SUMMARY: Clint woke to the scent of antiseptic and the hum of fluorescent lights. (What? You didn't really think he was dead, did you?)
RATING: PG-13 (for swears)
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Sorry it's taken me so long to get this chapter posted. I know it was mean to make you wait after that cliffhanger, but I've been having a week and a half and it's gotten in the way of putting the finishing touches on the last little bit.
“We can see now, in general terms, why viscous effects become important in a boundary layer. The reason is that the velocity gradients in a boundary layer are much larger than they are in the main part of the flow, because a substantial change in velocity is taking place across a very thin layer.”
Clint woke to the scent of antiseptic and the hum of fluorescent lights.
He kept his eyes closed while he took stock of himself. There was an I.V. in his arm and underneath the numbing haze of painkillers he could feel a dull throb in the back of his head. His ribs hurt, too, but he couldn’t tell if they were actually cracked or just bruised. The most alarming thing, though, was that he was completely numb from the waist down.
“I know you’re awake,” Natasha said. “You might as well stop pretending.”
Clint opened his eyes. His left leg was encased in a large metal contraption with bolts and screws sticking out all over. It looked like some kind of medieval torture device.
“Compound tibial fracture,” she told him, answering his unspoken question. “It’s nothing.” She waved her hand like it was a paper cut.
“I guess this means I’m not dead,” he said hoarsely.
Something flickered across Tasha’s face, there and then gone before he could get a read on it. She unfolded herself from the armchair and stretched, pulling each of her arms behind her head one at a time. She’d changed out of her tac suit, but there was still dust in her hair and a smudge of dirt along her jawline, which meant she hadn’t gone home since the accident.
“My ribs?” he asked, wincing as he tried to change position.
“Just bruised,” she said, perching on the edge of his bed. She didn’t look happy.
“Could I have some water?”
“Here,” she said, thrusting a paper cup at him. “Have an ice chip.”
He tipped a piece of ice into his mouth and chewed. It didn’t do a lot for his thirst. “You’re a regular Florence Nightingale.”
“You want a nurse, press the button.”
He raised an eyebrow. “So you’re mad at me.”
Her frown deepened. “Only because you’re an idiot.”
He sighed and then winced at the pain it caused in his side. “I’ve been conscious for all of two minutes, Nat, could we maybe save the after-action lecture for later?”
“You didn’t need to put yourself at risk,” she snapped, because apparently they couldn’t save the lecture. “You know as well as I do that Stark could have gotten the guy out safely if you’d just waited five minutes.”
“I didn’t know that the guy had five minutes. How is he, by the way? Did he…”
“He’s fine,” she said tersely. “You saved his life. You’re still an idiot.”
Clint tilted his head back and stared at the ceiling. He was looking at weeks of hobbling around on crutches, followed by physical therapy and rehab. It was going to be months before his leg was one-hundred percent again. If then. He wasn’t as young as he used to be, after all.
“You don’t have to prove anything to anyone,” she said, a little more gently. “Especially not to them.”
He was quiet for a long time. And then he said, almost under his breath, “Maybe I needed to prove something to myself.”
He felt Tasha shift on the bed, and then she was lying beside him with her head resting on his shoulder. Her hand slipped into his. “That’s what makes you an idiot.”
Clint closed his eyes. He could still remember every second of his time under Loki’s control. It was like a movie playing on a constant loop in his head. For whatever reason, those memories were sharper than any others. Everything else felt strangely distant, like it had happened to someone else. The Tesseract memories blotted out the good memories—the real memories—and he couldn’t seem to get them out of his head.
Even now, he could recall how it felt to plan Tasha’s death far more clearly than he could remember making love to her two nights ago.
He pulled her closer and pressed a kiss into the top of her head.
Steve looked up, surprised. “Darcy? What are you—how’d you get here?”
The whole team had been camped out at the hospital all night while Barton was in surgery. Pepper had made sure they were tucked away in a private wing with security at every access point to keep them away from the prying eyes of the public and the press.
Darcy pressed the cup into his hand and cocked her head to the side. “See that chick over there? Thor’s girlfriend? That’s my friend Jane. We thought maybe you guys could use a caffeine intervention after the night you’ve had.”
