Laura doesn't notice the first break in.
She wakes up because "Let It Go" is blaring downstairs, and the TV is casting flickering blue light across the hallway. The wood floor is cold against her feet. The baby is right on her bladder. Clint had left two nights ago, she's eight months pregnant, she'd only just gotten to sleep, and she is going to kill whichever child she finds at the bottom of the stairs.
But there are no children downstairs. Just Anna and Elsa, chattering away in the darkness. Lucky is sound asleep -- drooling, in fact -- but the remote control is lying on the floor right next to the dog bed.
"We should have gotten the kids a gecko," she mutters at Lucky. Lizards never turn on household appliances.
By the time she's managed to retrieve the remote from the floor, waddling back up the stairs seems like too much effort, so she curls up on the couch with her mother's afghan instead. She bolts upright when she hears the kitchen door open and close, then slumps back down when she realizes how stupid she's being. Clint's gone. One last mission before the baby comes. They'd agreed on it together.
She pads into the kitchen anyway, feeling stupider with every step. The room is dark and the door is closed. Nobody here but her and the kids.
"I think the house is haunted," she tells Clint when he calls from some far-flung corner of the world. She tries to make a joke of it but she hears the brittleness in her voice.
"You sure the kids aren't doing it?" he asks. "Cooper is awfully infatuated with that practical joke book..."
"Maybe," she says halfheartedly. The truth is, she feels like she's losing her mind.
"Do you want me to come home?" Clint asks. "You know I will."
She brightens at the thought but shakes her head. "It's only another week, right? I can manage."
The doctor says it's normal to be absent minded in the late stages of pregnancy. He smiles sympathetically and says it's hard to be an Army wife, and it's okay if she's worried about Mr. Barton. Here's the business card of a therapist; speaking to a professional might be very reassuring.
Laura wants to set the card on fire, but she can't find the lighter.
When the police come, they tell her that her doors are locked. The windows are shut. There are no footprints on her stairs. They tip their hats and ask politely when her husband is coming home, and if her father might be able to stay for a few days so she won't feel quite so alone.
"Prove to me there's no one in this house," she says, and the officers nod politely and take her on a tour of her own home.
They wait obligingly while she peers into closets and stand behind her when she opens the door to the panic room underneath the stairs. When she dismisses them, she looks confident but feels stupid and she sags against the wall while she watches the police car fade into the distance.
She had imagined it. All of it. There had been no footfalls on the stairs. The dog had been no crazier than any other night when he spotted squirrels in the eaves and raccoons on the porch. Still, the jangling sense that something's wrong won't fade, and she flips the therapist's business card over and over in her hand.
"Daddy left her in the closet for me to find," she says. "She's been waiting for me for days. Do you think she was lonely all by herself in there?"
Cooper tears upstairs immediately, looking for his hidden prize, and comes back clenching his jaw when he finds none.
Laura smooths his hair away from his face and says, "Maybe Daddy didn't hide it in your room. It might be a puzzle, or a scavenger hunt."
The frown on Cooper's face doesn't quite fade, but she can see the wheels turning in his mind -- that he's older, that he's good at solving things, that his father trusts him to be able to figure out a riddle. Laura goes back to frying the bacon, frowning a little bit herself. Hadn't she warned Clint that it was better to do things the same way for both kids -- fewer hurt feelings, fewer opportunities for misunderstandings? Of course, with the way he'd grown up, he didn't entirely understand concepts like age appropriateness, and really, who could blame him?
She doesn't usually call him while he's working, but just a five minute conversation to ask about Cooper's surprise couldn't hurt, right? And if she wants to hear his voice after the Great Fake Burglar Incident of 2015, well...who could blame a slightly crazy pregnant lady for wanting to talk to her husband? The craziness and the pregnancy are at least fifty percent his fault anyway.
Of course, her cell phone isn't getting reception, Verizon coverage map be damned. But then, that's not really unusual out here in the country. Sometimes she has five bars, sometimes she has to stand on the roof and hold a golf club over her head if she wants to place a call. The weird thing is that the land line is on the fritz too. It connects after her third try, but every other word is static, so she and Clint just shout at each other incomprehensibly until they give up.
It's like that all morning -- she shouts through static at her sister, at the baby-sitter she was trying to schedule for Wednesday night, and then at some Republican fundraising survey that must have gotten her number by mistake. She almost doesn't answer when it rings after lunch, but when she does, Natasha's voice is bright and clear on the other end.
"Hey, did you try and call Clint this morning?" she asks, her voice tinged with concern. "Is everything alright?"
Laura cradles the phone against her ear and swipes at a stain on the countertop that won't come off. "Yeah, it was nothing. Just Clint left a surprise for Lucy, and I'm sure he left one for Cooper too, but he can't find it. Anyway, it's nothing you need to worry about."
She already feels guilty. Of course Clint would have been terrified when she called and he couldn't hear her.
"Do you want me to bring Cooper a surprise?" Natasha asks. "Trust me, visiting you would not be a hardship."
In the background, it sounds like an entire crowd is screaming HALLELUJAH.
"No, please don't bother," Laura says. She hears something that might be a few hundred people shouting PRAISE THE LORD. "Where are you anyway? Is Clint with you?"
Natasha sighs. "Eagle Mountain International Church. Brother Barton didn't want to hear the Good News, so he's elsewhere right now, I'm afraid."
"Separate assignment?" Laura asks, feeling dismayed. She always feels better when Clint and Natasha work together, although it's not realistic to think they could partner on every mission.
Natasha murmurs an affirmative into the phone. Someone says something that Laura can't quite make out, and then Natasha replies in a disturbingly cheerful voice, "That is good news, Sister Amy! Praise be!"
"Wait, is that one of the churches I saw on John Oliver the other night? The one with the faith healing business and the six million dollar private plane?" Laura asks. She supposes a corrupt megachurch is as good a front for Hydra money laundering as any.
