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i can tell the difference

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Laura hadn't fallen for Clint first; she had been struck first, though. And, yes, she had heard all the possible jokes about Cupid and his arrows, thank you very much for your contribution.

But it was still true: she hadn't fallen first. Clint had, all stumbles and stutters. Laura had been struck, first, curious about this boy—distracted, rumpled, so very human—and his perfect, perfect aim. You don't get perfect marksmanship by being born with it.

Gods are born, maybe, but Steve Rogers went to army drafting station after station, said "yes" when Erskine asked him. Tony woke up in a cave with a box of scraps and didn't just roll over and die; when he got home, back to safety and riches, he took everything he had learned in that darkness and built himself a new skin, new life, new name. Sam pushed himself through basic, through pararescue training, and taught himself to fly.

Laura liked to pay attention to how people got to who they were.

Natasha had spent a childhood without choices—she was lethal and slippery because she had been manufactured that way. But when Clint didn't pull the trigger, she could have killed him—even after that, she could have vanished to Brussels or New Zealand or Laos. Once back in the States, she could have signed a non-disclosure agreement and gotten assimilated, somewhere normal, with an admittedly heavy watch.

But little Natalia Romanova had taken SHIELD's offered employment papers and signed them Natasha. She saved Clint's life three times on three different missions, that first year they worked together, and she still seemed to think she had red in her ledger there.

And Clint—Laura sat forward the first time she saw him, this circus kid who gulped from a stained coffee cup before stumbling onstage and proceeding to take eighteen perfect shots, with three different bows, four of them without even looking.

Laura leaned forward. These things were not gifts.

-

Laura was an art student from a sunny coastside university. She preferred paints, but diversity was encouraged-- she dabbled in book-binding, in wire sculpture and pen-and-ink sketches. She came home with clay on her nose and smooth little dabs of wax all over her jeans. She spent one summer painting murals all over a local food kitchen.

For her final year of school, she wrote a thesis proposal and spent months before writing to grants and scholarships, raising money. It took a bit of juggling, but they were an arts college and she had three minor scholarships and one large grant burning a hole in her back pocket, so they okayed it-- a final project spent tailing a traveling circus, trying to put them down on paper and clay.

"It's a bit like time traveling," she told her mom on the phone. "Last vestiges of old cultures. But also a little like dumpster diving, or looking into the guts of a complex machine."

Her mother was an accountant. She loved her daughter dearly, but she "mhm-ed" encouragingly a lot during their weekly phone calls.

Laura spent the next six months sitting just offstage while they performed. By the end of her thesis tour they were giving her tasks, things to carry and curtains to pull back—but at first they moved around her like she was a spare bucket of juggling batons. She leaned back in the creaky folding chair the bookkeeper/acrobat#2 had given her, in the backstage corner the contact juggler had pointed her to.

But the days were 5% performance and 95% everything else-- stowing and unstowing the props and stage, traveling and arguing, chores and downtime. Laura helped with everything she could, when the ringmaster decided she wouldn't break anything too important. She hauled costumes to local laundromats and sketched and scribbled to herself while the whole back wall of machines thumped and spun. She did watercolors of the trapeze artists and the clowns in stark pen and ink, all cross-hatched shadow. After her first two months, the ringmaster let her drive one of the trucks down the long expanse of the Nebraska interstate towards northern Missouri.

Laura chased the flights and fancy of their performances across her canvases, but she also painted the fire-eater whooping into camp with McDonald's and the snake-charmer napping on the grass with her reptiles draped and sunning all over her. She did a textured acrylic painting of the laundromat, the streaks of costumes' color going round and round, and clown#3 leaning against the machines with a cup of steaming coffee, the stage paint not all quite scrubbed off.

Her sketchbook was part sketches and part notes. She drew each performer's act, but she also drew each aside and asked their names, their lives and their loves. The snake-chamer was the child of dentists, who came to the show every time the circus was in town and cheered from the front row. The ringmaster had run away from home at sixteen, had worked streetside attractions for years and had slowly built this thing from the ground up. Clown#2 had actually gone to clown school. Clowns #1 and #3 were brothers, taking a gap year from college, where one majored in business and the other in theater. The trick-shot archer, who had run away from home at seventeen, had been shooting BB guns at tin cans all his life.

"You haven't drawn me yet," Clint said once.

"I haven't drawn everybody yet," she said. "I've got months, still."

"You've done everyone but me," he said, leaning on the wagon beside her, bare arms crossed over his ratty t-shirt. She glanced over the rumpled line of that pose quickly, but that wasn't quite a painting either. "Not sure you could capture all of this?" He grinned at her.

"I'm not sure what to put down on paper," she said. "How good your shot is, or how stained your shirt is, or that one time you tripped off the edge of the stage?"

He snorted.

"C'mon, it's all part of picture," she said. She paused and added, "You make it look easy. You make it look like any hack could do it."

"Maybe any hack can," he said.

"It's hard to draw easy," she said. "I'm working on it, though."

The next day he brought her a paper cup of coffee and asked to see her sketches. "I want to see what you're trying," he said. "I wanna see what easy looks like, come on."

She wouldn't show him the ones of him, but she pulled out the heavy charcoal one she'd done of the acrobats-- it was barely more than abstract, all curving lines and smudges. "What were you trying to do?" he said.

"What do you think?"

He crouched down next to her, easily balanced and slouching into it. "There's a-- you can see the distribution of weight," he said. "It's tough work, that, you know-- they look like grace and all, but it's heavy work. And you cut it down to bare bones. Took out all the gauze and the lights, the color. It's just bodies."

She pulled out another one-- the acrobats again, but watercolor. He wiped his fingers on his pants and took it. She showed him the snake-charmer sleeping, all lit up with sunlight and warm scales, and one of the ringmaster standing alone all wrapped in dark and lit up in shouting reds and golds. She showed him the bones of the laundromat piece, which was just pencil and the first few strokes of color. It made him laugh. "You're going to get his face just right," Clint said. "He's got such a great why-morning face, that kid."

The next time she heard the characteristic whish-thud of Clint's archery practice, she packed up her colored pencils and sketchbook to go sit on a half-rotten fence post and watch him draw and release.

"You've got more than one type of arrow there," she said.

Clint looked at her then snatched up a slightly thicker one. "This one falls quicker, so you have to shoot at a steeper angle to get it to the same target. Have ta practice them all, right?"

"Why would you want to use it then? If it's harder to aim?"

"It's not harder, just different." He held the arrow up in front of his nose and told it, "Shh, lovely, I'm sure she didn't mean to hurt your feelings."

"Its poor wooden feelings," she said. "Ok, different not bad-- still, why?"

Clint scrabbled in his pocket and took out a lighter. When he held the flame to the arrow, it lit. Fingers to the fletching, string pulled back, and he sent the flaming arrow singing home into the center of the target.

"Stop wasting fuel to show off for the lady!" the knife thrower hollered from where he was flinging throwing stars at tin cans.

Clint flushed and went to go put out the slightly smoking target. When he got back, Laura had another arrow held up in front of her, eyes lightly squinted. "Ok," she said. "What's this one for?"

She asked about bows the next day, about breathing the next. He told her about learning to tell from the feel of the arrow weight in his hand how steep he had to aim; about wind currents and showmanship.

"Do you want to learn how?" he asked one hot afternoon in Virginia. "Arrow or gun?" His act had both.

"I know how to shoot," she said. "My family's all military, or government service at least."

"Like CIA?" he said, waggling his eyebrows.

"Oh, one of those long convoluted department names," she said. "I'm not sure they've gotten an acronym yet actually."

"Well, you wanna learn bow and then go and show those suits a thing or two about projectiles?"

"My cousins do tend to need a showing up biannually," she said, and let him pull her to her feet.

Laura asked them all about their lives, because that was part of the painting, at the end of the day. But Clint asked her back. He looked at every answer he gave and tried to see what she made of it. He brought her coffee in the mornings and asked her why she was here--why a traveling circus? Why art? Why acrylic here, but watercolor here, and pencil there?

"I like capturing things," she said.

"Why didn't you buy a camera, then?" he said.

Clint liked asking questions he already knew the answer to. She was enjoying, more and more, watching him ask questions and knowing which ones he already had the answer for. He was the kid of the troupe, the butt of jokes and the last one taken seriously. She watched him watch the others and knew there were more and more things here she wanted to get down on paper and couldn't.

Laura spent six months with the circus. She did focused pen and ink sketches of each of their profiles, in costume and out, and left them to the performers as presents and thank you's when she left. She did scan them at a Kinko's first and email them home to her art department for class credit. The rest of her paintings she packed up carefully and shipped home by mail.

Clint drove her to the airport in a coughing truck packed tight with costumes and props. She leaned across the gear shift, one hand clenched tight around the handles of her duffel bag, and kissed him. She kicked open the truck door (it had a tendency to stick if you weren't appropriately violent with it) and walked away before she could see what he thought of that.

When Laura got back home, her bed felt massive and clean, her room silent. The air was dry. She called the troupe now and then to say hello. She sent them teasing wish-you-were-here postcards with sunny beaches, and boxes of travel-able cookies. She went out for drinks to reconnect with friends and started burying herself back into school.

She hadn't had any time for clay sculpture back in the circus-- no place to fire it. She let her paintings sit in her studio, all stacked against the wall, and tried to see what she could sculpt.

