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The world was supposed to be better.  After everyone had turned to dust things had gone downhill really fast.  Thanos had taken out half of all life which hadn’t actually changed anything.  There was just half as much of everything.  But it wasn’t just that.  Planes had dropped out if the sky and crashed into populated areas killing hundreds.  Power Plants were suddenly left unmanned.  Some caught fire.  Some went thermonuclear and wiped out entire areas making them uninhabitable.  Babies and small children were left without parents and starved in their homes.  People disappeared while cooking creating house fires and because the emergency services were all overwhelmed all of a sudden whole city blocks burned.

In the end, what was supposed to be half was actually two thirds.  It took a long time to recover.  But slowly things seemed to start to.  Humanity was struggling but the planet seemed to take a moment to breathe.  The air was cleaner and you started to be able to see the stars at night even in the middle of New York City.  You met Natasha Romanoff.

Things were pretty far from perfect.  Whatever you had been before everyone had turned to dust, you weren’t any longer.  It was like that for everyone.  There was before the incident and after.  They were separate.

Immediately after people began to turn to dust, you’d heard the cries of your neighbors baby.  Thankfully your landlord hadn’t been one of the ones dusted.  You and he had gone through every apartment looking for children or pets left alone or appliances left on.  You’d then gone to the next building and the next.  You collected a police officer on the way and a volunteer firefighter that helped you break into the places you didn’t have keys for.  By the time you physically couldn’t move your legs anymore you had gathered 23 children under the age of 10 and another 3 teenagers who were home alone after seeing their parents disintegrate along with more birds, fish, cats, and dogs than you could count.  The next day you had gathered more people to help.  Until there was a team of people taking turns looking after the kids you had found and going around finding ones you’d missed.

Thankfully you’d had your head together when you had started the process.  You’d taken pictures from each place you took the children from and written down addresses and any other personal information you could find.  You knew that whether the disappeared people came back or not there would be family who would look for some of the children at least.  You needed to make sure you weren’t making it harder to find them.

When the word had gotten back to the Avengers about the group you’d coordinated Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff had come to provide help.  Initially, they’d just done the initial sweeps of the city following the very protocol you’d started.  There was something about both of them  Of course, they were hurt like everyone else.  Everyone had experienced loss.  But for them, there was more.  They blamed themselves.  It was guilt and loss and fear that no one else seemed to carry with them the same way.  They were determined they fix things but they seemed to have no idea how or where to start.

They moved the whole thing into the old Avengers Tower.  The building had mostly been empty since it had originally sold and with what had happened a lot of businesses had downsized.  Stark Industries didn’t own the building anymore, but one of their subsidiary charities now rented out the ten floors of apartments and dorms that used to be used for the Avengers and the other employees.  It was now housing for displaced children and carers.  Many of the carers had lost their own children and were trying to fill that hole in themselves by helping the kids you’d found.

Having the use of the AI Friday to clear background checks and find family members made things work so smoothly that children from out of state were sent to you.  When the city had been scoured and deemed free of homeless children and pets Natasha and Steve both began to help with the kids.  Natasha more than Steve.  You’d later learned about Steve’s support group he set up.  Natasha did get something special out of helping the children.  It helped her with her pain and the need to fix things.  She was lost and god damn if she didn’t want to be found.

And find her you did.  It wasn’t easy.  Her walls were built high and she fortified them by keeping busy all the time.  You were busy too, but there was something that drew you to the red-head ex-assassin.  It was slow-burn in the worst way.  Holding each other at bay.  Two steps forward one step back.  All the cliches for two hurt and scared people who want more and are just too scared and have too much to make up for before they get to be happy.  But like all cliches you had ended up together and in love.

Maybe not happy.  It was hard to be completely happy in the post-snap world.  Or so Nat would say.  Not when your friends and family were gone and you spent your time taking care of orphans who were more afraid than you were. Not when her best friend was on some kind of murderous spree and the family she had made with his and her other friends and scattered to the wind.  But you were happy together.  You shared each other’s burdens and the joys.  And they came.  When you found a lost family member for one of the kids or found a loving adoptive family or when one came home from school proud about a grade or excited about a project.  You felt like parents in a way.  And as time moved forward you started to picture a life where maybe you could actually be parents.  Where you adopted some of the kids as your own and she realized that maybe the world as it stood didn’t need her to be an Avenger anymore.  It needed people to nurture it.

You had plans.  Not for now.  For later.  For when she was ready.  For when she could let go of what happened and moved forward in the world as it was and not get trapped in the idea that she could undo it all.

And then… and then …

And then Scott Lang had come back and given her hope again.

She’d said she was going to fix things.  She said they’d be better.  It was supposed to be better.  Bringing everyone back was supposed to make it better.

Maybe for some people, it was.

Not for you.

There was a lot of shit really.  When people returned some of them just appeared mid-air and fell to the ground because they’d been on planes when they disintegrated.  Lots of people appeared in the nuclear no go zones.  Some appeared inside other people and both ended up basically exploding, only worse, and more graphic.

People who had disappeared with infants now came to you to get their children who didn’t know them back from the parents who had raised them.  People who had skipped five years now no longer had homes or jobs because the world had moved on without them.  The population suddenly more than doubled and there weren’t the resources to provide for almost four billion new people.  Not anymore.

And worse… with all these people suddenly back, now there was no Nat.  She wasn’t there to hold you and tell you she would fix this.  Or even just tell you it didn’t matter because you had her and you’d get through it together.  Because you didn’t have her.  You didn’t even have someone who could come and break it to you easy.  You found out on the news like someone who hadn’t fallen asleep wrapped in her arms night after night.

