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catching bullets in our teeth

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It’s an unremarkable Monday afternoon when the landline in the kitchen starts ringing. Unremarkable in the sense that this is just what Clint’s life looks like now, with Cooper and Lila screaming at each other over whose turn it is to pick what they watch, because God forbid one of them just go upstairs and use the second TV in their parents’ bedroom. That’d make Clint’s life too easy. Of course both of them are unnaturally attached to a very particular couch cushion and sitting on it elevates the Paw Patrol viewing experience from just regular to transcendent. Of course.

He’s trying to change Nate’s diaper, except there’s no fresh ones downstairs to put him in, which means he has to break into the new pack of swim-diapers Laura picked up on a giant Target shop yesterday – they were running low, and they’re meant to be saved for the family’s trip up to the lake on Sunday. The new supply needs to last the whole week. Clint really should have put the stuff away for her, gotten one thing off her plate. She’s been running endless errands to get ready for their vacation, packing for the kids and writing to-do lists and making swim-diaper supply runs. Laura always seems to know what they’re low on before Clint even knows they were supposed to have the thing in the first place.

But the bags are still sitting next to the counter where she’d dropped them and pivoted straight into making dinner last night, one fluid move that she made look effortless.

A silent, organized pile of tote bags should not be capable of eliciting this much guilt in a single human.

He’s ripping the plastic packing on the diapers open with one hand, the other splayed out on his wiggly kid’s stomach to pin him in place on the counter. Lila’s voice is reaching a decibel level only previously achieved by fighter jets breaking the sound barrier, the cat’s scratching at the door to be let out and when the phone starts ringing, it feels, for a brief flashing instant, like all of this is more than he can take. More than anybody could reasonably be expected to take.

He grabs the receiver and barks a sharp “What,” into it, one hand still on Nate’s belly and one eye on the situation by the TV, where Cooper’s face is rapidly reddening in a way that means Clint needs to intervene pronto, except he still hasn’t let the cat out and he can’t get Nate to stop wiggling long enough to tug even one of his legs into the clean diaper –

“Clint.”

The air leaves his lungs. His stomach hunches up on itself like someone sunk a fist right through him.

“Hey,” he says – surprised, made stupid with it. “Hey, Nat.”

The last time he heard Natasha’s voice, it was an entire month ago and it had been a brief, perfunctory voicemail on his cell. He’d listened once, pressed ‘delete’ in a fit of pique, then immediately regretted it and spent the next hour trying to figure out how to retrieve it from wherever his phone sent deleted messages. He hadn’t been successful.

“Do you have a minute?”

“PAW PATROL, PAW PATROL, WE’LL BE THERE ON THE DOUBLE,” the television screams, and Clint tries to muffle the receiver against his shirt, which is smeared with tomato pulp and blueberry GoGurt.

“Yeah, hold on - Lila - Lila!” She turns to look at him, surprised, and he swallows, takes a breath – that verged too close to yelling, and he doesn’t do that. He’s never gonna do that. His kids can fray his patience and tap-dance on his last nerve but he’s left forty behind and still remembers his own father, sharp, strident, terrifying. He’s never going to yell at his kids. “Go upstairs. You can watch in Mom and Dad’s room, okay?”

“But it’s not fair, the couch - ”

“Upstairs or you’re losing screen privileges for the rest of the week.” It’s the big threat Laura always makes, so he figures it’ll get results. “I mean it, kid.”

Lila makes a horrible yowling noise, like no one in the history of the planet has ever been so put out, and stomps up the stairs. As soon as she’s out of sight, Cooper turns the TV off.

“Are you kidding me?” Clint demands. “You’re not gonna watch your thing now, really?”

“Nah. I think I’ll do Legos,” Cooper says.

“Kee blag kee blaffle,” Nate contributes.

Clint lifts the phone back to his ear. “Hey, sorry,” he says. “Crazy day over here.”

“Do you have a minute?” Natasha repeats, this time uncertainly.

“A minute, yeah,” he says, and tucks the receiver between his ear and his shoulder so he can challenge the swim diaper to a rematch. “What’s up?”

“Work’s taking a bad turn. Lagos isn’t going to blow over – we all expected it would, but it’s not happening, and we got approached today about the team’s lack of oversight and accountability. The UN’s put together a pretty aggressive plan, and it’s not entirely unwarranted – it’s not even without merit, really, but the way it was presented… I’m worried this has potential to go south, quickly,” Nat tells him. There’s some note in her voice – deep concern and that uncertainty that’s not quite gone, both of which he’d be weighing more heavily if there weren’t five thousand other things in front of him.

