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wait and hope

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Clint shoots up in bed with a gasp, his heart hammering behind his ribcage, threatening to burst from his chest.

He squeezes his eyes shut, trying to erase the colors from his mind -- glowing purple and orange, flashes of red hair, a scream. Her hand slipping out of his, the words “let me go” that isn’t the Natasha he knows now but the Natasha he knew years ago, the one who stood at the other end of his arrow telling her to kill him but then softly said “let me go” when she thought he couldn’t hear her.

That time, he had refused.

This time, he can’t keep his hold, and when she hits the hard ground a scream tears itself from his throat.

“Hey, hey, hey.”

There’s a hand on his back, one that rubs comforting circles against his sweaty skin. He drags in deep breaths while the voice continues to murmur quietly in the dark room, his body shaking as the adrenaline of the nightmare bleeds out of his system. When he opens his eyes, Laura is staring at him with concern, her eyes soft and sad.

“You here with me?”

Clint nods rapidly, swallowing against a burning throat. “Yeah.”

Laura nods back, moving her hands to his shoulders. She rubs them gently.

“Same one?”

“Yeah,” Clint repeats hoarsely, rolling out of bed and standing up on shaking legs. “Same one.”

Laura’s eyebrows crease in worry as she watches him struggle to stand, and she sits up straighter in bed. “Maybe you should go talk to someone.”

“I don’t need to talk to anyone,” Clint spits out forcefully, trying to keep his voice down for the sake of his sleeping children. “I need to talk to Natasha and I can’t do that unless you’ve found some fucking ghost portal, so don’t tell me that I need to talk to some fucking shrink!”

He’s only mildly ashamed of his outburst, because he knows Laura’s heard too many of them at this point to judge him or be surprised. She extends a hand, her face alight with shared pain.

“Can you please try and come back to bed?”

He shakes his head. “No,” he answers. Laura looks frustrated, which only makes him feel angrier.

“What the fuck do you want me to say, Laura? Lie to you? I’m not gonna go back to sleep.”

Laura takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “Fine,” she says shortly. “But we have to deal with three children in about four hours and if we’re both running on no sleep. things are going to get bad really fast, so at least let me try to get some rest.”

Clint watches as she pulls the covers back over her body and slumps down in bed. Grabbing a worn flannel, he shrugs it on over his bare chest and takes the stairs two at a time, ending in the living room but misjudging the small steps and almost stumbling into the door frame separating the living room from the stairway.

Shit!”

“Dad?”

“Coop?” Clint rubs his shin, trying to adjust his eyes in the dark. “Why are you up?”

“Couldn’t sleep,” Cooper answers with a shrug. “Thought I’d read until I got tired. Why are you up?”

“Couldn’t sleep,” Clint trades, walking to the couch. “Figured I’d let your mom sleep, though.” He stretches out with a groan. “Didn’t mean to scare you before. Just can’t seem to remember that those stairs don’t have great depth perception.”

“Dad, we’ve lived here for like, eight years now,” Cooper says, rolling his eyes. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” Clint mutters, rubbing his shin again. “Give an old man a break, will ya?”

Cooper grins as Clint settles back on the couch, but his expression immediately sobers. “Can you not sleep because you’re still sad about Nat?”

“Kind of.” He feels bad about lying to his son, but he’s also not going to list the ten million reasons that tie into the words sad about Nat. Cooper twists his mouth into a frown and looks down at the floor.

“I thought about her today. I mean, I thought about calling her but then I remembered I couldn’t.”

Clint smiles sadly. “I know the feeling.” He clears his throat quietly. “You know if you ever need to talk, we’re here -- your mom and I. Or we can find someone for you to talk to.”

“I know,” Cooper says, sounding resigned. “I just...I dunno if I’m ready for that yet.”

“Yeah.” Clint nods in the dark. “That’s fair, buddy. How do you feel about ice cream, though?”

Cooper’s tired eyes light up and he throws his book onto the couch, racing into the kitchen. Clint follows, flicking on the light and letting his son take out a carton of Rocky Road and two spoons.

“Are you ever gonna get rid of that thing?” Cooper asks through a mouthful of ice cream. Clint looks down at where Cooper’s eyes are focused, laughing quietly when he realizes the flannel is riding up his arm, exposing part of his tattoo.

“You still don’t like it, huh?”

“S’okay. Kinda badass. Just looks weird.” Cooper digs his spoon deeper into the ice cream and glances up, as if he’s trying to figure out how he can sneak a loophole into this late night ice cream jaunt. “Can I get one?”

“No,” Clint says instantly. “No, not for a long, long time -- and that’s if I ever say yes. I’m a grown-up and I can make my own decisions. You’re thirteen, and I still check your homework.”

Cooper makes a face. “Worth a shot. I thought mom liked the tattoos.”

Clint reaches over and ruffles his hair. “Is that what she told you?”

“It’s what she told her friend on the phone the other day,” Cooper answers slyly. Clint laughs.

“Well then, as long as your mom likes it, I’ll probably keep it.”

Cooper looks down, digging another spoonful of ice cream out of the carton. “Mom’s gonna be mad, isn’t she? About the ice cream?”

“Not if she doesn't find out,” Clint answers, meeting his curious look with a wink. “I’ll do recon and clean the spoons, and after we eat, you go back upstairs and try to go back to sleep. And don’t act too tired in the morning or tell mom we had a secret sad bonding night. Deal?”

Cooper smiles, digging his teeth into his lower lip in a mischievous grin that Clint swears he must have picked up from Natasha at some point. He manages to smile back, even though the thought hurts him more than he expects it to.

“Deal.”

 

***

 

If there’s one thing that Clint’s gotten good at over the years, it’s working through pain with seemingly no one in his family being any the wiser. He’s come home from missions that have left him distraught and compromised, still managing to be up the next morning, making pancakes with cheerful smiley faces and joking with his kids. He’s come home with bruises and sprains and concussions and integrated back into his daily life as if nothing has happened, with no one suspecting much of anything except maybe a slight annoying injury.

And so despite getting only three hours of sleep, he’s up before Laura, making the rounds on his children’s rooms to get them out of bed before moving downstairs to start coffee and breakfast. He’s already two cups of coffee in, his Bluetooth offering soft distracting music in his right ear, when Cooper drags himself downstairs, followed by Nate who bounds his way into the kitchen with a much smoother trajectory than Clint knows he’d demonstrated the night before.

“Who wants waffles?” Clint asks with a smile, opening the lid of the waffle maker and checking on the batter. After a few more quick turns, he expertly slides each one onto a plate and grabs two bottles from the refrigerator, bringing them to the table.

“One waffle with syrup,” he says, placing the plate in front of Cooper with a flourish. “And one with ketchup.”

“Ugh, gross.” Cooper looks at his brother with a disgusted look as he grabs for the syrup bottle. “Who puts ketchup on a waffle?”

“Your brother, apparently,” Clint answers with a cheeky smile, watching Nate happily squirt a rather intense amount of red liquid over his breakfast. “We’ll yell at him about it when he’s older. Eat up, okay? Bus is gonna be here in fifteen, you know the drill.”

Grabbing his coffee and heading outside to check on the bird feeder, he’s stopped short by the sight of Laura standing on the porch in sweatpants and a floral robe.

“Figured I’d get some stuff done while you made breakfast,” she says as he joins her. “Sorry if I’m taking your chores.”

Clint snorts. “Please, there’s ten million other things I can do to keep myself busy out here besides check on the bird feeder.”

“Don’t I know it.” Laura pauses, taking the coffee from his hands and taking a sip. “Lila’s staying home from school today.”

“Huh?” Clint turns his gaze from the barn to his wife. “Why?”

Laura shrugs. “She says she’s not feeling well. She told me her stomach hurts and she cries every time I try to touch her. I’m not going to risk it, especially since two kids in her class have come down with something in the past few weeks. I’m just going to leave her for awhile and maybe try to get her out of bed during lunch.”

Clint blows out a heavy breath and rolls his eyes. “She’s not sick, Laur.”

“Clint.” Laura inclines her head with a glare. “I know my daughter.”

“I’m not saying you don’t, but I’m telling you she’s not sick,” Clint argues. “She’s upset about Natasha and she’s using that as an excuse to stay home.”

Laura shakes her head slowly, taking another sip of coffee. “I’m not --”

“For fuck’s sake, read the room, Laura!” Clint waves his hand around angrily. “She’s been an on and off mess for the past few weeks, and we all know it. We’re just tiptoeing around everything because we’re happy I’m back but no one here is doing well and we should all just admit it already!”

Laura takes a deep breath and Clint can see her counting to ten in her head. In any other situation, he would know he’s entered dangerous territory by pushing her like this, but he’s reached the point where he doesn’t care if she gets pissed at him or even if she makes him sleep in the barn.

“Clint.” Laura’s voice drops to a low whisper and she glances inside to make sure Cooper and Nate are still eating. “We are trying, okay? We’re all trying our best and none of it is easy and I know you hurt more than anyone right now, but we are trying. We can’t fix this. We have to move forward with it.”

“Yeah, well. Maybe I don’t want to move forward with it.”

He grabs the mug back with unnecessarily strong force, causing some of the precious caffeine to slosh over the side, and storms back into the house. The moment he gets in sight of his kids however, his entire demeanor changes; his body relaxes and he forces himself to smile.

“Time’s up, kiddos. Get your stuff together, you’re almost late for school.”

Nate dutifully slides out of the chair and Cooper gives Clint a look as he follows. “Where’s Lila?”

“Your sister’s not feeling well, so she’s going to stay home today,” Clint responds easily. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure she feels extra bad about the homework she’s going to have to make up. That’s only fair, right?”

Cooper grins wickedly as Clint shoves him towards the door, where Laura’s waiting to help give out their backpacks and coats. He watches as Cooper and Nate finish getting ready, hugging Laura goodbye and waving to Clint, who makes faces at both his sons, causing them to laugh as they leave the house.

Clint sighs as the door closes, letting himself slump onto the couch. After a moment, Laura’s hand finds its way to his shoulder with a soft squeeze.

“You okay?”

“Fine,” he mutters. “It’s just exhausting.”

“Parenting?” Laura asks in a soft joking tone, and Clint suddenly wants to throw something.

“Pretending.”

He gets up and climbs the stairs, pausing at the door to Lila’s room. Composing himself, he walks inside; the light is still off but there’s enough light to see thanks to the sun peeking through the blinds that have been clearly opened in a half-hearted attempt to face the morning. Lila’s pulled the covers fully over her head, allowing Clint to see only a lump and not her face.

“Heard you weren’t feeling well,” Clint says as he walks into the room, sitting down. The lump next to him shifts, one small eye emerging from the blankets.

“I don’t. My stomach hurts.”

“I know,” Clint says with a nod. “Mom told me. I came to see if you wanted me to bring you anything.”

Lila pulls the covers back over her head and the blue bed sheets shake back and forth. Clint sighs, getting up and putting a palm on what he thinks might be her leg.

“Alright. I’ll be downstairs with mom. Let me know if you need anything.”

He walks towards the door, making sure he’s causing enough noise to be serious about leaving. As his hand closes on the knob, a small voice rises from the back of the room.

“Wait.”

Clint turns around, watching as Lila slowly lifts her head, messy hair falling around her face.

“Don’t leave.”

Clint smiles sadly, moving back to the bed. “I won’t,” he promises as he sits down again. “You let me know if you want to talk, though.”

Lila pushes hair from her eyes and shakes her head again, but Clint can tell she’s trying to keep herself together. The moment he reaches for her hand, her face crumples.

“Hey, come on, it’s okay,” Clint murmurs as she flings the covers off, crawling towards him. “I got you. I’m here.” He lets her settle in his arms, hugging her tightly despite her gangly frame. “You miss her?”

Lila manages to nod and Clint kisses her on the head, sighing into her hair. “I know. It’s not easy, is it? Pretending to be okay?”

Lila shakes her head, sniffling quietly. “How did she do it?”

“Nat?” Clint finds himself smiling. “She had a lot of practice. More practice than I had. She knew that the most important people in her life couldn’t see her upset, so she never let herself show it.”

“That was stupid,” Lila scoffs. Clint laughs softly.

“Yeah, it was. I yelled at her about it but every time I did, she just said I was mad because I thought she wasn’t showing emotion.”

“I saw her cry once,” Lila says, her head settling against Clint’s chest. “It was after one of Nate’s birthday parties. She had that really bad blonde hair.”

“You hated it too, huh?” Clint asks, which gets Lila to smile.

“It was really bad.” She pauses. “I never told her I saw her like that. She was in the barn. I ran away before she could find me.”

“Probably a good thing,” Clint answers conversationally. “She would’ve made you fight her. You never want to fight Auntie Nat when she’s angry, you know.”

Lila giggles. “I know.” She clears her throat hesitantly. “Um, I need to tell you something.”

“Shoot,” Clint answers, even though he already knows what’s coming thanks to years of parenting.

Lila lowers her voice to a whisper. “I’m not really sick. I just didn’t want to go to school because I’m sad.”

Clint bites down on the inside of his tongue, trying to hold in his pain. “Well,” he starts. “You know, sometimes we have to let ourselves be sad. Even if it means missing school.”

“We do?” Lila asks, looking at him in surprise, like she can’t believe he’s not going to go tattle on her despite the fact that she admitted she’d lied about staying home.

“Yes,” Clint says. “We do. I think I know how you feel, and I think I know how I can help you feel a little better.”

“You’re not going to make me go back to school, are you?” Lila asks in a small voice. Clint shakes his head, hugging her again.

“Nah, you could use a day off. Plus, I don’t want you to get everyone else sick. But I’ve got some errands to do, and I’m thinking maybe you could come with me? Fresh air always helps me when I’m not feeling well.” He leans over and smiles, pushing back hair from her eyes, and dabs at her nose. “Whaddya say? You wanna keep your boring dad company until your brothers get home from school? Maybe we can even do some archery if we get done early.”

Lila nods slowly. “Yes. I don’t wanna get dressed though.”

“Well, who said anything about getting dressed?” Clint points to his sweatpants. “Running errands in pajamas is totally the way to go.”

 

***

 

Clint knows that part of moving on is, well, actually moving on. But he’s never been good at moving on, and he knows he doesn’t want to move on from this. At the same time, he knows what it’s doing to his family and to himself when he’s not being the cheerful, put-together dad that he’s had to be his entire life. So he figures the only way to fix himself is to, well, fix what he can’t figure out.

Clint gives himself three and a half weeks after he comes home before he calls Bruce, and spends a half an hour arguing in his study with the door tightly closed, whisper-yelling so as not to draw attention from the rest of his family.

“Clint, please don’t ask me to do this.”

“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you,” Clint answers forcefully. “Just send over what you have, and I’ll make sense of it.”

“Look, Clint, you’re a good guy and you’re smart -- you’re smarter than a lot of people would give you credit for, and I mean that.” Bruce pauses. “But even without the time travel stuff, this is complicated science. I couldn’t even figure it out without Tony. I don’t know what you’re going to get out of it.”

“Do you think I give a shit at this point what I do or don’t understand?” Clint asks angrily. “Just give me the goddamn files and let me look at them. Or are you worried that I’m gonna fuck up your work and do something that makes you snap away by accident?”

“That’s not what I’m worried about,” Bruce answers slowly. “You’re unstable right now, and you’re asking for things that you’re not thinking straight about.”

Clint’s blood boils at Bruce’s words, and he forces himself not to burst out in an angry yell. “First of all, if you think I’m unstable, you should see how I am every single day,” he responds hotly. “I make lunches and I put my kids to bed and I tell them stories and I do school pick-ups and I help Laura around the house, and no one suspects that I’m upset. So maybe you can do me the courtesy of believing me when I say I just want some fucking background on this stuff so I can see if there’s any possible way I can fix it, okay?”

Bruce is silent for a long time. “I miss her too, you know. And I wish there was a way to fix this. I think about that every day, Clint. But we’re all just trying to move on.”

“Yeah, well. I’m not. And I don’t want to.” He hangs up and only has a moment’s pause of how, years ago, he’d never consider doing something like hanging up on the Hulk.

Two days later, a fedex package arrives with a stack of papers, pages of notes, and a flash drive.

He hadn’t been lying -- he did want to make sense of it, all of the papers and all of the notes and all of the theories. But he knows he’s in over his head, because for as much as he learned practical knowledge over the years and studied what he never got to learn in a high school or in college, he was never a science nerd to the extent that Bruce and Tony and even Scott were.

He gathers the papers and the information with one promise to himself -- that he won’t let the work interfere with his everyday life and he won’t make Laura suspicious of the fact that he’s not exactly keeping his promise of trying to move on. He makes sure here’s there for his children when they’re waking up or coming home from school or having dinner or doing bedtime rituals, but late at night or early in the morning -- or on days when Laura goes out on her own -- he hunkers down in the basement with the papers spread out before him, making notes and trying to rationalize his thoughts.

“What are you doing?”

Clint doesn’t turn around at her voice, keeping his eyes focused on what’s in front of him. “Working.” He pushes his glasses up his nose. “I’ll be upstairs in a few, keep my dinner warm for a few minutes, okay? Just wanna finish this.”

Laura leans against the doorframe. “Is this about Natasha? About the stones?”

Clint doesn’t respond and Laura sighs quietly, moving into the room. “You said you’d stop.”

“Yeah, well. I lied,” Clint answers shortly, moving his gaze away from the papers. “What are you gonna do it about it?”

Laura shakes her head. “Nothing,” she says sadly, sitting down next to him and taking his hand. “Because I know there’s nothing I can do.”

“Right. So like I said, let me finish this and I’ll be up for dinner,” Clint repeats. “I’ll even do the dishes.”

Laura raises her eyebrows. “You’re going to have to do more than dishes at this point, Clint.”

That makes him turn around fully and he leans back in his chair, flinging his glasses off and letting them land on the floor as he crosses his arms.

“You know, with the way you’re talking, I almost wonder if you don’t want Natasha back.”

Laura’s mouth opens and closes in silence before her lips slot themselves into a neat thin line. “Clint, that’s completely unfair and completely uncalled for,” she says when she speaks again, her voice a measured yell. “You know I miss her just as much as you do. You know I’d do anything to get her back.”

“Yeah, well, the way you’re acting right now with not letting me focus on this seems like you want the opposite,” Clint snaps, the frustration coursing through his body. The truth is, he’s got no idea what Bruce’s notes mean. He knows that his friend sent them to him mostly out of pity and to shut him up, and he really has no idea how he’d even go about bringing her back short of taking another trip to Vormir which would require things like a spaceship, a new quantum platform, and another suit. But he can’t admit that, and so he needs to do the next best thing, which is exhaust every possible option of knowledge until he’s bled himself dry with nothing else to give him hope.

“You really believe that?” Laura asks, her voice both hard and sad. “After everything, after all our years together, you really believe that I wouldn’t want to get her back? That I’m fine with her just...just being dead?”

“So you do care about what I’m doing,” Clint argues, knowing that he’s not making this any easier but refusing to give in to both of their emotions.

“Of course I do!” Laura snaps back, and he can see tears starting to manifest in her eyes. “I want Natasha back, but I want my husband back, too!”

Clint looks down at his hands, noticing that they’re shaking more than they usually do after long hours without sleep or food. He clenches his fists, rolling his head to the side, meeting Laura’s eyes.

“You know I’m so happy I’m home. You know I don’t want to be anywhere else,” Clint starts slowly. “I know that I got lucky bringing you back. The days I spent without you, fuck...Laura, those five years I can’t even talk about --”

“I know,” Laura says quietly, threading their fingers together as her free hand strokes his hair.

“You don’t,” Clint says tiredly. “Because when I look at you and when I look at the kids, I can’t be grateful. All I can think about is how this is the consequence. Because we’re here, she’s dead. That’s the only goddamn reason I’m able to even sit here with you is because she’s dead and I can’t...I can’t…”

Laura kneads her fingers harder against his scalp. “No one is asking you to be okay,” she says softly. “I know it’s complicated.”

Clint huffs out a laugh, because complicated is probably the easiest way to put it. “You think?”

“I do,” Laura answers, her voice dropping into sadness. “I hate seeing you like this. I hate when you’re hurting and I can’t do anything about it.”

Clint swallows hard. “You can do something about it by letting me work and leaving me alone.”

Laura frowns and gets up, holding out her hand. “Maybe after dinner.”

Clint looks up, trying to muster up the strength for another retort, but he finds himself coming up empty and realizes he’s too tired to keep arguing. He takes her hand and lets her lead him up the stairs, but he purposely keeps the light in the basement on.

 

***

 

“Clint.”

“Mmmm.” He’s vaguely aware of someone saying his name, but he doesn’t feel like opening his eyes, especially once his brain starts to register the harsh pounding of rain against the farmhouse. He squints as someone pushes him, half of his cheek pushed deep into the pillow, focusing just enough to make out Laura’s lower half, which shows her wearing jeans and a green raincoat.

“Where you goin’?”

“Out,” Laura says simply. “Nate wants to visit a friend and I owe Coop and Lila a trip to the farmer’s market. Well, the indoor farmer’s market at least. It’s horrible out.”

“Duh,” Clint grunts, rolling over. He manages to open his other eye with intense effort. “Whaddya want me to do?”

“I thought you might want to have the day to yourself,” Laura says, and even in his half-asleep state, Clint can tell she’s trying to make some kind of truce after their argument the night before. “Maybe you can get some work done.”

He nods against the pillow, figuring he might as well accept the olive branch. “Thanks.”

Laura leans over, kissing him before leaving the room. He stays in bed listening to Lila run down the stairs, listening to Cooper throw a baseball against the wall in his room, listening to Nate whine sharply about not wanting to put on those ugly boots, until the door closes and the voices vanish. When he finally does get up, he finds the room chilly and damp and he realizes that he must have left the window open overnight.

Shivering slightly, he closes the bedroom window and pulls on an old SHIELD sweatshirt, letting it settle over his bare chest. Slippers on his feet and and last night’s coffee mug in hand, he exits the bedroom and makes his way to the kitchen, knowing Laura has at least already made the coffee he’s so desperately craving.

Maybe he’d go through more of Bruce’s papers today. He puts the old mug in the sink and pulls a new one from the cabinet, pouring from the carafe. As he sips the hot caffeine, listening to the rain outside, he lets his brain wander; there were more theories he needed to try to understand and he could look into some of the books that Bruce had listed in the small notebook he had sent along with the papers Clint had practically begged him for.

“A good soldier never sleeps,” he mutters as he takes another sip of coffee, startled by a sharp knock on the front door. He frowns at the empty house; it’s too early for a package or for the mail and he knows Laura would use her key if she needed to come home for something she’d forgotten. He considers maybe she did and Cooper or Lila or Nate have been sent in her stead, but he also knows those knocks would’ve been continued annoying raps inherent of children, not steady and hesitant pounds.

Maybe a neighbor then, or someone who had driven the wrong way and needed help finding direction. Granted, the last thing he wants to do right now is be civil to a stranger, especially when he hasn’t fully woken up yet, but Clint could certainly help if he needed to. He walks to the front door, the dark slab of wood making him unable to see who might be on the other side. Clint tenses, readying himself and trying to put his senses on alert just in case; he’s not entirely over letting his guard down when it comes to unauthorized visitors but, well...five years as Ronin has taught him that even if all he has is a coffee cup and a sweatshirt, he could defend himself pretty well, especially if he’s alone and doesn’t have to worry about anyone else in the house.

He opens the door, allowing some of the heavy rain to splatter onto his slippers as the wind pushes the water forward, and his heart stops. Clint blinks, struggling to remember how to breathe, grabbing onto the door frame to keep himself from passing out as the bones in his legs turn to liquid. The coffee cup he’s holding slips out of his hands and falls to the ground, shattering onto the floor as he stares at the person standing in front of him.

“Natasha?”

Chapter Text

He’s pretty sure he’s dreaming.

It’s a nice dream, though -- Laura’s forgiven him for their argument, he’s gotten the chance to spend the morning alone, and here was Natasha, whole and alive standing in front of him the way he’d wished for and hoped for since arriving back on that quantum platform so long ago.

Honestly, it was a shame he had to wake up. This was his best dream yet, largely because for some reason he was dreaming of Natasha alive and not dead. He could get used to this. Hell, maybe it would make things easier to handle in the long run if all his nightmares were like this.

“Clint.”

Clint shakes his head, taking in her messy long hair, the dark red mixed with streaks of blonde and her teary eyes.

“I’m dreaming.”

“No,” Natasha says quietly, reaching for his hand and wrapping her fingers around his wrist. “You’re not.”

The moment he touches her, he knows it’s real. He’s felt her touch in dreams -- too many of them to count -- and it’s always feels the same: warm and comforting. This feels warm and comforting but it also feels tangible, a softness that he knows he’s never felt when his mind was playing tricks on him.

Which means he’s not dreaming. Which means Natasha is really standing in front of him. Which means Natasha is really here, alive and whole and breathing and real and unharmed. Everything hits him at once, like a tractor trailer coming out nowhere and slamming into his body, knocking him off balance. Clint stumbles, dropping to his knees on the porch as water pounds the back of his neck and his face, letting his tears drown him as much as the rain is. Natasha quickly bends down, taking him in her arms.

“I’m here,” she says quietly, her words washed out by the rain. She pulls him close against her chest, hugging him tightly. “I’m here, Clint. Look at me. I got you.”

He still feels like he’s having an out of body experience, watching himself from across the lawn with none of his movements or thoughts registering in his brain, but he forces himself to meet her eyes.

“How?” he asks in between wrecked sobs. Natasha hugs him again and rubs his shoulders.

“Come inside,” she says, helping him up. “You’re freezing.”

He hasn’t realized it, attributing the state of his body to the shock of seeing Natasha alive, but once he steps inside he notices he’s soaked from being out in the rain. His arms and legs are shaking and he feels the way he did after Loki’s scepter -- cold and chilled, unable to find a way to get warm or melt the ice coating his bones. Thoughts he hasn’t had for years spiral through his brain and he zones out, lost inside his own memories until Natasha’s warm hands touch his body again.

“Off,” she instructs, pulling at his sweatshirt. Clint lets her remove it, along with his pants, doing little to nothing to help. He barely registers when she puts a thick blanket over his shoulders, guiding him to the couch and forcing his arms to hold the blanket tightly so that it traps his body heat.

“Do me a favor and keep that close, okay?”

He nods, trying to climb out of the fog his brain is swimming in. She’d said this wasn’t a dream, but he knows he’s going to wake up any moment and what seems too good to be true will be gone. Or maybe she was actually here, but she was some sort of bot -- a hologram, a life model decoy; SHIELD had been working on them for years but they never actually finished the project. It didn’t mean that they couldn’t have at some point, though.

He watches her move around the living room, gathering his wet clothes and putting them in a pile by the stairs. She disappears to the kitchen and comes back with a towel, mopping up the spilled coffee and broken mug shards by the door, then walks away again. Don’t give me hope was what he had told her when she showed up in Tokyo, unable to handle the thought of getting back what he loved. If he could get his brain to work, that’s what he would tell the person who is now walking back into the room with a mug of tea: don’t give me hope.

Natasha carefully steers the hot cup into his hands, pressing his palms against the ceramic. Immediately, Clint feels the warmth seep into his bones, removing some of the chill that’s settled there. He exhales slowly, taking stock of everything -- his heartbeat, his breathing, the mint chamomile rising from underneath his nose -- and he finally starts to feel his body move back into his skin. He turns his head slowly, allowing himself to really look at her for the first time since he opened the door.

“Hi.”

He swallows, still feeling shaky. “Hi,” he whispers, trying to comprehend how fucking strange it is to just casually greet her like she didn’t fall to her death in front of his eyes for the sake of saving the world.

“Let me know if the tea is helping,” she continues, nodding towards his hands. “I’ll try to find you some dry clothes if you’re still cold.”

Clint can’t help the laugh that escapes from his throat. “You’re still taking care of me and you just came back from the dead.”

Natasha smiles faintly. “I prefer to call it a resurrection -- it sounds a lot cooler. But the sentiment stands.”

Clint shakes his head, taking another deep breath. “How?”

For the first time since arriving on his doorstep, Natasha looks uncertain. “I don’t know,” she says slowly. “I wish I did. I woke up in the middle of a field -- I didn’t even know where I was for awhile. And I don’t remember anything after I fell off that cliff. I just knew when I woke up that I was alive, and I had to find you. I came right for the farm.”

Don’t give me hope. Everything sounds too good to be true, like there’s some sort of catch. He’d been studying Bruce’s notes for almost a month, but Bruce had told him he couldn’t bring her back when he snapped the rest of the world into existence, and she didn’t come back when Tony snapped himself to death after the final battle -- so how could she be here now, all this time later, as if nothing had ever happened?

Because she was. She was walking around the house knowing exactly where to find everything and she knew exactly what to say and how to touch him, and there was no other explanation except that it had to be Natasha -- his Natasha -- because no one else would be this calm or know him this well.

“Clint.” Natasha leans over. “Talk to me. I know this is a lot to take in, but I need to know if you’re okay.”

Clint clutches his mug more tightly, almost afraid to look at her again. “Is it really you?”

Natasha smiles. “I’ve got a headache the size of Budapest and my mental state has probably been better. But yes...it’s really me.”

Clint swallows hard. “Like...really you? Not 2014 you? Not some other time travel version of you?” The you that I watched die? he wants to ask, but can’t.

“None of those,” she says softly, putting a hand on his leg. “It’s really me. I promise. They -- someone -- gave me back.” As if to prove her words, she leans over and kisses him on the temple. The softness of her lips against his clammy skin almost causes him to lose it again, and he forces himself to keep his emotions on lockdown.

“I can’t -- I feel like this is a dream.”

Natasha smooths down his hair. “If it’s a dream, then we’re both having it.”

“That doesn’t exactly make me feel better,” Clint says slowly, though Natasha’s words make him smile. “We’ve both been told we’re crazy.” He looks down at the floor and then over at Natasha, feeling himself swell with sadness and love. “God Nat, I missed you...I missed you so much.”

“I know,” Natasha says, putting her arms around him fully. “I know, Clint.”

He doesn’t know what else to say, because all he wants to do is hug her and stay with her and let his mind accept the fact that she’s really here. He wants to say everything and nothing at the same time. He holds her until he thinks he can control his voice, until he thinks he can talk without crying.

“I probably need new clothes.”

Natasha laughs, moving her knuckles across his cheek. “I figured. You want me to grab something?”

“Please.”

Natasha walks towards the stairs, leaving Clint alone. He leans back on the couch, still feeling like he’s in some sort of dream -- except for the first time, this is one dream he doesn’t want to wake up from. A soft ping brings him out of his haze and he glances down at his cell phone, which is sitting on the coffee table. Laura’s text appears a moment later, her smiling face accompanied by a wall of text.

Nate is having a meltdown so we may cancel the friend visit. Still shopping but might be home soon. I’ll keep you updated. Hope you’re keeping busy. Try not to get outside, it’s still raining hard.

“Well, I have no idea how long I was actually dead for, but at least you keep your clothes in the same place,” Natasha says cheekily as she walks back into the living room, holding out a pair of jeans and an old t-shirt. “Also, I see the guest bedroom is still intact and you didn’t give away my toys like I’m a kid who went off to college or something.”

Clint shakes himself out of this thoughts as he takes the clothes from her. “Thanks,” he murmurs after he takes another sip of tea, each swallow making him feel a little better. Putting the mug down on the coffee table, he stands up to shred the blanket, pulling on his jeans and shirt.

“You can’t be here.”

Natasha’s face falls a little too quickly. “Oh.”

“No, I mean -- not that.” Clint waves his hands around, hurrying on, trying to backtrack on his words. “The kids...Laura’s one thing, but the kids have been a mess about your death since I came home. If they see you here...if they see you just alive again with no warning...Nat, I can’t deal with that. I can barely deal with this and I’m only answering to myself. You get me?”

Natasha nods, biting down on her lip. “Of course,” she says quietly, looking around the house. “I understand. There’s a Motel 6 down the block, the one we usually stay at when we need to regroup before coming back here -- they should have rooms available and I can stay there until you tell me it’s okay to be here.”

He doesn’t really want to send her off, because he’s terrified that if he lets her leave, he won’t ever see her again -- that this really will be some sort of dream that’s too good to be true. But he also knows he doesn’t have a choice. Laura would be home soon, and the last thing he needed was to deal with Natasha’s return in the state that he was in. It was going to be hard enough explaining to his wife that her best friend had returned and he needed to do it with no other variables in the system.

Besides, it wasn’t like she had to stay away forever.

“Nat, wait.” He gestures towards the windows. “It’s raining pretty hard and I’m betting you didn’t get here by car. Let me at least drive you to the motel. Please?”

Natasha nods again, trying to smile, and Clint nods back. Grabbing his car keys from the hanging display by the door, he pulls a heavy jacket off the coat rack and grabs one of Laura’s coats for Natasha.

“Isn’t Laura going to wonder why her jacket is missing?”

“Not if we don’t tell her,” Clint replies with a wink. Bantering with Natasha the way he used to feels a little more normal, and he thinks that if he can keep this up, maybe he can work past the trauma threatening to rear its ugly head. This time, when he opens the front door, he makes quick work of getting out of the house and into the old truck, moving as fast as possible to allow him minimal time to get soaked.