"I'm sorry you've been listening to Satan's propaganda," Natasha says sweetly. "If you'd like me to come set the record straight and bring a toy for Cooper, I'd consider it God's work."
Nat sounds a little desperate, and Laura laughs. No wonder Clint isn't working this mission with her; he would never have been able to keep a poker face through a faith healing ceremony.
"Everything is alright? You swear?" Natasha asks.
For a fraction of a second, Laura considers saying something about the break-in she'd hallucinated last night, but she'd never been the kind of woman who got scared without her husband around, and she's not going to change that now. Especially not when the sunlight is slanting through the shutters Clint had restored last summer, bread is rising on the countertop...and Cooper is trying to pull the head off Lucy's Barbie. It's quite obviously business as usual at the Barton Family Farm.
"It's fine," Laura says. "Just tell Clint to call me if you get through to him. And warn me if he's hidden a power tool somewhere for Cooper."
That night she doesn't even bother getting out of bed when she wakes up from a dream, thinking she'd heard footsteps in the hall.
"Laura?" Clint asks. "You still there?"
"Yeah," she says, shaking her head. "I was just saying if you're going to leave a surprise for Lucy --"
"What surprise?" Clint asks, his voice suddenly sharp. "I didn't leave --"
"The doll? You didn't leave the doll in Lucy's closet?" she asks, her heart suddenly pounding.
"Laura, listen to me. Take the kids, get --"
The line goes dead. When Laura looks up, there's a man in her doorway.
Laura swallows, then forces herself to smile. She knows this man. Agent Rumlow. She’d seen him in Clint’s pictures, and she knew who he was and what he had done. Still, no matter how unlikely it is that she can solve this situation with a friendly smile and good manners, she’s going to try. How Midwestern of her.
“Good morning,” she says. “Would you like some breakfast?” She gestures around the little kitchen. “We don’t have much, but whatever we have is yours.”
The kids are watching a DVD in the living room over breakfast, which isn’t technically allowed. The DVD is Frozen, which in theory, is also not technically allowed because that damn snowman makes her want to scream. Right now, though, she’s grateful. “Let It Go” blasting on Clint’s precious surround sound speakers is loud enough to drown out whatever might be about to happen in the kitchen.
Rumlow takes a step into her kitchen. The light catches his face, and Laura gasps when she sees the scars crisscrossing his skin. He looks at her sharply.
“Agent Rumlow, right?” Laura says, trying to keep her face light and friendly. “I was sorry to hear about your injuries. We never met, but I heard a lot about you -- about everyone Clint worked with, actually. I’m afraid he’s not in right now, but he won’t be long. You should join us for a cup of coffee.”
“This is a nice place you’ve got here,” Rumlow says, smirking. His voice is at once gravelly and metallic, and Laura guesses he has some fancy Hydra equivalent of the voice synthesizer. The sound of it makes Laura’s skin crawl.
He takes a step toward her, and Laura steps back involuntarily. She’s about to corner herself against the kitchen counter, but she’s got nowhere else to go, no weapons… He’d taken them all, she realizes. The knives, the ice pick, the lighter. She didn’t even have to look in the secret hiding places to know the guns are gone too. Her heart is beating fast, her breath is getting panicky, maybe she’s going to hyperventilate.
No. She’s been trained for this -- not like Clint has, but as a social worker. She just has to pretend that this is a home visit that’s going bad. That had happened often enough, and she’d never gotten hurt.
“Let’s just have a cup of coffee and talk this through,” she says.
Rumlow takes another step toward her, but now it’s easier to take a step back and pretend that she’s just going to the coffee pot.
“I thought you’d have more weapons in here,” he says. Laura wills herself not to react to the voice or the scars, to think of him as one of the dirty, scabbed meth addicts she’d sometimes served -- that is, scary on the outside and human underneath.
“We choose not to live in fear,” she says firmly. “And I could never have forgiven myself if the children had found a gun and hurt themselves.”
“Makes my job easier,” Rumlow says.
Laura sets out two coffee cups.
“And what job is that?” she asks brightly.
Rumlow is standing very close to her now.
“Think your kids’ll behave if I’ve got a knife to your throat?” he asks.
Laura picks up the coffee carafe. Now she has a weapon in her hand.
“And I’ll be meeeeeee!” Elsa sings triumphantly from the living room.
Laura flings hot coffee in Rumlow’s face. He stumbles backward, and she somehow squeezes her pregnant body into the narrow gap between the kitchen table and the counter.
The movie stops, and Cooper and Lucy appear at the kitchen door. Lucy still has the blonde doll clutched in her hand.
“What’s happening, Mommy?” Cooper asks, his eyes wide.
“Go in the safe room,” she says. Nobody moves, and in her very best don’t-fuck-with-Mommy voice, she adds, “Now.”
She stands her ground in between the kids in Rumlow, who’s closing the short distance across the kitchen in long strides. She had no idea she could move this fast at eight months pregnant, but somehow she zigzags across the floor, blocking Rumlow every time he tries to get around her.
Of course, he’s better than her -- faster, stronger, with years of training. His hand closes around her wrist, tugging her to the floor. She manages to smash the coffee carafe over his head on her way down. Glass shatters, and Cooper opens the safe room and drags Lucy inside.
“Close the door!” she shouts.
Rumlow is already up, already moving toward them. Laura wraps her hands around his ankle. Cooper shouts, “Mommy!”
Rumlow is dragging her forward. He can almost reach the safe room door. Laura looks up at Lucy. Dear, sweet, selfish Lucy who doesn’t share her toys and eats Cooper’s dessert when he isn’t looking and wouldn’t sacrifice a single hair on her head to make someone else happy.
“Lucinda May Barton, close the damn door!” Laura yells.