And if he weren’t still smarting about how many days it’s been since the last time she called him.

That’s the petty truth of it in the moment. He’s smarting, which is already a barrier in the way, and he’s trying to let the cat out the door, and settle Nate into his excer-saucer, and acrid black smoke’s started to pour out of the stove because he completely forgot that Laura had asked him to set a timer and take out the banana bread she’d popped in before she ducked out on more lake-trip errands, this time in search of new bathing suits for the kids. Natasha’s explaining the Sokovia Accords, the political ramifications, every team member’s individual reaction and the arguments that spiraled out when they discussed it as a group - and he’s maybe not following as closely as the subject needs to be followed.

“I don’t see a way around signing, not when things are this hot. I’m just – I’m not sure. And I need to be sure. What do you think?” she asks.

Clint’s waving oven mitts in front of the stove to make the smoke disperse so it won’t set off the smoke alarm. “I think I’m retired, so do I really need to have an opinion on this?” he says.

There’s silence on the other end of the line.

Bad silence. Very bad silence, and the realization of how badly he just fucked up is a sudden shock to Clint’s whole system – ice water in the face, a prod with a taser.

She needed him.

That’s why she’s calling at all, because it’s something big, it’s something that’s got her rattled, and it outweighed this strange, horrible distance that’s crept in between them. She’s worried – deeply worried, and she called because she wanted him to help her puzzle through her feelings. Not Steve. Not anyone else in the building.

There’s been a thick glass wall between them for almost a year, and she’s the one who chose to erect it, but she’s also the one who just smashed open a place for them to speak through.

And when it came down to something that mattered, Clint’s the one she’s come to for help. Clint’s the one she’s trusted with her underbelly, the only one with whom she doesn’t have to project total certainty. Clint is the only person whose opinion she wanted to weigh into her decision.

This is how Natasha says I need my best friend back and now he’s gone and told her cool, sure, I don’t care what you need.

“Nat, wait, give me a second to think,” he says, trying to backpedal, but he already knows there’s not an apology big enough. Not one he can make in this moment, anyway, not over the phone with thousands of miles standing between them. Whatever he says next, he’s already too late.

“No - you’re right,” she says, her voice at least five degrees cooler. Agent Romanoff, collected and professional, pulled down over Tasha like no other version of her made this call in the first place. “You’re right, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be bothering you with things like this.”

“I didn’t mean - ”

“They need me back in the conference room anyway, Sam’s making horrible faces at me. I’m sorry – I am, Clint, really. Give my love to the family,” she says.

“Natasha, hey, please don’t - ”

“Is that Auntie Nat?” Lila says, reappearing at the top of the stairs. “I wanna talk to Aunt Nat!”

“She hung up,” Clint tells her, and is entirely unprepared for this statement to make Lila explode into ferociously loud sobs. Which sets Nate off howling along with her. Which makes Cooper start yelling that they’re messing up his concentration.

Which is, of course, the moment Laura chooses to walk through the front door.

Two kids crying, one screaming, smoke flooding the kitchen, banana bread ruined, contents of her tote bags now spilled and scattered all the way across the kitchen floor. And Clint standing frozen in the middle of it, uselessly holding the phone and making no attempt to fix even one of these things. Too spoiled for choice to pick a single problem to focus on.

She walks into some version of this every time she leaves Clint on his own with the kids for more than two hours. Every time, and it’s been almost a year of him – being here. Really here, a familiar presence in his kids’ lives instead of Fun Dad, the guy who made it home for a long weekend once a month and called as often as he could in between.

Which means they both know he should not still need to be graded on the curve.

He’s sort of glad that she looks angry instead of exhaustedly resigned to this – exhausted resignation was a look he saw on his mother’s face too often – but even for that, it’s not exactly pleasant, seeing how palpably angry she is.

“Did you put her down for a nap, Clint?” Laura says, exasperation thick in her voice as she crosses over to the stairs to pick Lila up.

Hand to God, Clint had no idea she hadn’t outgrown the need for those.

*

Later that night, Laura tells him “You’ve got to do better than this.”

Much later, after the kids are deeply asleep. They’re standing in the kitchen together, she’s putting away dinner leftovers while he does the dishes. They have all the windows open to catch the smell of early summer and he can hear crickets singing in the yard.

It’s like Laura’s pulling the words up from some water-well deep inside her, hand over hand to lift a heavy bucket. Straining for every inch with ropeburn scraping into her palms, but her voice is soft and there is absolutely nothing unkind in it.

“I’m serious, Clint. I need you to do better.”

