"Everyone you know and love… Ok, maybe love is a little strong. Like? Tolerate? Anyhow, everyone you know is fighting the battle of their lives right now and you're sitting here on a rock, moping?"
Natasha's head jerked up at the sound of Tony's voice. She couldn't see him clearly in the grey mistiness of wherever they were, but she definitely recognized that slightly amused, slightly cynical voice.
"You disappoint me, Red."
She couldn't help but smile at that. "Wasn't exactly part of my plan, getting stuck here. Wherever here is exactly."
"Sure it was," Tony said, his figure coming more clearly into view. He wasn't in the suit as she'd expected. Or in the special gear they'd created for the time jumps. He was in one of his standard metal band t-shirts and a pair of ratty jeans. "I mean, you knew there had to be a sacrifice and since it was either you or Clint, you chose you. Poor bastard never had a chance to make his own choice."
"Is that why you're here?" she asked, chin coming up challengingly. "To give me shit for saving Clint?"
He shrugged. "Not really. It was a good choice. If we do what we set out to do, the kidlets and the wife are gonna need him. Although they'll need you, too. But like I said, it had to be one of you."
"Tell me something I don't know," she snarked.
He took a seat next to her and peered out into the murkiness. "Well, for one thing, this is a crappy view."
That surprised a laugh out of her.
"I said something I don't know," she said with a smile as she nudged his shoulder.
He shifted to get a better look at her face. "For another... you know I'm not really here, right?"
She nodded. "I kind of assumed, what with me being dead and you being not dead."
"Right. Should have known you'd see through that." He pursed his lips. "So here's the thing - You aren't dead. It just so happens that you're only mostly dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead."
Natasha raised an eyebrow. "Mostly dead? Really? That's a thing now?"
"Absolutely," Tony said, nodding. "Clint saw your body, but you didn't actually die. It was just an illusion. You got trapped in the Soul Stone instead."
"Fabulous. That's so much better than being dead," she drawled.
"You said you wanted to know something you didn't know. Don't shoot the messenger."
"Wouldn't do me any good anyhow. I don't have a gun on me and you're not really here."
"Oh. Right." Tony was quiet for a moment. "Hey, do you still have that vial of Pym particles?"
She nodded, confused. "Yes."
Her brows furrowed. "But how? Without Bruce to direct where and when --"
"You're trapped in a goddamn stone. I think we're past the part where science is helpful. Use your heart. Be fucking Dorothy. Click your heels together three times and wish really hard."
She eyed him. "Dorothy? Really?"
"Hey, even genius billionaire playboy philanthropists watch the classics."
"Okay fine… I click my heels and wish real hard. What happens then?"
He paused to consider it then shrugged. "Don't know. You wind up back on Earth? Or Kansas. Maybe Kansas. Try it and find out."
"And what happens to you?"
"Not really here, remember?" She scowled at him and he chuckled. If he'd been real, she'd have happily hit him. "So listen… do you want me to help you get out of here or not?"
She didn't even pause before answering. "Help me get out of here. "
It turned out to be a bit more complicated than just clicking her heels together three times and making a wish, but it worked. She wasn't sure the new locale was much of an improvement, though. Because the new locale was just as murky and ambiguous as the old one, but instead of being stuck with Stark, she was in this brand new shadow world with Dr. Steven Strange.
She sighed. She really hoped Tony had been right and she was only mostly dead. Because if she was all dead and had to spend her time in the afterlife with Stark and Strange, it wasn't going to be pretty.
"Ah. You've arrived," Strange said, sounding a lot more impatient than he had any right to be, especially since she was the one who had, technically, died. Almost. Maybe.
She looked around. This place was brighter than within the soul stone, but still very hazy, with nothing of substance to see except for the man in front of her.
"I've arrived," she confirmed, crossing her arms in front of her as she refocused on Strange. "Now tell me where I've arrived."
"To the one chance in fourteen million that we have of righting the universe," he said.
"So no big deal then," Natasha snorted.
He looked down his nose at her haughtily. "Are you Avengers always so glib?"
"Can't speak for all of us, but probably. It helps with the job." She gestured to the fog around them. "So if this is our one chance in fourteen million--"
"Fourteen million, six hundred and five, to be exact," Strange interrupted snidely.
"Fourteen million, six hundred and five, to be exact," she repeated mockingly. "If that's the case, then tell me: where is everyone else?"
His scowl deepened. "In the fight of their lives on Earth."
Natasha's brow wrinkled. "Then where are we?"