Lucy takes one look at Rumlow and shuts the door just as his fingers are scrabbling against the knob. Laura hears gears turning and locks whirring, and the slow hiss of the pneumatic barrier sealing. Now the door will only open from the inside.
Laura holds up her hands as soon as Rumlow turns to look at her. She forces herself to look him in the eye. Eye contact makes you human - they’d taught her that in her crisis intervention courses.
“Please don’t hurt the baby,” she says. She can’t hide the fear in her voice.
Rumlow yanks her up from the floor roughly.
“No use damaging the hostage,” he says flatly. “You don’t fight, we don’t have a problem.”
“I won’t fight,” she says. Maybe she should have given in and let Clint train her. SHIELD probably had a whole semester-long course on hostage situations. Maybe Kidnapping & Hostage Management was a major at the SHIELD Academy. Throw in a little Krav Maga, and she’d be a warrior capable of fighting even the most hardened assassin.
But Laura isn’t an action movie star; she’d never wanted to be.
What Laura knew was this: half a block of abandoned warehouses had burned to the ground. Not all of the squatters who lived there had survived, and their children would need homes. So she ignored the unusual concentration of men in black suits clustered around the periphery of the disaster zone, and she did not think very much of the man who deposited two very small, unnaturally quiet little girls in her arms.
A week later, a man paid for Laura’s lunch at her favorite diner.
“It was the guy at the corner table with the book,” the waitress said, but by the time Laura had turned around to thank him, he was gone.
The next week, Laura went back for her regular grilled cheese and fries. When she tried to pay, the waitress shook her head.
“The man with the book says you don’t pay for your own lunch anymore,” she said.
Laura looked up just in time to see a man carrying a thick book walk out the door. He wore a white t-shirt and faded jeans, and his hair was cropped short, as if he were in the military. He looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t think where she’d seen him before.
She turned back to the waitress. “Just between you and me, does this man with the book give you a stalker vibe?”
The waitress looked at Laura incredulously. “If you ask me, he gives off a hot and sexy vibe. But if you don’t like your free lunch, I’ll see if he can start treating me.”
The next week, Laura came to lunch early. The man with the book was sitting at the table in the corner, reading. One of his legs was stretched out across the chair next to him, and the book was propped against it. HIs jeans were torn and splattered with paint. His biceps strained against the sleeves of his black t-shirt. While he read, he moved his finger slowly across the page, his brow knit in concentration. And okay, maybe she could see what the waitress meant about the hot and sexy vibe.
She cleared her throat, and the man looked up. HIs eyes were very blue. Suddenly, she felt terribly self-conscious of her shapeless khakis and slightly wrinkled button down.
“Why have you been buying my lunch?” she asked. She probably should have said thank you; a social worker’s salary didn’t stretch very far, and treating herself to lunch at the diner once a week was a luxury she could barely afford.
“You found a home for the girls from the fire,” he said. “It kinda seemed like you deserved a free lunch or two.”
Laura’s heart skipped a beat. Had he been following her?
“How do you know about that?” she snapped.
The man smiled. “Easy. I was there. You might not recognize me though. At the time, I was covered with soot.”
“You’re the one who carried the girls out of the warehouse,” she said, recognition dawning. For the first time, she noticed the thick white bandage on his forearm, and the patch of new, pink skin on his neck.
“You know, you could do me a favor,” he said. “If you want.”
Laura narrowly managed to avoid sighing out loud. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, her mom always said. Now was the awkward moment with this admittedly very attractive stranger was going to ask her out -- or worse, make an indecent proposal -- and she was going to have to explain how she didn’t go out with strange men from diners. Or she was going to have to hit him over the head with her purse, depending on what he said.
“I’m on leave from work for awhile,” he said, glancing toward the bandage on his arm. “I get restless when I can’t do anything useful. So if you need help with something, call me.”
He passed her a business card. It said Clint Barton, Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division.
“Help?” she asked, not quite understanding.
The man -- Clint -- shrugged. “Volunteer work. I can’t imagine your job’s easy, or they give you a lot of money to work with. If I can lighten the load, let me know.”
And that was that. Clint went back to his book, and she ordered her customary grilled cheese. She supposed she would see him again next week at the diner.
She stumbled across the card in her purse later that week, when she was doing laundry. Not her laundry, although that had piled up in a terrifying mound on her closet floor. This was laundry for the children’s home, whose custodial staff had quit en masse last week. Apparently, they objected to doing a thankless job for little pay. So now she was here on a Wednesday night, staring at a mountain of clothes that would take her hours to fold.
Unless she had help. She turned the card over in her hands. Do you need any help? No one had asked her that since she started at Family & Children’s Services. Did he mean it?
Well, it couldn’t hurt to ask.
His phone went straight to voicemail, and she fumbled for what to say. “This is Laura. Laura Williams.” Then she realized she’d never even told him her name. “You paid for my lunch at the diner the other day. You said to call if I need help, and I’m in the basement of the children’s home, staring at a mountain of laundry that’s probably going to collapse and kill me, so if you’re not doing anything...well, I could use some help.”
She hung up the phone, feeling stupid. He’d probably expected her to call if she wanted a one-night stand, not because orphans needed their laundry folded. But half an hour later, Clint Barton appeared at the door of the laundry room.
“Sorry I didn’t answer the phone,” he said. “I was at the gym.”
Laura tried not to stare at his tightly fitting tank top. She wished, again, that she was wearing something other than a shapeless pair of khakis -- but then, maybe it was better not to look desirable. Having sex in the laundry room of a children’s home was generally considered unprofessional, though it was not mentioned specifically in the Iowa Department of Human Services Employee Handbook.
In addition to being attractive and well-read, Clint Barton folded laundry at a nearly unbelievable pace.
“You’re good at that,” Laura said, feeling a little dumbstruck. She didn’t like to stereotype, but in her experience, men rarely performed domestic tasks with such skill and efficiency.