“I know,” is all he says. Because he does know, and because she’s not being unfair.

Neither of them knew that his retirement was going to make the cracks here bigger instead of better.

How could they have possibly known? It’s not like they sat down and made a plan for things to get worse: Once Clint’s around on a daily basis it’ll make everything go to shit, that sounds like the outcome we’re both hoping for! She’s put up with so much, for so fucking long, and contrary to popular belief, Clint’s not an idiot: Laura loves him, and Laura is incredibly supportive, but Clint has never held the kind of job that someone could be supportive about indefinitely. He knows that. They both went into this marriage on the expectation that his tenure at SHIELD – and then his sudden pivot from SHIELD onto the Avengers – would come to an endpoint.

Someday. Sometime.

She put up with it well past every reasonable point that the “someday, sometime” option should have been triggered. She put up with it on the expectation that once he retired, they could be together properly, functionally.

Laura was ready for him to hang it up well before they got surprised by Nate’s conception, but Laura is also a really great person. Like, a really great person, and she was never going to let herself ask Clint to stop. Not even when she would have been well within her rights to tell him I understand that your work is important, but it was one thing when it was just you and me, or even when it was just you, me, and Cooper. Now we have THREE children and I’ve been the one doing all the heavy lifting in the parenting department. All of it. Every day. By myself. You are hardly ever home with us. I am essentially raising these kids alone, and now that SHIELD is so much smoking rubble, you cannot ask me for infinite patience. You cannot ask me to be eternally alone inside our marriage.

He’s only just coming around to realizing that the reason she had never said any of that stuff was because she already knew the truth. She’d figured out by then that he didn’t want to stop. That he might never want to, not really.

What he wanted was for his life to look exactly the way that it had looked. He loved the farm the way things are loved when they aren’t the day in, day out stuff of reality. He had loved this place as a happy interlude from his real responsibilities.

After Sokovia, he just – he finally felt like he should. He should want to let it go and come home.

He should want to do the thing Laura had never let herself ask for. He owed her and his children that much, more than a two-week vacation to recover and then back into the fray with his team, back with the long weekends once a month – God, especially now that everyone knew they existed, now there was no reason to stay away, no reason to keep it infrequent to avoid suspicion. So he’d pulled the trigger. Broke it to the team. Broke it to Nat. Came home. Said he was done. Promised he was staying.

Initially, Laura had been thrilled.

She’d been so happy, and he’d felt virtuous, and they’d both briefly been convinced this really was about want and not about should.

And since they stopped being able to sustain that conviction, their life hasn’t been anything like either of them imagined.

Laura looks at him for a minute to see if anything else is forthcoming. When she realizes he’s got nothing, she sighs and kisses him on the cheek, chastely. “I’m going to get ready for bed.”

“Yeah, I’ll be up in a minute,” he says, and she nods, turning off the lights behind her as she goes.

He waits until he hears the heavy tell-tale thunk of their bedroom door closing before he picks up the phone and punches in the number for the complex in upstate New York. There’s no way Nat’s going to answer a text, and he knows she won’t pick up his call right now, but he’s found that a semi-reliable way of getting in touch with her is dialing the compound’s secured line directly and asking whoever answers to go grab her.

Semi-reliable, because Steve cottoned onto Clint’s extreme lack of subtlety and refuses to ever bug her (it makes Clint angry, sometimes, thinking about how staunchly Steve sides with Team Nat when there shouldn’t even be teams in the first place), and Tony tries to woo him back with promises of cool new arrow tech, which always distracts Clint from the original purpose of the call, and if Vision answers, Clint hangs up, because that dude really creeps him out.

Taking those three out of the pool narrows the odds of successfully connecting.

This time, Wanda picks up on the third ring. He thinks he’s gotten lucky until she tells him Natasha left the country about an hour ago.

“She did not say as much, but I think she plans to follow Steve to London,” she adds. “Before the Accords are ratified in Vienna. She would not have needed to go right away for that, ratification is not until Thursday.”

His mouth tightens, just a little. “London, huh? Catching that Harry Potter play together or something?”

“He was asked to be a pallbearer at a funeral,” she says, a tiny hint of chastisement in her voice. “It was a death that he took very hard. Natasha was worried for him.”

Great. Now Clint feels bad.

It’s not Steve’s fault that Clint retired. It’s not Steve’s fault that there was a vacancy in Nat’s life. It’s not like he doesn’t want her to have someone she’s tight with.

