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for the half of ourselves we have lost

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Clint’s just finished putting Nathaniel back down in his crib, ears tingling with the relief of rarely-heard quiet, when he hears the soft click of the front door and then the thrum of footsteps padding against creaking floorboards below him.

“Right on time,” he mutters under his breath, casting another glance at his son who is now sleeping soundly, stretched out on his back in Cooper’s old arrow onesie. He moves out of the bedroom and closes the door behind him, making his way down the stairs equally softly in the slim hope of not disturbing Laura’s slumber, and catches the flash of red slipping through the entryway as he gets to the bottom of the stairs.

“You gotta stop this,” he says when he reaches the living room. Natasha’s just finished taking off her shoes and when she turns around, he notices the heavy bags underneath her eyes, illuminated by the moonlight shining through the big bay windows.

“Who are you, the married police?” Natasha asks mildly, but her voice is hoarse and riddled with both exhaustion and disuse. She walks straight to the couch after taking off her jacket and curls up on the pillow; Clint opens his mouth to warn her about that particular spot of rest being also the spot of Nate's most recent spit-up, but Natasha’s face alerts him to the fact that he doesn’t need to say the words.

“Sorry,” he apologizes with a wince as she scrunches up her nose in an imitation of his daughter, rubbing her cheek. “We think he had some bad baby food or something else that didn’t agree with him. It’s partially why he’s been up all night.”

“But not why you’ve been up all night,” Natasha surmises, managing to somehow give him a pointed look despite her clear tiredness. Clint shakes his head slowly.

“I was worried about you,” he admits and Natasha rolls her eyes.

“How many times do I have to tell you to stop worrying about me? This is no different than when I would leave for missions and come home while you and Laura were living here.”

“Yeah, well.” Clint feels the frown lines multiply along the sides of his mouth. “I dunno. Maybe it is different. Maybe I am the married police after all.”

“The joys of coming home,” Natasha mutters. Clint moves to ask if she wants coffee but she’s already repositioned herself on the couch, shifting to the other side and stretching out with her head pillowed against one of the extra blankets that’s been left out on the armrest. He listens for a moment to make sure Nate is still sleeping (because while the six-month-old was doing better with uninterrupted slumber, teething wasn't helping matters) and then walks over, sitting down next to her legs and pushing hair back from where it’s falling into her mouth. Clint doesn’t miss the way her body sags against the furniture, a welcome reprieve that he recognizes from his own need of being able to just relax somewhere that you were comfortable -- somewhere that you considered home.

“I’m serious, Nat. Just take a break or something. You’re exhausted, and you’re running yourself ragged.”

Natasha moves enough so that she can take her ring out of where she’s stored it in her jeans pocket, and twists it back onto her finger. “I can’t,” she says softly, her voice tinged with more than just resignation. “I promised I’d be there for us…for you.”

“And even I stayed at work when I knew it was impossible to make sudden trips home,” he reminds her gently, kissing the curve of her ear. “It sucked, especially when Cooper and Lila were babies, but Laura understood.”

“But I need to be here,” Natasha protests, her voice a feeble whine against the thick pillow. Clint allows a smile to inch onto his face.

“You are here.” He kisses her again, this time letting his lips rest on her temple. “You’ve been here. We gave each other our vows, remember? Laura and I trust you. We know you’re not going to get up and walk away from this family.”

“And you also know that I can’t just not show up and not do my job, especially with you staying at home,” Natasha responds with a heavy sigh. “Besides, Rogers already thinks we’re fucking. Might as well continue to perpetuate the lie that’s actually a truth.”

“I’m pretty sure by now the whole damn team thinks we’re fucking,” Clint mutters and Natasha grins tiredly.

“Probably. But they still don’t know everything.” She wiggles her fingers, letting the silver band catch in the moonlight and Clint feels himself soften thinking of Laura upstairs in their bed, sleeping the way he had left her. With her hands folded underneath her pillow and dark hair spilling across her forehead, she projected the very image of contentment and relaxation, things that Clint had seen more and more frequently since their vow renewal and wedding day -- since Natasha had come home for good and then stayed.

“Either way, forty flights here and back to New York every other day can’t good for you,” he says, taking her outstretched fingers and letting her pull him down onto the couch more fully. “You feed me that crap about my age all the time but you’re not Lila’s age, either. Also, you’re going to give Laura a heart attack when she sees how rundown you are.”

“Well, I am racking up a lot of frequent flyer miles,” Natasha admits with a small yawn. “No thanks to Stark’s inability to let me pilot a private jet. Maybe we can finally take Lila to Disney World.”

“You gonna be the one to ride It’s A Small World After All over and over again with her and Nate?” Clint asks grouchily. “Because lemme tell you, you’ll really want to shoot someone after you get off that boat.”

“Actually, I’m looking forward to when we have to wait three hours for the new Frozen ride at Epcot together and you abandon me to go drink,” Natasha says with a smirk, brushing her fingers across his arm. “Come here.”

“I can’t.” Clint sits forward before he can let himself get too comfortable. “I gotta stay up in case he wakes again. And Laura’s gotta bring Coop to an early practice, so I said I’d let her sleep.”

Natasha inclines her head against the couch and squints in the dark, nodding. “Want company?”

Clint smiles and holds out a hand, unable to stop the flutter in his heart when the cold weight of Natasha’s ring brushes against his skin. She didn’t wear it when she went away and spent time in New York and Laura had understood that decision, because it was one that followed years of Clint doing the same thing. Unlike Clint, however, who liked to keep his ring in a hidden pouch, Natasha had elected to keep hers in the pocket of whatever clothing she was wearing on the job or in the same hidden space in her tac suit where she had stored her arrow necklace when it wasn’t being worn.

“Maybe we should get you a chain,” Clint had suggested the first time he saw Natasha fish the ring out of her jeans pocket after walking through the door. “Might be easier than taking it on and off all the time. And easier to hide.”

“And easier for everyone to wonder why I stopped wearing an arrow necklace and started wearing a ring instead?” Natasha had asked pointedly, raising an eyebrow. “No thank you. Besides, I like being able to know it’s there. I like having it close to my body in a way that no one else can see. Now that the farm is...well. Now that people know.”

Clint hadn’t argued with her further on that; although she had been the one who had made the choice to reveal their home to their team in the first place, he also knows ever since disclosing what was a safehouse in more ways than one, she’s continued to mourn, however quietly, the loss of something much more personal.

He climbs the steps slowly and quietly with Natasha on his heel, walking back into the room holding Nathaniel’s crib -- the guest bedroom that had been turned into Natasha’s room that was back to being a guest bedroom, now that she was sleeping with Clint and Laura regularly and now that Cooper was aware of the intricacies of their relationship.

