When the black car turns into the long driveway that leads up to the farm, Laura knows it can mean nothing good.
She’d first seen it happen to the MacGregors on Hillcrest Farm, back in ’06 when their youngest son (Jonathan, the one with the red hair and the mischievous grin) had driven his vehicle over an IED in Helmand Province. CNN had announced over breakfast there’d been three US servicemen killed in Afghanistan. Of course, the war had been in its third year by then and casualties at over two thousand, so the news was just a crawler at the bottom of the screen, no names. But Laura had known, as soon as she saw the small cloud of dust headed up the hill towards the MacGregor farm.
She checks her watch now, the one with the date marker and the different time zones that Clint had given her many Christmases ago, so she could always set it for whichever one he was in. (“Time zones are big,” he’d explained as she rolled her eyes at him at his casual approach to security. “Fury says it’s okay.”)
She’d seen it happen again in ’09, when she’d gone to town for supplies and the black car had come for Mr. Hannity at the seed store. Mosul, this time -- Iraq, the war that had come from nowhere, almost like someone had been pulling strings to make it happen. The radio on the way into Waverly had mentioned reports of an ambush, as many as a dozen Americans down, both military and ‘private security’. The watch face had shown Clint in South East Asia; Laura had felt guilty at the relief she'd felt at that, as soon as she saw the car coming down Main Street. The seed store was sold shortly thereafter -- no one to pass it on to, what with Liam the only son, and Bethany up at State U studying to be a nurse. The neatly folded up flag wasn't enough to keep the old man going.
Laura shakes off the memories; this is now, and today the black car is coming for the Barton farm.
The night before CNN had shown the Potomac on fire, the Triskelion in ruins, and a new word blazing on the screen: HYDRA. A word from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s history books, from the storied days of Peggy Carter and Captain Rogers’ first battles; the broadcast mentioned his name. Laura had watched for hours after the kids went to bed.
She looks at her wrist again, just in case. Clint’s part of the clock is set for EDT +7; the date window confirms it’s a Thursday. Cooper will still be at school -- Thursday soccer practice always runs past five; Lila is still napping, up in her room. Thank the Lord for small mercies.
Laura drives the shovel deep into the soft soil. “How about zucchini?” Clint had said, before he left. “Anyone can grow zucchini. The kids will love your zucchini bread.” It had seemed like a good idea at the time, a nice counterpoint to his grandiose plans for expanding the kitchen into the family room.
She heads for the house and steps onto the porch. The car is approaching the house now, S.H.I.E.L.D. markings on the sides clearly visible. Laura doesn’t recognize the driver, nor the female passenger. It shouldn’t be too surprising, given she’s been out of S.H.I.E.L.D. now for ten years or so; but still. What’s surprising is the fact that the car is marked.
She watches the two agents get out of the car; they exchange a look across the black hood before turning towards the house. The woman schools her features into something like apologetic sympathy, and clears her throat.
Laura says nothing, just nods and waits.
“We’re here on behalf of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
She takes a deep breath and peels off the rubber gardening gloves carefully, one finger at a time, flexing them a little as she goes. Funny how the dirt still gets under the nails, every time, gloves notwithstanding.
“What can I do for you, agents?” she asks evenly, hoping the beating of her heart in her throat doesn’t reverberate in her voice. She doesn’t bother asking for their names.
“I am sorry to advise that I bring unfortunate news, Mrs. Barton. Your husband is missing in action,” the woman says. "Possibly dead."
“You may have heard that S.H.I.E.L.D. is in crisis,” the man adds. "We need to make sure he is still alive."
Laura wipes both hands on her dungarees, hooks them into the pockets and decides to ignore that last bit.
“He’s been missing, presumed dead before,” she says. “I was never told until after he surfaced.”
The agents seem taken aback. What did they expect – howling despair? Fainting? Gnashing teeth?
“It is imperative that we find him, Ma’am. If he is alive, he may have important information to provide in respect of the current situation. May we come in?”
The man’s words slither into Laura’s mind, and for a moment she pictures her sleeping daughter, cuddling the stuffed octopus Clint had picked up in Sydney under her chin. She makes no move to step aside and the agent’s foot, already raised to reach for the step, hangs in the air momentarily before he retracts it.
“We were hoping you could help us locate him, Mrs. Barton. He may be in hiding, given the troubles in Washington.” His chuckle sounds a bit forced. “And who could blame him? But we assume he would be in touch. To reassure you he is fine. These are difficult times.”
”Let me check my cell phone,” Laura inclines her head politely. “I heard the message chime go off half an hour ago, when I was up to my elbows in sheep manure and couldn’t answer. Maybe it was him, and he was trying to contact me.”
“That would be excellent,” the woman says, with a smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes.
Difficult times, indeed.
Laura reaches into her dungarees; the metal at the bottom of the deep right pocket is warm from the heat of her body. She loosens the safety as she pulls her hand back out and fires two shots in quick succession, two more after the visitors have gone down. She’s not Clint (or even Nat) when it comes to accuracy, and it never hurts to make sure.
She checks her watch again. Still Thursday.
"Promise you will always tell me yourself when something happens to him?" she’d asked Fury and Nat, after that mess in Sebastopol, when they’d stood beside the bed in Medical, watching Clint breathe through a machine.
"Yes, of course," Fury had said, and Nat had nodded. "Us, or Pierce. No one else knows you exist."
Whatever HYDRA is, it must have cut deep.
“If it’s really bad, tell me on a Sunday,” she’d added. On Sundays, the kids will be home and there’ll be bread in the oven, or maybe a chicken. Because they will need to go on, and those things would help.
Nick Fury has always been a man of his word, and Natasha … Natasha is family.
Laura looks past the two bodies at the freshly dug bed; obviously, planting the zucchini will have to wait.
And hopefully Clint will call home, before another Sunday comes.