[I saw three ships]
To: Margaret
Fandom: Avengers
Threesome: Phil Coulson/Natasha Romanoff/Clint Barton
Title: an empty hourglass in the sand
Requested Element: "cuddling (for warmth, comfort, whatever)"
Warning: no standardized warnings apply
Notes: A post-film fixit; there's not a huge amount of cuddling, but enough, I hope! Happy Three Kings Day. :D
Summary: All of them have spent time at Phil's bedside. But most of the time, it's been her. And it's been Clint. Natasha reflects on bonds and time and trust, while keeping a vigil.

The revivification process can be rough on a person. Natasha's seen it before, the way you don't seem to know up from down for a while, the way your atrophied limbs won't support you, the way the blood feels sluggish in your veins. They don't call it resurrection, and technically it's not. Medically induced comas while they replace several of your internal organs and keep filling you up with blood and antibiotics and chemicals. But waking up when the last thing you remember is the dark stealing over your field of vision and pain whiting out into a solid sheet of agony... it's hard.

All of them have spent time at Phil's bedside. Once Tony and Fury were done yelling at each other, and Steve finished destroying punching bags, and Pepper glared down every single agent who tried to stand in her way. Even Banner has come by, under the guise of helping. Natasha isn't sure why; he's not really a medical doctor. But most of the time, it's been her. And it's been Clint. The blue glow is gone from his eyes but he's still wary and tense and quiet. The line of his shoulders is a taut curve, his head bowed when she comes in from taking a shower and forcing herself to rest for a few moments.

It's not your fault, she should say. It's what people say in these situations, she's sure. And he wasn't acting of his own free will, he was being puppeted, he wasn't holding the spear with the wickedly curved point. But knowing that isn't the same as the guilt and responsibility he feels weighing down his shoulders. So she joins him at the side of the sickbed and listens to the beep of the monitors, the two of them together again.

It's been the two of them for a long time, of course. Everybody at headquarters knows the story, from Fury to the new recruits who are still learning how to sneak glances and speak in whispers without being seen or heard. Everybody knows how Clint found her, turned her, con.txted her.

At least, they know the outlines. They know about the Black Widow, the Soviet spy from Mother Russia whose veins run cold with ice and vodka, and they figure Barton must have melted her heart and found the secret woman within her and seduced her over somehow.

The truth, as ever, is not nearly that interesting. She was tired and he was bleeding. If her blood was running cold, it was only because they were in some shithole in northern Europe in the middle of February, running each other to ground in a half-constructed office building. She can still remember the way their voices bounced off the steel beams, the offer he made, even as she had her gun trained on the middle of his forehead. She remembers being so very, very tired of everything.

Now, though she's sleep-deprived and strung tight with worry, it's not the same. She can see it in Clint too, the difference between that first night of their unorthodox partnership and the hours that are blending into a fluorescent-lit haze here and now. It's a sign of how exhausted he is, after days of this vigil, that he's actually nodding off, chin touching his chest, as his arm brushes against hers. At some point she took his hand, callus against callus as their fingers linked. Neither of them moves towards the bed. It's not like sucking chest wounds are contagious, not with Loki's spell broken and the Asgardians gone back to their kingdom in the sky. But they rely on each other for support now, and neither of them can cross that boundary where all their skill means nothing. All her fear is for Phil, lying there tethered to life with tubes and wires and a pump that hisses ominously every so often. If Natasha searches her memory she can name them all, knows how to disable every one so a patient will die and leave no trace. But she doesn't have to. She's here waiting for him to come back, for him to follow the thread back to consciousness. Back to them.

If it weren't for the sheer novelty of being welcomed into American governmental facilities as a guest, Natasha wouldn't have remembered much about Phil. Coulson purposefully designed himself to be unnoticeable. No vanities beyond the perfect geometry of knotted tie and shot cuffs, hair receding beyond a pleasant face and eyes that seem utterly at peace with the world around him. And that made him more dangerous than either herself or Barton.

Later she learned that he was like a fault line in the earth, seeming rock-steady and unmoveable until great violence burst forth and collapsed the world around it. She could see why Barton liked him, why Fury trusted him. What she couldn't see was how to turn that to her own ends in the same calculation she always made of everybody she met. She wasn't used to counting trust for herself, to relying on others. Just herself.

