However, I'm currently engaged in the rather daunting task of posting all my old fanfics on AO3, and I came across the story again, and reason that I might as well post it. So here it is.
Author: Rhymer (rhymer23)
Characters: Clint and Natasha. Cameo appearance by Tony Stark.
Relationships: Clint/Natasha, although non-explicit and understated.
Summary: Clint and Natasha have been dumped on a remote mountainside, with Clint gravely injured and unable to walk. Clint wants Natasha to leave him, to try to save herself, but Natasha... What does Natasha want?
Clint woke to silence and a field of stars.
"Natasha." His lips spoke her name without sound. He cleared his throat, riding out the surge of pain that came with movement. "Natasha." His voice cracked. He moistened his lips, coating them with ice. "Natasha?"
He knew where she was. He could hear the faint sound of her unconscious breathing. He could feel the warmth of her. He struggled up onto one elbow and reached out, touching her hair with his fingertips, then turning his hand to stroke her cheek with the back of his loosely curled fingers.
She was never one to awaken slowly. "Clint!" She grabbed his hand. It was too dark to see her face, but he had no need to see it. Even in the darkness he knew her every expression.
"I'm fine," he told her.
She let out a sad breath. "Always the liar."
He felt her sit up. He heard her move, perhaps touching the side of her neck. He had seen the dart hit her and had watched her fall. They hadn't even needed a dart to take Clint out. The bullet and the knife had already done that job days before. Still, after she'd fallen, he'd taken three of them down before…
"Tranquilliser dart," she said. "They got you with one, too?"
They hadn't. Nothing so easy for him. "Yes," he said.
She was beside him, touching his face. "Always the liar."
"Yes," he agreed sadly. Even in the dark, he could never hide from her. "But I'm fine. Really." He heard the catch in her breathing that was her chiding him. "No worse than I was, is what I mean. Better. Doesn't hurt so much."
Natasha touched his brow. "That's the cold."
Was it cold? Yes, yes, of course it was. He was lying on his back in what felt like shallow snow. They were high up, he thought, because the stars went all the way down, even below the plane of the horizontal. Then Natasha was kneeling beside him, obscuring the stars. No, not obscuring them; outlined in them. She was limned in a thousand stars. Even in complete darkness, she was beautiful.
He tried to sit up, and everything came to a halt. There was nothing but the pain. He was nothing but pain, and he tried to move on past it, and Natasha was there, speaking his name, and he clung to her voice, concentrated on it with everything that he had, and the crest of the pain broke, leaving him washed up on the other side, wrung out and breathless.
"Maybe…. not cold enough." His voice rasped like dead leaves. "And maybe not better than I was. Sorry."
"It's plenty cold enough." He felt it when she spoke. She had pulled him into her lap, supporting his head and upper body, just as she had done at the start of it, in the abandoned slaughterhouse - such a cliché, he had said, with a bitter laugh - while chains had creaked in the whistling draught.
"Yes," he agreed. He could already feel the creeping lethargy that came with freezing to death. "I'm not going to be walking out of here, Natasha. You should…"
"Natasha," he said, "you should…"
Even wounded and half-stupid from blood loss and the cold, a SHIELD agent could assess their situation within an instant of waking up. There were no lights visible except for the stars. They were off the grid entirely. Their captors had taken their phones and everything that could be used as a weapon, and had even carved the tracking devices from beneath their skin. Even hours before, he had been fairly sure that he wasn't getting out of this alive.
"Natasha," he said, "I know my limits. You know that I know them. I'm not walking out of here."
"Then I'll carry you."
He shook his head. "We already tried that. It didn't go so well for either of us. Natasha, you have to…"
"It's dark," she said. "We're halfway up a mountain in the middle of the night. There might be wild animals. Crevasses. Cliffs. Are you trying to get me killed, Agent Barton?"
"But in the morning," he said, as his eyes slid shut. You'll leave me in the morning.
Slowly, slowly the stars faded. Blackness turned to dark blue, and dark blue to light. She thought it had only been an hour or two, three at most.
"Clint?" She could tell that he was still breathing. His heartbeat was faster than hers; faster than it should be, in cold like this.
He looked up at her. "Morning," his lips said. It had scared her in the night, how thready his voice had become.
Her face was too cold for a smile. "Morning." Her voice was weak, too, strength leeched out by the cold.
Then she realised. It wasn't a greeting, of course. Morning had come, and he wanted her to leave him.
"I'm going to stand up," she told him. She eased him from her lap as gently as she could, but could tell that it hurt him. He always trusted her with his pain, never making a fuss about it, but never trying to hide it, either. And it was a gesture of trust, or so she had come to realise.