It took her three days to set up her final thesis exhibition, and weeks before that to decide what to include in it. She stood in the blank white cube of the exhibition space, first, and tried to see it. The ringmaster, haloed in red and gold, for the first thing you saw when you walked in. The charcoal and watercolor acrobats side by side. She'd done a wire sculpture of the acrobats, too, woven muscles and reaching, pointed toes.

She stuck screws in the walls and dangled some of her 3D pieces from the ceiling. She set up lighting to complement and frame and slept for four nervous hours the night before the exhibit.

Her parents came down, her sisters and the cousins who could get leave from work. Her professors and classmates and club friends dropped in to poke through and hug her and ask questions. She smiled and shook hands and only now and then vanished to the bathroom to collect herself. She was trying to talk about the color composition on the snake-charmer piece when she saw Clint Barton, her trick-shot, step through the door. She finished talking about warmth and light, and then she crossed the room, ducked around her wire acrobats, and got in his way.

"Aren't you all supposed be in Oklahoma right now?"

"Delaware," he said. "But it's just me." Both his hands were full, each holding a paper cup from one of the little university coffee kiosks. He held one out to her.

Laura looked at the familiar print on the cups, which had soothed her through late nights and early morning finals. "What are you doing here?" she asked.

He shrugged. She took the coffee and said into its dinky plastic lid, "I get the feeling sharing coffee's pretty close to a declaration of love on your part."

He flushed up the back of his neck. She took a sip of coffee. Sugar, a bit of cinnamon, and no cream. Clint said, "What, flying across country didn't do it?"

"You just wanted to see if those beaches were photoshopped," she said. She wiped her hands on her jeans and said, "Well, if you came here to see my art, take a look around."

He blinked, surprised, and she started to turn away.

"I did, you know," he said. "Come to look at the art. Too."

"I know," she said, and went off the schmooze with a professor. She kept an eye on him while she shook hands and answered questions. He moved counterclockwise through the room, against the flow of traffic, and stopped to fidget in front of each piece. His hands frayed at the sleeves of his jacket, but his gaze moved in slow arcs.

"Well?" she said, when she'd closed the exhibit and come out to see him leaning against the building and watching the late night studiers trudge out to the library.

"Wasn't any of me in there," he said. "You had one of my arrows, that one Robin Hood trick, but that's all."

She stood looking at him-- the slouch, the lamplight making sharp glare in his eyes, the gilded prow of his nose. "That was only supposed to be my best stuff," she said. "Limited wall space."

He turned to her, grinning. "So you have drawn me, then?"

"Nothing good," she said.

"Bad subject?" he said. "Nothing the artist can do, in that case."

"You'd be surprised what a good artist can do," she said. She leaned against the wall next to him. "The subject's not all that bad."

"Oh?" he said. "Do tell."

"Want to go grab a bite to eat?" she said. "There's a good pie place down the road that's open until two."

Clint offered to go find himself a motel, but they ended up on her couch until four instead, talking about the layout of her exhibit, the why's and the how's, the visual leitmotifs. He filled her in on the weeks of gossip that hadn't made it through the phoneline. They were holding auditions here and there for new clowns, with the brothers about to go back to school.

Hours after midnight and hours before sunrise, Clint picked at the frayed edges of his jeans and said, "Please tell me that kiss wasn't part of an educational data gathering exercise about the... chapped lips of midwest circus performers... or something."

"Oh, no," she said. "That was just unprofessional of me, is all." That didn't seem to communicate it, so she added, "I just wanted to kiss you."

"Oh," he said. He paused. "Just the once?"

He flew back home two days later, to meet up with the circus in Chicago. They spent another six months writing emails and exchanging sappy phone calls while the snake charmer and acrobat#3 offered Clint lewd advice.

Laura applied to graduate programs-- in journalism, not art. She sent in her college paper articles, but also profiles of the circusfolk and their small, roving world. Clint did his show in front of polite applause in an empty lot in a Massachusetts suburb, to screaming crowds in Tennessee, and to a few scattered families and truckers when the caravan broke down outside a truck stop in Middle of Nowhere, Nebraska, population 19.

When Laura moved into her dinky little grad school apartment, on the same rolling coastline but whole state lines away from her undergrad, Clint was there to move boxes. He unpacked the stuffed car, helped decide which cabinet was for mugs and which for spices, made the bed, put together the IKEA furniture. Then he filled half the dresser and half the closet with his clean underwear, shirts, trousers, and battered sneakers.

He spent a week walking the little college town and grabbed a job as a gas station attendant down the road. Laura brought home stacks of texts, papers to write and to grade, and chalk all down her front. He brought home a succession of funny gas station smells, and they traded off making dinner at night.

-

She drew him in parts. His hands. The corner of his smile, when he was trying to be stoic and failing-- all the creases of it, freckles and wrinkles and little details. The colors and shadows of his calluses in sunlight, so close up they were abstract, unrecognizable.

But always back to his hands--on bowstrings, chopping vegetables in the kitchen with a flourish, tapping out erratic patterns before he learned how not to fidget. His hands in sunlight, in moonlight, under fluorescent bulbs in the 7-11 at three in the morning, because they had both decided they couldn't live another moment without Ben and Jerry's ice cream.

-

In Laura's second year of grad school, she packed some pies and her boyfriend in the back of her little sedan and drove across state lines to her mother's house. In the years before this, Clint and Laura had eaten cold turkey slices and baked potatoes, drunk spiked cranberry juice and giggled their thanks on their threadbare couch. This would be new.

She expected her mother to be perplexed but supportive, her father to laugh at every one of Clint's little sarcasms, and her cousins to jockey around Clint, chests out like pigeons, trying to get a feel for the new man in their presence. When they got there, to the stuffed-full house, Clint peeled off into the kitchen to wash dishes and compliment the women's makeup with the precision of someone who had spent a quarter of his life dolled up in stage makeup.

The turkey was basted beautifully, and then torn apart and devoured. Laura's cousins pulled themselves to their feet afterward for their yearly gun range trip and boast fest. Clint stayed seated, arms crossed behind his head, one ankle hooked around Laura's under the table, but a smug cousin paused by his chair. "You know how to shoot a gun, pretty boy?"

Clint grinned, wide and careless, looking up at him from his sprawl. "One of my adoptive aunties called herself Annie Oakley on stage," he said. "She showed me the basics."

Laura went with them. She knew, as soon as she saw Clint step up to the target loose-limbed, that he planned to show off. He made it look easy. He had a gravy stain on one pants leg; she sighed. "This is where I choose to lay my affections," she said to a cousin mournfully, but he was too busy staring.

"You said he speaks Spanish?" one of her other cousins asked quietly.

"English too," Laura chirped. Her cousin blinked slowly at her, so Laura shrugged and added, "They had a lot of people passing in and out of the circus, a lot of language, and Clint likes learning. He does pretty good Mandarin, too, and French, and I think a little bit of Urdu."

"And he looks like a basketcase," her cousin said. Another one swore quietly behind him. "Someone call Hand, will you?"

Her cousins' department had gotten an acronym since she had last spoken to them and gotten their mouthful of a title: Strategic Homeland Intervention Logisitics and Defense or something like that. The next week, SHIELD showed up on Clint and Laura's little university flat, with its friendly cockroaches and humming refrigerator and sea breeze, with a job offer for Clint.

They wanted him in for basic training. He showed promise, said the suited recruiter who sat on their ratty couch like he wanted to have as little of his body touch it as possible. In a year, they'd check in on him again and if he lived up to expectation he was to expect a substantial and exciting role in defending his country.

After the recruiter left, Laura made tea and Clint fiddled with the gas station uniform he had hung over the back of a chair. Laura padded back into the living room, sat cross-legged down on the rug they'd bought off a graduating senior the year before, and put both their mugs down on the coffee table. "Aw, don't you think this calls for at least coffee?" he said.

"I like tea," she said. "Clint."

He leaned against the wall, looking down at her. "I don't know about this," he said.

"You love shooting. You love the game of it."

"This won't be a game."

"And you like helping people," she said. "That's a lot of the rest of it."

"But not all of it," he said, and she nodded. "What about you, though, Laur?"

"I come from a long line of army wives, Clint. I know I can handle this. We need to figure out if you can, and if you want to."

"We need to figure out if we want to," he said, sliding down to sit cross-legged in front of her.

She looked at him. He flushed up the back of his neck and said, "I'm not asking anything yet, or saying anything yet, but I'm... intending this to be for the long run and you seem to be, too."

"Fair assumption," she allowed.

"So this is about both of us. It's my life, but I think we both want that to be part of yours too. So let's talk." She kept looking at him, so he blushed harder and said, "You're the one who said army wife just now."

"I didn't turn funny colors when I said it though," she said.

-

Clint negotiated for Laura's protection and anonymity, when he eventually signed on for good. That was still ages from now-- Nick Fury would find the house, but for now they just blacked Laura out of any relevant files, even her cousins'.

On an overcast Wednesday, weeks before he shipped off to basic, Clint bought her a bouquet of lilies and then they went down to the town courthouse and signed marriage papers, because why the hell not (because she had finally shown him a pencil sketch of his hands, because he had always asked her questions and listened to the answers, because he had a dimple in his lower back and she was twenty-three and in love). After, they called the ringmaster to tell him, and to repeat the news as the phone was passed from ecstatic acrobat to gleeful snake-charmer, and then they called her parents.

