NOTES: Greetings, reader! I wanted to explore how losing Coulson affected Clint and Natasha, so here is my theory on what happened. This will probably have three or four chapters and serve as a prequel to my story "Return of the Son of Coul" (see my profile for a link). I'm not going to have a regular update day/time frame, so please subscribe to the story or keep an eye on my Tumblr (again, link in my profile) if you want to know when this is updated.

A million thanks to KrisEleven for being a superb beta.

Natasha sat next to Clint on the tiny bunk in the SHIELD medical quarters on the helicarrier. Her body was stiff with tension after being chased by the Hulk, hearing Fury announce her handler's demise, and having to beat up the closest thing she had to a best friend. She'd had better days.

She waited for him to ask the question, but she still didn't know what she was going to do or say when he did. Initially, she'd tried to steer him away from asking about what happened while he was under Loki and the Tesseract's influence. She could feel in her bones that things around them were coming to a head quickly and she didn't want him distracted. She also knew he'd instantly notice Coulson's absence when it came time to have someone calling the shots in their ear; she didn't want Clint to hear about Coulson from anyone but her.

And then it came.

"Where is he?" he had asked after they'd lulled themselves into a moment of silence while digesting thoughts of monsters and magic. "I thought Coulson'd be in here by now. He need a junior agent to help him carry down all the paperwork this debrief is going to take?"

She turned her attention to her boots.

"Nat?" he asked quietly.

She ground her jaw together before looking him in the eye. He deserved to know, even if it meant sending his guilt-ridden mind further down the rabbit hole. "Coulson's gone." She said it in the same tone the agent had told her Clint had been compromised. A tone that, to nearly everyone else, sounded quiet for the sake of trying to keep things under wraps but in reality was so full of anxiety and sadness that the speaker was about to break. A tone that said it was taking everything they had to keep themselves from losing it. And only the three of them would recognize that tone from one of the others.

Clint went still, scarily still. He could remain motionless for hours in a perch waiting for the perfect shot, but to see him do it now sitting on the edge of the bunk without a weapon in his hand was terrifying.

"Clint," she whispered. She knew better than to touch him. She knew his body was acting on pure, protective instinct right now while his brain attempted to process information. Previous bruises and black eyes reminded her to let him be for a moment. In the early days of their relationship—because he had saved her life—she'd done her best to mimic an appropriate, soothing response when something bad jogged his memory of one of the many atrocities of his youth. It never ended well; he'd spent so many years throwing punches in order to protect himself that his brain considered it to be an automatic response.

She counted to one hundred in her head before saying his name again, this time a little louder. He still didn't move, not for another count of thirty-two. After that he ran to the tiny bathroom and began retching into the toilet. Natasha followed after him; she ran a washcloth under cold water and draped across the back of his neck with her right hand while moving her left to cradle his forehead. She stayed quiet even after he finished. He brushed her fingers away and used the damp cloth to wash his face before rocking back on his heels. She sat down on the floor, giving him as much space as the small compartment allowed.

"Did I do it?" he whispered harshly.

"No. It was Loki. Stabbed him from behind—coward."

"Then I still helped."

"No, you didn't."

"Who do you think got him on the damn helicarrier, Nat?"

"You weren't in control."

He only shook his head in response, turning his eyes to the floor.

"Listen to me, Clint, you were not in control. You just asked me if I knew what it felt for someone to turn you inside out. I do. I know what feels to be completely emptied and the only thing put back in is someone else's agenda. You did not make this happen."

She wanted to reassure him that Coulson knew Clint would never intentionally bring him harm. Barton had a habit of throwing care to the wind when it came to his own safety, but he was painstakingly cautious when it came to the well-being of his teammates. Natasha wanted to remind him of this fact but knew it would fall on deaf ears.

"I get Loki," Clint whispered with deadly intent.