It just also sucks. He gets that Steve’s her partner, logistically, but he still thinks if he had ever actually heard Nat phrase it that way, if he’d ever heard her call Steve my partner – he likes Cap, a lot, he really does, but he might have had to break his perfect nose a little bit.

“Got it,” is all he says, because it’s not like he owes Wanda an apology. “So – they’re getting ratified? Group came to a consensus?”

“Consensus. That is cute.”

Clint winces. “Shit.”

“Yes,” Wanda agrees. “That is the summary.”

“You figure out where you’re standing?”

She sighs, a quiet, vulnerable noise, and it strikes him all over again - how young Wanda really is. Not that much older than Natasha had been when they’d first met, but even by then, she’d logged the miles of somebody twice her age with the scars and calluses to show for it. Wanda’s been through a fair amount of shit and he’d never downplay that or dishonor it, but she’s still oddly young for all that. In a way Clint’s not sure either of them had a shot to be.

“I did,” she says. “Then an hour passed and I stood somewhere else. One more and I moved back to my original position. I can’t wait to see what happens in another sixty minutes. I’m sure either way I’m in for a very restful night’s sleep. I’m sure I won’t end up staring blankly at the ceiling until my eyes dry out.”

“You’re getting funny, Maximoff.”

“Tony’s taught me all his best jokes.” She pauses. “What would you do?”

“Oh, hey, look. I haven’t even read the thing, so - ”

“Please?”

She says it with so much sincerity that it makes something tighten in his chest.

“I’d do the thing that would let me get to sleep at night,” he tells her. “And I’d hope like hell it’d be the same as the thing that would keep the team together.”

After they hang up, he goes around the room to close and bolt all the windows. Laura likes to sleep with them open – she’s right, it makes the house stuffy in the morning otherwise, and the nearest neighbor is seven miles away. She says there’s no actual risk.

Clint’s still somebody who’s always known better than to sleep with an unsecured entry point. That’s not something he can shake off.

*

The house is empty and quiet the next day. Laura made the executive decision that she’d rather deal with taking all three kids with her to the mechanic for a tune-up and then the grocery store instead of coming home to another enormous scene she’ll have to defuse.

Clint is highly aware that there’s a lot riding on this lake vacation. They rented a cabin. It comes with its own dock and a speedboat, with a shed full of water skis and lifejackets and rafts for tubing. There’s a fire pit and they’re bringing an excessive amount of s’mores supplies. They might do some fishing. Laura’s bought a giant stack of books because she has three children and knows better than to bring an iPad anywhere near the water.

It’s the kind of family summer getaway that he knows she’s wanted to take for a very long time, and he promised this was their year. He wants to give her this.

He also promised he would finally get the upstairs guest bedroom painted today after shredding off all the wallpaper last month, and that he’d finish sanding down the new posts for the porch fence that have needed replacing for ages. But he’s got some time before they’ll be back. The mechanic always takes forever, and a quiet house, an uninterrupted stretch of free time and a gnawing unsettled something chewing under his skin - there’s nothing in him that’ll allow the time to pass any other way, not right now.

He could have tricked the farm out, probably. Built some approximation of the high-tech targets he’d used when SHIELD had an HQ, or the better ones Tony had outfitted the tower in New York with when that had been a thing. (He’s never asked if there’s an archery room waiting and ready for him at the upstate complex. He’s not sure he wants to know the answer either way.)

Could’ve done that, but he never got around to it – when he was here, he was here to see his wife, to spend time with his kids, and he had resources in other places, so it was never urgent. Once he retired, it hardly seemed like a vote of confidence in their future to have his first order of business be ‘setting up a private range so I don’t go insane’.

Besides, he can make do just fine picking targets from the top of the barn. Keeps his versatility sharp, makes sure his sighting’s still up to scratch, and once he gives up the pretense that he wants to do anything but pull til his arms go numb, there’s an ancient, massive oak tree on the property he likes to fire into, on and on, one shot after the other.

Won’t have time to let his arms go numb today – he’s not new, okay, it takes awhile for that to happen - but he picks the tree anyway. Lets his mind roll out to wherever place it wants to go when he’s shooting by rote.

Where his mind always goes, when his bow is in his hands. Like his weapon is some sentient creature reminding him who’s missing from this picture.

The thing was: it had never occurred to him, not even for a second, that dropping the team would mean losing Nat.

He’d been operating on the sincere belief that nothing would change with them. They’d talk every day. She’d be over all the time and okay, yeah, Iowa and New York aren’t neighbors but what’s the point of being bankrolled by a billionaire if he can’t get you a plane for personal use whenever you want it? She knows how to fly and it’s not like Clint doesn’t have the field space for her to touch down practically right in the backyard. She wouldn’t even have to bother checking a bag, going commercial, renting a car.