Laura negotiated for her own security clearance, when Clint was first signing on to basic training. She plied one cousin with schnapps, and another with chatter, and a third with with some secrets she knew that no one else did. When she had Phil Coulson's personal number and a few other things she'd wanted to know, she poured herself a glass of iced tea and called Coulson up.

"I have a wager for you," she said, once they'd gone through the 'how did you get this number' dance for a few minutes. ("I asked for it," she said. "I've got one of those trustworthy faces, Agent Coulson.")

"Clint Barton is one of your new special recruits," she said. "I'm his girlfriend." (The courthouse trip was eight unknowing days away.)

"I will consider that a black mark on his record," said Coulson. "And I'm not involved in basic training."

"He's on the track to be one of yours, though, or you wouldn't know his name." Laura smiled into the silence on the phone. "When my boy puts his mind to something... he's going to be out of your basic training a month early, at least."

"So what're your terms?" said Coulson.

"If he's as worth your time as I think he is, I want a secure line to him. When reasonable, of course. I want clearance. Clint and I do this together, or he doesn't do this at all."

"He's just a sharpshooter."

"I guess we'll see, Agent Coulson. Thank you for your time," she said, and hung up. She sent a fruit basket to his office. No pineapple. He was allergic.

Clint went off to basic, but he called in a few times a week and told her funny stories about his fellow trainees. Laura sweated though Investigative, danced through Photojournalism, and slept through Stylistic. She taught sleepy, nervous undergrads about inverse pyramid news structure while Clint did card tricks and sleight of hand for the others in his barracks.

She drew caricatures of each of her students and sent them to him. He did obstacle courses that he said the acrobats and contortionists would have slammed through, and projectile ranges he took to like a duck to water. She vacuumed and drank wine with fellow grad students and went wading in the surf.

She spent long nights finishing up her assignments as much as she could so that when Clint had leave they could lounge around and order pizza in. She drew him sleeping, on those long afternoons--sprawled out on the couch, ankles on one arm rest and his head on the other, sunlight dropping down and brushing across his cheekbones and new muscles.

-

The first time Clint shipped out for good, they stood in the middle of their little living room for an hour. Laura had told him once she could handle this, and she could, but she needed to run her fingers down his silly, stubborn spine for a few more minutes.

"You stay safe," she said. "You come back."

"Yes ma'am," he said.

"I know exactly how good you are at following orders, Clint."

"Yes, ma'am."

She sighed. "So just if it's really important then."

"Or really funny," he said, but he was smiling, soft, down at her. She pressed her face back to his chest and he said, "I'll come back."

-

They got a new apartment after Clint's first pay raise, when Coulson gobbled him up for his team and, with great dignity, sent Laura a line to Clint's personal transmitter.

Laura got her first job as a reporter, doing little pieces on public sanitation and town meetings. Clint made his first kill, in a little town in a snow-locked country he didn't name (Laura was still battling Coulson over security clearance levels for her), and Laura laid out in the local park, in the chill blue-skyed coastal winter and watched birds flirt among the bare branches.

She had dreams of slamming into him at bus stops, shrieking, of leaping into his arms at airports and kissing him senseless in front of jealous crowds, but the first time Clint got back it was sudden. When he got home, she was sleeping, unaware his job had gone quick and that the next had gotten postponed. He burst through the front door, dropped his bag like an excited schoolboy-- and found her and her wheezing snore in the dark bedroom.

Clint toed off his shoes, tugged off his shirt, and curled up next to her. When she woke in the morning she found her husband drooling on top of the sunlit comforter. She had no desire to paint him, so she kissed him awake instead.

She introduced him to whatever new grad school friends she'd made, over tapas and red wine, and they made jokes about how they had thought he was imaginary. She dragged him down to the local bus station and made him stand there grinning while she ran straight at him, leapt into his arms, and kissed him senseless in the slight drizzle. They made cornbread out of a box and chili out of a can, and then he left.

Clint escorted an enemy asset out of a military compound overseas. Laura worked on her thesis, guzzled thick black tea, and did little painted portraits of her friends among the grad students for Christmas. Clint murmured over the phoneline, holed up in a cave somewhere in Uzbekistan while she laid on her back on the living room floor, and he told her the names and stories and color palettes of each of his teammates.

-

The next time Clint got bumped up a rank, ahead of schedule, she sent Coulson another smug fruit basket. The time after that, she walked into her apartment with her hands full of grocery bags to find Nick Fury sitting on her couch.

She did not drop her groceries, though she very fiercely considered doing so and then making him clean up her spilt milk and all the blueberries that would roll under the couch and get squished.

Laura shut the front door, didn't bother locking it, and put her groceries down on the counter. Fury rose to his feet, gracious and smug as one of her fruit baskets. "Let me help you with that, Mrs. Barton." It was the first time they had met, but they both knew she knew who he was.

"No thank you," she said. "I'd prefer to remain unaware of exactly how well you know the organization of my cupboards."

"I find myself of two minds about how well you know the state of my cupboards," he said as she put boxes of cereal up on the high shelves and dropped apples into the wooden bowl on the counter.

"Lil old me?" she said. "Your cupboards are very nice, Director Fury, but I don't care much about the ones that don't have to do with Clint."

"I am here because your husband is more than living up to his promise." Fury paused, considering the slight, pale woman in front of him, and then said, "He will grow more dangerous, more important-- and more noticed. It will be a hard thing, to be connected to a man like Agent Barton."

"It is a good thing," she said. She took a wine glass from the cupboard, then paused and took out another. "I signed on, too," she said. "In my way. Red or white?"

Fury cleared his throat. "I saw you had a nice pink zin, actually."

"Not looking to impress?"

"If I asked for straight whisky, ma'am, I doubt it would do much to change your opinion."

She fished the zin out of the fridge and said, "You might be surprised. I do like my country boys, you'll have noticed." She poured him some wine and herself some lemonade and hopped up onto the edge of the counter, legs swinging. "What can I do you for, sir?"

He wanted to offer her a house on the other side of the country, and a deep anonymity to go with it. "A technical anonymity," she said, an edge to her voice that she would swear under oath wasn't nervousness. "I have a family, director, and a life. I'm not burning that just to make your job easier. This isn't witness protection."

"It's not. We'll find a way to make it work."

-

A week later, Clint got really injured on a mission for the first time. Laura didn't find out for three days. Clint called in almost every day, but now and then there were long stretches of time where he couldn't. This time, he said he'd been about to go on a mission, so maybe Laura could have assumed but the mission had taken him out of range.

But she knew all the mission stats at this point. Not all the intel, but she knew where he was, more or less. She knew what he was meant to be doing roughly, because he talked about it, because Coulson called sometimes and talked about it, because Laura got slightly redacted versions of Clint's mission files and read through them over her morning cup of coffee.

She knew when he was supposed to be back. She knew he wasn't supposed to be out of reception range. She knew he was supposed to have been able to call her. She knew Clint--he would have called.

So after two days of silence, she started calling. She called Clint's line, as she rarely did-- she let him call her usually. She called Coulson, who didn't answer either. He had been on the ground when everything went down (she found out later) and had been flown home in a stretcher beside Clint.

She called her other contacts, the agents and secretaries and administrators who she had sent banana bread to and gossiped with. It was twelve hours before she managed to find someone who could and would tell her what was going on.

Clint was at a hospital (one of SHIELD's holdings) only four hours' drive from her. They had flown him in from some city like Istanbul or Berlin, cities with skylines that Laura probably imagined as more blunt and more fanciful than they actually were. She still had never left the borders of the United States. But she had driven rickety old trucks down long Kansas highways, and that was something.

She parked in the hospital lot, left her half-drunk fast food coffee in the car's cupholder, and found her way to the front desk. "Clint Barton, admitted last night?"

The nurse at the desk blinked big eyes and said he didn't know of any patients by that name. "Bullshit," she said. She knew there was a gun strapped under the reception desk and she could see the cameras in the corners were far from basic issue.

"I'm his--" she started and her voice stuttered to a stop. If they looked up Laura Barton on the computer they wouldn't find her. If they looked up Clint Barton his marital status would be single.

She thanked the nurse and went and sat down in an empty chair in the waiting room. A three year old screamed at his mother about the splinter in his finger-- this was a SHIELD front, but it still ran an actual hospital. She called Coulson's newest cell phone number again, which he hadn't given her.

"Missus Barton," Coulson said when he picked up. His voice was slurred slightly from the pain meds. "I meant to call you, but the admirable nursing staff has only just allowed me access to my phone. Are you calling to pry? I feel quite pried upon already. I'm sure you'll find some other way this time to get access to information above your security clearance than bullying me."

"They won't let me in to see Clint," she said.

There was a pause.

"How is he?" she said.

"He'll live, Laura, it's not that bad," Phil said. "Some damage-- but," his voice fell back to cheerful bureaucratic, "but not enough that I won't expect him back on duty in no time at all."

"Thank you, Phil," she said.

"I'm surprised you haven't taken a battering ram to the hospital doors," he said. "Or held a sit-in in protest, maybe set something on fire." She snorted at him, but ten minutes after he hung up a rather cowed-looking SHIELD agent came down to show her to Clint's room and wave a badge at any guard or nurse who scowled at them.