Clint looked up at her. She self-consciously tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and wondered how frizzy her hair had gotten in the laundry room’s humidity.
“I’ve had some practice,” he said levelly.
“Army?” she guessed. He certainly had the physique for it.
He shook his head and smiled ruefully. “Twelve cents an hour at the Otisville Correctional Institute. That was awhile ago though.”
“And now you work for the Strategic Homeland… What was it again?” Laura asked. Her sorority sisters probably would have run from a man with a prison record -- but then, her sorority sisters weren’t folding laundry with her late at night. The man with the record was.
“Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division,” Clint supplied. He leaned over to retrieve a pile of sheets from a laundry basket, and Laura tried very, very hard not to look at his ass.
“And what is that, exactly?” Laura asked, wrenching her eyes back to her laundry pile.
“International peacekeeping and intelligence organization,” he said. It rolled off his tongue like he’d practiced the phrase, even though it didn’t actually tell her very much. He looked over at her and grinned. “I just tell most people I’m in the army.”
“Is that a nice way of saying that you could tell me more, but then you would have to kill me?”
“Nah,” Clint said. “Just, maybe, quarantine you for an extended debriefing.”
“I think I’ll refrain from follow-up questions then,” Laura said. They worked in companionable silence for awhile, and then she asked,“What were you reading at the diner the other day?”
“One Hundred Years of Solitude,” he said.
They reached for the same shirt, and their hands brushed together. Clint’s skin was callused and warm, but Laura forced herself to pull her hand back before he could misconstrue the touch as anything other than accidental. Clint looked over at her questioningly, which made her wonder if the touch had been accidental on his end.
“I never really went for magic realism,” she said to cover up the awkwardness. She’d been halfway through an English major before she’d realized that she didn’t want to live her life writing research papers. Then she’d switched to social work.
“I didn’t either, till I started to travel,” Clint said. “You drive through South America, and sometimes you just see little graveyards on the side of a mountain. No church, no houses nearby, nothing. Makes you think a whole town really could just get picked up by a tornado and vanish.”
He was getting more attractive by the second. Laura was actually relieved that the laundry pile was gone - there was really no telling what stupid thing she might do if she stood here for another hour, listening to a muscular man extoll the virtues of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Just then, Clint smirked. “Gotcha. I was actually reading Harry Potter.”
Right. Attractive, muscular men who loved literature and folded laundry efficiently did not just fall into her lap. Probably because they did not exist.
“I’m very disappointed in you,” she said. “You’re going to have to make this up to me by coming back and folding more laundry on Friday night.”
“It’s a date,” Clint said, and he winked.
Folding laundry was not a date. That didn’t stop Laura from picking up black eyeliner from the dollar bin at Target, or from digging a mildly low-cut t-shirt out of the back of her closet on Friday morning. Might as well have a little fun, right? The truth was, working was all she’d done since she’d gotten hired, and her job as a social worker was so different from her friends’ lives as bankers and aspiring lawyers that she was having a hard time connecting.
So she pretended that folding laundry was a date. She was really going to have to do something about her love life.
Of course, by the end of the day, her eyeliner was ruined, her eyes were red, and when her boss had caught her crying in the bathroom, she’d told Laura that she had to stop getting so emotionally involved in her cases -- which had only made Laura cry harder, because she wanted to care. Nobody else did, so Laura had to.
She stumbled into the laundry room at the children’s home, and she was surprised to find Clint Barton there. She was even more surprised when he handed her a hot cup of coffee and opened a thermos of what appeared to be homemade chicken noodle soup.
Then he looked around the laundry room and shook his head. “Dammit. I should’ve brought a chair.”
It had not occurred to Laura to complain about the seating arrangements. “I’ll sit on the folding table,” she said. When she hoisted herself up, she realized that there was no laundry. It was all washed, folded, and neatly stacked in color coded laundry baskets.
She almost said let’s have sex before her common sense kicked in. She knew nothing about Clint Barton except that he liked books and worked at a shadowy intelligence organization. He’d somehow found her favorite diner, then tried to buy her lunch without ever talking to her. Either he was the nicest person in the world, or he was a serial killer.
“You’re going to have to explain yourself,” she said.
Clint froze with a spoonful of soup halfway to his mouth. “Explain what?” he asked, looking wary.
“All of this,” Laura said, gesturing around the laundry room. “The coffee, the soup, the clothes, the lunches, the way you knew about my favorite diner… I really, really want to believe that you’re just an extraordinarily nice man, but the odds are pointing at stalker.”
“Shit,” Clint said. He looked down at the concrete floor, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “I’m really bad at this, aren’t I?”
“If you’re a stalker, you’re excellent,” Laura said. “Here I am, alone in a basement, drinking your quite possibly drugged coffee.”
She realized that she didn’t really think Clint was dangerous -- in fact, he made her feel safe.
“I really do want to help,” he said. “I grew up in this neighborhood. In and out of foster care, children’s homes, juvenile detention...you name it. The social worker I had was the only person in the world who made me feel like I mattered. Not that I listened.” He shrugged. “Anyway, I can’t pay her back. But I figured maybe I could pay it forward.”
He refilled her coffee cup from a thermos under the table, and for the first time, Laura noticed the neat, circular scars on his arm. Cigarette burns, she thought. They’d faded with time, but she was trained -- she’d recognize them anywhere.
Clint saw her looking, and she looked away quickly. He shuffled his feet, and Laura realized it was the first time she’d ever seen him move without a purpose. Usually he was watchful and still, every movement carefully controlled. She’d thought of him as an Army Ranger, and maybe he was, or some SHIELD equivalent of one. But maybe he was also a child who’d lived in fear of making even one false move.
