If Laura had been smart, she’d have stopped watching the news the day she married Clint Barton.
Here in the heartland newscasts tend to be based on the premise that very few events unfolding outside the United States matter in the slightest. As a result, Laura is usually forced to try and piece together what is happening in her husband’s life from badly spelled crawlers at the bottom of the screen. Unless, of course, something is so big and sexy that the coverage is wall-to-wall.
Right now she’d prefer the crawlers.
The footage from Vienna, Berlin, and that airport in Leipzig is still being played on a loop. But now that there’s been time for a bit of analysis, the images have started to alternate with talking heads opining about whether Captain America is a criminal, a hero, or suffering from some kind of brain deterioration thanks to his time under the ice.
Wanted For Acts Of Terrorism, the words under Rogers’ picture are screaming. Traitor, they’d blared, the one time she’d made the mistake of zapping through Fox. Hannity is going with the theory that the Captain was a Hydra plant all along and that those helicarriers in the Potomac had been an elaborate ruse to make America trust him even more than they did before.
And, through all that, not a single word from or about Clint.
He’d taken off right after that phone call from Rogers. Apologetic, yes, but also grimly determined. A look at the bags, already packed for their camping trip, that shrug he always gives when he forces himself to punch through something unpleasant, and he’d shouldered his bow.
“I’ll tell them,” Laura had said, biting back her own disappointment. Anger, too. Not at the fact that he was leaving (again), because that she’d learned to live with. No, the anger came from being forced to be the bearer of bad news (again); that bit was getting old fast, especially now that the kids were older and asking questions.
She’d watched him leave, watched the door close behind him, watched the dusty wake behind the car going up the hill, and had hit the counter with her fist, watching the morning’s nutella jar bounce.
Dammit, Clint. You promised.
But now? She can’t find it in herself to be angry, not anymore. Not with Ross’ sanctimonious drivel about “protecting innocent lives.” Especially not since yesterday’s announcement that ‘Four members of the so-called Avengers were taken into custody in Leipzig’.
Never mind the reason why, which Laura knows is likely smoke and mirrors coming from the man who taunted the Hulk into laying waste to Harlem. What she wants to know is simple: Which Avengers?
The reporters want to know too, but: ‘The State Department cannot comment at this time, due to ongoing investigations for crimes committed under the Sokovia Accords’.
Fuck Ross. Fuck those Accords. (She’s beginning to sound like Clint, even in her head.)
Lila. She drags her bear into the kitchen, heedless of the state of the floor; the soft hair spilling out of her braids momentarily giving her a halo in the late-afternoon sun. She looks up at Laura with Clint’s gray-green eyes.
‘I’m hungry. Can I have a samwich?”
Laura slides off her stool and heads for the fridge, grateful for the fleeting distraction of having to locate the sliced ham in the too-full fridge. The feeling doesn’t last long. A door slams, followed by the thundering of feet on the stairs and Cooper’s breathless voice.
Laura moves the milk carton aside, trying not to disturb the bowl of still-liquid Jell-o that she’s hoping will do its thing in time for supper. She doesn’t look up.
“You hungry too?”
The answer is not what she expects.
“The radio is blinking.”
The radio. That ancient contraption Clint and Nat had set up after the Ultron debacle. Something from the 1950s, they’d said, better than the phone or the internet: unhackable and no one will know to tap it.
She looks over at the portable crib. Good, Nathaniel is still asleep, both arms stretched out above his head in that pose only babies find comfortable. With any luck he’ll be out for another hour or so.
Laura closes the fridge and wipes her hands on her jeans.
“Sorry, sweetheart,” she says to Lila. “Have a banana instead. Mommy will be right back.”
Upstairs in the computer room Cooper’s game is going through some kind of loop, people being killed only to get up again. It’s amazing he noticed the blinking light on the credenza, but then again he’s Clint’s son: 360-degree vision, on all the time, even while shooting virtual zombies on a screen.
Laura walks over to the box and taps in her call sign, Waverly One. Clint had drilled her in Morse code as soon as he’d brought the radio home; she’s been practicing with Cooper regularly (he loves it, because it gives him one over his friends.) The staccato of the code sounds urgent no matter what you do, and a bit menacing; the message she gets back does nothing to change that:
”Incoming. They know. Gotta go. N”
Laura taps back: “Clint”. She can’t remember the code sign for a question mark, but Natasha should be able to figure that bit out for herself.