Clint was sleeping when she got there, flung out on his back. Later, Phil would tell Laura about new weapons, and Clint would describe dramatic roof chases and close-quarters fights in ways that only made them sound silly. But for now she curled up on the empty cot beside him and fell asleep, too.

He had abrasions all up one side. He had three cracked ribs, a broken collarbone, some internal bleeding they'd patched up back in Europe. Some injuries she was used to, from his circus days, his stunts. Others she would learn how to live with. Live with-- that was the key word. That was what she told him when he woke up, but he couldn't hear her.

He hadn't been conscious long enough yet for anyone to figure out about the hearing loss, so it was Laura who got to panic and frantically speak louder and louder, and finally call in the nurse.

It was physical, not neurological-- with the weapons silo they'd been busting, both were options-- so hearing aids were of some usefulness. A specialist fit Clint with some while Laura had jello and dry chicken with Phil, in his room.

"Is there anything they're doing for him here that I can't do it home?" she asked him, and then asked the doctor Phil called in for her. "No? No. Alright then I want to take him home. I'm taking him home."

With a broken collarbone it was hard to learn and practice sign language, so Laura did the motions and Clint watched her like she was a bullseye, a target, a puzzle. It was not an uncommon way for him to watch her, looking like he wanted to soak every photon in and memorize it, but that was one of the reasons she'd married him after all.

"Sign language? But he has those hearing aids, you said," said her mother puzzled, over the phone. "Can't he just use those?"

"They're not perfect, mom," Laura said. "And you know Clint-- he doesn't like relying on anything but himself."

"And you."

"Well," said Laura. "Anyway, and you know Clint-- always something new to learn. He knows a little already-- they had a deaf contortionist, for a few months when he was eighteen. He still corresponds with her, actually."

-

Laura got back from putting Clint down for a nap (practice, she thought to herself) to find Nick Fury on her couch again.

"Get out of my house, director," said Laura. "I'm out of wine."

"I came to talk about your house," said Fury. "I found one for you-- off the grid but close enough that you can get on the grid if you want. East Coast, but you've finished your studies here and we can find you work there, if you feel a need."

"That sounds very nice," she said. "And yes, I feel a need." She pointed at his trenchcoat, which was draped over the back of the couch. He picked it up. She pointed toward the door.

"I thought, with another Barton coming," said Fury.

She blushed, mostly furious, hands on hips in the middle of her living room. "I haven't told Clint that yet."

"Good thing I didn't send the congratulations balloon bouquet I was planning," said Fury. "Shall I get you movers?"

"Shall you get someone to get us movers," said Laura.

Fury took a step closer to her. "His name has popped up on some lists we were hoping to keep it off of for a little while longer. He's been impressive, and that has consequences. We need to make you less obvious."

"We'll move ourselves," said Laura.

Laura told Clint she was pregnant over the first bowl of breakfast cereal he managed to eat with the hand on his injured side. He dropped the spoon and she sighed. "If you weren't grievously injured, I'd make you clean that up." A balloon bouquet showed up on the doorstep that afternoon.

The circus was in the state, so they helped Laura and Clint pack up their apartment up into a rented U-Haul. Clint couldn't lift anything heavier than a plate of pancakes or a paperback book. Laura could have, but Clint was glowing and skittish about her growing stomach, so she sat on the couch and reigned happily while the circus kids carried heavy things about.

They drove cross-country-- Laura drove and Clint navigated. They moved slowly-- took detours and stayed in funny little bed and breakfasts and dusty little motels. They talked about baby names, about child rearing and consistency. Clint ate a lot of chicken-fried steak and Laura ate a lot of pie, and they practiced signing late into the evenings. When they pulled up to the address Fury had given her, Laura put the truck into park and just sat back and looked at it.

Two stories, a wrap-around porch-- old-fashioned, weathered, but sturdy. She was a beachtown girl, in certain places of her heart, and had been a kid of high deserts and overused stucco before that. But this--the green hills rolled and ran away around them, under trees and around little flat-surfaced ponds--she could live with this.

Clint couldn't unpack any more than he could have packed with his healing collarbone, but Fury and Coulson showed up and helped Laura haul boxes and furniture inside. Laura teased Fury about not calling on his legions of eager little muscled SHIELD interns, but Fury looked at her solemnly. "When I say this place is off grid, I mean SHIELD's perhaps even more than the public's."

"You think, even in SHIELD," she said. "There could be some risk?"

Fury smiled at her, all teeth. "So do you."

"Yes, well, I went to college-- I'm a paranoid conspiracy-theorist liberal in my off hours, so."

"I made pancakes!" called Clint from the kitchen. "Anyone want some?"

-

When he was mostly done healing, Clint got called to the Triskelion in DC to go through rehabilitation. There was some noise ("pun not intended," Clint told Laura gleefully over the phone) made about his partial deafness, but Phil just had the complainers watch a few obstacle course and firing range sessions.

Clint, in his quiet pretend-bumbling way, started a crusade to allow SHIELD to recruit deaf and hard of hearing agents. "Just so I can have someone to chat with," he told Laura once Phil had spilled the beans to her.

She curled into her side, phone pressed to her ear. "Oh, of course."

When Clint talked about it, or signed about it when they had video access, he went accidentally passionate. Laura thought about reading Captain America comics as a kid, and then historical documents in her university GEs-- the 4F stamped on his recruitment forms, the lists of ailments.

-

When Cooper was born, Laura's mother and the circus's snake-charmer shared a magazine out in the waiting room. Clint was not a pacer; he perched in the back corner and watched the whole room like the bird of prey he was. Laura had made so many nesting jokes in the years she had known him, and she was planning to make many more.

Clint took four months of paternity leave. Cooper was a fussy baby, but he liked sleeping on his dad's broad chest on the porch, breath rushing slowly in and out. Laura could relate, or would have if she wasn't using those minutes of silence to nap herself on the old couch they'd dragged cross-country to this little farmhouse.

She didn't start taking freelance jobs until Clint had been gone for a month and she and Cooper had fallen into a good rhythm. She learned more than she had ever wanted to about the politics of cow farms. She covered little art events in the nearest few towns and accepted a gift of biscuits from her new neighbors with perplexed graciousness. She made cornbread out of a box and sent back their empty tupperware full again.

She put Cooper in a sling one day, stuck a travel easel and a hefty bag of supplies over the one shoulder and all the baby supplies over the other, and hiked out along the property Fury had picked out for them. She set up in the shade with a view of the house, the pond, the hills, and tried to put them down on canvas.

-

On the sixth major mission after he'd gone back to work, Clint called Laura up at three in the morning. This wasn't terribly uncommon, and Laura was learning, with a long distance super spy husband and a small child, how to survive on cat naps alone.

Coulson had been calling all night, anyway, professionally stressed about Clint not having called in. Laura had hung up the phone on Coulson, heart pounding in her ears with panic he had meant to give her, and thought-- Clint had not called in. If he was dead, he was dead. If Coulson was trying to get Laura to call him herself, it was because Clint didn't want to call in to them. She held her tongue and went down to sit in Cooper's room with her phone on silent.

When Clint did call, she picked up before the end of the first ring. "Phil's been calling, freaking his poor little soul out. Said you hadn't come in."

"They know I'm not dead-- I told them that. Did they not pass it on? Dicks."

"What's going on, Clint?"

His voice was strained, full of apology and entreaty. Laura thought, very suddenly, of what it would be like when Cooper got old enough to drag bedraggled kittens home and beg to keep them. "So there's a, uh-- I found this kid. She's deadly as anything, but scared as fuck."

She sighed. "So that's why... They should've known better than to send you."

"They have a very false idea of who the soft heart is in this marriage," he said, voice crackling over oceans and continents, and Laura missed him so much she had to laugh or she would have cried.

-

Clint brought Natalia home to SHIELD. He called Laura every day he could when he was overseas; he spent a good six months on US soil while Natalia rehabilitated, so he came home every night instead.

"They're really signing your Russian waif on?" Laura said. Cooper was learning to walk, clinging to the edges of things. At the moment, though, he was sitting in a high chair while Clint got to try to feed him chopped up spaghetti and mostly just got tomato sauce everywhere.

"I had to be rather stubborn to get her in," Clint said. "Make some ultimatums, I guess." He grinned at her as she blushed prettily. "I took a leaf or two out of your book."

It was a year before Laura met Natasha for real. Clint had taken home a stray, because that was what he did, but strays with teeth and claws like Nat had stopped at SHIELD's door when Clint went home at night. Cooper was toddling around and chewing on things he shouldn't.

But Natasha saved Clint's life three times that first year on the job. He lent her socks, because her feet got cold and she was learning to do more than just live with discomfort. Natasha cursed joyously in Russian the first time she had a frappuccino, a croissant, an ice cream cone. She took Clint out into the woods, when they were in the right part of Russia in the right season, and found big glorious berry bushes-- those were sweets she had not exactly been allowed but that she had taken anyway.

By the time Clint walked Natasha into the front door of their farmhouse, Laura felt like she knew her. She'd feel like this about the Avengers, years from now. She'd see the strong man in Thor, the ringmaster in Tony except for the times when he played the clown.

But Natasha was an acrobat. That was heavy work. If you pared it down to the bone, it was all strong charcoal lines and smudges, distributions of weight. Laura's fingers itched to draw in a way they hadn't in years.