Her legs had gone to sleep. She rode out the pins and needles, then jogged on the spot to attempt to warm up. It was difficult. Her toes were numb, and she had not eaten for three days, not to mention any lingering effects from the drugs and the head injury. Her knee hurt, protesting when it was asked to bear her weight, then buckling when she tried to ignore the pain. Her body felt deeply bruised, hurting in places she had no memory of being hurt in.
"Helicopter," he said. He had managed to drag himself up onto one elbow again. "Look at the patterns of blown snow. They dumped us here from a helicopter. Didn't bother landing. Just pushed us out."
Of course they had. And they would have chosen a place miles away from any help, probably a place inaccessible on foot, somewhere their bodies would never be found. After three days with them, Natasha thought she understood their captors very well. She walked a dozen steps, then a dozen more, seeing what Clint couldn't see from his position on the ground. From the edge of the cliff, she watched the sky lighten in the east, until at length the sun began to clear the horizon, blazing like fire. But dark clouds were gathering behind her, beyond the sheer wall of the mountain behind them. She feared that it would be snowing soon.
She moved back to his side. No way out, she thought, not for him, at least, and probably not for her, unless…
"Natasha…" Clint said.
She had fought for his life so many times. Her own life she valued less. She was a survivor - of course she was - but there had been times when she had been heedless, not much caring whether she came through a mission alive or dying. Afterwards, she had tried to stay alive because a dead partner was no good to anyone. Now…
"It's too cold," she said. "I'm not dressed for hiking. And there are cliffs." There was a slight chance that she could skirt the edge of the cliff until she found a way down, but even then she would have no idea which direction to go. The wind was picking up, too, stirring her hair, turning the air colder than it had been even at night. Without her warmth, Clint wouldn't survive very long, she thought. Even if by some miracle she found somebody with a phone, she doubted that help would reach him in time.
But of course he wasn't asking her to leave and get help. He could have lied to her: I'll be right here when you get back, Natasha. I'm fine. I can last for days. This time next week we'll be drinking vodka together. And then they'd have one of those brave, heartbreaking, ridiculous conversations in which they both pretended that they had a future together, even as they both knew that there was no hope at all.
"You'll last longer if you keep moving, Natasha," he said. "It's not much of a hope, but at least…"
"No," she said quietly, shaking her head.
The clouds moved in above them, turning the sky dark, although the sun still blazed low in the east. Her shadow was enormous across the face of the mountain. There was surprisingly little blood on the snow, but of course Clint had already lost too much in the slaughterhouse, and even more in their failed attempt to escape.
"Please, Natasha." He so seldom begged. She had to listen to him. "You're… You deserve better than this."
You're better than this. Perhaps that was what he had wanted to say. He seemed to think that she was a strong person, determined, who never gave up. Didn't he understand that she fought sometimes for a cause, sometimes for a job, sometimes for him, but so seldom for herself? She thought he knew her.
"You deserve better than that," she said back at him, quietly reflecting his own words.
Snow came, but only light flurries of it. Snowflakes fell on Clint's face like cold tears.
Natasha was the strongest person he knew, but she was choosing to stay with him - to die with him - rather than try to save herself. Not that there was much chance of her getting to safety; the lack of lights at night had revealed just how far away they were from habitation, and he doubted their captors would have dumped them anywhere that offered them a chance of survival. But there was always some chance. More of a chance than if she stayed here with him. Perhaps. Perhaps.
She had never given up. He'd been out of it at first, but whenever he'd surfaced through the pain, she'd been there defending him, fighting over him, shielding him, saving him. She'd saved him years ago, of course, in all the ways that mattered.
He was on her lap again, wrapped in the last lingering warmth of her. "We still need to talk about how you got yourself shot in the first place," she said.
He wouldn't say it. He knew she didn't like it.
"Protecting me," she said. "I can look after myself."
"Yes," he said. "No. No. That's why we're partners. To watch each other's backs. Because nobody can do everything alone. To…"
"…put yourself in the line of fire for me?" There was a hoarse edge to her voice.
"You would have done the same for me." He looked up at her, at this strange, unfamiliar view of her. Snowflakes speckled the curling tips of her hair.
"No." She shook her head. He could feel the catch in her breathing that revealed the lie. "I trust your skills."
"You would have done the same for me." He persisted. It was too important not to. They could communicate so much in the gaps between words, but sometimes it was necessary to say a thing out loud, and hear it said.
"Yes." He saw her eyes close and open again. Her hand was on the side of his neck.
"It's not about distrusting your skills," he assured her. "He was going to kill you. I was in a position to do something about it. I… miscalculated the cost." Didn't calculate at all. Would have done the same thing anyway, even if I had.