No answer though; the radio goes silent. Of course it would. Natasha probably figures Laura’s better off not knowing; that way she can’t tell. Maybe Natasha’s right.
Laura sits back in the chair, and takes a deep breath.
Not hard to figure out that ‘they’ means General Ross and the rest of the government. But who told them? Well, it doesn’t really matter, does it? What’s done is done.
Movement beyond the window catches her eye. Already? Three cars, a plume of dust behind them, heading for the farm. Incoming indeed. Thanks for the heads up, Nat.
Laura gets up and heads to the bannister. Showtime.
“Cooper? Grab the baby and your sister. Shelter. Now.”
Her son peers up at her from the bottom of the stairs.
“Mom?” he asks. Not why, just, “What about you? What are you gonna do?”
Be an idiot? Make a stand? Slow the authorities down with snarky one-liners, in the finest Barton tradition?
“Find out what’s going on with Daddy,” she replies grimly and that’s not even a lie. “You go. NOW.”
Cooper’s head disappears from her field of vision. She can hear him talking to Lila while Laura herself heads for the closet where the guns are locked up. Nathaniel gives a protesting squeal as he’s being picked up out of the crib, but doesn’t cry. She can hear the back door slam shut behind the kids as they head out towards the old Cold War relic-turned-tornado-shelter-and-safe-room. It had been one of Clint’s earliest reno jobs, back before they’d had kids.
“It’s not paranoia when people are actively out to get you,” he’d said.
Thank goodness for regular drills and here’s hoping Cooper remembers to lock the door from the inside.
Laura looks at the selection of weapons, feeling a twinge at the sight of one of Clint’s compound bows. The Ruger should do; her approach to bullets has always been quantity over accuracy.
She checks the magazine, puts another one in her pocket, and cradles the gun in the crook of her elbow as she heads for the porch. A couple of taps on the control pad by the door and she’s ready.
It doesn’t take long before the first of the cars pulls up in front of the house; the other two take up position beside it, one of them on the lawn. All four doors open at once on Car Number One, but she has eyes only for the tall figure coming out of the left rear seat: General Ross. Secretary of State Ross now, but still with the military bearing and carry-the-big-stick attitude.
“Mrs. Barton?” he asks, his tone a blend of polite inquiry and command, as if saying ‘no’ is not an option. “I don’t think you’ll be needing that gun. We’re the good guys.”
“General Ross,” she replies with a smile just as genuine as his, not acknowledging his question. “Then I suppose all those men you brought won’t be needing theirs either.”
“These are difficult times,” he says. “My men need to be prepared.”
“So do I. Lots of predators around here.”
He blinks at that, but, to his credit, doesn’t rise to the bait.
“We were hoping to find your husband here. And some of his friends maybe.”
Laura processes the various layers of information contained in that statement: (1) confirmation that they know Clint lives here; (2) he’s not one of the unnamed Avengers “in custody”; (3) or if he was, he’s there no longer; (4) they don’t know where he is; and (5) they want him.
Time to stall.
“Husband? Friends? I have no idea who you’re talking about.”
Ross’ voice turns patronizing.
“Oh come, Mrs. Barton. As soon as we learned that Agent Barton had a family, it was only a question of combing through the old S.H.I.E.L.D. records. Very clever, the way Director Fury tried to hide your connection to each other. Not clever enough though when you know what you’re looking for, especially when it comes to personnel records. Yours from your time as Fury’s EA were never expunged, Mrs. Barton. Teleworking has its drawbacks.”
Shit. Okay, then.
“Well, you’re out of luck. I’m alone here.”
Ross’ face is a study in disbelief.
“Really. Stark said family. Don’t tell me there are no children.”
This time, Laura is ready.
“When you put out a bounty on the Avengers I sent the kids to stay with relatives, not that this should matter to you in the slightest. Certain politicians out there may be keen to go after the children of people they don’t like, but last time I looked this was still the US of A. Where you actually have to be guilty of something yourself before they can lock you up.” Judiciously she adds, “If you’re white, that is.”
Her smile widens. She’s going for ‘wolfish’, but bitch-face will do.
“Oh, and in case you are wondering, this exchange is being videotaped.” She nods at the camera hidden in the porch light. “And live-streamed on a channel at Stark Industries, reserved for emergencies just like this. In case you’ve been listening to that presidential campaign too much and get any ideas. YouTube is my friend.”