“I don’t talk about the past much,” he said gruffly. “It’s probably not good, where friendships and...other things are concerned, but…”
“Not everyone understands, and you never did want pity,” Laura filled in, and some of the tension slid out of his shoulders. She smiled at him over her coffee cup. “You still didn’t explain about the diner.”
“Well, I am a spy,” he said sheepishly. “After that warehouse exploded, I kept thinking about the kids, wondering if they were alright. A lot of social workers go to that diner for lunch, and I thought if I listened in to a few conversations, I’d know if we put them in good hands. And we did. You’re good people.”
“Are you buying lunch for all the caseworkers?” Laura asked. Maybe it was selfish, but she really, really hoped the answer was no.
Clint shook his head.
“Then why me?” Laura asked.
“Same reason I put those girls in your arms,” he said. He put a hand over hers, and Laura’s heart skipped a beat. “Because you have the kindest eyes.”
The insult stings, but Laura follows the instructions. She’s not ordinary -- but she knows she’s not an action hero. That doesn’t mean she isn’t smart. She sits down in the dining chair with all the loose spindles that Clint had never quite finished repairing. Nobody can even tell, Clint had always said. Turns out he was right.
“What is it that you want?” Laura asks while he ties her up. She wishes she could stop shaking.
“Exactly what you’re going to give me,” Rumlow says. His metallic voice makes her skin crawl.
“Okay,” Laura says, keeping her voice as even as she can. “Just tell me what it is, and I’ll get it for you. Then you can leave. Maybe you’re thinking you can take Clint in a fight, but he’s not going to get here first. I promise you Natasha Romanov is on her way right now, and she will kill you.”
Rumlow smiles -- or tries to. The scarred half of his face can’t move. “That’s exactly what I’m planning on, sweetheart. All I have to do is make a trade. She gives herself to me, you walk away free. And Red Room gives me a nice fat paycheck.”
“Red Room?” Laura asks, going cold.
“Yup.” Rumlow pulls up another chair and sits down. He’s so close she can feel the warmth radiating from his body. “They tried to take her in Budapest. Even sent the Winter Soldier after her in Tehran. Nobody can take her in a fight. But I figured out how to get her without one.”
He pulls something out of a bag Laura hadn’t noticed before. It’s her sat phone.
“That was in my closet,” Laura says slowly. It’s getting hard to breathe. “You were in my room. How were you in my room?”
“Easy.” Rumlow flashes her the half-smile again. “Once you started thinking you were crazy, I could go anywhere I wanted. Now I’m gonna call Nat, and when I tell you, you’re gonna scream and cry and do whatever you have to do to make sure she hurries.”
“I’ll do no such thing,” Laura says.
“Then I’ll make you,” Rumlow says, barely sparing her a glance.
Laura listens as he dials the phone and makes the kinds of threats she’d only heard in action movies. On the other end of the line, she hears Natasha say calmly, “Give me proof of life.”
Rumlow holds the phone in Laura’s face, and she turns away.
Then he slaps her. Laura isn’t sure whether it’s the pain that makes her cry, or the sudden and unexpected violence. Still, she manages not to make a sound.
The second slap catches her off guard, and this time she whimpers.
Natasha’s voice sounds distant and frantic. “Laura? Laura? Is that you?”
Rumlow leans close to her ear. “I can do this all day, honey.”
“Laura, we can get through this,” Natasha says. “Don’t let him hurt you. If you’re there, just say something.”
“Be careful! He’s working for --” Laura shouts, but Rumlow hangs up the phone before she can finish the warning.
“I ought to hit you for that,” he says. “A lot of people would. But I’ve never liked unnecessary violence.”
With that, he drags her chair into the living room, sprawls across the couch, and turns on a football game. Laura wants to tell him that Natasha will stalk him from the trees outside, that she’ll shoot him when he least expects it, that she’ll arrive with dozens of re-enforcements -- but it’s not true. Natasha would do anything she had to to keep the children safe. Even surrendering to Red Room.
When Laura opened the door, Clint pulled the girl inside, slammed the door shut, and closed the blinds. Laura tried to speak, but he shook his head frantically. The girl sat down on the couch with her legs folded and her back straight. She had a cut on her forehead and a bruise on her cheek, but she looked better than Clint -- if you didn’t count the dead expression in her eyes.
“Tell me what’s going on. Right now,” Laura whispered.
Clint was peering through a gap in the blinds. Slowly, he turned around to face her. “We need help,” he said.
“I told you this wasn’t a good idea, Barton,” the girl said. She sounded much older than she looked. “Your friend doesn’t want me here.”
“That’s because I haven’t talked to her yet,” Clint said calmly. “Can you keep watch for a little while?”
The girl rolled her eyes. “Better than you.”
“Keep watch? For what?” Laura asked, forgetting to whisper.
“I’ll explain everything, I swear,” he said. He took Laura by the arm. “Please? Can we talk in private?”
Laura wasn’t sure what frightened her more -- the girl, or the desperation in Clint’s eyes.
“Okay,” she said. “We can talk in the bedroom.” She didn’t mean to take Clint’s hand, but she did, and she hated the sudden gratitude that spread across his face.
When they stepped inside her room, Clint took off his jacket and slung it across the chair. It was an old habit. He was only wearing a tank top underneath, and Laura gasped when she saw the cuts and bruises spread across his shoulders.
“What happened to you?” she asked. Then she shook her head. “No, no, I know you can’t tell me. It doesn’t matter. I’ll just get the first aid kit out of the bathroom.”
She turned, but Clint caught her shoulder. “Not right now. It’s not important.”
Laura’s temper flared. They’d had this fight a thousand times before: Clint was hurt, but he couldn’t -- or wouldn’t -- tell her why or let her help him. She wanted a partnership, not a man who took care of her while accepting nothing in return. But she bit back the familiar, angry words. Clint was wincing every time he took a breath, and the desperation still hadn’t left his eyes. When he sat down carefully on the edge of the bed, she did too.
