Five Stages

-Denial-

He didn't believe Coulson's somber words. It was a joke, a cruel trick, something Natasha cooked up for revenge. She'd sworn to get him back for his Minneapolis scare. That's all this was.

Coulson continued speaking, sounding appropriately distraught. "She… she took down Jenkins. She brought down the whole cartel, Barton. She just… didn't get out in time. I'm so sorry."

"No," Clint said, chuckling hollowly, gripping the phone a little too tight. "She's not dead. This isn't funny, Phil."

"It's not meant to be," Coulson replied, and his voice wavered.

But that didn't mean anything. Natasha was resilient. Clint thought of her, of her fiery temper and stunning abilities and deadly looks. He thought of how she led him into battle, the front for his arrows, distracting the targets so he could get a clean shot. He thought of how she smiled when they completed a mission. He thought of her laugh.

And he shook his head and snapped, "No."


-Anger-

When Coulson asked Clint to speak at her funeral, he simply stared at his handler blankly. Coulson's face was pale and his eyes were red—he cared about Natasha almost as much as Clint himself—but his tone was firm.

"You're all she had, Clint."

So he nodded numbly and strode to his bedroom, the one place he knew he'd have privacy. Ever since the news had spread, he'd been getting visits from people, and he was fucking sick of it. They talked to him in soft voices, urged him to divulge his "feelings," and he hated them all.

When his door clicked behind him, he grabbed the nearest lamp and hurled it across the room. It shattered, littering the floor, and in a fit of fury, he grabbed the table it sat on next. He systematically destroyed everything he owned, the bland S.H.I.E.L.D. issued furniture and the few personal items he kept on display.

Someone was knocking on his door, but he ignored the calls, staring at the object in his hands. It was a travel-sized bottle of vodka—Schmirnoff watermelon. Vile stuff, but Natasha could down it without flinching. She'd given it to him in Argentina, after they'd gotten so drunk they couldn't remember if they'd tied the knot.

"A wedding present, just in case we did get married," she said, a sly smile tilting her lips. He remembered her striding away with more dignity than he'd ever hope to have. He remembered secretly wishing her words were true.

(He later found out they weren't. He never told her.)

He put the bottle down and slammed his foot into the full-length mirror.


-Bargaining-

It was a week later, after they'd buried Natasha under six feet of mud in a little box, that he cornered Stark inside his workshop. "You have to bring her back," Clint said, trying to keep his voice hard, trying not to show his true misery to this egotistical, self-centered genius of a man.

Stark raised his eyebrow and said, "You know I can't do that."

"Why not?" Clint demanded.

"Um… I don't deal in magic? Or is that necromancy?" Stark shrugged a shoulder and went back to fixing one of his hot-rod cars. "Either way, there's nothing in science that says it can be done. So I can't do it."

Clint clenched his fists. Natasha had actually liked this jackass. "Don't you care at all that she's gone?"

"Yes, Barton, I care," Stark snapped, thrusting to his feet and whirling on the man. "Every night, I have to see Pepper coming out of the bathroom with bloodshot eyes. For god's sake, Romanoff was one of us, and that's terrifying! I damn well care. But she's gone, and there's nothing we can do about it."

Clint stared at Stark for another moment, silence ringing through the workshop, before he turned on his heels and snarled, "You'd try for Potts."

He left, wishing he was a genius too, wishing he could find some way to save the woman he loved.


-Depression-

Clint knew they were looking for him. But he was excellent at dodging his enemies, and apparently that skill doubled for his employing agency as well. This time, he'd holed up inside an abandoned warehouse in downtown Miami. He'd dropped his bow on the ground and set his quiver up against the wall and climbed into the rafters because at least there was a breeze up there. Then he closed his eyes and imagined Natasha was sitting beside him.

His phone rang again, the fifth time that day, and he let it go to voicemail. Coulson would leave a message. He always did.

A minute after the phone stopped ringing, he heard the familiar ding of a message left. He debated leaving it like all the others, but he hadn't heard another human voice in days, and the silence was eating at him. He flipped open the cell and played the message.

"Barton, call me back. There's been an important development and… well, I think you need to see this. Natasha—"

An anguished roar erupted from his lips, and he threw the phone across the warehouse. It clattered to the ground fifty feet below and shattered, and silence reigned again. Clint didn't want to hear about Natasha. It was nothing that hadn't been said before.

"Damn it, Tasha, why didn't you leave some of those bastards alive for me?" he whispered, looking at the filthy glass of the skylights. He ached to drive an arrow into someone's skull, to make someone pay for what had happened.

His partner was dead, and he hadn't been able to avenge her.

A tear slid down his cheek.


-Acceptance-

He finally returned to New York. He wasn't ready to return to the helicarrier just yet, but even being back in Natasha's favorite city helped. He wandered the streets aimlessly, and finally wound up at the cemetery, staring at her gravestone.

Natasha Romanoff, it read. There were no dates, no heartfelt message carved into the unforgiving granite. Just her name.

He'd never even gotten to say goodbye.

"I thought we'd go out together in a blaze of glory," he said absently, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Well, I guess you did, but you left me behind. That was rude of you."

"Sorry," she drawled, and he stiffened, because although he'd imagined her voice thousands of times in the last month, he'd never managed such an exact likeness. He whirled, saw her standing behind him with her arms folded, red hair curled and green eyes unreadable. She always had the best poker face.

He wanted to say her name, but he'd suddenly forgotten how to breathe.

She uncrossed her arms and her eyes softened, "You look like shit."

"You were dead," he managed, voice strangled.

"I was undercover," she replied. "Fury said he told you."

He stared at her, trying to convey how Fury had most definitely not told him, how no one had said anything other than, "I'm sorry," ever since that first phone call from Coulson. She looked anguished, and stepped forward to wrap him in a hug.

"I'm sorry, Clint," she said, burying her head into his shoulder. "I'm so, so sorry. When I came back, you'd disappeared. Even I'm not good enough to find you when you go rogue."

"I'm very sneaky," he said, forcing a laugh that came off more like a sob. God, she was alive. She was alive and right there in his arms and he was never letting her go again. Except, maybe, to kill Fury.

She deserved to know that, so he said, "Oh, and I'm going to kill Fury."

"Get in line," she rolled her eyes and intertwined her fingers with his and he felt complete for the first time in four weeks and three days. He was never going to let her go again.


From a distance, Phil Coulson watched his agent. He sighed sadly and decided to address it tomorrow.


A/N: I'll leave it up to you to decide if Natasha was really there in that last scene, or if it was just in Clint's imagination. Review? :)