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the company you keep in the empty moments

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He hadn’t told her as soon as he got back. He’d been too focused on hugging his children, reminding himself that they were really here, that he hadn’t lost them or watched them disappear in front of his eyes. But the moment he stepped into the living room, peeling Nate off his legs and ushering Lila and Cooper up the stairs with a quick “I promise I’ll be up to read to you,” he felt his resolve break.

“Nat’s gone.”

He hadn’t had to say it. He knew she could see it on his face but he had said it anyway, because he felt like he needed to, in order to make it real. Because, fuck, it still didn’t seem real. They had screwed with time so much that he couldn’t accept there was no way to change things, he couldn’t accept that there was no possibility of him opening the door and finding Natasha on the front steps the same way he was able to suddenly see Laura’s phone call after Bruce snapped his fingers.

But Bruce had explained it, and Steve had explained it, and even Nebula had explained it. And he had told Thor himself. A soul for a soul, an irreversible, binding sacrifice.

Natasha was gone.

The days after are a blur, and Clint fills them with stories and ice cream and picnics and mundane things like paying bills. He does whatever he can to block out the memories that won’t leave his mind -- Natasha falling, Natasha crying, Natasha letting go. At night, he takes sleeping pills so he doesn’t run the risk of waking up with nightmares; during the day he disappears for long hours while his children are at school and uses his katana to slash huge dents in a large tree. Laura watches from the window, sometimes offering him a smile or a hug, sometimes bandaging his hands when they get too raw and too bloody, but never telling him to stop.

He knows that she never will, because unlike when he’s been angry about things he’s done on a mission or when he’s been upset about a job or even a domestic mishap gone wrong, this time it’s different.

This time, she’s the one he finds crying in the car or sitting in the basement in the middle of the night looking at boxes of old photos.

This time, it’s her loss, too.

“We should tell them,” Laura says at two in the morning, because neither of them sleep anymore despite pills and talks and alcohol. She’s broken out the good stuff, the expensive whiskey that they never use, raising a glass and announcing “to Nat” before downing the liquor.

Clint sits back in the kitchen chair, suddenly feeling a thousand years old. “I don’t know how.”

“I know,” Laura says quietly. “Me neither. If I had my way, I wouldn’t tell them at all.”

Clint swallows and takes another drink, shaking his head. “That’s not fair,” he says finally. “Nat means as much to them as she does to us. We can’t get out of this one. We gotta tell them.”

In the end, it happens like this: a family meeting on a Friday night, so no one has work or school the next day, with Clint and Laura gently explaining that there was a problem with a job and that Auntie Nat had been really hurt and won’t be coming home.

Lila cries. Cooper remains stoic, a stone face that makes Clint’s heart pulse with scorching pain because he remembers making that same face as a child when a social worker came to the house to tell him that his parents were suddenly dead; he knows exactly what’s manifesting under that neutral, angry look. Nate cries, partially because Lila’s crying but partially because when Clint explains how he remembers Natasha, his eyes well up. That night, he lets Lila and Nate sleep in bed with Laura. He knows Cooper won’t admit to wanting help, so he sits in the hallway outside of his room, occasionally peeking in to make sure his son is okay.

“Dad?”

He’s startled by Lila emerging from the bedroom and rubs his eyes which, despite his best efforts, are heavy with grief and exhaustion.

“Yeah, baby.”

Lila doesn’t say anything else, walking across the hall and sitting next to him. She rests a head on his shoulder and he tries not to notice that her eyes are red and puffy.

“Is Natasha having a long dream now that she’s died?”

He had forgotten about that conversation -- the one that had happened a lifetime ago, when Lila was still little and asking too many grown-up questions because her pet goldfish had unexpectedly been flushed down the toilet by her older brother.

“What happens when you die?” Lila had asked Natasha, the lucky adult who happened to be in the room while Clint and Laura disciplined their son.

“Oh.” Natasha had paused thoughtfully, unsure how to handle this conversation with a young child. “Well, I don’t actually know. I don’t know if any of us know.”

“Is it like sleep?” Lila had pressed on, looking up with big, expressive eyes.

“I think so,” Natasha had answered as cheerfully as you can answer a depressing question when you’re talking to a child. “Like having a long dream.”

That was the part Clint had walked in on, before Natasha filled him in on the rest. Part of him had been angry at her for talking about death so glibly with his young daughter, while the other part of him had been relieved he hadn’t been the one in her position.