“One day, I’m going to get over the irony of you giving my namesake my old bedroom,” Natasha says as they walk inside, closing the door. She crawls onto the big bed and curls into the pillow as Clint walks to the crib, leaning over to check on the sleeping baby before cracking open the window across the room, letting in pre-dawn air that smells faintly of pinewood and smoke from the neighbors’ lingering fire.

“One day,” he agrees, getting into bed. Natasha’s arm immediately circles around his waist, pulling him close, and he closes his eyes against the scent of travel-worn sweat and stale airport coffee, breathing deeply as he curls closer to her body.

“What?”

Clint opens his eyes and smiles, unaware he’s apparently given off a specific expression. “Nothing,” he says, bending over and kissing her on the lips. Admittedly, the month since their vow renewals and proposals at the lake house now felt like ages ago, as the only thing that had changed since then was the fact that Natasha now barely left their side except to return to New York to help with training. But there had also been so many years of heartache and uncertainty between all three of them before getting to this steady place, and even though nothing about their relationship is technically new, Clint thinks it’ll take a long time for him to not feel like everything about what they had created together was awe-inspiring and shiny.

“Not nothing,” Natasha says, poking him with her toe. “Something. You’ve got that look, the one Cooper gives me when he’s looking at a new train set and knows we can’t buy it.”

Clint laughs a little. “I guess I’m just happy you’re here,” he says quietly. “Really here.” He thinks of Laura in the next room and feels guilty she’s missing out on cuddling time, before he reminds himself he doesn’t need to. They had all the time in the world for stolen moments where the kids weren’t completely present, and Natasha didn’t have to run off anymore. Not now.

“I think the team does suspect something,” Natasha admits after a long moment, putting a hand on his chest. Clint snorts quietly.

“Which is different than how many years ago? We haven’t exactly been subtle, Nat.”

“No,” Natasha agrees. “We haven’t. But now that I’m living here officially and going back and forth all the time, Steve keeps asking what’s so important that I have to keep leaving.”

“We could really fuck with them next time I come visit,” Clint says, the corners of his mouth turning up. “You know, casually drop that Laura and I had a lot of sex during my break and then make sure someone finds us kissing in the bathroom.”

“And here I thought I was going to get all my middle-school romance ideas from Cooper,” Natasha says with a groan, but she’s smiling back. A tremor runs through her bones, one Clint thinks might be half from exhaustion and half from chill thanks to the open window.

“Sleep,” Clint says when he notices how she’s fighting to keep her eyes open. “He’ll be up soon enough. So will she.” He inclines his head towards the door, in the direction of Lila and Cooper’s room.

“Mmm. My favorite alarm clock,” Natasha mumbles into the pillow and for a moment, Clint’s not sure whether she means his wife or his daughter. He watches Natasha’s eyes fall closed and continues to stroke her hair, knowing Natasha would never actually ask for the extra comfort but also knowing she does want it. He puts a hand over her own, fingers ghosting over her ring, relishing in the sound of Natasha’s exhales and his son’s soft breathing, the knowledge of Laura sleeping next door, Cooper and Lila across the hall in their beds and the weight of Natasha’s body next to his: sounds and feelings that mingle with the creaking walls of a broken-in farmhouse built and maintained with love, a place that sings songs of belonging in tandem with the early morning breeze.

 

***

 

“What time did Natasha get in?” Laura asks when she returns from taking Cooper to soccer practice, carrying a large iced coffee from 7-11 and kissing Clint on the cheek. Clint gratefully takes the plastic cup from her hands and sucks greedily on the straw, knowing from the way Laura’s looking at him that he’s probably channeling his son’s obsession with his pacifier.

“Sometime after four. I think.” He nods towards the couch and pushes a plate of leftover blueberry waffles across the table. “I yelled at her and told her to stop traveling like this, but she won’t listen.”

“No, she won’t,” Laura muses, fingers absently twirling her ring and Clint doesn’t have to ask what she’s thinking about. He glances down and sighs, moving food onto his plate.

“She doesn’t have to play martyr and try to kill herself coming home, you know.” He shoves a large bite of waffle in his mouth. “It’s like she still thinks we don’t trust her.”

Laura smiles sadly as she pours a fresh cup of coffee from the carafe, leaning over to open the large windows over the sink. “I don’t think it’s that,” she says softly, sitting down next to him. “I think she’s just trying to prove herself a little bit.”

“What the hell does she have to prove?” Clint asks grumpily, slouching in his chair. Laura wraps two hands tightly around her mug.

“Nothing. And I think she knows that, somewhere inside that head of hers.” She pauses. “I do wish she wouldn’t run around like this, though, because it worries me, too. I’m just glad she’s making the effort.”

“Yeah,” Clint agrees, reaching for his coffee again, swallowing down both cold caffeine and also the lump in his throat, because for so many years effort on Natasha’s end had been hard to come by, no matter how much they knew she loved them. He shifts in his chair as heavy footsteps pound down the stairs and then into the kitchen.

Daddy.” Lila appears in front of her father looking put out, hair tangled from sleep and bleeding into the fleece of her worn Arthur pajamas. “Tasha said I can’t have ice cream for breakfast.”

“This again?” Clint reaches over and picks up Lila, placing her on his lap and rubbing her back. “No, you can’t have ice cream for breakfast, Lila baby. We’ve been over this. Ice cream is for special treats, right? And dessert. You know that.”

“But that’s not fair! Coop got to have ice cream last week for breakfast and you wouldn’t let me have any!”

“Your brother had his tonsils removed, therefore, he earned the right to eat ice cream,” Laura interrupts with an eyebrow raise. Lila slumps down in her father’s arms, shoving her lips into a pout.

“What’s the rule about asking Natasha for things?” Laura asks as she pours syrup onto her waffle from the bear-shaped bottle her parents had brought back from a recent trip to Vermont. She regards her daughter with a serious stare and Lila heaves out a petulant sigh.

“Mommy’s rules mean Tasha’s rule, too, because Tasha’s also mommy.”

“Yes,” Laura says with a nod. “And Natasha is not going to let you have ice cream, because mommy and daddy aren’t going to let you have ice cream, because that’s not how this family works. We know that, right?”

Lila scrunches up her nose but nods again, sliding off Clint and staring up at the table with a grimace.

“Can I have a waffle?” Lila asks after a moment, as if trying to figure out what request she can substitute that might earn her a positive answer. Clint smiles, picking one off the plate.

“Waffles are breakfast food, so, yes. You can have a waffle,” he allows, picking up another and wrapping it in a spare napkin. “Bring one up to Nat, if you want.”