“Thank you,” Steve said, wrapping his hands gratefully around the steaming cup of coffee. “That’s really nice of you.”
Darcy shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other. “So is he going to be okay?”
Steve nodded. “The doctor says he’s going to be fine.”
“That’s good,” she said. “I talked to him once at work. Hawkeye, I mean, not the doctor. Duh. He seems pretty cool.”
Steve stared at the plastic lid on his coffee. “He risked his life to save someone else tonight.”
“Well, yeah,” Darcy said, as if it was something that happened every day. “That’s what heroes do, right?”
“I guess so,” Steve replied numbly. Maybe it did happen every day. Barton had probably had dozens of close calls when he was working for SHIELD. Maybe even hundreds.
It was different when it happened on Steve’s watch, though. When it was someone who was under his command.
“I could sit with you while you wait,” Darcy suggested uncertainly. “I mean, if you wanted?”
Steve looked up at her. “I’d like that a lot.”
“Psst,” Tony said, nudging Pepper in the arm.
“What?” she replied without looking up from her phone.
“What do you make of that?” He gestured surreptitiously at Rogers, who appeared, in defiance of all expectation, to be chatting up the girl from Dr. Foster’s lab.
Pepper looked over at them, then back at her phone. “I don’t make anything of it, because it’s none of my business.”
“That’s only because you’re not a romantic like me.”
In fact, it wasn’t so much that Tony was a romantic as that he was pathologically insecure. Beneath the Tom Ford suits and Versace sunglasses, he harbored an unshakable belief that he was fundamentally, deeply unlovable. He had, therefore, what he considered a vested interest in seeing to it that every attractive, eligible male within a ten-mile radius of Pepper was otherwise preoccupied.
And since Captain America was pretty much the shining pinnacle of attractive and eligible, he obviously posed a clear and present threat to Tony’s happiness so long as he remained unattached.
Rogers and the girl were laughing quietly together now. Tony smiled to himself when he saw her hand touch Steve’s leg. This was extremely promising.
“I guess we’ll find out who the real romantic is when our anniversary rolls around,” Pepper said quietly.
Tony stopped staring at Steve. “Is that a challenge, Potts?”
She shot him one of her sly half-smiles, the kind that made him go weak in the knees.
He tilted his head, the corner of his mouth curving playfully. “You know what I love about hospitals? All those empty rooms full of beds. What do you say we put one of them to good use?” It wasn’t even close to his best line and he knew it, but in his defense it had been a really long night.
“Stop it,” Pepper said, smiling slightly.
He hadn’t actually expected his overture to meet with any success, but he was gratified to see a flush coloring her neck as she turned her attention back to her phone.
“Hmmm,” she said, frowning.
“Hmmm what?” Tony asked, pivoting so he could keep an eye on Steve. The chances of whatever work nonsense Pepper was preoccupied by actually being of interest to him were approximately 1 in 1,000.
“I asked the head of security to review the last three months of surveillance footage on the penthouse floors.”
“Uh huh,” Tony said, only half listening. Rogers and his new lady friend were drinking out of the same coffee cup now. Excellent.
“I think he found the SHIELD mole.”
“What?” Tony said, swinging his gaze back to Pepper. She’d commanded his undivided attention now.
“Take a look at this.” She handed him her phone. On it was a video from one of the security feeds in the penthouse common area. A man in a food services uniform was wheeling a hand truck full of supplies into the commissary.
Tony squinted at the screen. “And? He’s delivering Tastykakes and Pop Tarts. I don’t get it.”
“Keep watching,” Pepper said.
When he’d finished unloading his delivery, the man swiveled the cart and started wheeling it out of the commissary. As he passed through the doorway he raised one of his arms and brushed his fingers over the top of the doorframe. To the casual observer it looked like he’d innocently slapped the top of the doorway on his way out. But Tony wasn’t a casual observer, and he happened to know that was the exact spot where one of the bugs had been planted.
“Son of a bitch,” he said. “Who is that?”
“A temp,” Pepper said. “He worked for us in food service for a few days. The name he supplied on his application turns out to be a fake, and the numbers he gave for his references are all out of service now.”