Ross stares at the porch light, searching for a camera. His jaw tightens. He jerks his head at his posse, who take a collective step back, hoping to stay out of the picture.
“I don’t suppose you mind if we check for ourselves if someone is here, Mrs. Barton?”
Laura draws herself up to her full five-foot-four.
“I do mind. And here’s why, General. One, you have no warrant. Two, you’re the – what was it? Oh yes, Secretary of State. You don’t actually have any law enforcement powers, foreign or domestic. None. Zip, zero, zilch. No judge would give you a warrant, even if you thought to ask. Because, surprise, you’re not entitled to get one.”
Ross seems to be speechless for the moment. Maybe Laura has been around Clint too much, because she can’t stop herself from editorializing a little.
“And those stupid Accords of yours? Are a fucking joke on humanity, with no legal effect in the United States until the Senate approves ratification and the necessary legislation is in place. My time in Nick Fury’s office and his efforts to get the US to join certain treaties taught me that much. Now, please leave.”
An as yet unseen minion leans out of the third car, the one that’s parked on her lawn.
“Infrared scan shows no one else in the house, sir. She’s telling the truth.”
The man in the car fixes Laura with a stare. Has he seen the three small heat signatures out the back? Or is the shelter with its metal lining impenetrable to the scan? She swallows, hard.
Human decency or good fortune? Both seem to be in equally short supply these days.
“Barton isn’t here,” the man says. Not ‘no one else is here’.
She could make the point about the warrant again – surely a scan qualifies as a search? – but decides to count her blessings instead.
“Leave,” she says. “Before I call the sheriff and have you all arrested for trespass. I assume there is still enough decency left in politics that going after innocent civilians will hurt your political career.”
Ross glares in the direction of the camera again, musters a polite smile, and inclines his head.
“Please let us know if you hear from your husband, Captain Rogers, or any of the others, Mrs. Barton. And rest assured, we will find them.”
She watches Ross and his men get into their cars, back them up, and head down the road into the hills.
Why on Earth would a Secretary of State have thought it useful to come here in person? That is a question only Ross will be able to answer, but it’s fair to say that regular law enforcement processes would probably crimp his style.
Laura looks at the tire tracks gouging her lawn, then at the gun in her arm. Control-freakishness, bullying tactics, and an excessive Id seem to be a key part of politics these days – as is the wreckage they leave behind.
Dining in the shelter is something Laura could have done without, but turning an hour of panic into a family adventure picnic seems worth suffering through beef jerky and rehydrated potato mash. Cooper in particular deserves a reward, especially as he is the only one of her brood who knows that what happened was not a drill.
Nathaniel is busy chewing on his piece of dried beef – good for teething, who knew? – while Lila is rifling through the games Clint has stocked for the kids on one of the shelves.
“Coop? You know how to play Yahtzee?”
Laura sighs. This could take a while. At least there is Wifi and she has her smartphone. Sure enough, there’s a breaking news story: “Breakout at Super-Max Prison!”
There’s not much detail, but it doesn’t take a Stark-level genius to figure out that one and one equals two. Suddenly Secretary Ross turning up in Iowa makes a lot more sense.
Movement on the monitor by the door catches her eye. There’s a shimmer in the picture, almost as if the image is pixilating or the low-setting sun is glinting off the lens. The distortion increases until it looks like one of those summertime reflections over hot asphalt.
Laura has seen that sight before: cloaked Quinjet – and it’s coming down in her pasture. Ross, come back for more, with greater firepower?
The older children sense her stiffening and follow the direction of her eyes with their own.
“What’s that, Mommy?” Lila asks, more curious than afraid. “It looks like…”
The cloaking unravels. Someone opens the hatch and, without wasting a second, lets the steps unfold. The first figure out of the plane is the unmistakable shape of Steve Rogers; he turns and faces backwards, to help someone step through. A third person appears at the door and…
“Daddy!” Lila shrieks joyfully. “Mommy, Coopie, Baby Nate! Daddy’s home!”
Laura scoops up a protesting Nathaniel and turns to punch in the ‘open’ sequence; the air seal breaks with a sigh and the door swings open.