Lila grins and then takes the two waffles carefully, running back upstairs. Laura leans forward and shoves her hands against her forehead.

“Some days, I think it would be easier to just tell her.”

“That, what? Nat’s her second mommy and we’re all sleeping together?” He sucks down more coffee. “She kind of already knows that.”

“She doesn’t fully know it,” Laura reminds him. “It’s just now that Natasha is living here, we’re basically easing her into this by allowing her to realize Natasha is her mom the same way I am.”

“And hoping that she doesn’t say anything at school because she’s accepting of that based on how she grew up?” Clint asks. “She’s still getting it more than Coop ever did.”

Laura kicks him under the table and he winces at both the pain and the acknowledgment of knowing that it’s not really a fair argument to start. Despite the years it took for their relationship to settle, Natasha had been with Lila and had been a part of her life since the first day she was born. As much as Natasha had been around for Cooper’s early years, and as much as Cooper always thought of Natasha as a mother, there was a distinct difference. Lila had never not known a point when “Auntie Nat” wasn’t around.

“What’s on the agenda for today?” Laura asks as she stretches her arms over her head, yawning slightly.

“Mmmm.” Clint leans over and hits a button on his phone, squinting. “Lila has swim lessons at nine. Nate’s playgroup is today, if you wanna bring him over. I have an appointment with the chiropractor -- oh, don’t look at me like that -- at noon. Then I’ll take Lila to Aubrey’s birthday party --”

“Good lord, another birthday party?” Natasha enters the kitchen with an eyebrow raise and a smirk, holding Nathaniel in two arms. “No wonder it took you so long to quit avenging for a paycheck.”

“Very funny,” Clint grumbles, shooting her a glare, though he can’t help but smile when he sees his son’s face and wide eyes. “And it’s not my fault that five-year-olds have a lot of birthdays. Just for that, I’m gonna make you take Nate to his playgroup this morning.”

Natasha shrugs, kissing the baby on the head. “There are worse things than singing songs all day while other mothers try to talk to me and I pretend to be domesticated,” she says. Laura gets up from the table, pushing back her chair.

“I think after spending so many years with us, you don’t have to pretend to be domesticated anymore,” she says, meeting Natasha in the center of the kitchen, leaning over to kiss her languidly.

“Well, that remains to be seen.” Natasha kisses Laura back with a small grin, pulling at her bottom lip. “I still can’t do the mom voice as well as you can. Good morning, by the way.”

“Good morning to you too. Jetsetter,” Laura adds pointedly, licking her lips in the wake of Natasha’s kiss. Natasha sighs.

“You, too?”

“We harass you because we care about you,” Clint interjects with a smirk. “And don’t forget that we’ve both spent years making Laura worry about us, because we’ve been too tired or too beat up to function.”

You especially,” Laura says, nodding in Clint’s direction as she takes Nathaniel from Natasha’s arms, trading the baby for coffee in a hand painted flower mug and letting her eyes sweep over the ring that’s snugly attached to her finger.

“You like when I wear it,” Natasha says when Laura’s eyes linger a little too long and Clint swears he sees the lines on Laura’s mouth grow thinner.

“Of course I do,” she says quietly, settling Nate in his high chair along with a handful of cheerios, which she spreads onto the tray. Clint wonders if Natasha’s thinking about the fact that it wasn’t that long ago she sat at the table and threw what was now one of her most prized possessions into the trash.

“Well, I like when I wear it, too,” Natasha says, sitting down and taking a waffle. “It reminds me that I love you.”

“If you need more reminders, there are many places to get naked in this house,” Clint says, leaning back in his chair and grabbing his reading glasses as he opens the paper. Natasha snorts out a laugh.

“Unlike you, I don’t measure my life in sex. As much as I’m enjoying our new toys.” She flinches as a cheerio lands in her hair, and when she looks up, Nate is grinning at her and giggling cheekily, one tooth barely visible underneath his upper lip.

“I can’t believe he has that.”

“What?” Clint looks up. “The tooth?”

“No.” Natasha shakes her head. “The shit-eating Barton grin. You’re doomed.” She leans over to reach Nate's high chair, helping him re-adjust himself. “And you are named after me and good aim or not, I am not going to let you throw food at my hair.”

“Can you use that line later when he spits up again?” Clint asks helpfully, still looking down at the paper. Natasha kicks him under the table, light enough so that he manages to jump unexpectedly.

“Eat your breakfast,” she advises as Laura laughs, the sound carrying over from where she’s washing glasses in the sink.

 

***

 

Laura finds Clint outside, sitting cross legged on the grass with Nate situated next to him in his Pack n’ Play, the baby amused enough by the multitude of toys in his vicinity that he’s not currently causing a fuss. She smiles to herself as she walks up behind him and bends down, placing two hands along his broad shoulders which are flush with both sunburn and scars. He’s concentrated on his work, sanding down a long piece of wood, what Laura recognizes is the start of a beam for a tree house. She softens even more remembering the long list of items tacked to the bulletin board on the wall of the big walk-in closet, the home improvements and requests he’s been steadily working through since more or less walking away from the Avengers.

“Have I told you yet that retirement suits you?”

“Today?” Clint inclines his head upwards so that he can kiss her. “No, but I like hearing it.”

The lines around Laura’s mouth fold into the barest of wrinkles as she sits next to him, half-lying on the grass. Cooper is sitting on the porch, re-stringing one of Clint’s old bows, and Laura doesn’t miss the quick glances Clint sends his way every so often, the ones that seem to be rooted in more than just parental concern that his son won’t injure himself by accident.

“You miss it.”

“I go to the range with Tasha three times a week,” Clint defends almost instantly, not looking at her. “And we shoot in the woods.”

Laura sighs. “I know you do.” She smoothes down his hair. “But I also know you, and I know it’s not the same.”

Clint slows his movements and then puts the wood down, leaning back on his elbows as Laura lies down fully, placing her head on his stomach. “It’s not,” he admits slowly. “But I want to be here, and I can’t spend my whole life wishing I was back in the fight. Hell, there’s not even any fight to go back to.”

“Nat’s been pretty busy,” Laura reminds him and Clint grunts.

“Nat’s been training. Small recon missions, trust building, helping Wanda acclimate to her powers...if I was back there with her, I’d probably be bored, too.”

“You think she’s bored?” Laura asks with a hint of amusement and Clint’s stomach rises and falls against her head while she waits for him to respond.

“I think she misses the fight,” he says carefully. “But she’d never leave. Not now.”

Laura closes her eyes, letting a wave of cool afternoon air climb over her skin. “If I can get my mom to take the kids later, I think we should all go out.”