"I'm not going to make any promises, but I'll do what I can." She could understand his need for revenge. It was a feeling she'd been raised to rely on, but she also knew the trauma it could cause someone when they were denied the opportunity to carry out their own. Their so-called team was pushed to rally over the agent's death. They would each want a shot at him. All except for Thor, who would want him alive to deal with him on whatever alien terms their people had. It would be a challenge, and a shame to deny herself that small victory, but she mentally swore to do all she could to let Clint take out Loki.

They remained on the floor in silence until she heard someone keying a code into the door to the infirmary quarters. She rose and made her way out to the main compartment. On her way, Natasha waved Clint off as he too stood, but he ignored her. Rogers entered a moment later and gave them the heads up. He looked to Natasha for approval of whether or not to trust Clint, and she didn't hesitate to give a slight nod. The Captain told them to meet up with him as soon as Barton was dressed and ready to go before spinning on his heel and marching out of the room.

Natasha turned back to Clint, an unspoken question in her eyes.

"I'll be fine. I can do this," Clint answered with a quiet voice.

She wasn't sure who he was trying to reassure: her or his own mind. She looked him up and down. His hands had stopped shaking, but he was still pale. She wondered briefly whether or not he'd eaten or slept while under Loki's control; his frame looked slightly leaner and his cheeks a little more hollow then when she'd seen him last two weeks ago.

A normal woman would want to soothe and dote on him, but she was not a normal woman. So she was going to help him cope the best way she knew how. "What do you need?"

Clint looked down at himself. She saw his eyes flicker over what was on his person as he undoubtedly took a mental inventory. "Where's my bow?"

Natasha opened one of the cabinets along the wall and pulled out his weapon and quiver, freshly stocked with new arrows.

"You were stupid enough to keep that in here with me when you didn't know who I would be when I woke up?" he said, his voice matching the hardness in his eyes.

She shrugged. "You were restrained. And I could've kicked you in the head some more, until you were yourself again."

"Jesus, Nat, that was still a stupid thing to do," he replied while running his hands over his set of weapons, making sure everything was working correctly and undoubtedly soothing himself with the familiar touch. It was a motion Natasha had seen him do countless times, usually when his mind was racing.

She reached further into the cabinet and pulled a bag. She extended it to him, and he nodded as he took it from her. He unzipped the satchel and drew out his SHIELD uniform. As he redressed himself, Natasha took the opportunity to flick her eyes over his frame once more.

It was yet another sign he was not well. There would normally be a string of sexually charged comments flying out of his mouth while she studied his body while he undressed, but he was silent. Natasha reconsidered for half a second whether or not she should just sedate him and keep him tucked away somewhere safe while the rest of them went to battle, but she knew he would never forgive her if she did.

Love is for children. I owe him a debt.

Her brain bounced back to the words she'd spoken to Loki. She believed them with all her heart. She would never admit to loving Clint, mostly because that was an unattainable emotion for her. But she knew about repayment, about needing to seek balance to clear yourself, your name.

She was compromised. She should be doing everything possible to keep him safe, and keep the rest of them safe in case Clint was more of a hindrance than a help to the team. But she owed him too much. Not just her life, but for the times when he'd done the same for her when they'd hunted down men from her past who spent years building her into the weapon she was today. She had no business being on those missions, but he'd talked her onto the operations roster and had let her take the kill shot a number of times.

She owed him a debt. She would do her best to let him take Loki, if for no other reason than to get her friend back. Already she could see the forty-seven foot thick wall he was building around himself, a strong front to reassure others that he was fit for duty. But knowing how he built that wall around him, she also knew where all the cracks would lie. She knew how to see past the hardness in his eyes to the agonizing pain lying beneath. She normally split watching his weak spots with Coulson, but obviously that wasn't going to happen today.

The sound of the snap around his collar brought her out of her reverie. He looked at her and waited, going so very still again. He was waiting for orders, waiting for her to push him along. She didn't bother asking him whether or not he was sure he wanted to do this. It was pointless to waste the time, energy, and breath. So she simply nodded, turned on her heel, and led him out of the infirmary quarters to meet up with Rogers.

Watch his back. Let him kill Loki. Then figure out the rest.