Natasha stepped into their home like she was ready to bolt. Laura bustled about, put food out but didn't try to usher her toward it, didn't try to crowd her. She thought about the stray tabby she'd befriended in high school, how you left food out, how you sat still and let them approach you.

Natasha was the sort of person who made you want to compare her to things-- acrobats, stray cats, toy soldiers and lethal objects. Partly it was because Natasha tried to sell herself to people as a thing, first, and she was so very damn convincing; it was also because she had been called a thing all her life. Part of it was that if you thought about her life, and then thought about a person living it instead of a heavy-handed metaphor, you would want to cry.

When Natasha dropped hints, dismissively, about her childhood on late nights, Laura couldn't help but imagine toy ballerinas, all porcelain and red-painted lips. She got up to make them all hot cocoa and tried to think, instead, about a little girl.

Laura tried to pay attention to the parts Natasha wasn't trying to sell to anyone--that she loved raspberries and hated bananas, didn't like having her back to the door, had a humor that ran dark and dorky under the surface, that she liked to watch Laura paint and to speak to Cooper in Russian.

Laura remembered hot days in dusty fairgrounds, looking at the faded colors of the circus equipment, which looked so much more impressive at night-- she remembered Clint asking her about charcoal and paint, about choosing the colors. She tried to ask Natasha questions, and to listen to the answers.

The answers were rarely both informative and straightforward at the same time, but Laura thought that might be one of the reasons Clint liked her so much-- in their own ways, they were both such liars.

Natasha stole the comm sometimes when they were out, to talk to Laura. "He wouldn't let me have a frappuccino!" she complained, half drawl and half squeal. "It was this great little indie place in London, not a Starbucks or anything, and the target was--"

"You'd already had three!" said Clint, his voice a little more distant from the comm.

"And how many cups of coffee had you had?" Nat shot back.

"They weren't stuffed full of sugar."

"You have no leg to stand on, and you know it."

Laura set up a second easel one day when they were both home and Natasha skirted it and circled it for awhile before she settled down and picked up a brush. Laura painted the landscapes rolling by outside the window. Natasha painted snowscapes, some harsh and distant, some ethereal, soft.

Clint started falling down the long steep hole of home improvement. Whenever he was off duty, he'd be in and out of the hardware shop. (Whenever he was off duty, these days, he brought Nat with him.) First he was just spot painting and replacing leaky faucets. Then he was refinishing the porch and painting the house and thinking about building a new addition onto it. Natasha and Laura made lemonade and sugar cookies, got stacks of library books, and settled down to cat-call at him while he worked.

-

When Lila was born, Laura's mother and the circus's snake-charmer shared a magazine out in the waiting room, but Nat occasionally peeked over their shoulders. Clint perched, again, waiting with a sniper's patience. Natasha was not a pacer either; she sat still and cool, learning the names of all the nursing staff and then doing intensive background checks on her phone.

After the birth, as soon as the nurses would allow it, Laura's little hospital room was stuffed with her parents, with the tattoos and weird haircuts of their circus friends. Lila was passed gently from hand to hand. Cooper wasn't quite sure about the crowd, so he was in the back, in the safe territory of Natasha's lap.

Slowly people drifted or were shooed out, but Clint stayed perched on the edge of Laura's cot, fiddling with the edge of Lila's little blanket.

"Nat, come here," said Laura, when she and Cooper were the only ones left. Cooper had fallen asleep, his chubby little arm hooked around Nat's hand and his thumb in his mouth.

Natasha was sitting with a straight spine, like a porcelain figurine, like if she was struck she might shatter-- Laura ran a pinky finger over Lila's tiny tiny fingers and shook porcelain metaphors from her skull.

Natasha was sitting with a straight spine in the breakable warmth of the first few hours of Laura's daughter's life, sitting like a young girl who had not gotten to be a girl, who had left so many things bleeding under her hands. She wanted so badly not to break things.

"Do you want to hold her?" Clint said, trying not to beam about it and failing rather badly. "Isn't she pretty?"

"She's squashy and red," Laura told him.

"You're the artist," he said. "She's beautiful."

"Come hold her, Nat," said Laura.

Natasha looked at her, over Clint's tousled, smiling head, the hospital linoleum. "Why?"

"Because that's what family does."

Natasha kept looking at her, nothing on her face at all. Finally she said, "I don't want to wake Coop."

"That's okay," Laura promised. "Later, then."

-

Laura worked from home, mostly-- when there were events farther afield or no kid-friendly that she wanted to cover, the neighbors had a teenaged daughter who wasn't terrible at babysitting. The old prophecy came true-- Cooper dragged home a pitifully underfed one-eyed puppy and stared up at her longingly. "Please," he said, and then signed for awhile about walkings and feedings and all the things he would do. Laura sighed, called Clint to complain about their children, and named the pup Lucky.

Clint and Natasha hopped between continents and countries, climates and the various risks of death. They tattled on each other incessantly, about bad diets and bad jokes and various ways they'd each stupidly tried to get killed. When they came home, Natasha sung Lila Russian lullabies and learned to hold babies. Clint fed the dog pizza under the table.

Cooper played a tree in an elementary school play and it was the assassins in the audience who clapped the hardest. Lila decided that being banished to the bottle was one of the cruelest punishments to be visited upon a poor child and wailed her way through feedings for weeks.

-

The years rolled on. Clint called Laura from faraway places to tell her about neat ceviches and moral crises. She told him about the articles she was writing for some online publications, about Lila's babbling, which was so odd after Cooper's cheerful silences.

When Clint was home and the circus wasn't more than a state or two away, they piled the kids in the back of the car and went to catch a show. Laura loved the light and dark, the magic of it, the deliberate, skilled ways they worked to strike awe into people's bellies. But she liked perhaps most of all going backstage afterward, when everyone was sweaty and smiling and paint-streaked. Cooper wanted to see the magician pull doves out of his pockets again and again. Lila wanted up in the ringmaster's arms and she wanted to be carried around, introduced to every new face.

At home, Cooper spit out some more words, considered them, and then went back to mostly just signing. The school was very anxious about Cooper's signing, but Laura could bully Phil Coulson-- she could bully a small town school to let her hire an interpreter to translate for her son. Lila had taken to words like a fish to water and started translating in her own way for Coop as soon as she had enough vocabulary.

Clint got called out to New Mexico; Natasha to baby-sit an ex-weapons manufacturer with daddy issues. Nat called to complain, gossip, and sulk about how hard it was to befriend cool ladies like Pepper Potts when you had to pretend to be a status-climbing PA.

Clint called Laura and told her about sitting in the rain, starting to root for a bulky giant of a man. After all the aliens (aliens!?) headed home, they kept Clint attached to the project. He followed one of the scientists, some old foreign chap, from lab to lab. Lila started school, far enough made up for all the spoken words her big brother hadn't bothered with, and got in trouble for reading under her desk.

"Invigorating work," Clint told Laura, after a ten hour day of watching his scientist tinker and stare at computer screens, but she knew he was watching and gobbling up every scrap of data he could comprehend. She smiled into the phone and told him to eat his vegetables and play nice; he laughed at her.

Laura, as a rule, did not wait for phone calls. As a teenager she had never been one to linger by the phone. Now, she painted and took the kids to the library and flirted friendlily with the greengrocer in town. Clint would call when he called. Natasha would call sometime between frappuccinos, espionage, and violence. (Laura called her mom herself, every week, like clockwork.)

Laura knew the rough-edges of their schedules-- where the risks lay. She refused to worry and she refused to wait-- when something went wrong, when Clint didn't call for three days when he should have, came home half broken and mostly deaf-- she didn't worry then, didn't wait either, just started demanding answers. She just didn't bother with the in-between.

So Laura wasn't worrying, and she wasn't waiting, when her cell rang. It was not Clint; it was not Natasha. It wasn't even her mother. It was Phil Coulson.

"What do you mean, compromised?" she said. Things were creeping up over her spine. The kids were playing tag in the yard, shrieking about it, getting grass stains. She had spoken to Clint that morning, over her breakfast of corn flakes and raspberries.

"I have to go," said Coulson. "I'm sorry, Laura."

Coulson had already called Natasha, who had been strapped to a chair somewhere in Eastern Europe-- so ten minutes after he'd hung up on Laura, as soon as Natasha had gotten unstrapped from the chair and out of the building, Nat rang.

Laura had been waiting for that one.

"Phil already called. Said Clint's compromised and he's sending some agents over."

Natasha was breathless, maybe running while she spoke. "That's all I know, too. Except for me he called him Barton. When I have more, I'll call back."

Laura wanted to scream, wanted to shake it out the lithe young woman who kept saving Clint's life and falling asleep on their couch. She wanted answers, and she wanted her husband. "Stay safe, Nat," she said, and then went to hug her children.

After pulling three pre-packed suitcases out from the hall closet, Laura read to Lila from her latest book. Cooper laid out on a sheet and painted onto white construction paper. The sky outside was clouding over, bringing the temperature down and the wind sending ripples out across the pond.

After Nat boarded a plane to Calcutta, got her intel, watched the video of Loki invading a lab and stealing several vital SHIELD assets, including a cube, including a scientist, including a trick-shot, Natasha called back. Laura went into the kitchen.

"How's he compromised?" Laura said. "Did someone threaten the kids? Blackmail? We're going to be knee-deep in SHIELD goons over here." Laura wrapped a loose thread from her skirt around and around her palms. "I have a deadline I need to meet, Nat, and they're going to get in my way."

