Title: 10,000 Miles from Home
Author name: paleogymnast
Beta name: Carlos
Characters/Pairing: Laura Barton, Natasha Romanoff, Lila Barton, Cooper Barton, Nathaniel Pietro Barton, Hope van Dyne, Nakia (Dora Milaje), with background appearances/mentions of background Cassie Lang, Clint Barton, Steve Rogers, Clint Barton, Scott Lang, T’Challa, Hope van Dyne, Cassie Lang, Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, Tony Stark, and background Clint/Laura
Fandom/Universe: MCU (set post-Civil War) with influences from 616
Rating: R (or M)
Warnings: Graphic violence, strong language, violence towards/involving children
Summary: The Sokovia Accords were sold to the public as a check on the Avengers, intended to protect the autonomy of every nation. The real goal of the accords was to ensure the registration of every enhanced individual everywhere in the world, regardless of age, occupation, or country of origin, and using a very flexible definition of enhanced. So, when Steve Rogers broke the Avengers out of the Raft, Secretary Ross and UN forces sought to strike back at their families… only it didn’t quite go as planned. The proponents of the Accords really should have known not to mess with Black Widow. They really should have known not to go after Laura Barton: or how Laura Barton and Natasha Romanoff escaped the clutches of a UN Task Force and went on the most unconventional road trip to find their way home.
Fanworker Name: red_b_rackham
Rating of Fanwork: PG-13 (or Teen)
Link to accompanying fanwork master post: Beautiful Art Here
10,000 Miles to Home
“Your daughter is very talented, Mrs. Barton,” said Ms. Krespie, Lila’s second grade teacher.
“Thank you,” Laura answered. She wasn’t sure to what talent the teacher was referring, but it was a relief to hear praise. Especially with Clint gone, she’d half-expected parent teacher conferences would be full of complaints about the kids acting out, or being disruptive in class. Or worse, the kids would be withdrawn, depressed, and the teachers could be asking her what happened, and she’d have to lie, and there was risk, so much risk.
She and Clint had done their best to prepare the kids for the various eventualities and possibilities of his job. This was hardly the first time Clint had been gone for a prolonged period of time; it wasn’t even the first time he’d been taken prisoner or been MIA. But this time seemed different. He’d been retired, and while Laura knew Clint too well to think he was actually retired for good, they’d both thought things had settled down enough that maybe they’d get a few good years of quiet, share parenting duties, putter around the house and have the kind of “normal life” they’d never had (but always joked about) at least until Nathaniel was out of diapers, in preschool, maybe. And this time, it was their own side, their own government that had turned against Clint, branded him a criminal, and stashed him who knows where.
It took Laura a few moments to realize Ms. Krespie wasn’t talking, was still looking at her expectantly, like she wanted Laura to expound on the situation. Of course, Laura wasn’t entirely sure for what Lila was being praised, so she cast her mind back over everything Lila had said about school, or brought home with her. There were ‘A’s on her report cards, and some other grades on unusual topics Laura thought translated to good performance, there was Lila’s art, which she was always very proud of, and which looked quite advanced for an almost-eight-year-old, there were some good friends, and there was that one time Lila said she stopped a kid from bullying someone else, but she’d promised she hadn’t gotten into a fight. It could be anything or none of the above. “We always encourage Lila to apply herself and pay attention, and she has been very proud of her grades and her art....” But Laura could tell by the faint line that had appeared between the teacher’s eyebrows that she’d missed the point, or said something wrong.
“Mrs. Barton, Lila is a good student, and an above-average artist, but I am talking about her physical ability—coordination, grace, her awareness of her body, her hand-eye coordination. Developmentally it is far beyond that of a typical seven-year-old. It’s far beyond the skills of any other child in the elementary school. Our PE teacher said Lila completed the dance and gymnastics units perfectly, it was as if she were a trained ballerina or competitive gymnast, her performance was effortless, and she was so helpful to the other students. She gave them pointers and showed real, poise. Lila never showed off. They students just began a unit on racquet sports—Lila could be the next tennis or badminton prodigy. Her performance was so exceptional, we called in the PE teacher for the middle school and high school, and she said Lila excelled in golf too.”
A slightly nauseating mix of pride and panic was stirring in Laura’s stomach, the scene in the surrounding room taking on a distorted, surreal vibe. As if she were in a dream and the entire room might melt or turn to ash before her eyes leaving her alone to wake up in bed, heart pounding. But the room wasn’t melting.
“I’ve seen it myself,” Ms. Krespie continued. “One of the students in our class was teasing and bullying another student, not Lila,” she reassured hurriedly. “One day, a couple weeks ago, the bully started making paper airplanes out of his notebook paper. We were working on a spelling exercise. He threw one of the airplanes at the child he was bullying, who happens to be seated next to Lila. I saw it happening too late to stop, but as I was getting up to admonish him, Lila just caught the paper airplane out of the air, turned to the bully, and praised him on his airplane making skills. Then she said the other student would be able to better appreciate the airplane if he just showed it to her. It was amazing! I don’t think she even looked. She just seemed to know where it was, and stopped it from hitting her classmate. And then she diffused the situation and went back to her spelling. The bully hasn’t been a problem since!”
The swell of pride inside Laura grew, but so did the sense of dread.
“Mrs. Barton, skills like Lila’s are very special. I know she may seem a bit young for team sports or competition, but she’s a perfect age to study gymnastics or dance, or even tennis or golf. Whatever she wants to do, you could be looking at an Olympic caliber athlete. She’s very smart, and her athletic talents could help pave the way to educational opportunities, through scholarships. I know it seems like that’s all a long way off, but these days, you really can’t start too young. There’s a summer camp—just day camp for kids Lila’s age—that’s run out of Shelby, it’s only a 45-minute drive, and I’m sure we could arrange transportation for Lila, but it’s an amazing program! They have an intensive gymnastics camp, tennis, dance, volleyball, basketball—even archery, which I think Lila could be particularly good at—”
At the mention of archery, Laura’s heart seized up and she wanted to choke, because of course Lila would be good at archery. But... but...
Something must have showed on Laura’s face, because the teacher had broken off her sales pitch and was back pedaling. “I know it sounds dangerous, but the instructors keep it all very safe, and archery is a really sophisticated, dignified sport. It’s all about hand-eye coordination, not violence. Of course, the permission slip is very detailed, so if there’s a sport you don’t feel comfortable with Lila learning, the choice is yours. But I really, really think you should consider this, even the archery. Lila is a very special and talented girl, and this could be an amazing opportunity for her. It’s not often we see girls who are comfortable displaying the kind of athletic aptitude she has, and it’s rare we can offer an opportunity like this to a child so young.” Ms. Krespie pulled a brightly collored, glossy pamphlet out of a folder and slid it across the desk to Laura, pressing it into her hands. “Just take a look, think about it. If you’re interested, I can email you more information or put you directly in touch with the camp director. You can schedule a tour of the facilities, at least ask Lila if it’s something she’d like to do. Lila really is special.”
Laura forced herself to look down at the pamphlet in her hands, pasted on a smile. “Thank you. We’ll think about it.” Not a word of what Ms. Krespie said after that point registered.
She stole a glance at Nathaniel’s car seat tucked away in the back seat. He’d slept through the entire conference, safely tucked away in the elementary school’s impromptu child care center, which was really a couple of volunteer parents and three teenage babysitters holed away in the Kindergarten classroom. Normally she relished a few blissful baby-free moments whenever Nathaniel was sleeping. They didn’t often hire babysitters, but she’d never hesitated to use the child care center in the past. Now, she felt like she should be checking her 18-month old for a tracking device.
Did they know? Was the government already watching her kids? Was this a ploy to control Lila, to train her? Was it a plan to exert control over Clint? Or was it innocent? Was she denying her daughter an amazing opportunity because she was to scared about the ulterior motives that could be lurking in the wings?
Clint had been gone for seven days. One week since he got the call from Steve. He was doing the right thing; of that she was certain. Clint had been in the game for a long time. As long as she’d known him. They’d both gone into marriage—and parenthood—with their eyes open. They’d known the risks. Laura had always known Clint could be killed or disavowed, no loyalties were absolute, and his family would always be a target. That’s why they’d gone to such lengths to have a safe retreat. Off the books. Unofficial. Someplace only they and people they trusted absolutely could find. In their quiet Iowa community they were the Bartons, but no one knew they were related to Hawkeye. It was a prefect haven.
Or it had been. Tony Fucking Stark!
Over the years, Clint had shared his opinions and impressions of the Genius Billionaire Playboy Philanthropist otherwise known as Iron Man. He mostly stayed out of office politics, and hadn’t judged Tony that harshly. If anything, Clint had a lot of sympathy for the guy what with his raging, untreated PTSD and host of other ailments. Plus, Tony Stark had principles.
Or so they’d thought.
Tony’s misguided attack of conscience was going to get people killed. It might have already gotten Clint killed. And it was putting everyone they knew and loved in danger. Avoidable, unnecessary danger. She’d really thought Tony wasn’t so naïve. Couldn’t he see that the Accords weren’t about accountability, but control? A committee with authority over people’s lives, telling them when, where, and how they could be themselves; a registry recording and tracking people…
Of course she was really mad at Natasha. Clint had tried to brush off Natasha’s allegiance with Tony Stark as a tactical decision, not personal, but Laura could tell it had hurt. Nat had been their friend for years, since Clint had found a third option and brought Nat into S.H.I.E.L.D. Hell, they had named their son after her. And now she was on the other side.
Laura let herself get lost in her thoughts, perhaps a little too much. Soon she was turning off the rural road and pulling up the long, private drive into their farm, still snatching glances through her rearview mirror. She’d passed only passed two cars in the last five miles, and no one had been behind her since she’d left town. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was following her.
The feeling didn’t ease as she drove across the field and pulled up to the house. Something was wrong. Danger, anticipation, was in the air, a palpable threat, but unseen. The sun had long since dipped below the horizon but the moon and stars were out, and the last vestiges of twilight still clung to the land, casting everything in eerie light, awash in shadows. As the truck’s engine ticked and cooled, she pulled herself together trying to bury the paranoia spiking up her spine. Already weary, she unbuckled Nathaniel from his car seat, and entered the house.
They would run. It was the only sensible thing to do. Tonight. When it was dark. They would leave, and—she thought as her heart gave a pang of nostalgia for the home she and Clint had built together, their own sweat and blood and tears and labor and love pouring into every inch, every nail, every screw—probably never come back. They needed to disappear. Untraceable. She would find a way to get word of or to Clint at some point, but they couldn’t stay here any longer waiting, hoping.
Every moment they remained was one moment too long, one heartbeat closer to them all being captured. And then what would they do? She couldn’t put Clint in that position. Wouldn’t allow herself or their kids to be used against him. Anyone who thought otherwise would be sorely mistaken.
She kept her head down, adjusting the baseball cap she’d picked up in the souvenir shop over her hastily cut and dyed hair, and slipping her sunglasses out of her pocket and sliding them over her eyes even as she scanned the crowd, careful to avoid any security cameras. So, somebody’d found her, or at least spotted her and realized she looked familiar enough to merit additional scrutiny. It had been just a little under 72 hours since she’d helped Steve and the Winter Soldier—Barnes, she corrected herself—fly away from T’Challa. 60 hours or so since Tony had picked a fight with her, taunted her. Secretary Ross and his cronies were coming for her. In the time since, she’d mostly been on the move. She’d managed to make it out of Germany before they completely locked down the borders and traveled 2/3 of the way across the Czech Republic to Brno before exhaustion and a need to make herself less recognizable caused her to stop. She’d been thinking of trying to find a room and spend the rest of the afternoon getting some sleep, but it was now looking like that was not going to be an option.
It was never a good idea to linger at the scene of a crime, after all.
Natasha stepped off the curb and strode briskly across the street, blending into the crowd. She wouldn’t lose her tail this way—whoever had her in their sights was a professional—but if she played her cards right she could lead them away from the crowd to somewhere less likely to draw attention. She walked with the flow for half a block before slipping out of the stream of traffic into a recessed doorway. She waited there for a handful of heartbeats, eyes flicking across the intersection, searching. She thought she caught a glimpse of black leather and dark hair before it slipped out of view. The profile twigged her memory as being familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it. Nothing and no one else jumped out or pinged her radar. Maybe she’d gotten lucky? A sole scout trying to confirm identity before they called in a hit squad or strike team.
She slipped back onto the sidewalk, sticking close to the wall, moving against the flow of foot traffic as she doubled back, across the street, past the shop, and down a side street.
For a few blissful seconds she felt nothing—no prickling on the back of her neck, no shadows in her peripheral vision, nothing—and thought she’d actually lost her tail, but a few seconds later the sensation of being watched was back, and more intense than ever. She caught a reflection of the same black leather clad figure about half a block behind her in the fender of a car, and hastened her steps as much as she dared. It would serve no one to draw attention to herself, but if she was going to have a confrontation, better that it wasn’t on a busy street in broad daylight.
Natasha turned left down the next cross street she came to, walked a block, crossed the street, turned right, and repeated, zigzagging her way across the neighborhood away from the busy shopping district, eyes open, searching for anywhere concealed, dark, private. Two minutes later, tail still too close for comfort, she came across what she’d been looking for. Natasha’s seemingly random, yet purposeful steps had taken her into a quiet, more residential area. The crowd had thinned, and there were no security or surveillance cameras in sight. On her left was a narrow alley between two newer construction buildings. The buildings were tall enough to cast shadows, leaving the sort-of-alley shaded in semi-darkness. It would have to do.
She quickened her steps for a half-dozen strides and darted into the alley, whirling around as soon as she was three strides inside. As she turned, she brought her hands up immediately grappling for her would-be assailant, who was a terrifying stride and a half behind by the time Natasha acted. She dodged a well-placed kick to her midriff, reaching in to pin a clenched hand above the assialant’s head. There was a confusing struggle in which Nat got the sense the assailant wasn’t trying as hard as they should be, and a few seconds later, had the assailant pinned to the brick wall of the northern side of the alley, one hand clamped around the assailant’s right wrist, the other gripping her neck tightly and pinning her back to the wall.
It was only then that Natasha felt the knife under her ribs, it’s too-sharp ceramic blade parting clothing and skin as Natasha pinned the knife’s welder to the wall. Well, shit.
“I am not here to kill you, Ms. Romanoff, but I will defend myself, and if you keep pushing, you will get yourself killed.”
Sucking in a breath, Nat stepped back loosening her grip on her opponent and dropping into a defensive stance. The figure before her was a slender, dark-skinned woman with close-cropped hair and well-defined muscles, a bit taller than Nat, and every bit as deadly. Nat knew her, she realized. Her mystery stalker was none other than King T’Challa’s chief of security. “So T’Challa sent you to do his dirty work?” It wasn’t unexpected. In the brief time she’d made his acquaintance, Nat had gotten the sense T’Challa was the sort to prioritize revenge, even at the expense of causing an international incident. He wouldn’t sit back and wait for a committee vote, or trust the Americans (or the Avengers in their depleted form) to mete out justice. She wondered if T’Challa even noticed the irony given it was his country that had championed the dammed Accords. If anything, she was surprised it had taken this long. “Afraid of violating his own treaty?” she added, taunting even as she shifted her weight onto her back foot, readying to spring backwards and draw the 9mm currently bolstered at the small of her back.
“My king does not need anyone to fight his battles,” the security chief said with a sneer, straining defiantly against Natasha’s grip. She made an abortive thrust with the knife, then visible calmed, sertled, and refined herself in. “If he wanted you dead, you would be long dead.”
That surprised Natasha, but she didn’t let it show. It was her job, and often a matter of life or death for her to read people, assess their motivations and goals, know their buttons, understand how to bend their desires and insecurities to her will. But she was at a loss as to what T’Challa wanted if not to kill her. By his own admission, he wasn’t much of a diplomat, so what was he after? Instead of tipping her hand, she said, “I don’t have time to play games, so whatever it is your boss—or you—want, spit it out.”
The security chief’s expression grew pinched again as if disgusted with Natasha’s colloquial vernacular. “I am Nakia, Commander of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s royal guard. King T’Challa would have come himself, but his position and plans are precarious and he does not wish to draw attention to you. Instead he offers you his forgiveness and an apology.”
Nat had been prepared to snark back that she didn’t need his forgiveness, but— “An apology?” she queried.
“T’Challa sends his deepest regrets that he allowed himself to be manipulated into falling into a trap. He bears no ill will towards you and thanks you for the dedication you showed to your teammates,” Nakia continued.
Natasha’s eyebrow cocked at the mention of manipulation, but she didn’t release her grip on the woman’s wrist.