“Yes,” Clint says, kissing Lila on the head and letting a tear fall onto her scalp. “She’s just having a very long dream.”

 

***

 

Wanda visits a few weeks after, arriving on the farm’s doorstep with a basket of homemade banana muffins.

“We don’t do funeral food,” Clint says shortly when he opens the door, but he takes the basket anyway and gives her a tight hug. Laura cooks an early dinner while Clint and Wanda sit on the porch drinking beers, every so often clinking their respects to the losses they know they’ll never be okay with, despite what they’ll tell people.

“Did you see it happen?” Wanda asks hesitantly.

Clint grinds his teeth together. “Yeah,” he answers. “I did.”

Wanda looks down at the porch and starts passing the bottle of Coors Light back and forth between her hands. “I didn’t see Pietro. I just knew I sent him off to die on that rock.” She pauses, and he sees tears springing to the corner of her eyes. “I saw Vision, though.”

Clint scoots a little closer, until their shoulders are practically touching. “I didn’t see my parents die,” he says quietly. “I just knew I sent them off to die because my dad had been drinking and I wanted him out of the house.”

Wanda raises her palm and shoots a soft red light at the sky. It settles above them like a firework, a display of meaning and gentleness all at once.

“Hey,” Clint says after another moment of silence. “I saw you out there in that battle. I saw what you did with Thanos -- what you did with your powers.” He throws her a wry smile and lets out a chuckle, bowing his head. “Goddamn, Wanda. I’m so fucking proud of you, you know that?”

Wanda smiles back. “I did not get there overnight,” she says softly. “But I had a very good teacher who never let me hide behind my fear. He taught me that there was power in being brave.” She pauses, lingering on the word. “Some would say that we were strong and that we saved them...but I think it’s the other way around. They saved us. And I still feel like we failed them.”

“We didn’t fail them,” Clint responds strongly, because if there’s one rock that he can cling to in this never-ending ocean of grief, it’s the fact that he’s at least got that to show for his scars. He may not have Natasha, but he had his family back and he had the innocent lives of millions of people back. He had Wanda back. “We fixed it.”

Wanda smiles sadly. “I suppose you did.” She takes his hand, wrapping her fingers around his palm, and when she speaks again her voice is so quiet, he can barely hear her.

“I killed Vision.”

Clint’s jaw tightens, and he thinks about what he’s going to say before the words leave his mouth. “I killed Natasha.”

He knows he’s supposed to be the strong one, the one who gives her a place to go and a place to feel comforted. Instead, it’s Wanda who holds him as the tears fall, his sobs carried away by the wind.

 

***

 

He’s met Fury by a lake once -- it was before he had officially joined SHIELD, while he was making ends meet as a petty criminal in one of the backwater towns of the Midwest. That time, he had received a cryptic message and sat down next to an older man, confused and distrusting. This time around, he’s the one that feels older, even though Fury’s still aged well beyond Clint’s 40-something years.

“I’d ask how you’re holding up, but from the way you smell I feel like I already know.”

Clint knows the jab is an attempt to make him smile, but it also makes him feel uneasy. After his parents died, he’d promised himself he’d stop turning to alcohol when things got bad. And he’d been good about it for years -- good about it when Natasha was around, at least, and when Laura stepped in -- but old habits die hard and unexpected grief is heavy, no matter how long you sit with it.

“I wanted to be the one to tell you.”

“You were,” Fury says, looking over at Clint who furrows his brow in response. “Stark’s funeral. I came late, and I didn’t see her. Then you turned around to talk to Laura, and I saw your face. I’ve known you a long time, Barton. I didn’t need to get confirmation.”

Clint heaves out a sigh, picking up a rock and chucking it mercilessly into the water.

“You know, I spent years being worried about the fact that one day, I would have to tell my kids about my death,” he starts slowly. “Laura and I had so many conversations -- what to say, how to prepare, who to call. I lived in fear every goddamn time I picked up my bow, thinking that maybe this was it -- maybe this phone call was the one that would change everything.” He closes his eyes, thinking of New York. “I never thought about how to tell them about Nat. I never thought I’d need to.”

Fury puts a hand on Clint’s shoulder. “She thought about it.”

Clint’s head snaps towards him. “What?”

Fury smiles. “She thought about it. She thought about what to say if something happened to her. She never told you, though.”

Clint feels like his stomach has been ripped out of his body, like part of him has lurched himself forward without any of the necessary components to breathe or see. “No, she didn’t.” He runs a hand through his mohawk, letting it fall across his jaw. “I don’t understand.”

