it’ll all work out
Natasha looks into Clint’s eyes and sees it all. Sees him stripped bare, pain coursing through his veins like a live-wire, survival instinct barely a memory. She sees the past five years, but she knows beyond that. She knows him as a father, as a husband, knows the love he’s capable of.
She would die for this, for any of this, a thousand times over. She remembers being bound and broken, barely twenty-two and a man — what was it Loki had said? — a man no more virtuous than herself standing above her in that cold cell of her own making, and offering her a choice.
She chose to live then, and she chooses to die now.
The wind howls in her ears like a far-off scream. The ground races up, she shuts her eyes and the scream grows louder and louder and —
She opens her eyes.
Natasha blinks, and something heavy hits her legs.
‘Mommy didn’t say you’d be here too!’ The boy (because of course it’s a boy, she sees now) hugs tighter and Natasha stares for a moment, reeling - wasn’t she just - but she grabs at Nate, pulls him into her chest.
‘Ouch, Aunty Nat, you’re hurting me-‘
‘Don’t care,’ she grumbles into his hair, kissing him. She's crying, she realises distantly. ‘Love you too much.’
But her hands still feel numb from the ice at Vormir, her lips still tingle from the cold air on the other planet, and she’s not sure if she’s still falling. That this isn’t some elaborate hallucination dreamed up by her desperate brain.
So she pulls back slightly, not yet ready to let go of Nate, and looks around.
She’s at Clint’s farm - that much is immediately obvious. The entryway looks the same as it always has: toys scattered everywhere, a paint can sits open near the half-finished baseboard and a folded up drop sheet. Yellow light streams in through the open door; it must be late afternoon, when the house has begun to settle in for the evening. Laura cooking dinner, Clint just finishing up for the day. There’s an awful, rushing noise in her ears, but as she looks around, blinking in the soft afternoon light, it grows fainter. It’s nice, peaceful, even and feels as normal a day as any other on the farm.
Nate wriggles away and Natasha gets the chance to look at him properly. He’s not that much older than the last time she saw him, hair about the same length, starting to curl as it hits the back of his neck.
She wants to cry, to never let him go, to hope (oh god, to hope) that this means that it worked, that they’re back, and they’re safe and —
‘How many times do I have to tell you kids to shut the door. Were you born in a barn—?’
And then Laura rounds the corner and stops dead as she sees Natasha. Her lips draw thin, all warmth lost from her expression as her eyes flick to where Natasha’s still holding onto Nate.
‘Nate, honey, come here.‘
They stare at each other and for a moment Natasha thinks she won’t be able to let go. But the rushing in her ears grows louder again — it’s the fall, she realises. Is she still falling?
Her hand drops from Nate’s shoulders but he doesn’t move away.
‘Now, Nate.‘ It’s a threat, now, but Natasha’s vision is starting to blur, the world is shifting sideways and all she can see is that yellow light on the wall and all she can hear is the wind and maybe this is it, maybe this is the end of it all and her final moments will be here in this house...
‘Sorry, Laur,’ Natasha says weakly, then the world fades out.
Clint makes himself look, and hates himself for it. Her body is deathly still, twisted unnaturally underneath her as red spills out from her head. The guilt and anger turns his stomach over but he refuses to look away. Someone needs to be left to bear witness, he knows that. But God if it could be anyone but him.
When he arrives back in the present, there’s a silence that Clint can’t bring himself to break. The stone is hot in his hand; it feels like burning but he only holds on tighter, as though the act of holding it will bring her back. As though the pain, the blood he’s sure is pooling in his hand where the stone cuts in, could be traded once more.
A soul for a soul.
It’s not fair, none of it’s fair, and no one can look at him. He holds out the stone to show them, desperate for them to understand without words.
‘Cap, don’t. Please—’ His voice breaks and he hates himself for it. Why should he be the one left to cry?
Steve takes the stone from him, meets his gaze square-on and says firmly. ‘It’s not your fault.’
