is the file in front of her that explains her new cover and target.

"Are you are Steve arguing again?" Clint asks, eyeing the window again like some cloud in the sky is just the most fascinating thing he's ever seen. Natasha is just as absently watching the still coffee in her cup grow cold.

"Why?" She doesn't deny it.

"You two don't seem to be talking."

"We're talking."

"I'm not Steve."

It has to do with their last mission; he's not happy with her, but he'll get over it. She doesn't give a damn of what he thinks.

"Whatever." She sips at the coffee. That's a mistake. It's lost any heat and she quickly pulls the cup away from her, disgusted.

Barton knew it would be.

There's a cut on her arm and she feels blood pulsing out of it with each heartbeat. The blast from before shook her. She'd nearly lost it; control of the Quinjet. A window has blown out and the glass nicked her arm. She tries to steady her hand, because you can't be shaky and land a Quinjet, and right now she really needs to land the Quinjet.

At least she's the only one in the Quinjet; the others dropped off and are waiting for her pick-up.

Clint is there, in her ear, calmly giving her directions

"Steady yourself...breathe, c'mon, it'll be okay. Just land this sonofabitch, you can do it. Like in practice, you got it."

"I'm not a kid..."

She lets out a stream of air. She's not as good as him when it comes to flying, but he's spent enough hours training her that it'd be a shame if she wasn't capable of a mediocre landing at best.

"How's that arm of yours?"

"Let's not talk about that," she warns. She needs to focus on flying.

"Right. Focus on flying then."

The Quinjet lands and she powers it down, unbuckling her seat in a swift motion and jumping out as the hangar opens. Steve sprints to the cover of the Quinjet, dodging heavy fire as he dives at the opening.

"Damn it, Natasha! Why'd you take your earpiece out?!"

Natasha doesn't even glance back at the discarded device flung somewhere behind her seat.

"I needed to focus."

She hasn't been outside; not since her last mission. Steve must have said something to Fury; passed along some hidden evaluation. Fury keeps telling her 'there's nothing currently-'


She'll call him out on it, tomorrow. She'll march onto base, fully suited and armed, and she'll find a mission herself if she needs to.

Turns out, she doesn't need to. Terrorist attack leaves Fury desperate, quickly, and the Tower is called upon. It's so sudden, even Steve doesn't have time to argue.

Natasha straps herself into the pilot seat, and the others buckle behind her. She doesn't have time to think; she needs to concentrate. This is what she wanted; a mission. To go outside.

"Rain check on our date?" Barton quips from behind her, but there isn't a hint of laughter in his voice. She snarls, because now isn't the time. She needs to focus.

"Don't." He warns.

She's eyeing the knife but he knows she's too proud to do it. She's too strong a person. She hasn't gotten this far, being this damaged, without overcoming that temptation long ago.

"Where are the others?" She asks, ignoring him.

He shrugs.

"I don't know."

She doesn't know either.

It's quiet in the tower, so Stark obviously is out. Banner might be deep in the labs, working out some world problem or other. Steve could be in the tower, but she doubts it. He gets out as often as he can. He has to, or it'll drive him mad.

Sometimes, she thinks she's going mad, too. Maybe she should get out of the tower more often.

"Do you want to go for a walk?" Barton asks.

He means it as a tease, a joke playing against her latest revelation, but it has the opposite effect on her. No, she doesn't want to go walking. Now she just feels bitter and angry, so she snaps back, "What? Like a date?"

She hates peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; she doesn't know why she's making one.

He shrugs again, his eyes focused on a bird perched on a gargoyle across the sky; she assumes as much, at least.


"If Steve asks me one more time if I'm alright-"

"Nat, he means well..."

Natasha grumbles, because she can't argue with that and because she doesn't want to. She's tired of talking about Steve, or any of the others for that matter. She's just tired.

"Look at me." She demands, staring at him from across the room, from her position on her bed. She's propped herself up by her elbow, casually, while he's in a chair across the room, sitting with his back to her.