“You sure you’re okay to drive?” Natasha asks as she slides into the seat next to him, shaking water out her long hair. He winces as stray wet droplets slap him on the cheek.

“In case you’ve blocked it out, I’ve driven with a broken wrist, a concussion, and a sprained ankle,” Clint answers as he turns the key and backs out of the driveway. “And I’ve flown a quinjet with half my eyesight gone because of some stupid serum injection. I think I’ll be okay.”

Natasha rolls her eyes and leans back in the seat. “Just checking,” she says dryly as he navigates the clunky truck off the property and down the road, trying not to look over at her every five seconds out of habit.

“Clint?”

“Yeah.” He hasn’t moved his gaze from the road in at least sixty seconds, he should feel proud about that.

“Is everything still...okay?”

He’s not entirely sure what he’s asking. Is everything still okay with him? With them? With Laura? With the world? With his family? Clint realizes that the answer to most of those things is a huge flashing no, but he’s not sure how to untangle his thoughts or give a response that won’t invite more discomfort.

“As much as it can be,” he decides, reaching over and taking her hand as the truck bumps along the wet road.

 

***

 

He drops her off reluctantly, promising to update her sooner rather than later. As he drives back to the farm, he realizes he’s able to concentrate a little better without her physically next to him, but his mind is still somewhere between feeling like he’s having an out of body experience and time traveling through another quantum realm.

Get it together, he thinks as he pulls into the driveway, noticing Laura’s car. He slaps his cheeks and miraculously manages to find an unopened bottle of water by his feet, both things helping him to feel somewhat better. He knows that he can’t lose it before he gets Laura alone; the moment he does he’s fucked and besides, he’s already going to have to come up with an excuse for leaving the house when Laura thought he’d never get out of the basement.

“It’s just like coming home from a mission,” he mutters to himself, a half-assed pep talk as he opens the car door, hurrying inside and pushing his key inside the lock. He’s barely through the front threshold, still shaking out his hair, when his children assault him.

“Dad, look at what we got!” Cooper runs over to Clint, his eyes alight with excitement. “I’m gonna name him Bazooka!”

Clint glances down at the water-filled bag that Cooper is holding, where a small goldfish is furiously swimming back and forth as if trying to escape his fate of being a household pet who will probably die in four days. Clint raises his eyebrows, wondering how desperate Laura must have been in that moment to willingly buy her child some kind of pet.

“Bazooka is a name for a fish?”

Lila rolls her eyes behind him and shoves a piece of bread in her mouth. “No. He’s just dumb. It’s something from a book or whatever.”

Nate, who has decided he wants to make camp on the floor, looks up with a huge grin, chocolate smeared across his lips like a bad makeup job and all traces of his earlier supposed breakdown gone. (Though Clint assumes the chocolate must have helped with that.)

“Hey you,” Laura says, walking into the living room with a bagful of farmer’s market groceries that she places on the coffee table. “I was wondering where you were...thought you’d be working downstairs.”

“Maybe he was getting that ugly tattoo removed,” Cooper says conversationally. Clint shoots his son a look.

“Excuse me, I thought you liked my tattoo.”

“Eh.” Cooper shrugs. “It’s fine.” He grins, a clear show of knowing he can get away with something while everyone else is distracted, and Clint decides to let his lecture go for now.

“I just had to get out for a little,” he says, thinking fast. “I know the rain makes everything terrible, but I thought I’d take a quick drive to get more coffee.”

“Oh.” Laura looks satisfied with his answer. “Good call, I think we’re almost out of our usual. How did your work go?”

“Uh. Fine. It was fine.” Clint forces his mind to concentrate. “Got a lot done, so, uh...it was good I was alone this morning.”

Laura nods, only throwing him a quick look before turning her attention to the stir-crazy group in front of her. “Who needs a bath?”

“Not me!” Nate yells loudly as Lila winces and covers her ears, dropping crumbs on the floor.

“Definitely you,” Laura replies with a grin, scooping him up and tickling his stomach before tossing her other son a wary glance. “Cooper, do not do anything to your new fish until I get back. We’ll find a bowl for it, okay?”

Clint watches as she easily herds Lila up the stairs along with Nate, while Cooper wanders off to, Clint assumes, watch his new pet swim around in its plastic bag. As everyone disperses, he starts to feels like he should help out in some way, but he also still feels entirely off his game. Every time he tries to shift his brain into thinking that things are normal, and every time he tries to push the thoughts out of his mind, the words she’s back take over and he finds himself distracted all over again. Half of him wants to run out of the house and run straight back to Natasha, to start making up for lost time. The other half of him feels intensely guilty for even considering abandoning his family after all they’ve been through.

He’d gotten her out of the house for practical reasons; he couldn’t let his kids or Laura just walk in and find their previously dead friend and “aunt” alive and well. But he still feels like he’s made the wrong decision somehow.

He decides to wander upstairs anyway, noting that Lila’s gone to her own room, and he pauses outside of the bathroom to assess how badly things might be going. After a minute or two of silence, he opens the door only to find Laura wrestling with a naked and soapy Nate, trying to keep him from climbing out of the tub to grab a new toy.

“Uh, I can come back,” he says when he sees the murderous look in Laura’s eyes that he knows uncomfortably well.

“Please,” Laura says shortly, and Clint closes the door as she continues to struggle to keep her son in the bathtub. It had been a joke for awhile, the fact that they named their children after two of the most impulsive people they knew and it showed, but now Clint can’t let that thought sit without stings of pain.

At least until about an hour ago, his son had been named for two dead people. That wasn’t exactly what he had in mind when he offered up suggestions for his child’s moniker five and a half years ago.

Clint wanders into the bedroom and grabs a book off the shelf, easing himself into the big comfy chair. He somehow manages to get a couple of pages into an old Robert Jordan novel before Laura walks into the room, looking like she’s been through hell.

“I swear to god, I’m going to kill him,” she mutters as she closes the door, and he can tell she’s desperate for a moment of calm. In any other moment, he would jump up and offer to massage her shoulders or joke about their son’s activity level, but he still feels like that’s out of place somehow.

“It’s the rain,” he says instead, because he knows at least that’s half true. If it was nicer out, any and all pent up energy would have been extinguished by letting the kids run around in the yard.

“I know,” Laura replies with a sigh. “We really need to look into building that indoor porch. He’s okay for now, but we’ve got the whole day ahead of us.”

“He’ll tire himself out and fall asleep,” Clint mutters, trying to keep his focus on the book.

“Maybe,” Laura agrees, walking over. She stands behind him, rubbing his shoulders gently. “Everything okay?”

“She’s back.”

He hasn’t meant to say it so bluntly. He hadn’t meant for it to come out like that. He had wanted to tell her in a more measured, rational way so she would be less likely to think he wasn’t lying or going crazy. As it is, Laura looks entirely confused.

“Who’s back?”

Clint takes a deep breath. “Natasha.”

At the mention of Natasha’s name, Laura grips his shoulders more tightly. Eventually, she moves her shaking fingers to the hard chair, walking around so that she’s facing him. Her cheeks have gone white, all color drained from her face.

“I told you that you could do work,” she says after a moment. “But I didn’t ask for you --”

“This isn’t research and I didn’t touch Bruce’s stupid papers today,” Clint snaps, throwing his book aside and getting up from the chair. “She showed up at the door, right after you left. It wasn’t a doppelganger or some weird time travel person...it was Nat, Laura. It was her. Alive.”

For a long time, Laura is silent, and the only sounds Clint can hear is the rain coming down hard on the recently patched roof, Nate’s loud yells, and the sound of moving feet as Lila and Cooper walk around the house. As they stare at each other, Laura’s face changes from annoyed to skeptic to relieved, and Clint finds himself thankful that the one thing that he can still count on is the fact that they know each other better than anyone else when it comes to reading emotions.

“How?”

“I asked that same question,” Clint says with a small laugh. “She doesn’t know. I mean, not yet. But I’m going to find out. It’s either some random happenstance or time travel or...or maybe we just got lucky.”

Laura walks towards him, shaking her head. “We’ve already gotten lucky,” she says softly, tears falling as she puts her hands on his face. “We got lucky when you survived that battle -- when you came home to us. I don’t -- what if this is more than we deserve?”

Clint can’t answer that, so he just lowers his neck, allowing their foreheads to touch. For awhile, there’s silence again, heavy breathing filling the tension-laden space.

“Where is she now?”

“Um.” Clint pulls away. “She’s at the Motel 6 nearby. The one we usually stay at. I felt bad sending her away but I couldn’t -- I mean, fuck, the kids -- and telling you --”

“No,” Laura breathes softly, cutting him off. “No, you made the right decision. The kids couldn’t have seen her...and I would’ve needed to hear it from you if I couldn’t hear it from her.”

Clint nods back, shoving his hands in his pockets. “So now what?”

“What do you mean, now what?”

“I mean, what do we do now?” Clint repeats, rocking back and forth on his toes. “She’s back and we have to deal with it. We have to tell them. We have to figure out where she’s going to stay. She can’t just stay in a hotel forever -- we need to make sure she has someone, we need to find --”

“Clint, take a breath,” Laura says, and he’s not surprised that she’s already slotted her voice into a calm but firm tenor. “Natasha has a place to stay and she’s not going anywhere. Yes, we need to tell our children. No, we don’t have to do it now, and she’ll understand if we need to wait a few days before we decide how we’re going to handle that. No, she can’t stay at a hotel forever, but we’ve got some time to brainstorm options and for now, she has somewhere to sleep that’s safe and close to us. We don’t have to tell anyone else if it doesn’t make sense to. The world isn’t ending tomorrow. We have time to figure these things out. Okay?”

Clint nods, because sometimes, it feels like he has to remind himself of that fact -- that the world isn’t ending tomorrow. It felt like it in any case, given that he had spent last month on death’s door between a giant battle and being more than willingly ready to throw himself off a cliff for a stupid infinity stone.

“Steve,” Clint says suddenly, and Laura looks confused.

“What?”

“Steve,” Clint repeats, starting to pace the room feverishly. “Steve must have...he returned the stones, right? Bruce said we had to return the stones to the timelines so everything didn’t get all wonky. So he had to return to the stone that Nat sacrificed herself for, but we know he didn’t die, so something must have happened. Somehow, things must’ve gotten reversed. Natasha was given back. I don’t --” He breaks off, his mind spinning, and he knows he’s talking way too fast. “I don’t know how, but that’s gotta be it, right?”

“Clint, calm down,” Laura pleads. “Just...just calm down and let’s talk about this.”

“You think I’m going crazy?” Clint snaps, whirling around to face her. “You think I’m making all of this up?”

“Did I say that? Clint, I told you I believed you,” Laura replies just as sharply. “I don’t know how she’s back, but I’m not calling you a liar.” Her voice drops. “I know you wouldn’t lie about this.”

“Then what --”

“Mom?”

Clint and Laura turn around at the same time. Cooper is standing in the doorway, and Clint silently curses himself for not having enough sense to lock the door even though he’s pretty sure Cooper wouldn’t have picked up on anything suspicious in the conversation.

“Are you busy?”

Laura gives Clint the subtlest look before turning back to her son. “No,” she says after a moment. “What’s up, Coop?”

“I just wondered if you found a bowl for my fish yet. He’s getting really antsy in that bag.”

Laura puts a wide smile on her face, one that leaves Clint impressed with her ability to snap out of a serious conversation so quickly, and walks forward. “It’s alright -- I have an extra bowl in the basement that you can use.”

She takes his hand and leads him out of the room, giving Clint a quick but pointed look as she turns to close the door behind her.

 

***

 

Clint tries to get back on track. He really tries.

Cooper’s obsessed with his new fish and wants to spend all his time watching it swim around in the old bowl Laura’s given him. Lila is content to put her feet up and read, but Nate has less of an attention span and within an hour of Laura giving him a bath, he’s whining about being bored again. Clint takes it upon himself to engage his son in a raucous game of hide and seek around the house until Nate tires himself out and falls asleep in the middle of an early dinner, nodding off at the table with Laura having to drag him upstairs so he doesn’t need a second bath thanks to face planting into his spaghetti.

He tries his best to pay attention and be engaged with his kids, but he’s jumpy and antsy, and all he can think about is Natasha and being able to see her again. After Laura has returned downstairs from putting Nate to bed, she joins Clint to help wash dishes.

“We never finished our conversation,” he says as he wets a sponge, keeping his voice low in case Cooper or Lila walk back into the room.

“What conversation?” Laura asks, reaching for a plate.

“Natasha.”

Laura carefully uses a dishrag to wipe down a plate that’s dripping with runny red sauce, and puts it in the drying rack. “I’m not sure how much more there is to say, Clint. We need to figure out how to deal with the situation before we move forward or before she can make any kind of reappearance here.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not okay with that,” he argues, squeezing the sponge with more force than he thinks is necessary. “I can’t just sit and wait around, even if we have the time. I need to know something’s happening. Or I need to at least be able to go see her regularly during the day.”

Laura quickly glances over her shoulder to make sure they're alone in the kitchen and then drops her voice. “Can you at least look at how you’re acting?” she asks sadly. “I understand you want to spend time with her. But you need to also remember that you have a life. And right now, this is your life.” She gestures around the house, pointing towards where Cooper and Lila are hanging out in the living room. “I’m not saying you need to take things at a glacial pace but there needs to be a balance. You can’t just abandon our family in favor of fixing this. And given how much I care about Natasha, I would hope that when we start trying to fix it, we can do it together.”

“Yeah,” he mutters, rubbing at an increasingly stubborn stain on one of the silver forks. “I know. You made your point.”

Laura puts down the cup she’s just picked up and puts a hand on his back. “Would it make you feel better to go see her now?”

Clint doesn’t answer, because he feels like he’s now baited her into giving in based on his whining. In the silence, Laura sighs.

“Say goodnight to everyone and then you can go. I’ll take care of stuff.”

Clint does finish washing the dishes because he feels like at least owes her that much, but as soon as he’s done he quickly changes out of his sweatpants and makes sure to corner Lila on the big chair in the corner of the living room.

“Why are you saying goodnight so early?” Lila asks suspiciously when Clint leans over her book to kiss her.

“Just got some stuff to work on out of the house and I wanted to make sure I got to see you while you were still up,” Clint replies. “I might get distracted. And you might fall asleep.”

“I never fall asleep before I finish reading and you always get distracted,” Lila argues with an eye roll, but she reaches up to hug her dad tightly. “The errands helped the other day.”

“Did they?” Clint manages to smile. “Good.”

Lila nods. Yeah. I’m still sad, but...I’m trying.”

Clint shakes his head and kisses her again. “That’s all we can do, baby girl. I’m proud of you.” He extends his fist and Lila grins as she meets his fingers, which Clint explodes into a wiggly fist bump.

He doesn’t tell Natasha he’s coming. He just shows up and goes to the room that he assumes she’s in, which is the same one they’ve always stayed in when they travel together, figuring if he’s wrong he’ll just have to apologize to a random person. After a few moments of silence, his knocks are answered by Natasha, who opens the door in sweatpants and messy wet hair, a toothbrush clutched in one hand.

“Clint?”

“Yeah, hi. I -- sorry,” he starts. “I just needed to see you.”

Natasha nods, opening the door wider and letting him inside. “Is everything okay?”

“Aside from you being back from the dead and me having a breakdown over it? Oh yeah, everything is fine and dandy in this year of our lord 2023,” Clint answers dryly. Natasha’s mouth lifts in a half moon.

“Well, I’m glad I was only dead a few weeks instead of five years. How did you know --”

“Your room?” He smiles. “Please, we always stay in the same room. I just had to assume it was you and not some random person who was going to shiv me if a strange man showed up at the door.”

That would’ve been a sight,” Natasha says with a small laugh.

Clint swallows and looks around the room, lowering himself to the small hotel bed. “I told Laura.”

Natasha drops her toothbrush on the horribly patterned duvet, cursing quietly when she realizes what she’s done. “You did?”

“Yeah.” He reaches over and picks up the toothbrush, handing it back to her. She makes a face and chucks it into the trash, a pretty decent throw all things considered.

“How -- how did she take it?”

“Like Laura,” he answers with a shrug. “Didn’t believe me at first -- thought I was pulling one of my grief spirals that I’ve been stuck in. But then she got her head around it and I’m pretty sure she was just trying to keep it together so I didn’t lose it. I don’t think she’ll really believe you’re back until she sees it for herself.”

“I thought that was out of my control,” Natasha says a little shortly. Clint bites down on his lower lip.

“It is -- I mean, it isn’t, but --”

“I know,” Natasha interrupts. “You told me how it all works, Clint. And I get it. And look, I’m honestly happy to see you and I’m glad you showed up, but I’m not sure what else you want me to do here.” She moves past him and walks into the bathroom; he can hear the steady rush of running water and waits until she comes back out, wiping her face with a small towel.

“Are you upset?”

Natasha narrows her eyes and he can tell he’s not going to get a straight answer. “Even if I was, that is definitely not a conversation for tonight. Go home, Clint. I know you wanted to see me, but you need to be with your family.”

“I need to be with you,” Clint argues loudly. “Laura understands, she knows I’m here. You came back from the dead, Nat! I mean, you died and now you’re back! I can’t just let that go and ignore it!”

“Clearly not, seeing as to how you’re showing up here unannounced but it doesn’t help the fact that I can’t go back to a normal life until something is figured out,” Natasha answers pointedly, crossing her arms. “I’m stuck in a hotel room until further notice and I could leave, but I really don’t really want to be anywhere else right now considering what I’ve been through.”

Clint rubs a hand over his eyes. “Fine,” he says after a moment. “We’ll tell the kids this week.”

Natasha sighs and shakes her head. “That wasn’t an ultimatum, Clint. Can you please just try to be rational for a moment? This is a huge, life-changing situation, and it’s important that it’s handled well. I don’t want you to half-ass stuff on my behalf just because you’re still hurting.”

The moment she says the words, he feels his heart deflate. He knows he’s still hurting, but to be honest, he was dumb enough to think that it wasn’t that obvious. He should know better. His kids may not be that in tune with his emotions, but Laura could see, and Natasha could definitely see.

“I’ll talk with Laura and we’ll decide how and when to tell them,” he amends after a moment. “And we’ll have a discussion about it.”

Natasha nods slowly. “That seems fair.”

Clint looks down at the bed covers, getting up slowly. “Here,” he says, unearthing a small cell phone from his back pocket. “It’s an old burner. Still good, though. I figure you didn’t have a cell phone or anything on you, since you know...you were dead. But at least now we can contact each other more easily.”

Natasha takes the phone, putting it on the bedside table. “Thanks,” she says quietly.

“Course.” Clint glances around the room. “You’re okay staying here?”

“I’ve stayed in worse places,” Natasha replies with an eyebrow raise. “I think I can manage.”

“Yeah, Budapest was a palace compared to this.” He waits for her smile, a signal that she’s softening slightly. “I guess that means asking to stay with you tonight is out of the question, right?”

Natasha smiles sadly and takes his hand, clasping it gently. “You need to get home,” she says softly. “Lila’s probably waiting for you to read to her. And Laura should have you there...especially knowing that I’m back. I think she needs you more than she’s letting on. Why don’t you call me tomorrow and give me an update?” She kisses him gently on the cheek. “I miss you.”

“Me too.” He squeezes her hand, trying not to remember how the last time he held her like this, it was to keep her from falling to her death. “I’ll bring you another toothbrush.”

That gets her to laugh. “It’s okay. I’m pretty sure I can ask the front desk for a shitty one until you find a spare.”

He finally lets himself be okay with leaving and she follows him outside, giving him one more sad smile as she closes the door behind him.

Chapter Text

The last thing Natasha remembers is falling.

She kicked away from the rocks, forcing herself to let go of his hand -- forcing herself to make the leap because she knew he’d never willingly let her go and she wanted to spare him the pain. She knew she was going to die -- she had made the choice to, but she also knew that the ground was coming up to meet her faster than she was prepared for. Still, the fall still felt like it was happening in slow motion, like it was taking forever. She braced herself for impact, closed her eyes, and let the cold water leak down her cheeks. She felt the tears stain her face, a portrait of death airbrushed by the wind.

And then nothing.

She had fallen and then woken up underneath cold sunlight, lying in a large field that she didn’t recognize. She first thought maybe this was heaven, but heaven didn’t have the smell of pollen or cars gunning against dirtworn roads. At least, she was pretty sure it didn’t. As she sat up, slowly orienting herself, she began to come to the realization that she was alive. Not that she knew how. Or why. Not that she had any recollection of anything that might’ve happened since she fell. But for some reason, after everything she’d seen and done over the past few years, it seemed easier to just accept this reversal of her fate rather than dwell on it.

She was alive.

And it had worked.

She didn’t know how she knew that, either. But something about the world was different, and she could feel it. The wind danced more freely, the birds sang a little more loudly, and there was a general vibe to the entire atmosphere that she knew she hadn’t felt in the past five years. There was life, not just stagnant and grey clouds of death.

It hadn’t all been for nothing.

The first thing Natasha did once she got her bearings and confirmed that she could walk and think straight was wander out of the field, trying to figure out where she was and more importantly when she was. Ambling down a long highway eventually led her to a gas station where she was able to duck in and glance at the flashing lotto signs, her eye catching some sad-looking keychains hanging near the door that proclaimed she was in Missouri.

Missouri.

Clint’s farm.

She remembered when Clint had officially told her they were moving, a conversation that happened over beers and coleslaw on a spontaneous visit before she headed off the grid herself. Part of the house arrest deal had been that Clint was supposed to stay home and stay monitored via his ankle bracelet, but he’d told her that after talking with Laura, they had decided to take things one step further and relocate. It was too much, he said sadly, with Ultron and now with the Accords. He didn’t necessarily feel threatened or worried but he did feel like he should take more precaution, and it wasn’t like he had extra money coming in from SHIELD to float them.

“Are you okay?” Natasha asked, because she knew that his life, as well as hers, was in the entire skeleton of this house. She knew it had always been a safe space and even though that safe space had been tainted after Ultron, she had prayed that nothing would change. Clint loved every bit of this sprawling, beautiful old farm, and Natasha loved it too for her own personal reasons. It was the first place she had truly felt at home, the first place someone who wasn’t Clint had hugged her and told her they loved her, the first time someone who wasn’t Clint had smiled and looked at her like a human and not a danger. It was a house where she had watched children come home from the hospital after being born, and a house where she’d celebrated birthday parties and eaten long dinners and spilled wine on the couch after drinking too much.

“No,” Clint answered. “I’m really not. But Laura’s brother is a realtor over in Missouri and he got us a good deal on a fixer-upper. It’s a nice house, tons of land, pretty remote...a lot smaller, but we can manage. Laura likes it. I think we’ll be happy there.”

He had seemed happy there, the times she had made it out to visit when she had pockets of convenience in her work with Steve and Sam. He’d looked and felt more relaxed, more joyful, and he seemed to smile more. The house had been strange to get used to and it was more rundown than the farm -- creaky floors and peeling paint seemed to be a staple of this new life -- but in a way, it fit Clint pretty well. He’d always been simple; Natasha used to tease her partner by saying that the most expensive things he owned were his weapons and he only had them because he was paid to use them.

At the gas station, Natasha ignored the strange looks from the cashier as she browsed the aisles, scouring the shelves until she had found the local paper. She scanned the front page, trying to remember when they’d left on the time heist, her heart beating out of her chest as five years rolled through her mind -- and then heaved a sigh of relief when she confirmed that she’d apparently been dead for only a couple of weeks. Maybe she’d gotten lucky. Or at least, as lucky as someone could get coming back from the dead.

Her next agenda was getting herself together, given that she had been returned in the same manner she had died in. Her uniform was wet and ripped and blood-stained, her hair was a matted and tangled mess, and she had no clothes, no money, and no one to call aside from Clint, who she knew she couldn’t see in this state. Natasha walked out of the gas station aching to ask the attendant if she could use his phone, talking herself out of it by knowing that if she showed up at his house without any preparation, she’d be an unstable mess. She already had to assume he would be an unstable mess, and she needed to make sure at least one of them had some grounding.

A few more miles of walking led her to a grimy dive bar with dim lighting, and Natasha gave a quick prayer of thanks to whoever was listening that the bartender -- a young girl with a shirt riding halfway up her washboard stomach -- was paying more attention to her phone than she was to any customers who might be walking in. She quickly located an ATM and punched in a series of codes and numbers, holding her breath as the machine whirred and deliberated. It was anyone’s guess if there was even any money left in the emergency fund that was supposed to be universally available to her; she hadn’t used any of it since before Thanos. But the machine soon deposited a heavy stack of twenties and Natasha sighed in relief, pocketing the cash.

“Thanks for coming through,” she’d muttered to the ATM, saluting Fury and Hill before slipping out of the bar.

With some cash, she now had the means to secure a room at a nearby hotel and grab some clothes and toiletries at a strip mall not far from where she was making camp. After showering and loading up on an entirely unhealthy meal from Arby’s (that she gave herself permission to eat on account of the fact that she had died), Natasha sat down in the sad-looking lobby and logged onto the hotel’s ancient computer, searching for anything that might give her information as to what had happened in the aftermath of her sacrifice.

It hadn’t taken her long to find out that she hadn’t been the mission’s only casualty.

Queasy from too much greasy food, with tears prickling at the corner of her eyes, Natasha read article after article about the Avengers and their historic legacy, articles about Iron Man and about Tony Stark’s death, articles about his world-saving moments and how his name was being carried on. Her chest burned when she came across a black and white news photo of Pepper and Morgan standing next to a statue that was being built near Bethesda Terrace in Central Park, the very spot where they’d started this journey so long ago. She attempted to cull her emotions by turning her attention to herself, but everything she came across -- news items about “the missing” returning after five years, new positions and accolades for people still in the public eye like Rhodey and Bruce -- only referenced Iron Man. There had apparently been a private funeral for Tony that she assumes would’ve included the Avengers, and there had been other memorial services throughout the world, some of which had even been aired on television.

Multiple funerals for Tony Stark...and none for Natasha Romanoff.

Or Natalie Rushman. Or the Black Widow. Or whoever the hell people thought she was, if they knew who she was at all. Natasha sat back in the creaky chair, her eyes burning for a different reason, trying to figure out why she cared so much. She didn’t expect anyone to know she’d ran SHIELD -- or what was left of it -- during a time that half the universe was gone; she’d barely gotten thanks from the remaining Avengers for that. She didn’t expect anyone to know that she’d thrown herself off a cliff for an infinity stone when no one even knew what an infinity stone was. But she’d saved the world from aliens, and she’d dumped her own secrets and SHIELD’s secrets into the world to expose Hydra, and she’d gone to Vienna to participate in a very public press conference, and she’d stood in front of television cameras and told the government to kiss her ass. Natasha realized she’d been holding onto a small hope that maybe -- maybe -- something had changed over the years and people had taken notice of the fact that she was more than a cipher doing work behind the scenes.

She took a deep breath and composed herself, clicking out of the webpage. It was fine. It wasn’t like she needed a funeral anyway; that would’ve just been overkill especially now that she wasn’t dead anymore.

She’d had a hard time sleeping that night, her mind awake and her brain triggering her with nightmares every time she closed her eyes. Even though she had spent five years alone, sleeping by herself and fending off nightmares about the snap and Thanos’ beheading, this was somehow worse. She tossed and turned and wished for Clint or even one of his kids, someone who could crawl into bed with her and make her feel like she was a little less alone. As hard as she tried to keep herself from giving in, when she woke up in the morning after barely any sleep, she knew she needed Clint. It didn’t matter if he wasn’t ready -- he might never be ready. But if one night was that bad, she knew she wouldn’t be able to make it through another night without at least seeing him. Maybe it would make her feel better if she knew he knew she was alive after all of this.

Natasha had grabbed a map from the front desk attendant, deduced she was at most twenty miles from where his farm was located, and set off on a walk that really wasn’t terrible until it started to rain halfway through the early morning. When he’d fallen apart at the sight of her on his doorstep, she’d been forced to believe what she’d tried to convince herself she wouldn’t have to deal with -- what she didn’t want to have to deal with.

He was carrying around way too much guilt, and none of it was going to be easy to erase.

 

***

 

When Natasha wakes up the morning after visiting Clint, rolling over and reaching for the cell phone he’s given her, she finds three voicemails on it. She’s just about to listen when the phone rings again and she groans as she brings it to her ear.

“What?”

“Seriously? Do you sleep for days?”

“I was dead,” Natasha grumbles, turning over in the uncomfortable bed. “Give me a break.”

“Whatever.” She can hear noise in the background, unintelligible conversations that sound like garbled transmissions. “You, me, and Laura. Breakfast. Be ready in an hour. We’ll pick you up.”

“Wait.” Natasha sits up in bed, suddenly wide awake. “I don’t know -- are you sure I should see Laura now?”

“It’s either now or in the middle of the night and neither option is great,” Clint responds. “You wanna see her, right?”

Natasha nods at the wall. “Yeah,” she answers slowly. “Of course I do. What about everyone else?”

“Nat, it’s a school day.”

She hasn’t considered that -- she hasn’t been thinking about what day it is at all, which she realizes is probably a bad thing. She hadn’t thought about what could’ve happened if she had showed up and Clint’s children were in the house, and she’s thankful that timing had worked out the way it had.

“Right.”

She hangs up, lying down and trying to go back to sleep. She doesn’t know why she suddenly feels nervous about seeing Laura; she’d been relieved to see Clint and she’d wanted to see him. She hadn’t seen Laura since before the snap -- since over five years ago. Natasha knows enough about the reversal of Thanos’ actions to know that she wouldn’t look different, not the way that she would look if she was the one who had stayed on Earth for five years. But the uneasiness gnaws away at her, curling into her stomach.

Clint had grieved -- was still grieving -- that much she knew. Laura had probably grieved, too. But she wonders if there’s a part of her that also felt relieved that it was Natasha who had died instead of her husband, given what the outcome could’ve been.

She finally gives up on sleep altogether, showering and making herself somewhat presentable by the time Clint calls to tell her he’s outside. As she leaves the room, she wonders what she’s supposed to say to Laura. Hi? I missed you? Sorry for making you sad about me? Do you like my hair? Clint had been easy but they had always been easy, maybe because they’d always come so close to death that it felt less awkward to address it.

The moment she sees Laura, standing next to the car and looking calm but completely overwhelmed, she realizes she doesn’t need to know what to say. All she needs to do is hug her -- which she does, once she gets close enough.

“Nat…”

Laura pulls back from the hug, reaching up and puts her shaking hand against her cheek. It’s a touch Natasha has seen her share with Clint so many times but she can’t remember the last time Laura was this intimate with her, because usually even the worst missions were met with simple hugs accompanied by a few tears.

I died, Natasha reminds herself as Laura’s face breaks. Somehow, each time she says it, the words feel more real and easier to accept. I died, and everyone had to deal with it. For the first time since returning to life, she realizes that it’s a terrifying thought -- the idea of never coming back to hug the people you love, never getting to say one last word or never getting to tell someone how much you missed them.

“I didn’t think it was real,” Laura says through her tears as she places her head on Natasha’s shoulder. “But it is.”

Natasha nods. “It is,” she confirms as Laura wraps her arms around her, the tight embrace crushing every bone in her body. She fights back her own tears and doesn’t bother to move, not until Laura lessens her grip.

“God.” She wipes her eyes with her shirt sleeve, revealing reddened lids. “You’d think with the amount of times I’ve watched Clint almost die, I’d be used to this.”

“Clint never threw himself off a cliff in space,” Natasha reminds her, trying to make light of the heavy tension, and Laura manages to laugh.

“Your hair looks good.”

“Yeah?” She flicks her braid forward with a small grin. “I thought you might like the look. Different, right?”

Laura nods and Natasha can see her trying not to cry again, so she puts her arm around her and rubs her shoulder. “I promise we can talk about how sad we are later. Right now, I’m starving and I need that breakfast you promised me.”

Laura tries to smile, taking a deep breath to compose herself, and Natasha gently steers her towards the car.

“I’m okay,” she repeats quietly. “Everything is going to be okay. Have you ever not trusted me?”

Laura meets Natasha’s eyes and shakes her head as they get into the car. “Maybe just that one time you said you would cook dinner two days after Clint brought you home and you were still using knives as weapons.”

Clint drives them to a diner a few miles down the road and as the van bumps along the dirt path, she finds herself asking a question she realizes she’s been sitting on.

“Is anyone going to tell me what happened after I died?”

Clint glances at her in the rearview mirror, and Natasha shrugs. “I mean, I know we saved the world. I know Tony died, too. But I was only able to pick up so much from the Internet.”

She sees Clint visibly react at Tony’s name, and she realizes he hasn’t expected her to put any of the pieces together this early. He sighs from the front seat.

“Bruce is doing consulting work over at Culver University -- stuff about quantum physics and time travel mechanics...he does a lot of lectures and to be honest, I don’t understand any of it. Rhodey’s been doing some international missions for the government; he’s bigtime now. Scott decided to take some time off to be with Cassie. Wanda’s doing some traveling to help her cope with everything.”