Clint sits up at that, squinting against the sunlight. “Go out?”

“Yes,” Laura says patiently. “Go out. You know, go to a bar, get drinks. It’s what normal couples do when they want to get away from their children.”

Clint laughs, a deep throaty growl as he collapses back to the ground. “We were never normal, Laur.”

“Maybe we once were,” Laura asserts and Clint catches her eye as he sits up again.

“If you can pull her away from those reports, you know I’ll never turn down alcohol.”

“Consider it done,” Laura responds, leaning over to kiss him. Clint wraps his arms around her neck and pulls her back down on top of him until Laura’s practically buried in his shoulder, laughing quietly while continuing to kiss the back of her neck.

You are a distraction,” she decides as she finally gets up, wiping grass and dirt from her jeans. Clint shrugs, following her lead.

“Yeah, but you love me.”

Laura nudges him with her foot as he goes back to work and then walks back to the house, pausing when she gets up the porch steps.

“Hey, kiddo.” She drops to her knees, brushing a hand over Cooper’s dark hair. He flinches a little but doesn’t shy away and Laura considers it a win, given that Cooper’s less than six months away from hitting verified teenage status.

“How’s dad doing with the treehouse?”

“It’s getting there,” Laura says with a small smile. “How’s the bow coming?”

“Pretty good.” Cooper removes his hands from the clicker and flexes his fingers with a deftness Laura recognizes from watching her husband handle his own bow so many times. The bow that Cooper is working on is one of Clint's older compounds, an allowance Clint had gifted his son upon starting middle school, despite Laura's protests. (Natasha had remained silent throughout the argument, pointing out the fact that she owned knives at ten years old made her incapable of weighing in on this particular adult matter with a logical opinion.)

“Dad said if I can get it strung properly, he’ll help me shoot in the barn.”

“Oh, really?” Laura raises an eyebrow. “And did dad ask mom about that?”

Cooper looks both embarrassed and guilty at the same time, what Laura can tell is her son trying to think fast enough in order to lie and get himself out of the conversation he’s walked himself into. She’s often ribbed that Cooper had inherited most of Clint’s less than helpful traits, but his inherent smarts combined with being around two people who worked for a good portion of their lives as professional spies meant that he had also picked up some of his own tricks, inherited or not.

“Erm. He said that he did.”

Laura hides a smile. “I thought so. See if you can fix that bow first, and then we’ll talk about learning how to shoot a real weapon.” She kisses him on the head before walking inside the house and takes off her shoes at the door. After entering the kitchen, she finds herself greeted with the smell of tomato soup simmering on the stove, the sight of half a loaf of Italian bread lying sideways on the cutting board and Natasha sitting at the table, hunched over a few papers with a mug of coffee near her elbow.

“Anyone ever tell you that you work too much?” Laura eyes the stove and walks over, turning down the heat as the red liquid bubbles a little too intensely and a little too close to the rim of the pot.

“Not to my face,” Natasha says, looking up as Laura moves the bread away. “Why, did you hear something?”

“Just didn’t want the house to burn down while you were busy trying to save the world,” she responds before sitting down at the table. Laura hides a smile when she realizes the edges of a report titled RECONNAISSANCE: ABIDJAN are stained with dried ketchup and a hint of glitter from Lila’s most recent art project.

“You need a break,” she decides after a moment when Natasha doesn’t continue the conversation. “I’m calling my mom and she’s going to come over later and watch the kids while we go out for drinks. It’s time we reclaimed some normalcy in this house.”

Natasha eyes her. “I wasn’t aware normalcy included getting drunk in a bar.”

“No,” Laura says. “Normalcy in this house has become constant trips to the East Coast and guns hidden in the attic.” She tries and fails to keep the bitterness out of her voice and Natasha sits back in her chair, giving her a sad smile.

“I know you both think it would be easier if I just stayed there,” she says quietly. “But I want to come home. Now that I can. Now that I’m able to.”

Laura nods. “I know,” she says softly, the pain easing out of her the more she looks at Natasha, seeing the genuine desperation in her gaze. “And I love that. Believe me, I do. I just wish it wasn’t so hard on you.” She brushes the back of her palm against Natasha’s cheek, just below the fading bags underneath her eyes, her wedding ring leaving a small indent against her skin.

“One day,” Natasha murmurs with a sigh as she leans into Laura’s palm. “One day, I’ll stop running in some way and we can just...be. The way you want. I promise.”

“Natasha.” Laura smiles, shaking her head. “This is the only way I want. Even if it’s a little hard right now. As long as you continue to come home, I’ll be happy. Don’t ever forget that.” She kisses her and then gets up, squeezing her shoulder before returning to the counter to finish making the lunch Natasha had started before becoming distracted. Some hours later, when Lila has returned from her friend’s house and Cooper has been fed and Nathaniel has been soothed and put to sleep, Elizabeth Foster shows up on the front doorstep. She pries Lila out of Laura’s arms, kisses Natasha and Clint, and gently urges them out the door underneath the warm glow of the porch light and encroaching dusk of the waning day.

“I’m going to regret this,” Natasha says after they’ve gotten into the minivan and Laura’s driven them to the bar Clint used to both frequent and work at before SHIELD. “Isn’t there some law about conflict of interest that applies here?”

Laura snorts. “You have definitely been spending too much time away from home,” she says, swiping at Natasha’s curly hair that's grown past her shoulders, walking ahead of both Clint and Natasha to push open the door. It’s nostalgic, still, to walk inside and see the low ceiling filled with Iowa State pendants and framed photos of local sports stars, the bottles of hard liquor filling out the counter behind the bar and the damp, musty atmosphere that signals the impending end of a lingering summer. There have been distinct changes over the past fifteen years, since Laura had first set foot in the place as a twenty-two-year-old college student -- the bar stools have been replaced and the floor has been repainted and some of the booths in the corner near the dartboard have been removed to make room for more pool tables and a wider, open space. The two individuals working behind the bar are masked with faces that look much younger than how Laura remembers Clint looking when he was in their position, and a quick glance at her husband confirms he's not familiar with them, despite still making regular trips to his old place of work every now and again. In one sense, the bar feels like somewhere that's new and different, but like the farm, there’s enough familiarity built into the crooked walls that allows Laura to remember exactly what it felt like when she sat here and met the man who would later become her husband.

“What are you thinking about?” Natasha asks as Laura slides onto a bar stool, leaving them to flank her on either side. She squeezes her hand under the table and Laura shares a glance with Clint.

“Tequila sunrises,” he says after a moment. Natasha looks at Clint and then Laura, and then groans.