They have a spare room, for fuck’s sake, which he knows he’s supposed to be repainting even as he nocks another arrow. It’s always been Nat’s room to him. She’s only slept in it a handful of times, she’s never left so much as a hairbrush in a drawer and he knows she hated the flowered pattern of the wallpaper even if she’d never been so rude as to say as much. Nat wouldn’t have cared if Laura put her in that room or tossed her onto the couch or asked her to get comfortable outside under an apple tree. She had no more attachment to the room than she would any given hotel suite in any given city.

It’s there in his head anyway. He walks down the hallway and he thinks Nat’s room.

He’s taken this house apart and put it back together in the last ten months, gutted walls and ripped out pipes, built a craft room for Laura and blown out the back wall of the kitchen because he’s needed the projects, needed some work for his hands.

But he stripped that wallpaper down over days like some kind of silent offering.

A small pocket of silence between them made sense, at first. Nate was born and the new-baby madness swept in and consumed everything in Clint’s world for awhile – so yeah, a little distance was normal. He’d missed Natasha in an exhausted back-of-the-mind way, how he would’ve worried at a sore tooth or a hangnail. Something there, something to be aware of, but it wouldn’t ache unless it was prodded and it didn’t need to be dealt with right away.

She’d sent a gift. Dozens of tulips for Laura, a cashmere baby blanket the color of butterscotch, with a tasteful card congratulating them on their new ‘little traitor’ and trinkets for Cooper and Lila, so they wouldn’t feel stiffed by all the loot the new kid was raking in. Thoughtful and elegant, every choice made with perfect attention to detail. Effortlessly Natasha.

But when he’d called to thank her, she didn’t pick up. Laura got a text, hours later – “sry i missed ur call. YW & congrats again!” and an emoji smileyface.

Laura obviously hadn’t thought anything was amiss in that when she showed him the message and Clint had felt as though he’d swallowed an ice cube. He knew. He knew right then, all it took was one text and it smacked him upside the head - something’s not okay here.

But Natasha always had such reasonable answers for not visiting, for why they talked so rarely. “You guys have one infant. Steve and I just adopted four,” was her most frequent rejoinder.

It always made Laura laugh and Clint wince, because there was too much truth in it. She and Steve were building an entirely new team from scratch when the old team had worked great. Had worked beautifully, the six of them had been an efficient, unstoppable machine, and even if it wasn’t like all their new Avengers were wet behind the ears – Wilson and Rhodes had decades of combat experience between the two of them – it didn’t translate immediately into a team functioning as a cohesive unit.

What the six of them had been together – that had been something special. It wasn’t like Clint was the only one missing, Banner had fucked off who knew where, Thor had his own shit to attend to, Tony kept insisting he was now an “active noncombatant”, but still. Still. He’d left, his absence contributed, and now Nat and Steve were salvaging what they could.

So Clint let it slide until the Fourth of July rolled around, and then he’d put his foot down. Called late enough at night that he knew she’d be in bed and kept calling insistently until she’d finally picked it up.

“Come out for the long weekend. Seriously, you gotta finally meet your namesake,” he said, in his take-no-shit voice, the one that even sometimes worked on her. “They can spare you for one weekend, Nat.”

There was a long pause. He was already grinning in anticipation, a rush of joy at the promise that after two really, really long months apart, she’d be here in a few days. He’d pull her into a hug and wouldn’t let go until he damn well felt like it, they could watch fireworks with the kids, stay up late in the kitchen after everyone went to bed and he’d get the real details on everything going on back in New York -

“I wish I could,” she said.

He blinked.

She was still talking. “There’s something we need to pull the trigger on in the next couple days. I don’t want to promise and then not show up because I’m stuck in the belly of a cargo plane to Caracas or somewhere.”

He wondered, briefly, if this was how Laura had felt for the last few years. Why do I have to CONVINCE you to come home, Tasha? Why aren’t you just HERE, don’t you want to see me as badly as I want to see you?, there were too many similarities and the realization put an unpleasant taste in his mouth. He shoved the thought aside as quickly as it came.

“You hate Venezuela,” he sulked.

“No, I hated the sunburn I got in Venezuela, which I’ve accepted was not Venezuela’s fault.”

“What’s the job?”

“Classified,” she said. “Honestly, Barton. We’re not even on burners right now.”