Clint wants to be sick.
‘When do you think she’ll wake up?’
‘I don’t know, sweetie. Please, take your brother to bed. I’ll be here when she wakes up.‘
There’s a patter of feet and the sound of a door creaking open then shutting quietly. It’s dark now, Natasha’s not sure how long she’s been here, and, hell, she’s not even sure where here is.
‘You can wake up now.’
‘How did you know?’ Natasha rasps, opening her eyes. She’s been moved into the living room, placed on the sofa under a pile of blankets. The room is dark, lit by a single lamp, and Laura sits across from her in Clint’s armchair, legs curled up underneath her.
‘Coop’s been doing it for years. Can’t fool me.’ Laura shrugs, aiming for careless, but Natasha sees the tension writ across her shoulders, how her weight sits unevenly as though she’s sitting on something heavy that she doesn’t want to disturb.
A gun, then. Right.
Natasha steels herself, then sits up trying to stifle a groan. She’s aching, left side tender from where she must have fallen in the entranceway, right side tender from where Clint had hit her. Proof, perhaps, that this isn’t a dream.
‘How long have I been out?’
‘A couple of hours.’
Not overnight, then. That’s good. Someone’s left water on the coffee table and Natasha takes the glass and lifts it to her mouth, staring, unblinking at Laura.
‘You can stay tonight, but I’d like you to leave in the morning,’ Laura says, tone hard.
Natasha considers this, reaching forward to slowly place the glass back onto the table. She can feel it now, there’s something wrong. It hangs in the air, a heaviness that presses into the house and seems to dampen her senses.
‘I’m not sure I can.’
Laura shifts in her seat, her skirt twitching to reveal the pistol. ‘I don’t know who you are, or where you’ve come from, but I want you out of my house.’
She ignores her. ‘Can you?’
‘My children are upstairs. I can’t have you in the same house as them.’
‘Laura - this is important. How long have you been here?’
‘I’ve kept them safe for this long, and damned if I won’t do it again. I want you to get the fuck out of my house.’ Laura’s raising her voice now, but she still hasn’t moved.
Natasha just sits back, voice steady, and repeats herself. ‘How long have you been here?’
‘I don’t see how that’s-’
There it is; Natasha presses in. ‘The last time I was here I brought Steve to visit you and Clint. We all sat here in this room and drank the wine from your father’s vineyard and Clint pulled out his guitar and we found out that Captain America can’t hold a tune. You laughed so hard you cried woke the kids up. That was five years ago. Laura - how long have you been here?’
Laura’s mouth parts in shock, her eyes bright, the gun still untouched.
‘I remember that,’ Laura whispers. ‘That was — I’m not sure how—’ But she takes in a shuddering breath, seems to pull herself together and asks, ‘Where did you come from? Before you were here?’
‘I’m from - I’m from the world. Where we kept going. Laur, how long have you been here?’
Laura leans closer, coming into the light for the first time. Her eyes glow, wide and desperate, and Natasha feels one step closer to something.
‘I don’t—’ Laura pulls her hair forward, playing with its ends until it lies flat on her chest. ‘I’m never sure. It feels like time passes, but then I look at the kids and — nothing ever changes. Sometimes I forget. I wake up it feels like just another day. We get up and it all feels so normal and I don’t notice until weeks later but I can’t ever put my finger on it.’
‘Do the kids know?’
‘I don’t think so — Coop, sometimes, gets funny. But he’s nearly a teenager, who’s to say what he’d be like if...’ she trails off, smiles sadly as if to say, what can you do?
‘Angry, I guess. He wants to know when his dad’s coming home.’
Laura doesn’t break her gaze. ‘So do I. Nat, what happened?’
Clint can’t get the image out of his head. Her eyes locked in his as she fell. (It’s okay) He wants to scream - but this is it. This is the deal. He stays.