“What happened to you?” she asked again.
“She did,” Clint said, jerking his eyes toward the living room. Through a crack in the door, Laura could see the girl was standing watch at the window.
Laura opened her mouth, and Clint squeezed her fingers. “Just hear me out, okay? You know I do things for SHIELD -- violent things, things good men can’t do. You asked me once what would happen if they asked me to do something I knew was wrong. Well, they did. They asked me to kill her.”
This time Laura couldn’t contain herself. “Are you saying she’s a fugitive, Clint? Is SHIELD looking for her? Because she’s a criminal?”
“She’s an assassin,” Clint said simply.
“You brought an assassin to my apartment?” Laura asked. Her voice was getting shrill, but she couldn’t stop it. “What are you doing, Clint?”
Clint was still holding her hand. He’d never really let go. “Telling the truth. Just like you always wanted me to do.”
Laura thought she might hyperventilate. Yes, she’d asked Clint to tell her the truth about his life. Probably a hundred times. He didn’t get to start after they’d already broken up, and he most certainly did not get to pretend she’d ever wanted him to hide an assassin in her apartment.
Before she could figure out a way to say any of that, they heard soft footsteps in the hallway, and the girl pushed the bedroom door open. There was a knife in her hand.
Clint stood up quickly, putting himself between Laura and the girl. He held up his hands placatingly, but Laura could see he was ready to fight.
“Natasha, what are you doing?” he asked in the same low, quiet voice he’d used with her earlier.
“I told you, Barton. I need to be terminated,” she said, sounding impatient. “She doesn’t want me here. I’m a liability. When an asset becomes a liability, it has to be terminated.”
She held the knife out to Clint and stood calmly, apparently waiting to die.
Laura stood up and snatched the knife. “No one is being terminated on my watch,” she said sternly. “Come on, you can sleep on the pullout couch.”
Natasha followed her to the living room like a soldier following orders -- no, not even that. Like a wind-up toy that walked in whichever direction you pointed it. It was like she’d emptied herself of everything, even a will of her own. She changed clothes and brushed her teeth in the bathroom because Laura told her to, and when she laid down on the bed, she handed Laura a pair of handcuffs and put her wrist close to one of the legs.
Clint cleared his throat. “They chained her up at night. The people she was working for, I mean.”
“We don’t do that here,” Laura said sharply. Natasha looked at her questioningly, and Laura softened her voice. “There are only five rules. Anyone can have as much fruit from the fruit bowl as they want. If you move something, put it back when you’re finished. If you make something dirty, clean it. Don’t open a door without knocking first, and don’t use your outdoor voice unless there’s an emergency.”
It was the same five rules she always used with new foster children, and she wasn’t sure they were appropriate for Natasha. Maybe escaped assassins needed other rules, like don’t kill people, cooperate with law enforcement authorities, and no loaded guns in the living room. But Natasha nodded at her once, and some of the tension left her shoulders. She curled on her side and fell asleep.
Laura slumped back against Clint without thinking about it. She was scared and tired, and he was familiar and warm -- and she missed him.
“Thank you,” he murmured into her hair.
She turned around to face him. “What are we going to do?” she asked.
“We?” Clint asked hopefully, and Laura nodded. When she was a little girl, she was always bringing home animals -- stray kittens, birds with broken wings, even the occasional tail-less lizard. Once there had been an unpleasant incident with an injured skunk. Now she had a wounded assassin, and no matter how scared and unprepared she felt, it wasn’t in her nature to turn out a person in need.
“We have a lot more talking to do,” she said, and dragged him back toward the bedroom. She tried not to think what it used to mean when she brought him there.
“I don’t have all the facts,” Clint said, and he sat down on the bed, looking more tired than Laura had ever seen him. “She’s Russian. Some organization called Red Room -- maybe part of the KGB, maybe not -- took her when she was eight? Ten? Not very old. They take little girls, brainwash ‘em till they’re killers and spies.”
“Jesus,” Laura murmured. “She’s a child soldier.”
She’d finally gotten the first aid kit out of the bathroom, and she swabbed antiseptic across the deepest cuts on Clint’s arms. If it hurt, he didn’t show any sign of pain.
“Why do you do that?” he asked suddenly.
“They’ll get infected,” Laura said absently. “You know that.”
Clint swallowed almost convulsively. “That’s not what I meant. You’re not a medic. We’re not on a mission together. You don’t have to.”
“Nobody ever did this for you?” she asked. “Just doctors?” Her eyes were filling up, and she blinked fast.
Clint shrugged. His wrapped his hand around one of hers, but loosely, so she could slip out of his grasp if she wanted to. She thought about her mother, who’d always offered band-aids and kisses for skinned knees, and Clint’s, who hadn’t cared when he was hurt. It was hard to imagine, but easy too -- she saw it every day.
She’d felt so useless when he came to her silent and injured, but all this time, she’d been doing more than anyone else ever had. Maybe she’d gotten it wrong. Maybe he wasn’t shutting her out at all; maybe, in between foster care and prison and SHIELD, he didn’t know what it meant to let someone help him. But that was a conversation for another time. She went back to the problems in front of her: the cuts on Clint’s arms, and the assassin in her living room.
“So SHIELD sent you to kill Natasha, but it looks like Natasha almost killed you,” she said.
Clint nodded grimly. “I tracked her to a warehouse in Irkutsk, but it turned out she was just luring me there. She had the upper hand. She could’ve finished me. But she started making mistakes. It didn’t make sense. Then she said ‘I gave you the opening. Just do it already.’ I just froze, and she said, ‘It’s okay. I’m ready.’ I couldn’t, Laura. I couldn’t.” He took a deep, shaky breath. “You know, when I was a kid, if somebody’d wanted to take me and make me a killer, they could’ve. I’d’ve done all kinds of things for three square meals and a roof over my head. Hell, I did all kinds of things for less than that. But I got a second chance, and I have to give her one too. We’ll get out of your hair after tonight if you want, but you’re the only one I trust and --”
“That’s enough,” Laura said softly. “Nobody’s going anywhere.”