"In an intermediate world," Strange explained. "A waiting room, if you will. I needed to ensure that the stone really acted as I suspected it would before allowing our chance--"
"Yeah, yeah." She waved off the rest of whatever he was about to say. "How about you cut to the chase and take me back to wherever Clint is?"
"The future of our world hangs in the balance and you're concerned about one man?"
"Funny," she retorted with a small smirk. "Someone else asked me that once. The answer is still the same. Yes. Take me back to him. Now."
He looked like he was going to protest again, but then he surprised her by sketching a small bow in acquiescence. "As you wish."
In the blink of an eye, she was no longer in the weird shadow world with Strange, but in the thick of battle on what appeared to be the demolished remains of the compound. Shit. She suffered one small almost-death and the whole place fell apart without her. Literally.
She didn't have time to dwell on the destruction, though, because one of the invaders rushed at her, forcing her into the fray far sooner than she'd expected. She immediately kicked out, catching him in the midsection and sending him reeling before blasting him with one of her Widow's bites. One down, a whole lot more to go, she thought as she took in the rest of the chaos around her and fought off another alien soldierg.
Wilson and Rhodes were in the air, doing what they could to mitigate damage from above. And Barnes and a number of Wakandans were on the ground fighting hand to hand with Thanos' army.
So far so good. They presence of Sam, Bucky and several others meant their plan had worked. Those who'd been among the missing had returned. The question was: Would they stay? Or would they be lost again, permanently this time? There was no way to tell, but she couldn't worry about that right now. She had to find Clint and see for herself that he was alright.
That's when she noticed a line of women forming a few hundred yards to her left. Pepper, and Nebula were with them, as well as Okoye and Wanda. There were also almost a dozen other women she didn't know but instinctively knew were on their side, and they were all lined up right in front of the Parker kid, who appeared to be holding onto the glove. He passed it off to Danvers and then the women all moved as one to cover her as she headed straight for Banner.
But there was no sign of Hawkeye.
Pulling her gaze away from the women, she searched the melee around her until she finally spotted him -- letting a dozen arrows fly straight and true amongst all the swords and axes and other weapons being swung around. Relief flooded through her and she grinned giddily as she started to fight her way towards him, casting off various attackers like they were nothing in her quest to get to him.
"Clint!" she called, hoping her voice would carry over the roar of battle. "Clint!"
She saw the moment he finally heard her. His eyes went wide -- like he was hearing a ghost, which she supposed he was, in a way -- and he frantically scanned the area around him.
And then he saw her.
Within seconds, he'd crossed the distance between them and was smothering her in a bone crushing hug. "Natasha. Oh God, Tasha! How… what… How?"
With a small laugh, she pushed out of his tight embrace just enough so she could tip her head back to see his face.
"Turns out we're still working with monsters and magic and things we were never trained for," she said with a little smirk that belied the tears in her eyes.
"You're here? You're really here?" he asked, his voice cracking. His calloused fingers stroked along her face, her hair, any part of her he could reach to assure himself that she was real.
She nodded and took his hands in hers, stilling them as she pulled them in against her heart. "I'm really here."
"Natasha." He swept her up into another bone-crushing hug and then spun her around with a whoop of joy.
He'd barely set her down again when another one of Thanos' army rushed them. Natasha was about to call out a warning, but before she even managed to open her mouth Clint pivoted, nocked an arrow, and shot the soldier through the eye socket.
"Time to get to work?" she asked with a grin as she pulled her batons from their holsters and took up a stance back to back with him
"Time to get to work," he echoed with a grin of his own as he glanced over his shoulder at her. "Just like Budapest."
The reunion with Laura and the kids was loud and noisy, with an insane amount of laughter, tears, and hugs. But overall it wasn't as traumatizing as Natasha feared it would be.
Laura was a bit overwhelmed but the kids took everything in stride. Mostly, they were confused by the fact that five years had passed for her and Clint but no time had passed for them. And Nate was completely fascinated by Natasha's hair and Clint's tattoos. One of the first things he asked was if he could get pretty arm pictures just like Daddy, something that had Laura simultaneous bursting into sobs and laughing out loud.
Natasha had to hand it to her; she was handling everything amazingly well, given all that they'd thrown at her. Even if she was being a little clingy, not that Natasha could blame her.
Which was why about a week after they'd all been reunited, Natasha awoke to find Laura wrapped around her in the large master bed. They'd both fallen asleep after marathon watching Master Chef, something that Natasha had hoped was just ridiculous enough to push away the nightmares she'd been suffering from the past five years.
But a persistent, disturbing dream about a fog shrouded lake woke her up despite her best efforts and she couldn't seem to shake the remnants of it long enough to fall back to sleep.