Fury reaches into his pocket and takes out a manila envelope. “I’ve had this since Budapest,” he says, handing it over. “I was under strict instruction never to show it to you or even tell you I had it, unless she died or unless I died. But the necklace, that I found in her belongings. Figured you should be the one to keep it.”

Clint’s eyes burn as he peeks inside the envelope Fury’s given him -- a nondescript flash drive, along with an old hourglass buckle from one Natasha’s first uniforms and a pair of defunct widows bites. He reaches inside with two fingers, dragging out the silver arrow necklace, trying to hold back his tears.

“I fucked everything up,” he says hoarsely, unable to look at the man he’s called his boss for more years than he can remember. “For five years, I let my anger make me a monster. Five years I was lost in my goddamn head while she was alone, doing her best to hold everything together, to keep us alive. And this...this…” He chokes back a sob. “The last thing she said to us -- to everyone before we did that stupid time travel thing -- was see you in a minute. Just like that. Like we were going on a milk run. It’s not how it was supposed to end for her.”

“I think she’d disagree,” Fury answers, his voice calm and resolute. “Don’t you remember how Natasha was when she came here? She didn’t have anyone, except for you. She didn’t even have me -- I was a hard sell. But she grew to accept me -- accept us -- and she eventually found a family. The Natasha I remember isn’t the same person who would take up my position as a leader to keep a family together, or drop everything to help keep the world safe when it was falling apart. She learned self-sacrifice, Clint. She knew what she was doing. You may feel like it’s your fault, but it was her choice, and that meant everything to her...the fact that you were the one to teach her that she could have a choice.”

As much as he doesn’t want to admit it, Clint knows Fury is right. He knew from the moment she let go of his hand, because he could see it in her eyes -- scared as she was, this was her decision, and it was a decision that she knew she could make because she felt like it was the right choice. Clint knows he can argue until he’s blue in the face about how the right choice wasn’t death, but that in doing so, he’d just be downplaying how important her agency was in that moment.

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to be okay.”

Fury shakes his head. “You won’t be,” he says sorrowfully. “Lose a soldier, that’s hard. Lose family...that’s harder. And we’re bad enough that we've lost both.” He nods at the necklace in Clint’s hand. “But I’ve also learned that where there’s loss, there’s rebirth. And if I could get the Avengers out of a world that I thought was lost forever, you, Clint Barton...you can do so much more.”

Fury’s pep talks have always grated on Clint. He didn’t mind them when he was in the heat of a battle, because in that case they usually helped amp him up, but he never liked them when they were just at SHIELD. He appreciated the words about his character and his motivation and his skills, but the sentiments never quite sat with him the same way they did when Natasha said them, when she took his hand and smiled softly and gave him that sly look that was filled with so much admiration and belief and trust -- a bond built over so many years of scars and hurt and pain, too strong to be broken by aliens or mind control or secret organizations or petty team fights or government rulings.

“It was supposed to be me.” He bangs his fist against the bench they’re sitting on, feeling the veins in his neck vibrate with hot red anger, the yell exploding from his throat before he can tame it. “It was supposed to fucking be me!”

Fury puts a hand on his back while Clint clutches the necklace between two fingers, the metal chain digging into his skin the same way daggers are digging into his heart.

 

***

 

Life goes on, in that strange way that life goes on in the wake of grief. The leaves change and the weather changes and Lila gets different homework each day and Cooper makes new friends at school and Nate learns to like mustard. But for Clint, the days feel like hours and the seconds feel like moments. He gets up each day because he knows he has to, because he promises himself he will, because he knows this is why he lived and she didn’t. At some point during this sad, grudging routine, he realizes that twice now in his life, someone had decided that he was worth saving from death because his family needed him.

Twice now, someone had sacrificed themselves for him because they thought he deserved a better chance than they did.

It takes another month before Clint feels read to say it, and he comes to Laura while she’s in the middle of making lunch on a Saturday.

“We should give her a memorial.”

Laura turns around, holding a spoonful of peanut butter in one hand. “Here?”

Clint shrugs. “I dunno. Yeah, probably here. This was her home, wasn’t it?”

Laura smiles in a way that looks utterly painful. “It was. To us and to her.” She puts the spoon down carefully and leans back against the counter. “Would you invite anyone? Or would it just be us?”

Clint chews on his tongue, trying to decide how to answer. On one hand, he feels like he should invite whoever was left -- they were her family, after all. She had cared for them when no one else did, and she had held them together, and she deserved their last respects.