He’s heard Tony and Bruce talking - it sounds like it’s going to happen tonight, and while the compound is buzzing with something like cautious optimism, he can’t shake the god-awful feeling that this whole thing is about to come toppling down on top of them.
So he’s in his room, sitting on the edge of his bed, staring at his bow. It needs to be restrung, but instead he’s decided to sharpen the katana. He’s considering the blade, placing it across his lap, when Steve enters the room.
‘Hi.’ Steve sits down on the bed next to him and Clint stares back at the blade.
‘We’re doing it tonight — Tony and Bruce say it’ll be ready by then. And no time like the present,’ Steven says with a wry smile.
But it lands hollow in Clint’s ears and heavy in his chest. Somehow, it doesn’t feel like a victory. He takes a cloth out of the kit and starts wiping it down the length of the sword.
The bed shifts as Steve moves his weight away, looking more directly at him now.
‘Clint — she wouldn’t have wanted us to give up.’
‘What part of this looks like giving up?’
‘The part where you’ve got your bags packed and you’ve got one eye on the door.’
Clint scoffs. ‘Haven’t you heard? I’m an Avenger now, so I avenge. Specifically and carefully, after it’s been put to a vote.’
‘No. Don’t give me that — your Captain Therapy voice,’ he adds, off Steve’s look. ‘I know what you’ve all been thinking.’
‘You really don’t.’
‘Clint, it’s not your—‘
‘It is!’ Clint’s looking up at him now, heart beating almost out of his chest. Steve’s face is crinkled up in concern but Clint isn’t hearing it. ‘I’m not a civilian you can talk around with the forty year old virgin routine. Spin it whatever way you want, if I’d just stopped her from-‘
‘Then she’d be here instead of you.’
‘And what — that would make it better? Your family could come back and just, go on without you?’
Clint blanches, heart sick, his reply hanging in the air like a neon sign between them. He ignores it, and puts the blade on the bed beside him.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he says quietly, ‘You’re clearly not that cut up about it. And anyway, I’ll be out of your hair once we save the world.’
Steve freezes and Clint feels like he’s watching the blood drain from his face in real time.
‘Alright, Clint — you don’t want to be therapied, fine, I’ll leave you alone. But if you think for one minute it’s not eating me up inside that she’s gone, that we have to do this without her, you’re full of shit.’ Steve’s voice cracks, and Clint feels a sick sense of joy as Steve’s face starts to reflect at least something of what Clint’s been feeling.
Steve’s eyebrows knit together, seeming to struggle with something for a moment, then says, ‘you broke her heart — do you know that?’
Clint scoffs; whatever he was expecting, it’s not that. But it doesn’t rile him up, not in the way he thinks Steve intended it. Instead, it makes him so, so tired. It’s been a long life, full of disappointments, what’s one more?
‘Which time you mean?’
Steve stares up at the ceiling, shaking his head as though it’s obvious. ‘When you left. When you didn’t come back. When you didn’t let her help. Sometimes I thought she was just about the last good thing left in this world. But it took me everything to keep her here, to keep her present and alive, and in the end...’ he trails off, turning back to Clint with tears in his eyes.
But he pulls himself together as quick as he fell apart — Natasha clearly rubbed off on him in more ways than one.
‘I spent so long trying to dig her out of a place she didn’t want to come out of, because of you, that sometimes I think you broke my heart too.’
Clint lets out a soft breath, and says quietly, ‘Gee, Cap, didn’t think you cared.’ There’s no malice in his voice, just soft acceptance.
‘Yeah, well, doesn’t matter now. Stay, don’t stay, it’s really up to you — that’s actually what I came here to say. Just — whatever way you wanted it to go, Nat made a choice. It might not have been the choice either of us wanted, but she did it for you. Do better than me and honour it.’
Natasha tells Laura what happened. All of it. About the snap, about Thanos, about Clint, and the stones and everything.
She’s always respected Laura’s neat acceptance of facts, her ability to take in the information to hand and just say what’s next, but even as Natasha starts to say what happened in Vormir, no amount of acceptance can overcome the end of this story.