Within seconds they’re all outside, the two older children running towards the meadow where the Quinjet sits like a slightly malevolent bird. Laura notices shadows moving behind the cockpit window – pilots, switching seats? – but her gaze is drawn back to Clint and the young woman being held up by his arms.
They climb down the steps slowly, gingerly, the girl as if in a trance and Clint as if he’s afraid she might break. Rogers is going down backwards, ready to catch her should she slip from Clint’s grip.
Natasha appears at the top of the stairs now, the red of her hair ablaze in the setting sun. She turns to look back into the jet, says a few words to the people remaining inside, and heads down the stairs.
Laura clutches Nathaniel to her chest and starts running.
Clint looks like hell, bruises and swelling distorting his face (Lord knows what his body looks like – he’s not breathing very deeply). Deep shadows are etched under his eyes, like the day he came back from New York. But the girl slumped against him looks worse.
Wanda. This must be Wanda, whose brother gave his life for Clint and his name to their son.
“Let me help,” Laura says to Clint.
She switches the baby to one arm and supports part of Wanda’s weight with the other. She can’t weigh more than a sparrow, with arms as thin as matchsticks. What have they done to her?
Rogers, once confident that Wanda is in good hands, steps back, ready to return to the jet.
Laura glares at him over Wanda’s head.
“They say you’re a terrorist. And a traitor. What does that make her and Clint?”
It’s not an accusation, exactly, but what do you say to the man who took your husband away with a simple phone call and next thing you know a gang of jack-booted thugs shows up on your land?
Rogers holds her gaze.
“We did what was right. You know Clint well enough to know he wouldn’t do anything else.”
She doesn’t argue; there’s no point. More importantly, he’s likely not wrong. What’s far more urgent is to make sure the Quinjet won’t become a shit magnet.
“Secretary Ross was here. Looking for Clint, you, and everyone else. He left two hours ago; I have no idea where he went but I assume they’re watching the farm.”
Rogers nods curtly.
“Thanks. We were cloaked coming in, so they shouldn’t have been able to track us. But we better leave before they look too closely.”
Natasha gently disengages Laura’s arm from Wanda, who doesn’t seem to be aware that she is being passed from one supportive person to another. Assisted by Clint they head for the house, surrounded by two eagerly yapping children; apparently, all three of them will be staying. Laura shifts Nathaniel back to the other arm – he’s getting heavy – and kisses his fuzzy head absently.
“You’re better off not knowing,” Rogers says and the look in his blue eyes is sincere, almost pleading for her not to ask any more questions. “In case Ross does come back.”
Fair enough. She can guess of course, based on the news, but no point saying a certain name out loud. Plausible deniability is a wonderful thing.
“Do you need anything before you go? Food?”
The question rings strange in her own ears. The world is coming apart at the seams and Laura Barton offers a sandwich?
The Captain’s response takes her by surprise.
“Would you mind? We haven’t had anything to eat since… since… I can’t actually remember.”
The shelter is the closest. Not quite home fare, but it will minimize the time the Quinjet spends on the ground. She motions towards the open door, with the arm that’s not holding the baby.
“Lots of supplies in there,” she says. “Help yourself to whatever you need – power bars, nuts, crackers, dried beef. There are some five-gallon canisters of water too. We’ll restock tomorrow. Please close the door when you leave.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
He starts jogging away, but then stops to look back at her even as she heads for the house.
“And, Laura… I’m sorry.”
For what he doesn’t say, but based on his voice it seems to be a long list.
“Stark,” Clint says bitterly as Laura hands him a clean t-shirt and sweatpants. “He’s the one who spilled the beans about you guys. Brought up the fact I have a family in front of a hundred surveillance bugs. He probably didn’t mean to cause any harm, but then he never does when he really fucks up.”
Surprisingly, the scratches on his face don’t need medical attention; they’ve been cleaned and properly debrided. Seems like General Ross’ underwater Gitmo at least provided half-decent medical care.
But those coveralls?
‘That outfit is a crime against humanity,” she says, in an effort to keep things light.
“Blue is the new orange,” he reciprocates valiantly. “Behold: the latest in felon chic.”
But there’s a tone in his voice that reminds Laura forcefully of the post-Loki period, brittle and angry. She moves closer to him, leaning her body into his and running her fingers through his spiky-soft hair.
“I assume you know you did the right thing. Steve thinks so.”
Clint looks up at her.
“Did I? You saw Wanda. What they did to her was…”
He falters a little. Torture. She can read it in his eyes and shudders.
