She stumbles out the hospital exit. She doesn't know how she ever could have dismissed grief, or thought it a weakness; grief is rolling through her like poison in her bloodstream, like sickness in a person who always thought they were invincible, and she knows now that it is not something you let happen, because nobody ever would, but something you drown in, something you choke on, are violated by. She feels cold where her body was touching his. She can't get his face out of her mind; the way he looked at her on the jet when he was dying. Unafraid, because she was there and he trusted her. The thought makes her nauseous and a second later she vomits onto the pavement.
'Oh, that poor girl…'
A woman's whisper reaches her and she sees an old couple standing on the street, just looking at her with faces so steeped in sympathy that it is obvious she has been flayed by loss, she is standing bloody and raw and everyone can see her, like a car crash victim staggering around with glass in her hair; she wonders numbly what part of her is signifying heartbreak, if there's some visible claw puncturing her heart, some wound permeating her skin from the inside.
She can't breathe.
And she wants to ask them for help. Like somehow these wise people who love each other can save her because they grew old together, so they know how: they can teach her. Even now there's a part of her that looks at them like a little girl at her parents, sure they can fix anything. She gives them a look of desperation and her eyes meet the woman's. She sees that there is no solution there. Only pity, because this woman knows love and she suspects what Natasha has lost, and she's looking at her like a person watching someone live something they've lived only in nightmares – with horror and empathy and relief that they at least are not that cursed.
He's going to have a SHIELD funeral. His family are all scattered to the wind and she knows that as far as the Bartons are concerned, they were all dead to each other a long time ago. There's a big part of her that feels like she should take care of the funeral, because though she fell short of what he deserved, she knew him better than anyone else in the world. But she can't bear to talk about him with funeral planners. With strangers. Not when the thought of him, which runs through her as constantly as blood, makes her want to stop breathing; when the idea of even saying his name when he's no longer around to belong to it, even to their friends, makes her feel sick.
She can't imagine talking about the kinds of flowers he liked or what song should be playing when his body is carried away for the last time; carried away forever, never to come back. She wants the funeral to be everything he deserves but she cannot bear to be responsible for it when she has shown herself to be such a failure in every other facet of his life. She lets Fury do it. She counts on the fact that as the director of an enforcement agency he has practice with these things, and she pretends she can't see the surprise and disappointment on his face when she passes on the job.
Whenever she reaches for something, whether it's her jacket or a door handle or a bottle of vodka – and these days it's usually the vodka – she feels the absence of him. Every time, in every reach, like her body can't believe he isn't there, and it hits her like a punch, bringing tears to her eyes that she doesn't let spill over because she hasn't cried since the hospital and fears that if she starts, she'll never be able to stop. It's like phantom pain; the sight of things hurts, because she can't see him. The loss of him makes every room she is in go dark. Silence weighs down on her like water. Time stretches in front of her, unending, unwanted, horrifying.
Every time she closes her eyes, she sees him dying on the ground, his hand clinging to her wrist. She sees him dead on a gurney. Still.
The first day after he dies, she moves out of Stark Tower and checks into a motel room in downtown New York. Every time during the night that Tony or Bruce or Steve tried to talk to her, offer her a cup of tea or some toast like she's a fucking invalid, or stared at her like they were just waiting for her to collapse, she got the overwhelming urge to kill them. She knows, in a way that she doesn't really feel, that she liked them once, as recently as a few days ago in fact, and killing them would be a bad idea so she removes herself. She turns off her phone but a few hours later it beeps anyway, turned back on by some remote device of Tony's, so she throws a meat cleaver at it and when her landline rings she throws it into the ceiling fan.
She feels empty all the time – literally, physically empty. Like a psychosomatic representation of her heart, which seems to have bottomed out, and her mind, which cannot fathom anything. The only thing she feels is red, a seeping dull anger, a need to strike out without thinking too hard or too much about what she's striking out at – she needs to do. What to do – what should she be doing? She spends hours sitting on the end of the stained queen sized bed, numbly running over the options, each as impossible as the next, bumping up against thoughts of him that puncture her heart like bullets into cake, and swerving desperately away; her body tense with the pent up need to – to be angry. She can't go outside, walk the streets with all those normal people, look like she has any kind of life to live – if she looks anything at all like she feels, she'll send people reeling out of her way in alarm. A crazy person. She's never been this directionless – it's what makes her so good, right? She feels like a planet torn off its axis; she feels like she isn't even human anymore. She never rests, never stops working, but she can't bring herself to go to SHIELD, can't imagine going on a mission, and besides she has to stay here until the funeral at least.