‘Nat.’ Laura lets out a sob, climbing off the armchair and moving next to Natasha on the sofa. Natasha puts her arm around the woman.
‘What have you done?’ Laura whispers.
‘What needed to be done.’
‘And now, Clint has the stone. They should be able to bring you all back.’
‘And you?’ But Natasha can see in her eye that Laura already knows the answer.
‘It’s okay, it really, really is.’ Natasha’s voice breaks, tightens her arm around Laura and leans her whole weight against her. ‘This, already, is more than I could’ve hoped for.’
They go to bed. Laura insists that Natasha takes the master, and Natasha insists that Laura stay.
When Natasha wakes, the yellow light is back, but she feels Laura pressed up against her side and sends thanks to whoever’s listening that she gets another day here.
Clint walks into the kitchen, bow in hand. Tony and Steve are talking in hushed voices, but they turn around and face him squarely.
‘Promise me something.’
‘Of course,’ Steve answers easily.
‘When the after comes — whatever you’ve got cooking — you let me know. Let me make this choice.’
Tony goes to speak, probably to deny him, but Steve cuts him off. ‘As soon as we have something you’ll be the first to know.’
Time moves strangely at the farm. It’s been a day, and then suddenly a week and almost a whole month passes, and still nothing has changed.
Natasha doesn’t move out of the master bedroom. She helps Laura with the kids and prepares the farm for a winter that will probably never come.
It’s nice, pleasant. She plants flowers with Lila in planter boxes on the front porch and helps teach Nate to ride a bike. He’s a menace, chases Lil and Coop around the farmhouse in circles as Laura and Natasha watch from the porch.
If Natasha shuts her eye she can still sometimes here the rush of the fall, but right now, with tears of laughter in her eyes and Laura at her side, all she can hear is joy.
If this is the afterlife, then, maybe it’s not so bad.
They talk about the world sparingly. When they do they always make sure the kids are out of earshot, even as Coop grows increasingly suspicious.
‘We can’t do anything from here,’ Natasha reminds her in a whisper as they load the dishwasher one night. ‘Besides, I’ve waited out worse before.’
It’s a lie, one that Laura doesn’t fall for. And if, selfishly, Natasha doesn’t mind staying here a few months more, Laura doesn’t call her on it either.
Laura forgets, sometimes, where she is: Natasha will come into the kitchen and be greeted by a look of surprise.
‘You didn’t say you’d be back so soon! I suppose Clint couldn’t-‘ but the woman still pulls her into a hug and Natasha makes apologies for Clint and promises to help with the kids.
Laura will insist that Natasha takes the master bedroom, and Natasha insists that Laura stay. When they wake in the morning, Laura will cry, unsure of what she missed.
It goes on and on and on until it doesn’t:
Someone, somewhere, clicks their fingers.
Laura blinks, and it’s like waking up. She spins around, momentarily lost, then catches sight of Lila, Cooper and Nate all running towards her. She breaks into a sprint, barrelling into them and scoops them up into a hug.
Something’s wrong — something’s gone horribly wrong but she doesn’t know what. She thought she heard a woman scream her name, but all she can hear now is distance bird calls — something must have startled them — and her own quiet sobbing.
‘Momma, where’s Dad?’
Clint sinks to his knees in relief, hand numb as he clutches the phone to his ear. ‘Baby oh god I’m so sorry I love you are the kids okay —’
But he stops as he hears a rumble in the distance; it’s not over yet.
‘You stay put, okay. Tell the kids I love them, so much. Tell them — tell them — it’s all gonna be okay.’
Natasha’s falling again. Had she ever stopped falling?
When Clint gets to the farm he’s greeted by a sobbing Laura and three children — two ecstatic, one asking warily: ‘What did you do to your arm?’