“You really do pick up all your women in bars, don’t you?”

“I didn’t pick you up in a bar!” Clint protests as he attempts to flag down the bartender. “I picked you up in Russia!”

Natasha raises an eyebrow. “You took me to a bar on our first date.”

“That was not a date,” Clint says grumpily. “That was me attempting to appease you so you didn’t kill anyone.”

Natasha shrugs. “Same thing.” She bumps Laura’s shoulder and orders a round of whiskey shots for each of them. “Good thing I learned to love you.”

Clint’s phone beeps once, vibrating loudly inside his pocket, alerting them to the fact that Nathaniel is still sleeping and Lila has been put to bed and Cooper is helping Laura’s mom clean up the kitchen thanks to their extensive brownie mess. He shoves the phone at both Laura and Natasha so they can read the messages before accepting his own shot, which he downs quickly.

“Spill,” he says after he returns his glass to the table and Laura looks up in confusion, finding Clint staring at Natasha. He’s leaning forward eagerly, as if he expects her to open up about every secret she’s ever had.

“Spill what?” Natasha asks carefully, turning her gaze from where she’s been staring at the football game on the large overhead televisions.

“Everything,” Clint says, waving his hand around. “Cap. Wanda.”

“You talk to Wanda,” Natasha reminds him and Clint sets his mouth in a straight line.

“Not about this. What the hell are you doing over there?”

“Training, just like I told you,” Natasha says with a hint of impatience. “And if you're so curious about everyone else, you should know that Stark stopped by the other day to run his mouth about some new foundation he’s starting.”

“Tony Stark’s stealing from the rich and giving to the poor?” Clint asks sarcastically and Natasha rolls her eyes as she downs her shot easily.

“It’s called the September Foundation. Apparently, he’s going to provide grants and fund research projects for MIT. I guess it’s his way to make amends, more or less, after the mess we made in Sokovia.”

“Better than leaving a wake of kills in every country,” Clint mutters and Natasha gives him a sharp look as Laura puts a hand on his arm.

Clint.”

Clint ignores both of them, signaling for another round of whiskey. “So what does Stark’s new organization have to do with you guys?”

Natasha shrugs, glancing at Laura, who is nursing her own shot. “Because he wants the Avengers...or, whatever we are now -- he wants us to have some sort of representation in his PR release. I don’t know, Clint, I don’t pay that much attention to Stark’s affairs. I’m too busy trying to work so I can come home and make Lila’s grilled cheese lunches and make sure I don’t miss Nate’s first words.”

Clint frowns, rubbing a finger over the rim of his glass. “I thought Pepper handled all of that PR stuff.”

“And I thought we weren’t talking about work tonight,” Laura breaks in a little too curtly. Clint’s face becomes awash in guilt, almost as if he hasn’t realized what he’s said or what he’s been engrossed in conversation about for the past ten minutes.

“Sorry,” he apologizes quietly and Laura watches as his gaze drops to the bar table. “I know. I guess it’s just hard for me to be on the outskirts sometimes.”

“You want to be on the outskirts,” Laura reminds him gently, rubbing his arm. “But this is the first time we’ve all been out together without the kids since before Natasha started living here, and I want you to remember what it feels like to be retired. Breakfasts, treehouses...”

“PTA meetings?” Natasha leans over and puts her hand on Clint’s arm, reaching around Laura and catching her eye. “Beach trips, school lunches, baths, soccer practices, birthday parties --”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Clint signals for another round of drinks. “I get it, okay? I’m retired. Stop ganging up on me.” He pauses, nodding towards Natasha. “And by the way, you have glitter in your hair.”

“I do no --” Natasha stops, trailing her fingers through red strands. Laura watches as she stares at her hands, narrowing her eyes when she realizes the pads of her pointer finger and thumb are flecked with golden sparkles. “Shit,” she mutters and Laura can’t help the outright laugh that escapes her throat.

“Welcome to the wide world of parenting,” she says, motioning at Clint who is glancing down towards where his phone is hidden. “Glitter in your hair and worrying that your mother is going to call and say your baby threw up in the sink again.”

“Well.” Natasha swallows, her eyes bright. “Guess I have to suck it up, right? You’re stuck with me now. And I have about ten years of parenting to make up for in this marriage, so don’t think I’m going to get used to this anytime soon.”

Laura’s limbs start to tingle at Natasha’s words, a feeling brought on not so much by alcohol as much as by happiness, a feeling that she still hasn’t quite let herself accept. It was almost strange at times to hear Natasha sound so confident when it came to their relationship and their family, but then, Laura supposes it would be, given all the years of back and forth.

“You better not stop,” she says when she finds her voice again. “Lila still needs help with her book report.”

“And I said we would do that tomorrow, after I had a day to rest,” Natasha says with a small smile. “Though, now I’m regretting that promise.” As if to prove her point, she downs another shot and Clint rolls his eyes.

“Oh, please. You act like you could never hold your liquor.”

“If you’re still upset about Paraguay all those years ago, I can tell you the story of my wild freshman year of college,” Laura reminds her husband, heading off what she knows will be the start of a friendly yet long-winded argument. “If I remember correctly, I believe a game of strip poker was involved.”

“Hang on.” Clint practically falls off the barstool at her words. “I’ve been married to you for over fifteen years, and I never knew about strip poker?”

“Clint.” Laura reaches for the shot that Natasha’s ordered, motioning for the bartender to leave the bottle. “You’ve been married to me for over fifteen years and I didn’t know until last weekend that you had sex with Natasha in a jail cell.”

“That was one time!”

Natasha shrugs off Clint’s comment, leaning onto her elbows. “Personally, I’m interested in hearing more about strip poker.” She plays with Laura’s hair, brushing a finger along an errant strand that refuses to keep its place behind her ear. “Maybe we can make it a regular thing when the kids are out of the house.”

“Well.” Laura tosses Natasha a sly smile, swallowing down a mouthful of bitter liquid and suppressing the chill that rolls through her body. “I’d certainly be open to that. Besides, you’re both way too competitive for your own good.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Natasha says, smirking in Clint's direction, and they all lift their glasses in silent agreement.

 

***

 

It’s approaching eleven when Laura finally drives them back to the farm, and she only feels a little bad when she opens the door and finds her mother practically asleep on the couch with Cooper stretched out on her lap, video game console clutched loosely between his fingers. She ushers Clint and Natasha upstairs, both of them climbing a little clumsily, and then prods Cooper awake after kissing her mom.

“Wha’ time is’t?”

