Phil Coulson gets a military funeral. Natasha sits in the back row, Clint’s thigh pressed against hers, and watches. Clint’s skin is still too pale, and the edges of his eyes are red from lack of sleep and stress.
They are not red from crying. People like them do not cry.
The light press of thigh on thigh is all the contact they allow themselves for comfort, something dismissible as an accident of proximity. Any more would be obvious, a sign of attachment. They are not the kind of people who allow themselves that.
She and Clint are a perfect match. It took very little time at all for them to learn how to fight in each others spaces. Early on, Natasha had broken into the high clearance personnel files, wanting to know who Agent Barton was, where he came from, why he'd spared her life and brought her in from the cold. Why he picked SHIELD to give his loyalty to.
But it wasn’t SHIELD. It was Phil Coulson.
Natasha sits in the back of a good man’s funeral and thinks, he’ll come with me now, if I ask.
It would have been different, probably, if she had found Clint before Coulson had. But then he wouldn’t be her equal. He wouldn’t be the man who fit into all her weak spots without comment, wouldn’t be the man who defied orders to save her life. He wouldn’t be everything that made him so exceptional.
Natasha knew enough about her broken places to know she would have ruined Clint, if she’d found him before Coulson. So she has never resented Clint’s loyalty. She’s fifty-six years old and un-aging. She'd had time to wait.
Now Coulson is dead, and so Clint’s loyalty is also dead. If she asks him to, he will leave SHIELD with her, because she is the last person alive who Clint trusts. Natasha isn’t sure yet if that’s what she wants. SHIELD has been good to her, good for her, and she thinks it's the same with Clint.
“The world feels upside down,” he says after the funeral.
“Do you regret it?” Natasha asks. To normal people, she thinks maybe that would be a bad thing to say. But she and Clint are far from normal.
“I don't know,” he admits. It is all they ever say on the subject.
Later, she wishes she had pushed for more. For months afterward, she can tell Clint isn't sleeping enough, but it's not so bad it affects his work, and it's not something other people can see. Natasha keeps his secret. She envies him his grief, in some ways. She has never had anything to grieve.
And then it spills over into work, when a sleep deprived Clint stabs another Agent with a fork. Natasha sits with him outside Fury's office, waiting for the verdict, and tries to figure out how to fix this. She's not even sure she knows what's wrong.
“Clint,” she says, and then has nothing else to say.
“Thanks,” Clint says anyway, because they are the same, in the places that matter. He understands.
Clint gets a two week mental health suspension. He doesn't say anything when he leaves. Natasha thinks again about asking him to leave with her, when he gets back. Maybe SHIELD is no longer what Clint needs.
Three weeks go by, and Clint does not come back. “Give him some time,” she tells Fury, but inside she's seething. She would take Clint anywhere, everywhere with her. But he's left her behind.
Natasha has known betrayal. This does not feel the same.
Three weeks and four days after Clint walked out of SHIELD, Communications claim they've gotten a check-in call from Phil Coulson. There are procedures and identity checks they will have to go through, but Natasha doesn't doubt the man is who he says he is. She has no idea how it's possible, but she understands what Clint was doing, now. All she has to do is wait for him to come back.
She does not begrudge him the fact that Coulson is worth more to him than she is. In this thing, she has always envied him.
Natasha goes to meet Coulson. He is wearing clothes that obviously do not fit him, but he looks healthy and uninjured. They don't speak until they reach the hotel.
“We got Clint back,” is the first thing she says to him, unpacking the kit SHIELD put together to verify Coulson's identity. The relief that crosses his face is startling to her in its honesty. Coulson is an extremely skilled individual, and can keep up with her and Clint on most occasions. She forgets sometimes that he is not like them.
When Natasha has finished the battery of tests and everything says Coulson is Coulson, they sit and look at each other for several minutes.
“I assume it wasn't SHIELD,” he says finally.
“No,” she confirms.
“That's my guess.” Natasha shrugs a little. “He's been AWOL several weeks. I suppose we'll find out when he comes back.”
Coulson gets up from the table and crosses to the window. He looks into the distance at something, and they are quiet for a long time.
“He's not coming back,” Coulson tells her eventually, and Natasha is taken off guard by the chill that makes its way down her spine.
“Then I'll go get him,” she says. She won't settle for anything less. She can't. She cares too much for Clint and this thing he's succeeded in having to let him throw it away out of misguided fear.
“I'll go get him,” Natasha promises, looking Coulson in the eye. Coulson smiles, relieved. He knows Natasha does not break her promises.
“Thank you,” Coulson says quietly. “I'm... not sure what I'd do, without him.” His mouth twists a little, like it hurts for him to admit it, and Natasha wouldn't be surprised if it does. Coulson takes his responsibilities seriously, and that level of attachment always affects the job, even if it's only a little.
Natasha gets up and joins him at the window. “Before you know it, he'll be sitting across from you like nothing ever happened.” She smiles at him, glad she's able to give them this. “I promise.”
Natasha does not break her promises.