‘Shut up.’ He’s started crying and almost tackles the lot of them into a hug. His heart is beating so fast that he almost can’t breathe, but to have them all here, to see them all and hold them and hug them — it’s almost too much. He kisses Laura, cupping the back of her head desperately, hand tangling up in her hair and he never wants to let go.
It’s only later, once they load everyone back into the jet, Clint having half-explained what’s going on, that Laura asks about Natasha.
Clint swallows heavily, somehow unprepared for this inevitability. ‘She — she didn’t — she’s gone, Laur.’ He looks up at his wife, pleading, and she raises a shaking hand to her mouth.
‘When?’ She asks softly.
He’s not sure if the noise that escapes his mouth is a laugh or a cry.
That night they all pile into the same bed in one of his least destroyed safehouses, the kids sandwiched between Clint and Laura. She looks over at her husband, still trying to take it all in, to reconcile what she’s seeing now against what she remembers.
It’s not just the hair and the sleeve that have changed: his eyes are rimmed with dark circles that look almost permanent, new lines have sprung up on his face that don’t go away, even as he sleeps, arms wrapped tightly around himself.
It’s just time, she tries to tell herself. But it’s more than that:
One minute they’ve got their whole lives ahead of them, then she blinks and the farmhouse is in ruins, the world is in disarray. Natasha is gone.
He’s told her bits of what happened: about Thanos, about the stones, about Natasha, but it’s tinged by a air of something she can’t put her finger on. She thinks she should be more surprised, less accepting, but for every minute she spends in this new future, the more time seems to shift before her eyes, expand out to fill those five years with she just can’t remember.
Maybe, if she shuts her eyes tight, falls backwards into herself, she’ll be able to see what she missed.
She dreams of the farmhouse, bathed in a yellow light.
She dreams of a figure, small and solid, pressed up against her as she sleeps.
She dreams of Nat, hair long and curling blonde at the ends, laughing softly with sadness in her eyes.
Clint gets a call the next morning: the funeral will be the day after next. Pepper’s going to put everyone up on their property — ‘for as long as we need, she said,’ — so they go.
It’s all sorts of awful. Pepper and Happy are trying their best, but no one really knows what to say to them, nothing quite seems to come out right. Laura does what she can and installs herself in the kitchen to make endless cups of tea. Steve hovers, wonderfully helpful. She can almost hear Natasha’s suspicious voice in her head, but she’s not Natasha, so gracefully accepts his help.
But then she catches him skulking, pulling Bruce aside for quite and hurried conversations she never quite catches. Damn in, Natasha.
She can’t help but notice no one’s making funeral plans for Nat.
‘We had - we had something,’ Clint says gruffly when she brings it up with him the morning after the funeral. He looks exhausted, like he doesn’t want to think about it.
‘Should we do something, properly I mean?’ Laura presses.
‘Laur, I don’t,’ Clint scrubs his face with his hands, exasperated. ‘I don’t know — I don’t think she would’ve wanted us to make a fuss.’
‘But what if I do? What if I want to say goodbye?’
‘Then — look, honey, can we talk about this later? I’m not saying no, I’m just saying not right now.’
She still dreams.
A week later and the bulk of the crowd have moved on. Pepper insisted they move into one of their guest houses while they figure out what to do next, and Laura cautiously accepts.
There’s this feeling of waiting, of unmet expectations. What they’re waiting for, she doesn’t know. What she does know is that the longer they stay here, the longer they go without rebuilding. (Honestly, he’s not sure how to feel about that.)
So they wait. Each day passes slower than the last, and it feels like swimming through mud.
Her sleep is peaceful, despite Clint’s concerns. ‘You’ve been gone for so long I though you might’ve— I dunno, just been asleep the whole time,’ he tells her.
‘It wasn’t, like that. Not really.’
Clint looks at her softly, curiously. ‘What was it like?’
Laura considers this, then begins slowly, ‘it was like— like one minute everything was fine, and the next it wasn’t.’
‘And in between?’
‘There wasn’t an In Between.’