God, the funeral. Every time she thinks about it it's like a bucket of cold water is tossed over her head, and if she was still capable of appreciating irony she'd realize it's pretty fucking ironic that she's an assassin, or was anyway, and nothing has ever scared her as much as the idea of going to Clint's funeral.
She sits on that bed for hours, until she can't take the sound of her head any longer because it keeps saying the same things and playing the same images and the same memories over and over again. She sits there until the red is threatening to block out everything else and then she gets up and she leaves and walks straight to Stark Tower – logically she knows it takes her about an hour but it feels like five minutes.
She walks straight into the lobby and to the Avengers elevator, pounding her fist against the door.
'Agent Romanoff,' Jarvis's voice says politely. 'Welcome back. Shall I alert anyone of your return?'
'No,' she says curtly. 'Is anyone in the gym?'
'Not presently, madam.'
'Then open the elevator and take me there.'
She needs to punch something.
When she gets there, the place seems cavernous and dark. There are treadmills, spin bikes, weight machines, the boxing ring, but she wants the punching bag. She strides over to the corner where Steve keeps them stacked like bales of hay and she heaves one onto a hook, her muscles screaming but her mind revelling in the movement, the strain, the anger flowing through her veins where before it was locked in her head and she doesn't wait to wrap her hands like a person who cares what happens to them, she just starts punching, and God – bang – it doesn't feel good – bang – because nothing will but it feels for the first time in hours – bang – though it seems like a hundred years that she's doing what she should be doing – bang-bang-bang – this is as close to mindless as she can get and she never, ever, ever – bang – wants to stop. She doesn't warm up, doesn't start off slow. She hits the bag hard and fast, the sound of her hands striking leather like a drumbeat in the silence – bang-bang-bang-bang-bang! Her arms are in agony, and then her back and her stomach but that's not the kind of energy she's trying to feel, it's the fucking anger because behind that is – behind that is the fact that Clint is dead and if she can just keep being angry she will not have to think about it, she can pretend it isn't true – bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-BANG-BANG-BANG -
'Holy – Jesus Christ, Romanoff!'
Steve's panicked voice registers in her mind and she loses a beat – hissing, without even looking at him, she draws her arm back for another punch but his hand closes over her bicep and she reacts – without meaning to a nasty voice in her brain says finally – and lightning fast, reaches back, gets her arm hooked around his neck and flips him straight onto his back – he goes without resistance, he's so surprised, and makes a winded oof sounds as he hits the bare wooden floor, his face screwed up in pain. She isn't sorry – she's satisfied.
'I'm fine,' he breathes, as though she'd asked, and in two seconds he's recovered and jumps to his feet, looking concerned. 'Romanoff – what are you doing? Your hands!'
She looks down perfunctorily and notes that her knuckles are all split and smeared with blood; several have started trickling down her wrists. They don't even hurt.
'I'm fine,' she says tersely, and goes to step around him, to start punching again, but he stops her – at first it looks like he's going to grab her arm again but reconsiders, body remembering the unpleasantness.
'We've been trying to call you all day,' he says softly.
'I know. I destroyed my phones.'
'We figured. Tony traced you though, we know where you're staying… why did you leave? You shouldn't be alone right now –'
'Why not?!' she interrupts, glaring at him. 'That's what I'm good at.'
He raises his eyebrows. 'Judging by your hands and your breath, I'm not so sure about that.'
She narrows her eyes, feeling the fury in her blood hone in on the person standing in front of her and she's glad – she doesn't care that he's trying to help, that he's being a friend – she wants him to provoke her.
'You don't want to test me, Rogers. Not now,' she whispers, taking a step closer to him. She knows her eyes say Yes I do. He doesn't flinch.
'Sure I do,' he says calmly. 'You want to take a shot? Take a shot. I'll be easier on your hands and I've been known to heal pretty fast.'
This catches her off guard, and what's more it pisses her off.
'You doing this because I'm a girl?' she asks, and to her horror, her voice cracks. 'Because – because Clint's dead?' A surge of anger floods into her chest and she lets it run through her hands as she shoves Steve in the chest. 'Do you have to be such a fucking gentleman all the time?! I want you to fight me!'
She's strong, but he's stronger and her shove doesn't move him an inch. His stupid face is filled with compassion.
'I'm doing this because I'm your friend,' he says quietly. 'And I was Clint's –'
'Shut up –' she half-gasps, the sound of his name in another person's voice like a stab to the heart –
' – I was Clint's friend too and he'd want me to let you hit me so if that's what you want, hit me,' Steve finishes, looking determined.