She had sounded exhausted, and not late-hour exhausted. Natasha-exhausted, when it went bone-deep, tics and tones he could read even over the phone. Every subtle signal she gave off that ten-plus years of partnership meant he knew inside out, he knew she needed a break, she wasn’t sleeping enough. She was driving herself too hard, had dropped into one of those awful mental feedback loops about what she should be accomplishing that she sometimes couldn’t pull herself out of cleanly.

Clearly nobody was there who knew how to do it when she couldn’t do it herself.

Nobody knew that they should take her to a dumb movie and shove a box of Sour Patch Kids in her hands. Or rub the spot beneath her left shoulder where tension bunched itself up into a golf-ball sized knot that required someone else’s thumbs to smooth out. Or buy her a memoir written by a former reality dating show contestant that she’d read all in one sitting, or promise her that they would stay awake next to her while she slept and mean it, as long as it took, sometimes all she needed to come back was the utter certainty she was safe, twelve solid hours of sleep, and a hot shower.

She needed a fucking break and she would never give herself one. That had always been his job.

He’d been sick with guilt after they’d hung up. Which had ultimately calcified itself into anger and he’d called Steve on impulse – very poorly thought out impulse, since he wasn’t sure if he was calling to yell at the guy or to demand that he force Nat to take a vacation. Either way, Natasha was not going to thank him for going over her head, but Clint was too caught up in riding the wave to care. Not if it got her out to the farm.

Except that Steve wasn’t in his office, and he wasn’t running simulations, and he wasn’t gearing up to ship out to Caracas or someplace like it.

He answered the phone from a convenience store in Sloatsburg, where he was paying for snacks. Natasha, he informed Clint, was outside gassing up the car.

“We’re playing hooky for the long weekend,” he’d said, sounding cheerful. “I wanted to skip… pretty much everything Tony suggested doing for my birthday, and between you and me, Nat needed a breather. So I leaned on her a little bit and we decided to head up to - ”

Steve had kept talking – something about outdoor art installations and a storm and a king and some pleasant questions about the family that Clint answered on autopilot. The rest of him was too caught up in the realization that Natasha had lied to him.

Which was a thing no one should ever really take personally, from Natasha.

Unless you happened to be Clint, in which case, he knew for goddamn sure he fucking well ought to take it personally.

The next time they talked, she didn’t bring up the trip, he didn’t mention that he’d spoken to Steve, and since then, they’re both extremely committed to maintaining the fiction that their friendship was never anything more than something conducted on a surface level. He won’t pick the fight that needs picking; she maintains a level of deep reasonability. Small talk with one of the people he loves most in the world – the one who knows him the best – he’s been physically tortured in ways that lingered less.

He misses everything he walked away from, but miss is not an adequate word for what he feels about Natasha’s absence.

There’s a room in his house that he’s repainting and he has thought, more than once, that if she knew she was going to react like this, then she could have just retired when he did. They could have hung it up together. She could have come back with him. It could have been her room. She could have lived here with the rest of his family.

Mistaking a thought like that for “an actual reasonable plan”, Clint knows, is possibly another reason why his marriage is not in fantastic shape.

He fires his last arrow into the top of the tree, completing the neat line he’s been studding up its trunk, then starts to climb down from the roof. He needs to have at least two walls painted by the time everyone comes home.

*

In bed that night, Clint wraps both his arms around Laura. He’s so tired of being shit at absolutely everything, and it’s a little bit of a relief when she curls up against his chest, making herself comfortable.

“I think the lake’s going to be great,” he tells her. “I can’t wait to get up there.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” He kisses the crown of her head. She smells like baby powder and pear deodorant, and when she looks up at him, he squeezes her tighter.

“I was thinking,” she says, and pauses. Her forehead crinkles with it. “Maybe after the lake… maybe we could think about trying marriage counseling? Just for a little while.”

Clint absorbs that. Are things really that bad? is what he wants to say, but it’s a stupid question to ask when he knows the answer. She’s right; the lake’s not going to fix every fraying edge here, and things are – clearly – not getting better on their own.

“Okay,” he says. “Okay, yeah. Let’s look into it.”

Laura looks surprised. “Kind of thought I was going to have to push you for that one.”

“Well, I’m growing as a person every day, it’s probably because of my changing body,” he says, and he’s pleased when she laughs.

“Thank you,” she says. “Really, Clint – thank you.”

“I don’t want it to be like this either, you know,” he tells her.

Laura catches his mouth with hers, nothing perfunctory in it – it’s sweet, she lingers on it. He realizes they haven’t kissed this way in awhile.

“I know,” she says. “I know you don’t.”