On the other hand, they had already mourned. A big deal funeral type thing wouldn’t do any good for anyone except make them relive what they were probably trying to already move on from. And it didn’t matter whether they had ten people or two people, what mattered was that she wouldn’t be alone, because Laura would be there, and Lila and Cooper and Nate and Clint would be there.

“I think just us.”

Laura nods, using her thumb to brush away a small tear underneath her eyelid. “Did she have family? I realized I never knew.”

Clint shakes his head, knowing he can’t control the cracks in his voice. “We were her family.”

The school year is almost at an end, and Clint decides that he’ll wait until the end of June to say something to his kids. The weather would be nicer in the summer anyway, and a summer memorial would be good because Natasha always liked that season best when she was at the farm. It usually meant that she could sit outside even when it got late, or spar on the lawn, or take long runs around the property.

“I’ve never had this,” she told him once, a few months after she first started visiting.

“Had what?” Clint asked curiously. “A house?”

Natasha had smiled and tipped her face to the sky, letting the raw sun wash over her skin. “Freedom.”

Clint spends long hours of sleepless nights in the basement sanding and cutting wood, creating a small but elegant box in which he carves her Widow’s symbol, her name, and the date of her birth. He can’t bring himself to include the date of her death, and he realizes he doesn’t even know what the actual date is considering what was the same day when they left could’ve been six years later on Vormir.

He doesn’t want to know. He doesn’t want to keep the date in the back of his mind, knowing it’ll come around every year, when he already knows his memories will haunt him for the rest of his life. Laura comes to see him when he’s halfway through building the box, bringing him food and rubbing the sore parts of his shoulders, and sometimes she cries without letting him hear it.

A week after summer vacation has officially set in, Clint calls all his children into the bedroom and clears his throat quietly, pulling Nate onto his lap.

“What would you guys think about having a little memorial service for Aunt Nat?”

Cooper smiles slightly, Lila almost bursts into tears on the spot, and Nate scrunches up his face and nods. Clint lets Lila be comforted by Laura and takes a deep breath. “Okay, then. Let’s make her proud, yeah?”

He puts the old widow’s bites and the belt in the box but keeps the flash drive on the nightstand and puts the arrow necklace in a tiny jewelry box. They wear the same clothes they wore to Tony’s funeral, because it feels right that both moments of grief should be connected in some way. There are words but not a lot; Laura talks about the time Natasha accidentally threw out half her wardrobe because she didn’t understand that a garbage bag wasn’t actually garbage, which makes Nate giggle in that “five year old everything is hysterical” way. Cooper shares a memory about how Natasha helped him with a school bully, a story less about fighting and more about believing in yourself, which makes Clint’s heart swell to the point of wanting to burst. Lila, haltingly, talks about what she remembers as a little kid and how Auntie Nat was -- and would always be -- her favorite person in the world.

Clint says nothing because he doesn’t know what to say that won’t break him in front of the family he knows expects him to be their rock.

Underneath the big oak tree that’s teeming with bright green leaves and next to a bed of colorful flowers Laura had started to cultivate, Clint digs a neatly shallow hole of dirt and places the box inside. Nate places a freshly crayoned picture on top of the box and Cooper puts small throwing stars next to it. Clint raises his eyebrows at Laura and then at his son, who winces.

“I, uh, I stole them from her last time she was here,” he says sheepishly. “But I guess she can’t yell at me now, right?”

Clint manages to laugh, ruffling Cooper’s messy hair. “Guess not,” he murmurs, glancing at Lila, who is standing rigidly next to her father and hasn’t said a word since her semi-eulogy.

“Lila?”

Lila’s jaw is clenched, long brown hair hiding the emotion in her eyes, and her voice shakes when she talks. “Do you think she knows?”

Clint swallows down his own tears, thinking of Wanda and her confident but sad smile.

“Yeah,” he decides, putting his arm around Laura and Lila and hugging them both tightly. Laura presses her face into his neck and Lila buries her head in his chest, and he looks up at the bright blue sky. “I think she knows, babe.”

 

***

 

They have macaroni and cheese for dinner because that was Natasha’s favorite meal when she would visit, and they eat chocolate chip ice cream in her honor. After Clint’s put everyone to sleep, he walks into the bedroom to find Laura sitting on the floor, playing with the flash drive.

“You didn’t say anything today.”

Clint swallows and sits down next to her. “I couldn’t.”

“I know.” She hands him the flash drive, pressing it into his calloused palm. “Do you know what it is?”