“And she only got involved because I went to get her. She’d have been perfectly safe and fine, if I hadn’t told Steve I could persuade her to join us.” He turns his head so she can’t see his face. “She trusted me. Even though it’s my fault that Pietro died. She trusted me, Laura.”
Laura takes a deep breath.
“Did you force her to come with you?”
Clint stills, then shakes his head minutely. Laura senses an advantage.
“Did you force Pietro to give you cover? Based on what Nick tells me, you were the one risking your life for that little boy. Pietro probably thought he couldn’t get hit.”
At this, Clint looks up.
“You’re wrong. He knew he could. He’d been hit at least once already. There was blood on his sleeve.”
She tries a different tack.
“So what you’re doing, then, is taking away his sacrifice, by turning it into your guilt. Like you’re taking away Wanda’s own decision, by making it your fault. Either way, not fair to them, Clint. Not everything is about you, you know, so for all our sakes stop wallowing in self-pity right now.”
There's a small glint in his eyes now.
“Are you telling me to get off my ass, Mrs. Barton?”
“Pretty much, yes.”
She softens her words with a kiss on his head and a squeeze of his shoulders that makes him wince involuntarily. He’ll probably be as glad of a change of topic as she and so she asks: “Who did that? Iron Man?”
He chuckles ruefully.
“Nope. My best friend.”
“Natasha? You’re kidding.”
“Wish I was.” The shadow crossing his eyes hits her deep in the gut. “They did a real number on us, babe.”
“They? Us? Sorry, I’m losing track here.”
“They is Ross. And that Zemo guy you probably heard about on the news. Steve and Tony, too.” He swallows. “Us is the rest of the Avengers. Split us right down the middle like a log of wood – including me and Nat. Never even bothered to stop and watch the chips fall.”
Laura feels compelled to point out the obvious.
“But she’s here now. And you’re still talking to each other.”
Clint shrugs and sighs.
“Yeah. Guess so. She helped rescue us. Me, Wanda, Sam, and that Scott guy. Almost made up for that bruise, she did.”
He takes Laura’s hand and cups it with his own, stroking the back of her hand with his thumb.
“I suppose being here will help.”
“Provided Ross doesn’t come back.”
Then what? Laura surprises herself by not being that worried about that anymore. Not with three Avengers in the house – even bloodied and bruised, they’ll be more than a match for whatever Ross could throw at them. In theory anyway.
And given the threat of his face going viral on YouTube threatening a housewife, he may well prefer to wait for a change of location before he comes at them again.
“I think I’ll take a shower before putting on those clothes,” he says after a minute. “Wasn’t too fussed by the idea of taking one on the Raft; kept thinking the tap might open to the outside and…”
He doesn’t finish the sentence – doesn’t really have to. Laura gets up, pulling her hand out from under his in the process.
“You do that. It’ll make you feel better.”
In Laura’s experience there’s very little that hot water, familiar towels, and the smell of your own shampoo can’t improve on.
“I’ll put together something to eat.”
In the kitchen Natasha is leaning against the stove, soaking up the residual warmth from the kettle and sipping a cup of tea she’s made for herself. She knows where everything is.
Of course she’s using the slightly chipped Area 51 mug, the one Clint brought home from the New Mexico assignment and which she always uses when she’s here. For a spy, the Black Widow can be remarkably predictable.
“Hey,” Laura says. “You okay? Everyone else seems a bit worn out. And nobody seems interested in how we defeated General Ross.”
“I’m fine,” Natasha replies, predictably. “And how did you? That man can be persistent.”
Laura smiles. She moves past Natasha to the cupboard and gets out the cocoa.
“Well, thanks to your call, we had a bit of warning. After that it was a question of common sense. He really does want to be a politician, it seems, and the one thing they hate is if you shine a light into their dark places with cameras rolling.”
Natasha blows on her tea and takes a sip.
“And were there? Cameras rolling?”
“I’ll never tell. He certainly was convinced.”
Natasha raises her mug in salute.
“Maybe we should have put you in charge of the team after Lagos. You would have stared that sucker down and Tony Stark with him.”
She sounds bitter, just like Clint had. For a moment, Laura wonders if she’ll ever get the whole story about these last few days. She puts several tablespoons of cocoa and a couple more of sugar into a large glass beaker, stirs them together, adds a little milk, and whisks the mixture until it becomes a paste. More milk, more stirring, and into the microwave it goes. Should make several cups.