*

The kids’ cartoons on Thursday morning are interrupted by a breaking news bulletin: the Vienna International Centre, the site of today’s UN meeting to ratify the Sokovia Accords, has been bombed. Seventy people are dead with more unaccounted for.

The building is a blown-out mess, flames still licking out the windows, debris and dust and smoke in the air, and Natasha was inside it.

Natasha was there because the fractured team sent her as their representative, that’s what Wanda said. Wanda said she would be there today.

Seventy people are dead and Natasha was there.

Natasha was there and she is the most capable and ruthlessly clever person Clint has ever met, but a bomb is not a thing that can be out-argued, outmaneuvered, out-played. A bomb’s victory depends entirely on a person’s proximity to its detonation point.

Seventy people are dead and Clint has sunk to the ground in his living room with his children swarming all over him. He can’t hear anything but a low buzz filling his ears, which he assumes is the kids panicking and Laura talking at him but the only thing he can understand is the brightness of the explosion in the clip that the news keeps playing, over and over.

They have had a thousand close calls together, maybe more, all the greatest hits of Barton & Romanoff, he’s seen her up close to death so many times and he’s never batted an eye. He doesn’t get why this has leveled him - for all he knows, she wrote the dates down wrong in her calendar or didn’t sign the agreement at the last minute, she might have been running late or in the bathroom, maybe someone else went instead.

There are endless ways that she’s probably fine. There are endless reasons this is a dramatic overreaction.

He is a goddamn Avenger, he’s not someone who falls apart before he has any facts at all. He doesn’t panic at the first indication of potential bad news. He kept his head cooler than this in fucking Odessa, and that was after she’d tried to crawl through a trail of her own blood, holding her guts in with one hand, after sixteen straight hours of surgery. He’d paced up and down the hall and shouted at a couple doctors, maybe, but that bullet had been two minutes away from being her last and he had still been cooler than this.

But seventy people are dead and the last he was told, Natasha was there.

The inferno on the TV rages on. The king of Wakanda is dead. A diplomat from the UK. Sixty-eight more names to go.

When he stands up, when his legs feel like they might work, he can see that Laura’s crying and her hands are trembling as she reaches to comfort him, but he walks past her open arms as though she’s a piece of furniture so he can – his fucking phone isn’t ringing, really, really, was nobody going to loop him in on this, because what if the TV hadn’t been on right then, it’s not like he’s somebody who goes on fucking Facebook , nobody thought he might have a vested interest in knowing that somebody might have blown up his partner when he wasn’t there with her, he should have been with her –

He’s said that last part out loud and he can hear how furious he sounds, I should have been with her, goddamn it, I should have been there, growling it out as he’s punching in a phone number, he’s not sure which one but somebody better pick up and give him some fucking answers and when he looks up, Laura’s face has gone completely white beneath the tears streaking her cheeks.

He has never felt this helpless.

The clock on the wall says three hours, but it is a thousand years until he hears Natasha’s voice.

“I don’t have much time – Steve’s, well – he’s going to do something stupid before any of this gets better, but I figured I should let you know I didn’t blow up today,” she says, so matter-of-factly, and Clint closes his eyes.

“Hey, good job with that,” he says, and it is a fight to make his voice come out like he’s not a ragged, chewed-up mess. The words themselves are nonsensical, but he’s really only up to one battle at a time right now. He’s been in retirement too long. “Where are you?”

“I am directly behind the fan that a very large amount of shit was just hurled into,” she tells him blithely, and he knows she’s not trying to be cruel but it bites into him. He is not supposed to be someone who earns one of her non-answers. “Clint, I really have to - ”

“Tasha, please,” he blurts out. Still nonsensical.

Then again, it’s not like they ever used to have any trouble understanding each other’s nonsense. He can’t follow entirely what’s been happening, with the Accords and the team, but a building has blown up, Steve’s buddy is the suspect, there’s group infighting, and he and Natasha have never once not been standing shoulder to shoulder for something this huge. If she’s this deep into something, he should be in it, too. He shouldn’t be scrambling to put the pieces together from scattered phone calls.

The voice in his head that sometimes whispers that retiring might have been a mistake is no longer whispering; it’s a deafening crescendo. The truth of his life has become screamingly clear to him in the hours between the image of the International Centre exploding and silence of nobody on the fucking team looping him in on any of this.

It’s physical, this is a thousand fire ants crawling along his skin. His body is humming at a low, discontented frequency as though it’s trying to propel him out of here, urging him to stop fighting and just fucking admit that Iowa is not the place he’s most needed today.

Iowa is not where he wants to be today.

“Clint…” she says.