Realizing it was useless to even try, she carefully eased out of Laura's embrace. Laura stirred at the disturbance and muttered something in her sleep but Natasha hushed her with a quick kiss on the cheek and whispered, "It's ok. I'll be right back. Just going to use the bathroom."
It was a blatant lie, but there was no reason Laura needed to lose out on any sleep just because Natasha was having trouble settling down again.
She eased soundlessly out of the room and quickly checked on each of the kids -- all sleeping soundly, thank goodness -- before silently creeping down the stairs.
Clint was on the couch in the living room, quietly snoring. A bow and quiver were on the floor by his side, ready to be swooped up at a moment's notice.
Ah, so that's what he'd been up to each night. She'd noticed him slipping out of the bedroom on several occasions but had been reluctant to abandon Laura in order to follow up on his mysterious disappearing acts.
This explained it. He'd been keeping watch.
She smiled fondly at his recumbent form. Idiot. But she couldn't blame him; she'd been feeling the same urge,
She guessed they all had a lot of adjusting to do with regards to their new normal.
Heading outside, Natasha took a deep breath of cool predawn air then stepped off the porch into the yard. She did a few lazy Tai Chi movements to relax her muscles before she realized there was someone out there, watching her.
Damn. These past few years had definitely dulled her instincts. And on top of that, she was out here without any weapons. She scanned the area for anything she could use, but there was nothing handy.
"My husband is inside and he's got a shotgun," she called out into the darkness.
That resulted in a loud guffaw from the person -- a woman, Natasha realized -- as she stepped out of the shadows. "I was under the impression the Black Widow was unattached and more than capable of taking care of herself. And those she loves."
“So you know who I am. Who are you?" Natasha asked, taking a threatening step closer in an attempt to push the stranger farther from the house.
The woman shrugged, wholly unconcerned with Natsha's combative stance. "No one of consequence."
"I am sorry, but get used to the disappointment. My identity is not important."
"Let's try another question then: what do you want?"
The woman's expression grew serious. "To ensure this timeline is still intact."
More magic and monsters. As if they hadn't had enough of that already. Fine. She'd go for an even more direct question.
"Am I dead?" Natasha asked bluntly. She gestured around them to the house and the surrounding farmland. "Is all of this just a dream?"
That almost got a smile out of the woman. "No, you are very much alive. This is no dream."
Well, there was some good news at least. "Are you dead?"
The woman chuckled. "I am neither dead nor alive. I exist in another time and place. In a different dimension, if you will."
If Natasha never heard about other dimensions or time travel again, it would be too soon. "Is that what this is then? Another dimension?"
"For all intents and purposes, yes."
"What about my own dimension?"
The woman waved her question away. "That is not your concern anymore."
"That doesn't answer my question."
"No, it does not. But it is the only answer I am willing to give."
"That doesn't seem very fair," Natasha commented dryly.
The woman snorted back another laugh. "Who says life is fair, where is that written?"
Natasha had to hold back her own snort. Clearly she wasn't going to be getting any serious answers from their visitor. "So now that you see everything is fine and intact, now what?"
"Now I leave you to live your life. Good luck and Godspeed, Natalia Romanova."
And then with a wave of her hand, she faded from sight.
Clint ambled out onto the porch just as the sun was starting to come up, the faintest of glows on the eastern horizon.
Natasha had given up on her Tai Chi by then and was sitting on the steps, staring off into the now empty yard.
"Hey," he mumbled as he sat down and slung an arm around her shoulders. "You ok?"
She nodded and nestled against his side.
He squinted out into the darkness, trying but failing to see what she'd been looking at. "Did I hear you talking to someone out here?"
Natasha shook her head and smiled as she leaned her head back and kissed his cheek. "Nope. Just me."
He gave her a bit of a funny look but tipped his chin in acceptance before leaning his head against hers. "So what should we do today? Laura's been wanting to go to the lake."
"The lake would be nice," she agreed.
"I could finally take the kids waterskiing. And Coop's been itching to learn how to drive the boat. I could teach him."
She chuckled at that. "You barely know how to drive the boat. I'll teach him."
Clint nodded. "Ok, deal. But you have to wake them all up."
"Why me?" Natasha argued.
"Why not you?"
"If one of you goes and makes coffee," Laura said sleepily from the doorway, "I will happily go wake them all up. In another hour or so."
Natasha turned and it suddenly all felt so right, so normal. Who knew what was real anymore? But did it matter? This - Clint and Laura and their family - this is what was real and what mattered. She got up and offered Laura a quick kiss as she ducked past her back into the house.
"I'll make the coffee," she called over her shoulder. "But Clint is in charge of the pancakes."