And Natasha, of course, knew everything that he wasn't saying out loud. "I would have done the same for you," she said.
She had no idea what time it was. The snow had moved on, but the clouds had come down, wrapping them in thick fog. See? she wanted to say. I was right not to head off by myself.
As usual, there was no need to say it. "I can't be glad you're here," Clint said. He was fading in and out now, and each time his eyes closed, she feared that it was the end. "I'm not. I… wanted…"
She wouldn't ask. She stroked his hair with frozen fingers. She remembered when she had lost him to Loki; when he had fought her and tried to kill her.
"I'm not afraid of dying," he said. "You can't be, in a job like this. And this… in the cold… It'll be like falling asleep. Gentle. I can't feel…"
He just stopped. She could feel him breathing. His heartbeat was slower than it had been; the same as hers.
He moved his head to look at her. "I… don't like to think about you dying. I thought it would be a… comfort… to know that you still had a chance of surviving this."
"But without you?" It was hard to produce words. "To carry on, knowing that I walked out on you and left you to die alone?"
To die. Clint knew that he would going to die here, and she knew that he knew it. They could avoid putting it in words, but that made it no less true.
"Death is death, whether it's alone or not. It's what we're trained to do, Natasha. Sometimes you have to leave a partner behind to carry on with the job."
"But we aren't on a job." Her hand was numb, even where it touched his neck. She moved it to his hair, watching it as if it belonged to somebody else.
The corner of his mouth tightened in something that might have been a smile. "Well, we were. That went to Hell a long time ago."
She watched those fingers move against his damp hair. There was too much to say, or maybe there was nothing at all. There were times when she despised the person she had been, and the things she had done. She had learned to live with them - there had been reasons; mitigating circumstances - but at times… sometimes…
She shook her head. "Natasha?" Clint murmured.
She had never considered ending it all, but at times she had stopped trying very hard to stay alive. Clint had changed all that. He had offered her new purpose. He had offered her trust. He had trusted her with his life, but most importantly of all, he had trusted her with knowledge of him. He let her see things that he never showed to anybody else.
And to lose all that…!
Without you, I'm nothing. She was not so cruel as to say it to him. She was not even sure she meant it - such a silly thing to say, like a girl in a romance novel. But if she was going to die here anyway, she wanted it to be with him. She had never been afraid of dying. Once, too, she had never been afraid of dying alone.
"Well, I'm glad," she said quietly. He looked up questioningly, as if he had already forgotten the words that had started their conversation. "That I'm here with you," she said. Wherever you are. Wherever.
He thought he heard the howling of a wolf.
Should he be fighting this? He remembered fighting Loki, fighting desperately inside his mind, and he had never stopped, never once stopped screaming inside the prison of his own mind. He had distrusted himself for months afterwards, but Natasha had trusted him instantly, and had dragged the others along in her wake, until it seemed as if Clint was the only one left with doubts. At times a thought would strike him, and he would wonder if it was really his own.
Would the real Clint Barton be fighting this?
But he had fought for three days, until he had been running on empty. His leg was too lacerated to take his weight. The bullet in his side had gone deep. If help was only a few miles away, he would try to drag himself there, perhaps, but this was too far, with no certain destination. Perhaps he should have tried, anyway, just so Natasha would come along with him.
"Natasha," he found himself saying. "Am I still me?"
Her smile was sad. She knew what he was asking her. "Of course."
He tried to shake his head. "But…"
"Crazy," she said. "Maddening. Reckless. Brave."
She pressed cold fingers to his lips. "Everyone eventually reaches a point that they can't possibly go past. God, Clint, these last few days…" She broke off. He tried to raise his hand to touch hers. "There's no shame in recognising…"
She stopped. He didn't prompt her.
"People talk as if it's such an important thing to fight all the time," she said. "To be defiant. Not to give up. Sometimes… sometimes it's foolish to do that, like… like that old king who tried to turn back the tide."
He wondered if she was trying to reassure him, or herself. It didn't matter. She could speak utter nonsense, and he would still feel more alive because he could hear her voice. Or she could say nothing at all. They had always spoken as much in silence as in words.
There were times when she thought he was already dead. She had spoken openly about him dying, and she had chosen to stay and see it happen, but even so, each time his eyes closed, she was stabbed with a fierce agony of loss.
"Isn't your life supposed to flash in front of your eyes?" Clint's lips were barely moving now.
The cold was taking her as well, dragging her into the drowsiness that presaged sleep. She raised her head. "See anything good?"
"You," he said. "Every memory that's good. Every best one. You."
"Must include some bad ones, then," she said, remembering some of the worst of their missions.
He raised his hand and touched her face, his thumb pressing against her lips. "Better," he said, "because you were there."