She sounds like Tasha right then, in that one single syllable, and he didn’t realize until now how long it’s been since he’s heard her say his name like this. It’s like he’s taken a hit of some top-shelf oxygen, like this is the first time his lungs have properly inflated in months.

He squashes his instinctive impulse to beg her to say it again as soon as it flares up.

“Let me deal with this and I’ll call you,” she promises. “It might – it might take a few days, but - ”

He grips the receiver, tighter. “No, I get it – I know this is big, Nat, I know it’s not all gonna settle at once and some of this is out of your hands, but you gotta - ”

“I will. “

“You’ve gotta talk to me, when you call,” he says. “None of this - ”

“I know. I know, I do,” she says, and he wants her to stay on the phone forever, because this finally sounds like them, this feels like the first actual conversation they’ve had in almost a year, even through these half-starts and fumbled words. For once, they’re talking to each other and something askew in his world just clicked itself back into place. “Tony’s waiting for me, Barton, I’m sorry.”

“I get it. Go,” he says. Stay. “I just….”

“Me too,” she says. “Soon. I promise.”

*

But the next time his phone rings, almost a full day later, it’s Steve.

“I guess if I’m being fair, Nat did warn me you’d probably do something stupid,” Clint tells him.

“Yeah, well. Nobody knows me like she does,” Steve says. He sounds deeply fond and deeply sad at the same time. “You sure you want in on this? It could get ugly. I can’t make any promises about what the day after’s going to look like. ”

Later, Clint will say that he thought about Wanda and what he owed to her. He’ll say that he agreed with Cap’s assessment, that these Accords are ultimately a bullshit way of passing the buck. He’ll say if Steve was calling him off the bench, it meant that his particular presence was entirely necessary. He’ll say that it was not an easy decision, but it was the one he had to make.

He will say he gave it thought. Some thought. Any thought at all.

Those will be lies that Steve will never correct, that he’ll allow Clint to have, because the truth they will both know is that there isn’t even a pause. There is Steve’s question and Clint’s instantaneous reply:

“Already gearing up, Cap.”

*

Laura is silent as she watches him load up his tactical bag. There are things he knows he needs to say to her, but he can’t figure out how to properly articulate a single one of them.

“It’s just for a few days,” is his first feeble attempt. “I’ll meet you and the kids at the lake before you even break into the s’mores stuff.”

“You think this is about the lake trip?” she says, a little bit aghast. “Really. That’s what you think my problem is, Clint? That I’m mad we might not get to go waterskiing? You think that’s - ”

“No, I mean, I know it’s not entirely - ”

“You know what? I don’t think you do.” Her mouth is pressed into a thin hard line, arms folded over her chest and radiating don’t touch me right now. “I don’t think you’ve ever understood the problem.”

“So tell me, then!” Clint snaps as he zips the bag closed with more force than is strictly necessary. “Tell me what the fucking problem is, Laura!”

“The problem is that I’m your wife but you won’t let me be your partner,” she yells back, her cheeks flushing with anger. “You don’t want me to be.”

The silence between them at that is absolute.

He stares at her, speechless under the weight of this unsayable thing that’s now been spoken, but she’s looking him straight in the eye and she’s not backing down.

“That’s such a shitty thing to say,” he finally says.

“I don’t care,” she snaps. “I am done pretending there’s not a ghost in this marriage, Clint, I’m not doing it anymore. And it’s not just about - you want this family to work? At some point, you have to choose us and mean it. This has to be the place you want to be.”

The shame and self-loathing flooding through him right now is so palpable that he kind of can’t understand why it’s not turning the tide of this fight in Laura’s favor. She’s cut the legs out from under him, there’s nothing to stand on. There is exactly one thing he can do right now to save his marriage, his family, his life in this place that the twelve-year-old version of himself swore he’d build someday.

Clint knows perfectly well what that thing is even without Laura spelling it out for him.

He grasps wildly for straws, some Hail Mary he can throw, but the best he’s got is Natasha’s not even going to be there, Steve was very clear about that and even that, he knows, is another example of him missing the real problem.

It’s not about Natasha. Not entirely, anyway – it never has been.

This is about why he’s loading his tac bag, and if other factors come into play, Clint knows at least seventy percent of this is down to I am going insane inside this life that I am supposed to want.

This is about him. It always has been.

“I have to go,” is what he says, and understands what he’s really saying. “I’m sorry.”

Laura doesn’t look surprised. “No,” she says. “You aren’t. Not enough, anyway.”

He jerks his head in acknowledgement, because – yeah.

And then he picks up the bag.