“Way past your bedtime, kiddo.” Laura helps him off the couch, hoping he can’t smell the lingering stench of alcohol on her breath and Elizabeth gathers her things as Laura waves her off. Call you tomorrow, she manages to convey with her eyes, feeling a sense of relief. Despite heading up the conversation, she hadn’t been sure, at the time, if she wanted to truly open up about her relationship with Natasha and Clint after so many years of her mother believing Clint was the only person she loved. Now, she knows she’s glad she jumped the hurdle. There was still a slight sense of awkwardness, especially when it came to family gatherings, but Laura’s mother understood more than anything what it meant to have unconditional love and a supportive family, something Natasha had been sorely missing for most of her life.

“Where’s dad?”

“In our room getting ready for bed,” Laura answers, guiding him up the stairs. “He’ll come in to say goodnight in a bit.”

“Nat?”

“With daddy.”

“Sorry. ‘Bout stayin’ up. Grandma said I could. Wasn’t tired.”

Laura smiles gently. “I know, kiddo. It’s okay.” She makes a quick assumption based on the fact Cooper’s in his pajamas that he’s already brushed his teeth and tucks him into bed, being careful not to wake Lila, who is lumped under the covers across the room, tucked tightly into her faded Beauty and the Beast comforter. Laura checks in on Nate, who is mercifully sleeping in his crib surrounded by several stray toys, and prays that her son can hold off for at least a few hours until all of them can get some sleep and attempt to sober up more.

“Say goodnight to your rebel son,” she informs Clint afterwards when she enters their bedroom, finding both Clint and Natasha practically passed out on top of one another. Clint groans into the covers.

“Do I have to?”

“Yes,” Laura says unapologetically. “Also, you’re on my side of the bed.”

Clint groans again but manages to get himself up, rolling rather ungracefully off the mattress and half-stumbling out of the room. Laura takes advantage of his absence to strip quickly until she’s mostly naked.

“You smell like whiskey,” Natasha mumbles as Laura pulls down the covers and crawls into bed, kissing her.

“So do you,” Laura returns, watching Natasha’s lips fold into a slight smile. “But I think I’ll keep you.”

“You think?” Natasha asks drowsily. Laura laughs under her breath as the door creaks open.

“Hey!”

“Clint.” Laura reaches her hand back as far as it will go, closing her eyes and imagining his indignant face, rumpled hair and slight pout. “Come to bed.”

She’s tired enough from both drinking and the stress of the day that it doesn’t take her long to fall asleep. But once she feels the dip of the mattress indicating Clint’s finally settled himself, and when he slings his arm over Natasha’s waist and when Natasha takes Laura’s hand and tucks it underneath her chin, Laura finds herself snapping awake. Her bleary vision meets Natasha’s face, eyes wide and alert as they stare at Laura intently and with all the scrutiny of a spy.

“Did anyone ever tell you it’s creepy to watch someone sleep?” Laura asks throatily and Natasha half-smiles, trailing a finger down her cheek.

“Not to my face,” she replies softly as the sound of distinct snoring starts to filter into the silence. “You okay?”

Laura nods, realizing she must be looking at Natasha in a way that’s causing her concern. “Yes. Why?”

Natasha shrugs as much as she can given that Clint’s more or less passed out on the other side of her. “It’s just something I’ve noticed. You both do that a lot.”

“Do what?” Laura asks, coming awake, curiosity overtaking her tired brain. Natasha hesitates, as if she’s not sure how to explain herself, even though Laura knows by now there are very few things that make Natasha uncomfortable when it comes to talking about their relationship.

“That...thing. That thing where you look like your children when they’re trying to figure out how to ask an adult something important. You get lost in these looks that make me wonder what you’re thinking about and not saying out loud. Either that or you're just trying to memorize how I look so you can put a hit on me.”

Laura’s cheeks grow hot with a blush that she thinks might also be due to the alcohol finally settling in her system, though she knows she hasn’t drank nearly enough to be affected in any way. “It’s just...these moments,” she says quietly after a long pause, trying to figure out how to phrase her words. “They’re still a little new, sometimes. Even though I know you’ve always been here --”

“I know,” Natasha interrupts quietly. “I like having these moments, too. It’s harder for me to sleep at the compound, now, when I’m away. It feels like it did before Clint.” She pauses. “I guess that means something, right?”

Laura nods slowly. “Even before the kids, Clint had a hard time sleeping away from home when he was at SHIELD,” she says softly. “At least, before you both became close.”

“Birds of a feather,” Natasha says, smiling tightly in the dark but Laura detects a waver in her normally firm tone.

“You’re home.” She leans over to kiss Natasha gently, noting how Natasha’s lips are trembling as if she’s trying to keep herself from falling apart. “We’re home.” She settles into the pillow and holds Natasha’s gaze until her eyes drop, her breathing becoming deep and even. Laura allows herself a few seconds to be grateful for everything that she has in this moment, before she finally lets her mind succumb to the dark shadows of sleep that pull at the edges of her brain.

 

***

 

Natasha wakes up far too early considering she knows she’d been overtired before she even got to the bar, not to mention the amount of alcohol she’d let herself consume -- less than she knows it would actually take her to get drunk but enough to make her feel off-kilter.

Clint and Laura have left her alone in the bed and Natasha lies still for a few moments, cataloguing the sounds of the house: barely discernible whines that bleed through the cracked walls, signaling Nathaniel has been roused and probably fed; the low hum of the television singing songs of friendship and playtime, faint creaking directly underneath her from the living room floor that she recognizes as Clint’s feet without the aid of his slippers. A quick glance at the bedside clock reveals that it’s past seven, which means Laura has already taken Cooper to soccer practice and come home, which also means the smell of coffee is wafting through the house, something Natasha is slowly becoming more aware of the more she wakes up. She gets out of bed, donning sweatpants and one of Clint’s old SHIELD t-shirts, ripped and faded along the arms where his too-big biceps have stretched out the hemming.

“About time you woke up,” Laura says when Natasha enters the kitchen. Nate is cooing quietly in her arms, tiny arms waving every so often. “Sleep okay?”

Natasha catches the look in Laura’s eyes, knowing that with Lila in the next room, she can’t exactly mention the fact she had woken up to Laura casually running her hands over her breasts. “I think so. Late night or not, sleeping in my own bed again did me good.”

“Good enough to drive a minivan and deal with screaming children?” Laura hands her a cup of coffee in her owl shaped mug and Natasha sighs.

“Well. Nothing will ever be good enough for that.” She sits down, sifting through the pages of the morning paper that either Laura or Clint has left open. “Honestly, I don’t know how you ever managed to not forget your children somewhere without me.”

“It was a few years worth of anxiety attacks,” Laura admits as Lila walks into the kitchen holding a full bowl of Corn Pops in both hands.