“King T’Challa followed your friend Mr. Stark, who followed your friend Mr. Rogers and his friend, Barnes, to a remote base in Siberia. They were hunting a terrorist, a Sokovian black ops officer who your friends believed had framed Mr. Barnes and was going to release several more winter soldiers into the world. Instead, Zimo, the terrorist, killed the other winter soldiers, and manipulated your friends into trying to kill each other.”
Natasha’s eyebrow rose a little higher.
“Apparently Mr. Barnes assassinated Mr. Stark’s parents while under Hydra control; Mr. Rogers knew of the assassination, but had not informed Mr. Stark, and he defended Barnes.”
Oh, Natasha realized she assumed without confirmation that the Winter Soldier had killed Howard and Maria Stark, but she had never really stopped to think that Tony did not know his parents were murdered, nor would she have ever considered telling Tony. No good could come from that. She winced at the thought and suddenly wondered if her fractured friends—her family—were still living. Of all the things she’d feared, Tony and Steve killing each other over a secret hadn’t even made the list.
“The ploy was unsuccessful, but all three of your friends were injured, and Mr. Stark’s and Mr. Rogers’ positions are now intractable. There have been... complications. King T’Challa was able to deliver the terrorist known as Zimo to the CIA taskforce, but he has not been able to clear your friends’ names. Mr. Stark has retreated to America and still publicly supports the Accords. My king has granted sanctuary to Mr. Stark and Mr. Barnes, and will extend that sanctuary to you as well. Our country has the resources and means to enable you to continue to fight for justice in the world, but first he must ask a favor.”
Natasha’s stomach flipped with a combination of dread and surprise; though she gave no outward indication, she was floored at the unexpected turn of events. There were so many questions, but some were so personal and nuanced, could she even ask Nakia? Was there time? And what was this mysterious favor?
“In a little over 48 hours Mr. Rogers plans to strike at the Americans’ prison to free your friends. T’Challa is aiding him with an incursion into the Raft Prison.”
The raft was the post-S.H.I.E.L.D. world’s version of the Fridge—a supermax beyond supermax, isolated, hidden, impossible to get in and out of, location both mobile and largely unknown, it was the place to send the worst of the worst, those so unstable or destabilizing that even keeping them on the same continent as polite society was considered too much of a risk. The thought of Clint or poor, sweet Wanda there sent chills up her spine. Guilt sat heavily in her stomach in a way it hadn’t since before she joined S.H.I.E.L.D. “How—” she started to ask, but Nakia plunged onward.
“T’Challa followed Mr. Stark who took a meeting with your Secretary there. We have the means to accomplish the prison break. That is not the favor.”
“Then what?” Natasha demanded, finally lowering her hand from Nakia’ wrist and crossing her arms defensively. Sure, she was certain Clint was pissed at her. Hell, she was pissed at her. But there was nothing she would rather do than help make right what she had contributed to making wrong. She needed to help. How could they deny her?
“The moment Mr. Rogers strikes the Raft, your Secretary will take into custody Mr. Barton’ family. They will be leverage, and Secretary Ross will not hesitate to make them casualties if it serves his position,” Nakia said.
For a split second, Nat dismissed the concern—Laura and the kids were safe. No one but Fury knew about the Farm, and he would never—
Only that wasn’t true. They’d taken the Avengers there. The Avengers including Tony, and while she didn’t think Tony was so far gone as to disclose that information—even if he thought it would help smooth things over with Ross and the greater public, he would still know it wasn’t the right thing to do, right? Collateral damage, the death of innocents was how they got into this whole mess, Tony wouldn’t sell out Clint’s kids to prove a point— But it didn’t really matter what Tony did, because he’d been there. And that meant Vision had been there too, and FRIDAY undoubtedly had the location in her databanks, and anything Tony had recorded would be in the Avengers’ files, and with him playing nice with Ross, even temporarily, that meant everyone was compromised. Even if Tony kept his mouth shut, there was no way Ross didn’t have his grubby fingers in every, single bit and byte of information in any way affiliated with any of Tony’s operating systems.
Laura—Laura would know to run, go to ground, find a safe house for her and the kids, but how would she know which ones weren’t compromised? How would she know when to act, when to move? With little Nathaniel still so young—
“What’s Steve’s plan? What does he want me to do?” Because while she was willing to buy that T’Challa had come to his senses—especially if Zemo had murdered his father—the plan was definitely Steve’s. Come to think of it, that was why Nakia had found her here. Steve knew her better than anyone except Clint, and he certainly knew about the cache she’d been heading to. Her posture relaxed, and she released Nakia’s wrist, acutely aware of just how long they’d both been standing there. A quick check of her surroundings had Nat stepping deeper into the alleyway, with Nakia following. Bad move if Nakia really was an enemy, but Nat was willing to give her here benefit of the doubt.
“In your cache there us a recorded message from Rogers and T’Challa along with additional resources. There is a diplomatic flight leaving from Vienna that will make an unexpected layover in Prague at 1000 tomorrow before continuing to New York. You will be able to get on and off with the diplomatic baggage. Once in New York you will be on your own. Rescue Mr. Barton’s family and head west to San Francisco to rendezvous with Mr. Lang’s daughter and Hope van Dyne. We will get word to you there. You will all be offered sanctuary in Wakanda.”
“Mommy?” Lila asked, making Laura draw up short, since she’d turned seven, Lila had been adamant in her use of “mom” and “dad.” “Are we going to have to pay for broken airplanes in Germany?”
“What?” Laura stammered not following.
Cooper looked at her guiltily, even as he bent over to hug his little brother. “It was on the news… we were hoping there’d be something about dad…” he trailed off.
Laura’s unease grew and grew as Lila and Cooper explained. They’d turned on CNN, and while watching the news, the newscaster said German Authorities were calling for reparations and payment for the destruction. They were blaming the Rogue Avengers, including Captain America and Hawkeye, and they even put a picture of Clint on the News.
At least that meant Clint was probably still alive.
“We’re not going to have to pay for broken airplanes. Even if someone wants us to, it wasn’t daddy’s fault. You know, we explained, dad had to do something very dangerous that he believes in to help all of us, including other kids and families like us all over the world.” Laura tried to tell them everything will be all right, but she could see Cooper didn’t believe her. Even Lila looked doubtful.
Lila asked if Auntie Nat was really helping the bad guys. Laura again tried to explain the supporters of the Sokovia accords weren’t really bad guys, just people who had a different opinion, but Lila pointed out the “bad guys,” wanted to stop Daddy from being an Avenger and threatened his friends. Laura tried to keep her contempt for Natasha out of her voice, but she wasn’t she succeeded. She was pretty sure her kids could see her own confusion shining through.
As they moved into the kitchen to start dinner, Laura listened to her older children as their attention turned to their little brother, while mused and worried silently to herself. It was strange that she hadn’t seen anything about Natasha since the battle in Germany. She worried about Clint, the reports Cooper and Lila described suggested he was alive, but not where he was taken. She’d heard horror stories from Clint and Natasha about rendition to secret prisons, she just never thought she’d be on the flipside, the anxious family member with a disappeared loved one, anxious for any news, worried she’d never know what had happened.
Laura used to have at least some idea of who the bad guys were and where the secret prisons probably were, but since S.H.I.E.L.D. fell, it had been a different landscape, a different world. She always thought if Clint was captured long term he’d be a POW or sent to the Russian Gulag or in someone else’s secret prison. She certainly never thought the same Government he nearly died for over and over again would stick him in one of their own black sites. She had held onto hope that as his family member, she might get a call, something informing her of the charges or at least confirming who had him. How naïve! In the old days Fury knew about her and the kids, and he would have told them. Now, thanks to nosy-ass Tony Fucking Stark, they were all listed in Clint’s official file, it wouldn’t be hard for anyone to find means to contact them (even if it would hopefully take a little longer to find them), but somehow she knew if any official avengers, the U.S. Government, or the UN task force did reach out to her, it would be to threaten her, not inform her of her husband’s whereabouts.
“Okay guys, time to wash up for dinner!” she called out, rousing herself from her thoughts, while she went to get Nathaniel changed. Lila ran off, but Cooper lingered.
Laura was gearing up to call out to Cooper and ask him to wash up, again, when he appeared in the doorway to the master bedroom, where she was adjusting the snaps on Nate’s pants. Toilet training, not something she was looking forward to tackling as a single parent. Cooper’s eyes were shifty, downcast, and she knew the moment he looked up at her that something was very, very wrong.
“When we were watching the news, right before you came home, the cable went out.”
“Is that why you had the PBS News Hour on and it kept going all pixelated?” she asked, trying to keep her tone light. PBS was the only station their roof antenna picked up, and it left her aching for the days of analog TV when fiddling with rabbit ears could at least produce patterned “snow” clear enough to watch if you didn’t mind the hiss of static.
“Now that’s out too,” Cooper stammered. “I, I checked the phones and… Mom, they’re coming to take us, aren’t they?”
Slowly, heart breaking, Laura nodded. She ached for her kids’ childhoods. Cooper was right, there was no way this was a coincidence. Not with Mrs. Krespie’s spontaneous suggestion Lila go to archery camp, not with the ever-present creeping sensation on the back of her neck. They were being watched. Her plan to leave tonight would come too late. Part of her wondered why now? It had been seven days, almost six since the fight in Germany, why had they waited? Had they hoped to lull Laura into a false sense of security? Or had something else happened to make them act? Whoever “them” was… “Get your sister and grab your bags, just like we practiced,” she said, as Cooper ran from the room.
Laura set Nathaniel down on the bed and dropped to the floor, pulling free the floorboards that concealed her go bag, the baby’s go bag, and the floor safe filled with extra passports, cash, untraceable IDs, and weapons. Once upon a time she’d thought Clint was paranoid, especially with burying the safe in their bedroom floor, close at hand, but concealed. Now she wished she’d been a little more warry.
“You’re in danger. We need to go.”
Laura jumped at the sudden sound, smacking the back of her hand against the latch on the safe door. She hissed in pain, shaking her hand, as she set down the last of the stash on the bed. Her left hand was still in the safe, the last item clutched firmly in her grip. Anger surging in her, she whirled, gun in hand, to face the source of those words. Natasha. “How could you? How could you? After all these years, how could you turn your back on us? Betray us? You owe Clint your life! How could you set them on my children?!”
Natasha stood, stock still, hands raised in surrender. “I didn’t betray you. I never betrayed Clint. I’m on your side. They’re after me too, it’s just a very, very long story, and we really don’t have time, because a UN spec ops task force is surrounding the house and is going to breach at any moment. We need to go, now.”
“No,” Laura disagreed, her aim not wavering.
“No?” Natasha asked. “You’re obviously planning to run. You’ve got the go bags—”
Laura moved to cover the bags and documents with her body on reflex as if Nat might snatch them away. She switched her grip on the gun to her right hand and began stuffing the various documents and weapons into open bag compartments as fast as she could go one handed. “I can’t trust you. It sucks Natasha. You were my friend. You were Clint’s friend. You’re Nathaniel’s godmother. But you put yourself on the other side and you betrayed us. You fought against Clint. You support a treaty that would have Clint registered, marked, tracked, monitored, restricted—and now they’re coming after us too. You know where this leads, but you did it anyway. How can I possibly trust you?”
Laura and Natasha continued to verbally spar even as Laura continued to shift and shuffle the bags around, moving items from Clint’s bag to her own and the baby’s while wracking her brain, trying to make sure she wasn’t forgetting anything. Cell phones, chargers, nope… they had burner phones in their go bags, but the SD cards. She glared at Nat and lowered her weapon, keeping it within easy grasping range, so she could use both hands to pull the memory cards from her existing phone.
Natasha rattled on and on, claiming she’d helped Steve and Bucky escape from Germany, and that’s why there hadn’t been anything about her in the news. Ross was too embarrassed that within a week of the signing of the accords one of the proponents came out as an enhanced individual (who hadn’t signed), they have turned Captain America into an international fugitive, and at least one of the avengers who signed on had rebuked it. Laura didn’t know what she was talking about. She wasn’t aware of any secret enhanced individual supporters. But Natasha insisted “they” were after her too, but for public relations and image reasons, they can’t hunt her openly.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Laura gritted out as she zipped up the ballistic nylon duffle bag.
“Oh, right, you heard about Black Panther?”
Laura gave her a quizzical look.
“The cat-looking superhero that fought against Steve and Sam in Romania,” Nat supplied.
“That’s King T’Challa. Long story short, he was on Tony’s side, hypocritically since he had no intention of signing until he went on a revenge kick; only he found out the whole thing was a setup, and now he’s trying to help you get out; he sent me, and I really can’t say more until we get to a secure location, so will you please stow the gun and let me help. We have. To. Go. Now.”
By that time Lila and Cooper had returned, staring shell-shocked in the hallway between the kitchen and the master bedroom, their eyes darting between their mom and their aunt unsure of what to do. Nathaniel started to cry.
Laura shoved the handgun into the pocket holster on her go bag, and slung the diaper bag across her back. “We were just leaving, anyway, so why don’t you show yourself out. Like I said, I can’t trust you. If you want to run and save yourself, I’m not stopping you, but we don’t need your dubious help. As much as I wants to trust you, there’s no guarantee you won’t take us to Secretary Ross.” Laura could take care of herself, thank you very much.
At that moment, a crash thundered through the front of the house and the lights flickered and went out. Laura saw stars, ears ringing from the ear-shattering noise, as Nate started to bawl. Throwing herself over her youngest, Laura realized what had happened. Someone had thrown a flashbang into the Bartons’ entryway. The muted tinkling of breaking glass followed as black-clad spec ops forces from the UN taskforce stream into their family room.
Eyes wide, and argument forgotten, Laura and Natasha simultaneously sprang into action. Laura shielded baby Nathaniel with her body even as she tried to grab all the bags on the bed and run, while Nat darted back down the hallway towards the coming danger. Laura couldn’t see Cooper or Lila. They’d been there one minute and then occluded from view by a dense fog—tear gas, a smoke grenade, or something else entirely, she didn’t want to stick around to find out.
But the way out was blocked. She didn’t want to turn her back on Natasha because no matter if she was apparently telling the truth about the impending attack, there was no guarantee that wasn’t just a ruse to gain Laura’s trust, get her to unwittingly surrender. She could hear Lila screaming from somewhere nearer to the front of the house, but she couldn’t’ see her. Cooper, where was Cooper? she wondered frantically as she scooped up Nathaniel in one arm, bags draped all over her. “Lila? Cooper? Run!” she screamed at her two older children.
Laura managed to get out of the bedroom through the window. Bags draped from her shoulders, she turned for one last look and saw she’d left some of the cash, and half the IDs on the bed, including the waterproof folder that held the kids’ genuine birth certificates. She wondered absently if she’d be able to double back, or if they’d just have to run, screwed, making do with whatever she’d managed to stow before her ire at Natasha had driven her to distraction. Even as she wondered, another black-clad operative spring around the corner outside the house, almost taking her by surprise. Laura ducked and managed to get a knee to the guy’s groin, but found herself trapped and tangled in the bags, and Nathaniel still clutched to her chest, silent, head tucked against her shoulder, obviously terrified. She’d managed to put on the baby carrier (she was grateful he was still relatively small for his age, or there’d be no way to fit him), but hadn’t managed to get Nathaniel in it. She kicked again at the guard, this time managing to get her foot to his chin and sending him flying. He was down, but she was almost knocked off balance, as more explosions sound, dull thuds in her still-ringing ears, and something stinging and smoky tumbled out through the window. Tear gas.
At least she hoped it was just tear gas, and not something new and unusual Tony Stark or DARPA had cooked up.
Laura realized she hadn’t heard any gunshots. That could only mean their assailants—UN task force or whoever they were, must have been ordered to take her and the kids alive—or at least to keep the kids alive, she realized with sinking horror, as another black-clad figure ran into view and raised a weapon at her chest, only to seem to reconsider as he saw Nathaniel. Nice of them to show such respect for human life… too bad it meant the plan was probably to use Laura and the kids as leverage against Clint.
The second operative was still approaching. Determined, Laura wound up and kicked the operative in the groin, letting her momentum swing the overweight baby bag around and to follow through, as she used her now-free hand to reach into her jacket and retrieve the weapon she’d stashed there. The TASER’s contacts latched onto the operative with a reassuring jolt and seconds later, he went down. Charge spent, she tossed the TASER aside, and crept forward.