"You've got WiFi, right? Your deadline will be okay."

"You installed it."

"So it's ace."

"Nat, talk to me."

"It's not blackmail. He's been... drugged. Of a sort. There's new tech in the field. It's Clint, without Clint."

Laura knew Natasha was dragging the words out of her gut, but they were coming out perfect, calm and level.

"He's... Would he still know where the house is?"

"We don't know. Yes, probably. We're having you moved."

"Good. Yeah, Phil said." It was a rasp, light. "Nat, how bad is it?"

"He shot Nick," Natasha said.

"Oh my god.”

"But he missed the kill shot. Close range."

"Good," said Laura. "Imagine the paperwork."

"There's been casualties, though. Laura, it's not Clint."

"Of course it's not," she said briskly. "I'd better call the school about take-home work, excuse me, Nat."

Laura hung up and then dialed the school number. She was halfway through the third ring when she realized it was after hours and no one would be there to pick up.

Three black vans drove up their little road and Laura had to assume they were the good guys. "Mrs. Barton?" they said, and loaded her, her kids, her dog, and the suitcases into the car. They drove over the state line to a dusty little roadside motel. The motel pool was an empty pit lined with concrete, all the water drained out for some maintenance work.

-

The Avengers were formed. Loki had come, and the Chitauri would come after. On a helicarrier (miles and miles far from and above the motel room where Lila was reading her book stumbling aloud to agents who were pretending not to be charmed), Natasha let an arrogant godling see her as a lover, a weeper, a broken doll, in order to steal his truth from his braggart mouth.

Laura got texts from Natasha all through it. They were horrible things. They had spotted Clint again and he had killed six civilians. They had spotted him and he had killed the agent who had found him.

Clint knew his name, the agent he had killed with an arrow to the throat; Clint had gone to his twenty-first and bought him a round of drinks, and then made him drink two glasses of water after; his name had been Scott and Clint had killed him the same way he had once shot through targets to make audiences scream.

But Laura kept her phone on vibrate, in a jeans pocket pressed close to her skin. She learned each of her protectors' names, let the kids eat more pizza than they probably should have, and she read every text Natasha sent. She had to know.

Laura thought about Clint coming to the house and not knowing them. She thought about him finding the motel, and not knowing them, but knowing them. She thought about the kids. She thought about a boy showing up at her art exhibition and looking at every piece in it, one by one, the same way he would always look at her.

Half her life was the other side of the phone call. The Hulk tore up the helicarrier. Lila learned to spell chrysalis. Natasha called from beside Clint's sleeping body to say as jokingly as she could possibly manage that she might have been able to knock some sense back into Clint's invaded skull. Laura called in favor, familial connection, and friendship and got a live feed of the New York ruckus streamed to the laptop set up on the motel room bed.

New York ripped itself to pieces. Cooper had a meltdown in the little motel room. The agents taught Lila how to play gin rummy.

For Laura it was the months after the Battle of New York, not the battle. She had her own war front. New York was a fight of patience, of observation and eavesdropping. But a long silence came after-- Clint didn't come home.

The dust settled for everyone else. New York started rebuilding. The Avengers were praised and questioned and turned into action figures. Two of her cousins, who had died on the helicarrier, were buried with honors.

So was Phil Coulson. Phil had taught her kids to tie Boy Scout knots and build fires to roast marshmallows over. ("Of course you were a Boy Scout," Clint had said, resigned.) Laura sent flowers to his grave and cried angrily in her sun-dappled kitchen about having no place to send fruit baskets.

The people in town made jokes about how much that Hawkeye looked like Laura's husband, but no one really believed it of Clint, who loved the hardware store so much. Laura had told them for years that Clint was a trucker, to explain his long absences.

Clint didn't come home for weeks-- he called, told her about paperwork and bureaucracy, medical checks with cold probes. Laura wondered, but she didn't know for sure until Natasha, who had called to talk literature with Lila, froze to silence on the other end of the phone when Lila told her her dad hadn't come home yet.

"He said he'd," Natasha bit off the sentence, when she got on the line with Laura. "I thought he'd already gone home, Laur. I didn't realize he needed a cattle prod. I'll fix it."

Laura thanked her, hung up, and told the kids they were going to the city tomorrow, wasn't that exciting?

Aliens, still? Cooper signed and Laura shook her head.

"Weirdest thing there will be your papa and his new friends," she told him.

Clint had a SHIELD-kept apartment in New York, and another in DC, for when he had to be present there. Laura had the keys to each on her key chain, beside her car keys, her house key, and their neighbor's spare, for when they had to feed their cat.

They drove up the coast and then parked and took a taxi in, when they were closer to the city. Laura was used to desert roads and university town suburbs, and now country lanes-- New York's traffic wasn't really her cup of tea. She leaned against the window and held Lila's little hand while her daughter fidgeted and got carsick reading a book.

The city was rebuilding-- tarped buildings and gouged streets. Laura wasn't sure if she should think about it like Clint rebuilding the house, or doctors stitching up his wounds. What to tear down. What to amputate, to cauterize, to mend. What would heal on its own.

When they got out of the taxi, Cooper stared up at the cranes and clutched at her thigh in what she was pretty sure was awe. She wrapped a hand around his little shoulder and got them all in the elevator. She hadn't seen her husband in almost half a year, except for videos that were too violent to let the kids see.

When Laura unlocked the apartment door, she just spotted Clint before he dropped straight to the floor so as to be on the same level of his shrieking, sprinting children. Natasha was there, too, Laura noticed as she stepped in and locked the door behind her, but that was hardly surprising. Lila leapt into a summation of their months apart-- the important bits: card tricks learned, books read.

"I want a sword!" she told her father. "But Coop wants a dragon."

"Those both seem rather destructive."

"Dragons are smart," said Cooper. Smart, Cooper signed, and dragon, and grinned.

"Aw, well, then," said Clint.

He tilted his head back and met Laura's eyes for the first time. She had managed to get footage of not just Hawkeye in New York, but Loki's pet marksman at the gala, on the helicarrier. He looked back at her like she'd been there the whole time, like he knew she knew what his eyes had looked like a few weeks before. He said, "This apartment's location is still classified," and she had to fight to keep from grinning at him.

Instead, she said, "I married you for your security access, as you well know," and his smile flickered right back at her. The kids were talking and tugging at him. Natasha was hovering, relief flooding off her. Laura said, "Now, you're coming home. Go get packed."

"Yes, ma'am," he said.

She called another taxi and took her family home. Clint walked the whole property that evening, the edges of it, with Cooper on his shoulders, Lila holding his hand, and Lucky racing around his ankles. Laura fell asleep on the couch while they were out. When she woke, the whole house smelled of garlic and lemon. He brought her a plate and a glass of wine and sank down next to her. The couch creaked the same way it had for years and she put her cheek down on his shoulder.

"Sorry," he said.

"You promised me once you'd always come back," she said.

"Do I seem like the kind of guy who keeps his promises?" he asked, trying for lightness. The kids were squealing on the carpet Clint had put down one winter. Lila was dressing Cooper up in bead necklaces and fancy pink scarves and Cooper was basking in his little sister's focused attention.

Laura pulled back, turning to look at him. He was in a soft cotton shirt, frayed at the hems. His feet were bare and veiny. She had struggled so long to get him down on paper, because how did you capture that? The frays and the violence of it, the grace, the way he was looking back at her with a patience he used to watch targets, clay pigeons, and lovers. "Yes," she said.

"You mean-- I'd better be," he said.

"That, too."

-

"I don't deserve you," he said once, a few weeks later, after he'd been up with nightmares three times in one night.

"Nonsense," Laura said. "Insulting nonsense. Clint, if you didn't deserve me, I wouldn't be here and you know it. I've got more self-respect than that. Honestly," she said, with all the prim soul-deep horror of proper BBC special character who had seen a lady's ankle or a rat, and Clint buried his smile in the side of her neck.

She had nightmares too. She just had them quieter, and she didn't have any fighting muscle memory to conjure up, half-woken and shot through with fear. When she jerked awake, Clint didn't tend to stir-- he and Nat had hair-trigger responses, sure, woke at the drop of a pin, but his sleeping head had long ago marked Laura down as safe.

And she was safe, wasn't she? Here in this little hidden house, blacked out of the records, surely nothing could touch them here. Clint snored a little now. Laura thought Natasha might have damaged his nasal passages in the fight.

Laura dreamed of his eyes, blurred and blue. She had nightmares about his hands on bowstrings someone else was aiming. She sat up one full moon night, too shaky to go to sleep, and drew his hands over and over again, clenched and reaching and grasping, as though if she drew them enough she could reclaim them.

Natasha came over for dinner. She and Clint relearned how to lean into each other's spaces. They told stories about Coulson, cracked his blank-faced old dad jokes, and did their best to say good-bye. Cooper and Lila braided all Nat's hair up with ribbons and beads and butterfly clips.

Laura and Clint called the ringmaster, who still ran his circus, but now with a ornate cane for his bad knee. His lungs were still up to the task, however, thundering sound to every crevice of the heavy tent. They called the snake charmer, who had retired to a life breeding pet snakes and lizards in her sun-baked backyard. She gushed over her latest brood like they were her own kids, little king snakes and bearded dragons each with their own name and favorite bug to eat.