So she kicks him – draws her knee back and drives her foot straight into his solar plexus. It's not exactly a dirty move but it's not what he was expecting; because he's a super soldier he winces and takes a shaky breath, whereas on a normal person she would have torn a muscle, made something important bleed. He doesn't make a move to fight back though and she finds that hurting him isn't as cathartic as she expected, as violence has always been for her. Clint's face flashes in her head and she can hear his voice like he's standing next to her.
'Come on, Natasha,' he'd joked once, after she punched out a guy in a bar because Fury refused to clear her for duty after a leg injury. 'You can't solve all your problems by knocking people around.'
She closes her eyes, tears suddenly stinging them, and takes a deep breath, opening them just in time to see Steve's sympathetic face as he reaches out to her shoulder, but something on her face stops Steve from touching her and it's a good thing because she doesn't know what she would have done if he had but he may not have walked away from it. His hand drops back to his side and his expression turns resigned.
'I'm so sorry, Natasha,' he says, and she knows he is – he's so very, very sorry, she can see it on his face, but she just can't bring herself to care because she's tried hitting him and it didn't help, not even a little bit, and there's nothing else she wants from him. Nothing else he can give.
She forces herself to nod at him, jerking her chin once, and then she walks away.
The next day, Fury calls her. Well, he calls the motel, because her cell and her room phone aren't viable options anymore, and he has the concierge bring his own cell phone up to the room in exchange for, she gathers, a signed Ironman T-shirt.
'I know you wanted me to handle it,' he says, 'but I need to ask you a couple of things about the funeral. It's going to be tomorrow.'
'Great,' she says tonelessly, though her stomach is churning. She's sitting on her bed in her underwear with a bottle of vodka. She hasn't slept. Every time she closes her eyes she sees terrible things.
'The service is going to start at eleven, at the White Orchid Cemetery –'
'So he's going to be buried.'
'Well – yes, is that alright?'
'It's perfect.' What difference does it make? Dead is dead.
'Okay…' he says slowly. 'I thought you might like to know what to expect in regards to the ceremony – SHIELD generally conducts them a lot like the mili –'
'Yeah, I'll just let it be a surprise, okay?'
'Sure. Agent Romanoff, is there anything I can –'
'Didn't you say you had something to ask me, Director?'
There's a pause.
'Yeah. The first thing is, we need a photograph and all our database has is the standard personnel mug shot… we thought you might have something a little more appropriate.'
Her mouth goes dry. 'I don't.' She has no photos of him at all. She feels like all the air has been sucked out of the room; her heart misses a beat completely. She doesn't think she's ever even seen a picture of him, and she suddenly realizes she needs one so badly it aches. 'I don't, I – can you send me a copy of the, the one you have? Please?' She can't even think about the fact that there are no pictures of the two of them together, and never can be.
For the first time in the conversation her voice veers away from cold and flat to desperate, and Fury's voice changes in response.
'Of course,' he says quietly. And then, 'The second matter to discuss is that of the eulogy. I think it's only right that you be the one to do it.'
'I can't,' she says quickly, panic rising in her chest. 'Sir, please –'
'I understand that you could not handle organizing Clint Barton's funeral, Romanoff,' he interrupts her, 'and that what's more, you have no interest in what has been organized. I understand that because you were the most important person in his life and he was the most important person to you. That is why it is your responsibility to do what no one else can do. He deserves to have a eulogy written by the person who knew him best.'
He's right. It doesn't change the fact that the very idea makes her want to run and never stop running; she can't imagine talking about him like that, about his life, about what he meant. But he deserves it and that is more important than how she feels; it's taken her far too long to learn that lesson.
'I… okay,' she says hoarsely. 'I'll do it.'
That day, she spends ten hours sitting on her bed with a piece of paper and a pen. And it's like the language centre of her brain has stopped working; trying to put who he was into words, trying to explain him… she can't think of anything. There are no almost-right words, no phrases that come close to describing him and what he meant to her. All that comes of trying to think of them are memories.
'For someone who is so good at manipulating people with her words, you really suck at this,' Clint admonishes, shaking his head at her feeble attempt at a letter, and he hands it back to her. 'Try again.'
She'd gone to meet him on his return from a mission, and the second he stepped off the helicarrier he starting giving her a hard time. That was the problem with being friends with someone who had once been allowed to give you orders. They never quite get out of the habit.
'I told you, letters are stupid. If you want to know what I'm up to, ask Coulson.'
'Nope, it's beyond that now. I didn't realize how woefully incapable you are of expressing yourself.'