“Morning, Tasha!”

Natasha smiles despite the tiredness and lingering headache that refuses to abate. “Morning, Lila baby.” She put down her coffee and opens her arms as Lila bounds towards her, milk spilling out of the side of the bowl and onto the floor before she puts it on the table carefully. “Are we still on for your book report today?”

Lila hugs Natasha tightly and then nods, her eyes narrowing in confusion as she looks past Natasha’s shoulder. “What’s wrong with daddy?”

Natasha turns around and follows her gaze, watching Clint walk back into the kitchen a few paces behind his daughter, rubbing his forehead. She hides a smile, immediately recognizing his slow gait from one too many nights of drinking.

“I don’t think daddy’s feeling too well.”

“Oh.” Lila perks up again, smiling up at Natasha. “Does he need some hugs?”

“I think so,” Natasha agrees, winking at Laura. She watches Lila run to her father, wrapping her arms around his legs tightly and pressing her face into his faded jeans.

“Feel better, daddy.” She hugs him again and then kisses his pants for good measure, before skipping out of the living room.

“It’s not funny,” Clint complains, sliding into the kitchen chair, shoving his hands over his face.

“It kind of is,” Laura remarks as she nuzzles Nate’s tiny skull, eliciting a tiny giggle. “And it’s a good thing our daughter has compassion, because I have no sympathy for you.”

“I didn’t even drink that much,” Clint continues as Lila pads back into the kitchen with a plastic crown on her head, talking quietly to herself. Natasha watches out of the corner of her eye to make sure the five-year-old isn’t paying too much attention to the conversation.

“Which is why it’s funny,” Laura says. She drops her voice. “I’ll take her to the mall today, if you want.”

“No.” Clint shakes his head as Lila wanders back out of the room. “No, let me take something and I’ll be good. I could use the fresh air anyway.” He reaches for the coffee Laura’s left out and glares at Natasha. “Don’t say anything.”

“Wasn’t gonna,” Natasha replies smoothly, making sure Lila is far enough away before leaning over to brush her lips against his skin. “I just like seeing you fall apart sometimes. It reminds me of when I thought you were too perfect to be human.”

Clint snorts, gulping down mouthfuls of coffee and grimaces thanks to the hot liquid. “Yeah, well. When you’re bringing in an assassin and need to make sure you won’t die, you tend not to give up all your messy family secrets.”

Natasha smiles, clutching her own mug as her wrist vibrates suddenly. She glances down at the small device that masquerades as a hyperactive sort of Apple watch, only instead of fancy bells and whistles like heart rate monitoring and fitness tracking, Natasha’s is equipped to receive emergency calls and emails while away from the compound. It had been a gift of sorts from Tony, when she mentioned she needed something a little more advanced because she wasn’t going to be living at the compound the entire time with everyone else.

“Something wrong?”

Natasha looks back up, trying to push the notification from her mind, the one that had flashed quickly with ROGERS, STEVE: URGENT before fading to black.

“No,” Natasha responds, thankful that his brain probably won’t be as sharp this morning. “Just some emails coming through from yesterday. Delayed notifications. I’ll take care of them while you're at the mall.”

“Sounds good.” Clint looks at Laura. “You okay with him?”

Laura nods. “I’m going to take Nate with me when I pick up Cooper from practice and take them both to the library. I think it’s good for everyone to get out of house for a bit, and Natasha can do some work without being interrupted.”

“You know, I have mastered the ability to work and be a mother around three kids,” Natasha says pointedly.

“Oh, yes you have,” Laura responds with a grin. “And I love it.” She gets up, heading into the living room to sit more comfortably with the baby and Clint groans again.

“I’m taking a shower. I’d ask you if you want to join, but --”

“I got it.” She waves her hand, indicating her watch. “Plus, I’m not really a fan of watching you struggle for an erection when you’re still half hung over.”

“Ugh. I love you too.” Clint makes a face and then walks out of the kitchen, taking his coffee with him. Natasha lets the sounds of the farm settle, until there’s mostly silence save for Laura’s soft singing and Nate’s incoherent babbling and the squeal of the shower being turned on upstairs, followed by a rush of water. Natasha takes her own coffee and an overweight blueberry muffin from the bread bowl and then heads to the sun room, locking the door behind her and putting her breakfast down on the small side table.

“What’s up?” Natasha asks once she gets on her phone and calls Steve, who picks up on the first ring.

“Hello to you, too. Did you even read my email?”

Natasha hesitates. “No,” she admits. “But I know whatever it is you’re telling me, it’s something I should hear over the phone, otherwise you wouldn’t have bothered me here.”

Steve sighs and Natasha imagines him running a wide hand down his face, leaving sweaty red marks against his skin. “Yeah, well. We got a lead on Rumlow.”

“What?” Natasha hunches over, bringing the phone more tightly to her ear, all of her senses snapping into rapt attention. “How?”

“A lot of intel and a few weeks of digging, and some aerial work from Sam,” Steve responds. “Not to mention some sloppy reports and patterns. I want to bring the whole team out for some recon.”

“Hang on.” Natasha feels her heart stop, putting her hands out as if she’s stumbled and needs to catch herself before she falls. “Everyone?”

“Everyone,” Steve confirms. “You, Sam, Wanda -- we need all the help we can get.”

Natasha looks up and around the room, letting her gaze settle on the windows stained with two night’s worth of rainfall, the lightening blue sky becoming pastel overhead. Cooper’s latest art project, a paper mache elephant, is leaning haphazardly on the large television stand Laura had bought at a garage sale earlier in the month.

“I don’t know if we’re ready to do a mission like this, Steve. It’s big. It’s risky. They’re still new --”

“And this is exactly what they need,” Steve breaks in impatiently. “They’ve been training for months. They know how to control and use their powers and skills. How are they going to learn how to be a team...how are they going to learn how to fight in the real world, if we don’t let them?”

Natasha blinks. “And so you’re going to shove them out the door for something like this?”

“You know that Fury gave us that exact same treatment before New York,” Steve argues and Natasha grits her teeth to stop herself from saying something she knows she’ll regret. She counts to ten in her head before responding; there are battles she knows she needs to choose with her teammate and her friend, and she also knows this is one that’s not worth provoking.

“But you’re not Fury. And all of us had been in war in some way or another and knew how to fight the big battles, Steve. We had experience. I mean, are you even thinking of the potential consequences if something goes wrong?”

“What, you want me to wait until another killer robot comes for us and we have no choice?” Steve asks impatiently. “Come on, Nat. This is the first shot that we've had in months and it might be the only one we get. It’s the perfect opportunity. I’ll be there and you’ll be there and we’ll be able to control the fight. Turn it into a real-time training session where we can show them how this stuff works in the field. Sam’s been in battle before, he can handle this.”