From the side of the house, Laura could see the carnage the squad had wrought. Broken glass, splintered wood, and what looked like her TV were scattered all over the grass, broken porch railings just visible in the ever-dimming light. She couldn’t see well enough through the smoke and evening light to tell who was there. Couldn’t see Cooper or Lila. The ringing in her ears was starting to abate, but within seconds it was replaced with a new sound, the decidedly panic-inducing low thrum of an approaching helicopter (or helicopters, knowing her luck). Frantic, she doubled around to the back door and rushed back into the house through the unmarred entryway. The scene that greeted her drew her up short.
There in the middle of the room, surrounded by the detritus of a half-destroyed wall, broken furniture, and other shapes unidentifiable in the shadowy darkness, was Natasha, surrounded by five armed “ninjas” for lack of a better word. Both they and Nat seemed to be trying to avoid firing any weapons probably in deference to the kids, and possibly in the hope of avoiding even more loud noise and the loud noise, which might draw attention even as remote as the farmhouse was or further damage everyone’s eardrums at the very least. Unfortunately, the ensuing melee appeared to be working more to the operatives’ advantage than Natasha’s.
Cooper was standing at the top of the stairs looking dumbfounded, but Lila is no where to be seen.
Laura had a horrible sinking feeling Natasha had been telling the truth. At that moment, Nat made eye contact with Laura across the smoky room. Laura’s expression must have spurred something in Natasha. Like a flipped switch she began attacking with new vigor. Natasha managed to shock one operative into submission with the widow’s bite Laura hadn’t even realized was tucked around her wrists. Nat shifted, grabbing onto one of her attackers and managed to snap their neck. A third operative gets stabbed with her own knife and dropped out of the fight, fate unknown. But there were still two more operatives wailing on Nat, circling.
Laura’s hand left its perch on the diaper bag and inched towards the pocket that held the gun, only to freeze when she realized there was no way to get a clean shot. She didn’t have another TASER, at least not unless you counted the one buried in the bottom of her bag. Instead she switched Nathaniel to one hip and stretched out to grab the heavy vase that had been one of Lila’s forays into pottery. It was beautiful, really, and a shame to mistreat it, but better the vase earned their escape than just got shot up or smashed by pillaging interlopers. Resolved, she hefted the vase, and brought it crashing down into the back of the head of the nearest agent. The vase connected with and the operative went down like a ton of bricks, bleeding.
Finally, it looked like the tide was turning in their favor. Natasha caught her eye again, her expression shifting to something that could be considered “encouraging.” Laura started to smile back, when her heart froze in her chest.
Coming down the stairs, was Cooper, only he wasn’t alone. A guard had come up behind him, must have been on the second floor. The guard had a knife to Cooper’s throat, blood already glistening against the blade as Cooper trembled, eyes tearing up, and looked at his mother imploringly.
Before Laura could fully register the situation, Natasha pulled one of her 9mm pistols from its holster and shot the operative in the head, the bullet passing well clear of Cooper, who screamed when the operative’s dead body released him, and dropped to the ground behind him with an inaudible thud.
Unfortunately, Nat’s quick thinking had opened her up to the sole remaining operative from the original cluster of five, and he as Nat turned back to face him, he pulled his gun and fired.
Nat was down. Nat was bleeding. Cooper was bleeding. He still hadn’t moved.
Sickened, shocked, and wracked with guilt after realizing Natasha had to be on their side, or she wouldn’t have risked her life for Cooper, Laura found herself moving in slow motion. The world seemed to flicker, stutter, fade as if she was viewing it through a long, tunnel, drenched in molasses, while wearing sunglasses. The remaining operative knew she was there. He could shoot her. Shoot Cooper. Shoot Natasha again…
He smiled, gun raising towards Natasha’s head.
Laura’s free hand was reaching for her gun, wishing for more options, more time.
From somewhere over her shoulder came the sudden, unmistakable “thwak” of a bow. The guard stumbled and fell, giving Natasha the opportunity to put pressure on the gunshot wound in her side and begin to scoot away.
For a split second, Laura believed Clint was there. He’d saved them, somehow got free, got home, always looking out for them. But she knew it couldn’t be true.
Laura turned to see Lila standing in the doorway, entering the house from the direction of the barn. Lila has one of Clint’s bows in her hand, a too-big quiver slung across her back. Laura followed Lila’s gaze back into the house. An arrow was sticking from the felled soldier’s back. Laura looked back at Lila, realizing what had happened. Lila started to shake, undoubtedly a mix of shock, horror, and adrenaline crash.
Laura found herself still transfixed, even as she felt Nathaniel’s body finally relax against her with a quiet whimper, her hands starting to shake.
Cooper dropped to his knees, causing Laura to spring into action, but he held up his hand, stopping her. “I’m okay, mom,” he gritted out, through an obviously abused windpipe. “Check Lila, I’m, I’m okay.”
Laura ran to her daughter, the heavy diaper bag sliding off her shoulder to land on the floor with a thud. She dropped to her knees and wrapped her free arm around Lila, pulling her to her chest, next to Nathaniel. “You did great, honey. It’s okay. We’re okay. Thank you, thank you,” she murmured trailing off as she kissed Lila’s hair, and rocked her two youngest kids back and forth as the adrenaline left her system, replaced by momentary relief.
But it was bitter sweet. She knew now, they would never be safe. Most experienced, adult archers couldn’t make that shot, especially not under those pressures, but Lila made it, without blinking, without hesitating, and she saved them all.
The distinctive thumpa-thumpa of helicopter rotors drawing ever nearer broke the momentary calm that had descended on the farmhouse..
“Laura… Laura,” Nat repeated, her voice tight. “We have to run, now.”
Everything seemed to slow down again. Of all the eventualities, Laura wasn’t prepared for this. A soldier tried to kill her son. Her daughter just shot another soldier. She felt dizzy, but just as suddenly as it had come on, it passed.
Resolved, Laura passed Nathaniel to Cooper, over protests from both, while she sent Lila to fetch the big first aid kit from under the sink, while Laura ran back to the bedroom and grabbed the rest of the cash and papers, squeezing them into her go bag.
One last look, one glance around the smoky room (so it had been a smoke grenade, and not tear gas, she realized), and that was it. One last look at the life she’d built with Clint. This had been their home. Their life and love and hard work.
But it wasn’t home anymore. Home was with family, and right now, their family was thousands of miles away, wherever Clint and their friends were. Laura let out a long sigh, and rushed back to the trashed living room where she’d left Nat, Cooper, and Nate. Lila had returned with the trauma kit, and Nat had staggered to her feet, still trailing blood.
Laura scooped up the dropped diaper bag and turned to Lila, “Where’s your bag?” she asked.
“In the barn,” Lila murmured, voice too quiet, and not because their ears were still ringing.
“We need to go that way, anyway,” Nat said cryptically.
Laura got in and drove, taking the almost hidden forest service road into the woods that ringged the farm. When they’d first bought the place, they’d agreed that even with the secrecy, it was too much of a risk to have a place with only one exit and entrance. Laura had thought it seemed like overkill at the time, but now she was grateful.
In the back, a weary and pained Natasha lay on the floor with the seats folded down, directing Cooper and Lila in first aid. A car seat, the right size for Nathaniel, was secured to the sole non-collapsed bucket seat in the middle of the van. Laura couldn’t help worrying that Nathaniel was too exposed, wishing he could hide on the floor like the others, but the van had tinted windows, so all-in-all, it was the best she could really hope for.
By the time the Farmhouse was out of sight, night had fallen. They drove with the lights off, creeping along at barely 10 miles per hour as the van rocked over the pot holes and hummocks of the forest floor, while branches scrape at the sides. Every so often wildlife would dart into the path of the headlights—a racoon, a squirrel twice, and once a deer, leaving Laura white knuckled the whole drive. When they finally reached the state road, Natasha mumbled to head west. So Laura did. Her questions would have to wait.
Over the next few hours, three times Natasha passed out, and three times Laura almost turned off and gunned it to the nearest hospital. There was too much blood. Even with Clint’s kit, which was almost a mobile operating room and trauma center in one, it was too much, too dangerous. But Natasha had a gunshot wound. Add to that their current status of being “loaded for bear” with even more weapons in the car than they’d stashed on their persons and in their bags, and the assortment of tech, including the bow and quiver still is still slung over Lila’s back, that wasn’t strictly legal for civilian use, not to mention not something they would want to be caught with, and the situation added up to a giant cluster fuck. Want as she may to get Natasha checked out by a doctor, hospitals just weren’t in the cards.
Even if Laura and the kids were anonymous, Natasha wasn’t. They had no disguises, no aliases worked out. Laura didn’t even know what name Natasha was traveling under (or how she got there). But she couldn’t let Natasha die. Especially not in front of her kids, and not after Natasha got shot saving Cooper’s life.
Laura jumped at first, foot twitching on the accelerator just enough to make the speedometer needle jump by a couple of miles per hour, but quickly composed herself. “You’re not supposed to sit in the front seat,” she murmured, “not ‘til you’re taller, the airbag...” but she trailed off as Cooper’s seatbelt fastened with a click.
“We’re not supposed to sleep on the floor of the car either. And the Army’s not supposed to invade our house,” he shot back.
Laura cast a glance sideways at her oldest. He was sitting there, arms crossed, doing his best to look sullen, or maybe serious. Soon he’d be a teenager. Too soon. Right now she just wished he was still her little boy. Wished they were all still her little kids, protected. Safe... “It wasn’t the Army,” she said.
“NSA,” he countered, “or whatever agency took over for S.H.I.E.L.D.”
“You shouldn’t know that...” she started again and trailed off. Because that wasn’t true. She and Clint had done their best to raise aware, responsible kids, who followed politics and asked questions about world events. Who thought critically and acted responsibly. Who would grow up to be good citizens and make thoughtful choices about their lives. They wanted their kids to have the knowledge and opportunities to have options. Options Clint never had. She just hadn’t been prepared for what that meant, for how her kids would react when faced with a nightmare. “Sorry,” she offered, stealing another glance.
There were bruises on Cooper’s neck, they would be livid in good light, but showed up as shadowy and mottled in the dim 3:00 a.m. glow of starlight and occasional streetlights. She could see the cut, scabbard over now, where that asshole had held a knife to his neck. She’d thought Natasha had shot the soldier before he got to Cooper, but she’d been wrong. For a moment, her vision tinged red and she couldn’t breathe, and then just as soon as it had come on, the mix of rage and panic passed, and she was left once again, weary, hungry, exhausted. There was blood on Cooper’s hands, on his shirt too. Nat’s blood. He’d been holding her hand.
“Is Auntie Nat going to die?” he asked, voice quiet, but mature, despite the diminutive title ‘auntie,’ which he hadn’t used in years. There was an edge in it she’d never heard before, and part of her wanted to turn the car around and go back and kill every last one of those assholes who were responsible for that tone being on her nine-and-a-half-year-old (nine years and ten months she could almost hear him protest) son’s voice.
“I don’t know, baby. I hope not.” She kicked herself for the quick, almost glib response. “I’m not quite as good at this as your dad or Aunt Nat, but I’ve got a lot of training in first aid. Gunshots are scary, but this one isn’t that bad.”
“Have you—” Cooper started, then stopped.
Laura glanced at her son, his blood-stained hands were twisting in the hem of his shirt.
“Have you treated a gunshot before?” Cooper asked.
The memory hit Laura, stark, visceral, landing like a punch to the gut, and taking all her breath with it. The smell of bleach and iron. Clint’s blood, warm and sticky, slick on her hands, but tacky, making it almost impossible to hold the clamp and operate it. The shakes—tremors wracking Clint’s body, as her hands shook with nerves, fear, and adrenaline. Cooper crying from where they’d boxed him in on the bed with pillows. Clint’s voice in her ear talking her through how to find the vein and clamp it off, stem the bleeding after the bullet fragment moved and nicked his liver. Her heart had been in her throat then. The reality of Clint’s life tumbling down on them, crushing—their first family vacation with 1-year-old cooper turned into a nightmare when someone recognized Clint at the resort where they were staying, and did their best to collect the bounty on his head. It had been 36 hours stuck in a remote, mostly abandoned, resort on the Big Island, trying to keep Clint alive long enough for a S.H.I.E.L.D. extraction team to make it in, do damage control, and fetch them. Laura had sworn then that she’d learn first aid, real first aid, not just first responder stuff, but advanced combat medic training. the kind of skills she would need to keep them alive in case anything like that had happened again. She took a deep breath, breathed again forced her hands to relax their death grip on the steering wheel. “Yeah, yes,” she said swallowing around a gulp. “I’ve helped someone who was shot before. It happened when you were a baby, and your dad was hurt worse than Nat is.”
“So, Dad almost died,” Cooper said, his voice quiet.
Of course that was the factoid he’d pulled from her statement. “He was all right. You know that. Your dad always comes out okay.”
“Is he all right now?” Cooper asked.
When Laura glanced at him his expression was sad, haunted. He knew that she didn’t know, couldn’t answer his question with any certainty. After a few awkward moments of silence, she said, “I have to believe he’s okay or at least out of their... prison. That’s why they came at us so hard.”
Cooper didn’t respond, just nodded, slowly, and sat there for a moment. “I’m sorry.” His voice broke and he turned away to stare at the window. “I’m sorry,” he said again, even quieter.
Laura was pretty sure he was blinking back tears, and her heart clenched. She reached out and squeezed Cooper’s knee, then grabbed his hand giving another little squeeze. “Why are you sorry? You’ve done nothing to be sorry for.” This was really the sort of mother-son heart-to-heart that should not be taking place in a moving vehicle. But Laura didn’t dare stop driving, and she wasn’t going to let Cooper stew with whatever this was any longer.
“I shouldn’t’ve gotten caught. That guy got the drop on me, and that scared you, and Aunt Nat got shot, and Lila had to... had to... I’m sorry. I should have been better. I should have taken care of you,” he stammered.
“Hey, kiddo, I’m the mom here. You’re the kid. That guy was a trained—” she struggled for a good word, “—operative who shouldn’t have been attacking kids or breaking into people’s homes. You did nothing wrong. You did everything just like your Dad and I trained you.” She squeezed his hand again, reassuring. Laura was really glad the road was relatively straight and the car was an automatic.
“But with Dad... away, I’m the man of the house, and I’m supposed to take care of you,” he protested. Cooper’s breath hitched with another barely suppressed sob, and Laura wanted to kick something.
“Who told you that?” she asked instead, gripping the steering wheel so hard with her left hand she almost thought it might snap.
“Jimmy Tanner,” Cooper replied.
Because of course her son would bond with the other kid whose dad was frequently gone. That kid’s dad was a Marine and a nice guy from what she’d seen. And the sentiment was one not exactly uncommon... it was just that she and Clint had tried so hard to avoid putting pressure on their kids to conform to anything let along stereotypical gender roles, even if at first glance, it kind of looked like they were a stereotypical, traditional couple—Clint the secret agent, Laura the stay-at-home-mom. But that way lay madness and a million buried triggers from Clint’s distinctly less-than-stellar (read: abysmal) childhood. “Oh Cooper,” she sighed, pushing down her frustration to make sure he wouldn’t think it was directed at him. “You know that’s not how your dad and I work. What do we always say? ‘Team work.’” She smiled when Cooper mouthed the words along with her. “We’re a team as parents, and our whole family is a team when it comes to helping each other out. We’ve all got things we’re good at, and some we’re not so good at, and we support each other. More importantly, I’m the mom; you’re the kid. I’m sorry that I can’t protect you from everything, but it’s not your job to protect me. You were being attacked by a grown adult who should know better than to hurt a child, regardless of what the government ordered them to do. It’s not your fault they threatened you. It’s not your fault Aunt Nat got shot, or that your sister did what she did.” She held Cooper’s gaze as long as she dared given the nighttime driving, and finally Cooper nodded.
Laura turned her attention back to the road and let out a long sigh. They drove in silence for a mile or so, before Cooper spoke again. “The person who shot Aunt Nat, did Lila kill him?”
“I don’t know,” Laura admitted, and inwardly kicked herself. She didn’t want a death on Lila’s conscience, especially not so young, but they hadn’t stopped to check for a pulse. There hadn’t been time. Nat was bleeding too badly. Choppers were coming. All she could think about was getting the rest of the gear and getting her children to safety. She only hoped that wasn’t an oversight that came back to haunt them.
Cooper fidgeted in his seat and cast a worried glance to the back.