“Clint says you and he were fighting each other.”
“He did, did he?”
Yep, definitely bitter. Laura ploughs on.
“Before you ended up rescuing him, that is. Which he seems to think is more important. As, for the record, do I. That whole taking sides thing is highly overrated.”
“Isn’t it, though.” Natasha lets out a snort. “Personally, I’ve never met a side I couldn’t screw over.”
“Clint says you all got screwed. So maybe there weren’t any sides to begin with, just levels of pigheadedness? What matters is you’re still friends and, as far as I can see, the only problem is that some of you forgot that for a while.”
Something in what Laura says seems to resonate with Natasha and the cloud in her eyes clears a little. Laura gets the beaker out of the microwave and adds more milk to cool things down a bit.
“Seems like you didn’t, though,” Laura ventures. “I’d hold on to that.”
She lets Natasha digest that and turns towards the family room.
“Cooper, Lila! Hot chocolate?”
The answer is a trampling of feet, followed by a plea for marshmallows. Laura normally isn’t in favour of sugar before bedtime, but she’s already broken that rule with the hot chocolate. Besides, they’ve earned it.
“Just promise to brush your teeth!”
She doubts they can hear her over the clatter of the candy cupboard door, but it’s worth a try.
Wanda is sitting in a corner of the big couch in the family room, surrounded by cushions like a feathery fortress. Her legs are drawn up tightly against her body and encircled by those matchstick-thin arms that look like she hasn’t eaten in weeks. She is staring straight into the distance, oblivious to Laura’s scrutiny.
The moment is interrupted by Nathaniel, who starts to fuss – probably for a mix of attention and food. Laura picks him up and gives his bum a quick sniff; good, the nappy is still okay. Cradling him in one arm like a football, she heads over to the kitchen and pours another hot chocolate with her free hand. She carries both baby and mug over to the couch.
“Here,” she says. Given that Nathaniel has started wiggling Wanda really has no choice but to take the cup. Laura sits down in the far corner of the couch, pulls up her feet in something not quite like a yoga pose, opens her shirt, and offers her breast to the baby’s eager mouth.
Wanda’s eyes widen a little, but she says nothing. Instead, she takes an automatic and somewhat defensive sip of the hot chocolate in her hand. She seems surprised at the fact that she likes it; she stares down at the drink for a moment before taking another swallow.
“Hope you’re not allergic to milk,” Laura says, in a tone similar to the one she uses when Cooper is upset about something and tries to pretend he’s not. She remembers when she first heard about the twins. Punks, Clint had called them. A couple of kids.
Kids, Laura knows how to deal with.
Wanda shakes her head ’no’ in a movement that borders on the microscopic and holds the mug close to her face. She inhales the chocolate scent and shakes her head again, this time more decisively.
“Why is it that people always think they can ‘lift your spirits’ with food?” she asks.
“Because it usually works?’ Laura offers with a smile, looking down at Nathaniel’s fuzzy head. “Until a minute ago, you were silent. Now you’re talking to me. I’d call that a win.”
For a moment they sit in silence, but it’s a much better silence, Laura considers, punctuated by contented swallowing sounds from Nathaniel. Of course, the peace doesn’t last. There’s a squeal from the kitchen: Lila, approving of something Natasha has drawn for her.
“Clint told me you named your baby for… my brother,” Wanda says haltingly. “I’ve only seen pictures. Is that…”
Laura wants to kick herself for not thinking about it sooner.
“Yes. Yes, of course. Wanda, meet Nathaniel Pietro,” she says, softly. He has come unlatched, his blue-grey eyes slightly glazed with contentment. She picks him up to burp, hoping that this will not be one of those times when everything comes back up. “Would you like to hold him?”
Wanda drains her chocolate, clinging to the cup with something approaching panic.
“Don’t worry, you won’t drop him. And if you do think you will, just make sure you do it over the couch.”
She must be imagining things, but it’s almost as if the young woman’s fingers are glowing orange when she reaches for the baby. For a second Laura wants to snatch him back, but a maternal instinct check comes up neutral and she lets go of her fear.
Nathaniel burbles a little and reaches for Wanda’s long hair with his fat little fingers. He’s just started to grip things and, before Laura can utter a warning, he’s grabbed a handful of hair.