“Carol?”

“Where else?” Clint asks with a small grin. “Back in space, along with Rocket and the rest of ‘em. Thor went with everyone and left New Asgard to Valkyrie.”

Natasha nods. “And Steve?”

Natasha watches Clint take Laura’s hand, as if he has to prepare himself for what he’s going to say. “101 years old,” he says, his voice dropping. “When he went to return the stones -- when he went back to return them to the original timelines, to keep the score -- I guess he chose to stay in the past. He came back an old man. Passed the shield to Sam. He’s in a nursing home in upstate New York.”

Out of everything Clint had mentioned -- Thor being in space, Wanda taking a sabbatical for her grief, Bruce being some big-time university professor -- she’d never expected to hear that in the month she’d been dead, one of her closest friends had actually become the man out of time. She fights back sudden tears, trying to tell herself that even if she didn’t die, it wouldn’t have made a difference. Time travel worked in mysterious ways. She would’ve probably moved on with her life and Steve would’ve moved on with his and she would’ve never known unless she looked him up.

“Well,” she says when she finds her voice again. “You certainly kept yourself in the loop.”

“Used to,” Clint says, pulling into the driveway. “The only person I really talk to now is Wanda. And Bruce.”

Natasha’s brow creases in confusion. “Why Bruce?”

Clint doesn't answer, shutting off the engine, but Natasha can figure it out. She’d wanted him to say it himself, the fact that he’d been talking to Bruce because he was trying to figure out a way to bring her back. It had been inevitable, and she knew Clint too well to know he wouldn’t attempt to do everything in his power to fix what had happened on Vormir, but it also makes her sad.

I never wanted this, she thinks as she gets out of the car. I never wanted you to spend your life trying to save me when I did everything to save you.

As they enter the diner and pile into the booth -- Clint next to Laura, Natasha across from Clint -- Natasha can’t help but feel like it’s so many years ago, before the aliens and the secrets and the Accords, before the days they worried about missions or about children and life and death situations.

“We haven’t figured it out yet,” Laura says abruptly after they’ve ordered. Natasha raises an eyebrow.

“How I’m alive?”

“No,” Clint answers. “Not like we know that, either.” He pauses. “What to tell the kids. About you.”

Natasha nods, sipping her coffee.” “It’s understandable,” she says slowly. “Can’t you do what you did when you explained New York?”

Clint sighs heavily. “Not really. They’re not babies anymore, Nat. We can’t beat around the bush with excuses and lies. Nate, maybe we can get away with him, but Cooper and Lila know you were dead, because we had to tell them. Short of saying a miracle occured, there’s no way out of this. I don’t suppose you have any better advice.”

“You could tell them the truth,” Natasha suggests. Clint almost spits out his coffee while Laura simply looks amused.

“What, that you threw yourself off a cliff for an infinity stone and then somehow you came back because yay, time travel?”

“No,” Natasha says, rolling her eyes. “Although that might be a nice bedtime story. Tell them that I did die on a mission. But it wasn’t real. You thought it was, and you had all the details, but somehow, Auntie Nat came back. That’s why I’m alive. Because I didn’t really die after all.”

Clint glances at Laura, and Natasha watches them have a short conversation with their eyes.

“I’m not sure.”

“You asked for my advice,” Natasha says with a shrug. “This is the best advice I can give you and it’s coming from a formerly dead person.”

“I wish you would stop joking about that,” Clint grumbles as he takes another sip of coffee, and Natasha stops herself from saying what she really wants to say in response -- if I don’t joke, I’ll lose it. When he leaves to go to the bathroom, right after their food arrives, Natasha finds Laura’s eyes across the table.

“You okay?”

Laura nods, reaching across the table, putting her hand on Natasha’s wrist. “Yeah,” she says, though Natasha can hear the pain in her voice. “I just really missed you. It was hard, and...and I didn’t process things well.”

“I know,” Natasha says quietly, wanting to know what Clint had told her about her death. At the same time, she doesn’t want to know. She assumes Laura knew her husband came close to dying himself, but anything else about their mission was up in the air -- usually he’d share everything with Laura, even the insane out-of-this-world stuff, but this had been different. “I only did it because I wanted to bring you back. I wanted to get you home. He deserved that...you deserved that.”

She’s not sure why she feels like she has to apologize for her actions. In the moment, she didn’t regret it. She had been ready to die. She knew that the reason she was dying was to bring everyone back -- to bring her family back, to bring Clint’s family back. Her decision had been her own and it was one that she had felt confident making, despite the fact that when it came to actually taking the plunge, she had been scared shitless. But now that Laura is sitting in front of her, she feels wracked with guilt, like she’s given her best friend -- her family -- a reason to be mad at her. She feels like she owes it to Laura to explain why she had taken the suicide mission and why it was important that she understood it was something she couldn’t let Clint do, for so many reasons.

“I’m going to talk to Bruce,” Clint declares when he comes back to the table, interrupting the conversation. “We’re going to figure out what happened so we have some sort of explanation.”

“Do you have to?” Natasha asks, even though she’s honestly curious herself. But she can practically see Clint’s guilt spiral unraveling before her, and it hurts her heart. “Isn’t it enough that I’m back? Can’t we just accept that?”

“I can’t,” Clint says firmly, shaking his head. “It’s too risky. How do I know you’re not just going to disappear one day because some mechanics of time say you have to return to being dead?”

“I don’t know,” Natasha answers, feeling frustrated. “But I’m trying not to think about it because I’d like to just focus on the fact I’m alive and maybe not consider there are strings attached to that.”

Clint looks down at his omelette, playing with his fork as Laura puts a hand on his arm. “Sorry,” he says after a moment. “I know this is hard for you. But...I need answers.”

Me too, Natasha thinks, even though she has a feeling her and Clint are talking about needing answers to two different things. They finish their breakfast together and after another round of coffee, Laura drives them back to the motel.

“Just for a few more nights,” she says apologetically as she pulls into the parking lot. Laura turns around in the driver’s seat and gives Natasha a sad smile. “I promise. We want you back with us, Nat.”

Natasha manages to smile back. “I know you do.”

They all get out of the car and she hugs Clint and Laura tightly before walking back to her room. She tries not to turn around and pay attention to the fact that she knows they’re leaving to go back to their own life -- the life of children and school pick-ups and lunches and housework. The life that she sacrificed herself for. The life she couldn’t technically return to because for all intents and purposes, she was still dead and there was no way around that.

She sighs as she slips the key into the lock, entering the empty, depressing room.

I know you do.

 

***

 

Since she knows Clint won’t call her for at least a few days and since she knows she’s going to go crazy anyway with nothing to do to keep her busy, she decides to make the first big jump back into civilization. While she can’t remember anything that happened after Vormir, she’s still got her photographic memory, which means she still has Nick Fury’s emergency and private number tucked away in the recesses of her mind.

Nick Fury is just as much of a cipher as she is, but at least he had the advantage of having people in his life who he trusted with important information.

Natasha only has a hint of trepidation as she sends the message; she figures that as much as Fury might have a minor heart attack over hearing she’s alive, it’s not really anything out of the ordinary for someone who uses Krees, alien cats, and Asgardians as a baseline for what he considers “ordinary.” She still has no real mode of transportation but she does have money, so she calls a cab and rides half and hour to a small park overlooking a quiet lake. Natasha takes it in as she gets out and walks across the grass; it reminds her of Tony’s lakehouse and she immediately feels sad when she thinks about that.

“So.” Fury looks up as Natasha sits down on the bench. “How does it feel to be dead?”

“You get used to it,” Natasha replies. “Thanks for coming.”

“Thanks for asking an old man to come.”

Natasha rolls her eyes. “You’re not an old man. You’re still going to work, aren’t you?”

Fury shrugs. “My Avengers are all over the map right now….literally. And I think they’re more or less retired from superhero life. But there’s potential for a new group of Avengers to take up the mantle, if they have a good leader to guide them.”

“Right.” Natasha places her elbows on her knees. “That’s your job.”

“No,” Fury answers instantly. “It was yours. And from what I heard, for five years you handled it beautifully.”

Natasha looks down at the ground, anger and hurt burning in her bones as she remembers the news articles about Tony’s many funerals. “Not like anyone gave me any credit for that.”

“You think I was treated any better?” Fury asks in surprise. “Romanoff, I sat back doing my thing in the shadows for years. I did all the shit that mattered -- I kept the world safe, I kept SHIELD running, I killed threats -- all while Alexander Pierce got the news headlines and the World Security Council got the credit. When I died, no one even gave a shit that I had been killed. Then again, I was a black man in a car chase, so maybe that had something to do with it.” He winks, but Natasha can’t even muster up the strength to make herself look amused.

“It’s different.”

“How?” Fury asks. His voice is innocent and curious, and it’s a voice that grates on Natasha’s nerves.

“It’s different because I spent five years in hell, Nick! I was grieving, I was upset...no one even wanted to be an Avenger. The only reason they checked in with me is because I forced them to. I felt like I was treading water half the time. I felt like I was drowning and there was no one who could come save me...no one who wanted to come save me,” she finishes, thinking of Clint and his murder spree. “But I also thought I was different...that I made a difference.”

“You did,” Fury says. Natasha gives him a look.

“Did I? Because it sure doesn’t seem like it. What about when I dumped all my secrets into the world just to expose Hydra? What about when I broke my agreement on the Accords just to let Bucky escape at that airport? What about when I ran around with Steve and Sam doing all those jobs and almost getting killed just because we knew we had a responsibility to keep people safe?”

Fury sighs and gives her a wry grin. “Romanoff, you know that being a hero doesn’t always mean getting public appreciation. Unless being dead has changed you, I know that you never wanted Tony’s life.”

As much as Natasha wants to refute that, she knows he’s right. She had never wanted that, and she’d said as much on more than one occasion. She had preferred to be in the background, to be behind the scenes; the only reason she had done the press conference in Washington was because she had to take the fall for Steve and because, quite honestly, she still had some pent up rage and the government seemed like an appropriate place to offer a fuck off sentiment to.

“I wanted to be better,” she says quietly. “And I wanted people to know that I was better.”

“You think they didn’t know?” Fury shakes his head. “You saved the world, didn’t you? That’s why you made the choice to die. And it worked, because all those people came back. I came back. Clint’s family came back.”

“And I came back,” Natasha dully. Fury hums quietly to himself, placing a hand on Natasha’s shoulder.

“You did. I don’t know how, but you did.”

Natasha feels frustrated tears spring to her eyes at his touch, the memories of Fury’s mentoring, fatherly gestures over the years rolling through her mind. “How did you find out that I had died?”

Fury laughs. “Really? I ran the world’s most advanced security organization for god knows how many years. You think I needed someone to tell me that you had died?”

“I guess not.” Natasha closes her eyes; she has no idea what she’d hoped to get out of this conversation other than maybe getting some validation about feeling pissed off that she had been more or less forgotten by the world. “But what am I supposed to do now? Just...go back into the shadows? Pretend that I don’t exist anymore because no one knows I’m alive again?”

“I think you should do whatever you want to do,” Fury replies. “You can choose to keep the life you made for yourself or you can make yourself a new one. You can even continue to run what’s left of SHIELD, if you want -- not like I’ll complain.”

Natasha opens her eyes, swallowing down more tears. “I’m not ready to do that yet,” she says after a moment. “I need to repair things with Clint. And with Laura. And with his family. His kids don’t even know I’m alive.” She puts her head in her hands. “You know, at the time, I thought I knew exactly what I was doing. I was ready to die. But since I’ve come back, all I’ve felt is guilt...and all I’ve had to deal with is seeing what my death did to people. How it made them feel.”

“Returning from the dead isn’t something they teach you in school,” Fury says quietly, putting a hand on her back. “Not even in special spy schools. And there’s no easy way to come back from it, or to deal with it. But Natasha, you died for a reason.”

“I died with a hope!” Natasha snaps angrily. “I didn’t even know if it would work! But I risked it all for the possibility of saving the people I loved, I risked it all to save my family, to save everyone who didn’t have a mother or a father or a significant other! So where does someone finally say to me that it’s okay? When does someone finally say ‘thanks, Natasha, you did something that’s really worth dying for?’”

Fury remains silent, not speaking until well after she’s finished her outburst. “You came back to people who love you,” he says. “That’s not a bad thing. But it does make it harder. The good news is, even if he’s mad -- even if he feels guilty, and you know Barton as well as I do -- Clint is always going to be there for you. So is Laura. You have a family, Natasha. And you have me.”

Natasha leans back, putting her head on his shoulder. “You know I still haven’t forgiven you for dying and not telling me?”

“I know,” Fury says tiredly. “But you died and didn’t tell me, so why don’t we say that we can call it even?”

He smiles at her and Natasha smiles back, her heart pulsing with pain.

Chapter Text

When Clint has returned home after dropping his kids off at school, he checks on Laura who is in the bedroom writing out some bills and then walks outside to call Bruce.

“Clint.” Bruce sounds surprised, and Clint can’t blame him. He did say he would more or less leave him alone after he sent over all those files, and, well...he probably would have obeyed that promise, if not for this.

“Sorry to bother you,” Clint says, shoving the phone between his ear and his shoulder as he walks across the lawn. “It’s about Natasha.”

Bruce sighs loudly. “We’ve gone over this --”

“Yeah, I know. She’s back.”

For a moment, Bruce doesn’t respond. “You okay?” he asks finally, his voice low and placating. “I know this has been hard for you.”

Clint bites down on his tongue, fighting the urge to scream over the fact that everyone seems to be treating him like someone who needs to be put in a psych ward. On one hand, yeah, coming back from the dead wasn’t exactly something that he expected people to just readily believe, no matter how many crazy things they’ve seen. On the other hand, why could no one accept that he wasn’t going crazy and also that he wouldn’t make something like this up?

“I’m not fucking with you,” Clint says, trying to keep the anger out of his voice. “Natasha’s back. Really back. She showed up on my doorstep a few days ago, and I’ve seen her and talked with her. Laura has seen her. She’s the real deal, not some time travel clone. It’s Nat.”

When Bruce speaks again, his voice is cautiously hopeful, though Clint still notes a hint of skepticism. “You’re serious.”

“I’m serious,” Clint repeats. “Dead serious. Do you want some photographic proof? I can drive down to the hotel she’s staying at and corner her like a paparazzi.”

“No,” Bruce replies softly. “No, I believe you.”

A wave of relief rushes over Clint’s body, because he’d honestly expected a lot more pushback. Laura had been easy enough to convince because she knew Clint and trusted him, but Bruce was all science and logic.

“So, uh...so how is she?”

“Um.” Clint runs a hand through his hair, pushing the overgrown strands back. “I don’t know.” He hates himself for saying the words out loud, because he’s been trying to ignore that anything is wrong at all. “I mean, she seems fine, and she’s definitely Nat -- she’s making horrible jokes about her death and everything. But I can tell she’s not really okay. I’m worried about her.”

Bruce is quiet for a long time before he speaks again. “Do you know how she came back?”

The relief that Clint felt enter his body immediately evaporates. He’d figured that once he said something, that once Bruce knew he was serious and not making this up, he’d have an obvious answer and Clint’s worries over this would be over.

“Actually, I was hoping you could figure that out.”

“I’m not sure I can,” Bruce says apologetically, and Clint’s fist clenches at his side.

“Yes, you can,” he argues, his voice rising again. He steps farther away from the house, walking towards the barn. “I know you can. You’re smart, you know this time travel stuff.”

“Clint…” Bruce trails off. “I know you want me to have some perfect answer for you. I know you want an explanation. I get it. But I don’t know what to tell you. I really don’t. Everything about Natasha coming back defies scientific explanation.”

“Oh fuck the science shit,” Clint snaps. “We traveled through time and destroyed infinity stones, Natasha died because of some stupid rule that you had to trade a soul for a soul, there’s nothing scientific about that!” He pauses, trying to control his frustration, knowing that if he lets himself continue to lose it he’ll lose Bruce and that will be a bigger loss. “What about when Steve returned the stones? What if that had something to do with it?”

“I don’t know,” Bruce answers slowly. “Steve came back an old man, you know that. And with the soul stone trade, how would he have returned it without dying himself?”

“I don’t know, but he clearly got rid of it, didn’t he?” Clint starts pacing in circles, making himself dizzy. “He didn’t come back with it so what did he do, throw it at the old floating guy with no face and say ‘here, take my stone, see ya later?’”

“Maybe there doesn’t need to be an explanation,” Bruce replies, ignoring Clint’s outburst. “Maybe the universe just corrected itself.”

“Right. The universe decided that Natasha shouldn’t have died and decided to just give her back? There’s no explanation that you can figure out for her return? I refuse to believe that,” Clint answers. “This didn’t happen just out of luck.”

“Maybe it did,” Bruce argues. “Or maybe you’re right and something happened with the time hopping. But Clint...it would take me months to figure out variables and possibilities.”

“So don’t take months,” Clint finds himself saying. “Come see her. Come to the farm, do your work here, and talk to her personally. Maybe that’ll help.”

Bruce clears his throat quietly. “I really don’t think me being there is the best thing right now. If she’s still not okay like you’re saying she is, the last thing she needs is to have me in the mix.”

“But you’re the one who can help,” Clint pleads. “You can, can’t you?”

Bruce sighs, long and loud. “Clint, I...I got over her. I didn’t want to, but I did, because she was dead and I had to move on. I missed her too much to let myself get caught up in all the memories.”

“So what are you saying?” Clint asks sharply. “That because you’ve moved on, you can’t help me?”

“It’s not that I don’t want to help you,” Bruce replies in a measured tone. “It’s that I don’t want to get involved. And I also don’t think that she needs to see me right now.”

“But you’re good,” Clint protests. “You’re friends...you’re past all that weird stuff from a few years ago.”

“It’s not about me,” Bruce says, and Clint can tell he’s trying to keep himself from lashing out in a more angry tone. “It’s about you and Natasha. You need to figure yourself out, Clint, and she needs to figure herself out. I’m happy to come out there and see her eventually, but I’ll do it when the time is right. And in the meantime, you can still call if you need anything. I can’t promise I’ll be able to help, but I’ll listen.”

Clint frowns at the sky. “Sure. Fine. I get it.” He prepares to hang up, mostly done with the conversation, but before he can hit the button Bruce speaks again.

“Clint.”

Clint looks down at the ground, watching a few ants scurry across the dirt. “Yeah.”

“I’m really glad she’s back.”

He closes his eyes. “Me too.”

He hangs up feeling lost and disappointed; he’d expected Bruce to come through with some sort of answer and not just a brush off. Clutching the phone tightly, he walks into the barn, anger vibrating within his chest, threatening to burst without warning.

He’d stored most of his weapons after coming home, largely because he knew the odds of needing them at this point were slim to none and the arrows he’d been using in Lila’s lessons were less dangerous models anyway. Rummaging through a wooden chest in the corner of the barn, he unearths a cloth bag, searching until he finds some knives and throwing stars.

Natasha had given him his first pair of throwing stars. She’d had them specifically made for him after he’d been discharged from one of his hospital stays, and he’d been surprised when she’d showed up holding a decorated paper bag.

“Is it my birthday, or are you just really glad I’m not comatose anymore?” he’d asked when she handed her the bag. Natasha rolled her eyes.

“Look inside, dumbass.”

The weapons had been branded with his Hawkeye symbol, the metal fresh and bright, and he’d turned them over in his hand, reveling in their lightness and sharp edges. He’d smiled, resisting the urge to lean over and kiss her.

“This is the best getting out of the hospital present ever.”

Clint hurls a throwing star with brute force, letting it lodge into the barn wall, and then throws another while unleashing a loud scream. The yell drains him of energy and he lets himself fall to his knees, the silence pressing in around him, and he puts his head in his hands.

He doesn’t exactly feel better but at least he feels something, and he figures that has to count.

 

***

 

Clint doesn’t expect anyone to be around when he walks back inside awhile later -- Laura’s left to take Cooper to baseball practice and Clint assumes she’s taken Lila and Nate with her since she hadn’t bothered him about watching them. But when he walks inside and finds Nate alone in the living room, he attempts to shift his mind back into dad mode. It’s easier than he expects -- something about his five year old lying on his stomach concentrating on a piece of paper is so curiously innocent, it makes his heart swell.

“Hey, buddy.” He sits down on the floor, leaning over. “What are you doing?”

“Making a drawing,” Nate says, not looking up. Clint glances down.

“Can I see?”

Nate reluctantly puts down his crayon, pushing his paper forward until Clint can see the drawing more clearly. There are two messily drawn stick figures that he can attribute to being “mom” and “dad” as well as a large red barn and a yellow sun. Above the sun there’s another stick figure, and Clint doesn’t have to ask to know who it is. He swallows before handing the paper back to him.

“Do you remember a lot about Aunt Nat?”

Nate nods. “I remember she used to come over for dinner. She fed me chocolate.”

Clint hides a grin. “Yeah, she was pretty bad like that. She broke all the rules with you.”

“She sang to me when I was asleep,” Nate adds. “Now mommy says she’s singing to the sun and she still sings to me, I just can’t hear her all the time.” He takes the paper back and starts working again, and Clint clears his throat.

“Why are you coloring all alone?”

Nate shrugs. “Lila said I couldn’t be in her room so I had to go somewhere else. Mommy said I can’t go outside without anyone and I couldn’t find you so I just wanted to be here.”

Clint frowns, watching his son draw. “Okay. Keep coloring and I’ll be right back.”

He gets up again, walking up the stairs and stops outside of Lila’s room. The door is closed and he knocks once before he pushes it open, finding her practicing archery stances in the mirror.

“Hey dad.”

“Hey.” Clint closes the door behind him. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” Lila turns around so that she’s facing Clint and not the mirror. “Just practicing.”

“I saw.” He pauses, glancing at her bookcase, where a few books have been knocked off the shelves and onto the floor in what looks like a haphazard manner. “Was your brother bothering you?”

“Yes,” Lila replies shortly. “He wouldn’t stop talking so I told him to go away.”

Clint sighs, sitting down on the bed and rubbing his eyes. “Lila, I know he annoys you sometimes, but you can’t just yell at him and tell him to go away. He doesn’t mean to bother you.”

“No!” Lila says angrily, stomping her foot against the floor. “He wasn’t bothering me! He wouldn’t shut up about Aunt Nat so I made him go away!”

Clint watches his daughter’s face break, the obvious snap that comes with admitting something is bothering you more than you’d say. In less than two seconds he’s back on his feet, pulling her against him in a hug.

I know it’s hard,” Clint says quietly as she starts to cry. “But you gotta learn to talk to someone when you’re feeling upset. If you keep everything to yourself, you’re going to just be angry and sad.”

Lila sniffles against his chest. “I don’t understand. Why did Nat have to die? Why couldn’t it have been someone else?”

“I don’t know,” Clint answers, his mind flashing to Vormir. He suddenly finds himself wondering what would happen if the situation had been reversed, if Natasha was the one comforting his daughter because her dad had died, because for one split second -- until she bested him at the last second -- that was going to be a real thing.

“Mom and I are trying as hard as we can to fix this, okay? We know how much it hurts.”

Lila shudders against him. “You can’t fix dead people,” she replies tearfully, and Clint’s heart shatters.

“Ain’t that the truth,” he mutters, pressing a kiss to her head and holding her more tightly.

That night, Clint crawls into bed right after Laura has finished reading to Nate, flopping unceremoniously onto the mattress.

“How are you doing?”

Laura looks over and smiles, putting down her magazine. “Okay. How are you doing?”

Clint shrugs, turning over and staring at the ceiling. “Thinking about what happened with Lila today. We really need to tell them. Maybe it’ll help them feel better.”

“I don’t know if telling them is going to make them feel better or worse,” Laura says. “But you’re right. We do need to tell them. I just wish I knew how to do it.”

Clint props himself up on one elbow. “I’m thinking Natasha’s suggestion might actually be the best. Say she really did die, but something happened and she wasn’t actually dead after all. And then hope they buy it, especially once they see her again.”

“You think they won’t have questions?” Laura asks skeptically. “We’re asking them to buy the fact that someone they love came back from the dead. That’s not exactly what we signed up for any of the times you got me pregnant.”

“Oh, really?” Clint raises his eyebrows. “I thought what we signed up for was lying to our children about their dad’s real job, keeping weapons in the house, and time traveling.”

Laura rolls her eyes as Clint stretches out again, letting the silence spread between them.

“I’m worried about her.”

“Nat?” Laura carefully leans back against the headboard. “I am too. I don’t really know what we can do, though.”

“We can get her out of that crummy hotel,” Clint says grumpily, and Laura puts a hand on his leg.

“We will. Just because it’s taking a little long doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about it.” She nudges him gently. “What else is bothering you right now?”

So many things. He’s not surprised she’s managed to pull something out of him, but it never ceases to amaze him how well she can pick up on his moods even when he’s so sure he’s hiding them. “Do you think she blames me?”

“For what?” Laura asks, turning so she can give him her full attention. Clint takes a deep breath, letting it out slowly.

“For letting her die.”

Laura shakes her head, giving him a sad look. “Why would she blame you?”

“Because I wasn’t fast enough -- I wasn’t good enough.” He blinks fast to hide his tears. “I could’ve stopped her...I tried, I had her...I couldn’t pull her up. I couldn’t keep her from falling.”

“Clint.” Laura puts her hand on his cheek, turning her towards him gently. “I know what you told me. But you have to believe that her death isn’t on your hands. I know that’s what it feels like, but I also know you. You would have done everything in your power to make sure she lived...you wouldn’t have failed her like that.”

“But I did!” Clint bursts out, sitting up straight and pounding his fist against the covers. “And now even though she’s back, I’ve gotta live with it! Especially now that she’s back!”

Laura falls silent in the wake of his outburst, a single tear dripping down her cheek and landing on the pillow. “So do you wish you had died instead?”

The moment she says the words, he feels like he’s been punched in the gut.

“God, no...Laura, I --” He stops, because he doesn’t know what to say. In the moment, he’d been more than willing to give his life so that Natasha didn’t have to give hers. So that Laura might never have to hear about the horrible years he spent murdering people, so that his kids didn’t know he’d become a criminal and a villain. But the moment he stepped off the quinjet and saw Lila run out of the house, he couldn’t have thought of not coming home. The moment he hugged Cooper and Nate and kissed Laura, he’d felt so relieved and so happy and grateful. And that night, when he put his children to bed and when he cuddled quietly with Laura, he’d almost cried thinking about how he was lucky enough to get everything back.

The problem is, none of that made the guilt of Natasha’s death go away. It hung over his head and settled in his heart, infesting his nightmares and burrowing into his brain. Despite the fact he was the one who didn’t go over the cliff, he feels like he left his soul on Vormir, like he was the one who sacrificed himself and now he’s walking around as a shell of feelings and emotions.

“All I wanted to do was get you back and come home,” Clint says finally, his voice thick as he pulls her close. Laura nods against him, closing her eyes.

"I know."

Clint listens to the rise and fall of Laura's breaths against his chest, making the decision before he can stop himself. “Let’s tell everyone tomorrow."

Laura flinches against him. “Clint...I don’t --”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday. No one has anything to do. We just agreed how we’re going to do it, so let’s do it. The longer we put it off, the harder it’s going to be, right? And the sooner we do it, the sooner that we can try to work past all this.”

The sooner Natasha can come back and try to be a part of our life again, and maybe I can stop feeling like I’m a terrible person.

Laura raises her head, revealing tear-stained eyes. Based on the look on her face, Clint thinks she’s going to push back, but then she lowers her head to his chest again. “Okay,” she says softly. “Then let’s do it.”

She finds his hand under the covers and he squeezes it tightly, wishing he could take away all the pain that’s come their way since coming home.

 

***

 

There are things that you learn when you become a parent for the first time -- there are classes and books and other parents, if not your own, to teach you what to say and how to raise the children you’ve decided to bring into the world. It’s not entirely exclusive to being a parent by blood; Natasha had learned all of the same lessons over the years from being around his family so much but Clint’s learned it all three times over and he considers himself a goddamn expert when it comes to being a dad, even if he spent most of his kids’ childhood being gone on missions and assignments he couldn’t talk about.

There’s no manual, however, for figuring out how to prepare your children for the fact that someone has come back from the dead. There's no grief book or telenova that will help you figure out what to say and no book that will tell you how you’re supposed to react.

So Clint drinks. He’s aware that’s probably not the best idea, but as he downs his third beer of the hour, he notes that he’s not actually getting drunk because he’s drinking goddamn Bud Light Lime, which is the only thing Laura’s got in the house. Nonetheless, he feels like he deserves Laura’s stare of disapproval when she walks into the kitchen.

“I expected better,” she says flatly, and Clint honestly doesn’t know whether she’s talking about him or the beer.

“Yeah, well.” Clint finishes his drink and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “This is what you get -- a dad who’s gotta tell his three kids that their favorite person in the world is back from the dead, and this is after they’ve all had numerous breakdowns about it.”

Laura sighs and takes the beer bottle, tossing it in the recycling bin.

“You could’ve gone and gotten another tattoo,” she says in response, and Clint snorts.

“Tattoos are reserved for midlife crises and Thanos.”

“Oh are they?” Laura gives him a look. “What did Natasha think?”

Natasha hadn’t seen his tattoos until he took off his uniform in the compound, coming out of his room in a short-sleeved tank top. Her eyebrows had lifted into her forehead, and she’d walked over, taking his arm and inspecting it carefully from all angles, silent while Bruce and Tony talked somewhere in the background.

“I was sad,” he had explained lamely and Natasha had actually smiled, her nose scrunching into that cute amused look she usually gave him when he made her feel better about something by doing the littlest thing possible.

“I, uh.” He looks down at his sleeve. “I never had a chance to ask. You know, before…that.”

“Oh.” Laura nods. “Well, maybe now she’ll get a second chance to say how much she hates them.”

“Whatever,” Clint mutters, wishing he had another beer to drink. As if sensing he needs to do something to keep his hands busy, Laura reaches for his palm.

“Everyone is playing outside. You ready for this?”

Clint lets out a long breath, trying to psych himself up. “No,” he says, because he’s been practicing different versions of Auntie Nat is dead but not really speeches in his head all morning and no matter what he comes up with, there’s just no good way to talk about it without sounding insane. “But I need to be.” He leans into the living room before he can stop himself, projecting his voice so that he knows he can be heard out the open window. “Coop! Lila! Nate! Come in here!”

A long minute later, all three of his children wander into the house. Lila’s hair is messy from the wind, Cooper’s face is slightly sunburned, and Nate’s holding a baseball mitt in one hand that Laura carefully pries away when dirt starts falling onto the floor.

“What’s up?”

Clint exchanges a glance with Laura. “Your mom and I need to talk to you.”

Lila’s face immediately floods with worry while Cooper’s eyes dart between his parents. “Is something wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Clint replies calmly. “I promise. But we do have to talk to you about something important.”

Slowly, all three kids sit down at the kitchen table, Nate climbing clumsily onto the chair. Laura and Clint pull chairs around so that they’re facing everyone in a semi-circle, and Cooper frowns.

“Are you sure nothing’s wrong?” he asks again, his voice tentative. Clint places a hand on his knee.

“Yes. This is about Natasha.”

Lila’s eyes go to the ground and Cooper’s face falls, while Nate simply looks interested. Clint finds himself wishing he could go back to being five years old, an age that was just old enough to understand things but not be truly scarred by their meaning -- the pinnacle of innocence.

“Why are we going to talk about Natasha?”

“Well.” Clint swallows. “You know what happened to Natasha and how she got hurt on her job a few months ago.”

“She didn’t get hurt,” Lila says scathingly. “She died.”

Clint nods slowly. “She did. But it turns out that’s...not exactly true.”

He watches his children’s faces, giving them time to process what he’s said. Lila and Cooper’s faces remain blank and Nate looks confused but no one says anything; the only indication that they’ve actually heard what Clint’s said is the way Cooper’s eyes narrow.

“What do you mean?”

Laura leans forward, and Clint feels relieved she’s finally stepping in. He prided himself on his dad talks but Laura was always better, always more rational, always the one the kids wanted to hear from when something was wrong.

“Natasha got really badly hurt,” she says quietly. “And we all thought she was dead. But then your dad and I got some happy news, and the happy news is that she’s alive.”

Another round of silence fills the kitchen and every part of Clint’s body tenses, his brain alert and guarded as if he’s waiting on a mission. Finally, the silence is broken by Lila’s small, disbelieving voice.

“So Aunt Nat is...alive?”

“I don’t understand,” Cooper butts in loudly. “How can she die but be alive?”

“Because she wasn’t actually dead,” Clint answers quickly, sharing a glance with Laura. “We thought she was, though.”

“So you lied to us,” Lila adds sharply, shooting daggers from her eyes. Clint looks helplessly between his children while Nate sits silently.

“We didn’t lie to you,” Laura says gently. “We would never, ever lie to you about something like this, Lila. We told you what we believed because we know Natasha is an important part of this family and we thought you should know she wasn’t coming back. But we did tell you that with all the information that we thought was right. We’re telling you now that we were wrong.”