He ignores her, instead, "will you eat?"

She smirks.

"Only if you look at me."

She's pushed it too much, and he doesn't turn her way. Her smirk fades, and she throws her head back and tries to sleep instead, but sleep never comes and she blames it on her apparent hunger.

He wins.

"Is everything alright?" Steve asks in passing, the next chance he sees Natasha. "I heard you talking-"

"Am I supposed to be silent?" Natasha asks bluntly.

"No-no, I meant-!"

Natasha doesn't wait to hear what he meant. She's down the hall and back in her room before he can stutter out any other offensive question.

He probably wants to chastise her. Don't talk about me behind my back, she imagines him asking; politely, of course. He treats her so delicately-

"You should have heard him out, at least," Clint warns when she sees him next.

She knows that.

"Shut up," she snaps.

And he does.

"He's just trying to help," Barton supplies, and it feels so good to hear his voice, Natasha thinks. She closes her eyes, her hands gripping either side of the sink, and she feels her body riveting. Barton is behind her-she doesn't see him, but she knows. She knows he's not looking at her, either. He's starring beyond her, out the window or at the wall or something.

"I know," she finally sighs, and she opens her eyes and sure enough, in the mirror before her, she can see Barton, standing against the wall in her bedroom and looking absently out the window.

It's comforting, and she smiles, just seeing him here, and maybe the past week has been too difficult and that's why she feels so emotional right now because she can feel tears well in her eyes, briefly, before she blinks them back and straightens herself up.

He doesn't say anything else, but it's enough. Having him with her is just enough.

"Natasha! Are you alright?"

Natasha blows a loose strand of hair from her face in annoyance.

"Rogers, don't worry about me. Focus on the task in front of us."

Steve curtly nods, but it's odd hearing her give a serious order about 'focusing' to Mr. Soldier himself.

Against Steve's wishes, Fury granted Natasha return to the field. Rogers argued enough to get himself assigned to the same mission with her, for observance, and until now she seemed as composed and normal, and heartless, as usual. But, now she's breaking, and he's concerned when she lands a kick to her attacker's stomach and then stumbles afterwards.

"That blow…"

She'd taken a nasty one to the back of the head. He wonders why she didn't see it coming, though then again he hadn't either. There were no eyes above or behind them to warn them-

"I'm fine!" She snaps and then pushes forward, breaking into a run and he has to quickly adjust his pace to keep up or get lost. He'll confront her about it, later. Everything is not alright, and her lying about it is almost sickening; it's insulting.

A week passes and she hasn't left her room. Banner leaves meals outside her door. Stark approaches the door, meaning to knock, but never does. Pepper dares to, and she'll ask how Natasha is or if she needs anything. Natasha never responds, but Pepper did once get her to take a shower, which is more than any of the others have managed to convince her. If Thor was here, they can only imagine he wouldn't be of any help either.

Steve avoids her, but at the end of the week he finally steps into her room and the others don't know what is said, but several hours' later Steve exits and less than an hour after that, Natasha surfaces as well.

Natasha is grateful, for everything the others have done for her. She's grateful that Fury granted her leave, but in her head she knows tomorrow she'll barge into his office and demand the band to be lifted. He'll have to agree. She's too important to keep out of the field, and she needs the distraction.

In her head, she can't believe how foolish she's been acting. Grieving? Since when did the Black Widow ever grieve?

In her head, she tells herself it's alright to smile; force herself to, so the others think she's "healing".

And in her room, when she returns after having forced herself to swallow down steak that tasted like ash, Clint is waiting.

The funeral is held a day later. It's a proper, military funeral but without a body, it's short.

The attendance is few. Shield can't spare the soldiers. There is no family.

Natasha stands through it all, like a statue, dressed in black and she's never looked so out of place.

There's a veil over her eyes, like she's a mourning bride.

She is the Black Widow.