Laura woke one morning to muted banging downstairs. It could be an attack. It could be that Lila was throwing each of their hardback books to the ground in protest, because her latest little paperback had had too happy of an ending.

But Laura pulled on some slippers Lucky hadn't gotten to yet and a robe she'd stolen from some hotel once upon a time, and padded downstairs. Clint was on his knees in the living room, streaked with dust. He looked up at her, his eyes bright and his and looking straight at her. "If we put in a hardwood floor," he said.

"If?" she said, looking at the half torn-up floor. "This looks like a foregone conclusion."

"Nothing is a foregone conclusion," he said.

"Not even this?"

"You wouldn't like it," he said, squinting up at her. "Just imagine how bored you would be."

-

SHIELD barely spoke to Clint for weeks, and when they did it was to put him on indefinite leave. Clint went out to pace the property's edges. He had never been a pacer, before, and Laura tried to figure out what it was. She thought it might have something to do with this place being his--he had never been able to claim a piece of land any bigger than his two footprints before.

He went on long walks, but he got skittish, too, even as he blasted through construction project after project. Doing things with his hands was good for him. The most content she saw him was elbow deep in sawdust, showing Cooper and Lila how to sand down a piece of wood.

But he kept glancing at his phone, got irritated every time Natasha texted about this mission, or that. Laura finally snapped at him to just enjoy it. "Don't you want to spend time with your kids? They're giving you a vacation, really, so appreciate this."

"But it's not vacation," he said. "And it's not punishment, which I could fathom--"

"Don't you dare," she said mildly.

"It's pity, or distrust, or-- they think I'm broken, Laura. And I can't-- I can't be, okay?"

She sighed. "Okay," she said. "I'll call Fury."

"I've called Fury," he said. "I've sent Fury sarcastic postcards."

"But I haven't called Fury," she said.

They started him on quieter missions, but Laura could hear the ease sink back into his voice on those calls, on his visits home. At the end of everything, at the bottom of it all, Clint thought the thing that mattered was that he was a good shot.

She appreciated that the circus had given him a home, she really did-- but sometimes she hated that they had never made it clear that he had a home there not just because his arrows defied the natural laws of the universe. They would have let him scrub pots and pack things and mend the tent canvas. They would have made a place for him-- for him.

Lila begged to skip grades in school, but Laura wouldn't let her, just got her more and more difficult books and a private tutor, which satisfied. Cooper tried out for the middle school plays, to the confusion of the teachers who had been trying to engage him in spoken conversation for years.

Natasha and Clint were sent out on missions together now and then, but mostly these days Nat got sent out with the defrosted Steve Rogers. Laura dragged tidbit and gossip out of Natasha while Nat puzzled over the muscled mystery man and his peculiar moral center.

The years passed, day by day and mission by mission, article by article, painting by painting. Years do that. Once, Laura had ridden with a circus for half a year. Once, she had kissed Clint senseless at a bus stop under a dim, drizzling sky. Once upon a time, she hadn't even known his name.

-

"Captain America's wanted by SHIELD?" Laura demanded, the news going on the TV in the background, when Clint called.

"Yeah," he said. "They had me chase him and everything."

"You didn't chase him very hard."

"Well. You know. It's Captain America!" He paused and said more seriously, "Nat's gone off grid."

"Has she?" Laura chewed on her lip.

"They're shipping me out on a suddenly vital mission in Chile," he said.

"Gee, I wonder why?"

She got a text from Nat-- 'still kicking, don't get your lady knickers in a twist L'-- but otherwise it was radio silence. Laura left the television on while she worked on a piece for a gardening magazine and refereed Cooper's attempts to teach Lila how to make the Best Worldly Mac & Cheese in the kitchen.

HYDRA came out and Laura's stomach fell to her toes for a lot of reasons. It meant untrustworthiness, and danger-- she checked up on every one of her cousins, every one of her contacts. One of her cousins died in the collapse of the Triskelion. Three of her contacts vanished completely, and she wasn't sure if it was to shallow graves, to HYDRA itself, or to very sensible self-preservation.

But HYDRA's filth meant more than a danger to her people. They had been living under that lie, those false directions-- Natasha had shaken Pierce's hand once. Now she was leaving him in shattered glass and broadcasting his secrets (and hers) to every eye that was willing.

Laura checked with Clint to confirm that the house was probably safe, and then she curled up with hot cocoa and Natasha's leaked files. She had to know. She had to know all of it.

In her DC apartment, Natasha was reading through the same files, page by pdf by video. Clint went dark in South America, to everyone but Laura and Nat's secured lines, and went through them himself. He slowly made his way up the continent, staying low, until he washed up on the shores of his own property and found Laura on the couch in a nest of documents, her eyeglasses slipping down her nose.

Natasha called now and then to talk to Lila about her latest books. Laura got on the phone sometimes to say hello, but she understood there were priorities here and that they were the way Lila's face lit up when she got to talk about The Enchanted Forest Chronicles at length.

Clint kept in contact with the people he trusted, but he stayed home while the firestorm burned itself out. SHIELD was ashes on the ground. Nick Fury dropped by before he headed off to Europe, and Clint made him pancakes. Clint was staying because he was deciding where he wanted to go next, and he was staying because there was some possibility that HYDRA had gotten a whiff of the farmhouse.

It was months before they finally called him back in. "They think they found Loki's scepter," said Clint. "HYDRA's got it and they want to get it back."

"I'm not sure that's your job," said Laura. "Especially yours."

"I think I want it to be," said Clint.

"Okay." She curled into his side and he put an arm around her shoulders. "You really don't like running, do you?"

They hadn't found the scepter-- they'd found a lot of other creepy blue-glowing HYDRA tech, but not that. Another tip came in, though, and Clint headed to Ghana, to a New Zealand mountain town, to a factory on the west coast of Mexico. He came home between each visit. He worked on the house and let Lila read aloud to him. They asked Clint to call Natasha in, but he refused to and they had Steve do it instead.

They went to Peru, to England, and they still didn't find it-- they busted smuggling rings and rescued hostages and apprehended dangerous tech, but they didn't find the scepter. Laura did a series of portraits to go with a series of personal interest pieces she did for a major news blog. Lila got into a fight at school because someone called Coop an unflattering term. Laura didn't fight Lila's three-day suspension, but she did buy her an ice cream sundae at the local diner.

Laura called Clint when they were in Kazakhstan to tell him she was pregnant again. When he got home, he brought her Russian nesting dolls and vodka she couldn't drink for months and three different bouquets-- "I got overwhelmed," he said, and she told him to order her a pizza with pineapples and olives and bacon.

Laura watched their missions from afar-- they were more public than they ever had been, showing up on news channels and talk shows. The ringmaster rang the house after a well-recorded mission in Morocco went down and said without preamble, "Is that our Clint?"

"Know anyone else who can shoot like that?" Laura asked. "Oh, hold on, I've got someone on the other line." It was the snake charmer, calling to ask the same question (and to talk about her boa constrictor's latest molt).

-

When Nat was hurt off the coast of Wakanda, Clint took her home. He helped her to the door. He didn't even bother explaining to the league of perplexed heroes who followed on his heels.

Laura wasn't sure they understood what it meant-- that they were allowed to wipe their shoes on her doormat and to step onto the wood floor Clint had once refinished himself one long snowy winter. Natasha had had wounds ripped open that she had healed years ago-- that made Clint desperate, in his way, but he still could have dropped the others at a safehouse. Instead, here they were: Tony's famous sarcasm, the stiff line of Steve's shoulders Nat had been cataloging to Laura for years now, the peculiar terror on Thor's face and an older, more resigned fear on Bruce's.

"Oh," said Laura. "I know all your names."

They settled in, except for Thor, who ran. Laura called him a puppy to Nat, jokingly, but that wasn't quite right. Thor was too aware of the damage he could do with those fists. He was too frightened of the things he could leave broken behind him. But she didn't want to bring that up to Natasha, not when she was looking so very much like porcelain (like skin, like a woman tired and scared, like Nat had had old, bad memories thrown in her face just that morning).

Up in their bedroom, which Clint had spent the least time remodeling, Laura ran her fingers over the new skin on his abdomen. Natasha used all the hot water, but shrank and shrank in her skin. Nick Fury showed up in the pantry when Laura went down to get some canned tomatoes, asked her to send Tony over to the barn, and scoffed when she called him 'director.'

"I'm not a director of anything," Nick said, with all his usual gravitas, and Laura laughed at him. But she went and got Tony for him, sent him out the play with the tractor and to get a little dramatic exposition.

They left, and Laura tried not to feel like she was waiting for news. She called her mom and helped the kids with homework and got a melon from the grocery store for dessert. She was waiting, but she was just also breathing-- she was living her life, and Clint was part of that, promised to that. She had made her choices and made her vows and here she was. Half her life was the other side of a phone call--but so was half of his.

-

When they got back, Clint told her about the battle--he always did. Natasha would make it a sparks note summary, but Clint would tell a story. He told her about the city lifting into the sky, the robots; about talking to Wanda in that blown-out little shop, about Pietro saving his life. "We're naming little Nathaniel after heroes, right?" he said, cheek on her shoulder and one arm strewn over her swelling belly, her stretched out belly-button.

Laura smiled into the top of his head and said, "I think Nathaniel Pietro sounds like a wonderful name."