God, she was so good at this. Clint knows if he’d opened his mouth, he’d just babble some nonsense about how of course they didn’t lie, Natasha was back somehow and they weren’t making it up. He knows he tends to do better with the soothing dad talks, the ones where he can comfort his children based on hard evidence, while Laura had always been good at addressing situations with calm logic. Lila still looks like she wants to throw something -- Clint’s realized certain looks in his daughter’s eyes that mirror his anger spurts so well -- but before she can do anything, Cooper jumps up, running out of the room. Lila follows, and Laura stares after them as the front door opens and closes.

“Mommy?”

Laura composes herself and turns her attention back to her son. “Yes, sweetie?”

“Is that going to happen to me?”

Clint sucks in a breath and Laura gets up, kneeling down in front of Nate and putting her hand on his cheek. “Is what going to happen to you?”

“Getting hurt and coming back,” Nate says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. When he raises his eyes from the floor, Clint notices there are fresh tears streaking down his face and Laura immediately pulls him off the chair and into her arms.

“No, baby...no,” she promises, kissing the side of his head. “Auntie Nat just had a really bad accident but that does not mean that’s going to happen to you. Ever.”

“But what if I have a bad accident?” Nate asks quietly, clearly not convinced.

“Mommy and daddy won’t let you have any bad accidents,” Laura answers firmly. “You’re always going to be safe with us and you never have to worry about something happening. Okay?”

Nate nods, leaning into his mom for comfort, and Clint suddenly feels like he’s unable to sit still.

“I’m gonna go check on them.”

He doesn’t wait for Laura to respond, leaving her in the house as he gets up and walks out the front door. He’s initially worried that his kids have run off, because he doesn’t put it past them to bolt, but he’s relieved when he finds he doesn’t have to look far -- they’re sitting at the picnic table a little ways from the house in sullen silence.

“Hey,” Clint says carefully as he approaches. “You guys okay?”

Lila shakes her head and Clint sighs, lowering himself to the table. “Look, I know you probably have a lot of questions, and I know this whole thing might be hard to believe. But we’re telling you the truth and you have to know that.”

“But I cried for her,” Lila says slowly. “I was sad about her. Does that mean I don’t have to be sad anymore?”

“I cried for her too,” Clint says, leaning forward. “It’s okay to still be sad. It’s okay to even be confused and mad. I think Natasha might feel the same way you do.”

“Is she really alive?”

Clint looks over at Cooper, sensing the trepidation in his eyes, and nods.

“Yeah, buddy. She is. You’ve seen a lot of crazy things in dad’s work, right?”

“I guess,” he responds. “If she’s alive, I wanna see her.”

“You will,” Clint answers. “We wanted to tell you before you saw her, but I promise you’ll get to see her soon.”

“Why can’t I see her now?”

“Because she’s still on her way to get to us,” Clint lies smoothly. “And because I think you guys need some time to think about this news, right?”

Cooper and Lila glance at each other and although they don’t say anything, Clint knows they’re in agreement.

“I’m gonna go inside and make sure Nate’s okay. You wanna stay out here or come in with me?”

“I wanna stay out here,” Cooper says defiantly. Clint sighs and gets up; he knows leaving them alone is what’s going to help them right now as much as he doesn’t want them to sit out here and stew all day with their thoughts.

“Dad.”

He turns halfway towards the house, finding Lila trailing behind him, and waits for his daughter to catch up.

“What if she’s different?”

Clint looks at her in confusion, trying to understand what she’s asking. “Different how?”

“Different,” Lila repeats, her voice shaking. “I’ve seen the movies. People who come back from the dead come back like zombies.”

Clint lets out a long exhale. “Lila, she won’t be like that.”

“How do you know?”

“Because,” Clint continues, putting two gentle hands on her shoulders, “those are movies, and this is real life. And even though dad’s work is really crazy sometimes, those kind of things don’t happen in real life. You know that, right?”

Lila shakes her head. “But what if --”

“What if what, Lila?”

Lila’s voice drops and when she speaks, Clint can barely hear her over the wind.

“What if she doesn’t remember me?”

Pain stabs Clint in the heart in the form of a knife that lodges itself in the softest part of his arteries, twisting over and over again until he realizes he’s forgetting to breathe. “You don’t need to worry about that,” he says finally, pulling her in for a hug. “Natasha would never ever forget you, even with something like this.”

“But you don’t know!” Lila bursts out, and it takes all of Clint’s willpower to tell her that he does know. “What if something happened? Something bad that we don’t know about? What if she was dead too long and she only pretends to remember me and she’s not really Auntie Nat?”

“You’ve been reading way too many stories,” Clint answers, leaning over to kiss her. “Look, between you and me, Natasha may act a little different. She may seem a little different around you. But that’s just because she went through something scary and she’s still trying to figure out how she feels...like when dad comes home from work after he gets hurt and he’s sad. However Natasha acts, it has nothing to do with how she feels towards you, okay? You’re her favorite girl and that’s never going to change.”

Lila nods in Clint’s arms, and he feels wetness against his flannel where her tears are falling.

“Okay.”

They walk back towards the house together, Clint protectively keeping his hand around her shoulder, and when they get inside Lila immediately heads to her room. Clint walks through the living room, where Nate is playing on the floor with his plastic cars. In the kitchen, Laura is standing over the sink, staring out the window that overlooks the backyard.

“Could’ve been worse.”

“Could’ve,” she echoes. “It might still get worse.” She turns around, and Clint sees she’s been crying, presumably turned away in case she had to hide her emotions from her children.

“What’s wrong?” he asks because he has a feeling it’s more than just Natasha. Laura shakes her head.

“No matter how they take this news, no matter how well it works out in the end...it’s still a traumatic thing. And I just don’t want to believe they’re always going to be damaged from this.”

“So what were we supposed to do?” Clint asks, trying not to sound frustrated. He thinks about Natasha, back but not really back, sitting alone in a hotel room and not being able to return to the life she loved -- the life she died for. “Just never tell them and lie to them their whole lives?”

“No,” Laura says softly. “Of course not. We had to tell them. But I wish we could’ve protected them a little more.”

“They’re children of SHIELD agents and Avengers,” Clint says tiredly, trying not to think of Lila’s scared face and many questions. “They’re used to it.”

“Are they?” Laura looks at him as her eyes well up again. “They’re still so young but they’ve already seen so much -- all your missions, you coming home after this time travel stuff, the five years we were gone…” Laura trails off and Clint tries to push the images of Ronin from his mind; as guilty as he feels for keeping that secret, he’s thankful that he’s managed to at least spare his family additional trauma.

“If you say my tattoos, I’m gonna hide all your wine,” he finishes in a futile attempt to bring some lightness back into the conversation. Laura laughs, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.

“No, I think they actually like them for the most part.”

“They better, because each one hurt like a motherfucker. C’mere.” He reaches out to hug her, letting her snuggle into him as she wraps her arms around his waist. “We did the hardest part, you know.”

“Did we?”

“Yes,” Clint answers, even though he knows that’s probably a lie, because he has a feeling the hardest parts are still to come. “And I know it’ll continue to be tough. But we’ll be okay. We always end up okay, right?”

Laura nods against him and Clint tries to repeat the words in his mind, soothing himself by letting the quiet and coziness of the farm envelope him.

They would end up okay, because they had to end up okay. Because they had Natasha back. Because she was alive, and that meant there was a whole life that he could get back to, one that didn’t involve consoling crying children over an untimely death or guilt-ridden dreams about dying and falling.

He fixates on that thought as he pushes more guilt out of his mind.

Chapter Text

In most cases, the answer to Natasha feeling sad about anything, but especially Clint, would be solved with one thing -- going to Laura, who would provide wine, easy listening, and free reign to vent her lungs out, even if the venting was about her husband. The problem is, her current situation means she can’t go to Laura. At least, not easily.

When she wakes up, she calls the house, not surprised when Laura answers instead of Clint. Usually they alternated taking up the mantle for morning drop offs and errands; sometimes it just depended on who needed to do what around the house but she knew the routine as well as anyone else in the family.

“I was wondering if I could come over,” Natasha says when she gets on the phone. “Just for a little bit, while everyone is out.”

“You sure?” Laura asks, sounding surprised. “I really need to shop -- I can’t even offer you anything.”

“I don’t care about that,” Natasha answers, because she knows she doesn’t. “I’d just like to see you. Please?”

Laura pauses, and Natasha hates that she feels like the pause is less because she’s trying to think and more because she’s hesitant to answer.

“Of course you can come over.”

Natasha lets out a relieved breath. “Thanks. I’ll -- I have money for a cab. You don’t have to leave if you’re busy.” She hangs up, shoving her wet hair into a ponytail, and wipes her eyes free of sleep and emotion before she continues to put on her make-up. There are still bruises and cuts that pepper her face, remnants of her fall -- of her death -- but they’re healing slowly and each day they look a little less angry. She hopes that maybe she can get them to go away enough before she has to face Clint’s children.

Natasha’s not sure why she starts blinking back sudden tears as the taxi driver approaches the farm. Maybe it’s because when she came here last time, it was under different circumstances, and all she had been focused on was Clint which blocked out every other emotion. This time, her mind is free enough that she’s able to pay attention to everything around her -- the fresh smell of basil and lavender from Laura’s garden, the pollen-heavy breeze ruffling the small tufts of grass, the worn baseball mitt lying haphazardly the front yard, the painted American flag adorning the side of the house, the old rocking chair sitting on the porch that’s been gently caressed by wind and rain. Everything about the farm is ancient and timeworn, but to Natasha, it still ignites that magical feeling she’s always been able to conjure any time she’s been here -- a feeling of newness and home.

Laura’s waiting for her at the door, and Natasha immediately picks up on the smell of beef stew wafting throughout the house. She thinks about the dinner she’ll probably be having later -- something that she’s ordered in from one of the many fast food restaurants or diners -- and realizes how much she misses a home-cooked meal.

“Thanks for letting me come,” she says when she enters the house, hugging Laura tightly. “I just needed a change of scenery.”

“I understand,” Laura answers, closing the door behind her. “Anyway, it’s not like I’m busy right now.”

Natasha glances at the crock pot she can see sitting on the kitchen counter, taking in the empty house as she sits down on the couch. “I’m not used to the quiet.”

Laura laughs. “That’s because when you’re here, it’s hardly ever quiet. Hang on, let me finish cleaning up.”

She walks back into the kitchen and Natasha lets her eyes roam around the house; just like she couldn’t focus her attention on anything except Clint when she first showed up at the farm, she’s now allowing herself to notice the small but subtle changes that she figures are due to the snap and also five years of a house that was likely sitting in abandonment. The clock standing against the back of the wall looks newer than usual even though Natasha knows it’s usually rather dusty, and when she walks towards the stairs, she notices a new collection of photos hanging together -- Laura’s photos, portraits of beautiful and tranquil landscapes and animals that Natasha knows she finds joy in capturing with an old 35mm that Clint found at a yard sale some years ago. When she’d walked in, she’d noticed more clutter than usual around the front door, a healthy amount of new antiques that she assumes have piled up on Clint’s “to do” list of re-working and possibly re-selling.

The photos on the mantle of the fireplace are the same -- the same school pictures of Lila and Cooper and Nate, the same frozen captures of Clint and Laura, taken at various moments throughout their relationship. There’s a new photo shoehorned into the otherwise crowded ledge though, and Natasha picks it up, blowing extra dust off to stare at her own face. It’s a photo that was taken some years ago, judging by the fact that Lila was still young enough to wear her hair in pigtails and Nate was a chubby face more than he was an actual human. Clint is standing on one side of her with Laura blurred in the background, and Natasha vaguely remembered Cooper taking the picture, grabbing his mom’s camera in an attempt to be helpful. She runs her fingers over the dirty glass; she doesn’t think it’s exactly an accident that after all these years, the photo had made its way out of the album and onto display.

“Sorry,” Laura apologizes as she walks back into the living room, and Natasha quickly puts down the picture.. “I just didn’t want things sitting out for too long.”

“I thought you said you weren’t busy,” Natasha answers, trying to divert her thoughts.

Laura rolls her eyes. “Now I’m not.” She sits down on the couch and pushes a strand of hair behind her ear, securing a lock that’s slipped free from her ponytail. “We told them,” she says after a moment. “A few days ago.”

“Oh.”

Natasha’s not sure why she feels shocked, it’s not like they haven’t been talking about it. “How…” She swallows. “How did they take it?”

Laura looks as if she’s trying to prepare herself for what to say. “It was hard,” she says finally. “Nate took it like the five year old champ he is, but Cooper and Lila had a hard time.” She pauses just enough for Natasha to lower her hopes about being integrated back into the family sooner rather than later. “We’d still like you to come for dinner tomorrow night,” Laura continues. “I know they want to see you.”

Natasha manages to smile as relief floods through her, trying not to let Laura see all her emotions at once. “I want to see them too.”

Laura smiles back as Natasha walks to the couch, sitting down next to her. For awhile, they sit in slightly awkward silence, until Laura clears her throat.

“What was it like?” she asks finally. “Dying?”

Natasha hesitates, unsure of how to answer. “Scary,” she says after searching her brain for words, because she’s not really sure how else she can describe the falling and the terror. “But then not. It all happened so fast. One minute I was falling and then I was just…” She trails off, letting her voice fade away. “I wasn’t anywhere. I don’t really know how to talk about it without sounding like some resurrected hippie. But I wouldn’t do it again,” she finishes lightly, trying to interject some humor into the conversation. Laura takes her hand, gripping it gently.

“The first few nights Clint came back, I was more worried about myself than I was about him,” she admits. “He didn’t want to talk about it. He still doesn’t, even now.”

Natasha lets the pain of Laura’s words settle in her stomach. “I don’t even know if I’m ready to talk about it more than that,” she says slowly. “And I’m sorry that I can’t give you the answers you want, it’s just...it’s still a lot. But you know how he is. You know how he gets caught in his head.”

“I know,” Laura says a little sadly. “The problem is, I think he sometimes forgets that as much as you’re his other half, you mean just as much to me. The fact that I had to watch him beat himself up without knowing anything about what happened to you was really hard for me.”

If Natasha knew in making the decision to jump that Clint would take her death ten times harder than anyone else, it was only the motivation to get his family back that pushed her to make the leap instead of holding back in fear that she would be dooming him to a life of guilt and grief. She pulls her legs up on the couch.

“What was it like for you? When you disappeared?”

“I wish I knew,” Laura says with a sigh. “One minute we were here and the next we were back. It felt like I went to bed for a long time and then woke up suddenly.” She shrugs. “So, maybe not unlike dying.”

Natasha wants to tell her that nothing can be like dying, that nothing can be as bad as the blinding terror and the fear and the pain and the cold, but she knows she won’t because the last thing she needs is to cause the people she loves more pain.

“I’m sorry.”

Laura turns her head in confusion. “For what?”

“For taking so long to get you back. For letting the world fall apart for so long without helping...without doing anything to make it better.” Her eyes burn and she forces herself to hold tears back. “You lost five years of your life because of me.”

“Nat…” Laura shakes her head. “Natasha, why do you feel like you need to put all of this on your shoulders?”

“Because I was the only one who ever tried,” Natasha replies, feeling the sting of her unsung praises despite the fact she’s attempting to let it go. “And I still wasn’t enough.”

“You were plenty enough,” Laura says softly. “You being back is plenty enough. And I hate that we’re keeping you away. I don’t want you to be alone...I’m sorry it’s taken this long for us to get our act together.”

“What, so you’re the one beating yourself up now?” Natasha asks tiredly, realizing how much she’s missed being able to let her guard down in a place she trusted to take care of her if she fell apart. “Being here helps. It’s always helped. This was the first place that felt like home when I had no place to go...it feels the same way now. Especially now.”

Laura smiles, looking a little more settled. “Come on,” she says, getting up. “I have a batch Cooper’s cookies in the oven that we can steal and then I’ll get you back to the motel before anyone gets home.”

 

***

 

Throughout the course of her life, Natasha has sat through every uncomfortable scenario imaginable. She’s sat through ten course dinners with heads of state, trying to make conversation about things she’s only read in her mission materials. She’s sat outside in five degree weather for 24 hours and staked out targets. She even managed to get through Cooper’s elementary school graduation -- a day where she was surrounded by parents, children, cheesy songs and small talk -- without it being a big deal.

But when she got into the cab and started her trip back to the farm, she felt like she was crawling out of her skin with nerves and anxiety. Clint had called her while she was getting ready and assured her that the kids were fine, that they were prepped and if they acted oddly, it was just because they were scared more than anything else. Natasha understood that, but she also hated the idea that she could be seen as a monster in the only place where she’d never felt judged. Out of everyone in the Barton household, she’d never felt anxious when it came to Clint’s children. She’d met all of them when they were still young enough to have an innocence of not knowing why someone who wasn’t mom and dad was coming over all the time, and while they knew Natasha went to work with dad and did scary things, they didn’t know where she came from or what her ledger was like before she met Clint. They didn’t know her as SHIELD or as some sort of scary assassin, they only knew her as their Auntie Nat.

At least she had her bag with her. Laura had told her that she could stay the night, but the unspoken explanation behind that had been that she could stay at the house, at least until they figured out the next step of how she was supposed to exist in the world again. She’d left the room decently neat and added a nice tip for the housekeeper but even so, she’d never been so glad to get out of that goddamn motel.

By the time the cab pulls up to the farm, she’s masked herself with her game face, walking confidently to the front door which has been left open save for a screen door protecting the house from outside bugs and wind. She knocks anyway, feeling like she shouldn’t just barge in without knowing the situation, and Clint appears almost immediately. His hair is windswept and a loose tank top hangs off his shoulders, exposing his tattoos.

“Hey, sorry,” he says as he lets her inside, taking her bag. “Just finished some stuff out in the yard. Hope you don’t mind a grungy farm dad at dinner.”

“I could never,” Natasha teases, hugging him tightly. Clint hugs her back, pressing his face to the side of her head. “You okay?”

“Fine,” he says, his voice muffled in her hair. “You?”

“Yeah,” she trades, and it only feels like a little bit of a lie. “I’m ready to be back.”

The moment she pulls away, her ears register the sound of footsteps. She turns slowly, watching Nate peek out from behind the staircase, his face splitting into a wide grin when he meets her eyes. In another second, he’s racing across the floor with little kid fervor, slamming into her legs. Natasha shares a look with Clint, who shrugs.

We didn’t name him after Pietro for nothing, apparently.

“Nat! Nat!” Nate wraps his arms around Natasha’s legs and she leans down, prying him off her calves and picking him up the same way she remembers doing so many times with Lila. She buries her face in his short hair, relishing in how his tiny arms wrap around her neck without hesitation.

“Hey, buddy. How are you?”

“I’m good. I missed you!”

Natasha smiles, putting him down and taking a good long look. She knows that no one who was snapped had really aged, considering five years worth of time was only about a week to them. But even so, he still look different -- or at least different than the last time Natasha had seen him before the snap. He’s grown into his looks a little more, with his overgrown hair flopping into his brown eyes more casually and a rounder face that’s more filled out than it had been last time previously.

As Natasha straightens up, another face peeks out around the corner from the stairway. Lila stares at Natasha with what she can tell is slight anxiety, moving slowly across the room as if she’s afraid to get too close. Natasha stays still, not wanting to scare her if that’s the reason she’s being so hesitant, a thought that fills her with more sadness than she wants to think about.

And then Lila’s suddenly walking quickly across the room, hugging her hard. Natasha hugs her back as tight as she can, forcing herself to keep her own tears back when she hears the uncontrollable sobs indicative of a teenager trying to hold it together.

“You’re really here?” Lila asks when she finally looks up, meeting Natasha’s eyes. “I mean, you feel like you’re here. But are you?”

“Yeah,” Natasha says with a smile. “I am. I promise.”

Lila hugs her again, her face pressed into her arm. “Dad said you’d be different.”

“Might,” Clint says quickly, catching Natasha’s eye, and Natasha doesn’t have to ask how he understood his daughter’s mumbled words. “I said she might be different. Like the way I sometimes am when I come home from work after a long trip.”

“Your dad is just being cautious,” Natasha says reassuringly. “I’m still the same Auntie Nat as I’ve always been. Wanna see?”

Lila pulls back, wiping her eyes, and Natasha raises one hand. Lila catches on, raising her own hand, which Natasha catches quickly. She twists Lila’s wrist easily and harmlessly before she can jerk her arm away, and Lila laughs loudly as Natasha lets go, mirth swimming in her still-teary gaze.

“I thought it was dinner time, not SHIELD training time,” Laura admonishes as she walks into the living room. “Lila, where’s your brother?”

Natasha suddenly notices she hasn’t seen Cooper around the house at all, and the realization worries her. She’d thought Lila would be the one who would have the hardest time dealing with her being back; Cooper tended to get emotional but he also wasn’t as close to Natasha as his sister was.

“He’s still upstairs,” Lila says, and Clint finds Natasha’s gaze, locking in.

“Lemme take you up,” he says calmly, motioning towards the hallway. Natasha gives Lila’s shoulders a quick squeeze, following him around the corner, waiting until they’re mostly out of earshot of the rest of the family before she speaks again.

“Is he okay?”

Clint shrugs as he climbs the rickety stairs. “He was a little off earlier today, but I thought he’d come around...who knows. I think once he sees you he’ll be okay.”

Clint’s words don’t exactly make Natasha feel better, but she tries to ignore them as he pushes open the door to Cooper’s room. The first thing Natasha notices is that the walls are a different color -- pale blue rather than pale grey -- and the bed has been moved from closer to the door to the opposite side of the wall, swapping places with a large bookcase. Other than that, things mostly look the same, save for a lot more baseball equipment and books scattered around the floor.

“Hey, you know who’s here?” Clint asks cheerfully as he walks in. Cooper’s sitting on his bed, studying a baseball, but looks up when Clint speaks.

“Hi,” he says quietly, but Natasha can tell he’s trying not to let a huge smile take over his face. She realizes he probably doesn’t know if he wants to show that much emotion and decides to work with it.

“Hey.” Natasha walks forward, sitting down on the bed. “I missed you.”

Cooper nods through a tight-lipped smile. “Me too.”

“I’m glad I’m back though,” Natasha continues, figuring if she continues to talk, maybe things will feel less awkward. “I really did miss you a lot. And if you’re scared, you don’t have to be. I promise I’m really here.”

“I’m not scared,” Cooper answers, his voice defiant and firm. “I just...I don’t know if you’re gonna go away again.”

Natasha puts her arm around his shoulders while Clint leans against the doorframe, a stealth show of keeping himself out of the conversation while assuring her that he’s still there.

“I know it might feel that way,” she says gently. “And it’s probably hard to think about when you spent a lot of time being sad. But I was sad too. I’m really happy I get to be back with you and I’m not going to do anything that might change that.” She pauses, trying to gauge his emotions based on how he’s frowning at the floor. “So if you want, we can go downstairs and have dinner together, and I’ll tell you all about the fun things I did on my missions that you don’t know about. And you can tell me all about school and everything I missed while I was away. Deal?”

Cooper nods, looking up at Natasha. This time, she notices that he lets a real grin break over his face.

“Deal.”

 

***

 

Dinner feels familiar and strange all at once.

So many of the semantics of the night are achingly commonplace, as if she’d never left -- died -- in the first place, as if she’d just taken a long mission and now she was back. Nate talks animatedly about a new television show he’s obsessed with and Natasha marvels at how talkative and extroverted he’s gotten in the few months -- or rather, five years -- that she’s been away. Lila seems to walk the balance between mature and childlike; she giggles at her dad’s jokes but also rolls her eyes at her mom’s rules, and at least her behavior tracks with what Natasha had started to see as she had grown older over the years. When Lila starts bickering with Cooper over the fact that there’s only one slice of bread left and Clint steps in, raising his voice sharply, Natasha hides a smile because it feels like every one of the dinners she’s had with his family over the years, where things quickly went from calm discussions and small talk to arguments and chaos.

But there’s a distinct difference that she finds hard to ignore. The air seems heavier, and Clint looks at her often when he thinks she’s not paying attention, as if he’s worried about her. She can tell by the way Laura is holding her fork and how she’s talking that she’s relaxed but also slightly nervous, as if she’s waiting for the other shoe to drop even while easy conversations take place over the hour they’re sitting at the table.

As much as she loves being back at the farm, as much as she’d missed feeling like she was home, it’s a relief when the Lila and Nate jump up from the table and head to the living room to busy themselves before the inevitable dessert that Natasha knows Laura will tell them they can’t have but Clint will persuade her to give them anyway. Cooper stays in the kitchen and pulls out a book while Natasha opts to help Laura clean up, figuring that maybe if she keeps herself busy by getting back into a routine she used to do often, she’ll feel a little better.

“It’s okay,” Laura says when Natasha starts gathering plates. “You don’t have to worry about that.”

“I want to,” Natasha argues, a little more heatedly than she means to. “I just...I want to feel helpful for a little bit. I don’t want to just sit around.”

Laura nods slowly, letting her continue to gather plates so she can bring them to the sink.

“The kids took it well,” she says in a low voice while Laura pours dish soap on a sponge, using it to wipe excess food off the plates.

“They did,” Laura confirms, keeping her voice soft so that Cooper won’t pick up on their conversation. “They took it better than I thought they would. Kids are resilient, you know. They can get through a lot -- sometimes they don’t even need much to placate them. That’s how we’ve always dealt with your work. But I didn’t know what would happen with this.”

“It’s not something they teach you in school,” Natasha says, recalling Fury’s words. Laura laughs.

“No, it’s really not.”

“Nat!”

She turns, hearing her name being yelled somewhere from the living room. She looks back at Laura, who smiles.

“Go.” She nudges her leg with her foot. “I’ll finish up in here. We’re not going anywhere.”

There’s a part of Natasha that hates that she’s so desperate for validation -- whether or not Laura is saying it to make her feel better or to make herself feel better, it relieves Natasha to know that for right now, things are stable or at least, as stable as they can be. She steps away from the sink, drying her hands on a towel, and as soon as she gets into the living room, Lila beelines to her.

“Can we stay up and read so I can show Nat all my new stories?” Lila asks, wrapping her arms around Natasha’s waist and twisting her head back so that she can catch Clint’s eye.

“Not tonight,” Clint says apologetically, and Natasha marvels at how he’s holding Nate upside down with ease by his waist, swinging him back and forth playfully. “You gotta go to bed soon. But tomorrow you can.”

“But what if Nat’s not here in the morning?” Lila asks, before swiveling her head back. “I mean, are you gonna be here tomorrow?”

“Nat’s staying,” Clint confirms before Natasha can answer. “She’s going to stay with us for awhile and she’s not going anywhere, okay? Now come on, I need to get you rascals to sleep before mom kills me.”

“But we didn’t even have ice cream!” Nate yells from his upside down position. Clint winces as his loud voice reverberates throughout the house, and flips his son in order to put him down. Nate speeds through the living room and Lila rolls her eyes as she follows while Natasha takes the cue to step out of the way, moving towards the staircase.

“Hey.” Clint grabs her arm as she walks past, his eyes puzzled. “You don’t want ice cream?”

“I do, but what I really want is a shower with hot water that actually works,” she replies with a smirk. Clint matches her smile, shaking his head.

“Fair deal. Better to do that now before the kids use it all up, anyway.”

She squeezes his arm and makes her way upstairs as the noise level rises from the kitchen, grateful for the opportunity to have a few moments alone. She didn’t necessarily want to be alone, god knows she’d spent enough time being alone already, but now that she was back in Clint’s house she feels a little more comfortable about it.

The guest room still looks the same, and a quick inspection of the bed confirms that her favorite quilt is still being used as a comforter. Natasha sits down, putting her hand on the covers and letting herself feel, before she gets up and gathers her toiletries. Safely ensconced in the bathroom with the door tightly locked, she undresses and takes stock of her body. She hadn’t noticed the large overt bruises over her spine and the pain in her ribs at first, it’s almost as if they had taken their time showing up despite the fact that she had been returned from death. Natasha winces as she inspects her skin; underneath the pale bathroom light she knows she looks like some sort of abuse victim and she shudders at the thought, finding herself glad that all of her worst injuries were in places Clint wouldn’t be able to really see.

The hot water helps, at least -- it makes her body feel better and it warms the chill that seems to be distinctly present in her bones. Showering at the motel had been less than pleasing, because in all the years they had stayed there together, they had never stayed long enough to do more than a customary rinse off so Laura wouldn’t see them walk through the door covered in dirt and blood. Standing under the steady spray, steam rising within the walls of the glass that surrounds her, she lets herself indulge in the heat and takes the time to wash every part of her hair and her body. When she walks out, toweling dry her red-blonde hair, Clint’s waiting in the bedroom. She knows she shouldn’t be shocked -- it’s his house, after all -- but she’s surprised enough that she almost stumbles over a stray deodorant bottle that’s fallen out of her bag.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m not allowed to say goodnight?”

Natasha rolls her eyes, throwing the towel at him. “Of course you are. But I thought you were having ice cream.”

“Uh.” Clint raises an eyebrow. “That was like, an hour ago.”

Natasha blinks, realizing she must have lost track of time in the shower -- way too much time, apparently. She pushes wet hair behind her ear, trying to laugh off her mistake. “Guess I should start taking a watch in there or something.”

“Yeah,” Clint says with a slight frown. “Guess you should.” He looks around the room, his eyes settling back on her after they travel around the space. “Everything okay?”

“It’s just like I left it,” Natasha answers with a tight smile. “Thanks for keeping it neat.”

“Always.”

He looks down at the towel, fingers playing with the edges; she watches the way that his hands move over the cloth, deftly working through each fray and curl the same way they string an arrow, the same way they curl around her shoulder when she needs to be comforted, the same way they handled the sword that he used in Tokyo. She swallows down a sudden lump in her throat.

“You didn’t tell her.”

“What?” Clint looks up, clearly lost in thought.

“Laura.” Natasha gestures towards the wall. “You never told Laura about Ronin.”

At the mention of his name, Clint’s eyes darken, his face taking on a cold mask. “Did she tell you that?”

“Clearly she didn’t, because she has no idea...but I can tell she has no idea.” She feels her brows knit together. “Why wouldn’t you tell her?”

“How could I?” Clint asks sharply, throwing the towel to the floor. “You saw what they came back to. I almost died on a time travel mission, and they thought I was gone...they thought you were gone, and you were. I had to tell them you were dead and then I had to deal with them finding out they were gone for five years, how could I come back and tell them that their dad turned into a murderer?”

“But you would’ve told me,” Natasha argues, walking forward sitting down on the bed. “If I hadn’t found you, you would have told me.”

Clint shakes his head, one tattooed arm lifting to rub his eyes. “Maybe. I don’t know.”

“Bullshit.” Natasha folds her arms over her chest. “Don’t play that game with me, Clint. You would’ve told me, and I’m just as close to you. So why didn’t you tell your wife?”

Clint stares blankly across the room, his eyes fixating on a broken piece of wood that’s hanging from the wall. “Nat, she...I know Laura’s seen the worst of me, but this is something different. If she knew what I did...how far I let myself fall...I can barely live with knowing what I did. I wouldn’t be able to live with knowing what she’d think of me if she knew.”

“She didn’t judge me on anything I did in my past,” Natasha reminds him. “And she knew all of it. She won’t judge you, Clint, not her own husband.”

“You think that makes it any better?” he asks, turning to face her. Natasha can see the tired lines on his face and it hurts her heart that he looks so worn down, his eyes swimming in pain she wishes she could take away. “I’ve been through hell and back throughout our marriage, and I’ve never snapped the way I did after Thanos.”

“You had a right to,” Natasha says haltingly, even though she still doesn’t really believe that. “You were hurting. And I’m sorry I didn’t come find you sooner.”

“Yeah,” Clint says gruffly, and Natasha can tell there’s some untapped anger in his voice that he’s threatening to keep out of the conversation. “Me too.”

She reaches for his hand, squeezing it gently when he wraps his fingers around hers. “Thanks for letting me stay.”

“Course,” he says, sounding surprised. “Jesus, Nat, you think I wanted to leave you in that crummy place? We’ll figure everything else out. The important thing is that you’re back.”

“I’m back,” she murmurs as Clint leans over to kiss her gently on the cheek. A yell penetrates her eardrums, and Clint sighs as he straightens up.

“Dad duty. Try to get some sleep.”

She nods, pulling herself fully into bed as he walks out, closing the door behind her. Natasha listens to Clint walk down the hall to his own bedroom, listens to Lila talking loudly as she comes out of the bathroom, listens to Nate as he runs through the halls of the creaky house, stomping tiny feet against the hardwood floor. She rolls over and picks up a small notebook she’s placed on the bedside table then lays back again, stretching out.

During one of her many walks to get out of the motel, she had stumbled upon a small roadside stand where a young woman and her daughter were selling various foods and trinkets. She had used some extra money to buy a bag of fruit and a small notebook bound with yellow yarn, thinking she might use it to put down the thoughts that have been swirling around in her mind for the past few weeks.

Except the moment she had tried to put anything down on paper, she had backtracked, staring blankly at the page. How did you address the fact that you had died and come back to life? How did you reconcile what you felt -- where you were, what you thought -- with being back and being given a second chance?