She says nothing. Not to the guests, not to the grave. Her eyes never leave the headstone. She doesn't flinch when a flock of geese settle into the lake beside the grave. She doesn't stir when the wind whips through the cemetery, reaching to the back where this particular grave resides.

She simply stands through it all, and once it's over, she slips into her car and gives the driver curt instructions to drive her to the tower.

And that's the end of the funeral.

"What happened?" Stark snaps at Steve, the moment he finds him. Steve throws a glance to Natasha, through the glass window of the door. She's lying perfectly still on the cot, looking at the floor.

Steve sighs and returns to face Stark.

"I don't know-"

"What the hell happened?!" Stark tries again, yelling this time but Steve doesn't flinch. He'd rather Stark took out all his anger, all his frustration, on Steve rather than approach Natasha.

Stark glares at Steve and his eyes glisten briefly with tears. Stark quickly looks down, suddenly aware of his feet. He balls his fists but holds them to his sides.

Rogers hasn't seen Banner yet. He's probably cooling off; sleeping or just trying to de-green himself.

He saw Fury, in passing, but the only acknowledgement he got was a curt nod of the director's head before he moved on to give orders to the agents who were swarming in to clean up.

Steve doesn't mind that no one seems to be able to look him in the eye.

The briefing doesn't go too well. She tells Rogers she can handle it, but a minute in, she has to excuse herself and he finds her in the hallway, hyperventilating dangerously. She becomes lightheaded, trying to stand, and passes out. He's grateful for it, though.

She needs sleep; rest.

Stark talks to Fury while Steve takes Natasha to the medical wing. He sits up by her until she reawakens.

Her eyes snap awake the second she stirs and she remembers everything; she realizes what this means. There are still tears in her eyes but they're controlled. They won't fall. The shock is passing and she's composing herself, rebuilding the wall that had been shattered mere hours ago. And Steve watches in horror as she closes herself off from the world, and he fears he'll never see her again.

She glances at Steve briefly, nods in acknowledgement and gratitude, and begins to sit up.

Steve has a hand on her shoulder before she can fully sit straight, pushing gently at her to stay down.

She opens her mouth to protest, but Rogers isn't even looking at her, and he's not about to argue. Her voice is lost anyway.

She nods once and lies back down. Steve stands and exits the room, leaving Natasha alone.

Steve finds her; finds them. They're both still and pale and he fears for both of them, until he sees her turn her head, ever so slightly, to look at him. The look in her eyes says it all, and Steve stumbles to a stop several steps from them.

Clint looks asleep at her back, except for his eyes. They're open, but they're not looking at Steve, or Nat, or anyone or anything. They look beyond.

Stark's voice breaks over the com link and he's asking for a roll call. Is everyone alright? That last blast caught them all by surprise, but the situation has been handled; everything is taken care of and accounted for. It's over. Why isn't anyone responding? Don't tell me you're all sitting around and made me do all the wo-

Steve answers back, cuts Stark off. It's a plea but the urgency in his voice when he snaps says more than Steve can bring himself to.

Stark understands, because his next word is hushed, quiet and even a little scared.


Steve doesn't answer Tony immediately. Instead, he approaches Natasha, because they need to go now. The building is collapsing; they need to escape now.

They need to leave…

"How are you doing back there?" She breathes.

She feels the pulse of his body, ragged breadths as his chest heaves and nostrils whistle. Back to back, he leans heavily against her, his fingers shaking as he fidgets to fit in a final round of ammo in his handheld. She does the same, slightly quicker and far more composed.

"I've got your back," Is all he mutters back, but she hears the gurgle of blood and it's followed quickly by a spit. She won't turn around-she refuses to look at him. Because she'll break if she catches even a glimpse of his too-pale face, drained of blood, or the bone that is baring its way from his arm. She feels no heat through her back, where he's slumped heavier against her than she is on him.