Clint leaned down to rest his head on Laura’s shoulder. He was taking long, heavy breaths just this side of a sob, and she reached up to run her fingers through his close-cropped hair.
“It’s okay,” she murmured. “We’ll figure it out together.”
She had absolutely no idea what they were going to do.
“Thank you for cleaning up,” Laura said. For lack of a better option, she’d decided to treat Natasha like any other adolescent in the system. That included acknowledging when she followed the rules.
Natasha regarded her silently from the corner of the couch. She looked small and innocuous in the early morning light. It was hard to believe what she’d done to Clint.
“Would you like some toast?” Laura forced herself to say. What she really meant was please don’t kill me.
“Yes, please,” Natasha said meekly, and Laura wasn’t sure if it was a terrifying simulacrum of politeness, or the remnants of her training.
She busied herself in the kitchen, making more noise and taking longer than she strictly should have. She wanted Clint to wake up so she didn’t have to have breakfast with Natasha alone. But Clint was still snoring in the bedroom, and when Laura turned around, Natasha was standing right beside her. She didn’t mean to shriek, but she did.
“It’s rude to sneak up on people,” she said firmly, her heart still pounding.
“I only wanted to help,” Natasha said in a voice that was just a touch too childish. “You don’t have to be afraid of me. I could kill you, but I won’t. You’re Clint’s friend.”
Laura took a long, shaky breath. She wanted to wake Clint up and scream get it out, get it out now! But she thought of Natasha, asking to be killed, and forced herself to calm down.
“It is not okay to threaten me,” she said. Natasha started to speak, but Laura shook her head. “If you tell someone you could kill them, it’s a threat. It doesn’t matter if you say you won’t do it. You cannot stay here if you make me feel unsafe in my own home.”
Before Natasha could answer, Clint charged out of the bedroom in his boxer shorts, his hair askew, and a long knife in his hand.
“Is everything alright?” he asked. “I heard a scream.”
Laura forced herself to pick up her plate of toast and walk to the table. Natasha looked frightened, and Laura wondered if she was afraid she was in trouble.
“Natasha and I had a misunderstanding,” Laura said. “It’s alright now. Put that knife away. We don’t use weapons here.”
Laura followed him out the door and down to her building’s dingy laundry room, where he pressed a stack of crisp one hundred dollar bills into her hand.
“It’s all unmarked and untraceable,” he said. “There’s five thousand here, and more in a storage locker at the bus station.” He passed her a small, battered key.
“Clint? What is this for?” she asked, trying to keep the panic out of her voice.
“Groceries, clothes, whatever the two of you need.” He shrugged. “Look, I know you don’t make enough to support an extra person. I didn’t want to leave you in the lurch.”
“This is not grocery money, Clint,” she said, her voice wavering. “This is -- I don’t know what. Fake passports and a new life in Paraguay.”
“Paraguay is a terrible place to start a new life,” Clint said, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
Laura smacked him in the chest. “Absolutely nothing about this is funny, Clint. Why do I have this much money?”
Clint leaned down so that their foreheads were touching. “Listen, Natasha and I were careful. We traveled on fake passports and stopped in five cities before we even got to the States. But if the wrong people come looking, just run. She’ll find you a safe place.”
He rubbed a thumb across her cheek, and Laura shivered.
“Clint, this feels like you’re saying goodbye.” She caught his hand and held it against her face. “I’m going to see you again, right?”
“I won’t lie, Laura. SHIELD’s gonna be pissed. Worst case scenario, I don’t think they can lock me up for too long. I’ve got information they want, and I have to retrieve it personally.” He took a deep breath. “But no, I can’t promise you I’m coming back from this one.”
Laura thought about wild things, like the three of them running away to Paraguay together. Or Venezuela. Or wherever it was that you were supposed to go to start new lives. But she didn’t say any of it. She wanted to stay in Iowa, and she wanted Clint to come back to her.
He kissed her forehead. “I can promise you one thing. You’re going to be just fine.”
“How can you possibly know that?” she asked.
Clint smiled. “Easy. I know you, and I believe in her.”
“You can go to the bathroom when you need to,” he says. “But just so you know, I emptied out the weapons cache. The retinal scan took me a couple nights to hack, but I worked it out.”
The afternoon wears on that way - her working up the courage to try and escape, him reminding her of a knife he’d taken or an afternoon he’d spent in her bedroom closet when she didn’t even know he was there. The message is clear: he has the power, not her.
She tries as hard as she can to stay focused on that afternoon in the laundry room with Clint. You’re going to be just fine. I know you, and I believe in her. She and Natasha are going to get out of this. She just has to figure out how.
She and Natasha had spent two weeks together waiting for Clint to finish negotiating with SHIELD. They’d circled each other tensely until they figured out they both liked books. Laura made Natasha choose what they’d read, and the barest sliver of Natasha’s own, independent personality emerged. When Nat tried to steal the knives, Laura calmly reminded her that returning what you’d borrowed was a rule of the house, and they reappeared in the drawer in the next morning. Later, she’d taught Laura how to hide cash: a little bit in an obvious spot like the toilet tank, and the rest folded up in maxi pad wrappers, because men will never touch feminine hygiene products if they can help it. When Clint finally came back to take Natasha to SHIELD, Laura had slipped a key into her pocket.
“So you can come home if you need to,” she said, not expecting to see Natasha again.