Scared, she had written a few days ago, followed by a scribble of words in a messy list. Fear, hurt, alone, worried. She puts her pen to the page, adds confused with a small sigh, and puts the notebook back on the nightstand. She can still hear Clint and Laura walking around the house and she knows it’s earlier than she’d usually be in bed, but she tries to sleep anyway. Getting actual rest is something that hadn’t exactly been easy for her since she’d come back, but she figures now that she’s finally back at the farm, things will finally be better.

She’s disappointed, but not surprised, to find out she’s wrong. She hasn’t slept in five years and she was barely dead long enough for it to mean anything, why would things magically be better just because she’s in a place where she finally feels safe?

Natasha closes her eyes against dreams that feel too real and opens them to a room that seems unfamiliar, even though it’s not. The quilt she’s covered with weighs down heavily on her body but she still feels cold, shivering and clutching her pillow for warmth, unable to find a happy medium of comfort. She finally decides to go find another blanket, tiptoeing out of the room and into the dark and silent hallway, trying to be as quiet as possible as she opens the closet door.

“What’s wrong?”

Clint’s tired, gravely voice hits her like a truck and she whirls around, thankful that she’s got enough spy experience to be able to do so without making a scene.

“Just...looking for another blanket,” she says, and at least it’s the truth. “I was cold.” She pauses, looking him up and down, taking in his bare chest and boxers. “I didn’t think you were still up.”

He shrugs, yawning widely. “Couldn’t sleep. I can turn up the heat if you want. This place gets drafty sometimes, especially at night.”

Natasha shakes her head. “It’s fine. I just...I should be fine now.” She hugs the blanket she’s pulled out and walks past him, knowing he’ll follow. Sure enough, out of the corner of her eye, she sees him lean against the doorway, watching her as she gets back into bed. In any other situation, she’d feel pissed off that he’s keeping an eye on her like this, but she knows it’s because he still needs to assure himself that she’s really here, that she’s really alive.

“You good now?”

Natasha leans back in bed and thinks, ice running through her veins as the memories of her death crawl against her bones, making her flinch. It hadn’t bothered her that she didn’t feel right at the motel, since she was in a place that was already lonesome. It does bother her that she can’t feel right here, in the one place that had always made her feel safe.

“No,” she admits, hating herself for being so vulnerable. Clint walks forward, closing the door behind him.

“What’s going on, Tash?”

She likes that they’re at least in the dark. It makes her feel safer somehow, even though the dark also scared her. It had been dark on Vormir, too, the only real light coming from the gentle purple hue that hung over them like a death sentence.

“I get cold,” she says after a moment. “It was cold on Vormir. It was cold when I died. I know I’m here and I’m fine, but I still get cold, all the time. It’s like...it’s like I can’t get rid of feeling like death.” She says the last words quietly, because she knows they’re the ones she’s been afraid to say out loud. Clint says nothing, staying silent in the dark and sitting down on the bed with her. It takes her a moment to figure out what he’s doing but in another second he’s pulling his legs up, wrapping his arms around her tightly.

“This help?”

She feels like speaking right now will lead to crying so she nods into the pillow, hoping he’ll understand. He lies against her, still but solid, their bodies pressed together in a gentle but forceful hug.

“Hey,” he continues softly. “Do you remember when you took care of me after Loki? When you wouldn’t leave my apartment? How you forced me to eat and sleep and made sure I was surviving because I was too chickenshit to tell you I needed help?”

“Yes,” she acknowledges, because she doesn’t think she can ever forget that. Like many things in their partnership, it was a memory, but one that was so solidly etched into their history it was responsible for shaping them into who they had become.

“Well, this is my debt payment, okay? I’m going to take care of you. I know I’m still my own fucking mess, but I’m not going to let you go through this alone.”

She nods again, letting tears fall from her eyes, trying to find the words she wants to say. “Did you ever really think about dying?”

She feels him stiffen beside her. “You know how close we’ve always come to death, Tash.”

“I know,” she answers. “But I don’t think we’ve ever really thought about it. Because when you really make the choice to die, it’s different. You think you’re ready. You think you have it all figured out. But then it comes at you all at once. And suddenly, you’re hanging there while realizing you’re going to die, but there’s this part of you that’s going to live -- this part of you that’s so formative, you can’t let go, because that will make your choice real.” She stops to collect herself, steadying her voice. “But you do let go. And somehow, you survive, but you have scars. You have so many scars. And even though you’re alive, everything just feels like an endless abyss. You’re lost and you’re cold...and the worst part is, people move on. Some don’t even care. You start thinking maybe it was for the best that you died.”

“Don’t think that,” Clint says hoarsely. “Don’t ever think like that, Nat. I didn’t want to lose you, no one wanted to lose you. We all tried so hard to bring you back...I would’ve done anything.”

“You did do everything,” she says, closing her eyes against the dark room. “But I was still scared.”

“I know you were.”

She doesn’t know how long she lies there, waiting to feel tired. She keeps waiting for Clint to leave, to go back to Laura, but for whatever reason -- whether it’s because he knows she needs this or whether it’s because he knows she’s only pretending to be okay -- he stays, his arms wrapped around her. She leans into him, willing sleep to come, trying to let him melt the crusted ice from her bones.

“I didn’t want to die,” she whispers to the dark room when she’s sure Clint is fully asleep. “I just didn’t want it to be my best friend.”

Chapter Text

By the time Clint climbs back into his own bed, it’s past four in the morning. Laura doesn’t move when he rolls onto the mattress, and he doesn’t know if she’s woken up at any point in the night to realize he wasn’t there, but he decides to say something anyway two hours later, when they’re still slightly sleepy and getting ready in the bathroom before everyone gets up for school.

“I stayed with Nat last night for a bit.”

“Was she okay?” Laura asks, turning around and looking at him in concern. Clint shakes his head.

“No. I mean, yeah, she was fine, but she couldn’t sleep. I could tell she was still feeling off, and I didn’t want her to be alone, so…” He trails off, sticking his toothbrush in the side of his mouth . “I’m sorry.”

Laura frowns. “I don’t think you need to be sorry.”

He kind of feels like he does, considering the circumstances, but he’s grateful that Laura understands -- that Laura’s always understood how he is when it comes to Natasha, a relationship that’s protective and intimate in a different way than his marriage is. He rinses his toothbrush and plays with the bristles before returning it to the holder.

“You know,” Laura starts, reaching for a hand towel. “You said after the snap happened, I was gone for five years.”

“Yeah.”

“Well.” Laura looks a little sad but also resolved. “I wouldn’t have blamed you if you moved on.”

“That’s silly,” Clint scoffs, because he’s pretty sure he can still feel the pain and fear that coursed through his veins when his family disappeared before his eyes. “Moved on with who?”

Laura carefully avoids his eyes. “With Natasha.”

For a moment, Clint’s not sure how to respond, because how could he respond? I wanted to? I would have, if my anger didn’t take over and I didn’t spend five years as a murderer? Because, yeah, I definitely look back at what seemed like an irreversible situation and I hate it, and if I could’ve been shacking up with her in that compound while she ran the Avengers, I’d do those five years all over again?

“I know you love me,” Laura says quietly when he doesn’t speak. “And I know you always will. I’ve never doubted your devotion to me, Clint. But I also know there’s always going to be room in your heart for one more person. And I know that person will always be Natasha.”

Clint swallows, trying to hold back tears. “You don’t know what I did after you disappeared,” he says hollowly. “You don’t know what I became.”

“No, I don’t,” Laura says pointedly. “Because you wouldn’t tell me.”

“It’s better that way.”

“Is it?” Laura inclines her head in that way he knows means she’s semi-interrogating him without being overly harsh about it. “I know Natasha knew.”

“Natasha only knew because she found me,” Clint answers through clenched teeth, trying to keep the images of Ronin out of his mind. “She came to me and brought me back, but I didn’t want to be found. Trust me. I know you wanna know what happened, but I can’t tell you.”

Laura puts the towel carefully on the side of the sink. “Clint, when I was gone...I know it was five years, but for me, it felt like five minutes. I came back and you were weren’t here, and I thought you’d gone for a grocery run or a walk. And then I plugged in my cell phone, because it was dead, and I realized I’d been gone for five years.” She pauses, and Clint can see her own tears leaking from the side of her eyes. “Do you know what that feels like? To come back and find out an entire world has changed? Not just for you, but for everyone you love. The kids had to start new classes at school because half their friends had moved on without them. Some people were older, and some people hadn’t aged at all I had to hold everything together, because I knew you were still hurting. But I was hurting, too. I still am.”

Clint takes a deep breath and lets it out haltingly, the scattered exhale filling the space between them as he walks forward. “I love you,” he says quietly, taking her in his arms and brushing back a clump of messy hair. “You know I love you. I’m sorry I haven’t been better at being there for you. But I need you to understand that me telling you about those five years won’t make any of this better.”

Laura looks up at him sadly. “How do you know?”

Because I just do. “Because I know you, and I know us.” He kisses her on the forehead. “I’ll start breakfast.”

As he leaves the bathroom, he knows he hasn’t really done anything to change the situation. He’s just tabled it, prolonged the inevitable discussion or argument, but right now, he knows he just can’t deal with opening up about anything he did during the snap. Part of him is aware that Natasha is right, because she’s always right. Laura would be angry, she might even be hurt and upset over what he did, but she would forgive him. Maybe not right away, depending on how she reacted, but she would. They weren’t married for nothing, they hadn’t endured fights and avenging missions and lies and life for nothing.

The problem is, he’s not sure he deserves her forgiveness when he’s already been granted so much leniency for his actions.

I don’t judge people for their worst mistakes.

Yeah, well, maybe you should.

You didn’t.

He’s surprised to find Natasha sitting at the table with a mug of coffee, the strong smell of caffeine wafting through the lower level of the house. He glances at the half-full carafe, where two mugs have been placed next to the machine, presumably for him and Laura. He doesn’t know how long she’s been down here, but it’s apparently been long enough to start coffee and clean up the remnants of last night’s ice cream mess that Laura had decided to leave until morning.

“Did you even sleep?”

Natasha clutches her mug more tightly. “You should’ve asked me that five years ago.”

Clint slumps against the doorway, leaning his head against the frame. “Christ, Nat. Seriously?”

She shrugs, a carefully intentioned gesture that means she’s telling him exactly how much she wants him to know. He bites down on the inside of his cheek, a part of him kicking himself because he’d known for awhile that she wasn’t okay and last night had only confirmed it.

“Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed silence,” he says, glancing up at the ceiling where he can hear feet pounding against the floor. “Cause in about ten minutes, things are about to get real loud and rowdy.”

“I’ll take my chances,” Natasha answers with a smile. “Still on that pancake kick?”

“It’s waffles now,” Clint says with a sigh. “Thankfully, this machine is the best thing I’ve ever invested in.” He walks to the cupboard and grabs a box off the shelf, working quickly to prepare the batter while Natasha continues to sit silently behind him. He hears his children before he sees them, envisioning their steps as they race down the stairs and into the kitchen.

“Good morning!” Nate declares loudly, his high-pitched voice carrying into the room.

“Hey, buddy...good morning to you.” Clint turns around, abandoning breakfast briefly, and scoops him up with a tight hug. “Did you say good morning to Nat?”

“That’s what my good morning was!” Nate says in exasperation, as if he can’t understand why his dad doesn’t get it. Clint smiles as he lets him down, allowing him to sit at the table while Lila and Cooper enter on each other’s heels. Lila doesn’t say anything but she hugs Clint and then walks to Natasha and hugs her tightly.

“What are you and mom and Nat gonna do while we’re at school?” Cooper asks as they wait with empty plates. He downs a second glass of orange juice, pouring more from the jug on the table.

“Maybe we’ll clean up your room and throw out everything that’s not cleaned up,” Clint jokes easily, walking over and sliding a waffle onto his plate. Cooper looks up with dagger eyes.

“Dad, you wouldn’t dare.”

I wouldn’t.” He winks. “Natasha would.”

“Put the blame on me, thanks.” Natasha’s voice is bitter, but he can see her hiding a smile and he knows she’s missed this familiarity, this sense of family -- this feeling of belonging. Five years rings in his mind and he tries not to think about how long she was really alone -- how long he had left her alone because he was stuck in his own immature grief spiral.

You didn’t know, he reminds himself as he finishes making another waffle. You couldn’t have known that no one was there. Why would you even consider the fact that people would have left her alone?

But they had. Because of course they had. Because when it came down to it, no matter how much of a team they were, how much they needed each other, no one was going to know how much she needed someone. She was never going to tell them and they were never going to think of it.

He would have, though. If he was there, he would have known. He would’ve stayed.

“Dad, we’re gonna be so late.”

He turns around, mentally shaking himself out of his thoughts, and brings a waffle to Lila. “Mom’s driving you today so you will not be late, but yeah, dad got distracted. Sorry babe.” He drops a kiss to her head as he slides the waffle onto her plate, clearing his mind enough to get Nate’s breakfast ready while Lila and Cooper continue to eat, the conversation shifting to intense bickering over who’s going to sit in the front seat.

“If no one gets into my car in the next ten minutes, I’m leaving you all on the side of the road,” Laura calls out from the living room, her voice no nonsense and firm. Cooper and Lila roll their eyes, clearly not threatened, but they slide out of their chairs anyway, leaving a mess of empty plates. Nate follows more slowly, but makes sure to hand Natasha his plate with a huge smile before he hugs his dad and scampers after his brother and sister.

“Don’t kill anyone at school today!” Clint calls. He catches Laura’s eye for a split second, ignoring the annoyance he sees there, and turns his attention back to Natasha.

“I try.”

“You try very hard,” Natasha says in an overly placating voice, and he makes a face at her.

“Well, they’re happy you’re back, that’s for sure. This is the most involved breakfast we’ve had in months. Usually, it’s Lila moping and Nate talking too much to make up for Cooper’s mood. Now it’s like everything is back to normal.”

He knows that’s only half true, that as much as it seemed like things were okay on the surface, they wouldn’t be normal again for a long time. But Natasha smirks as she picks up her coffee again.

“In that case, I’ll take the win.”

As soon as the door closes and the car engine starts up, the volume level in the house decreases. Clint stands in the center of the kitchen, surveying the mess of plates and spilled remnants of batter, trying to figure out where to start in terms of cleaning. Before he can decide, Natasha gets up and gathers the empty juice glasses, bringing them to the sink. Clint grabs the plates, working around discarded crumpled napkins and crumbs.

“You know you don’t need to do that,” he says as he slides the plates under the running water.

“I know I don’t,” Natasha says, her voice a little clipped. “But it’s nice.”

“Cleaning?” He raises an eyebrow and pours soap on a wet sponge, bumping her gently so that she can make room for him to stand next to her.

Natasha shakes her head. “Being alive.” She pauses. “Feeling needed.”

The words hit him harder than he expects, and water sloshes over the side of the sink as he loses control of how hard he’s squeezing the sponge. He should’ve realized that this was more than just coming back from the dead. This was about how alone she’d been before she really was alone in death, and he knows because he’s been seeing it -- in her eyes, in her messy hair, in the way she looked at everything around the house with a little more care and smiled a little more gently at each conversation.

“Nat --”

“You know, I used to think I didn’t need anyone.” She offers him a sad but clearly forced smile. “I used to think I could do everything on my own, that having someone around to take care of me or help me would just make it worse. I thought I was stronger than everyone else.” She pauses to let the words sink in. “I was stupid.”

“You weren’t stupid,” he replies automatically, taking her hand, his fingers slippery from the hot water. “You just had to learn that you needed someone.”

Natasha shakes her head. “Someone who wasn’t you?” She looks up, her eyes flashing with quiet pain. “Five years alone is a long time to realize that.”

He knows the jab is specifically at him, at his absence, but he also knows that if she wanted to open a bigger fight about it, she would. They’re not talking about the things they actually need to talk about; just like Laura and Ronin, he was brushing off his feelings, shoving them aside for a later time that he knows will come before he wants it to. Clint moves his concentration back to scrubbing the plate, working hard to remove a particularly stubborn portion of dried syrup.

“If you want to just relax today, I won’t bother you. God knows I’ve got a shit ton of stuff to do around here while the kids are out.”

“You can bother me,” Natasha says with a shrug. “Being bothered would be nice, actually.”

“Careful what you wish for,” he teases, reaching over to shut off the faucet. “The school day passes faster than you realize. Lemme get dressed and we’ll figure something out.”

“Clint.”

He’s halfway across the kitchen, almost to the archway that separates it from the living room, and turns around with his hands on his hips.

“Yeah?”

“I...you didn’t hear what I said before I died.”

He sucks in a breath, the sharpness of the air causing pain in his lungs. Every nerve ending twitches with a pulsating burn, every emotional trigger seems to be firing bullets into his brain, and for a brief second, he’s concerned he’s going to lose it entirely, the same way he did when she showed up on his doorstep after coming back.

“I heard,” he says, remembering the chill of the wind at the edge of nothing -- the breath stolen from her mouth as she gasped out the words before she let go of his hand, the feeling of holding everything and then nothing and dangling over an abyss that he wished, in the moment, would swallow him whole so that he never had to feel the pain that was threatening to tear his bones apart. The last thing she would say to the world, to him, the words that no one except someone standing over a desolate void of nothing would get to hear. He meets her eyes, and swallows down tears.

“You said you loved me.”

 

***

 

The thing about moving into a house that was old enough to technically be a fixer-upper more often than not was that there was never a shortage of unexpected work to keep Clint busy.

After he had come home, he had spent roughly two weeks doing nothing but repairing everything that had been left to its own devices for half a decade. The washing machine was fixed, Laura’s garden was re-planted, the grass was cut, the barn was repainted, the walls were re-plastered, the appliances were replaced. It was a good way to keep his mind off of the immediate aftermath of all the shit that came dealing with Natasha's death and adjusting to having his family back, and he knew Laura was aware of why he was focusing so much on home improvement because she never said anything.

“The roof is leaking,” Laura mumbles from her side of the bed, and Clint groans in the dark.

“No, is’not.”

She sighs sleepily. “Yes, it is. I can hear it. Can you just go check?”

Clint grunts but flings the covers back, noticing that the rain, which had started sometime during dinner, did sound heavier than usual. As he makes his way downstairs, his ears pick up on a thin dripping sound, which only gets worse when he reaches the back room of the house, the space that usually passes for a rec room or Laura’s office.

“Shit.”

Clint rubs his eyes and goes back into the kitchen, grabbing a pot from under the sink and placing it in the part of the room where the rain is coming through one of the soaked patches of wood. He glances up, trying to gauge how bad it is and if he can get away with letting it drip for another hour or so or if he needs to try to patch it now before it gets worse.

“Never a dull moment,” he mutters, suddenly feeling like someone is standing behind him. He expects it to be Natasha and is surprised to see Lila when he turns.

“What are you doing up?”

She shakes her head. “The rain woke me up. Is that okay?”

Clint looks at where she’s pointing, noting the tiny drops of water still steadily dropping into the pan.

“It will be,” he decides. “Nothing dad can’t fix. You should try to go back to bed.”

“I can’t sleep,” she admits, sitting down on the floor, and Clint joins her so he’s at least on her level.

“Wanna talk about it?”

Lila shrugs and looks up at the roof again, making a face. “I miss our old house.”

“Yeah,” Clint says, putting his arm around her. “I know. Me too.”

“Can we talk about your tattoos?”

“Uh.” He raises an eyebrow at the sudden change of question. “I guess. What do you wanna know?”

Lila leans over, tracing the inked outline of the skull face. “When did you get this one?”

Clint hesitates, trying to figure out how to answer. “Well...I was in Japan doing some work. Undercover work, really, so I needed to blend in.”

Lila looks a little skeptical that someone would get a whole armful of permanent tattoos just to go undercover and honestly, Clint doesn’t blame her.

“Did it hurt?”

“Some of them did. That big one did. It took a lot of time. Fortunately, your dad has a lot of experience with pain.” He throws her a small smile, and she smiles back hesitantly.

“Did you hurt yourself because you were hurting about Nat?”

For a moment, Clint’s not sure how to answer. He doesn’t even know if that’s what he was doing because in the moment, he hadn’t thought of anything past himself hurting. He had done enough research before he took off to know Natasha was alive, that she hadn’t gotten dusted, a thought that makes him feel guilty to reflect on because he knows he could’ve come to her if he really wanted to. Maybe if he knew that she was being abandoned by the people he trusted to stay by her and be her family, he would have changed his tune altogether.

But he also knew that if he had come to her, that would’ve meant giving into his grief. It would’ve meant accepting that things couldn’t be changed, that his family was really gone, and he had been too angry to think about anything beyond vengeance. The fact that he no longer wonders how easy it must have been for her to slip into violence without a second thought once upon a time gives him chills.

“I was sad about a lot of things,” he answers. “I was sad about you guys because you went away. I missed you a lot.”

“I missed you too,” Lila says, leaning into him and peering up at the roof again.

“You wanna help me repair that quickly?”

Lila sits up, a confused look shadowing her face. “Now?”

“I know. Mom would never let you stay up on a school night. But what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, right?”

Lila grins, looking a little calmer. “Right.”

Clint gets up, heading to his study to grab a box of tools and other random home improvement items, bringing them back to the room. “Do me a favor and look for a putty knife in there. You remember what one that is?”

Lila nods and starts sifting through the pile of tools while Clint disappears again, this time going to the closet to find a ladder and some spare pieces of plywood that he knows he’s banked for purposes just like these. Making sure to keep the noise level as low as possible, he brings them back to the room and sets the ladder up underneath the leaking spot.

“Remember when we first worked on the house, after we moved?” Clint asks as he takes the knife Lila is holding out, dipping it into some roofing putty.

Lila nods. “Yeah. You taught me all the house things. I liked learning about stuff like this.”

“You liked that?” He holds the knife towards her. “You like it now?”

Lila nods and Clint takes more putty, putting it on the knife and pretending to spread it on her face.

“What about now?”

“Daaaad!” Lila giggles loudly, jerking away, and Clint shushes her quickly while she sobers up. “Sorry.”

“Alright, hand me that one piece of wood.”

He starts climbing the ladder while Lila holds it steady, handing him the piece of plywood when he’s high up enough to reach the problem spot. Spreading tar carefully over the leak, he puts the plywood on top of it and adds an additional few coats, squinting carefully to make sure he’s gotten all the rogue holes.

“That’ll do for tonight,” he decides, climbing down and handing the knife back to Lila. “I’ll go into town and buy some things to fix it better tomorrow. For now, though, we both gotta go back to bed.” He decides he can leave the ladder up, picking up the box of tools so he can bring them back to the study. Lila follows him out of the room, waiting for him to put things away before they climb the stairs together.

As he reaches the top of the landing, steering Lila towards her room, he sneaks a glance down the hallway and realizes that a small sliver of light is peeking out from underneath Natasha’s door. Part of him wants to go bug her if she’s up, since it’s nearly two in the morning. But he knows he has to take care of his daughter first, and after Laura’s most recent words, he’s not sure how he feels about showing up in her bed multiple nights in a row.

“Dad?”

“Yeah, baby girl?” Clint tears his gaze away from Natasha’s room as he joins her in the bedroom and closes the door.

“Is Auntie Nat gonna be okay? I mean, is she always going to be sad?”

Clint smiles mournfully, leaning over to kiss Lila on the head. “I hope not,” he says, and he lets out a long breath as he repeats the words in his mind.

I hope not.

 

***

 

When Clint wakes up the next morning, stumbling out of the bedroom and down the stairs, Natasha’s door is tightly closed. Rather than bother to see if she’s up, he decides to put his efforts into getting his children fed and out the door, figuring if she’s sleeping late, she’ll let come down when she’s ready.

Ready turns out to be well after his kids have all been sent off to school and well after Laura has left with a long list of items that they needed to pick up from the grocery store. He watches her walk into the kitchen, eyeing her movements and the way she’s carrying herself.

“You were up late last night.”

She raises both eyebrows as she sits down at the table. “Checking up on me?”

Clint sighs. “No,” he replies honestly. “The roof was leaking and I had to get up and go fix it. I came back upstairs and saw your light was on.”

Natasha looks a little guilty, like she’s been caught in the act of doing something she’s been trying to hide, but the emotion quickly passes. “I was reading. You could’ve come in and said hi.”

“Lila got up with me and I had to bring her back to bed,” he answers, not feeling too bad because it's the truth. “But I didn’t want to bother you. I thought you could use the space.”

“Right,” Natasha says tightly. “Well, I got space.”

From the tone of her voice, he feels like something is off and it’s not just her pre-coffee crankiness. He gets up to pour a cup anyway, sliding it across the table.

“I know you’re feeling better now that you’re here. I’ve just been giving you space because I didn’t want you to think I was being overprotective. Or...or making you talk about things you didn’t want to talk about. You know, like the things that you were telling me you were scared about the other night.”

“Except that’s the problem,” Natasha says, and he sees her make the Ronin connection in her mind without much issue. “You don’t want to talk about things. But I do. And I need to. So I appreciate that you’re trying to give me space and yes, I want that space, but I also don’t want you to sit there and make googly eyes at me just because I’m alive.”

“Is that what I’m doing?” Clint asks, feeling suddenly hurt and a little frustrated. “Nat, come on. I told you I’d do whatever I had to do to take care of you, but I’m sorry that I’m not going to stop saying I’m happy you’re alive when I thought I’d lost you forever.”

“Well, maybe I don’t want to hear it!” Natasha snaps, her eyes flashing with a fiery, angry spark. “Just because I came back doesn’t mean I’m fine! I got lucky, okay? And I hate that I got lucky!”

“So you wish you would’ve stayed dead?”

The moment he speaks, he wishes he could rewind time and take his words back. As it is, Natasha’s face takes on a cold look, and he’s surprised she doesn’t fly out of her chair and start beating him up.

“Maybe I did,” she replies threateningly, and the undercurrent of danger in her voice is almost worse than the physical violence he knows she’s holding back. “After five years of being someone no one gave a shit about, would that be so hard to believe?”

“Yes,” Clint argues heatedly. “Because I know you, and you may have thought you were being noble when you threw yourself off that cliff, but you sure as hell didn’t want to die out there.”

Natasha falls into silence, and in the cracks of her mask of anger, he can see the pain she’s trying to hide. “You know nothing about what I went through,” she says in a low voice. “Don’t you dare make that assumption.”

Clint rubs his eyes, suddenly more tired than he’s aware of. “This is stupid,” he says finally. “It’s stupid to fight. We were there together. We did this together. I know I shouldn’t blame you for something I couldn’t control. But --”

“But?” Natasha prompts, her voice still icy.

“But I still feel like it’s my fault,” Clint continues. “I could’ve gone over.”

“No,” Natasha says instantly. “You couldn’t have, because I was better.”

“Is that the excuse you’re giving yourself?” He shakes his head, trying to control his temper. “You know, I saved you. I didn’t kill you all those years ago when I was supposed to...but then I did kill you.”

“If you’re saying that you killed me because I’m a better fighter, then that’s stupid,” Natasha declares. “I’ve always been better at close combat. You know this, Clint. And if I didn’t let you go, you would’ve had to let go of me, and that would’ve been more painful than what I already had to experience. So yes, I made a fucking choice.” She looks around the farm, her eyes settling back on him. “It was worth it, wasn’t it?”

Wasn’t it? He had gotten his family back. He had held them in his arms, he had gotten back a life he thought he’d lost forever. But in the process, he’d lost his best friend - and now, even though he had her back, he doesn’t know if he can ever get back to the way things were before all that loss became a part of him.

“I didn’t say it wasn’t worth it. But it doesn’t mean I can’t feel guilty about what happened.”

“Well like it or not, it happened,” Natasha says shortly. “And I’m reminded of that every single time I close my eyes, and every single time I look around this house and realize that there was a life you all led where I was a goddamn memorial. So maybe sometimes I don’t want to brush it under the rug, because I want people to remember I’m someone who exists with feelings.” She gets up, taking her coffee cup with her, and disappears up the stairs. He hears the bedroom door slam hard, and anger bubbles up inside him -- anger at himself for not being able to control his emotions, anger at her for leaving him alone and forcing him to deal with all this hurt, angry at the world for dealing both of them the worst hand possible, because why not fuck with two people whose lives had already been through more than they should be able to handle? He gets up and starts to leave the kitchen, so lost in thought that he almost collides with Laura coming through the door, an armful of groceries in her right hand.

“Are you okay?” she asks as he narrowly pulls himself out of the way, avoiding a collision.

“Fine,” he says curtly, and Laura looks at him in exasperation as he angrily brushes past.

“Clint!”

“Look, I’m sorry, okay?” Clint whirls around at the door, his jaw clenched in anger and hurt. “I’m sorry I’m a terrible husband, I’m sorry I haven’t been a good dad cause I’m too caught up in my guilt, and I’m sorry that I can’t be better.” He throws out the last line before continuing out the door, making it about halfway across the lawn before Laura catches up to him, grabbing him by the arm and forcing him to turn around.

“What the hell is your problem?” she asks in annoyance. “There’s no reason for you to snap at me like that. I don’t care if something happened here, if something happened with Natasha -- you don’t get to take it out on me for no reason.”

Something about the way she’s talking -- the shaky tenor in her voice, the way her words are coming out fast and loud -- compels him to pull himself back together. He closes his eyes, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. “You’re right,” he says after a moment. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened.”

“You don’t?” Laura gives him a look and Clint sighs again, shoving his hands in his pockets.

“Nat and I had a small fight, okay? But it’ll be fine. We just need to work some shit out.”

“Really.” Laura raises an eyebrow. “You know, you’re not the only one who needs to work things out.”

Clint rubs his face with the back of his hand. “I know. But Laura, it’s just...it’s a lot. I was there on that planet. And I lost her. And now she’s back and I don’t know what to do to make things better.”

“You can start by giving yourself some goddamn credit and forgiving yourself for what happened, rather than beating yourself up for it,” Laura snaps. “I could’ve blamed you for the way you acted when you came back, but I chose to let myself understand it, because Natasha was my friend, too. Sometimes, I feel like you forget that.”

She turns and leaves him outside, and as an owl hoots overhead, Clint realizes that for the second time in under an hour, he’s been yelled at by two of the most important people in his life. He looks up at the house, knowing he needs to make amends with someone before everyone gets home. Talking to Natasha was out of the question because she clearly needed more time to sit with her thoughts, but he could at least try with Laura.

He walks back into the house slowly. Laura’s still putting away groceries in the kitchen so he manages to slip in unnoticed, heading to the small cupboard where they keep their stash of alcohol. Working quickly, he gets out a glass and pours in Prosecco, St. Germain, and a few bitters, mixing the ingredients swiftly before he walks back into the kitchen. Hesitating by the door, he clears his throat and offers out the glass.

Laura looks up, her face changing when she sees what he’s holding.

“Really?”

Clint offers a weak smile. “I, uh. I know I shouldn’t have yelled, so I wanted to make it up to you.”

Laura sighs. “Making our signature wedding cocktail doesn’t help,” she says, even though she accepts the drink anyway.

“I know it doesn’t.” Clint pauses. “Not really. But I did want to apologize.”

“Apology accepted,” Laura replies, though he feels like she’s just saying it to make him happy. “I’m okay.”

“You’re not,” Clint says, because he can tell. “Talk to me.”

“We just tried that,” Laura reminds him. “You yelled at me, remember?”

“Come on.” Clint gestures towards the drink. “Just...tell me what’s wrong and what’s bothering you. What’s really bothering you. Because I know something is up.”

Laura puts the glass down and traces one finger over the rim, eyes darting to the either side as if she’s waiting to see if Natasha will come and interrupt them.

“You,” she says quietly. “You’re what’s wrong, Clint. You’re hurting, and I know you’re hurting, because I’ve seen it every day since you got back. You talk about how you can’t help Natasha and how much that frustrates you, and I get it...I get why that hurts. But I can’t help you, because I don’t know how to make it better. We’ve gotten through everything else together, but suddenly, I can’t help my own husband.”

Clint lets her talk without trying to defend himself or push back, and suddenly, he knows he can’t hold back his secrets anymore. As much as he wanted to argue, she was right. She couldn’t make it better, and part of that was because she didn’t know the full story -- which, as Laura pointed out, had never been them. He’d always been open about his work and his secrets, Natasha included. He’d always come to her to help him through things he couldn’t work out himself.

He moves before he can stop himself, disappearing to his study and opening the lock on a cabinet drawer. Seeing the black and gold hood -- the only non-weapon thing he’d bothered to keep from his vigilante exploits -- sends shivers of regret up his spine, but he closes his eyes against the memories as he clutches the hood in his hands, the fabric searing into his skin.

“Clint.” Laura looks annoyed as he walks back into the kitchen, pushing the hood into her hand.

“This is Ronin.”

Laura’s brow creases, her tone shifting from annoyed to confused as she studies the object. “I don’t understand. Who’s Ronin?”

“Me,” he says, trying to keep his voice steady. “I’m Ronin.”

Laura frowns, more lines appearing on her face. “I don’t...I don’t understand.”