To Laura’s relief, Wanda just shakes her head, half-heartedly trying to free herself.
“You’re fast,” she says to Nathaniel, sounding very earnest in her soft Eastern accent. “Pietro would like that.”
“Bet you didn’t see that coming.”
Clint’s voice cracks a little. He’s appeared in the family room without a sound, hair still damp and smelling quite a bit better than when Laura last saw him.
“He is warm,” Wanda says. “And so soft.” She looks from Laura to Clint. “I have never been given a baby before, just to hold him. It feels… very nice. Thank you.”
Suddenly, she stiffens.
“Take him back,” she orders sharply. Clint swoops him out of her arms without a second’s hesitation.
“Nat?” he calls out to the kitchen. “Incoming!”
He passes Nathaniel to Laura, turning from husband and Dad into a thing of coiled steel before the motion is finished. His eyes scan the room for a weapon. A chair scrapes and Natasha appears in the family room, tossing him one of her Glocks that Laura could have sworn she didn’t have on her. Clint snatches the weapon out of the air without looking and the two of them head for opposite doors, executing a battle plan that requires no communication.
Laura knows she should be worried by the sight of her husband and his partner handling loaded firearms so casually this close to the kids, but the truth is she finds it more reassuring than threatening. Too many years in S.H.I.E.L.D., she suspects, will warp anyone’s worldview.
“Kids,” she hisses, “upstairs. Bed!”
There’s no time to head out to the shelter now and hopefully even Ross’ true believers will hesitate to kill children in their beds.
“Not again!” Lila moans. Laura can practically hear her rolling her eyes. “I was just…”
Wanda is sitting very still now with her eyes closed, focused inward. Her fingers are doing a graceful dance, releasing tendrils of red light. They seem to gain in intensity as they head for the window, slide through the glass, and pierce the night with an eldritch glow.
Clint and Natasha are peering out the windows in the front and backdoor respectively, while still managing to keep an eye on Wanda. Another few seconds and her eyes snap open. The wisps of red retract, retreating back into her fingertips. The thought of all that energy being absorbed by the frail body on the Barton living room couch is staggering.
“It’s fine now,” Wanda says, her voice more confident than it has been since she arrived at the farm. “They won’t be coming back.”
“Ross?” Natasha asks, not really expecting a different answer.
“I could feel his energy,” she says simply. “He projects. He did on the Raft.”
It’s pretty clear that Ross’ men had been keeping an eye on the farm; it was naïve to ever hope otherwise. Even a cloaked Quinjet is several dozen tons of metal against a setting sun, landing in a cornfield where the biggest thing going is a ratty old scarecrow – so of course they’d seen it land and had just been biding their time for the return.
Clint looks out the window again, gun still in hand. There are several sets of headlights heading up the hill, towards Waverly. Away from the farm.
“What’d you do?” he asks Wanda over his shoulder. “Tell the Empire that these aren’t the droids they’re looking for?”
Wanda looks at him, a little nonplussed.
“I don’t understand what you are saying, Clint.” She looks confused. “I convinced him that no criminal would ever want to come here.”
Clint follows her statement to its logical conclusion.
“What if we stop being criminals in his mind? Will the spell break and he’ll come back?”
“He won’t want to, then,” Laura says. “But if that happens, I’ll let him in and give him a cup of tea.”
Morning breaks early in May, but it’s Saturday – no school for the kids and after the tension of the previous days Laura is perfectly content to bask in the warmth of the solid body beside her for an extra few minutes.
Of course the bliss doesn’t last long. Nathaniel starts talking to himself, in that happy morning babble that will turn into a long, drawn-out wail before long if he doesn’t get fed soon.
Laura reluctantly crawls out from under the duvet and looks back for a second as Clint mumbles something and rolls into her warm spot. The way he looked when he’d arrived, he could probably use about twenty-four hours of sleep. She scoops Nathaniel out of his crib, quickly and quietly changes his nappy, and heads downstairs for feeding. Her husband, capable of coming to full alert if someone drops a dime at the wrong time a block away, doesn’t move.
Wanda is still on the big couch, stretched out like a kitten and covered by one of those hideous crocheted blankets that Laura’s aunt regularly bestows on unfortunate relatives. She’s awake, looking much better than last night; the deep shadows under her eyes have faded.