But she did. Every few months at first, and then every few weeks. With every visit, Natasha was a little more of a person, a little less of a persona. She left behind a box of odd things in the closet: a DVD of a terrible 1980s movie called “War Games,” battered old paperback books, a Radiohead CD, plastic sushi from Japan and a Polaroid of her with Laura.
“What is all this stuff?” Laura had asked when she found it.
“Things that belong to Natasha,” Nat had said. “I know they’re safe with you.”
What Rumlow does not understand is that Natasha was Laura’s first child, and Laura will not give her up without a fight.
The light is fading from the sky and halftime is on when Laura says, “I’m going to need my blood pressure medication soon.”
Rumlow barely spares her a glance. “Cute, trying to get me away for a few minutes. What do you think you’re going to do, anyway? You’re no action hero.”
“Obviously,” Laura says. “Superheroes probably don’t need blood pressure medication to prevent eclampsia. But I do.”
Actually, Laura isn’t entirely certain what eclampsia is, except that it killed Cybil on Downton Abbey. But she’s betting Rumlow knows even less than she does.
“Just out of curiosity, what is your plan if my blood pressure skyrockets and I start having seizures? I mean, you seem to have thought this through...so do you call an ambulance? Or do you just let me die?” She pauses. “I’m new to this, so maybe there’s something I’m missing, but I think a dead hostage is worthless.”
Rumlow covers the distance between them in two long strides. Then he seizes her ponytail and yanks it back hard so that she’s forced to look up at him. She’d expected him to shout, or maybe hit her, but instead he leans in close and whispers in her ear.
“You’re right - I need you alive. But I don’t need you pretty. If you’re lying, now’s the time to admit it.”
Laura shakes her head as much as she can with his hand still gripping her ponytail. “It’s in the bathroom medicine cabinet upstairs. I swear.”
“You better be in the same place when I come down these stairs.” He tugs hard enough on her hair to bring tears to her eyes. “We clear?”
Laura nods. Her voice doesn’t seem to be working.
“I said, are we clear?”
She swallows hard, and this time she manages to respond. “Yes. I’ll be here when you come back.”
She waits until she hears Rumlow’s footsteps at the end of the hallway before she starts jiggling the loose spindles. At first, they won’t come out, and she has to stop and force herself to take long, slow breaths. The middle spindle slips out, and her right hand is free. That makes it easier to pull out the other spindle, so now she can untie her feet.
Now all she needs is a weapon. Think. The shotgun is locked away upstairs. There’s no way she can get out without Rumlow hearing her -- assuming, of course, that he hadn’t taken it away already. The butcher block is empty; the ice pick and her good kitchen shears had disappeared days ago. Surely there has to be something that Rumlow had overlooked.
Light glints across the kitchen floor, catching the shards of the coffee pot she’d smashed this morning. She kneels on the tile and sifts through the fragments, looking for the biggest one. Maybe, if she could get him in the eye… But that’s a big if. She needs something better. As she stands up, a bottle of cooking spray catches her eye. WARNING, it says, FLAMMABLE. The lighter is gone from the junk drawer, but Clint would have left another one somewhere. Probably with the cigarettes he swore he didn’t smoke. And those would be where? Someplace the kids couldn’t reach, someplace he thought she wouldn’t look…
On top of the refrigerator, maybe? She drags a chair over and stands on top of it. The dust up there almost makes her sneeze, but there’s a weird clean streak next to the ugly ceramic chicken Nick Fury had given her for her birthday. She lifts it up. Bingo. Cigarettes and a lighter. She shoves the lighter into her pocket and steps down.
At which point the chair tips over and she crashes onto the floor with a tremendous clatter. Rumlow’s footsteps halt upstairs, then she hears him coming down the hall. Her heart in her throat, she flattens herself against the wall next to the kitchen doorway. So much for the element of surprise.
She casts her eyes frantically around the kitchen. Is there anything else she can use, any backup plan, anything to give her an advantage?
Her eyes land on a bottle of vegetable oil. With shaking hands, she unscrews the cap and dumps the contents on the floor beside the doorway. And then she waits.
She can hear Rumlow’s footsteps on the stairs, then on the wooden living room floor. He’s almost at the kitchen. She flips the ignitor on the lighter and holds up her can of cooking spray.
But Rumlow stops just in front of the oil slick. “This is cute,” he says. “Have you been watching Home Alone?”
If he wants her, he’s going to have to come and get her.
He takes a step into the oil. She can see the toes of his boots on the threshold of the door.
“Look at me, still standing up,” he says. He puts another foot on the white tile floor.
Laura leans out and fires the cooking spray through the lighter’s flame. It ignites. Rumlow ducks. HIs feet slide on the oily floor, and then he’s crashing down.
She throws down her blow torch and runs to the back door, grabbing the tractor keys on her way out. Behind her, she hears Rumlow stand up and fall down again. She’s halfway across the yard by the time he makes it outside, but he’s not eight months pregnant, and he catches up fast. His fingers close around the back of her shirt, and she turns and claws at the burnt skin of his face. He lets go.
Three more steps, and she’s on the tractor. Rumlow’s eyes widen as she steps on the gas. Tractors, generally, are not fast-moving vehicles. But then, so few tractor owners are personal friends of Tony Stark.
A second later, he’s lying flat on the ground, his legs pinned beneath the wheels of her trusty John Deere. He looks unconscious, but she gives him a few whacks in the head with a shovel just in case. Then she goes to the shed for a roll of duct tape.
By the time Natasha arrives, breathless with guns blazing, Laura’s cleaned up the mess in the kitchen and curled up on the couch with a cup of tea. Cooper and Lucy are -- for once -- sharing a puzzle without fighting.
Natasha presses herself flat against the living room wall, where she can cover both the front door and the entrance to the kitchen.
“Laura? Is everything alright?” she asks, still panting for breath.
Laura nods. “We’re fine, thank you. There’s a visitor who’d like to see you though. He’s waiting underneath the tractor.”