But that’s not entirely true. When she shuts her eyes, she feels it there — the memories of the In Between — just out of her reach. She’s not sure why she doesn’t want to tell Clint. Only that it feels like something quiet, something personal. Something she’s not entirely sure how to quantify. Something she’s yet to figure out.
She still dreams of the farm, still dreams of Natasha, still dreams of peace.
Clint comes downstairs for breakfast one morning to find Steve standing in their kitchen, arms crossed, leaning against the counter. Clint doesn’t start, doesn’t stop his motion towards the coffee machine, barely looks at him. It might be nothing.
‘You said to let you know.’
‘You’re blocking the coffee,’ Clint says mildly, gesturing to the pot that’s Steve is, indeed, in the way of.
Steve blinks, confused, then moves away, Clint taking his place. Closer now, Clint gets a good look at Steve for the first time in what feels like days. Steve’s still standing, posture-perfect, still has that Captain America aura of moral authority, but something’s different. He looks tired, almost strung out, as though he really doesn’t want to be here talking to Clint.
‘And this is it. I’m letting you know,’ Steve continues flatly. ‘We’re going tomorrow.’
Filter first, then coffee grounds. ‘Going where?’
‘To get her back. Me and Tony talked about it before he— we thought it might work. I just have to time it right, give the stone back before she can die and he thought it might equalise out.
‘Bruce is helping me with the tech, Sam ‘n’ Bucky will be there as well to make sure nothing goes wrong, but, yeah, I’ll be gone tomorrow and back before you know it.’
There’s a rushing in his ears, Clint’s hands start to tingle with adrenaline. This is it — this is what they’ve all been waiting for. Why they’ve all been hanging out in this hell for days on end. Clint snaps the pot into its holder, flicks the switch.
He turns to Steve.
‘You mean we’ll be gone tomorrow; I’m coming with you,’ he says, as easy as breathing.
‘I’m coming with you,’ he repeats, more firmly.
‘If something goes wrong—’
‘Then the outcome is the same — she still dies. No harm, no foul.’ He almost hates how light his voice comes out, but he can’t bring himself to care. They’re going to bring her back. It’s like he’s floating, he’s lighter than air. ‘I’ll need to service my bow, but that won’t take too long.’
But Steve just looks at him, face twisted as though he wants to be sick, and says nothing.
“Steve,’ Clint says, desperation growing in his voice. ‘Steve, you have to let me go; I can’t stay here and wait. Besides, I was actually there, I’m the only one that knows when to throw the stone. I’m the only one that can help, you have to let me help.’
They’re almost face to face, Steve looking down at him, opens his mouth to reply then—
‘Clint? What’s going on?’
Clint’s heart leaps into his throat as Laura steps into the kitchen. Her eyes flick between the two men — Clint can feel Steve’s guilty expression a mile away, can hear the unsaid I told you so, and suddenly gets it. Now he feels sick, too.
But Laura strides into the room, expression caught halfway between jubilant and furious.
‘Clint.’ It’s Steve that speaks first, voice firm with a threat that Clint ignores, stepping away from Steve and going straight to Laura.
‘I think we can save her.’
Laura’s eyes flick to Steve, uncertain, and he gives the smallest of nods. She nods back, takes one deep breath and looks back to Clint.
‘Will it be dangerous?’
Steve answers for him: ‘Potentially.’
Truth be told, Clint hadn’t got that far.
‘No Thanos?’ she asks Steve, eyes still on Clint.
‘No Thanos, but we don’t know — there’s still a lot that could go wrong. I don’t want—’ but he breaks himself off, voice stricken. The last proper conversation Clint had with Steve echoes around his head. Do better than me.
He takes a deep, shuddering breath, pulling Laura closer to him. He drops his head down, and they stand, foreheads touching. Tears prick at his eyes and he squeezes her hand.
‘Laur... if you don’t want me to go, I’ll stay. Just say the word.’
‘Just say the word.’
‘Laura, I’m serious.’