Now, of course, he looks about as violent and threatening as a day-old kitten, and her heart slams against her chest as the pattern of one of the monitors shifts slightly - but his eyes are opening, searching the room frantically even as she can see his fingers twitch against the sheets in an effort to keep himself from bolting upright and tearing the tube out of his mouth. Natasha is at the side of his bed in an instant, Clint starting to slump into the empty space but joining her soon, each of them putting a hand over one of Phil's.

They're quiet for a breath, a series of beeps from the monitor, as the creases around Phil's eyes start to slacken when he realizes they're beside him. Like they should be.

"Welcome back," Natasha hears herself saying, voice husky and low. Clint puts a hand on Phil's shoulder and Phil closes his eyes - not in pain, but like he knows he can relax now. It's all the time they have before the doctors and nurses swarm in and start a round of checks now that Phil is conscious, but it's all they need. She steps back and meets Clint's eyes over the crowd, seeing the relief suffuse his face in a way she can't show but definitely feels.

It used to be different. It probably doesn't look any different to outsiders, really. Clint needled Coulson. Coulson let it stream off him. Natasha knew that in spite of her best efforts there was something between her and Clint - saving a person and helping them defect tended to do that. But she was even more surprised when she found herself trusting Coulson - because that was even more dangerous. But he was just so damned competent and cordial and never once cracked a joke about her origins or acted like she was less than a fully valuable member of their team. And being trusted was addicting. She wasn't used to being treated like a member of a team, like someone who was able to make connections and acquire information and think on her feet. Like a person rather than a weapon.

And seeing connections was what she did, after all. Seeing it between Clint and Coulson took ages, even while she was growing closer to each of them, even after she and Clint fell into bed and started blowing off steam with one another. Because that was all it was, she told herself.

She doesn't tell herself that any longer, as she and Clint collapse exhausted on her couch and finally allow themselves to sleep. Phil's awake. He's going to be okay. They'll see him in the morning. Natasha keeps repeating it to herself like a litany, lips moving against the nape of Clint's neck, his callused fingers wrapped around her forearms like the weight of her is all that's keeping him from flying away.

But she can't sleep for remembering. The time she turned a corner and saw Clint standing close - too close - to Coulson, who looked over Clint's shoulder at her. How she saw fear in his eyes, true fear, for the first time ever. And how she let her lips curve into a smirk, making this look like they'd planned it together, turning the unsteady and shifting ground to her advantage. Natasha still doesn't know how much Phil knows about how that went down, doesn't know how much of it Clint premeditated. Probably not much; it's not his style. For all that he can be infinitely patient in a sniper's perch and spot the tiniest movements, he's much more brash with people and lets bravado carry him through moments of uncertainty. It's probably the only way he was able to keep at her through her glacial reserve and con.txte her that they could sleep together more than once.

And she remembers that first time, ducking out of the way of security cameras and common pathways, the feeling of mouths against her neck and her lips at the same time, discovering how clumsy three highly coordinated and trained assassins could be when they were all trying to gain access without giving up an.txth. How afterwards they were all stunned and quiet, even Clint, and how Natasha felt like her world had opened up once again into something breathtaking and frightening and strange. How this couldn't possibly be just one time between them.

Of course, they didn't discuss it. The most dangerous thing they could do was care about each other. So they never talked about it. They didn't name what it was between them, because naming it would expose it to the cold light of day and they were - are - creatures of the shadows. Even Phil, the government agent who interfaces with the public; those people don't know who he is or where he comes from. It's a casualty of working in the world they do, in their division, in the realms of people who have highly specific skill sets and don't get paid to do nice things. Acknowledging that they could care, could open up, could be more than that? A sure route to being stabbed in the soft underbelly, to being used, to being taken advantage of. Natasha remembers Phil's voice over the phone - Barton's been compromised - and holds Clint a little tighter.

But she doesn't really let that breath out till Phil's been transferred to a convalescent ward in a secure SHIELD facility, with far fewer tubes and wires holding him down and fewer nurses and doctors around. Then she crowds onto the new hospital bed, still narrow but with enough room for her compact frame, and Clint pulls a chair over to the other side and leans over the mattress till his head is resting next to Phil's on the pillow. Phil carefully wraps an arm around Natasha and tilts his face into Clint's hair and the three of them breathe together, quiet, always quiet together. He doesn't need to thank them or apologize or absolve anyone of their guilt. They've got him back, and they're here with him now. That's all. That's enough.