His hand was shaking. She wrapped her hand round his, and held it in place, moving her lips against his skin.
"I never kissed you," he said.
She smiled against his hand. "I never kissed you, either. Why do men always assume they have to take the lead in these things?"
His arm went limp, held there only by her grip. "Why didn't we, then?"
"Because we didn't need to?" she offered.
He let out a fractured breath. "No, we didn't need to. You know that I've loved you?"
"Of course," she said. "And you know that I've loved you." It was not a word she often said. She might have expected it to be hard to say, but it was easy.
"Yes." He nodded, his head moving in her lap. "Kissing might have been…"
She laughed, just a thread of a sound. "You regret…?"
"A little," he said. "Not much. We already had the most important thing."
"Yes." Her eyes were wet. There were people in SHIELD who would swear blind that Natasha Romanoff was incapable of tears or laughter or love.
"What a cliché this is," Clint said. "Declaring love just before dying."
"No." She shook her head, not denying the 'dying' part, because she was too much the pragmatist to do that, but denying the rest of it. "You declared it long ago," she said, and he had, of course, in the way he looked at her, and the way he spoke to her, and the way he trusted her, and the way he had been prepared to die alone to save her, and the way he had accepted her choice when she had refused to let that happen.
"Yes," he said, the last word he said out on the snow. "And so did you, in the way you…"
His eyes slid shut. She gripped his hand with hers, and blinked at tears that welled, but would not fall.
Clint heard only snatches of sound, interspersed with darkness. He heard Tony Stark's voice, and some time later, the sound of a helicopter. He lashed his head weakly from side to side, reaching desperately, until Natasha's hand found his, and he let himself go again, dropping off from his perch into the darkness, secure on his safety wire.
"…find us?" he heard Natasha saying. He thought it was a long time later.
"…a few hours after they'd moved you out. Then they came back and we…"
He lost it for a moment. "Interrogated?" Natasha said.
"Hey, you aren't the only one who…"
By her voice, she was nearby. Words were never the most important thing between them. He shifted position, and she there was there beside him, warm and his and alive.
Clint lived. When those first days were over - those terrible first days when they were not entirely sure - Natasha wondered if he would want to talk about the things that had happened on the mountain. Then she wondered if she wanted to.
In the end, the only thing he wanted to talk about was what had happened at the very end.
"I said I didn't regret it," he said. "Not having kissed you."
She said nothing. There was a window in his room, showing the bare branches of trees in winter. A bird flew past, high above, a speck of shadow on the grass.
"But now we've talked about it…" She heard him shift position, sheets scraping against each other. "I'd regret it. Next time I'm dying. If I… If we… don't."
Other women might say, Don't talk like that! There won't be a next time, but she was still the woman that she was. She gripped the edge of the window. She was still cold inside, her dreams full of the mountain. It was a strange thing to take up your life again, when you had fully expected to die. The last time it had happened, it had been because an agent called Hawkeye had held her captive in his sights, but had chosen to let her live.
He shifted again. "Sometimes people say things when they think they're dying - things they wouldn't say at other times. Untrue things. Things they'd… regret. I didn't. Natasha, that's not how it was."
But he was afraid that was how it was for her. She had her back to him. He could read her face, her hands, her eyes, her mouth, her breathing, her smile, but not her back, not when she was so far away from him.
She turned round. She came to him. "No," she agreed, and she kissed him. He sighed into her lips, and kissed her back. It wasn't fireworks. It didn't make her melt. Instead it was just like coming home.
The others found them an hour later. She was sitting beside him on the bed, and he lay drowsing beside her, one hand on her thigh.
"So you're together now?" Tony said, gesturing from one to the other.
"We always were," Clint said sleepily.
"What?" Tony raised his eyebrows in exaggerated surprise. "You were sleeping together and nobody told me? "
"Not that sort of 'together,'" Clint said. His hand tightened on her thigh, promising that soon all that would change.
They let Tony rant on for a little while, complaining about people who used words in ways that no normal person used them, and irritating secret agents who were either sleeping together or weren't, and what's so complicated about that?
"This won't change things," Natasha said, when the others had finally left, and the light was turned down, and the blinds were drawn against the night.
"No," said Clint, almost asleep now. "We already had everything that mattered. This is just… decoration. Good decoration," he added. "The best. Or a new page. A new page in a book that's already half written."
She smiled. "Go to sleep. You're talking nonsense."
He opened his eyes. "No," he said. "No, I'm not."
It was easy to kiss a man. It was easy to sleep with a man. It was easy to whisper promises in the night. But the thing that already lay between her and Clint was something that many people never found in their entire lifetime.
"No," she agreed. "No, you're not."