She rolls her eyes as he grabs the folded letter back from her just to unfold it with dramatic precision. He clears his throat and reads; 'Hi Clint, I'm still alive right now. On a mission, currently eating pancakes so that gives you an indication of all the danger I'm in. Hope you're well. Natasha.'
Read out loud like that, it does sound pretty stupid, but she just raises an eyebrow at him.
'I want… five hundred words next time. And none of them can be about your gun maintenance routine. Make me feel like I'm there.'
'What, incapacitating mercenaries with your thighs in Kenya?'
'I could do it if I had to!'
The day of the funeral, she looks inside her suitcase and realizes that the only funeral appropriate attire she owns is a pretty little dress that Clint bought her, in what seems like forever ago. The prettiest dress she's ever owned, and yet she only ever wore it once, to the funeral of a man whose name she doesn't even remember anymore. She has only ever put this dress on once in her life, and it was with Clint watching her from two feet away inside a musty airport janitor's closet, and as she pulls it on it doesn't feel even slightly like the same dress without his eyes on her; his voice telling her she looks fantastic, like he invented the word just for her. He picked this dress, at least in part, just for the joy of getting to see her in it and wearing it today feels right because she is trying, in her own little futile way, to honour him. But looking at herself in the dusty motel room mirror, tears come to her eyes because he will never see her in this dress again.
I never had a chance to wear it for him again, she tells herself, but the words don't ring true because though they were apart for ten months after that day, they've had weeks since they were reunited and she has had plenty of chances. To wear a dress that he liked or to not pull away when he touched her.
Don't lie, Natasha. Not now.
Spies remember faces, and she remembers her own reflection as she and Clint ran past the glass doors of the airport to catch a cab. She remembers how happy she had looked and how she had not known she was happy, and only recognizes it now because of the contrast between that girl and the gaunt, blank-eyed face she has now. Because it turns out that as well as she understands the signs of other people, she is cursed to never understand herself until it is too late.
It's twenty past ten when a limousine pulls up outside the motel and Tony, Steve and Bruce step out; she can see them from her window. They're all wearing suits and sombre expressions and for a moment she doesn't know what they're doing here, but then she realizes they've come to pick her up. Or more specifically, to make sure she's coming. A week ago she would have been supremely offended at the notion that they could make her do anything she didn't want to do. Now, she's apathetic, but the notion registers that if she tries to chicken out today they will make her go and they will make her speak and that's a good thing.
A short time later there's a knock on her door and she opens it.
For a moment they just look at her, and she looks at them, and she is overwhelmed with the feeling of Clint not being there and the terrible truth that now, this is what it looks like when the Avengers assemble, and she screws up her face with the effort it takes not to start crying. There's nothing really to be said because they all know that they're sad, and that what Natasha is feeling goes beyond that. So Bruce just says let's go, and they all file down the corridor and then the stairs and out onto the street in complete silence, and Natasha blinks because the world seems bigger somehow, or maybe she's smaller.
They pile into the limousine and for the whole journey to the cemetery, nobody says a word.
There is a distinct air of guilt and she slowly realizes that in one thing at least, they are the same.
They were the Avengers. They were supposed to be there to protect the world when no one else could, but what nobody ever said but they always understood was that it was also their job to protect each other, and losing Clint means they failed. It's no less devastating to them than if they'd lost the world. To Tony and Steve and Bruce – and to Thor too, in abstentia (her heart clenches when she realizes he probably has no idea what has been happening while he was gone) – Clint was not just a colleague. He was a brother in arms. It was a different kind of bond that they had than was normal for people who fought together, and it didn't matter that they hadn't known each other that long. These guys will never forgive themselves for not being able to save Clint and a small horrible part of her is glad, because she will never forgive herself and she's viciously relieved that she's not alone in that.
They arrive at the White Orchid Cemetery. Pretty name, pretty place, and yet there's a cloud of grey that seems to hang over everything and Natasha's heart starts pounding because she can see a long wooden box with black-suited people gathered around it and knows she has to walk over there.
She makes her way over, winding through the gravestones, and catches Fury's eye. It's clear he's been waiting for her because everyone else is already seated, in rows of black draped lawn chairs, and he takes her arm and leads her over to the front row, where five seats remain empty for Fury, the Avengers, and her.
The coffin is piled with flowers, and a large glossy photograph of Clint is propped on it; she stares at it, because this is the photograph Fury is going to send to her and she had wanted so badly for it to give her some kind of connection to him but she closes her eyes because she feels nothing under that paper gaze but bereft. She had expected to feel a draw to the coffin, because Clint is lying in there, but all she sees is a box piled with flowers. It's not him, and the only thing she feels any kind of pull to is the hole in the ground.