Laura followed his gaze. Nathaniel was sleeping in his car seat, which was strapped into the passenger side middle row bucket seat, the only one of the seats that wasn’t currently stowed in the floor. Lila was curled in a ball behind the driver-side sliding door. She seemed to be sleeping, for which Laura was grateful, but even in sleep, Lila looked troubled. Maybe it was Laura’s imagination or the presence of Clint’s combat first aid kit spread out around Lila, but Laura couldn’t shake the feeling that her daughter was anything but at rest. There would be a price to pay for Lila’s act of heroism and exceptional skill, but exactly what would be the cost remained to be seen. Behind Lila, Nat lay, wrapped in a blanket, stabilized by more of their gear. Sleeping or unconscious, Laura wasn’t sure, but she was definitely breathing, the slow rise and fall of Natasha’s chest giving Laura hope, a bright spot to latch onto. Laura forced herself to ignore the blood-soaked gauze and tried to have confidence that Nat had known what she was doing.
“Is Lila in trouble for what she did?” Cooper asked, his voice small and quiet.
The steering wheel creaked under Laura’s death grip. “Cooper, all of us are in trouble. But we didn’t do anything wrong.” She sighed again, wishing Clint was there or Nat was awake to do the heavy lifting on this conversation, or at least to help out. Laura wasn’t a spy or a soldier or a government agent. She never thought she’d be explaining the complexities of global antiterrorism and sociopolitical theory to her kids before they hit puberty. Tough luck, you’re the grown up, and you need act like it. If only most adults actually behaved responsibly instead of shirking and deflecting and leaving the actual “mature, responsible” behavior to overachieving kids. “Did you hear what Nat said about Captain America breaking you dad out of prison?”
“But aren’t prison breaks wrong? That’s a crime, so doesn’t that just mean Captain America and dad are… criminals?”
“Usually, yeah, but remember what we said about sometimes things are complicated?” Laura hedged.
“Like when all the S.H.I.E.L.D. secrets were in the news, and S.H.I.E.L.D. was actually Hydra?” Cooper answered.
“Exactly, your dad was working for people who were supposed to be doing the right thing, helping make the world safer. A lot of the people he worked for were doing the same thing, but some of them were out to hurt people and using the government to do it. It didn’t make your dad a bad guy or mean the government was all bad. But some of the things S.H.I.E.L.D. did were evil.”
“So S.H.I.E.L.D. is gone, and the Sokovia Accords are being evil in their place?” Cooper asked.
She could tell though that Cooper was trolling her, at least a little. He understood it wasn’t that simple, but he wanted her to put it into words, so he could better understand, have some external validation that he and the rest of their family weren’t criminals, even if technically they were. The problem was, Laura wasn’t sure she understood the full scope of the mess they were in herself. It hadn’t registered yet. She wasn’t entirely sure it ever would. As the road stretched out before them, Laura felt as though she were in a dream, living out the actions of some fantasy nightmare. It wasn’t her life. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t…
But it was.
“I think there are a lot of people who want the Sokovia Accords for good reasons,” she admitted at last. “They talked about self-determination and freedom and responsibility, and I think some of them really mean it. But what the Accords do is take away those options from other people, like your dad. And that makes it complicated. But then there are other people, some of them in the government some not, who want the Accords for different reasons, or who want to use the Accords to control people. And what they’re doing is really bad. That’s why Clint went to help. But helping, doing the right thing means opposing the people in government who support the Accords. And that upset other people in the government, so they locked up your dad. But that wasn’t just. There was no trial or jury, your dad didn’t have a chance to defend himself or explain why the Accords were wrong, and the government never told the people all the bad things about the Accords, so they don’t know what was really going on. Captain America did the right thing, which got more people upset. Now they’re trying to get us so they can make your dad do what they want. And that means that people who were doing their jobs and probably trying to do the right thing came to take us. But we had to defend ourselves, and now—”
“It’s complicated?” Cooper asked with a resigned little huff.
“It’s complicated,” Laura confirmed.
Heart hammering in her chest, Laura waited until she could breathe normally and was sure she wouldn’t jerk the car off the road, and spoke. “About an hour from the Nebraska border,” Laura answered. She glanced in the rear-view mirror, but on the mostly deserted highway, but in between the infrequently spaced streetlights the night was too dim to make out even Natasha’s outline in the back of the minivan. Cooper was asleep, finally, in the front passenger seat. Any other day she would have scolded him, he was just, barely, tall enough for the airbag to be a safety feature rather than a hazard. But today, she was just glad she could see him. Even if the ghostly shadow of the knife’s blade cut kept leaping to capture her attention. Finally, she stole a glance over her shoulder.
Natasha was propped up against the driver-side wheel well, leaning against one of their bags. She was too pale and covered in blood, but her eyes were clear and focused, even if they were a little glassy with the threat of fever.
Natasha grunted. “We on I-80?”
“Yeah,” Laura answered.
“We hit 680 yet?”
“No, we got about another 15 miles—” Laura started.
“Get off, take a left after the exit, head south toward M—Minton,” Natasha managed around a gasp of pain.
“What’s in Minton?” Laura asked, confused.
“Not in Minton. Just head that way.” Natasha’s hand failed in the general direction of “south,” before dropping to her side as she slumped against the side of the car. She wasn’t unconscious, Laura was pretty sure her eyes were still open, but—
Laura jerked as the steering wheel rattled in her hands. Rumble strip. She was veering out of the lane and onto the shoulder. She straightened the wheel and returned the car to its lane, grateful the road was essentially deserted in the depths of night.
In the passenger seat, Cooper stirred, but baby Nathaniel and Lila remained silent, sleeping.
As her heartbeat settled, Laura returned her consciousness to the road, watching the dashed lane marker lines blur with speed. One mile marker ticked by. Then another. An exit was approaching, and now, Laura had a dilemma. Stay on, or get off. Natasha said... but did she trust Natasha?
Nat took a bullet for Cooper. Why would an enemy do that?
She trusted Natasha. She just needed more answers, because nothing that had happened in the past week made any sense, least of all her best friend’s apparent betrayal.
But where would they go? Why did Nat want them to head towards Minton? Not to it, but towards it? Could it be a trap? Would there be a roadblock waiting? But why would Nat help them if she was going to turn around and stab them in the back?
An exit was coming up, should she take it?
“Get off here and take a left. Drive one mile and pull over,” Natasha’s voice came from the back.
Laura managed to avoid jumping this time and signaled for the exit. She followed Nat’s instructions without question, anxiety ramping up again as the odometer scrolled closer to the 1-mile mark. There wasn’t anything there but a broad, gently sloping shoulder, some rolling hills, and an expanse of trees that qualified as “woods” by Iowa standards. The road wended its way gracefully through the rural forest bathed only in starlight and the faint crescent of a waning moon. There were no streetlights, no nearby buildings, and thanks to the topography, even relatively close to the interstate as they were, the minimal light pollution didn’t reach them. was about to ask “what next,” when Nat interrupted.
“Lila, Lila honey, can you open the door?” Nat grunted. Her voice was strained, but upbeat, like she was trying to project reassurance to Lila, who had awakened. The van rocked, and Natasha grunted, as she pulled herself up to a sitting position with her right hand, her left hand wrapped protectively around her abdomen and clutching her injured side.
Laura watched as Lila rose and half-crawled over to the passenger side sliding door and slid it open, dropping to the shoulder outside the van. Lila seemed tired, burdened, but she not groggy. Laura realized Lila probably hadn’t been sleeping after all, and that realization sent a spike of dread up Laura’s spine. They would have to pay for the events of that evening, one way or another.
“What’s happening,” Cooper asked around a stifled yawn, as Nathaniel made snuffling noises that suggested he was waking up.
“We’re changing vehicles. There’s supposed to be a car for us, just off the service road.”
“Service road?” Nat started to ask, but sure enough, about 50 meters ahead, high-tension power lines crossed the road and just before them, wending fluidly through the trees, was an unpaved service road.
“Come on,” Laura said, unbuckling her seat belt and opening the door. “Let’s see if there’s anything there.”
“It should be over that embankment, behind the first stand of trees,” Natasha said, stifling anther grunt.
“Okay?” Laura nodded. She turned to Lila and motioned for her to follow. “Let’s go check it out.”
Lila hesitated, but pulled the door shut behind her and walked around the front of the car. There was definitely something wrong, but what exactly it was, remained elusive to Laura, until Lila said, “We can’t leave the van like this, can we? They’ll know it was us. There’s blood…”
“There are cleaning supplies in the new car,” Natasha grunted. “Or at least there are supposed to be.”
Sure enough, there was a car stashed in the woods, over a small embankment and behind a small stand of trees, right where Nat said, “just like she promised,” whoever “she” was. They switched cars, taking the extra time to douse the minivan in bleach and pull the plates—they did’t set it on fire, even though Laura kind of wanted to after looking after all the blood, because, as Nat explained, a fire would draw attention or worse, start a forest fire.
The new vehicle was a late model sedan with a nice deep trunk (better for concealing things they didn’t want found), a moon roof (fully retractable for easy escape and defense), and a chassis and body styling that suggested to Laura the car was more than it seems. Reinforced, rugged, overpowered. Perhaps an embassy car or undercover vehicle.
They piled into the vehicle and drive off again, Cooper once more up front, with Lila in the middle in back between Nate’s car seat and Natasha’s slumped form.
Just before they reached Omaha, they detoured again. Natasha had them stop and burn the first aid supplies and soiled bandages on the side of the road near a small pond. The ashes that were left went in the pond.
The license plates for the minivan car got thrown in a river 50 miles later.
Laura kept driving, through the night, into morning until they were about two hours past Omaha into Nebraska.
Laura wished desperately for Clint, or at least another adult or an uninjured Natasha, or that Cooper or Lila were older. She needed someone else to take control for a while, be awake, drive.
She’d been through something like this once before, only then she’d been with Clint. Of course, Clint had been the one badly wounded and half out of his mind with fever and delirium. It had been back when Cooper was a baby. They’d been on vacation on the big island of Hawaii. It wasn’t supposed to be dangerous, but someone had recognized Clint. He got shot, and they spent a frantic day and night trying to get out of their remote resort and off the island. That trip had been Laura’s crash course in advanced field medicine and it had ended in a very nerve-wracking boat ride to Oahu in a vessel of questionable seaworthiness, but in retrospect it had been over quickly. Cooper was so young with the baby sling he’d been easy to handle. He’d never been in any direct danger, and the functioning adult to kid ratio was still 1:1. Clint had managed to mostly take care of himself despite losing copious amounts of blood, and for a few terrifying seconds, stopping breathing. But that trip had taught Laura an important lesson. If they wanted to make this work, she had to be able to pull her weight 100%. That meant weapons training, self-defense, medic and first aid training, anything they might need. She was grateful for that, but right now, she couldn’t help asking, wishing for a second or third set of hands.
Nathaniel was at an age where he was unpredictable and too young to be left alone. Cooper and Lila were older, but still kids, and now they were extremely traumatized kids facing mortality in a way no kid should have to and on the run.
Natasha, who had been sleeping, stirred again, and told Laura to look in the glove compartment.
Unable to reach from the driver seat and unwilling to risk pulling over, she said softly, “Cooper?”
He roused, and on further instruction, reached into the glove box and retrieved a registration, insurance card, and driver’s license—Michigan, to match the plates on this car—bearing Natasha’s likeness with the brown hair she currently sported and glasses. The name listed was Tanya Martin.
Natasha explained the ID. She and Laura would pose as a couple, the Martins. It should be easy for the kids to answer to that name, and the kids could continue using their first names. Laura looked further through the stash Cooper handed her and found an ID for her under the name Mora Martin. She shrugged and decided to run with it.
They pulled into a motel at about 7 in the morning, using the story of road trip plus sick kid to convince the desk clerk to rent them a room—on the end, so sick kid won’t disturb anyone—even though check in wasn’t until 3 in the afternoon. Laura was a bit skeptical that the coat Nat was wearing was really concealing her injury, but the desk clerk looked bored, and bleary-eyed, coming off the night shift, and didn’t’ pay them a second glance.
Finally, they were able to rest. And as promised, Natasha began to tell her story: why she sided with Tony in the first place; what made her change her mind; zapping T’Challa repeatedly; the rescue attempt planned for the Raft; what and where the Raft was; Steve’s chances for success; the benevolent assistance of the Wakandan government.
Somewhere in the middle of her confession, Natasha pulled out a phone—an actual smart phone, not a low-tech burner, but also not a smart phone like any Laura had seen before. “It’s Wakandan; they’re big on tech,” Nat explained. “This was in my cache along with a message from Steve. It’s how I’m getting information about resources for us, where to go, the best route.”
Laura learned they were heading to San Francisco to meet up with Cassie Lang, Scott’s daughter, and Hope van Dyne—yes that van Dyne, yes her dad’s company apparently blew up last year. Yeah there were Hydra agents and defense contractors involved, and oh by the way, she’s Scott Lang AKA Ant-Man’s girlfriend and co-ant-sized-avenging person, and yes, it’s that Scott Lang, the robin-hood-inspired thief. Yes, Steve left a video saying they can trust them. So they would. Laura couldn’t help feeling a pang of concern for little Cassie Lang, Scott’s daughter. She wondered if the UN Taskforce was coming after her now too.
At 6 pm Laura got up and asked the desk clerk for a good recommendation on food. She realized at that point it had been well over 24 hours since any of them had left, save two squishy candy bars Cooper had scrounged from the motel vending machine sometime that morning. Laura was starving, her stomach rumbling noisily. The desk clerk, a far more attentive man than the exhausted, pimply teenager who’d been on the night shift, directed her to a nearby diner.
Laura kept her head down the whole time, relieved when she didn’t see her picture on the news, but she still couldn’t shake the feeling she was being watched. She wasn’t disguised, and while she knew how to avoid getting her face on camera, that wouldn’t stop people with eyes from potentially making an ID.
So, after the diner, she stopped in a drug store, bought hair dye, scissors, sunglasses, and a scarf and paid in cash. The entire time the hairs on the back of her neck were standing on end.
When she gets back, Nat is sitting up in bed, finally looking a lot better. She’d hooked herself up to a makeshift saline drip, which was doing wonders for returning color to her face.
Laura knew Clint, Nat, and their colleagues were used to functioning while gravely wounded, shot, stabbed, concussed, bleeding, and otherwise fucked up, but seeing Nat, she couldn’t help but marvel at how they did it.
She thought back to Clint’s last bad injury, when Dr. Cho had repaired the damage using the cradle… her mind trailed off. The cradle, which Ultron stole and used to birth Vision, who had turned against her husband and family and friends and was now standing with a mad man who was apparently now too broken up over secrets form his past to step up and admit he made a mistake, while all the dark and shadowy aspects of their government ran amok.
Cooper had the TV on. Still no news on Nat. Still no news on them or Clint. There was a story on about Peggy Carter’s funeral, and another news clip about the hunt for Captain America, but no mention of a prion break.
Fox News had a color commentator on, reporters debating whether Captain American was really an enemy or if he could still be a patriot. A few commentators suggested his “aberrant” behavior must be the result of brain damage suffered from being frozen in the ice or crazy from super soldier serum (after all it was what they were trying to emulate when they made the winter solder, that’s what the Hydra documents say). Another suggested Captain America just couldn’t change with the times and failed to appreciate the realities of modern threats.
Laura thought they were all idiots.
Natasha swre at the screen in Russian out of deference to little ears.
(Laura was pretty sure Cooper and Lila understand just fine.)
The next story came on, still no news of a prison break. No word from Tony Stark. This report mentioned Nat and showed footage from the Accords signing (before the bombing) shown, but the story made it sound like Natasha was still a loyal supporter and believer in the Accords, but dutifully trying to stay out of the situation and letting the system work to capture Captain America. The expertly spliced and redubbed “interview” with Natasha earned the strongest remark yet.
“Motherfuckers!” Nat exclaimed as she threw the remote at the TV.
While the others watched the news, Laura dyed and cut her hair. It was almost blond now, but not obviously bleached, and a little choppy, but, again, not obviously done in a bathroom with a $2.99 makeup mirror. With different hair, and sun glasses or one of the pairs of clear-lens glasses lurking in Nat’s supplies, Laura looked different enough that even if they leaked her identity she was pretty sure she wouldn’t be immediately recognizable.
By 9 they’d eaten, changed, showered, and sorted through some of the details of their escape.
Cooper made one complaint about missing his tablet. And to be honest Laura dearly missed her Starkphone (Tony Fucking Stark), the totally untraceable burner she’d pulled from her go bag would work for communication and had some basic internet functionality, but was otherwise a brick compared to what she’s used to.
First world problems for accidental fugitives.
She wondered if Nat had anything else else in her bag.
By 10 the kids were asleep again, but Laura still couldn’t let herself drift off.