“A message, apparently. Fury gave it to me.” He sighs quietly. “We may have never talked about what to do if Natasha died, but I guess Natasha thought about it.”

“Of course she did,” Laura replies with a ghost of a smile. She squeezes his hand and he can’t help but remember the feel of Natasha’s warm fingers around his cold gloved ones when she found him in Tokyo -- a simple but gentle connection that instantly made him feel calm, because I’m here. “Did you watch it?”

Clint shakes his head. “I thought about it, but...but I didn’t want to do it before the memorial. And I didn’t want to do it without you.”

I didn’t think I could do it without you. But I had to say goodbye to her somehow first.

Laura looks down at the floor, tracing a finger against a small scratch that’s shaped like a heart. “Well, I think we’ve got some time now.”

She stands up and helps him to his feet, smoothing hair back from where it’s falling into his eyes, and grabs her laptop from the dresser. Clint follows her to the large walk-in closet that, for years, has housed everything from old baseball mitts to outdated clothing to a secret stash of arrows to a gun that they both hoped they’d never have to use. They sit on the floor together with their backs against the wall, and Laura steadies the laptop on her knees.

“Are you ready?” she asks as she puts the flash drive into the slot, taking his hand again.

“No,” he replies honestly. “But I’ll never be ready.”

Laura nods. “I know.”

Clint watches as she uses the mouse to click the drive open, and the moment Natasha’s face appears on the screen he feels a mixture of pain and surprise. The video was clearly recorded years ago; he can tell by the lines on her face and by the badly botched dye job that’s left her hair color somewhere between red and brown. But the cut on her face and the decrepit walls surrounding her clearly indicate that this must have also been recorded in the small space between getting temporarily extracted from Budapest and waiting for permanent extraction back to headquarters.

“You’re a pain in my ass, you know that?” he mutters as Laura clicks again.

“Well.” Natasha’s voice is soft but gravely, as if she’s trying to keep the emotion out of her voice. “I never thought I’d be recording a sentimental video about someone who I figured wanted to kill me, but I guess life doesn’t work out like that.” She pauses to smile wryly. “Clint, you might never see this. You might see it tomorrow, I don’t know, sometimes this whole agent life is really shitty. But when you did see it, I wanted you to hear it from me.”

Laura squeezes his hand harder, and he swallows down a sob. Natasha plays with her fingers, hair spilling over her shoulders.

“Clint, no matter what anyone tells you -- no matter what I tell you -- you changed my life. You’re responsible for so much good, and...and I don’t know how I’m going to get there in the end, when it’s the end. But I’ve never had freedom….never had agency. Definitely never had a family. I think I’m finally going to have all that thanks to you, and that’s more than I could have ever hoped to have in this shitty, murderous, self-absorbed life I made for myself.”

“You were only fifty percent murderous and it was only if I ate your fucking sandwich,” Clint mumbles to the video.

“If I died tomorrow, I’d still be proud of the person I am. And I’ve never been proud of who I am. So I don’t want you to sit and wallow, okay? Because I won’t stand for that shit. I won’t give up my life just to have you sit around and cry. I need you to know that if I die, it’s because it was my choice. I mean, unless some stupid guy decides to shoot me while I’m sleeping, but even then it would be my choice because I’m in this life with you. We’re in this together, always. My greatest choice...the best thing I ever did...it will always be following you to the other side of that wall and saying yes.” She pauses to collect herself, channeling her voice into a tone that’s classic dry humor Natasha in the face of danger. “Also, if you don’t finish auditing Frankfurt I think Fury will kill us so if this message is still valid in, oh, I don’t know, ten years or so, check on that will you?”

Clint laughs quietly. “Already did, Tasha. You’re about fifteen years too late on that one.”

“You know I love you. I always will. But I’m shit at goodbyes, so this is all you’re getting. I hope you call me a pain in your ass because of it.”

The video ends on her smirk, silence taking over in the wake of her words, but Clint keeps staring at the screen as if he can will her back with the power of his mind. Laura’s hand moves to his shoulder and she pulls him towards her, hugging him gently.

“Remember how Lila asked if she knew?”

Clint can’t find the words to answer so he just nods against her shoulder. Laura hums comfortingly.

“She knew.”

Clint raises his head, and looks down at the arrow necklace, which he’s tied around his wrist. It glistens in the overhead light of the closet, a small reminder of light that he knows he’s been tasked to carry with him -- the one she made sure would never, ever, be snuffed out.

“I know.”