“Of course they are,” Tony said passing her back the phone.
“We’ll obviously have to completely revamp our screening process,” Pepper sighed, fingers flying as she began issuing a string of new orders to her underlings. She shot Tony a sideways look without pausing. “And I guess you owe someone an apology.”
He snorted indignantly. “Hey, just because he didn’t do this, doesn’t mean he didn’t do anything.”
Pepper stopped typing and gave him one of her looks. The kind that meant she was disappointed in him. “How you can you say that after tonight?”
“Tonight doesn’t change anything,” Tony said stubbornly.
“Really? So you’ve just been standing vigil at the hospital all night so you can be sure and fire him as soon as he’s conscious, is that it?”
“Something like that,” Tony mumbled.
She opened her mouth to reply but Romanoff’s sudden appearance in the waiting room forestalled any further conversation on the subject.
“He’s awake,” Natasha announced.
“Have they said how long they’re planning to keep you here?” Steve asked. He was obviously trying to put on a cheerful face, but there was a hollow ring to it, like the newsreel footage of his old USO acts.
The Avengers were all standing around Clint’s room, which, while admittedly spacious for a hospital room (thanks to Pepper) had begun to feel uncomfortably close once it was packed with super soldiers and gods and genius scientists.
Natasha had stationed herself by the door so she could keep a sharp eye on everyone. She was fully prepared to step in and act as bouncer, should anyone decide not to play nice with Clint. He hadn’t even wanted visitors, but she’d pressured him into it. The team had all been sitting vigil in the waiting room the whole time he was surgery; she figured that had to count for something. She hoped so, anyway.
“A few more days, I guess,” Clint said dully. “They want to do another surgery when the swelling goes down.”
“They’re putting in an intramedullary rod,” Bruce said, flipping through Clint’s chart. He almost sounded excited at the prospect.
Thor offered a forced-looking grin. “They will make you into a super soldier like the Captain of America.”
“Yeah, right,” Clint said. “Minus all the extra strength and speed and healing.”
“But with bonus wanding at metal detectors,” Tony pointed out.
There was a momentary lull in the conversation. An awkward lull. Thor was staring down at the floor and shifting his weight from one foot to the other; Steve was so uptight he’d unconsciously slipped into parade rest. Maybe this hadn’t been such a great idea, after all.
Bruce set the chart down and slipped his reading glasses into his breast pocket. He looked around the room curiously. Natasha wondered if anyone had even told him what had happened before the crane accident.
Tony cleared his throat. “Oh, hey, I’ve got some more good news. Turns out neither of you guys planted those bugs in the tower.” He glanced hopefully from Clint to Natasha. “Yay?”
Natasha arched a single, deadly eyebrow. “Since we both knew that already, it doesn’t really fall into the category of news, does it?”
“Hmmm,” Tony said, tapping his chin. “You may be right about that. Well, whatever. Bygones, right?”
Clint didn’t say anything. Neither did Natasha.
And then Steve said, very quietly, “Tony.”
“Okay, fine,” Tony said, throwing up his hands in an overly dramatic gesture of capitulation. “I’m sorry, all right? I was wrong, I shouldn’t have accused you of planting bugs.”
Natasha looked over at Clint. He was staring down at his hands, running his thumb over the callouses on his palm. His expression was so blank even she couldn’t tell what he was thinking.
A nurse bustled in to check the drip on Clint’s I.V. “The patient needs to get some rest now,” she announced in a tone that clearly indicated she was not going to truck with any arguments, not even from alleged superheroes. “You can come back tomorrow if you like.”
Tony smiled tightly. “You heard the lady. Let’s leave Barton to his morphine, shall we?” He turned on his heel and walked out. After a moment Bruce and Thor shuffled after him.
Steve hesitated by the door. “Natasha?”
“I’m staying,” she said.
Steve nodded. He cast an uncertain look at Clint and then he too was gone. The nurse finished adjusting Clint’s I.V. and left, giving Natasha the side-eye on her way out.
“You should go,” Clint said. “Get some rest yourself.”
Natasha lowered herself into the chair beside the bed. “No way you’re getting rid of me that easily, Barton.”