'Are you ready?' Fury asks her in a low voice, and without looking at him, she nods, and like magic, a man steps to the front of the congregation and the service begins.
Few words register in Natasha's mind. She feels numb and hazy and exhausted.
Someone's elbowing her; she turns her head and sees that it's Bruce. He tilts his head towards the man who's been leading the service, and she sees that he's looking at her expectantly; shakily, she rises to her feet.
It's only when she's standing in front of all these people that she realizes just how many have come. There are almost forty SHIELD agents here, and she remembers how Clint had worried they didn't trust him anymore, after Loki. If only he could be here to see just how much they did care.
'I have never really understood the point of funerals.'
Her voice comes out croaky. She has no idea what she's saying; what part of him she can possibly do justice to by talking to these people. So she just keeps opening her mouth and speaking.
'Traditionally, I know they are a way of honouring the person whose death we mourn by celebrating their life. They're… a shout into the void. A promise not to forget someone who was important to us. And it's a promise we don't always keep.'
'So… why don't you like funerals?'
'You mean aside from the usual reasons? I don't know, I… it's always sad seeing someone be forgotten, you know.'
'Clint hated broken promises. And he never broke one to me. There are some promises you don't say out loud, but they are no less real. He was my best friend.'
Her voice cracks, and she doesn't remember starting to cry but her face feels wet she knows she is.
'And that was a promise he kept every day when he watched my back… walked into battle with me. Had faith in me. It can't always have been easy but he never gave up on me and for that I will always be grateful. I… I made only one promise to him in all our time together.'
'Listen, I didn't mean to have this conversation today. I haven't seen you in ages, I don't want to ruin the one day we have together in – who knows, maybe years, right? But that's why I want you to promise. Since we are talking about it. I don't know what happens after we die, Nat. I know you think there's nothing – but I think there's something, who knows what and maybe I'm wrong, but just in case I'd really like you to come out and visit me sometimes. So if I can see you I'll know you didn't forget about me.'
'It was that I wouldn't forget him. I didn't understand why this was so important to him when he asked. It was a long time ago. He wasn't religious but he believed in life after death and he said once that if he could see me after he was gone, he wanted to know that I hadn't forgotten him. And this didn't make sense to me because he wasn't the kind of person to want to drag out grief and he knew… he knew I wouldn't handle it well.'
'But now… I think that he made me promise for me. And that it wasn't him exactly he didn't want me to forget… though I never, ever will…'
She knows how ridiculous it is now that she ever hesitated to promise to visit his grave. That she was ever reluctant to remember him after he was gone. She should have known she would have no choice in the matter.
'… but all the things he taught me. Whenever I think about him… and I am always thinking about him… I am forced to see myself through his eyes, and so remembering him will make me braver. And better. Because Clint saw good in me and I don't think I could ever bear to disappoint him again.'
'There are a lot of things I wish I could change. Things I wish I had said, or done. Things I had chances to do or say that I just never took, and can never get back. But I want to promise him, whether he can hear me or not, that I won't forget. I want to promise that I will bring the people who murdered him to justice. And I want to tell him that I love him. And that I'm sorry.'
A/N: First order of business; I am so, so sorry about the delay with this chapter, because I said that it would be up in about a week and it's been about triple that time, and I know how frustrating it can be when you have an expectation that something will be up at a certain time and then it's not. The first five chapters went up in quick succession because I was on a bit of a roll – and had a stretch of free time – and then all of a sudden, I found myself struggling a bit as life simultaneously got a bit busier, and the result is this very late chapter. I'm sorry!
In future, I think I'm going to say to expect a chapter (on average), about every two to three weeks (though it should be more frequent than that on the whole). I think that's a bit more realistic and that way I won't be breaking any promises; however, if there is a delay again, I promise I am always working on it and I will never abandon this story, so don't panic :)
Second order of business: Thank you! I was completely stunned by the reaction to the last chapter – so much positivity, and I am so, so happy that you all liked it. I got the best, sweetest, most encouraging reviews yet and you have no idea how much that means to me, and they really kept me going when I was struggling to write because I knew people were waiting on me :) Thank you, thank you, and thank you.
This chapter is far less action packed than the last and is really a bit of Natasha grieving/depressed stuff, with the funeral and all; I hope it's okay, I did have some trouble getting it done and I'm not completely happy with it. I'd really like to hear if you think I'm writing her mental processes true to character, because there's a lot of introspective stuff.
Next chapter definitely up within two weeks, and that's a promise. Please keep reading! :)