No... Honestly, it had been on her mind since long before, since that stupid parent-teacher conference that almost got her entire family captured, since Clint had gotten the call from Steve Rogers, since—
Since the Sokovia Accords first got brought up and Clint gave her that look that told her he knew, he knew they were meant for him too.
“I don’t get it,” she said, weary in a way she didn’t ever remember feeling before. “Clint’s human. I’m human. Surely they know Lila’s human too?” She looked up at Nat. “They know you’re human. Why do they want any of you on that damn list?”
Natasha didn’t look up, didn’t respond, not right away. She just kept cleaning her boots, careful, methodical strokes with a soft-bristled brush, knocking off the accumulated mud and leaves and grime from their traipse through the woods, inspecting the soles and the leather as she went. She was cleaning and inspecting their gear. It was something Laura had seen Clint do a hundred times. Three disassembled guns were on a mat on the bedspread beside Nat, and the floor around her was covered with plastic sheeting, there to collect any detritus or refuse and ensure they didn’t leave a mark on this hotel room.
It should have been familiar, comforting. Instead it just reminded Laura of the unbelievable mess they were in. Of all the possibilities and eventualities for which she and Clint had prepared, this was so far from the list...
After several long minutes ticked by, Natasha stilled. Set down one boot; picked up another. She looked at Laura for a moment, and there in her eyes was that same knowing expression that had been on Clint’s when the Sokovia Accords first came up. She’d thought she’d understood what it meant then. Now, Laura wasn’t sure.
“It doesn’t matter to them, if you’re human or not. What matters is what you can do. Can they use you? Are you a threat?” She frowned at the boot in her hand, pausing to scrub vigorously at a particularly stubborn clump of dirt and rocks wedged in the tread. “I don’t know how much Clint told you about S.H.I.E.L.D., what things were like before Hydra, before it fell...” she trailed off.
Laura shrugged. “Clint mentioned things, a few things. Maybe more than was strictly allowed by confidentiality and classification, but if he thought something about his work for S.H.I.E.L.D. would affect us, he’d try to tell me what he could.”
Nat kept scrubbing at her boot for a few seconds before she nodded, paused in her ministrations, and sighed. “Clint also tried to protect you from a lot of the... more unsavory things.”
“Nat, I know you’re both assassins,” Laura started, feeling that little throb and zing of betrayal, the psychological disconnect she always got when she tried to reconcile Clint Barton, devoted, loving, hardworking father who cooked dinner and played with his kids and fixed everything in the house with Hawkeye, government black ops agent.
“It’s not just—” Natasha started then broke off. For another few moments she didn’t speak. She didn’t make eye contact or even look at Laura, either. Her gaze remained fixed on the brush, her boot, her hands, as if somewhere in the worn treads she would find the answers to life’s greatest mysteries. “I don’t want you to think badly of Clint or me for what S.H.I.E.L.D. did. I— every day I ask myself why I didn’t see it sooner, why I didn’t question. Why I agreed it was necessary. I could blame my training or my upbringing...” she trailed off, shrugged again. “Maybe it’s all those things, maybe there’s no excuse. I let myself believe it was okay, that we could make it okay by controlling it from the inside. It was foolish, and I should have known better—I did. I knew Steve was right, I knew Clint was right. I just— Just know that when I realized what was really happening, I couldn’t be party to that any longer. I did everything I could to help. I’m sorry I couldn’t stop Secretary Ross from taking Clint into custody.”
Nat paused again, and Laura waited. When Nat resumed cleaning her boot, Laura thought maybe she wouldn’t explain, but eventually Nat started talking again. “S.H.I.E.L.D. had a list, they called it the ‘Index.’ It was a way to keep track of everyone... enhanced. But that didn’t just mean aliens or people with super soldier serum. I was a record of everyone on Earth S.H.I.E.L.D. came across who had any sort of ability. For every alien or person exposed to gamma radiation, there were a half dozen people whose abilities couldn’t be explained or traced to any clear cause. For all we knew they were humans with strange mutations, one in a billion, luck of the draw skills that came from a twist of fate. They didn’t all have super strength or advanced healing. A lot of them were just as vulnerable as anyone else on Earth. But they could all do things that were unexpected and potentially dangerous. So S.H.I.E.L.D. tracked them.
“The Accords are being used to ram through legislation that will do the same thing, only this time with Congress’ stamp of approval, above board and marketed to the masses, sold to us for our safety... And like the index, this won’t just be out-of-control Inhumans who transform and leave husks behind. It won’t just be people like Wanda who have magic powers gained through hydra experimentation and alien gemstones. It won’t even just be people like Tony Stark who with implants that let them control tech. It will be anyone who through a combination of genetics and training can do things that almost no one else can. People like me, people like Clint, people like Lila.” She stopped cleaning again and looked Laura in the eye, every ounce of Laura’s fear reflected back at her.
“But she’s just a kid, just a human kid!” Laura protested. Her voice rising enough she feared she might have woken the kids. Nathaniel snuffled, but no one woke.
“Clint is the world’s greatest marksman. He’s a preternatural sniper, perfect with a bow or gun. He can take shots and make shots no one else can make. Through his combination of genetics and training, he’s one in a billion, maybe one in 7 billion. Maybe one millionth of a percent of people could be trained to do what he does, and if they get identified, they’ll be on the list too. He doesn’t have alien DNA, he doesn’t have cybernetic implants, he just hit the genetic mutation jackpot and then got the training to make his skills truly unique. And because of that, he’s dangerous. He can do things no one else can. But that also means he’s useful. But the government isn’t going to trust dangerous, useful people to be people with judgement and self-determination, not without assurances, and that’s where the Accords come in.
“It’s the same with me. I don’t know how many people out there could be trained to be like me. I know that little girls were selected for the Red Room, and a lot of them didn’t make it to graduation. The program was old and rooted in experiments that sometimes make me question my humanity. But the program’s gone, at least it’s supposed to be, and that means I’m all there is, the last unicorn, survivor of a herd of magic horses. Some people want to kill me, because I’m a threat, someone who could stand against them. Other people want to recruit me, or failing that, use me for my skills. And then there are some who would like to take me apart, study me. See if they can figure out how to make more like me...” She trailed off, and looked over at the far bed where Cooper and Lila were both sleeping. An emotion raced across her features, something that looked like love and regret and fear and purpose rolled into one. “And Lila...” she began.
Laura leaned forward in her seat, willing Natasha to keep talking despite the obvious pain it was causing her.
“Lila has the potential to be like Clint. Maybe the potential to be like me. Maybe more than both of us.”
“She’s just a little kid,” Laura protested, because while she’d known intellectually and understood deep in her gut that her children were at risk, there was a part of her that kept insisting they were at risk for their father’s sake, because unscrupulous villains wanted to exploit Clint’s love for them and use them against him. A leash, a bludgeon, a nuclear option.
“They don’t care. That doesn’t matter to people like Secretary Ross. They know what she’s capable of, just on her own with a little informal training from her dad. They suspected before, but now it’s been confirmed, and they will be after her for her entire life. If not for the Sokovia Accords, then for any other justification they can manufacture. Lila’s the kind of person who has the capacity to topple governments, shape world peace, and if they have to act like she’s some kind of monster to control her, then that’s what they’ll do. They don’t care if she never wants to touch a bow again. They know who she is. Out of all the people in the world, the handful who have the possibility of being a living weapon the way Clint is, they know about her, and they already know she’s got more than just potential. They don’t want to let her get away. At this point, it’s not even about controlling her father. They have the rest of you for that. They’ll go after Lila because they can’t stand the prospect of knowing there’s someone out there like her and not controlling her. They can’t face the possibility that she could become someone else’s weapon. And with Hawkeye outside their grasp, they’d like nothing more than to reprogram Lila to oppose him.”
Anger flared in Laura so hot and bright she couldn’t contain it. She could barely breathe. It was rage, pure and concentrated. She didn’t know where it came from, but she couldn’t deny it. It rose inside her, flooding every synapse, every sense, until she wanted to shake Natasha, slap her, maybe tear her limb from limb. “How could you? How could you—side with them for even a moment!?” Her hand was stinging before she realized she’d smacked Natasha clean across the face. Her chest was heaving, tears welled in her eyes, and she wanted to scream. Only the faint snuffling sleeping Nathaniel and the fear of discovery stopped her.
Oh my god, she’d just slapped Black Widow in the face.
Nat’s cheek was red, the shape of a handprint forming, but she didn’t look mad. Just resigned, maybe a little guilty.
“I should... I should get you some ice,” Laura stammered and started to stand. But Natasha stopped her. Somehow her hands were suddenly free of the boot and brush and her hands were lightly circled around Laura’s wrists, not squeezing, just solid, there.
“No, sit. I’ll get it,” Natasha said and stood, crossing the room in brisk strides, retrieving a chemical ice pack from the first aid kit and a towel from the little kitchenette. There was the sound of water running, and then Nat was back, sitting in the same position at the end of the bed across from Laura, holding a chemical ice pack wrapped in a damp towel to her left cheek.
“I’m so—” Laura started, but broke off, because she wasn’t sorry. She was still furious.
“I was never in favor of their plan. Of the Accords, oversight by a committee, restrictions what we can do, when it’s really restricting who we are, making us ask permission to live. I was never supporting registration. I knew where this could go. I was trying to stop it from getting there.”
“You still signed!” Laura protested, shocked at the edge in her own voice.
Natasha nodded slowly. “I was trying, hoping, that if at least some of us signed, we could steer from the inside. If it wasn’t the Accords, it was going to be something else, something much worse, like what’s happening now. I was hoping once things died down, and the media scrutiny and political pressure burned away, we’d be able to relax the Accords, amend them, get us all more autonomy, keep things from getting worse. I thought maybe if we worked hard enough Steve would sign, and things would go back almost to normal, and people would forget about it. It could even be... beneficial to have a little cover on the tough calls, get a committee that understands, works with us, while acting like a political shield. Who knows, it might have worked. It was working, for all that they manipulated Tony’s guilt, he wasn’t too happy with the direction they were taking. He would have thrown his money and Lawyers behind amendments. But I didn’t count on Zemo or how blind Tony could be to his own actions.”
Laura cocked an eyebrow.
“He put Wanda on house arrest for her own safety,” she explained.
Laura hissed, her current rage against Iron Man kicking up about 1000 percent.
“I stayed for as long as I could try to keep it from getting worse, keep the fighting from getting lethal. But then I had to let Steve and Barnes make a run for it, and then Tony’s stupid arrogance got Rhode almost killed. T’Challa ratted on me, and the jig was up. Of course, by that point, I couldn’t have stayed. Things were already worse, there was no cart to steer, the whole thing was an illusion created by Ross and people like him to get what he always wanted, a legal means to enslave those he thinks are less than human and best controlled as weapons. He wasn’t going to stop with Avengers or Inhumans or even grown-ups. He sees a kid like Lila and he thinks, ‘great! I’ve got so much time to mold them into what a want them to be, and they’re young enough that they won’t have any pesky morals getting in the way.’
“I can’t support that. I can’t let them do to another child what the KGB did to me. I thought I might be able to stop it. I just realized too late the world had already changed.”
There were tears in Laura’s eyes again. She wiped at them, angry for their presence, and baffled. Was it anger? Grief for Nat? For Clint? For Lila? For herself? Guilt for lashing out? Was she mourning the loss of everything she had known? She wasn’t sure.
Nat’s hand was on hers again, just stilling this time, not gripping. “We’re lucky. T’Challa came to his senses and from what I can tell, he’s a lot like us, and a decent man with a lot of resources. He can give us sanctuary. A base. A place to call home. But you have to understand, the world has changed. Lila will never be safe. She can never be a normal kid, none of them can.” She looked over at the bed where the three young Barton kids were sleeping, Nate sandwiched between two pillows to keep him from rolling off the bed. “You’re all going to be looking over your shoulders for the rest of your lives, and the irony is, Lila is probably going to have to become a weapon to protect herself. She’ll always be at risk, because the Accords, Registration, it all sounds so damn reasonable, logical. Keep people safe. Respect sovereign borders. Allow countries some self-determination. Make sure we know where the dangerous and talented people are and what they can do, so we’ll be safe, or we can call on them in an emergency. Stop them if they mean us harm. It’s so appealing until you realize it’s people they’re regulating. Telling how and when and where they can live, where they can go, what they can do with their lives. That they’re conscripting and enslaving someone’s kids. But even if your average person realizes that, the people like Secretary Ross, they just play a clip of Wanda Maximoff hurling a bomb at an office building, or the Hulk smashing cars in lower Manhattan, of people plummeting to their deaths as the nation of Sokovia is ripped out of the ground, and then the public is back on his side, calling for blood. Because those images make it seem necessary.
“They don’t let the public stop to think about the alternatives... Of how those ‘dangerous enhanced individuals’ were stopping something else, something worse, from happening. They don’t talk about the lives we saved. the bomb explodes in the square and kills everyone, thousands, maybe more if the biological agent was released. They don’t bother to tell you the alternative in New York was nuking the city, or that if Steve hadn’t managed to crash the helicarriers, a few million people would have been wiped off the face of the earth in seconds. They certainly won’t tell you how close we came. And they’re not going to let you consider that Ultron’s plan was to kill all life on the planet, and he almost succeed. Instead they’ll point to Wanda, who was just a kid that Hydra manipulated, toyed with, played on her pain and fear and tried to turn her into something awful. They’re not going to remind you that Wanda chose to help others or that for all her power she’s still a young woman. They’ll point to her, mention a statistic and point to Lila and people will be scared. And that’s the reality we live in.” She squeezed Laura’s hand and let it go. “I am so sorry this happened to you, to her. To all of us. But right now, maybe we can’t stop them. We can’t rewind time. But we can thwart their plans.” She looked Laura in the eye and the silence hung between them.
Laura let it wash over her. Her anger, protests, horror, denial. Most of it wouldn’t help. But by god she was going to fight for her daughter, for all her kids. Let them try. The Barton’s wouldn’t go down without a fight. “Okay,” she said at last.
Natasha patted her hand; gestured at the relatively clear side of the double bed, and said, “Get some sleep. I’ll keep cleaning. If you rest, I can sleep in the car tomorrow while you drive.”
Laura nodded and rose from the chair, stiff and exhausted, yet feeling unbelievably light. She kicked off her shoes, and was asleep within seconds of her head touching the pillow. Not even Nat’s task lighting kept her awake.
She awoke again in the last vestiges of pre-dawn, the sky lightened from inky black to glowing grey blue, shadows playing across the room’s thin curtains as trucks drove by on the road outside. Nat was lying beside her, awake, but relaxed, open, almost vulnerable. “I’m sorry,” Laura whispered.
“I’m sorry, too,” came Nat’s equally quiet reply.
“We’ve got a problem.”
There was an amber alert. Natasha held up her phone, which showed an emergency amber alert with a a location and description that matched Lila.
Cooper turned on the TV. The Amber alert was running there as well, accompanied by Lila’s school picture and real name. Fuck.
What on the phone just sounded like an abducted child from eastern Iowa, kidnappers escaped on foot, license plate(s) unknown, was described very differently on TV. Lila was a dangerous enhanced individual who had been asked to register as a part of a show of good faith for the Sokovia Accords. (The reported digressed to explain that the registration provisions of the treaty had not yet been ratified by the Senate, although the House had already independently passed its own bill and the Senate had approved that, but it and the treaty ratification were currently stuck in committee being harmonized, so while the President had promised to sign, it wasn’t yet official.) Lila was apparently very dangerous and volatile and was believed to be in the company of at least one “radicalized enhanced individual.” There was no mention of her relation to Clint (thankfully), and no mention of Cooper, Nathaniel, or Laura.
There was also no description of the “radicalized enhanced individual,” although Laura and Nat both knew they meant Nat.
“So, you’re enhanced too?” Laura quipped bitterly.
She had to wonder, did the task force know it was Lila who made the shot? Had one or more of the operatives survived to tell? Or was this dangerous enhanced individual nonsense, based just on Lila’s school performance? Any doubt she had that the whole “your daughter is gifted” speech had been a government ploy to make a grab on Lila was long gone.
They had a quick discussion about what to do. They couldn’t change Lila’s appearance at this motel because if anyone had seen Lila, it would be more suspicious if they changed her appearance now.
So, they packed up and checked out by 6 am, wiping down all the hard surfaces as they went. Nat wanted to take the sheets.
Laura thought that would be too suspicious.
100 miles later Lila got a buzz cut and dirty-blonde dye job in a 7-11 bathroom. Adding in a pair of glasses and some masculine clothes, Lila looked different enough from the picture on the Amber alert that Laura’s pulse and blood pressure dropped into just-sort-of-alarming range for the first time since she woke up.