"This is nothing," she jests, but there isn't a hint of truth in those words and she's less convinced than he is in them. Still, he tries to chuckle, to acknowledge her joke, but it comes out a quick, sharp breadth. She'll take it, though.

"I don't know about you, but I'm cashing in my vacation days. The moment we get back," He grunts, trying to lighten the mood.

They're not getting back. Well, not both of them, anyway.

Natasha slowly nods, her eyes fixated at every corner and sight in front of her, alert for any sign of movement.

"I'm thinking somewhere south...warm."

"We'll have Tony pay all expenses. He owes me, you know?" Natasha quips. Barton smirks, nodding slowly but it's more like his head dozing off, unable to remain supported by his neck. Everything is just so heavy.

"Still got my back, right?" Natasha warns. She'll be damned if he goes to sleep on her. Not now.

Another grunt. Shit, she thinks.

"He'll try to tag along, Stark will," She jokes, but there's a tint of morbid truth in it and she can't help the shiver that involuntarily runs down her spine. "But, he's not coming-" She almost jokes 'over her dead body'. But, that would only invite Barton to make a snide, uncreative, remark that she would rather not hear at this moment.

He knows it, too, because he catches the hitch in her breadth and fills in her hesitation with the words. Being sympathetic, he says nothing, letting her continue.

"Banner can come," She finally continues. Barton's breadth slows and his back muscles relax-the ones he still could control. She knows he can't feel his waist down-it's why they're sitting in the first place, like helpless animals waiting to be put out of their misery.

"He deserves a vacation, too. Warm weather, might help relax him," She jokes, forcing herself to laugh. But it's not funny and it's too forced. But it doesn't matter what she says-so long as she says something, anything. Barton's shoulder twitches, his hand dropping, and she knows he no longer aims his last resort weapon. Her fingers curl at the trigger of her own and her body tenses.

"Too bad Thor isn't here. He'd love the location, I think. I'm thinking...the Caribbean, or one of the islands. Hell, Stark probably bought a private one. He's a clever bastard; he'll probably ransom the island to allow himself to be included in the vacation."

Tears form at the corner of her eyes, but none fall. Not yet; she blinks them back.

"Is that alright? Could you be a-alright with...with it? I-if Stark tagged along? I-" She started laughing; "I promise we'll ditch him at the beaches! You and m-me, we'll run off, there's enough b-beach to go around."

Her lips turn into a frown and she grinds her teeth, holding back a blood curling scream when she feels Barton go solidly limp behind her. She refuses to turn around.

"Nat..." He mutters. She holds her breadth and waits for him to continue, to say something. To give her some loving speech in which he confesses everything, or he tells her it'll be alright or that he's fine. Or he says one last witty remark or stupid joke and she hits him because now isn't the time.

He doesn't speak again.

"W-we could teach S-Steve to w-w-water ski! You liked w-water-skiing, remember? Back in Dubai? Y-you begged me t-to tr-try it out..."

Now the tears fall, because Barton isn't saying anything. No snide remarks, no side-mutters. He's perfectly still and silent and she waits for him to jerk awake so she can whip around and hit him for playing such a dirty joke on her.

"Clint, c'mon..."

She wants to turn around, to grip him by the head and slap him; keep him awake. Keep him alive-

"Clint...Come back, Clint...y-you can't..."

The Captain finds her ten minutes later, sprinting to slide kneeling at her side, shaking her shoulders and demanding she stands up.

"C-can't...I-I'm watching C-Clint's back...H-he's got mine-"

Her voice catches in her throat and she isn't bothered by how weak or vulnerable or broken she looks. Because Steve has yanked her to her feet and is dragging her in the opposite direction. They have to go, there is no time. As they retreat, she catches a final look at Barton, her ears ringing in silence despite her screaming protests that they can't leave him-he's got her back.

Barton's eyes are still open, half-lidded; grey and lifeless as he watches the hall, keeping up watch. He doesn't look at her.

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