“Wanda hasn’t,” Natasha reminds him, before closing her eyes on Steve’s resigned sigh. “Where?”

It’s Steve’s turn to hesitate. “Nigeria. More specifically, Lagos. We think he’s targeting the Institute for Infectious Diseases, preparing to release some gas or toxin. We need all hands on deck, eyes and ears, ground and sky. This isn’t just about Rumlow. It’s civilians, Nat.”

Natasha exhales loudly. Fuck civilians, she wants to say, but she knows she can’t. Fuck everything that’s not right here, at the farm, with the people I love.

“Don’t suppose you need an extra archer, do you?”

“Clint’s retired. That’s why you go to the farm. Or so you tell me.”

Natasha smiles tightly. “Right.” She swallows, listening to the sounds of Laura singing softly. She’s walking now, Natasha can tell, moving around the kitchen with the baby, close to the room. “When do you want me back?”

“As soon as possible. We want to move out while the trail is still hot enough, and it’s going to take enough time to get the team together as it is with briefings and preparations. Can you be back in New York by tomorrow night?”

Natasha’s heart tears into pieces at the words and she finds herself blinking back unexpected tears thinking of Lila’s book report, the one she had promised to help with and then present in class. She tries not to let her mind fixate on Cooper’s games and his homework, and Nathaniel, who every day was inching closer to his first words and first steps. Natasha had missed it all with Cooper, and she had experienced it with Lila, but Nathaniel was the first time she was supposed to experience it as a true part of the family. She bites back a laugh, remembering how Laura had asked if she wanted to go to her first Girl Scout meeting later that week and how Clint had teased he would finally teach her how to make homemade apple pie. Natasha allows her eyes to clear and her voice to steady itself before she speaks again.

“Yes. Probably.”

“Well, let me know. I’ll send over some information. We need you. And tell Barton we need him, too, if he ever wants to pick up his bow again.”

“Clint picks up his bow more than you know,” Natasha responds a bit defensively, because it’s true. Unlike Loki and unlike the sabbatical he had taken to be home with Laura and the kids when Hydra happened and when Laura had her miscarriage, Clint shot almost every other day, both to keep up his skill and, Natasha suspected, to keep himself from growing too bored. “He’s retired, he’s not incapacitated.”

“Noted. I’ll call you, Romanoff.”

Natasha nods, unable to find her voice again, and hangs up the phone, letting it fall into her lap. She closes her eyes and takes a few deep breaths as well as a few sips of now-lukewarm coffee, and then finally bites into her muffin.

Natasha sits alone and eats quietly, mulling over the conversation, and then gets up and wipes the crumbs off her pants. She curls up on the old couch and tries to focus on her work, the few emails and notes that have come through, the check-ins from Wanda that she’ll relay to Clint and Laura later, even though Natasha knows Clint’s given Wanda one of his old cell phones for easy access -- a lifeline of sorts for someone who could offer comfort when no one else could, the same way Natasha once gave Cooper a way to contact her when he wanted to tell her things he couldn’t tell his parents. She puts on a game face when Laura pokes her head into the room to announce she’s leaving for the library, closes her eyes again when the door shuts and the house immerses itself into quiet, and by the time Clint gets back from the mall, walking in the door with Lila, she’s so anxious that she just wants to get the whole thing over with. She meets him in the hallway, catching his eye as soon as he takes off his shoes.

“I need to talk to you.”

Lila’s fixated on her snack and stuffing her face with Cheetos, pulling the puffed cornmeal out of the plastic bag and sticking each finger methodically into her mouth to suck off the orange residue. Natasha watches Clint’s face change just enough to know he’s understood the seriousness behind her words and when he nods, it’s so subtle even she almost misses it.

“Hey, Lila baby.” He finishes easing out of his sandals and leans down, rubbing the pad of his thumb across the corner of her mouth. “Can you go upstairs and wash your hands and face, and Nat and I will be up in a bit?”

“Then we’ll do my book report?” Lila asks hopefully, turning an expectant face towards Natasha.

“After lunch,” Clint promises gently, standing up again and wiping his hands on his jeans as Lila walks up the stairs. Clint waits until they hear the bathroom door click shut before he speaks again. “What’s up?”

The shift from Clint Barton, casual dad and husband, to Clint Barton, concerned partner and former SHIELD agent, is only noticeable via a vocal change as Clint’s voice drops from a higher register to a low rumble. Still, it’s seamless enough that Natasha almost wants to laugh at how well he’s perfected it. She resists the urge to rib him about looking better and less hungover than this morning, not wanting to delay the conversation she knows she has to have.

“Not here,” she says, motioning to the door and Clint frowns more as he follows her outside, bare feet slapping against the newly painted wood of the porch.

“Nat?”

She closes the door softly behind her and then takes a deep breath. “Clint --”

“Natasha?”

The voice breezes through the wind blowing past Natasha’s face and when she turns around, Laura’s walking towards the farm with Cooper bringing up the rear, Nate secure in the baby bjorn Natasha's refused to be seen in public with. Laura shifts her tote bag on her shoulder, eyebrows knitted in deep concern. “Is everything okay?”

No. “Of course.” Natasha smiles, feeling her face morph into a tense grin, and she knows whether or not she’s intended it, Laura can see right through her words. “Just wanted to grab some fresh air. Coop, can you go inside and find your dad’s bow that you’ve been working on? I think I can show you some pointers on how to fix part of the string.”

The words have their intended effect as Cooper grins, running up the porch and into the house, leaving Laura alone outside. Natasha looks at Clint and then at Laura, framed against the landscape of the farm, silhouetted against the autumn-tinged trees which are growing thick with a fire-spread blanket of gold and orange. The cuffs of her ripped jeans are lined with dirt and her hair is spilling over her shoulders onto her oversized sweatshirt, which is stained with coffee and crayon smudges; with no makeup except sunscreen and concealer she looks both natural and unkempt, messy and put together at the same time. It makes Natasha think of some of her first visits to the farm, when she had been unsure and uncertain of everything except for this: she loved the two people who lived here, and she longed to call this place her home.

Natasha’s insides curl in both fear and sadness as she takes in their faces, Clint’s concern and Laura’s gentle understanding, because there’s a part of her that knows she can’t deny the fact something is about to change, no matter how much she wants to pretend running and fighting won’t always be her life -- even with a ring, even with a promise, even with a set of vows.

“Natasha, what --”

“Steve called. They’re pulling the team together, and there’s a mission he needs my help with. And I need to go back.”