“Mind if I nurse Nathaniel Pietro here? Again? The couch is his favourite spot.”
Wanda smiles at the name, shakes her head, and sits up to make space.
“I guess he’s hungry all the time?”
“Professional devourer,” Laura replies. “You have no idea.”
She waits until the baby has latched on before continuing.
“Clint told me you could do amazing things with your mind. Still, I had no real idea what that meant until I saw it last night. Thank you for protecting my family.”
“You are my friends. And the children…” A shadow crosses her eyes. “No one will ever harm children while I can help it.”
“That’s what Clint and Nat always say.” Laura sighs. “It must be nice to be so talented, or to have these incredible powers. Me, all I do is feed them, clothe them, and make sure they take the occasional bath.”
“You don’t seem scared though,” Wanda replies. “Most people would be scared of what has happened. And...”
She hesitates for a moment.
“...and of me.”
Laura chuckles and shrugs off the compliment.
“I trust anyone Clint brings home, even people with powers that boggle my mind. Besides, once you’ve had the Hulk sleep in your spare room…”
Wanda frowns a little.
“You see yourself only in the reflection of others. But you do have powers of your own, you know.”
Laura rolls her eyes.
“Don’t be silly. I’m a former S.H.I.E.L.D. employee, not even an agent. Now I’m a part-time farmer and full-time Mom. No powers here, sorry.”
Wanda shakes her head vigorously.
“No, no. This place. Your home. It is very powerful.”
Laura’s gaze takes in the great room. There are toys littering the floor, several sections of the local paper spread on the table, and last night’s dishes still piled high in the sink. (Maybe they really should invest in a dishwasher; the old one seems to be forever on the fritz.) At least the darts are stuck in the board in a straight line, a form Laura suspects did not get there by accident. Clint must have put in a bit of practice before bedtime.
“The only thing with any power in this house is the vacuum cleaner, and it hasn’t been used in days.”
“Oh, you’re wrong,” Wanda avers and for the first time Laura sees a smile dawning in those luminous eyes. “Just listen, Laura. Do you hear it?”
Laura wrinkles her brow and shakes her head. The house is almost completely silent, except for the occasional crack from the old floors and Nathaniel’s burbling.
“You hear nothing, because Clint and Natasha are asleep. I slept more and better last night than I have since Lagos and that includes the nights I spent with Vision guarding me.”
“It’s a great couch. Clint falls asleep on it all the time.”
Wanda looks at her with something akin to pity in her eyes; her voice starts to carry a challenge.
“No. It’s not the couch, Laura. There is peace here. And that comes from you. It’s in the food you give, the words you say or leave out, and the space you make for healing.”
She obviously thinks more convincing is needed and so she continues.
“After I… after we fought. Before Pietro and I joined the Avengers. They were all hurt. Tony, Steve, Natasha. Even Bruce and Thor. I hurt them. And this is where Clint brought them, Natasha told me. A place where he knew everyone could heal – and they did.” Wanda gives a little impish smile that does miracles to her face. “Natasha says Stark even fixed your tractor, without turning it into a doomsday machine.“
“But none of that has anything to do with power, does it? They just needed a break then and a place to lie low.”
Like you do now, Laura doesn’t say.
Wanda shakes her head, slowly.
“There is a very old power in the hearth, Laura. Not everyone will see it for what it is, not even you. Because it’s a power that doesn’t belong to men and so people choose not to believe it exists, or that it has value. My people know differently.”
Laura considers this. So, basically, in the sixteenth century she could have been burned as a witch? The thought is, briefly, amusing. Nate, sated and content, has fallen asleep again; he doesn’t stir when she deposits him in his port-a-crib.
Power is an interesting thing, for those who have it and are prepared to wield it; Laura is pretty certain she does not. All she’s ever wanted to do is create a safe space for her family and friends. And that is enough.
There are sounds of waking in the house now – Lila and Cooper squabbling over who gets first crack at the shower and Natasha’s voice telling them they’re too late, she got there first, nyah nyah. Clint grumbles something inaudible from the master bedroom, probably pleading for another few minutes of silence.
Saturday sounds. All is well.
Laura looks at the debris in the kitchen, where shortly the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and sizzling bacon will give the day its proper start. Power? No, but it would be nice.
“Tell me something, Wanda,” she says. “If you can do all these amazing things with your mind – have you ever tried cleaning dishes?”