Her mother called to ask about the baby, and the robots. The ringmaster called to ask about the baby, and to open the conversation with, "Clint dropped a city from the sky? And I thought that time he knocked over the paint bucket was bad."

Tony Stark tried to buy one of Laura's paintings for an exorbitant sum of money. She wasn't sure if he was trying to buy her or to bond with her. She called him down to the house and walked him through her studio, her waddling and him bouncing to open doors for her. She had him find a way to explain in detail why he wanted each particular piece.

"It speaks to you? Mhm, what does it say?" She didn't sell him any of them.

When Pepper Potts came down, weeks later, Ms. Potts tried to buy one of them for Tony. Laura refused, but she gave Pepper one as a gift. "It's for you," she said.

"Tony does appreciate art," Pepper said.

"Maybe, but that's not why he was here," Laura said.

Natasha brought Steve by for cookies and tea, because Steve was too polite to intrude and Laura was still chewing over the idea of inviting the ideal of American patriotism over to her house, which needed vacuuming.

Bruce was still on the lam, if it wasn't the Hulk on the lam (Laura imagined him napping in Antarctica, smashing icebergs about for fun). Thor came back by hammer to apologize for his rude exit. He ate three batches of Clint's pancakes all by himself. Laura sent Coop out on his bike to get more syrup from the store partway through the breakfast.

Clint was still running missions, but Natasha got called in to train the next wave of Avengers. Laura had seen Sam Wilson on the television, during SHIELD's fall; and Rhodey on the television cleaning up Tony Stark's messes for years. She wasn't sure what to think about Vision, but she was pretty sure she wanted to know what was going on there.

Laura tried to find what she could of Wanda's story, but at the end of the day the part Laura cared the most about was this: when she was given the choice, Wanda made the same choice Clint always had.

Laura was listening and plotting and collecting dossiers on each of Clint's Avengers. When Thanksgiving rolled around that fall, she started to get a light in her eyes. "Oh, don't you dare," said Clint. "I don't want those hellions all in my house, eating my turkey. My turkey."

"Our turkey, honey," said Laura sweetly. "And of course I wouldn't," she told him, and had Natasha invite them all over to the farmhouse instead.

She invited their circus folk herself-- she expected the ringmaster to size up Tony, but instead he holed up with Steve. It was the snake charmer who sidled around Tony, draping snakes on him until he squealed about being handed things. "Wash your hands before you touch my food, if you're touching her reptiles!" Laura called.

"Our food," said Clint. "And I think Tony would look good with a little salmonella on him."

-

"You'll be made of you, Mr. Barton," the doctor had told Clint, and Clint had told Laura that, showing off the newly healed skin on his stomach.

It still mattered how you got there. Laura could tell the difference. Just because you were still made of you didn't mean you weren't different now.

Thor had been fearless once--Thor had been thoughtless once, shattering ceramic mugs on tile, shattering skulls, but now he could feel the whole weight of worlds on his shoulders.

Tony had dealt death, and he still did-- but he knew it, now, and he weighed every stroke and blow he gave. There were no bottom lines here, but he was still a Stark-- he weighed and weighed himself and found himself wanting.

Steve had been small once, sickly and stubborn-- the flesh changed, but Steve was still made of Steve. He would never back down from a bully.

Pietro had gotten Clint shot in the icy woods outside Sokovia, and then he had died for him miles and miles in the air above that. Little baby Nate gurgled when Wanda held him, tugged on her long shining hair and listened when she sang him their grandmother's old Roma lullabies.

Natasha had never been porcelain. She was not a stray cat, a marionette, a sharp edge-- she was a woman. She had always been herself: a girl scared, a girl grieving, a girl brave. She had taken Clint's hand when she could have killed him (he had offered it, when she could have killed him).

Once, a young art student had wanted to see more of her world. She had wanted to capture things-- to see behind the curtain to the dust and the duct tape, the juggler with his unlit torches and the trick shot just shooting tin cans off fence posts-- and she had.

Laura had watched fights from the sidelines for years, heard the mayhem over phone lines and seen the aftermaths. She was a mother, a writer, a wife and friend-- she had wrinkles around the eyes and she didn't remember exactly when they had appeared.

But Clint still napped on the old sofa, ankles strewn over one of its arms and his head pillowed on the other. The sunlight dropped and drifted through the windows he had cut out of the non-load bearing wall, framed, installed, and hung curtains over-- sunlight drifted down and Laura sat cross-legged on the rug and drew him.

At some point, the kids would come in from the yard. The world would need saving. The laundry would need doing. The latest deadlines would be due. Natasha would pass out on this same couch and Clint would put a quilt over her.

He was still a boy who looked at the things in front of him, and Laura was still in love. They were older now and wiser now, and love meant long phone calls over her cornflakes and long naps together when he was home, more often than not.

They had gotten here from long Kansas roads and bus stops in chilly drizzles, from Laura sleeping on the hospital cot beside him. They were here, and if they didn't look like they once had-- they were here. The kids laughed in the grass outside, Lila shrieking, and Laura drew Clint's hands folded over his belly, all lit up with sun.

Chapter Text

Laura sent him a fruit basket of whole pineapples (he was allergic) and a note that read Cooper cried all the way through your funeral, you bastard. 

An unstamped postcard appeared in her mailbox a few days later– a generic glossy image of a Maine lighthouse on a high green bluff. No signature, but Phil’s square handwriting. My apologies for the inconvenience

She threw the card on the counter, grabbed the axe from the woodshed, and chopped firewood until her arms screamed, because if she was going to be in a fury she might as well make it a productive one. 

Laura wasn’t Level Seven or above– she wasn’t any Level, technically, as according to SHIELD she didn’‘t technically exist these days– but she had friends in high places. Or low ones. It was a matter of perspective. She had found out about Phil Coulson before Clint, because Clint only broke rules because of his big heart and she’d always broken them because of her nosy mind. 

She had called Clint immediately–before the fruit basket–to pass on the (good–she was furious, but it was good, it was good) news. Clint had said, “Oh,” in a great terrible relieved rush of air. 

While the landline was passed among Lila and Cooper so they could chatter at their father, Laura had called Natasha on her cell. She’d said, “Oh,” too, but there was no rush of air, no exhale, no exclamation, because Natasha understood about resources, about conserving them, always had. 

“Nat?”

“I bet that’s where Melinda May went,” Natasha said. “But, anyway, how’d Lila’s recital go?“ 

Laura didn’t tell Tony, Steve, or Bruce, though she was tempted. But it would be petty, not kind, and she tried to cling to kindness by her ragged fingernails. 

Phil used words like inconvenience when he meant pain. He said compromised when he meant possessed and involuntarily homicidal, when he meant lost. He was a man of euphemisms and Laura tried to roll with it– her son preferred sign to speech most days, her husband was a hard-of-hearing ex-carnie, her best friend was a slippery, sweet ex-child-soldier who carried all her cards and all her hurt close to her chest. Laura understood that no one spoke the same language and that part of loving someone was looking for what words meant in their hands. 

"Apology not accepted, you prick,” she told him as soon as he picked up the phone. The friend of a friend who got her the number didn’t know or didn’t tell her where exactly Phil was, but a different friend of a different friend told her the mission, and another told her the coordinates. Laura was a friendly gal. She listened for ambient noise, hints of the crowded city she knew he was chasing uncanny phenomena in, and heard nothing. 

“Which otherwise excellent employee of this agency did you coerce into betraying classified information this time?" 

"Maybe one of your shiny new team,” she snapped. “Have you even spoken to Natasha, since, Phil? What the hell? What were you thinking?”

“We were thinking that without a united front, against Loki–”

Laura paced over the kitchen floor Clint had put in by hand during a chill autumn during which even the kids grew tired of take-out. “Did you think they’d only fight for you if you were dead? Did you not trust them to believe in the fight?”

“I understand you’re defensive of your husband–”

“I’m not angry for Clint’s sake,” she snapped, and Phil went quiet. “He gave a toast in your honor and came home to hold his children. He was always going to get through this.”

“Angry for yourself, then, Mrs. Barton? Laura, I never knew you cared." 

"I send you fucking fruit baskets, don’t you even joke. You taught my kids how to whittle, you shut your undead fucking mouth, Phil. But it’s not even that. They were a bunch of squabbling petty children up there, weren’t they?” she said. “Clint doesn’t talk about that particular fight, but I’ve met them now, and I can imagine. Tony, lord. I get what you were trying to do. You were dumb, but I get it." 

"Then why are you angry?" 

"You should have trusted her.”

“Ah,” said Phil. “Romanoff." 

"I get not trusting all the caped crusaders, not then, not yet, but you all keep leaving Natasha.” She clutched the cord of the phone in her hand, winding it around and around her palm. “You all keep leaving her, and not even having the decency to die." 

"It was a delicate situation– Fury’s death even more than mine." 

"And you think Natasha can’t handle delicate? She has been dying for you for years, and she hasn’t earned your trust yet? Phil, godamnit.”

“We thought she could handle it." 

"She could. She did. She shouldn’t have to." 

Laura strained to hear the ambient sounds under his silence, staring out the kitchen window at Cooper making rock towers and sandy canyons at the pond’s edge. She felt muffled, locked out, smothered with only the bare staticky sound of Phil’s voice making it over the line. 

"I apologize for the inconvenience,” he said, and he said it softly.