The car got new license plates 10 miles later, and the plates changed again—New York now—50 miles after that.
Natasha drove. Laura napped.
They stopped to pee on the side of the road. Nat and Laura took turns ducking into mom-and-pop diners and getting take out, trading off time in the driver’s seat every time they stopped.
Laura kept casting a side-eye on Nat, worried. She was still stiff, still obviously hurting, and possibly a little feverish. Laura knew Nat was taking some kind of antibiotics from Clint’s field kit, but she wasn’t taking any pain killers (because of all the driving), and exhausted as she was, Laura couldn’t help but feel extremely guilty every time Nat winced going over a bump.
By the time they neared Wyoming they had detoured north.
At that point, Nat made a call on her phone. It was the first time Laura had seen her use it for outgoing communication in the two(?)—it was really hard to keep track of time without the familiar rhythm of day and night, sleep and wake—days they’d been on the run.
“The more I use it, the greater the chance someone will track it,” Natasha explained. “But we needed a reroute because state police dispatch reports say they’re setting up road blocks. Can’t go that way.” Fifteen minutes later they were on the road headed to Casper.
Outside of Casper they switched cars again. Laura was sad to see the sedan with the moon roof go. Sadder still when they left it parked in the back lot of an old wrecking yard. That car felt safe. It had almost been home, it had kept her family—and Nat was once again definitively included in that grouping—safe.
Laura waited with the kids and their gear, tucked in a back corner of the yard, heart hammering on full alert, while Natasha went to “retrieve” the new vehicle. Natasha was gone for 22 minutes—two minutes longer than she said she would be.
Cooper was antsy. Lila was rubbing her head, whether because of the buzz cut, or a headache, Laura wasn't entirely sure. She was still quiet. Too quiet. There was undoubtedly therapy in her future, but for now Laura just had to hope her daughter could hold it together long enough for them to get to safety.
Nathaniel was whimpering as if on the verge of a good cry or temper tantrum. He’d been nonverbal most of the day, and Laura was suspicious he might have a ruptured ear drum from the attack two days prior.
Laura missed Clint. She missed the Farm. She shook every time she looked her daughter in the eye and hardly recognized her, but saw something haunted and hollow looking back. It was the same look Clint had sometimes, especially when he thought no one was watching. It pained her to see it there.
The new car was another sedan (slightly smaller trunk this time) with a moon roof (again) and Wisconsin plates. It wasn’t as nice as the last one, although, that might just be because she’d gotten a little attached. Bad idea in this line of work.
When had it become her line of work?
Laura and Nat swapped places again. Took detour after detour, mile after endless mile blurring together in the endless cycle of too little sleep, too much sitting, and convenience store sandwiches. It was a miracle no one had gotten food poisoning yet.
Finally, they made their way down to I-80 before detouring again.
They spent the night at a motel in Western Wyoming.
The next night they stayed at yet another hotel somewhere in some no-name town in Nevada.
Laura thought people were staring. She was sure they’d recognized Lila or something else had given them away.
Natasha shut her up by kissing her and staging a very public display of affection that actually earned a few wolf-whistles from a group of kids a little older than Cooper.
She missed Clint, but was relieved for Natasha’s distraction, especially as it helped her to get into the act.
They stayed on I-80 and passed through the agricultural inspection station in Truckee. The California Department of Food and Agriculture guy seemed way too interested in them for Laura’s comfort. She thought they’d been discovered when he peered in their trunk, but since it was a special car (according to Natasha, it had been somehow dispatched to the wilds of Wyoming by the Wakandan royal guard, who knew?) even the K-9 unit on-site didn’t detect the false bottom or other compartments in their trunk.
They were now the proud owners of a birth certificate declaring Lila as Lucas Martin with a half-dozen snap shots and family photos. (It was amazing what a Kinkos, a Super Target, a camera phone, and photo shop could do. For a while there, Laura had wondered whether she was living the real-life version of that one Bourne movie with the spy played by the guy she thought looked an awful lot like Clint.)
After twenty minutes, the officer seemed satisfied that they didn’t have any invasive species or contraband. But he stressed they were looking for a missing child and had to be extra thorough.
Laura and Nat expressed their dismay. “We heard about that on the news,” Natasha said.
“So sad, terrifying,” Laura added, giving a very real shudder, but for very different reasons than she hoped the inspection officer would assume. “Wasn’t that kid taken from Idaho?”
“Iowa, I think,” Nat added, getting in on the act.
“Do you think the kidnapper came here? Is it safe for our kids?” Laura asked, hands clutched to her chest.
Natasha kept prompting the officer and managed to finagle a story that “some reports” had given the authorities reason to believe the kidnapper was headed to or through California, but they didn’t have any more specifics.
Laura may have been freaking out when he brought out the Amber alert and showed it to them, but it seemed clear he didn’t recognize Lila (aka Lucas) as the kid in the photo, not even while smiling at her. With Nat, Laura (or Tanya and Mora), and Lila (Lucas) all in similar glasses, they looked like a family… perhaps a family with too strong a fetish for Warby Parker, but a family all the same. Nothing to see here, move a long.
Or so Laura hoped.
After a nerve wracking half hour, they made it through the inspection point and on their way.
Laura took them south instead of continuing on I-80. She half-expected helicopters to loom in their rearview mirror at any moment.
Nat didn’t say anything.
They changed plates again, then doubled back. There were no signs of any tails and no new amber alerts.
Finally they settled onto I-80 again and headed west to San Francisco.
They arrived just after dawn the next morning, the light pink and hazy, the air feeling heavy with anticipation.
Something was going to happen, but Laura wasn’t sure what. They’d been too lucky for too long. Nate had stopped pulling at his right ear so much, and Nat actually looked like she might not keel over.
Laura was still quiet, but she’d smiled the night before.
Of course it was too good to last. They were stopped at a gas station on Divisidero, the broad boulevard cutting north through the heart of San Francisco, feeling oddly calm when the other shoe dropped.
Breaking News – Black Widow turns on fellow Avengers!
Laura was in the gas station’s convenience store foraging for breakfast when the headline flashed across the small flat screen perched on a shelf next to the liquor behind the counter.
“Hey man, can you turn that up?” one of the fellow patrons shouted out.
Fucking stereotypical surfer dude! Laura thought disingenuously as she set her basket down and started to back towards the door, all the while keeping her eyes on the TV.
The story was completely bogus, of course, the facts twisted to ensure the best spin on the truth to ensure a particular response from the populace. Apparently Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff, aka Natalee Rushman, aka Natalia Alianovna Romanova, ex-KGB agent, trained from childhood as an assassin, believed to be loyal S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, who then picked a fight with congress and released top secret SCI information all over the web making Wikilieaks look like child’s play. Who then joined the independent Avengers only to side with the government and sign onto the Sokovia Accords, was actually a traitor. Possibly (probably) in league with Zimo, a mysterious black ops agent now believed to have been involved in the bombing of the Accords signing. Possibly personally responsible for enabling Zimo and Barnes (still named as the bomber) to get access to both the Accords signing and possibly also causing the destruction of Sokovia in the first place.
(How they came up with that lie, she had no idea. Laura imagined Tony was fuming somewhere, furious that the press was taking the blame away from him, since Tony’s self-blame and control issues were how they’d wound up in this mess in the first place, there was an irony there Laura didn’t exactly have the energy or brain power to explore.)
The story went on. Apparently Black Widow had lied to Captain Rogers about Hydra involvement in the accords, and was responsible for causing Captain America to defect and commit treason. This was of course accompanied by a plea to get Captain America to turn himself in and get help—he might have been brainwashed by Black Widow’s KGB training in seduction, a trade she had practiced since a young child.
(Laura couldn’t suppress a laugh at that, anyone who knew Steve Rogers even a little knew he’d had eyes for exactly two women in his entire life, both named Carter, and even those loves were surpassed by his strong and obvious attraction to men and very complicated relationships with both James Buchannan Barnes and Sam Wilson. Luckily no one turned to look at the source of the outburst, so transfixed were they by the self-proclaimed “story of the century,” which was scrolling across the bottom of the screen.
The story was admitted Black Widow was the “dangerous enhanced individual” who had kidnapped the equally dangerous enhanced kid in Iowa several days before. The reporter went on to speculate whether was this Lila Barton might be related to one Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, and might actually be the love child of Hawkeye and Black Widow.
(Laura took so much offense on Nat’s behalf at that she crushed the bag of chips she was still holding.)
An international manhunt was underway, but Black Widow was believed to be in the United States, possibly headed to California. At that point a photoshop montage started showing how Nat would look with different hair, scars, glasses… At that point, Laura dropped the bag of chips, turned, and walked out, glad they’d paid at the pump.
“Mommy did you get snacks? I’m hungry,” Lila asked enthusiastically. She was the first to notice Laura’s return to the car. Her expression faltered as she quickly picked up on Laura’s mood.
Laura just stood there and swallowed, didn’t speak, her hand hovering above the door handle.
On the driver’s side of the car, Nat finished pumping gas, returned the pump to its cradle, and stepped around the car. “What happened?”
“You know how we talked about the nuclear option as far as the government’s concerned?” Laura asked.
“I’m on the news, they said I defected.” It was a statement, not a question. She looked up and met Laura’s eyes. “But that’s not all they did.”
Laura’s hands clenched and unclenched. She crossed her hands over her chest, brought one hand up to her face, and shook her head. She found herself falling forward against Nat as she stepped towards her, resting her head against Nat’s shoulder, fighting against the urge to give in, collapse. She could almost imagine it was Clint holding her up. She almost wished her cover was real, that Nat really was hers to comfort, to take comfort from. “It’s on CNN, probably everywhere. They’re saying you kidnapped Lila and you’re both a danger because Lila’s enhanced, and you’ve turned her against the government. They’re acting like she’s some sort of, of, tyke bomb, and you’re enemy number 1. Your picture’s on the news. Her picture’s on the news. There’s an amber alert.” She couldn’t bring herself to say the ridiculous lie about Lila being Nat’s kid. Couldn’t cause that pain, couldn’t take the time, not now. But it would have to come out sooner rather than later. It could be important to the sort of threats they would face, and Laura wouldn’t let Nat or Lila or any of them be blindsided by it.
Nat shushed her and stroked her hair. Into Laura’s ear she whispered, “They haven’t spotted us yet, Lila is Lucas, they won’t recognize her. We have time. They’re trying to use the public against us. We just have to make sure we don’t give them what they expect to see.”
Their phones chose that exact moment to squawk, the ear-splitting, nerve-wracking, klaxon f an amber alert. Even Nat’s phone chimed. Laura half expected it wouldn’t seeing as it was their mysterious link to Captain America’s new allies, but then again, it’s purpose seemed to be protecting them, and making sure they knew about errant amber alerts had to be a part of that.
Reluctantly, Laura looked down at her phone.
Truckee, CA, Amber Alert: LIC/999-ABC (WI), 2016 Hyundai Sonata, Silver.
“They got the year wrong. And it’s a charcoal pearl coat, not silver,” Nat murmured.
True, but they’d got the license plate right. “That asshole in Truckee,” Laura murmured. “At least they didn’t know where we’re headed.”
At that Natasha’s expression soured. “Or they know exactly where we’re headed, and the misinformation is intentional. They don’t want anyone else approaching, but they want enough info that people will call in tips.”
Laura’s phone chimed again, this time with a text, not an amber alert. She checked it before she realized it was a multimedia message. A second later a photo loaded on her screen, and sent dread coursing through her like an ice pick.
“Get in the car. Now. Get in the car. You and Lila need to get on the floor now.”
“What?” Natasha asked, thrown by the sudden change in Laura’s demeanor.
“Just do it. Cooper, get back in the car.”
Cooper started to open the front passenger side door.
“No, in back, next to your brother.”
“Seriously? If they’re on the floor there’s no f—freaking leg room,” Cooper protested, even as Laura gripped him gently by the shoulders and spun him around.
“I know, it sucks, but now is really not the time,” she replied, doing her best to shield Nat, Lila, and Cooper from view of any convenience store patrons, even as they moved.
Cooper huffed, but complied. They’d trained him. Not for this, but for similar situations in which he would need to follow directions without a lot of complaints. It didn’t stop him from grumbling, though.
Laura tried hard not to think about passersby, the possibility of someone pulling into the gas station behind them, or the multitude of security or surveillance cameras that might be turned on them at any given time. She needed to stay calm, confident and take care of the problem as quickly as possible.
She reached up and tugged the elastic out of her hair, freeing it and shaking it loose around her face to both help conceal her identity and change her profile. As she ran her fingers through her hair, she walked around to the front of the car, and casually grabbed the squeegee that was so thought fully provided next to the pump. As she bent over to reach across the hood to wipe the far side of the windshield, she reached down with her left hand and hit the quick release on the front license plate holder. There was a very awkward moment where she nearly dropped the plate and then the squeegee as she tried to catch the plate, but she caught it, awkwardly righted herself from where she had landed pressed against the hood, and walked around the passenger side of the car, keeping the license plate concealed between her and the car, as she made a few cursory passes over the windows.
Once behind the car, Laura carefully wiped the rear windshield, positioning herself directly behind the license plate to block it from view. Tucking the errant front license plate under her arm, she shifted the squeegee to her left hand so she could reach into her pocket and retrieve the key fob with the left. She casually popped the trunk, but caught it with her key-clutching hand to stop it from popping noticeably open. Keys dropped back in her pocket, she stepped back into a half kneel and made like she was going to wipe off the license plate. Only she hit the quick release and dropped it into her hand. She stood, nudged the trunk lid up, and dropped first the rear license plate and then the front into the trunk. With the squeegee still in her left hand and resting on the trunk lid, she reached into the trunk and felt for the hidden compartment where Nat had stashed the extra license plates. A quick glance and a little fumbling had her pulling out the solitary Delaware license plate, and then setting it down in the trunk so she could slot the two Wisconsin plates in and close the compartment to tuck them out of sight. She picked up the Delaware plate, closed the trunk and dropped back to a crouch to “clean” the plate some more, as she nestled it into place. Confident the plate was secure, she stood again, dipped the squeegee back in the provided rinse bucket and finished cleaning the rest of the windows.
As she walked by the driver’s side she glanced in at Nathaniel’s car seat and down at the floor. Nat and Lila were well concealed from view thanks to a grey throw blanket Nat had pulled off the back seat and tucked around them. Cooper did his best to glare at her, and looked genuinely uncomfortable with his too-long legs tucked awkwardly to the side next to tote to the door to avoid stepping on his sister, but behind his sullen annoyance Laura could see the genuine fear. She gave him a tight smile, returned the squeegee to its bucket for the final time, and slipped into the driver’s seat.
For a few seconds Laura just breathed, trying to stop the shaking of her hands. Someone honked their horn, breaking her from her stupor, and she looked up, waived at the impatient motorist who was impatiently waiting for her to vacate the pump, and fished her keys from her pocket, narrowly avoiding dropping them on the floor. She turned the ignition, pulled out, and turned on her right turn signal, waiting for a break in traffic.
When they were safely on the road, headed north again on Divisidero, Nat’s muffled voice came from the back. “What happened?”
“Pictures, the FBI supposedly, did a mass text of pictures. You and Lila, as Lucas—I think they’re from Wyoming, I don’t—they might be from Truckee... I didn’t look closely. Just needed to get you out of sight. We need... we need to get out of here, but we need to go to ground, and I don’t know. They could be right behind us.” Her hands clenched and unclenched on the steering wheel. “Where do we go? What are we supposed to do? You said the plan was to get your San Francisco, but now we’re here, what so we do?”
“We’re supposed to meet up with Hope van Dyne,” Nat said.
“The former VP of Pym Industries?” Laura asked skeptically.
“There’s this friend of Steve’s, actually, I think he’s a friend of Sam’s, not entirely sure. I got the recap from notes Steve passed to me through T’Challa’s bodyguard.” She sighed and a rustling sound came from the back of the car.
Laura spared a thought for how miserable Nat must be with her injuries contorted in such an uncomfortable position.
“van Dyne’s his girlfriend or friend, not sure. He’s got a kid about Lila’s age and an ex-wife and her husband who are only a tad less vulnerable than you. Apparently, the stepdad’s a cop and between that and van Dyne’s connections Steve and T’Challa think they’ve got more time. I’m not sure if they’re leaving with us, but we’re supposed to make contact with van Dyne, and she’ll be our link to get out.”
A black and white police cruiser passed them in the opposite direction, and Laura found herself holding her breath. One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, the car went through a traffic light behind them and Laura felt her heart slow to a less breakneck pace. “Can we trust her?”