‘No, I,’ she squeezes her eyes shut and Clint presses a soft kiss to where her eyebrows crinkle up. ‘You asked me about what happened In Between? In those five years. I think, Clint, I think she was there.’
She’s flushed, her eyes bright and clear but she speaks with purpose, gaze never breaking away from his.
‘I’ve been dreaming about her. We’re at the farm, just the two of us and the kids. Her hair is long, she must’ve grown it out, and she helps me around the house, looks after the kids. We talk, sometimes, about what’s happening. It’s like she’s waiting for something, but she won’t tell me exactly what. She thinks I’m going to leave her behind.
‘Sometimes, when I wake up with you I think she’s here too. That I’ll roll over and it’ll be the three of us.’
Tears stream down her face and Clint’s holding his breath. ‘What’re you saying?’ he whispers.
‘I’m saying that I miss her. I’m saying that it doesn’t feel compete without her. I’m saying that if you think you can get her back — who am I to stop you?’
‘You’re my wife.’
‘And it’s Natasha.’
An explosion shakes the rock that Clint and Steve are crouched behind, hiding out of sight.
It looks even worse from here, if possible. Clint winces at the dull thud Natasha’s body makes as it hits the ground, thrown sideways by the explosive arrow let loose by the other him. Not even the solid weight of Steve at his side is enough to make this feel any less surreal.
Clint’s hands twitch to his bow, but keeps them down — he’s not here for that. Maybe if he shuts his eyes, blocks out the noises the other him and Natasha are making, it can be just like any other mission. Deliver the package to the drop point without being made.
The other him fires a grappling hook — it attaches to a rock to their left and Clint takes a deep breath. Three, two, one— it pulls taut with a crack, they’ve gone over the edge. He gestures towards Steve.
They creep towards the edge, Clint keeping half an eye on the point where he knows the ghast had vanished only minutes before. Steve extends his arm over the edge, fist closed around the stone, eyes fixed on Clint, and Clint looks.
Nothing could have prepared him for this. Seeing the moment he’s replayed in his mind more times than he can count made real before his eyes. Natasha eyes are set, she’s cut up and bruised, but her grip is firm, muscular legs braced against the cliff front ready to push off.
But it’s not her that takes his breath away. It’s his face, his own face torn askew with grief. His mouth like a gash ripped through a painting, no tears in sight but grim determination and a readiness to end it all. He almost doesn’t recognise himself; he can’t take his eyes away.
Distantly, he hears Steve whisper, urgent in his ear. ‘Clint, stay with me. Count me down, you’ve got this. It’s going to be okay. You’ve got this’
Is that what she’d seen in him? A person, begging for death; it wouldn’t have been a sacrifice at all. Was that what she had wanted to save?
The sound of her voice doesn’t reach him, but his sees the way his face contorts and knows it’s time.
‘Go, Cap, let it go.’
She pushes off. Steve drops the stone. Clint looked once, he can’t look again, only stares in horror as his own face seems to crumble from within. A screams echo across the abyss that he knows to be his, but can’t tell which him it’s coming from. Steve grabs his hand, face pallid.
‘Clint, we have to go—’
And then the world whites out.
Natasha lands, finally, achingly, her body numb to the crunch even as it echoes through the valley.
But then — no — she’s not numb. It’s there, something else tweaking at the edge of her awareness. The noise of her body hitting the ground reverberates, setting her teeth on edge, and while she’s numb she doesn’t feel broken.
Her nose wrinkles in disgust, she thought this would have been the end of the magic. The end of everything. The farm feels like a distant dream, a hazy memory of a time long since past.
She stands up, mentally checks in: nothing seems broken, she has a slight headache, but nothing too surprising from an infinite fall, apart from the obvious fact that’s she’s not, dead. Or at least not in an obvious way.
But then she sees them: two figures in the distance, and it’s like someone injected ice into her veins. She can’t run, just stands, rooted, to the spot. She can’t believe what she’s seeing, Steve and Clint walking (almost running) towards her.