Of course she didn’t understand. Ronin was before Thanos -- before half the population came back, before the most important thing in everyone's life became integrating back into the world. He may have made headlines in the moment but whatever was out there five years ago was no doubt buried under millions of articles about current events, or probably Tony's death, meaning there's nothing Laura would have probably come across, even on the news.

“Can you go get your laptop please?”

Laura nods, getting up and grabbing her small Macbook from where it’s been charging on the kitchen counter. She brings it back to the table and Clint opens it, putting in their password -- Cooper, Lila, and Nate’s birthday, all combined -- bringing up a webpage and conducting a quick search with keywords.

‘“Ronin is who I was,” he says slowly, turning the computer so she can see the article he’s pulled up. It’s in Japanese, which he knows neither of them can really read well enough to be fluent, but he also knows the pictures are clear enough to convey what he wants to show -- a slew of dead bodies littering the ground, a frozen picture of a man with a sword, his eyes unmasked just enough for someone to see that there might be a human underneath all the violence that’s being unleashed in the picture. “After you disappeared, I didn’t know what to do. I just wanted revenge. I wanted someone to pay for the fact that had I lost my whole family, because what are the odds that it’s just me...that I’m the one who always ends up alone?” He thinks of Natasha, and tries to compose himself before continuing. “So I did this. I hunted down gangs and people who needed to be punished and I...I killed to punish them. I broke, Laur. I didn’t even go and try to find Natasha to see if she was okay. God, I’m so sorry...I know I can’t erase anything I’ve done but I’m -- I’m sorry.”

Laura’s quiet for a long time, and she can’t seem to tear her gaze away from the computer screen. “Five years?”

“Most of them,” he admits, looking down at his hands as Laura finally looks up.

"You didn't talk to Natasha that whole time? At all?"

Clint shakes his head, the guilt gnawing at his stomach, biting away at his insides with sharp pricks. "I...I should've. But I didn't. I just went off on my own because I didn't want to see anyone and I didn't think anyone could help me."

Laura lets her eyes wander the kitchen and then drops her gaze to his arm, and Clint feels slightly unnerved that she's taking all of this so calmly. 

“The tattoos?”

He winces. “Every time I lost a bit of myself, I…I got another tattoo,” he admits. “I guess it was a way of trying to track my ledger.”

Laura puts her hands on the table, delicately spreading her fingers. “So how did you stop?”

Clint bites down on his lip. “Natasha found me,” he says in a low voice. “She came to me while I was in Japan and told me that we had a chance...a hope of bringing you back. She brought me back. It was before we went on the time travel mission.”

“So you’re saying if Natasha hadn’t found you, you would’ve continued doing what you were doing?” Laura asks in a steady voice. Clint clenches his teeth together, because he knows he can’t lie.

“Maybe.”

Laura doesn't respond to that and he's got no idea what to say, so he doesn't say anything -- he figures at this point, he’s done all the damage he can do, and if says anything else he’ll just make it worse.

“I’m not mad about what you did,” Laura says finally. “What you became. But I am mad that you felt like you couldn’t tell me.”

“Would you have forgiven me if I did tell you?”

“I would have listened,” Laura says softly, her eyes glistening with tears. “I’ll always listen, Clint. You’re my husband and I love you.”

His eyes burn as he tries to hold his own tears back, because he feels like losing it here and now will only make him look more pathetic. “Even with this?”

Laura swallows hard, and the pause is just enough of a lag that Clint suddenly feels like he can’t breathe.

“Look, now you know,” he says, getting up from his chair, unable to sit with her judgements and his confessions any longer. “You know everything. You know why I hate myself and why I feel like I don’t deserve to have Natasha back or have anyone back, and you know why I can’t ever tell our kids what I became. You know why those five years were something I want to forget. So I hope you’re happy living with that.”

He leaves her in the kitchen, managing to make it upstairs to his own bedroom before he lets himself finally break.

Chapter Text

Natasha has gotten plenty angry at Clint over the years. There were no shortage of incidents where she’d been so pissed off she’d thought about leaving him and SHIELD altogether, and she knows that on the sliding scale of their history, this isn’t nearly as bad as other fights they’ve had. The stakes were high -- actual death and sacrifice ranked pretty close to the top of their serious arguments -- but the actual nature of the fight had been less about anger and more about frustration.

Still, Natasha can’t let it go. She can’t get the words out of her mind, the accusations that he had made, and while she knows most of it was his unchecked anger speaking, it hurt to hear him say she died because she wanted to -- because she had no other choice. She wanted to yell at him and ask if he wanted to be the one who died instead, if he wanted to be stuck in what she was going through, though she knows that’s not fair. He had been willing to lay down his life at the expense of everyone else despite the fact that the risk included never seeing his family again.

Natasha stays upstairs for a long time, not quite ready to re-enter a social environment even though she knows it’s getting closer to the middle of the day, which means that soon everyone will return home from school and she’ll have to deal with being social whether she likes it or not. She locks the door and opens a book, barricading herself in silence while Lila and Cooper and Nate stomp through the house; she feels slightly bad for ignoring Clint’s kids when she had promised to be around but she also knows she can pull off that she’s taking a nap or that she’s busy.

When she finally does decide to leave her room, in part because of a growling stomach she can’t ignore, she’s surprised to find the house quiet and Laura sitting alone in the living room, holding a glass of wine. Natasha frowns as she takes in the scene.

“Where is everyone?”

Laura doesn’t look up. “Out. Clint took the kids on a walk.”

Natasha eyes Laura’s wine glass, the way her hands are clutching the stem too hard, and suddenly, everything clicks.

“He told you.”

Laura nods at the floor. “He did.”

It’s Natasha’s turn to look down and she takes a few deep breaths, because she knows this fight isn’t about her anymore. “I’m sorry. I knew you didn’t know and I would’ve -- I wanted to tell you.”

“It wasn’t your place to tell me,” Laura replies. “It was his. And I know that he was scared, but we’ve been married for years, and I just got him back…” She trails off, finally raising her eyes, which Natasha notices are red-rimmed. “I don’t understand.”

“I don’t either,” Natasha answers, because she honestly doesn’t, because there’s a part of her that’s still angry at him for abandoning her when he had to have known she was alive. “But I do know that the reason he didn’t want to tell you was because he didn’t want you to see him as a monster. He cared so much about getting you back, it was the only thing that mattered to him...he just wanted to move on from what he became.”

“I know. I just...I wish he would’ve told me.” Laura pauses, shaking her head. “I wish he would tell me anything. Ever since he came home, he’s been like this. First it was you -- he refused to talk about how much he was hurting and I knew that it was hard for him so I didn’t push it. But then you came back, and I know he still feels guilty for what happened, and now this.”

Natasha listens with a lump in her throat, trying to figure out what to say. She knows it’s not Laura’s intention to make her feel bad, but the pain that comes with her words is hard to ignore.

“It was my fault.”

Laura gives her a quizzical look. “What do you mean?”

Natasha sighs. “I mean, I could’ve stopped him. I could’ve found him. I knew he was out there. I knew what he was doing -- maybe not how badly he was hurting people, not for awhile, but I knew he was alone and doing bad things. But I was so lost in my own head I could barely do anything to help the people who had stayed with me. And then one year turned into five years...and things got worse...and nothing changed...and I got scared. How could I go find him and bring him back on nothing? How could I tell him that he should come home just because I needed him?”

“Because he would’ve come home,” Laura says immediately, before catching herself. “Do you think you could’ve helped?”

Natasha pauses, trying not to shudder at the image that still haunts her -- Clint standing in a pool of blood, thrusting his sword into the body of a man who was begging for mercy. The hard body stance, the cold eyes, and the firm voice were all things that she recognized, having been there herself, having lost herself in that vengeance -- that need for a violent release -- and it had hurt her so much to see him that way she doesn’t think she’ll ever forget it.

“I don’t know,” she says after a moment. “I really don’t know.”

Laura lets out a long sigh, taking a sip of wine. “It wasn’t on you. It wasn’t on anyone. This hasn’t been easy for us, and we shouldn’t put it all on you.”

“No one should put it all on you, either,” Natasha says softly. She swallows hard. “Look, I know Clint and I have some stuff we need to work out. I mean, you don’t just come back from being dead and suddenly bounce back into what was normal. You can’t just forget everything that happened before you...before you died.”

“No one is expecting you to,” Laura responds. Natasha smiles sadly.

“All I’ve felt since coming back is guilt -- guilt for being responsible for everyone else’s grief. And that’s never what I wanted. I just wanted to do something that would bring everyone back, that would save the people I cared about. My friends...my family.”

Laura moves a little closer on the couch, putting her hand on Natasha’s shoulder. “And you did that. Having you back as been the biggest gift that we could’ve asked for, and getting Clint back felt the same way. Don’t ever forget that.”

Natasha nods, trying to believe Laura’s words. “If you need to talk more --”

“I know,” Laura says heavily. “I will, but I think I just need some time to deal with this on my own. And be a mom.”

Natasha’s heart twists in a spasm of pain; she’d never underestimated how hard parenting actually was because she’d seen Laura and Clint do it enough to know that it was more than just taking care of food requests and reading bedtime stories. But in times like these, when everything seemed to be imploding in their adult world, it seemed even more unfathomable that they had to shove all that aside in order to make sure their children were taken care of.

“I understand.”

She gets up, leaving Laura in the living room, and walks outside. The feeling of fresh air imbues her with a slight increase in energy as she sits on the front porch, staring out at the lawn, focusing on Laura’s small garden and how bright the peonies seem under the sunlight. Everything seemed a little brighter now, and she wonders if maybe it’s because she’s looking at everything with a new light, some kind of new appreciation.

Natasha closes her eyes, trying to remember how to breathe.

 

***

 

Despite so many years of knowing Clint’s family, Natasha will continue to be amazed at how well they’ve all learned to function during moments of chaos. Even though Cooper and Lila are now old enough to know when the adults in their lives are being cagey about something, Laura and Clint manage to interact around each other so easily, even Natasha forgets that they’re probably still frustrated.

For the most part, the kids she’s always loved as her own continue to adjust to her being back slowly; Natasha begins to pick up on the fact that each new day brings a little more comfort and reassurance that they can accept that she’s really back. She gets it, because she did the same thing to herself when she first came back, and tries to put her feelings aside so that she can direct all her efforts into making herself present. It helps her forget the things that are still bothering her, but Clint’s children have always provided that -- a more innocent outlook, a non-judgmental attitude, a space where she could feel like herself and not like she needed to pretend.

A few days later, Natasha’s sitting on the front lawn with a book when Cooper walks outside to join her, having changed after coming home from school.

“Can I sit here with you?”

“Sure.” Natasha puts down her book and pulls her legs into a triangle. “If you want.”

Cooper nods and gets to the ground, matching her pose. “Can we talk about it?”

“About what?” Natasha asks, even though she has a feeling she knows what’s coming next. Cooper swallows.

“About...you know. Dying.”

The worst part of all of this, Natasha thinks, is that no one is going to drop it. No one is just going to let her be, and while she does want to talk about it, she also wants it to hurt less when people like Cooper and Lila and Nathaniel ask her about things that she feels young children shouldn’t be thinking about this.

“Mom thinks that we shouldn’t talk about it,” Cooper continues, as if reading her mind. “Because it’s not normal. But I came back to school and my best friends were five years older. That’s not normal either. Dad’s job was never normal. You were never normal.”

“I know,” Natasha says slowly, shifting her body so that she’s fully facing him. “What do you want to know about dying?”

Cooper looks a little less confident now that the question has been thrown back at him, but bravely pushes on. “Mom and dad said you died but you didn’t. Did it hurt?”

“Yes,” Natasha says, because she thinks that even if she’d survived and the situation was reversed, the answer would be the same. “It did.”

“Were you scared?”

Natasha sinks her teeth into her bottom lip. “Very scared.” She doesn’t feel insecure saying the words out loud because somehow, it’s easier to be open with someone who isn’t on her level in terms of age and wisdom and life experience.

“Are you scared now?”

Natasha suddenly doesn’t know how to answer. The easiest truth is that yes, she is, and she thinks she’ll always be, at least until enough years pass that she can put some distance between what happened and her feelings. But she feels like if she says that, she’s going to open up a whole new can of worms.

“Do you remember when you were five years old and you fell out of your treehouse?”

Cooper looks a little confused but nods. “Yes.”

“And you remember how afterwards you didn’t want to go back up there? Because you told your dad that you were scared, even though we told you there was no reason that you should fall again now that things were fixed?”

Cooper nods again and Natasha tries to smile. “Well, that’s what it feels like with me. I’m not really scared, but sometimes it’s scary to think about things happening again when you’ve already experienced something. Right?”

“Yeah, I guess.” Cooper scrunches up his nose. “I’m sorry you were like, kinda dead.”

The casual nature of the response nearly causes Natasha to laugh, and it’s a feeling she realizes she’s missed. “I’m sorry I couldn’t come home right away and see you,” she says, putting her arm around him. “I know it was probably scary for you to think about me not being here.”

“It was,” Cooper admits. “It’s just been weird. I mean, you were gone and now you’re back.”

“But I’m back, and that’s what matters, right?” Natasha gives him a small grin, bumping his shoulder gently.

“Yeah.”

She gets up, waiting to see if he’ll follow, but Cooper picks up the book Natasha’s left spread open on the grass instead. As she walks back to the house, she debates whether or not she wants to hang out downstairs or busy herself in another way and without thinking about it, she finds herself wandering upstairs and into the guest bedroom, closing the door before unearthing a box of pointe shoes from underneath the bed.

It had seemed silly at first to take up ballet again, considering it was never something she truly enjoyed in the first place. But she had been good at it -- good even though Madame had pushed her and her body to a breaking point (even though she didn’t break, she was made of metal, not porcelain), good even though she had gone to bed every night wishing she could get out of another lesson. When everyone started moving away from the compound, Natasha not only found herself alone, she found herself stalled. Despite the many years of relaxing at Clint’s farm and enjoying the general feeling of laziness, despite long days of lying in bed and feeling grateful that she didn’t have anything to occupy her, a large quiet space and lack of human contact made her realize that she was painfully, acutely aware of her thoughts and her anxieties. For awhile, when it seemed like maybe there was some hope of bringing everyone back, she had put her efforts into training and fighting, keeping herself busy when no one else was around. But faced with the possibility of filling time by herself when there was no one to talk to or no missions to take on, Natasha suddenly found herself sinking into a hole of loss.

So she dug up the pointe shoes she’d carried around with her for years, the ones that had moved from drawer to backpack to drawer, always tucked away under clothing and weapons so she wouldn’t be tempted. Every step back into ballet was painful, a shooting, stabbing red hot fire that tore through her bones as if her body was reminding her why she had shunned her practice over the years, but the physical hurt made her feel better and at least took her mind off of her mental hurt.

Natasha slips the shoes on her feet and stretches slowly, bending and arching into comfortable positions. Cautiously, she leans forward onto her toes, before relaxing again as a short knock interrupts her.

“Can I come in?”

Natasha quickly removes her shoes, shoving them under the mattress before sitting down on the bed. “Free farm house.”

Clint smiles briefly as he enters, closing the door behind him. “Listen, I know I said stuff before that made you upset. I guess I’m still having trouble dealing with a lot of things from...you know, from that.”

“Don’t you want to say it?” Natasha asks with a pointed look.

Clint sighs, clenching his teeth. “From you dying. Are you happy now?”

Natasha shrugs, moving her gaze to the floor. “I just think that saying it out loud is something you should do more often. It’s a real thing that happened, Clint.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. You want to address it and not sweep it under the rug. I get it.” He runs a hand through his hair, which Natasha notices is growing long at the ends. “But don’t I get to have my own feelings? Nat, you coming back was...it was everything I ever wanted. For awhile, it didn’t seem real. And I guess I’m just still scared that I’m going to lose you again.”

“I’m scared, too,” Natasha says, looking up. “I’m the one that died, Clint. I have to live every day not knowing if this is a temporary thing or if I should be thankful that the universe paid out some unresolved debt.”

Clint frowns. “Not to say I told you so, but you’re the one who said you didn’t want to know what happened.”

“That’s true,” Natasha admits. “But I don’t think knowing or not knowing is going to change how I feel.” She pauses at the way his face shifts, knowing exactly what’s coming based on the sheer determination she can see in his eyes. “What?”

Clint blinks, as if he’s surprised that he’s been called out, even though she knows as well as he does they can’t hide things from each other. “I just...I wanna talk to Bruce anyway.”

“You don’t have to,” Natasha says resolutely. “I promise. Forget what I said, okay?”

“Yeah, but Nat --” He pauses, shaking his head. “If here’s a small way I can make this better for you, I want to try. Even if that means I have to change time and I have to be the one to make the sacrifice, like I wanted to in the first place.”

Natasha closes her eyes, counting to ten in her head before she speaks again, willing herself not to lose it because she doesn’t think she has it in her to start another argument. “That’s not fair,” she says as calmly as she can. “Steve said we don’t trade lives. And we don’t.”

“Oh fuck that,” Clint snaps. “You can’t say that to me when you flung yourself off a cliff at the expense of the goddamn world! One person for the world, Natasha, that’s not how it works!”

“Don’t you dare tell me this is or isn’t how it works,” Natasha snaps back, all resolve to keep herself calm shattering with the force of his own anger. “I told you, this was all I was trying to do for five years! All I wanted to do was get everyone back, get your family back! If you died, I couldn’t have lived with myself.”

“And you think I was any different? Jesus FUCK, Nat!” He throws up his hands. “You know, for years I worried about having to tell my kids about my own death and it turned out I had to tell them about you! Because you sacrificed yourself without giving a shit about anyone you were leaving behind.”

“Really?” Natasha asks coldly, folding her arms across her chest. She can feel herself vibrating with anger, the hurt and frustration of saving the world and still not having anyone realize that she did it because it was her own choice, her own agency to make the call. “You think I wasn’t thinking of anyone except myself? I was the last person I was thinking of! For five years, I had was a building to myself and people who didn’t care about me. Five years, Clint! You were off on your murder spree and I was sitting here alone! I could barely make a goddamn sandwich because I felt so shitty. So don’t you dare call my sacrifice something I didn’t think about, because it was the only thing I thought about!”

“Well, if you’re going to blame this on me, you could’ve found me earlier,” Clint trades just as sharply. “And then maybe then I’d be able to tell Laura about what I did instead of having to hide it and have her realize her husband is a goddamn murderer. You really didn’t know where I was, Nat? You, with all your resources and sending people out on missions, you had no idea where I was for five years?”

“Right,” Natasha sneers coldly. “Put your guilt on me, Clint, like you always do. I was trying to keep what was left of our team together and I was the only one doing that. Steve didn’t care, Carol didn’t care -- it was all on me, and I was alone! You didn’t come to me, either! I gave everything to save the world and do you think the world gave a damn about me in the end? Because it didn’t! I got no funeral, no recognition, nothing! You were the only thing I had, and you weren’t even there!”

Their words fade into lingering silence as they both sit with each other’s anger, letting the hostility of the argument bleed into the air. Clint heaves out a long sigh and moves to sit down on the bed.

“You know...I never imagined that you’d come back from being dead and we’d yell at each other.”

“You didn’t?” Natasha asks icily. “Because I’d say that’s pretty much us, dying or not.” She pauses, making sure she knows what she’s going to say before she says it. “Clint, I get it. I know why we’re both upset and I know why you want to help me. But I think...I think this is a lot more complicated. I think you need to figure yourself out before you figure me out.”

“I said I would be there for you,” Clint replies immediately. “I’m not going to just abandon you while you’re not okay to take care of myself. That’s selfish.”

“Will you listen to yourself?” Natasha asks in frustration. “The fact that you can’t move past trying to make this your fault is already selfish! We’re both at fault for what happened, we both could have almost died --”

“She’s right,” Laura interrupts, and Natasha is so surprised to see her standing in the doorway that she almost falls off the bed. Clint swivels his head and she knows from the look on his face that neither of them have heard her approach, which in turn makes Natasha feel bad about how much noise they might have been making that could have been overheard.

“Laura --”

“No, Clint. She’s right. You’re being selfish, and honestly, I could say the same thing about Natasha throwing herself off some cliff, even if the reason she did it was because she wanted to make us a family again. But right now, none of that matters.” She stops, looking tired, and then walks inside the room, closing the door. “You’re not the only ones who have gone through something.”

Natasha doesn’t have to look at Clint to know that everything his wife is saying is true, and she immediately feels guilty about the fact that Laura’s dealing with her own issues and yet still has to play mediator. She knows she should should be better -- they should be better.

“I’m sorry,” Clint says finally. “I’m sorry I never told you about Ronin --”

“This isn’t about that,” Laura interrupts, though Natasha feels it probably is, at least in a small way. “This is about what’s going on between us and what’s been going on for awhile. And if we don’t figure ourselves out, your family is going to suffer.”

The room becomes silent again, and it’s a silence Natasha hates, especially here -- a heaviness that percolates between them, the unsaid words and awkwardness that makes everything feel hard and uncomfortable and strange.

“So how do we do this?” Natasha asks, breaking the quiet simply so she doesn’t have to sit and listen to her own thoughts anymore. Clint and Laura turn to her as if they expect her to have the answer to her own question, a look that makes her want to yell and scream.

The fact that no one responds makes her feel even worse.

Chapter Text

Blissfully, Laura decides that the weekend means Natasha needs a day alone with the kids, and Clint knows that means that she’ll be away from the house for most of the day. They still hadn’t come to any kind of resolution concerning their argument a few days ago, and that was distracting him more than he was comfortable with admitting. Which is part of the reason he finds himself opening one of Laura’s binders and pulling out an old recipe for chicken cacciatore at 11am on a Saturday, only a few minutes after he’s officially finished cleaning up from breakfast.

He finds himself wishing for the days when it was all easier. Not necessarily when life and death wasn’t at stake so heavily, but when things between him and Natasha -- even things between him and Laura -- could be resolved by a quick joke or apology, the weight of a situation not defined by so much history and seriousness. They’re too deep into their history for simplicity like that now, everything building on another memory or circumstance and adding more tension to an already wobbling foundation, and Clint keeps wondering how long until it gives out completely.

Plus, he thinks sullenly as he pulls out more ingredients from the cupboard, you died and came back to life, and I almost died, and the world pretty much died.

“The last time I saw you cook something more than bread was when I had that terrible flu.”

“Ha.” Clint turns around, his eyes landing on Natasha as she leans against the entry of the kitchen. “I thought you were going out.”

“I’m waiting for your children to hurry their asses up,” Natasha responds, nodding towards the stairs. “Unsurprisingly, they seem to have inherited your time management.”

“Nah, just Nate,” Clint offers, separating out the chicken peices. “Cooper’s okay as long as you yell at him and Lila’s pretty good.”

“Like I said,” Natasha repeats with a smirk in her tone. “They seem to have inherited your time management skills.”

Clint huffs out a breath. “Whatever. Are you here to drop some more bitching on me about dying and guilt?”

Natasha looks a little surprised, her eyebrows rising cautiously. “No,” she says slowly. “That wasn’t my plan. But if you want, I’m sure I can find something new to yell at you about.”

Clint turns back around, smiling wryly at the mess of ingredients in front of him, and shakes his head. “I’d rather you didn’t.”

“Good, because I really didn’t want to.”

“Nat --”

The sound of his children running down the stairs cuts him off, as Lila bounds into the living room, hair flying behind her. Her coat is only half on, and her sneakers, he realizes, still need to be tied.

“Okay, we’re ready!”

Clint bites down on what he actually wants to say. “Hey, have fun, okay?” He wipes his hands on a towel and walks over, ruffling the top of Lila’s hair. “Don’t go too hard on Nat. She still has her secret skills, you know.”

Lila giggles and Natasha rolls her eyes as she turns around, walking towards the front door. Clint watches as Cooper and Nate stomp down more slowly -- Nate taking every step with consideration and Cooper dragging himself in the most teenage way possible -- and join Natasha and Lila at the front door.

“Don’t get lost out there,” he calls as the door opens. Natasha shoots him another look as Nate waves cheerily, and Clint waits until the door shuts before he returns to the kitchen. He’s in the middle of seasoning the chicken pieces with salt and pepper when he hears another set of footsteps walk in his direction.

“This is a new one.”

“Not you too,” Clint groans. “I’m not that simple, you know.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Laura says nonchalantly. There’s a hint of ice underneath her words, enough to make him understand she’s being incredibly pointed for a reason. “Maybe five years have changed you more than I know.”

He sighs, turning around and leaning against the counter. “You know, this is easy.”

“Cooking?” Laura raises an eyebrow, and Clint nods, casting his gaze towards the floor.

“Yeah. I mean, you just...you follow a recipe, you put the things that you need together and it should make something good. It’s kinda hard to fuck it up, even if you try.”

Laura walks slowly towards him and he counts the beats of her footsteps against the floor as her shadow gets closer. He closes his eyes, leaning forward when he knows she’s close enough to catch him in her hold.

“Do you hate me?”

“You know I don’t hate you,” she says quietly. “I could never hate you.”

“But I am fucking things up.”

“It’s not entirely your fault,” Laura admits. “But…”

“But?”

Laura pauses, as if she’s trying to figure out how to say her next words. “Have you considered therapy?”

Clint jerks away, almost banging his hip into the kitchen counter as he moves. “Laura, come the fuck on.”

“Clint, I’m not asking you because I think you have a problem,” she responds patiently. “I’m asking you because someone you love -- two people you love -- went through something hard. It’s clearly affecting you.”

“For god’s sake, Laura, we’ve been through worse!”

“I know,” Laura agrees. “And I know this life, this superhero life you’ve always had, these insane things we’ve had to deal with that I’d never imagine are even real. But sometimes, the scariest things that we need help with are the things that are normal.”

“Time travel isn’t normal,” Clint answers. “Neither is the world disappearing for five years and then coming back as if they’ve been gone for five minutes.”

“It’s not.” Laura pauses. “But dealing with grief and regret is something that’s normal.”

Clint doesn’t answer, looking down at the floor again, and Laura sighs.

“Promise me you’ll at least think about it,” she says after a moment. “I can’t imagine you’re the only person in the world who is dealing with something like this.”

“What, you think someone else came back from the dead?” Clint asks, though he knows that’s not a fair question. For the people who were snapped, it certainly felt like they had come back from the dead, given that friends had grown up and families had moved on. He knew that much from Laura.

When she finally leaves him alone, he tries to turn his attention back to cooking. When he can’t, he peeks into the living room, making sure Laura is nowhere to be found, and picks up his cell phone, which is charging on the table.

“Hi.”

“Hi.” Wanda sounds surprised, albeit tired. He realizes he doesn’t even know where she is right now; she had stayed in the States after Tony’s funeral but then had gone to Prague and for all he knew, she was now somewhere else entirely. “How are you?”

“I’m...good. I’m doing good.”

“And Laura? The kids are okay?”

“They’re okay. They’re great.” He pauses, trying to figure out how to continue. Wanda’s voice drops on the other end of the phone, and he’s not surprised that she’s been able to figure out that something’s up.

“What’s wrong?”

“Natasha came back.”

It’s easier to say it out loud now, largely because she’s back in his life in a way that doesn’t feel surreal. He realizes he’s waiting for Wanda to do what Bruce did -- talk him down, tell him he needs to take a break. But Wanda stays silent for a long time, and when she finally speaks, her voice is soft.

“Came back...from being dead?”

“Yeah,” Clint says roughly. “I know it sounds insane -- but she’s just suddenly not dead anymore.”

Wanda’s voice drops even lower. “How?”

Clint sighs, long and loud. “We don’t know,” he says honestly. “I mean, I’ve got theories and I’ve been trying to ask Bruce. She showed up at my door a few weeks ago, alive and fine and...I mean, she was a little shaken up but she was still Nat. It was her.” He pauses, feeling guilt flood his heart as he thinks about their conversation after Tony’s funeral. “God, I’m sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?” Wanda asks, sounding confused.

“Because Natasha’s back,” Clint answers, his eyes burning. “And Vision isn’t. And Pietro isn’t.”

Wanda swallows hard on the other end of the line and Clint can tell she’s trying to keep her voice from breaking. “You can’t compare their deaths,” she says quietly. “It’s not fair to either of them, Vision and Natasha or even Pietro. It’s not the same.”

“It is,” Clint argues, and he already hates himself for what he’s going to say next. “They died for the greater good. They sacrificed themselves because they thought they could save the goddamn world. It’s not fair that only one of us gets to have a second chance at being with the person we love again.”

“No,” Wanda says sadly. “It’s not. But I don’t regret what Vision did. Even though Thanos still got the stones in the end...it did work. We got our lives back.”

Clint wants to tell her that the only reason they all came back is because Natasha threw herself off a cliff, but he doesn’t want to keep rubbing salt in the wound.

“At a price.”

“It’s not easy,” Wanda admits heavily. “I miss him every day. I miss what we had, and what we didn’t have. I wish there were things I could do over again. But I know I’m lucky to have had any of it at all.”

Clint’s heart pangs with guilt. He knows he can’t take back the five years that Wanda was snapped away, but he knows that, like Natasha, he didn’t have to be totally absent from her life during the years he was on house arrest.

“I should’ve checked in more,” he starts. “I should’ve invited you over, tried to get to know him better --”

“No, you shouldn’t have,” Wanda interrupts and he can tell she’s trying to be gentle while still being firm. “You were under house arrest for a reason, and you wanted to be with your family. You deserved to be with them after almost not coming home. And I was fine, Clint. We were fine. I didn’t need anyone to watch my back. The whole point of us going off our own was so that no one had to watch our backs. We wanted a normal life, not a superhero life.”

Clint digs his toe into the ground. “Yeah, well. Dad protection never stops, you know.”

“I know,” Wanda says a little smugly, and he can imagine her smiling. “So what are you going to do about Natasha?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, she’s back, but is she okay?”

He scratches the beginnings of his beard. “She’s a little shaken and we still have to talk about...about things that happened,” he answers carefully. “I mean, we’re trying to talk about things. But there’s still a lot that we need to figure out.”

“As long as she has somewhere to stay where she feels comfortable and safe, that’s what matters,” Wanda says matter-of-factly. “After what she went through, she should be in a place she trusts.”

“Speaking of safe and comfortable, where are you?” Clint asks, trying to shift the conversation. Wanda snorts out a quiet laugh.

“Wouldn’t you like to know. I’m safe, and that’s all that matters. I’m trying to figure my life out.”

“Well.” Clint swallows. “I’m just saying, you know who to call if you need help.”

“And I will call you if I need help,” Wanda responds. “Besides, I know Nate’s getting big and I’d like to see him before he gets taller than me.”

“Better hurry then. He’s already kicking himself off the growth chart at school.”

There’s background noise that’s filtering through the phone line, sounds of people talking as if Wanda’s standing in a crowded space. He thinks about pressing her more about where she is, but he doesn’t, because he knows that giving her space and independence is something that she’s always respected. It’s what they’d built their relationship on, a mutual bond of trust not unlike how he had bonded with Natasha so long ago, and he knew better than anyone how Wanda could and would react to someone trying to protect her too much.

“I do miss you,” she continues. “But you should be there for Natasha. I don’t know what she’s going through, but I can’t imagine it’s not taking a toll on her.”

Clint closes his eyes, thinking of their previous arguments, unable to shake the uneasy feelings. “I want to help but I don’t know how. She wants me to talk about what happened to her and I’m still trying to understand what she went through. She was dead, Wanda. I was adjusting to life without her and she just...came back. Just like that.”

“You’re the one person she knows. The one person who knows her better than anyone. Think of how much she must be clinging to that right now

“Well,” Wanda says levelly. “Of course. Coming back from the dead can’t be easy.”

“Yeah.” Clint runs his tongue over his teeth. “Was it scary for you? Coming back?”

Wanda hesitates, as if she’s searching for a response. “It was strange,” she says finally. “I didn’t really know what was happening. I didn’t have time to think during the battle but afterwards, it hit me that I had been gone for five years. People had moved on. You had moved on. Your hair had moved on.” She pauses, and he knows she’s seeing if she can get a laugh out of him. “Things were just different. I came to the farm --”

“When?” Clint asks sharply. “When did you come to the farm?”

“After the funeral. Before you got home. I didn’t tell anyone I was here. I didn’t talk to Laura...I stayed away. I just needed to know if your family was safe after everything we did.”

Clint nods. “Yeah. They were safe. But they were gone for five years, too.”

“I know,” Wanda says sadly. “Clint, I have to go. I can call you back later.”

“Sure.”

He hates that the conversation is so short, but he knows that getting a little bit of time with Wanda is better than getting no time at all. “Landline’s always open, you know. No Accords, no Thanos...no one coming after my ass anymore. I think I can finally start giving out my number without looking over my shoulder.”

“I’ll remember that,” Wanda teases gently. “Take care of yourself, Clint.”

“You too,” he says, letting her hang up first before he lets the phone drop by his side.

 

***

 

Laura is paying bills when Clint approaches her a few days later, coffee in hand, tattoos on display thanks to a loose tank top.

“Hey,” he says tentatively as he sits down across from her. “I, uh, have something to ask.”

“Ask away,” Laura says, not looking up from her iPhone calculator.

Clint swallows, going over the words in his head before he says them out loud. “If I were to take off for a few days, would you mind?”