“Well, according to the intended she’s a powered individual, or at least has tech that gives her powers, and she’s definitely not a signatory to the Accords,” Nat responded. “And Scott sided with Steve and Clint, so...”
“Okay, but what are we supposed to do? Show up on her doorstep? Do we know where she lives? Or should we be looking for Scott—”
“Lang,” Nat supplied.
“Scott Lang’s kid?” Laura finished. There was a pickling sensation crawling up the back of her neck. She glanced in the rear-view mirror, but didn’t see any obvious signs of a tail. She tried to push the feeling away, focus on a plan, a next step.
“Mom, a police car just passed us again,” Cooper said with urgency in his voice.
Laura checked her mirrors, squeezed the wheel; there were no sirens or lights. “But it passed us, right. It didn’t turn to follow us?”
“But it’s the fifth one since we left the gas station,” Cooper pointed out. “They’re coming more frequently.”
“Nat? Where does Hope van Dyne live?”
There was a rustling noise, an “ow,” from Lila followed by a, “shit, sorry,” from Nat, before Nat finally said, “Pacific heights.”
Laura smacked her palms on the steering wheel, looking around, thinking. “Okay, okay...” She watched the streets fly by. “We’re almost there. Pretty soon we’re gonna hit what, the Marina? And then we’re gonna run out of road real fast.” She took a deep breath, “Is there any chance they know where we’re heading? Could they be staking out van Dyne’s neighborhood? Maybe they haven’t spotted us yet, but they’re looking for anyone coming into the area?”
“Well, it’s possible, but, shit, I don’t know,” Nat admitted.
A sixth and seventh police car passed them heading in different directions.
“Mom?” Cooper asked, as an eighth police cruiser pulled out of a cross street behind them.
“I see them,” Laura answered.
“What?” Nat asked, followed by the sound of rustling.
“Stay down, okay. We picked up a possible tail. Police cruiser on our six.... Shit,” Laura muttered. “I need options. We gotta ditch the car. It’s not going to take much to make them take a closer look.”
“Can you turn off, head somewhere with a lot of people or alleyways?” Nat asked.
Before she could answer, Cooper let out a panicked, “Mom!”
Laura glanced in the rear-view mirror. The cruiser had sped up and was coming the distance between them. It didn’t have any sirens on, yet, but the behavior was anything but reassuring. Having already decided not to head towards their contact’s home, she had already passed by most of Pacific Heights and was fast approaching the Marina. She took the left onto Lombard, and let herself get sucked into the flow of traffic on the 101 headed towards the Presidio, Palace of Fine Arts, and the Golden Gate Bridge, made a lane change to position herself as if that was her eventual intention.
Under different circumstances, she would have loved to have taken her kids to any of those landmarks. She and Clint had researched San Francisco for a family vacation, something they’d rarely gotten to do, but had hoped to take advantage of in Clint’s retirement. There was a trampoline gym in the presidio that got rave reviews that they’d both thought Cooper and Lila would love. Both kids were obsessed with bouncing and flipping. And once the kids had seen some of Steve Rogers’ acrobatics, the obsession had only gotten worse. They’d planned to wait another year, maybe too, so Nate would be older, easier to travel with and more likely to remember the trip (or at least enjoy himself in the moment). That hadn’t happened, of course. Thanks to Sokovia and Tony Fucking Stark having an ill-timed, ill-conceived attack of conscience that had led to her daughter and husband being hunted like animals and the rest of them weren’t much better off. Unless world governments did a 180 about face, it was looking like this was the closest they were ever going to get to their San Francisco family vacation. There was a very good chance her kids would never see the Golden Gate Bridge, and if they made it out, they might never set foot on U.S. soil again.
On the other hand, the alternative was a prison cell for her, registration and probably experimentation for Nat and Lila, Cooper and Nathaniel raised by strangers, and all of it orchestrated to have leverage over Clint and his friends, people who just wanted to be without having to get permission from the government to work, to travel, to exist. There was no choice here. Or rather, no matter how scared or angry Laura felt, of all the options, there was only one she could live—or die-with. She shifted her attention back to the traffic around her and the traffic light up ahead that was still green.
In her rear-view mirror, she watched as the police cruiser, which had made the turn to 101 with her, began jockeying for position, zooming up through the crowd of traffic, closing the distance she had added with her lane changes. Amateurs! she thought, fully aware that she wasn’t the one who was a trained professional spy. But seriously, if she was this guy’s boss, he’d be so fired.
“Lila? You okay back there?” she asked as she glanced back at baby Nathaniel, who was still snoring and blissfully asleep.
“Mommy, I’m scared,” came Lila’s muffled reply, hitting Laura like a kick to the gut.
“Me too,” Laura admitted. “It might get a little scary back there, but I promise you, I’ll keep you safe. Okay, all of you. Just hang on.”
“What are you going to—” Nat started, but cut off as the car swerved.
Laura wasn’t actually breaking any traffic laws, she was sure to signal and managed not to cut anyone off, or at least there were no blaring car horns, and while she probably exceeded the speed limit, she didn’t go any faster than the bulk or traffic, with her last-minute weave across three lanes into an immediate left turn onto Broderick. By waiting ‘til the last minute, she hoped she looked like someone who realized almost too late they were about to miss their turn. Or so she hoped.
The car glided through the arcing turn on a yellow left-turn signal. And, much to Laura’s relief, they lost their immediate tail as he failed to make it through the light.
“You okay back there?” she asked again as she jerked the car into an immediate right turn on Greenwich and then another left on Filbert, headed back in the other direction, running parallel to Lombard, but a little further south.
The brakes squealed when Laura stomped on them to avoid someone backing out of their driveway.
“We’ll survive,” Nat grunted, through teeth gritted with pain. “I hate to ask, but do you know where you’re going? Are you familiar with the streets? Because I may not be able to see what’s going in, but I’ve got an idea, and San Francisco is full of one way streets, streets that don’t connect, that turn into stairs... you get the picture.” Nat hissed as they went over a bump.
“Right now I’m doubling back and testing a theory,” Laura said, as she rolled through a green light to cross Divisidero. Sure enough, as soon as she crossed the street, two cars pulled into view, one a police cruiser, the other an unmarked black SUV with an antenna that looked a little too robust for a soccer mom or even an investment banker. “Shit.”
“So I guess the answer to the question is, we do have a tail?” Natasha surmised. Her statement was followed by rustling noises that suggested she was emerging from her concealing blanket. “Stay here and stay down,” she said.
“Okay,” Lila agreed.
“What are you doing, stay down!” Laura demanded in disbelief. “They haven’t turned on sirens or lights yet. So far they’re just curious, if they see you they’ll know—”
“Hey, hey, I’m not exactly new to this,” Natasha responded.
Laura realized she had a mirror rigged up from somewhere and was using that as a periscope to watch the street.
After a few moments, Nat let out a sigh. “Okay, the second vehicle is definitely not SFPD. I can’t tell you which brand of feds or if they’re working for whatever UN task force has been tasked with bringing us in, but their presence means SFPD was tipped and they’re pretty confident it is us. On the other hand, the lack of sirens and lights means one of three things.”
“Three things?” Laura asked incredulously, watching as the unmarked SUV leapfrogged around a moped and closed to the gap, now only two cars back from their sedan.
“One, the feds know who we are, and they don’t want to tip off the cops because that will complicate the situation.” Laura could hear Nat frowning. “Cops usually like to follow the rules, probable cause, Miranda warning, not renditioning suspects to CIA black cites,” Nat explained. “Two they aren’t sure who we are, and they’re looking for an indication before they act.”
“They know who we are, but don’t want the public getting involved. People tend to balk when they see guns, tranq darts, and suppression cuffs aimed at kids. So, no sirens or lights keeps the public disinterested, and lulls us unto complacency so they can herd us into a trap.”
“So, how do we know which one?” Lila asked accompanying by more resting blankets.
“We don’t. And we can’t wait for them to make their move,” Natasha answered. “And I’m willing to bet it’s all three. One and three for the task force SUV and two for our friendly neighborhood cops. Only the cops don’t know they’re playing into the task force’s hands.”
The SUV passed the beat-up Honda Civic that had been behind them, while the Police cruiser signaled as if to pass.
“Put on your signal and pull into the next empty driveway on the right,” Natasha instructed, maneuvering her mirror around.
“What?” Laura said looking around frantically. There weren’t really driveways so much as extensions of the sidewalk with garage doors sprinkled every few dozen feet. In between some of the buildings were doorways and fences leading to gardens or alleyways. “There are some commercial properties...”
“Just pull into a driveway, park. Look like you belong there. You’re visiting your cousin. You don’t know the area very well, but you just found her house, and you’re here. And you’re going to unpack.” Natasha’s voice was calm and strong.
Laura turned on her signal and turned into the next expanse of sidewalk-cum-driveway. This one led to a double garage and the driveway was completely empty. There was no sign of anyone home.
“Turn off the ignition,” Nat added, unnecessarily as Laura had already moved to comply. “You’re going to get out, get Nat out of his car seat, in 3, 2, 1, go.”
Laura, undid her seatbelt, opened the door and stood up. As she turned and exited the vehicle, she watched the police cruiser, slow, then speed up, driving past, doing a good job of completely removing any doubt he was a tail. She walked back to the passenger door and opened it, reached in and unbuckled Nate, fumbling the car seat straps a few times thanks to her almost-shaking hands. She looked down at Nat, who held one finger to her lip, then back at the street. Sure enough, the SUV had pulled over a few houses past them on the other side of the street facing the wrong way.
Nat pointed to the trunk and mouthed “diaper bag.”
So Laura complied, stood, held a snuffling, half-asleep Nate to her chest, closed the door, and walked around to the trunk. Every heartbeat pounded in her ears while she felt like she was being watched, ant under a magnifying glass, never knowing when the sun would strike and she would catch fire. She popped the trunk and reached in to grab the diaper bag, only half surprised to find Cooper and Nat looking back at her through the armrest pass through, which they’d flipped down.
“Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to go to the door and ring the bell. Walk slowly, call 911 from one of the unused burners while you do. You’re going to call in a sighting of me and Lila out by the Zoo. Say you’re a mom, you’re there with your kids, you think you see someone who matches the description on the amber alert. You’re not trying to get anyone in trouble, but you’re really scared. Keep the call short, be off the phone by the time you ring the bell.”
“What if someone answers the door?” Laura asked.
“Then you’re a mom with a little kid, here from out of town, you got lost trying to find your cousin’s house, and you’re freaked out because you think there’s a big black SUV that’s following you and they’re not the cops. If no one answers the door, rummage for your keys, act frustrated, wait 30 seconds, and come back to the car,” Nat answered.
“What are you going to do?”
“Don’t worry about me, just be sure to slam the trunk when you go. Cooper? Trade places, get down with your sister on the floor,” Nat added.
Dread was pooling in Laura’s gut, but she slammed the trunk and followed Nat’s instructions. Nat knew what she was doing. This was just like the time Clint had navigated them through back mountain roads on the side of a volcano while actively bleeding everywhere. Like that was an experience she wanted to repeat. Worse, thinking about it just made her miss Clint more. It had been days now and still no word.
She commanded herself to get a grip, take a deep breath, and kids Nat’s cheek. He was bleary eyed and mouthing, “Mama,” at her, but thankfully not crying or gearing up for a temper tantrum. “Go back to sleep, baby,” she whispered, as she shifted him to her left hip and flipped open the new burner phone, which she realized was already turned on. Nat’s doing no doubt.
The 911 call was easier than she expected. She really was terrified, and must have struck just the right note of worry and uncertainty to convey sincerity to the 911 operator. She swore she could hear the frantic clicking in the background, and sure enough, there went two police cruisers, with lights on, but no sirens, speeding the other way headed west on Filbert. She hung up as she reached the top of the steps mumbling something along the lines of “shit, I think they noticed me looking,” and flipped the burner phone shut, popping off the back cover and ejecting the battery as she did so. Tucking the pieces into the outside pocket of the diaper bag, she raised her hand to the bell and rang, holding her breath.
Ten seconds passed. Twenty... she didn’t hear anyone moving inside. She rang the bell again. Once. Twice. Waited. Still no sounds of movement from inside, so she began rummaging in her pockets, then the diaper bag, looking for keys that didn’t exist. She still didn’t hear anything inside, but she thought she heard something from behind her. It took all her concentration and effort to not turn and look. Laura pressed the bell one more time, waited, and turned to head back to the car.
The car was undisturbed. The black SUV on the other hand... She could see Lila’s back from where she was half hidden by the partially open front passenger side door. Cooper was standing next to her holding something that looked like a gun, but was glowing blue and looked straight out of a sci-fi flick. She heard a zapping sound and a thump and a moment later Natasha, wearing a hoodie and sunglasses, emerged from around the back of the SUV with a tall man draped over her shoulder.
The man was wearing a black suit and was obviously unconscious.
“Oh crap,” Laura muttered, standing frozen next to the sedan, blood draining from her face. She started to move towards the street, when Cooper looked over, opened his mouth, eyes comically wide, turned to Nat, and said something.
Nat shook her head and nodded towards the car.
Laura looked at the car, confused. At that moment Nate snuffled awake, and said and signed, “Hungry.”
“Shh, baby. I know,” she murmured at the same time her pocket buzzed. Right. The phone Nat was using to keep in touch. “Right. Hands. Okay. Back in the car.” She buckled Nate back into the car seat and fished one of the last remaining baggies of cheerios and a half-empty sippy cup of Pedialyte, passed them to Nate and fished out her phone.
Meet me in parking garage. Leave now. Read the first text. Followed by an address in downtown.
The sound of a car pulling out startled her into almost dropping the phone. When she turned, the car was gone.
When she’d sat down in the driver’s seat, the address Nat had texted her was already plugged into the car’s GPS, helpful turn by turn directions prompting her along. So, she’d buckled in and followed them.
The GPS kept rerouting, though, which made her think someone was manipulating them externally, and she had to hope that someone was Nat (or rather Cooper or Lila, because she didn’t like the idea of Nat hacking her GPS while driving.
Slowly but surely, with lots of zigzags and backtracking, she inched herself south and east across the city until she was driving through the tenderloin towards Union Square. At last, the directions routed her into a tall parking garage with huge, curved ramps gracing the corner of the building. She entered, took a ticket, and followed the ramp up and up and up past the car rental levels and almost to the roof, as the decidedly not standard turn my turn directions guided her into what had to be the darkest, most secluded space in the entire garage.
The passenger door opened, making her jump.
Make that the second most secluded space. A black SUV was tucked into the corner between the support pillar and wall to her right.
“Come on. Lots to do, not much time,” Nat grunted.
Because it was Nat who had opened the door. She didn’t bother to get in though, just popped open the glove compartment and started pulling out all their gear, food, and other stashed items.
“What the hell?” Laura asked when she was out of the car, still shaking. Not eve
“It was awesome, mom!” Lila exclaimed, bounding around both vehicles and throwing her arms around Nat’s waist. She sounded the happiest she’d been since she’d shot a task force operative days before.
“Shh,” Laura and Nat said simultaneously.
“Oh right!” Lila’s voice came as more of a stage whisper now. “We need to be quiet so they don’t find us. But it was so awesome. Auntie Nat snuck over to the SUV and surprised the driver. You should have seen his face when he realized who she was! He didn’t even get to use his radio. And then they tried to get out the passenger side, and I tased them. And Cooper got to use one of the ICEE—”
“ICER,” Cooper corrected.
“—ICER guns to shoot one of the bad guys, only it didn’t kill him, just made him unconscious, and mommy I’m so glad you’re back! Can we go see daddy now?”
Lila’s features were so open and pleading, Laura had to swallow around the lump in her throat as the exhaustion and loss and fear of the last week finally caught up with her. “Soon, baby. I promise, we’ll get to see Clint really soon.”
She took Muni rail, keeping her head down, stopped by a party supply store in Noe Valley, before switching to a bus and then a different train, and yet another bus, to arrive in Pacific Heights. One quick stop to change in a 7-11 bathroom later, Laura was walking up the path to Hope van Dyne’s door.
The door opened with a soft creak. Laura’s hand was still poised a half-inch from the heavy wood, poised to knock.
“Yes?” someone was saying from inside, only to break off suddenly as Laura came into view.
She was wearing a delivery driver uniform—a decent facsimile of a UPS kit, one that would at the very least pass muster at a distance or if someone wasn’t looking too quickly. If was a gamble, but then again it had been the fastest thing she could find at the costume shop in Noe Valley. It had been on her way to the extent her winding path from train to bus was a “direct” route to her destination. It wasn’t exactly costume season and beggars couldn’t be choosers. She just needed something official-enough looking to get buy at least some of the security and have a reason for turning up on Hope van Dyne’s doorstep.