She’d told you she was going to save the world.  Instead, you had lost yours.

No one mourned her openly.  There were monuments to Tony Stark everywhere.  On the news, there were groups of people openly mourning the sacrifice he made to throw the world back into chaos again.  Nat had small shrines in back alleys like she was an afterthought.

There were suddenly twice as many people on the planet and you’d never felt so alone.

It had been months since they’d returned and you were still struggling.  You knew Natasha wouldn’t want you to dwell on it.  You knew she’d want you to keep moving forward but it felt impossible.  You’d been carry all this stuff for so long and she’d been there and now you had the burden of her loss too.  You couldn’t sleep.  Instead, you walked through the city streets at night, visiting the little shrines set up for her.

You wore your grief like a coat.  You wrapped yourself in it and used it to keep the rest of the world out.  As you reached the first of the shrines on your circuit, you began pulling candles out from your purse.  You liked to refresh them.  There hadn’t been a funeral for Natasha.  That had broken your heart too.  You figured she’d at least earned new candles every night.

You kneeled down on the damp, broken asphalt and started lighting the candles that looked like they still had something left in them and putting out new ones.  The ground was cold and it bit into your legs, but you wore the discomfort like a penance.  A penance for not appreciating the time you had with her more.  For not begging her to stay behind and let the world move on.

You closed your eyes.  Not really praying exactly.  But you thought about her.  You thought about the nights you had stayed up talking work with her.  Which kids had family coming for them.  Which ones you thought you could place with families.  Plans to take them on trips to the zoo or to visit the Statue of Liberty or the Natural History Museum. You thought about what it was like falling asleep with her and waking up with her.  Her cute little half-smile when you showed up at the compound with real food.  Or the twinkle in her green eyes when she was about to pounce on you.  You thought about the plans for the future and how badly you wished things were different.  How badly you still wanted that life.  And how guilty and selfish you felt wishing she hadn’t done it.

Someone said your name.  It startled you from reverie and you looked up.  The voice had been familiar and so was the hourglass silhouette that stood at the end of the alley.  “What are you doing, Solnishko?”

“Natasha?”  You said.  Even as her name fell from your lips you thought you must be losing your mind.  You’d been carrying top much for too long and your mind had just fractured and you were starting to hallucinate.

The figure approached you, and as she got closer to the lights of the candles you could see her hair, blond at the ends, and her natural red from midway up.  She’d talked about having it cut or recolored to be even, but never found the time.  She looked down at you and smiled her half-smile, offering you her hand.  “It’s me, solnishko.”

You scrambled back from her, knocking over some of the candles along with a picture of her and some flowers.  “No.  No, you can’t be.  She’s dead.  Who are you?”

She sighed and crouched down, picking up the things you knocked over.  “Did you do this?”

You didn’t answer.  It felt like your heart was going to beat out of your chest and you were pretty close to throwing up.

She looked at the photo of herself and smiled sadly before putting it back.  “It’s really me,” she said gently.  “I don’t know if I can explain it properly.  Will you let me try though?”

You nodded, though you moved a little further away from her.

She sat down cross-legged on the ground opposite you.  “I told you we were going to time travel and collect the infinity stones?  The things that killed half of life in the first place?”

You nodded.  You’d heard the stories about Thanos a thousand times, and her call to tell you that she was going to get them and undo it had been rushed but she’d told you she loved you and would see you soon and everything would be fixed.  “Clint and I were sent for the soul stone.  The deal was you had to give up someone you loved.  A soul for a soul.  So I sacrificed myself.  I couldn’t ask Clint to do that when we were so close to getting his family back.  I died.  I remember dying.  And then… the stone was returned and I wasn’t dead anymore.  Or… I was but not at the same time.  It was like being in limbo.  There was an open expanse of water, only ankle deep.  And a hill with a tree. And me.   Then a voice said that because the soul had returned mine no longer needed to take its place.  I had the choice to move on, or I could go back.  If I went back I couldn’t go to Clint.  He’d given me up for the stone and that was the trade.  If I go to him it would take us both.  He can’t know I’m alive.  But you can.”

You looked her over and moved closer.  She didn’t move, just let you take your time coming to her.  “Is it really you, Natasha?”

“Yes, my darling.  I swear. I couldn’t leave you.”  She said holding out her hand to you, almost as if she was trying to befriend a scared puppy.

You reached out and put your hand in hers and when her fingers closed around yours, warm and familiar you fell into her and started to cry.  She held you as you sobbed against her.  The tears of relief and fear and all the pain you had been carrying with you flowing from you easily.  “It’s okay, Solnishko,” she soothed, her hand running down the back of your neck again and again.  “I’ve got you.”

When the tears slowed and your sobbing quieted she kept holding you and rubbing your back.  “I can’t stay here.”  She whispered.  “If Clint finds out I’m alive, then we both die.  I can’t risk being in the city where most people knew me.  I was thinking I’d go somewhere.  Australia?  Or New Zealand maybe?  Or we could go into space.  I’ll have to dye my hair again.  But I can start over.  Be whatever I want to be.  No one knows I’m alive.  Will you come?”

You looked up into her eyes.  They looked down at you with both hope and fear.  “Of course.  Yes.  Let’s do it.”

She smiled and leaned in and kissed you.  When her lips touched yours all the last remaining doubt that this wasn’t real, washed away.  This was Nat.  Your Nat.  And you were going to go and get the life you’d both earned.  The quiet family life you’d both dreamed of.