Laura finally looks up, sitting back in her chair and putting her pen down. “Take off to where?”

“Somewhere. I just want to see an old friend.”

“Hmm.” Laura looks down again, tapping one slippered foot against the hardwood. “Is that old friend any friend who knows Ronin?”

He knows he deserves it, every bit of the guardedness and pointed sarcasm his wife’s been showing him in the bedroom, during casual conversations, in front of thier kids. He shakes his head.

“It’s not. I promise. And I wouldn’t be more than a few days. I could be back by the end of the week.”

Laura rubs an invisible mark on her forehead, looking tired. “I don’t know,” she says after a moment. “Is going away really the best thing right now? For us? For the kids?”

“Maybe the kids could spend more time with Natasha,” Clint suggests. “I mean, without me around.”

“Maybe,” Laura says, but she doesn’t sound convinced. Clint runs a hand through his hair.

“Look, if I say that wherever I’m going might -- will -- help what we’re dealing with, will you let me go?”

Laura smiles sadly, putting one hand on top of his, letting her smooth skin lie on top of his coarse, scarred flesh. “I want to say yes. But I’m worried about what happens if I do, and I think I have a right to feel that way.”

Clint nods, moving his thumb and running it over the top of her palm. “I don’t want things to be an issue anymore. I really don’t. And I’m not running away from everything, I promise. I’m trying to find a way to deal with it, and I think I have an idea that can make a difference. I know I’m in the doghouse in a lot of ways, but can I ask you to trust me on that? Please?”

Laura still looks a little hesitant but nods, and Clint leans over to kiss her palm.

“I love you, you know that?”

Laura nods, her eyes suddenly looking brighter than usual. “I know.”

Later, when he talks to Natasha after dinner and before everyone is getting ready for bed, he’s not dumb enough not to have an explanation ready -- he knows that “somewhere” won’t pass with her.

“A job?” Natasha looks dubious. “For real?”

“Not an Avengers job.” Clint waves his hand around. “This guy who needs me to help him fix up parts of his house. It’s extra money for us. I won’t be gone more than a few days.”

Natasha frowns at the plate she’s still eating off of, the results of a late dinner. “You’re okay with leaving everyone now?”

He’s not. Not really. The thought of leaving Lila and Cooper and Nate makes him uncomfortable, even though he’d be leaving them in Natasha and Laura’s care. He doesn’t want to leave his children when he knows they’re vulnerable, when it still scares him to know they could disappear randomly at any moment, but he knows he doesn’t have a choice. He needs -- he wants -- to do this.

“I’ll manage.”

Natasha looks down and shrugs. “That means you’re going to leave me on parent duty, aren’t you?”

“What, you’re not sure you can handle it?”

He says the words jokingly, but he’s serious when his eyes find hers, and he sees her understanding what he doesn’t say in his jest. Natasha holds his gaze for a long time before looking back down her at her food.

“I can handle it.”

Clint grabs a chair, twisting it around and plopping down so that his head is resting on the high backing. “You know what I think of sometimes?”

Natasha shakes her head. “What?”

“Ultron. I mean, after Ultron. Sitting in my old kitchen and everyone being together, trying to figure shit out.”

“That was a long time ago,” Natasha says softly, and Clint knows she doesn’t just mean years wise.

“Yeah. I know. Everything seems like it was a long time ago.” He moves his jaw back and forth against the chair, sighing quietly. “Sometimes I wonder how we got here.”

“Hmmm.” Natasha smiles slightly. “If I remember correctly, you told me not to shoot you.”

“Best decision I ever made.” He bites down on his bottom lip, trying to catalogue the thoughts in his mind. “Do you think it was worth it? I mean, I’m not talking about your death. Just...all of it. Everything we’ve done. Everything we sacrificed. Everything we lost.”

“I think it was.” Natasha looks up and he can see her sad smile. “I told you, you realize things when you’re about to die. You realize what matters, what’s important, who is important...and I think I realized it was, in the end.”

Chapter Text

“Natasha, daughter of Ivan.”

The cold is real, almost as real as the voice that sends ice through her veins. Is this what Clint felt like when Loki was in his head? she wonders as she holds her gun steady, approaching the figure floating in front of them. He always talked about how the coldness of Loki’s voice was like ice in his blood, a cold he could never shake, one that froze his brain and his fingers and his voice.

“Clint, son of Edith.”

She advances, Clint in sync at her side, her gun never wavering.

“Who are you?”

The figure floats closer, his voice a whisper in the harsh wind. “Call me a guide. To you, and to all the seek the soul stone.”

“Oh, good,” Natasha mutters. “You tell us where it is, and we’ll be on our way.”

There’s coldness in her blood again, ice threatening to shake her words, but she tries to ignore the sensation. She was here for one purpose and one purpose only -- to get that fucking stone. Once they had the stone, they could go back to their own time and fix everything. They could get out of space, because she’s realizing in this moment how much she hates space. Maybe at one time she would’ve found it exhilarating and fun, the way Clint seems to find it, but now all she sees is its vastness and desolate lonesomeness, two things she had seen and felt enough of for five years to need any more of it.

“If only it were that easy. What you seek lies before you, as does what you fear.”

Natasha looks over the high cliff and sees the long, long way down, feels the chill rising up and settling in her bones. Clint leans over beside her, and even though his presence usually makes her feel warm, she can’t seem to find any comfort.

“The stone’s down there.”

“For one of you,” the figure confirms. “For the other, in order to take the stone, you must lose that which you love. An everlasting exchange. A soul for a soul.”

And she feels it in her heart, just as the realization hits her like a knife that’s dug itself into an open wound, without anyone saying anything else and without Clint even looking at her.

She knows she’s going to die.

Panic shakes her awake, fear and adrenaline forcing her eyes open as she sits up in bed, sweat on the back of her neck pushing her hair against her skin in an uncomfortable way. Natasha takes a series of deep breaths, trying to get herself to calm down, to find her grounding again. She stares across the room, focusing on a space on the wall that includes drawings tacked to the plaster -- mostly crayon houses from Nate, but a few sophisticated watercolor drawings from Lila as well.

She was still here. This wasn’t a dream. She wasn’t dead.

She wasn’t dead.

Natasha leans back against the headboard, letting tears leak from her eyes. She hates everything about this -- the awkwardness, the fear, the constant on edge feeling that’s created tensions with the people she loves. She wonders if she’ll ever be normal again or ever feel normal again -- she wonders if the world will ever feel normal again.

Natasha sits up, trying to acclimate herself as the world spins around her, and closes her eyes. Immediately, she sees Clint’s face against a sea of blackness, a silent anguished cry set in a look of despair and guilt. A second chill runs through her body, because it’s the last thing she remembers seeing before she died -- Clint’s face.

She doesn’t think she’ll ever forget that face.

“Fuck,” she mutters, getting out of bed. She doesn’t want to disturb Clint or Laura and she hates that she doesn’t know this house as well as she should, so she paces around the room until she feels comfortable enough to venture outside, despite the fact that she knows she’s setting herself up for potentially being seen and heard, which will undoubtedly lead to another argument or discussion about her mental well-being. Opening the bedroom door, she’s surprised to find Lila asleep against the wall, a book slipping from her lax hand.

“Hey,” Natasha whispers, leaning down and stroking her hair in an attempt to wake her up. “Why aren’t you in bed?”

Lila opens her eyes slowly, her face scrunched with still-deep sleep. “Aunt Nat?”

“Yeah, I’m here. You wanna get up and stay in my room?”

Lila mumbles a response incoherently and Natasha sighs, leaning over to gently help her up. She’s so much bigger than Natasha remembers from the last time she’d been at the farm, but her thin frame at least makes her easy to carry. She helps Lila into the bedroom, closing the door behind her and turning on the bedside lamp as Lila climbs into bed, throwing the covers over her body. Natasha stares down at the little girl -- teenager, she was really more of a teeanger now than the little girl that had clung to her neck so many years ago and made her butterfly drawings -- and lets herself smile as Lila opens her eyes, suddenly looking a little more alert.

“I hate this.”

“Hate what?”

Lila nods into the pillow. “What happened when we blipped.”

Natasha furrows her brow, sitting down on the bed. “Is that what people call it? A blip?”

“Mmmhmmm,” Lila answers. “Some kids disappeared like I did. But some didn’t, like dad. The people who didn’t are just older and different now. Even dad looks different and older.”

“Well, he’s got all those tattoos,” Natasha responds, trying to lighten the mood and not think about the fact that Clint looking older probably had less to do with the time that had passed and more to do with the amount of pain and suffering he’d seen and undergone in those five years. Lila smiles, but Natasha can tell it’s forced.

“Sometimes I wanna call my friends. But then I remember I can’t, because they’re all older now. They probably don’t even remember me.” Lila pauses, her voice dropping even lower. “Maybe they think I’m dead.”

“Hey,” Natasha says, reaching out to stroke her hair, because something about Lila casually throwing out death makes her feel uncomfortable, “that’s not true. They may have moved on, but it doesn’t mean they forgot about you. I’m sure if you called them, they’d be happy to hear from you.”

Lila makes a face. “I dunno. It’s weird. I’m weird.”

“Nah, you’re only weird to me when we’re together,” Natasha verifies, pushing her leg playfully. “I used to say that to you all the time, right?”

Lila makes a face. “You were dead,” she says after a moment, ignoring her words. “You were dead and you came back, wasn’t that weird for you?”

Natasha swallows, unsure of how to answer. Part of her wants to gently massage the question the way they’ve been doing for all the kids -- she wasn’t really dead, they just thought she was dead -- but she decides to bypass it in the name of honesty.

“Yeah,” she admits. “I didn’t know what to expect when I came back. I expected the world would’ve moved on. And some did.” She thinks of Steve and Tony, and then her mind settles on Clint. “But some didn’t.”

“Like dad?”

When Natasha looks at her in surprise, Lila shrugs, pulling the blankets up a little higher as if she’s worried she’s gotten herself in trouble by accident. “It’s just that he was really sad when you were gone. But now you’re back and he still seems sad. I think he’s sad about you.”

Natasha’s heart pulsates painfully in her chest as her mouth turns to sandpaper. She knows that she’s the most vulnerable here, in the middle of the night, alone with someone who always made her feel more human than anyone else. “Your dad’s heart is the biggest heart I’ve ever known,” she says, putting a hand against Lila’s cheek. “Sometimes that means he gets sad about things easily. But I’m fine. Your dad should worry about you guys and your mom, not me.”

“Mom and dad worry about you all the time,” Lila counters, and Natasha knows she can’t argue on that point.

“I know they do. But I’m back now, so that’s what we’re going to focus on. Okay?”

“Yeah,” Lila agrees, falling quiet. Natasha watches her close her eyes, wondering if she’s going to let herself fall asleep, and then Lila opens her eyes again.

“Sometimes I still feel it.”

Natasha frowns. “Feel what?”

“The way it felt when we disappeared.” She shifts in bed so that she’s facing Natasha rather than staring at the wall. “I felt like I was going to throw up. And then really dizzy. And then really terrible. And then I just felt like I was asleep. It was scary.”

Natasha squeezes her shoulder gently, knowing the lines on her forehead have creased in concern. “Did you tell mom and dad about this?”

“No.” Lila shakes her head against the pillow. “I don’t want to make them more sad.”

Natasha looks around the room and then back at the lump under the covers, her brain remembering it’s a Friday and there’s no school tomorrow. “You wanna stay in here with me tonight?”

Lila nods again and Natasha smiles. “Okay,” she confirms, getting up so that she can climb onto the other side of the bed. She hears Lila sigh as she settles herself on the mattress, a melancholy sound in the silence.

“I’m not five anymore.”

“No,” Natasha says softly, smiling sadly at the window facing the front yard. “No, you’re not.”

 

***

 

She blinks herself awake while dawn is still trying to push its way into the world for yet another day, immediately noticing how quiet the house is. Natasha’s usually up early, even if she doesn’t make any appearance until later, but she suspects that because of Lila sleeping next to her, she’s more aware of how lazy she can be.

She slowly gets out of bed, leaning over to make sure Lila’s still passed out, and carefully makes her way out of the room. It would probably be worth telling Laura and Clint that their child hadn’t disappeared in the middle of the night, she thinks as she steps into the hallway, given that everyone was still a little on edge. She hesitates with her hand on the knob of their bedroom door and finally pushes it open, finding Laura alone.

“Nat?”

“Laura?”

Natasha opens the door open further. “Where’s Clint?”

Laura shrugs, clearly not concerned. “Waffle making. Or taking a walk. I’m not sure. He was out of here at least half an hour ago.” She puts down the book she’s reading, laying it facedown on the covers. “He does that,” she continues after a moment, as if lost in thought. “He’s been doing it since he came home -- he just gets up and walks. I don’t know where he goes or why he does it, but I think he just feels better if he’s doing something and not sitting around.”

Natasha nods, folding her arms over her chest. “Can we talk?”

“About?”

“About --” She breaks off, because suddenly, alerting them of Lila’s middle of the night visit doesn’t seem that important. “I want to know what it felt like when you got snapped -- blipped -- whatever you’re calling it.”

Laura’s brow creases and smooths out just enough for Natasha to know what she’s said has made an impact, and she shakes her head.

“The kids call it that,” she says offhandedly as if it doesn’t matter, even though Natasha thinks it does. “But I told you. It felt like nothing.”

Natasha looks down at the floor, tracing patterns of the hardwood with her eyes. She remembers the first time she saw Clint’s bedroom at their old farm, the first time he’d allowed her into something more private than his living room or kitchen -- and she remembers how awkward she’d felt. To Natasha, this was his sacred place, and as close as she was to Clint, she shouldn’t be a part of it.

He’d had pulled her aside later that day, clearly realizing something was up, and reminded her that he had brought her into his house for a reason. “Honestly, I wouldn’t want you in here if there was something I didn’t want you to see,” he had said, handing her a toothbrush and indicating she should leave her things in the bathroom. “Laura agrees. Besides, it’s not like the bedroom is the only place we ever do stuff, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

She’d rolled her eyes at his comments and told him that his sex life was the least of her worries, but she’d never told him that this was the first real home she ever had, because she wanted to keep that to herself.

“Lila told me it felt like something.”

Laura’s shoulders flinch. She turns her gaze to the covers and Natasha moves to the bed, sitting down and reaching for her hand.

“I just...I don’t want you to not talk about what you’re feeling because you think I went through something worse.”

“What?” Laura raises her eyes at that. “Natasha, that’s...that’s not what I’m doing.”

“Really?” She raises an eyebrow. “Laura, it hurt to die. It hurt in so many ways, and I haven’t even figured out how to describe half of those ways. I knew it hurt Clint...I knew it would hurt you. I know I might never get over that. But that doesn’t mean you have to suffer because you’ll never feel like you can tell anyone that you hurt, too.”

Laura stays quiet for a long time, and she sighs before she speaks. “It felt like I had been sucked out of an airplane and thrown through the air,” she says finally. “Like everything was upside down. I felt like I had been on a rollercoaster. When I finally stopped feeling like I was going to pass out, I was nowhere. And then I blinked a few times and I was back in my house. And everything looked the same, but it was different...I knew it was different even before I picked up the phone to call Clint. I knew that we were home, but not really home.”

Natasha wishes she knew what to say. I’m sorry seems like the easiest cop-out, but she doesn’t know what she’s sorry for. For waiting five years to bring them home? For not being better at tracking Clint down when she could have saved him from his guilt and vengeance much earlier? It wasn’t like she’d been crying every day of those five years, though she’d certainly let herself suffer the consequences of their initial space mishap more than she’d admit to. But most of her time had been spent working to save what she could of the world, doing what she thought she could do in the face of having no hope of ever seeing the people she cared about again.

“The worst part was that I wasn’t with them,” Laura continues softly. “My kids. I don’t know where they were. We all came back together, but when it happened, I was alone. I didn’t...they were alone.”

Somehow, this admission hurts Natasha more than any of Laura’s previous words. She blinks back tears, focusing on the bird patterned curtains she knows Clint has only hung a few days ago, until her eyes stop burning. She knows how little Nate and Cooper had talked about what happened, and she wonders if they were feeling the way Laura and Lila were. Clint always told her kids were resilient and for the most part, Natasha believed him, because even though she didn’t have any domestic parenting experience herself she knew what it was like to bounce back when you were young enough to still have hope and confidence and minimal fear. But how many people in her family were hurting that she couldn’t help, because she didn’t know and they were too scared to put more of their worries on her?

“I know it’s scary to think about because you haven’t had these experiences,” she starts, and Laura laughs quietly.

“Natasha. You can’t talk about yourself dying as if it’s an every day occurrence.”

“That’s not what I mean.” She refuses to say the words she’d said to Clint so long ago -- monsters and magic and things they were never trained for -- because Laura has seen it all. She’d seen aliens and time travel and super soldiers, but she’d never had any of that stuff directly affect her until now. “Everything we’ve been through -- everything you’ve been through -- it’s been something related to me and Clint. But you were gone, and you came back and five years had passed...I had died, Clint was different, your kids had different friends -- that’s not something that you can just figure out how to work with because you saw it from the outside. That’s something you lived, and you have to accept that.”

“I guess.” Laura smiles sadly. “But you know what it was like. I told you. Clint was out of commission for the most part, the kids were...well, they were surviving. They were just happy to have their dad back that I don’t think anything hit them til later. If I hadn’t been the one staying calm, this family would’ve fallen apart.”

“I know,” Natasha says, feeling guilty even though she knows she shouldn’t. If Clint had died, things would have been the same, except his family wouldn’t have their anchor. And there was no guarantee he would have come back the same way she did; not that she has any idea how she’s managed to cheat death. “And I know that I’m not exactly the world’s most stable person right now. But I want you to know that if you need my help, I can help.”

"Like you were ever a stable person to begin with?" Laura asks jokingly. Natasha wrinkles her nose. 

"I take offense to that."

Laura smiles a little more. "If you want to help, I can try to let you help."

Natasha nods, her ears catching the sound of footsteps on the stairs that are far too light to be Clint’s.

“Cooper sleeps til noon,” Laura says in resigned confirmation, and Natasha takes that as her signal to leave, sliding off the bed and slipping out of the bedroom. She finds Nate downstairs, sitting in the living room, playing with some discarded cars from the previous night’s playtime.

“Morning, Tasha!” His wide, innocent grin greets Natasha as she walks over, bending down to kiss his head.

“Morning, buddy. Is daddy around?”

Nate points towards the door, which is slightly ajar. Natasha gives her namesake another quick look to confirm he’s not going to kill himself if he’s left alone before stepping outside and finding Clint, bare-chested and holding a cup of coffee.

“Hey,” she announces as she closes the door behind her. Clint turns, and she sees the tiredness in his eyes that he’s not even trying to hide. She wonders if it’s from lack of sleep or just everything else.

“Hey. Sleep okay?”

She shrugs. “You gonna ever ask me that without an ulterior motive?”

He lets out a sigh in response. “Probably not, but you were dead.”

For once, Natasha doesn’t roll her eyes. Instead, she walks towards him, leaning over the porch rail.

“Just so you don’t have a heart attack, your daughter is in my bed.”

Clint looks over and frowns. “Is she okay?”

“I didn’t make her come into my room because I was worried about her, if that’s what you’re asking,” Natasha answers. “I got up to go to the bathroom and found her asleep outside my door. I figured being in a bed was better than being on hardwood.”

“Yeah.” He looks down at his hands, which Natasha notices have started to shake slightly. “You know, she had a really hard time after I came home. I don’t think she really knew how to process her grief about anything.”

Natasha swallows hard, thinking of their conversation. “It’s grief she shouldn’t have to worry about. Not at her age.”

“Tell that to the friends she lost,” Clint answers. “And the dad that went away. And the aunt that died. Her world is never going to be the same again.”

“Ours won’t either,” Natasha reminds him. She takes his hand, the one not holding his coffee, and lets her hold comfort him. “You still leaving me?”

Clint glances at her. “Yeah, for a bit. You still okay with that?”

Natasha nods slowly. “I guess I have to be. I have to start trusting you again at some point, right?”

“Rude, Nat.” He sighs, looking down into his cup, as if by concentrating hard enough he can drown himself in the shallow pour of caffeine. “Laura’s gotta start trusting me again, too.”

“Give her time,” Natasha urges gently, thinking of her previous conversation. “You dropped a really big personal thing on her and it was something that had a significant impact your relationship.”

“I’m sick of giving everyone time,” Clint snaps. Natasha raises an eyebrow before he sobers, hunching over the railing in defeat. “Sorry. Just...I want everything to get back to normal.”

“Normal is overrated,” Natasha says, though she feels like she’s forcing herself to believe that. “At this point, I’d just settle for better.”

“Better,” Clint repeats with a short laugh, taking a sip of coffee. “Better would’ve been you never dying in the first place.”

“And would’ve been you dying instead?” Natasha waits for him to respond, hoping he won’t bring up the conversation they’ve hashed and rehashed so many times at this point. When Clint remains silent, she takes a long, deep breath. “Didn’t it ever occur to you why I did what I did?”

“Because you wanted to save people and save my family,” Clint says, turning and leaning against the railing. “I get it, okay?”

Natasha shakes her head, pushing hair behind her ear. “I did it because the person I became was someone who wanted to put people before myself. And do you know why I became that person?”

She knows he won’t give himself the credit because he wants her to say it and because he feels like he doesn’t deserve the recognition. It was infuriating sometimes, to watch him play her the way she sometimes liked to play him.

“Because that’s the person I became when I met you -- when I met Laura and your family. Being an Avenger helped, and it gave me a family to care about...but you know you were always my family first.”

Clint meets her eyes as she finishes speaking, Natasha can see the guilt manifesting in his gaze.

“I left you.”

“Yeah, you did.” She folds her arms over her chest. “And it hurt a hell of a fucking lot.”

“Clearly, given you’re not over it.”

“I’m not over it, and I don’t need to be over it.” She pauses to gather her emotions before she continues. “Clint, I can stay mad at you about that for the rest of my goddamn second life if I want to, but I’m just trying to move on. Laura was right -- we’re not talking. We don’t know how to talk about anything that’s bothering us and I know we’re all good at denial and pretending things are fine but sooner or later, they’re going to snap. I’m going to snap.”

She hates that she’s talking so fast, like she can’t control her words, but she can’t seem to make herself stop. She hates that she feels herself spiraling, she hates that after all of this, after trying so hard to face all her fears and trying to forget all her anxieties and regrets, she can’t just let herself live. Clint’s arm circles around her waist and for awhile, he says nothing, which Natasha feels grateful for.

“Hey,” he whispers, leaning his head close to her ear. “You’re alive, okay?”

Natasha nods, staring at the blank sky, fighting back tears. “I know.”

The door opens behind them -- she hears it before she sees a small red shoe paw its way onto the porch -- and she shifts gently to allow Clint time to move and notice his son. She’s long past worrying that his kids would see her and Clint together and think his dad was cheating on his mom, because she’d been a part of their lives for so long. But sometimes, she still felt like she needed to set her boundaries, especially when it came to someone like Nate who was still impressionable and at an age where anything could be a question.

“Hey, buddy.” Clint turns around, all smiles, scooping up his son who giggles as Clint kisses the side of his head. “Ready for some waffles?”

“I’m ready for ice cream!” Nate declares, grinning at Natasha as if he knows looking at her will get him what he wants. Natasha hides a smile, reaching over to smooth down his soft brown hair.

“Yeah, maybe not at seven in the morning. But later, okay?”

She watches as Clint walks inside, and in less than five minutes, the house becomes what would constitute as normal -- Laura making her way downstairs to help with breakfast, Lila dragging herself into the living room to watch tv, Clint yelling at Cooper to come down and eat unless he wants to starve himself until lunch. Someone -- Clint or Laura -- turns on the stereo and lets classical music flow through the house, joy and warmth pouring from the walls and out into the open space.

Natasha turns back to the porch and watches the sky’s orange glow, remembering how it felt to die.

Chapter Text

The day Clint leaves is a Monday, after he’s made breakfast, checked homework assignments, and sent everyone off to school.

“Daddy’s gonna take a little trip for a few days,” he explains as they all eat waffles with the exception of Lila, who opts for cereal. “I just need to go see a friend.”

“Why is Nat not going with you?” Nate asks curiously through a forkful of chewed dough.

“Because she wants to stay here and hang out with you,” Clint answers easily. “She doesn’t want to watch dad talk to his boring friends.”

He figures that part is at least half true. He doesn’t really know how much Natasha wants to see Bruce, though he figures enough time has passed that they’ve probably reached a less awkward state of being. She wouldn’t be on board with why she’d be seeing him though, and as bad as he feels about lying, he’d prefer to keep it that way -- at least until he could figure out how things were going to go.

“Okay,” Nate acquises, pouring more ketchup onto his waffle. Cooper makes an audible gagging noise and Clint shoots him a look.

“You know, mom and I never made fun of you when you ate olives dipped in ranch dressing.”

“Ewww!” Lila blurts out, horrifyingly disgusted. Cooper glares back at his dad.

“I was a baby.”

“You were old enough to know better,” Laura interjects, walking into the kitchen and winking at Clint as she passes him. “And you’re all going to be late.”

“We’re not gonna to be late,” Cooper mutters under his breath as he takes another bite of his waffle and gets up, leaving his plate on the table. Nate continues to eat in contentment, clearly not threatened by his mother’s warning, and Clint decides to let him enjoy his breakfast until Laura yells again. He glances over at Lila, who he notices is eating slower than usual.

“Hey,” he says, leaning on his elbows and angling towards her, his dad senses spiking. “You okay?”

Lila nods. “Yeah.”

“You sure?”

Lila shrugs, dragging her spoon through a mess of soggy oats. Clint figures that maybe she doesn’t want to talk with Nathaniel still in earshot, so he nods towards the living room.

“When you’re done, we can get your school stuff ready.”

Lila shrugs again and Clint gets up, preparing to leave the table whether or not she follows, even though he knows she will. Sure enough, less than a minute after he’s walked into the living room to look for her bookbag, Lila walks in behind him with her arms crossed.

“So,” Clint starts conversationally, picking up one of her math books that’s been left on the coffee table. “We’ve got, I’d say...about seven minutes before mom yells again. What’s going on?”

Lila scrunches up her face, looking nervous. “Are you going away for a bit because...because you’re like, in trouble or something?”

The slight tremble in his daughter’s voice, combined with the fact that Clint never even considered that could be something his kids would think about, makes his heart drop out of his chest, his fingers tingling with numbness. He puts down her book and walks over to his daughter, hugging her tightly.

“Lila, I promise -- I absolutely promise -- nothing is wrong.”

Lila looks up with a clear skeptical look. Clint sighs, knowing that even if he doesn’t want to, he has to be at least a little open if he wants to make this conversation work.

“I know things have been a little shaky since I came back...since Natasha came back,” he starts. “But I swear that nothing is going to happen between mom and me and I’m not going away because we’re in trouble. That’s what you’re worried about?”

“And Nat,” Lila says quietly, looking down to avoid his eyes. Clint takes a deep breath, letting it out slowly.

“Nat’s not going anywhere,” he says, hoping to god he’s right. “And I know things might never feel like they’re going to be the way they were, but we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that things are as normal for you as possible -- at home and at school. Okay?”

Lila nods. “Okay.”

Clint kisses the top of her head, knowing that the conversation is far from over, but that there’s not much he else he can under such tight time constraints. “Four minutes. Go get your backpack, weasel.”

Lila manages to smile at her childhood nickname as Clint lets her go, allowing her finish getting her stuff together. Nate finally joins them, walking languidly into the living room with a carefree demeanor Clint wishes he could recapture, and Clint hangs back while Laura takes over to finish the morning rituals. He makes sure he gives long hugs to each of his kids before they leave, and once everyone is out of the house, he makes his way upstairs.

“Hey,” he says, thinking of Lila as he leans against the doorframe, watching Natasha gather dirty laundry from one of the hampers. “Do me a favor and keep an eye on them while I’m gone? I know Laura will, but...you know. Just in case.”

Natasha looks up and smiles. “Always. You think being dead has changed the way I think about your family?”

“Ha.” Clint huffs out a laugh. “I dunno. Maybe. I mean, you’re doing laundry now.”

Natasha throws a pair of socks at him, and he ducks just in time for his head to avoid being the target.

“Watch it Barton. Next time, it’ll be dirty underwear.”

 

***

 

It takes two hours after he’s told himself he’s going to leave to actually get out the door, between packing, double checking that everything is settled with family stuff, and Laura offloading an entirely unnecessary cooler filled with enough food to last a week. Natasha more or less keeps her distance, letting him go about his business, but he knows Laura is watching his body language and preparations more closely than she’s letting on.

“If you’re having this much anxiety, you don’t have to go,” she says finally as she puts the cooler in the back of the truck, after she’s helped him double check the engine.

“No.” Clint shakes his head, even though he knows she’s right. “I need to. I made a promise. But I promise I’ll be home soon.”

Laura raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t say anything else. She glances back towards the house, where Natasha is standing by herself on the porch.

“She’ll be okay, right?”

“I hope so.” Clint sighs, rubbing his eyes. “I think it’s good that I’m leaving for a bit. It’ll let her clear her head...and you guys can talk about me and I won’t even know it.”

“What makes you think we’ll do that?” Laura asks innocently.

Clint laughs under his breath. “I may not have died and come back to life, but I’m not dumb. I know I’ve been crappy all around lately.”

Laura smartly doesn’t answer, instead leaning forward to kiss him on the forehead. “Just stay safe, okay? That’s all I care about.”

“Yes ma’am.”

He makes eye contact with Natasha before he gets in the car, seeing the look on her face and knowing that they’re in agreement of not needing a real goodbye in this moment. Sentimental farewells were far and few between anyway, and as much as Vormir has made him more emotional than he normally would be, he knows she needs space. In any case, if this trip went well, he could maybe start healing for real and help her heal, too.

While Clint’s not entirely looking forward to the long drive, he knows at the very least, he doesn’t have to ask where Bruce is located -- he just has to hope he hasn’t moved from where he’s taken up residence for the past few months. Nonetheless, when he pulls over the Pennsylvania border, he finds himself less worried about how his welcome is going to be received and more relieved about the fact that he’s finally finished his journey.

“Barton?”

Okay, yeah. Now that he’s standing outside the door and facing his friend, his feet and legs aching from being in a car and his bladder full from too many Red Bulls and not enough rest stops, he realizes that in hindsight he should’ve probably called. Or texted. Or something. There was no guarantee Bruce wouldn’t boot him to the curb on principle, but he’s got enough faith in his friend that he’ll at least get to make his case.

“Hi.”

Bruce frowns, looking concerned before the lines on his face even out. At this point, Clint’s used to Hulk not being, well...Hulk, but he’s still taken aback at how well Bruce is able to balance his personalities.

“What are you doing here?”

“Just figured I’d visit a friend,” Clint responds. “Unless you’re busy.”

Bruce shakes his head. “No. Come in.”

Clint steps into the large cabin, which he figures had to have been remodeled in order to house Bruce’s large frame without issue. There’s a set of stairs that Clint assumes must lead to some lab or workspace, and the remainder of the cabin fills out to include a bed, kitchen area, couch, and large living area. It’s simple, and it’s exactly what Clint expects Bruce would need or want in settling down.

“Nice place.”

“Thanks,” Bruce replies with a small smile. “Fixed it up okay, I think. I realized I didn’t need much.”

Clint nods, because he kind of gets it. Downsizing the farm had been harder emotionally than anything else; he didn’t find himself mourning the loss of non-creaking stairs as much as he mourned the bathroom where Lila was potty trained and the porch where Cooper took his first steps.

“So, uh...how’ve you been?”

Bruce gives him a look. “Clint, I’m really happy to see you, but I have a feeling I know why you’re here and maybe we should just talk about it rather than beating around the bush.”

“That obvious, huh?”

Clint.”

“Yeah, I know.” Clint exhales loudly, putting his hand on his hips. “Look, Natasha’s okay. She’s not...fine, but she’s okay. And I know we have to work shit out on our own and I know you can’t tell me how and why she’s not dead anymore. But --” He breaks off, noticing for the first time a vial of Pym particles sitting precariously on the kitchen table. His heart starts to race faster and he’s not sure if it’s the energy drink or the adrenaline.

Bruce shakes his head, seemingly oblivious to what he’s noticed. “Clint, we can’t do anything.”

But.” Clint walks over to the table and grabs the Pym particles, holding them up with shaking hands. “But what if we could? Just...go back to 2014. Let me make the different call and see if it makes a difference with the timeline.”

“Are you insane?” Bruce asks in frustration. “After everything we’ve done and all the loss we’ve had, after getting your family back -- something she wanted for you -- you’d change history for a suicide mission? Barton, I know you’re still hurting, but you can’t do that.”

“Okay, I can’t do that,” Clint retorts. “So how about we go back and neither of us kill ourselves? We’ll figure out how to throw that faceless red soul keeper person over the edge of the cliff and it’ll be a soul or a soul or whatever shit he says it is, and then no one has to die ever.”

“Clint.” Bruce’s fingers find their way under his glasses and he rubs his eyes. “Listen to yourself.”