She crosses her arms, eyes cool. It’s not real, it can’t be real, because if it’s real, and they’re here they must be —
‘Natasha!’ Clint reaches her first, about to give her a hug but stops short at her expression.
She looks from Clint, face flushed dark with adrenaline, to Steve’s pale, hopeful face.
‘Nat,’ Steve says. ‘Oh Nat we thought we lost you.’ But he keeps a wary distance, doesn’t come closer. His eyes flick to her hands, as though anticipating a fight.
‘It’s us, I swear Tash it’s us.’
‘No, no, it’s okay. We’re real,’ Clint says desperately.
She scoffs. ‘Real, not real, you have to go. What are you doing here? You’ll get yourself killed; you’ll get everyone killed.’ Her voice breaks at the thought, even as she readies herself to fight. She can handle two against one in her sleep, but these two probably offer herself the closest thing to a challenge.
She sees Clint move his weight back, deliberately, obviously. I am not a threat to you.
But it’s a trick, it has to be a trick, her mind whirring with thoughts she can’t process. They both look well, she notices. Not happy, exactly, but well-fed and well rested, hair clean, as though—
‘It’s over, Nat. We won. We bought everyone back,’ Steve says, gaze firm and true.
One last, desperate plea: ‘Why are you here?’
Another her would baulk, would run in the other direction, would stay and fight— would do something. But she’s older than she’s ever been and she’s so, so tired. How long was she gone? It feels like years.
She looks between the two men and their identical expressions of earnest concern and conviction. It feels real, more real than the farm in any rate. But even that felt real by the end. What’s to say this isn’t something different, another test for her to fail?
There’s a rumble in the distance, a flash of light, and a ship passes overhead. She follows its path as it leaves the atmosphere then glances up to the top of the cliff-face, scanning for something she recognises.
There - caught in the wind, the rope, left dangling where they’d fallen over only moments before.
She looks back to them, forces herself to take a breath, to blink slowly. When she opens her eyes, they haven’t moved. Just looking, waiting for her to say something.
‘I’m not going to have to stop you again, am I?’
A ghost of a joke — but even as she sees Clint process what she’s said, she knows it’s not true.
When they get back to the present, Laura’s waiting, eyes wild, hair in a messy bun as though she couldn’t stop playing with it.
She breaks into a run when she sees Natasha, wraps her arms around her as though she never wants to let go. Natasha buries her head in her shoulder, her mouth running amok with muffled apologies.
When she eventually lifts her head, eyes wet, Laura doesn’t let go.
‘Do you—’ Laura whispers, mouth parted softly.
They go back to the farm. It’s a wreck, truthfully. But the jet is warm and has room enough for five and it’s enough.
So they sit, legs dangling over the edge of the open cargo bay. The sun is low in the sky, pink and orange light catches on the roof of the farmhouse, and Natasha thinks it’s never looked so beautiful. She drinks it all in, this moment, this life.
It feels false, like a cheat. Like she’ll turn around one day to see the ghast demanding to repay her debt. But Clint is warm and solid at her side and she has to trust that the feeling will fade. He’s smiling quietly to himself, and reaches to pass her a beer.
‘I don’t know how I’ll ever repay you.’
Her breath catches in her throat.
‘I didn’t really do it for you.’
He leans against her, takes a long swig of the beer. In the distance Lila picks Nate up in her arms and starts swinging him around, laughing. Clint stares at them for a long moment before he replies.
‘I know, but even so.’
‘It’s not something to repay.’ She knocks her shoulder up against his, and he pushes back slightly. ‘No more ledgers, okay? We’re even. Forever.’
Movement behind them, Laura comes over, blanket in her arms.
‘She’s right.’ She runs a hand through Natasha’s hair before sitting down on the other side of Clint. She unfurls the blanket, opens her arms like a bird and wraps the three of them up. ‘And anyway, I’m done keeping count.’