“No, you listen!” Clint snaps loudly. “You tell me why I can’t just go back in time and make it so she never kills herself!”

Because,” Bruce returns angrily, “in order for Natasha not to sacrifice herself, you’d have to go back in time and make sure she’s never put on the path to becoming the person that you love. You’d have to make sure she doesn’t become better or feel like she has a family. Is that what you want, Clint? To save her life at the expense of taking away the work that she did with you, with your history, to make herself a better person? Is that really fair?”

Clint can’t answer, because he knows Bruce has a point, and a valid one at that. He thinks of his last conversation with Natasha, and his eyes burn.

“Please. Just...let me do this. Let me go back and --”

“And what, Clint? I told you, you can’t change what’s already happened.”

“I know I can’t,” Clint replies, a thought forming in his mind. “But this isn’t about her death. It’s about something I want to do for myself. And I won’t change the past. I mean, it doesn’t matter anyway, right? Because changing your past doesn’t change your future? So as long as I don’t actually change anything, this will still be my present?” He still feels like he never got a decent grasp on how this time travel shit actually worked but he doubts anyone else understands either, except maybe the person in front of him. “Please, just...let me do this one thing and I’ll never, ever bother you about anything again, time travel or not.”

Bruce closes his eyes, and Clint can tell he’s trying to decide whether it’s worth it to keep arguing or if he just wants to give up.

“As long as you’re here, you might as well eat something,” he says finally, walking over to the stove and turning on the burner. “And we can sleep on it and talk more tomorrow.”

It’s not the answer Clint wants to hear but it’s better than nothing, so he lets himself stay silent.

 

***

 

It’s not that the mattress Bruce proves him with isn’t comfortable, or that Clint particularly misses his family (even though he does). It’s more that he can’t stop thinking about the fact that he might’ve come all the way out here for nothing. Realistically, in his heart, he knows Bruce probably won’t turn him away without a good argument, which he’s willing to give. But he also knows what he’s asking and wanting is, in a way, something that should be left well enough alone. And he knows that Bruce knows that, even if he won’t say it.

Tossing and turning starts to give him a headache and he finally decides to just stay up and read instead, diving into one of Laura’s new mystery novels he’s taken for along with him for the road. He’s surprised when Bruce walks into his space half an hour after he’s surrendered sleep, and he can tell by the look on his friend’s face that he seems to have the same thought.

“Sorry,” Clint says with an apologetic wave, stifling a yawn. “I’m used to the early wake-ups, if you know what I mean. I assume you have coffee?”

Bruce nods towards the counter, where a portable coffee unit is sitting, and Clint figures it’s better than nothing. He puts the book down and gets up, pouring some grounds into the small machine and adding water before hitting a button.

“I get it, you know,” Bruce says after a moment of silence while the strong smell of coffee fills the cabin. “I get why you want to keep trying to change things. To go back.”

“It’s not about changing things,” Clint insists, folding his arms over his chest. “It’s about answers.”

“And what about Natasha?” Bruce asks gently, logically. “Does she want answers?”

Clint swallows, knowing the truth. Natasha didn’t want to know how or why she came back. That had been her whole life before, it had been their whole life -- finding out what happened and seeking answers to things that needed closure. He knows she’s reached the point where it doesn’t matter what the answer to her resurrection was, she just wanted to live and enjoy her lucky second chance. And Clint knows she’d be happy living out the rest of her life without opening the Pandora’s box of possibilities.

“No,” Clint answers finally. “But I need them. I need --” He pauses on the word. “I need to know.”

“And you think you can get answers by time traveling back to 2014?” Bruce asks skeptically. Clint feels suddenly like he’s arguing with his daughter; Lila was always throwing back a question at his question and they were always too pointed.

“No, not 2014.” He takes a breath. “2008.”

Bruce’s brow furrows, and he inclines his head. “Why do you want to go back to 2008?”

“Will you kill me if I say I’d rather keep that to myself?” Clint asks, trying to keep his voice as non argumentative as possible. “For personal reasons?”

Bruce stares at Clint, staying silent for a long time, and then nods. “No. I respect that.”

Clint nods back as the coffee maker beeps again, walking over and finding two mugs in the cupboard. He hands one to Bruce, taking a long sip.

“Thanks.”

“I’m one hundred percent going to regret this,” Bruce mutters in return, his mouth half hidden by his coffee cup. “I saved a suit, by the way. It’s in a box under the bed.”

Clint only feels a little bit of triumph at that fact, wanting to revel in the knowledge that Bruce had at least kept the quantum suits that he thought had been destroyed by Thanos. He walks to the bed in the corner and gets down on one knee, unearthing the box and brushing off some dust.

While Bruce eats breakfast and reads the paper, Clint unpacks his old SHIELD stealth suit, pulling it out of his duffel bag and inspecting the fabric. He’d been surprised that he’d been able to find it, shoved away in one of the many boxes that had made the move from the old farm to the new one, and at one point he’d considered just chucking it. The only reason he hadn’t was because it had memories that were too important to discard and now, he’s grateful it exists. Not that he ever thought at any point, despite everything that he’d seen and done, he’d have to go back in time, but if he’s going to do so he’s at least going to look like the person who existed more than a decade ago. His hair, he knows, can’t be helped much, but at least the mohawk is growing out and the suit covers his tattoo sleeve.

It feels weird getting into the suit again, especially since his body has changed so much over the years, but he manages without much issue. Getting into the quantum suit, however, almost gives him a panic attack. He can’t slip his arms into the sleeves without thinking about Vormir and letting go of Natasha’s hand, and he can’t zip it up without remembering how he felt when he appeared back in the present day, the stone in his hand and a bite on his wrist but nothing else at his side. Even though Natasha’s back and he knows that, he still has to take deep breaths to keep himself from freaking out.

When he finally walks out of the bathroom, anxiety subdued and game face intact, Bruce is holding out a GPS. Clint takes it slowly, turning it over in his hands.

“Steve?”

Bruce smiles sadly and turns around again. “I figured it might come in handy at some point.”

Clint swallows down a lump in his throat and follows Bruce out of the house. The cool morning air nips at the bare spots on his skin, prickling at his senses, and he lets himself take in as much of the atmosphere as possible while descending down the long path, the end of which shows a platform and a machine that he recognizes all too well. He steps onto the platform cautiously, looking around.

“You kept this set up? I thought you were done with time travel stuff.”

“No,” Bruce says, his voice sounding sad. “I set it up last night after you went to bed. I figured I’d lose whatever argument you were going to make, but either way, I wanted to be prepared.”

He’s not sure whether he should feel proud or guilty, so he doesn’t say anything in response. This was the right choice. He knew this was the right choice; he’d been thinking about it for longer than he’d admit to and he knew if he didn’t do it, he’d regret it.

“Okay, Clint.” Bruce’s voice is slightly muffled as he focuses on the nuances of the machine. “What date in 2008?”

Clint closes his eyes. “September 19th.”

“Got it -- September 19th.”

There’s a long and loud whirring sound in Clint’s ears, a sense of every muscle in his body being pulled and then yanked and then -- and then --

He blinks in the middle of a crowded street, bright sunlight glaring at him as he stumbles out of the way to avoid an annoyed passerby. In the back of his mind, he knows exactly where he is, yet it still takes him a second to clear his head and get his bearings. He had to think fast and work fast; Bruce wasn’t going to let him stay here forever and to be honest, he didn’t need forever. He just needed long enough.

He turns, glancing up at the street signs and landmarks, feeling thankful that he’s been dropped in not only the right place but the right area. Muscle memory takes over and after five minutes of walking, he finally arrives at a rundown apartment building that’s seen better days. Letting himself in, he climbs the stairs to the fifth floor.

Clint stays outside, keeping himself hidden and out of sight, until he’s startled by the sound of his own voice. He forces himself to peek around the corner of the door, catching a glimpse of himself from the back, and winces. Pulling back, he tries to ignore his own voice, which sounds gruffer and angrier than he’s used to and god it was weird. He knew he’d be facing Natasha years younger, but he’d forgotten he’d also probably be facing a younger version of himself and it’s unnerving. He’s almost forgotten he’d once been this version -- a mess of unchecked anger and hard decisions -- before leveling out, thanks to meeting Laura and working more at SHIELD.

Clint at least remembers the situation well enough to not have to pay that much attention, though. He knows he’s going to tell Natasha that he needs to take a moment. He knows he’s going to leave the room for at least ten minutes, which meant present him had ten minutes to do what he needed to do and hope that it was worth it.

After another second, he hears loud footsteps stomping in his direction. Backing up even further into the shadows of the deserted hallways, he watches himself leave the room and waits another beat before taking a deep breath and stepping in again.

His first look at Natasha almost throws him off enough to blow his cover, because he’d forgotten she’d looked like this once -- more hardened than he’d expect anyone her age to be, her face set in distrust and her curly red hair tied back tightly in a sensible ponytail. Fresh cuts litter her forehead and her hands, but he knows she doesn’t even feel the pain of her injuries.

“I thought you were going to make a phone call,” she says, her Russian accent pronounced and heavy. Clint hides a smile, because he knows that she’s making herself sound more foreign than she actually is in order to keep her cover intact.

“I was,” he answers, trying to remind himself he has to act like he’s just met her, not like he’s known her for over a decade. “But I wanted to ask you something. How do you feel about using your skills, but not being alone anymore?”

Natasha’s eyes flash with fire, and she glares at him. “I’m not alone.”

“No?” Clint glances around the room, his memory whirling. “You were alone when I found you in that motorcycle crash. You were alone when you ran away from me. You were alone when I found you handcuffed to that sink.” He looks at her wrists, the open sores where blood and cuts are still crudely visible.

Natasha spits at his feet. “You’re supposed to kill me. Don’t pretend you suddenly care.”

“I’m not,” Clint says, trying not to think about how much time is passing. He pauses long enough to let his words sink in, but not long enough to let her jump on him again. “I just want you to think about it. I know I’m probably going to ask you again, but I wanted to say something now.”

Natasha raises an eyebrow slowly. “Working with you,” she says slowly, her voice scathing. “Why would I even consider that?”

“Well.” Clint shrugs. “Lesser of two evils, right? I could just take you back to SHIELD the way my superiors want and they can have their way with you.”

Natasha grins maliciously, clearly not intimidated by his threat. “Letting a little girl get tortured doesn’t seem like your style, Agent Barton.”

“And turning down a chance to start over doesn’t seem like yours,” Clint throws back. “I read your file. I know where you came from.”

That makes Natasha pause, and Clint only recognizes the hesitancy because he knows her now. He realizes he would’ve missed all her tells back then -- the quick brush of her hand against her thigh, the way her eyes dart to the window as if she’s seeking an escape route, the slight brow crease that’s gone when he blinks.

“Anyway.” He clears his throat, knowing that the moments are ticking just for him but for Bruce back in the present. “I’m gonna make that call now and trust that you won’t run away while I’m gone.”

Natasha crosses her arms intimidatingly. “You’ll never know.”

“Yeah,” Clint says, realizing he can shrug her off easily and let her believe he doesn’t give a damn since he already knows the outcome of the situation. “Guess you’re right.”

He turns and leaves, heading out the door and ducking back into the hallway. Leaning back against the wall, he finally lets his emotions from the conversation overwhelm him, grateful for the darkness and solitude.

“Good. You’re still here.”

He hears his voice once again before feeling a sharp pull in his back, as if a cord has been yanked too hard. All of a sudden, he’s free-falling again, tumbling through a dizzying mess of colors until he lands on the grass, his knees and arms slamming into the hard ground.

“Clint...hey, you okay?”

He’s breathing hard, and part of him feels like he wants to puke. He didn’t remember this much of a sensation when he time traveled before, but -- he swallows down bile and a lump in his throat -- that was after he’d come back without Natasha, after her death, and he honestly doesn’t remember feeling anything except numbness.

“Yeah.” He closes his eyes, which allows everything to stop spinning. “I’m okay.”

He stands slowly, blinking in the bright sunlight, looking up at Bruce who is staring at him worryingly. The suit feels tight on his skin, sweat plastering the fabric to his flesh, but it doesn’t feel as horribly confining as it did when he put it on earlier.

“Well?”

Clint smiles, the image of Natasha still lingering in his mind. Somewhere, back in Budapest in 2008, he’ll come back from his phone call to Fury where he’s put his foot down about bringing her home rather than killing her. Somewhere, back in Budapest in 2008, he’ll once again offer her the choice of coming back with him and deflecting to SHIELD. Somewhere, back in Budapest in 2008, she’ll be hesitant and distrustful, but something will compel her to go against her instincts and say yes.

“Yeah. I think I’m good.”

Chapter Text

Natasha likes the quiet.

She thought she hated it, at first. It was quiet when she died. It was cold and quiet and there was no noise except what she thought she could hear when she drifted in that place between life and death, between breathing and not breathing, between alive and broken. When she had returned to the world, she wanted the noise -- she craved it. She wanted to hear the sound of cars driving down the street, the crunch of grass and dirt beneath her shoes, the yells of Clint’s children as they argued throughout the small house, the noise of the washing machine as it hummed and thumped in the basement, one of the many fixer-upper projects Clint had taken on after moving.

But the more she tried to acclimate back into the land of the living, the more she tried to figure out her feelings and separate the truly unbelievable thought of coming back from the dead from her own gratefulness, she found the noise overwhelming. She found herself paralyzed by the talking and the sounds and the yelling and the small bumps in the night; she started to carve out pockets of time when she could be alone and let her brain settle in the quiet, whether that was a long walk or late nights with a book or lengthy moments in the shower.

The quiet let her think, it let her feel -- and that feeling was something that she’d been struggling to find again after returning to life.

But, as Natasha has to routinely remind herself, it wasn’t just about her anymore. It hadn’t been about her for a long time, not since she met Clint and found the Avengers and became a family to Laura and children who lived lives that didn’t revolve around superheroes. And so even though there are times like tonight when she wants to just stay behind closed doors and sit in the warm bath forever, she knows that Clint is gone and Laura needs her help and she should try to be present, at least for a little bit.

Natasha removes herself from the tub, drying off quickly and putting on what has become her standard wardrobe -- a long sleeved shirt and track pants. She can’t remember the last time she put on something resembling a tac suit, and she’s honestly glad for it, because she doesn’t think she can stomach getting back into any kind of suit anytime soon.

She’s surprised at how well Cooper, Lila, and Nate have been handling their father’s absence, given the snap was still something that seemed to trigger them every so often. She’d kept a closer eye than usual on Lila thanks to Clint’s warning, but aside from a few reserved moments, hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary. Cooper had had a harder time sleeping, often refusing to go to bed and hiding under the covers with his music and books even after Laura firmly told him to turn the lights off, but Natasha figures if one of Clint’s kids wasn’t doing something that warranted a strict talking to, it wasn’t really the Barton family.

This time, it’s Nate who is refusing to follow orders, sitting in the dark living room encased in the cushion fort he’s constructed. Natasha walks into the room and bends down, trying to poke her head in his direction without completely ruining his hard work.

“Hey, buddy.” She peers into the dark, squinting. “It’s past your bedtime.”

“Mommy’s still up,” Nate informs her with an eyebrow raise and Natasha curbs a smile.

“Mommy is a lot older than you.”

“But I’m not tired.”

Natasha sighs, tired herself. Being a part of any domesticated family was the last thing she’d ever imagined for herself, but Clint happened and then his family happened, and against her better judgement she suddenly became a very specific part of dinners and rituals and bedtime stories and arts and crafts projects. She thought she would hate it, but it had turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to her -- a life that she could truly call her own outside of SHIELD and the Avengers, even if it was a secret she’d been forced to give up a few years ago.

“I know, buddy.”

“Okay. So ice cream?”

It’s Natasha’s turn to raise an eyebrow, meeting Nate’s cheeky look, a smug grin set in a heart-shaped face. She suddenly has a feeling this particular tactic works with Clint and that Laura has absolutely no idea about it.

“That’s bribery,” she informs her namesake, backing out of the tent carefully. Nate follows her on his hands and knees.

“What’s bribey?”

Natasha pauses, trying to figure out how to answer. “When you want something, so you try to make someone do it for you. Like you wanting ice cream because you’re not tired.”

“Oh.” Nate stands up at his full height, looking down at Natasha curiously. “Like you wanting to go away so daddy had to do it?”

Natasha pauses again for a different reason, her heart starting to beat way too fast. “Not exactly. Why do you think I want to go away?”

Nate shrugs. “Because you did,” he says matter-of-factly. Natasha reaches up and takes his small hand, pulling gently until he’s sitting back down next to her.

“Hey. You know that there was a time when things were really scary for mom and dad, right?”

Nate nods. “Yeah. Cause we went away from my house.”

“I know. But you know Aunt Nat always had to work. I didn’t want to go away.”

She feels terrible saying the words out loud, knowing they’re technically a lie. She had stayed away more than she wanted to because she was scared of messing with Clint and his family after what had already happened, and in doing so, she knows she’d let her own selfishness get in the way of being there for people who cared about her.

“I know,” Nate repeats as Natasha hugs him gently.

“If you get ready for bed, we can read your favorite book and tomorrow maybe we can have ice cream with your waffles.”

“For breakfast?” Nate asks, his eyes growing wide.

“Yes,” Natasha answers, hoping to some higher power that either Clint will be home to figure something out or Laura will be nice enough to acquiesce to her bad judgement. “Waffles and ice cream go together, you know.”

Nate stands up again and this time, Natasha follows, walking him up the stairs and leading him into the bathroom. As she watches him drag a small step stool to the sink, she catches Laura coming out of Lila’s room.

“Hey, if you want --” She breaks off, gesturing towards the bathroom. “I can help with stuff tonight.”

“If you feel like it, sure,” Laura answers with a quick nod. “Clint called from the road. He said he should be back early tomorrow.”

“Good,” Natasha says with a small smile. Laura studies her for a moment and then leans back against the wall.

“You okay?”

“Yeah.” She makes a face, scrunching up her nose. “No. I don’t know if I’m ever going to be okay.”

“Me neither.” Laura sighs quietly. “I know I still have to talk with him about the whole...the Ronin thing. I know I still need to try to forgive him for how he acted after your --”

“After my death.”

“Yes.” Laura bites down on her lower lip before speaking again. “And I know I will forgive him. But it’s just…”

“Hard?”

Laura meets her eyes, and Natasha sees the sadness she’s trying to hide. “Hard,” she repeats as Nate walks out of the bathroom, stopping in front of the two adults.

“Mommy, I brushed my teeths.”

Laura smiles, her easy body language taking over as she holds out her hand, all traces of unhappiness disappearing from her pupils. “That means it’s time for bed,” she says, leading him into his bedroom. Natasha watches a little wistfully, half wanting to join but feeling like she shouldn’t ruin the moment given the somber mood she can see Laura trying to hide. She turns and walks back down the stairs, halfway to the kitchen when a dark figure steps into her path.

Natasha very nearly reaches back for a punch, and the only reason she doesn’t let her fist fly is because before she can get her hand in motion, the figure walks further into the light and she recognizes it well enough to retract her defensive move.

Jesus!”

“What?” Clint looks confused, and not at all alarmed that he’s almost been decked by his own partner. “It’s my house.”

Natasha takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, trying to control her adrenaline level. “I know that, dumbass. But Laura said you were coming home tomorrow. So excuse me for being a little freaked out that someone could have randomly broken in.”

“Yeah, sorry. Point taken.” He glances around her, in the direction of the stairs. “I was going to come home tomorrow, but I decided to drive through the night rather than take a break somewhere.”

“Why am I not surprised,” Natasha mutters, figuring there has to be more to his reasoning but not wanting to ask. “I don’t suppose you bothered to eat while you drove like a maniac?”

Clint grins, reaching into his jacket pocket and producing a fistful of nutrition bars. Natasha rolls her eyes.

“You know, in the afterlife, we had better food than that.”

She watches him carefully as she says the words, noticing he doesn’t flinch as much as he usually does, though he does avert his eyes, as if the words make him uncomfortable.

“Is everyone asleep?”

“Hardly.” Natasha jerks her thumb in the direction of the stairs. “Laura just put Nate down and I’m sure Lila and Cooper are staying up against their will.”

“Means I got home just in time to say goodnight,” Clint says, striding past her and dropping his bag on the floor. Natasha sighs, deciding to follow through with her need for water anyway before heading back upstairs, reaching the landing just in time to hear Nate yell from his room.

“Daddy!”

“This is your fault,” Laura informs him as she steps into the hallway, giving Clint a quick kiss on the cheek, allowing him to pass into the room. “For the record, I was ready to put him to bed.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Clint mutters, clearly ignoring her. “Hey, buddy.”

“Did you go see your friend?”

“Yep.” Clint smiles. “It was really fun. Missed you, though.”

“Missed you!”

Laura retreats to the bedroom but Natasha stays outside, watching what she can see of the scene, her heart feeling warm. She would’ve never imagined Clint as a father when she first met him, or even when she first allowed herself to get to know him. But knowing his family and seeing the inside baseball of how raising children worked, Natasha can’t imagine anyone else being a better father. Clint could be a lot of things -- stubborn, annoying, selfish. But he was every opposite of that when it came to his kids, and that grounding is something Natasha has come to appreciate throughout the years, given that she never felt like she had any home of her own.

“Ugh, everything hurts.” Clint steps out of the bedroom, closing the door halfway behind him, and she can see the clear tiredness in his face that he’d clearly kept underwraps. “I’m gonna shower. You need anything?”

Natasha shakes her head. “How was your trip?”

“Fine.” Clint pauses, as if he has to think about his answer. “It was fine. I mean, it was good.”

“Really.” She gives him a look. “Just fine and good?”

“Yep,” Clint replies easily, almost automatically. “What is this, a SHIELD inquiry?”

“No,” Natasha says with a sigh. “A curious inquiry. I’m going to bed.”

“Wait.”

She’s only taken two steps when he speaks again, and turns slowly. She can immediately tell something’s wrong, or at least that he’s psyching himself up to say something he’s not sure he wants to say. She waits, letting him take his time, because she figures it’s not worth yelling at him over something she doesn’t yet know if she’ll be mad about.

“The trip I went on. I did see a friend, but I wasn’t really honest about where I went.”

“Okay,” Natasha says, looking him up and down. “Then where were you?”

“I, uh.” Clint rubs at an invisible piece of dirt on his stubbled cheek. “I went to see Bruce.”

Natasha’s eyebrows shoot up and her entire body suddenly feels like it’s on fire, though she’s not entirely sure if that feeling is from anger or from some kind of post traumatic stress response. “You went where?”

“Just...please hear me out. Because I swear I can explain all of it. Please?”

Natasha clenches her teeth together, willing herself to not fall apart or scream at him in the middle of the hallway. “Fine,” she says shortly. “But not here.”

Clint follows her line of sight to Nate’s half-open door and nods, following her into the guest bedroom. Natasha closes the door when they’re both inside and turns to him immediately, hands folded over her chest. She knows she looks pissed, and she doesn’t even want to try to hide it.

“Why the hell did you go see Bruce and why the hell did you not tell me?”

Clint massages his temples with his thumbs. “Because I wanted to see him and I thought maybe he could help me with stuff. I mean, help me get past all this shit -- the mess I’ve made since you came back. And I didn’t tell you --”

“Because it was about me,” Natasha interjects, the pieces slotting together in her head. “And it wasn’t because you wanted to ask if we were over making heart eyes at each other behind your back.”

Clint shoves his hands in his pockets and stares up at the ceiling, which is spotted with graying flecks of water damage.

“Because it was about you,” he repeats. “He still had the time travel stuff set up, you know.”

“And, what?” Natasha waves her hands around angrily. “You wanted to time travel back to my death and try to make it so that I never died?”

He doesn’t answer and in the absence of response Natasha groans loudly, rubbing her forehead. “Christ, Clint. Are you serious?”

“Look, I thought about it,” he snaps. “Okay? I did. I didn’t, though. I didn’t go back and time and do that, I swear on Pietro.”

“Good. Because you do realize how that would’ve felt, right? Meddling in my choice? My agency?” Natasha attempts to keep her voice down, knowing that the walls aren’t as thick as the ones in his old house. “It’s bad enough I came back from the dead. I don’t need you trying to fix anything! I need you to move on.”

“Like you are?” Clint fixes her with a glare, his gaze challenging. “You still can’t sleep. You’re still feeling anxious about everything. And you still feel worried that something’s going to happen. I know you won’t talk about it, but don’t forget I know how to read you.”

“I told you, I’m trying. I came back from the dead, Clint. I never said it was easy.”

“Well, me neither.” He walks to the bed, sitting down and letting himself plop loudly onto the mattress. “Nat, I know we’ve been over this god knows how many times, but listen. You brought me back from the edge and I had you for five seconds and then you threw yourself off a cliff and that…” He trails off. “I had hope, and you gave it back. Then I lost it again, and I wasn’t ready. My family, you...it was a lot.”

“You had me for five seconds because that was your decision,” Natasha says shortly, not at all feeling sorry for the fact that she’s calling him out on the truth. “But this is my fight, Clint. You’ve been making it hard for me to think otherwise when you’re trying to change and fix everything.”

“Because you’re wrong,” he argues, though his voice remains gentle and not accusatory. “It’s not just your fight. It’s all of ours. The same way everything that I do belongs to Laura, and Cooper, and Lila, and Nate. You can’t freeze me out -- you can’t freeze us out.” He glances around the room, before meeting her eyes again. “You know, Nat likes ketchup on his hot dog. Just like you.”

“A lot of people like that,” Natasha points out. “It’s practically an American rite of passage.”

“But he does that thing you do,” Clint continues. “Where you squint and scrunch your nose while you’re thinking. He does that when he’s stumped by a math problem. When he eats, he makes sure his food is sectioned, just like you do.”

“I don’t --” Natasha breaks off as Clint raises an eyebrow. “Fine. I like organization, okay?”

“Yeah.” Clint lets his top lip lift slightly. “I know. The point is, you can keep thinking this is your fight and you can do it alone. But it’s always been ours.”

“Then you should’ve been there.”

The words are out before she can stop them, but she knows it doesn’t matter. They’ve already been over their hurt and their arguments about Ronin more times than she can catalogue.

“I know I should have.”

He gets up and walks out of the room before she can say anything else. She considers following just to finish with one last jab, but realizes she doesn’t really have anything left to say. Instead, she climbs into bed; she’s far from tired but she needs to do something to calm herself down and lying in bed seems like the best option at this point since she can’t go shoot a gun or punch a bag.

She’s angry. She’s angry that Clint lied to her, though if he told her where he was really going she would’ve never let him walk out the door. She’s angry that he wanted to meddle with her decision to die, with what she’d chosen and has been trying to leave in the past, even though she knows he’d only been doing it with intentions to help -- however selfish those intentions may have been. Still, she had explicitly told him that she didn’t want him to talk to anyone, that she didn’t want him to try to fix this, and he’d gone ahead and done it anyway. Natasha turns over in bed, squeezing her eyes shut and trying to block out the hues of purple and orange that linger at the sides of her lids, taunting her with forbidden memories. She wishes she’d never jumped off that goddamn cliff at all, but as she lies in bed listening to Lila rustle around in bed and Laura walk back and forth across the hall, she knows she would do it all over again if she had to, just for this comfort.

When she opens her eyes after what feels like ten seconds (but what is, she knows by the darkness of the room, some hours later) she’s for once not surprised or worried by the figure standing by the window. She pushes herself up on her elbows so she can see better from her vantage point, and swallows, trying to erase sleep from her voice before she speaks.

“You okay?”

“I’ll eliminate the threat. She’ll be dead by morning.”

“What?”

Clint turns around. “It’s what I told Fury when he asked me to go track you down. I told him I’d kill you.”

Natasha gets out of bed, swinging her legs over the mattress and walking over to join him. It’s raining, she realizes -- it seems to be raining more than usual lately, or maybe that was the world telling her it was also in a constant gloomy state of mind. She lets the sound of the water against the windowpanes wash the remains of sleep from her body while Clint stays quiet next to her.

“I know.” She glances over at him, noting his messy bedhead and short sleeved top that hugs the top of his bicep, cutting off part of his skull tattoo. “I mean, I always knew you were sent to kill me.”

“Yeah, well.” Clint nods towards the window. “You know why I didn’t.”

“Because I punched you?”

Clint laughs, bringing a hand to his mouth to stifle the sound. “Because I believed in you.”

Natasha feels her eyebrows crease at his words. “You were the only one who did, but that’s not why I came with you when you asked me.”

“So why did you?”

He’s looking at her as if he expects her to answer, as if this isn’t an exchange they’ve had before, as if this isn’t something that’s so much a part of their DNA they don’t even talk about it, because it’s become so formative to who they are -- her deflection to SHIELD and his trust in bringing her in. Natasha presses her lips together and focuses on the rain sliding down the glass in thin rivulets.

“You were the first person who gave me a real choice,” she says slowly. “Other people had tried to do that, but I could always tell there was some ulterior motive. You just...you wanted to help. And I guess I was at the point where I realized I could keep running alone...keep murdering and doing all these jobs I didn’t even want to do. Or I could take a chance. So I took a chance.”

“It was your choice,” Clint repeats. “The same way you jumped off that cliff.”

Natasha nods, not trusting her voice. Clint sighs, long and loud.

“You know, I thought I understood why I did it. All the killing, staying away from you when I could’ve come back. I thought I understood why I was ashamed of just...losing it, because I never wanted to become that person. But I did it because I didn’t have a choice. The same way you didn’t have a choice about how you were raised and how you grew up.”

Natasha tries to smile, failing to feel genuine about her sentiment. “I don’t know if that’s true. I had a choice at some point, I think. But I ignored that I could do anything about it until you came around.”

“But then you made a choice, right? An active choice. And it didn’t mean you forgot the things you did, because those things, they’re a part of you. They are, aren’t they?”

Natasha shrugs. She’d never admitted it, but she’d always hated the term she used with Loki -- red in her ledger, having to wipe out blood and a stained past. It might have been true, but saying it always felt like she was beating herself up for not being able to let go of the person she was so many years ago -- the person she thought she needed to be. “They were,” she says carefully. “Until they weren’t.”

Until she found herself alone in a too-big building, no one bothering to check in or pick up a phone call. Until half the world disappeared and she realized if she didn’t step up, no one would. Until she threw herself off a cliff with the blind hope that she would make a difference, use her agency for good instead of for her own expense, give back to the world that had allowed her so many second chances.

“See, that’s the thing I realized,” Clint says gruffly. “I don’t want to be ashamed of it -- any of it. I don’t want to forget about it, even if it hurts.”

Natasha bites down on her tongue, trying to figure out what she wants to say -- if she wants to say it at all. There’s a part of her that wants to keep this last bit of information to herself, to guard it deeply and wholly and push it down into the depths of her soul, covering it with other feelings and emotions until she can forget it exists. But she feels like she needs to put it out there, in the dark and the quiet and the solitude of Clint and only Clint, a safe room in a safe farmhouse in a new, renewed world.

“I keep saying I don’t want to forget,” Natasha says heavily. “Because I don’t. I don’t want to forget what it felt like to die. But also...I think I do. And no matter what I do, I can’t.”

“I know you can’t.” He reaches for her hand, lacing their fingers together. “Which is why I won’t let you.”

Natasha squeezes his fingers gently, trying to work past a lump in her throat. “I said I didn’t want you to go to talk to Bruce, because I didn’t want you to keep trying to fix something that didn’t need to be fixed. But you went anyway. Why?”

It’s Clint’s turn to look uncomfortable, his body shifting and swaying in the shadows of the dim light that’s starting to make its way into the world, his body language saying everything his voice isn’t. “Because I thought I could fix it,” he answers simply. “But I kinda realized I didn’t need to.”

There’s more to his story -- she knows there is -- and she also knows he’ll tell her if she asks, if she pushes, if she says three more words in this dark room where they’re alone and vulnerable. Somehow, though, it doesn’t seem worth it to push. Not anymore.

“It’ll never go away,” Natasha admits after a long pause. “You know that. I’ll never stop thinking of why I came back or if I deserved to come back.”

“That’s why you have me,” Clint answers. “Well, us. All of us.”

“I’ve been trying to pretend it doesn’t matter,” Natasha continues. “Because if I think about it too much, I won’t be able to handle anything. I’ll be a mess.”

“Okay,” Clint says gently, tossing her a small smile. “So you’ll cry more. Maybe you’ll feel a little more worried sometimes. Maybe you’ll feel anxious. That’s okay, though. It’ll be okay.”

He releases her hand and puts his arm around her shoulder. Natasha leans into his strong hold, settling herself against his arm in the way she always did when she needed to feel safe and comforted. It’s something that she’d missed for five years; people thought she’d missed human connection and she had, but it went deeper than that. She’d missed the ability to feel, to let go, to be vulnerable in that stronghold of someone who could anchor her while she was at her worst, allowing her to sink to the bottom before she could start to climb to the top again.

Natasha turns her head and looks out the window. The rain has started to slow, the sky lightening ever so slightly, an orange-tinted sun peeking out from behind a swath of trees. She smiles at the sight, because for the first time in a long time, she doesn’t feel cold.

And it is okay, she thinks, to be alive.