“Oh my god. It is you.” The person, Hope, because Laura recognized that silky black bob from one too many magazine covers and news stories, actually brought her hand to her mouth in open shock or dismay. “What are you doing here?!” Hope asked, a note of panicked shock sneaking in.
“Delivery for Hope van Dyne?” she asked matter-of-factly, holding up both a labeled box and a metal clip-board and case, as if expecting a signature.
“Oh my god get in here before we both get shot,” Hope said, as she reached out to grab Laura’s wrist and hauled her inside. “If I can recognize you from a couple of photos so can anyone else.”
“Drivers usually leave,” Laura stammered, after the door had been slammed and deadbolted behind her and she’d been bodily hauled around the corner and into some sort of den or living room.
“Well, you should have thought of that before you picked your disguise!” Hope retorted. “I ask again, what the hell are you doing here. This place is under surveillance by at least a dozen intelligence agencies from around the globe, there are snipers on my neighbors’ rooves, and my dad sent a message that they took him in for questioning when he tried to come over. So how are you here? And where us the rest of your family?”
“The kids are stashed with Natasha in a somewhat questionable motel near Union Square,” she admitted. She bit her lip, thinking. By the way Nat had described it, she’d expected Hope to have a plan, to know exactly what to do to get them out of San Francisco, out of the country, but instead she was faced with a woman who looked as anxious and nervous as Laura felt. “Natasha says you have a way out. The Wakandans were supposed to come to you. That was the plan. Did that not happen?” she added nervously.
Hope was walking around the room tugging at the blinds, double-checking to ensure they were closed. “That was the plan,” she muttered. “From what I understand, they approached me the same time they approached Ms. Romanoff, but the task force, or Secretary Ross, or whoever is calling the shots, they jumped the gun. Accelerated the timetable in ways I don’t think anyone was prepared for.”
“You mean the broadcast, revealing Nat isn’t on their side? Threatening my daughter’s life and freedom?” Laura asked, frustration turning to anger in her voice.
“It’s not just that. You’ve been on the run. There’s so much more going on. They’re registering everyone—inhumans, kids with special talents, anyone with more tech or power or skill than the ordinary person is going on a list, and that list comes with consequences. They don’t even have proof about me, but they’re got snipers surrounding my house to stop me from doing anything against their wishes. Not that their strategy would exactly work,” she scoffed, “but the thing is, I don’t even know for sure who they are.” She crossed her arms, hands rubbing up and down her upper arms as if she was cold as she paced around looking rather like a caged animal.
Laura took a moment to process and unpack that information. “Wait, you’re powered too?”
Hope stopped pacing and shot Laura a toothy smile that wouldn’t have been out of place on a shark. “I’m the Wasp. The second Wasp, actually, my mother was the first.” She tapped a strange earpiece with what looked like a heavy battery pack behind the ear. “This lets me communicate with and control ants. I’ve got a suit. It shrinks; it flies.” She frowned. “This is exactly what my dad’s always been afraid of, the government taking control of his research, getting their hands on Pym particles, dictating how and when it’s used. They’ve already tossed my dad’s house, and searched here twice. The first time they had the decency to bring a search warrant.” She approached the window, gaze going distant as she peered around a curtain. “The second time they didn’t bring any cops with them, and they didn’t bother with a warrant.”
“No,” Hope shook her head and backed away from the window.
“But that’s a statement, not a question.”
“Part of it is Scott,” she admitted, “but you’re right. I need to get the bulk of our research out of their hands.”
“Is your dad coming too?” Laura asked.
Hope’s expression turned sad. “No,” she admitted. “It would raise too many questions. He’s got ways of hiding the data he’s keeping, but if he left, it would attract too much attention.”
“And Ant-Man, Scott’s, daughter?” Laura asked, racking her brain and hoping her memory was correct.
Hope crossed her eyes and sighed, moving farther away from the window.
“We’ve done about six rounds of debate on this, partially via ant,” Hope added, her expression suggested she meant for the addendum to be explanatory, but Laura didn’t get it. “Ants passing messages, it’s one of the ways we’ve worked around the surveillance.”
Laura nodded. She wasn’t 100% sure how that worked, but even letting her imagination run wild, it made some sense. As much sense as anything else that had happened in the last two weeks.
“For a while it looked like they weren’t coming, Cassie’s mom, in particular, didn’t want to pull Cassie out of school, but Paxton, sorry, Detective Paxton is Cassie’s stepdad, he gets it. And now that the task force representatives have started ‘suggesting’ they register Cassie. So her mom is coming around. She want’s Cassie out of the country yesterday.”
“Her too?” Laura asked.
“I’m sure you’ve figured out by now the authorities aren’t really concerned with how human or not someone is, or whether their abilities are supernatural or unexplained in origin,” Hope went on, sounding bitter. “No one’s tried to register me yet, but that’s only because most people think I’m just likely to help out Scott or Hank, my dad,” she added. “If anyone knew about the Wasp suit or had more information about how Pym particles work, they’d be registering half the population on the off chance someone could be using them. But Cassie,” she shook her head. “She’s too attached to her dad. She’s smart. She’s curious. Even if she never touched a Pym particle or ever had the opportunity to change her size, she knows things. She’s seen how Ant-Man fights, how this works. And thanks to Darren Cross, a good portion of San Francisco, the local police, and a big enough chunk of the press knows that Cassie knows. She knows about communicating with ants, and she’s got her Dad’s aptitudes. Even if Ross’s people only had to worry about her growing up to be a disaffected hacker or thief, it would be enough.”
“I take it her parents want to keep her off the list?” Laura asked. Knowing what she knew, she couldn’t see how anyone would be okay with being on the list, but... But, she wasn’t without imagination. If you had special abilities, and you weren’t planning to moonlight as a superhero, and the government pitched signing their damn registry as a means to keep you safe, and you thought it could let you keep your normal, low-key life, and you’d never seen a damn task force hit squad or had a clue the registry might be used to make you use your skills...
Well, maybe then signing up, even putting your kid’s name on the list would seem, easy, innocuous. Laura couldn’t forget what she knew, but she could see how easy it would be to fall for the lie.
“Paxton always got it. The guy’s not an idiot. I think Maggie was hopeful the Accords and registration would just help Cassie stay out of trouble, ensure she got a chance at a normal life by discouraging any superheroics. Now that they’ve seen what the government is doing with your daughter, they don’t want Cassie anywhere near that damn list. They’re all planning, even planning to take her giant pet ant with them, although they’ll be shrinking him smaller for travel, it’s just a matter of figuring out the cover story, because Paxton’s status as a police officer is giving them some freedom of movement right now, but they’re still being watched.” Hope went on to explain a little about her father’s work, ants, and how the authorities were surveilling everyone.
Minutes later, worry about appearing suspicious to anyone who might be watching the house long forgotten, Laura found herself sitting on the edge of Hope’s living room couch.
“So there was a plan and now we’re what? Stuck?” Laura said, the that’s not acceptable unspoken, but obvious in her voice. “I want to be reunited with my husband, don’t get me wrong. I want my kids to grow up with their dad. But the most important thing is that they have a future in which they can grow up. The future the Sokovia Accords have laid out for them, is not a real future. I want my kids to have chances and choices, and hope. And we can’t stay here, can’t remain in that the U.S. if I want that to happen. Now, I led my family here because Natasha said we could get out of the country and back to Clint. But if that’s not in the case, then I’m not interested in sticking around. I’m not just going to wait here while some UN task force tightens the noose around us, going door to door until they find us, pin us down. So, if I have to, I’ll take my kids and leave. I’ve got half a chance of slipping over the Canadian or Mexican boarders without getting caught. So tell me how we turn the possibility of a plan, into a real means of escape.”
Hope got up from where she’d perched herself on the arm of a sofa, crossed his arms, and started pacing. “The Brazilian Consulate. It’s in downtown San Francisco, the financial district. The Wakandans have good diplomatic relations with Brazil. Some nations—” she shrugged, “reached out more quickly than others, really worked to establish ties. And the Wakandans reached right back. Only the U.S. doesn’t know about it, so it’s not something they’d think to check.”
Laura nodded. Something about the situation didn’t quite click with her, until it finally slotted into place. “More importantly, the U.S. and the UN have no idea the Wakandans are involved. Most people don’t know their King is an enhanced person who hasn’t signed the accords. They don’t have a clue...”
“And they’re not likely to get a clue. It would just look like we were fleeing to Brazil—” Hope agreed. “Nonextradition treaty and all, it just looks like we’re making a very calculated decision. And it’s a cover that works well for the Paxtons. Paxton’s job provides cover, makes it both difficult and potentially a PR disaster to approach them. Unlike you and your kids, everyone knows about Scott Lang and his ex-wife and daughter. And now his ex-wife is a cop’s wife, and the idea of approaching Cassie for registration without a concrete reason is really unappealing. And everyone knows Scott’s a thief. Not everyone knows he’s Ant-Man, and if they do know, they attribute his powers to technology. So, if the registration brigade goes after Cassie, it starts to look like they’re targeting her because her biological father’s a thief, and she’s somehow guilty by association with his skills, and that’s the kind of message no one wants to send. Instead of a terrifying, inhuman other with too much power, they see a sweet kid who’s a cop’s step kid and is being discriminated against because of something her father did. The justification for the registry breaks down. It’s bad PR. As much as they might want to register her or lock them all up, they don’t dare.”
Jealousy rose and rushed through Laura, leaving her angry and riled up. But as fast as the surge of emotion came, it left. She couldn’t, wouldn’t begrudge a child having some modicum of protection from conspirators who wanted to use her as a weapon, especially when the child in question, if the framed photo of Scott Lange and a smiling, gap-toothed little girl that sat on Hope’s side table was anything to go by. Cassie was Lila’s age, or close. And already that poor kid had been through a lot of crap, far too much for anyone so young. And now, that complicated and unhappy future was providing her a modicum of protection, while the secrecy and anonymity Clint had always ensured for Laura and the kids was now being used to trap them. Irony was a bitch. But that wasn’t Cassie’s fault.
And it was an advantage. “So, they have the freedom to move around, maybe even go to the Consulate to apply for a visa to take trip,” Laura deduced.
“Yeah,” Hope confirmed. “I mean the task force would probably show themselves, but Paxton will have a police escort, unofficial, but the SFPD isn’t exactly going to let one of their own get hassled for no good reason.
“Well, that’s it. We go with the plan. We get to the Brazilian Consulate and make contact with the Wakandans there and then they’ll do the rest, right?” Laura encouraged.
Hope’s face fell. “That was the plan, but I’m cut off. I don’t have a direct line of communication. Everything on my end was dead drops, and now, I can’t reach any of them. I could send out the ants, but I’d have to know who I was trying to talk to, and I don’t.”
Laura could feel another headache coming on. “Well does anyone have a way to communicate with them? They planned everything else, they must have considered the possibility someone else would screw our timetable.”
“Rumor has it Natasha has a means,” Hope answered.
Laura’s thoughts immediately turned to Nat’s phone and its mysteries. Hope had to be right, but Natasha had a feeling contacting the Wakandans directly had a good chance of brining the task force down on them all post haste. Still... “If we can contact the Wakandans, set up something for tomorrow morning, can you figure out a way to get yourself there and ensure Cassie and her family get there too? Maybe there’s some reason your business would need you to go?”
Hope frowned, brow furrowed, then slowly began to smile. “I think I could work something out.”
Sure, the kids could provide some cover, excuses to be places a solo adult would never be, but for every advantage there was at least one more disadvantage. Kids drew suspicion during the school day. Kids couldn’t slip into bars to lose tails. And a not-quite-a toddler was too young to reliably remain silent when needed.
To put it simple, being in a group complicated things, and Natasha’s injuries were making coping with those complications a challenge. Still, Clint’s family (her family) was nothing if not resourceful, and Natasha was using that to their advantage.
White Laura was out, Nat had sent Cooper for supplies and set Lila to work on condensing their gear and making choices about what to pack. So far they’d been able to travel by vehicle. But with a combination of concerned citizens, police, feds, assorted 3-letter agencies, and the task force combing the streets of San Francisco, they needed more maneuverability than a vehicle offered. And that meant getting rid of stuff. Only the stuff in question was Laura and the kids’ few remaining possessions.
Cooper had returned from a tour of nearby Walgreens and with more medical supplies and bleach. It was less than ideal, but it would have to do. She couldn’t exactly send Cooper out for industrial-grade solvents and lye, not if they didn’t want to lead the task force to their door.
Lila had sorted through their things, making a small pile that included identity documents, cash, baby necessities, a handful of photos (removed from their frames), assorted flash drives and data cards, and a few stray pairs of socks and underwear. She was currently looking longingly and heart broken at her bow and a thread-bare stiffed Snoopy that Nate had been playing with, but that Nat was pretty sure had originally belonged to Lila.
Sensing Lila’s inner struggle, Nat approached her, stepping up beside her. “You know, it’s okay to keep things that make you stronger.”
“So, it’s okay to keep the bow?” Lila asked quietly.
“Yeah, because it’s really useful and really important for a lot of reasons. I know it makes you feel safe, like you can protect us, have some control. But it also makes you feel close to your dad, and that’s just as important.”
Still hesitant with uncertainty, Lila reached out and moved the bow and quiver to the “keep” pile.
Nat reached out and picked up the Snoopy, handing it to Lila. “You should keep this too. It’s important to who you are, who Nathaniel is.”
“Won’t it take up space that we need for something else?” Lila whispered.
Natasha responded by reaching for Lila’s jacket, and tucking the stuffed dog into an inside pocket. “Nope. And I bet it will make you feel happier, calmer. Keeping it is a way to make sure they haven’t won.”
Lila was quiet for a few more seconds, pensive, reflecting. At last she said, “I don’t feel bad, I don’t feel like a bad person.”
Nat had been expecting this. She was pretty sure Laura hadn’t clued in to why Lila hadn’t talked about the attack yet, the shooting, that Lila was afraid her mother would judge her. This was between Lila and Nat, the person she’d saved.
“Why would you feel like a bad person?”
“Because I killed that man,” she said.
Nat put her arm around Lila and pulled her close, hugging until Lila relaxed enough to sit on the end of the bed.
“You might not have killed him, and even if you did, you didn’t do anything wrong. You saved my life. He was about to kill me.”
“Like you shot the man who hurt Cooper’s neck, to save Cooper?” Lila asked.
“Exactly like that. I didn’t want to shoot him, just like you didn’t want to shoot him, but they attacked us and were going to kill our family, and you did the best thing you could. You’re a hero, my hero. I am so proud of you… your mom is too,” Nat added, nudging Lila’s shoulder.
More silence followed. Lila was thinking, mulling it over, as if taking each issue and hurt and fear out of a box, examining it, and putting it back. Nat could almost see her working through the events of the past week and everything that was keeping her up at night, everything that made her silent.
Something was a sticking point though, Nat observed as Lila kept opening her mouth, letting out a breath, and looking down at her hands. She’d wait another 30 seconds or so, and repeat the process. After about 10 minutes, Lila finally let out a breath, looked up, and asked. “If I’m not bad, if I didn’t do something bad, then why are they after me? Why are they saying I’m dangerous?”
“Well,” Natasha began, matter-of-factly, “first of all, dangerous isn’t the same thing as ‘bad.’ It can be bad, but it can also be good. And sometimes people just call things dangerous when they don’t understand them and are afraid. People have called me dangerous, your dad too. But you know your dad’s a really good guy, right?”
“But the thing is, they’re not after you because you did something bad. They don’t care that you shot someone with a bow and arrow. They care that you managed to make that shot, without hitting your mom, or me, or your brother, with equipment too big for you, in horrible conditions, from outside the house. Your mom doesn’t realize that last part. She doesn’t know you were just outside the barn. She thinks you were in the doorway behind her.”
“Would she be mad if she knew?”
“No, she’d be amazed and grateful, and really, really scared for you. Even more than she is now.”
Lila was staring up at Nat with big eyes, tears welling. “Why?” she asked.
“Because what you did, there are people five times your age, who have been training for their entire lives that couldn’t dream of making that shot. That makes you special, it means you have potential to do things most people can’t do, like your dad, or me, or Captain America,” Nat answered.
“And that makes some people scared of you, and other people want to control you, to be able to tell you when you can shoot, when you can’t, or make you shoot, even if you don’t want to. They don’t understand, and it makes them afraid. And their fear made them do very bad things, like trying to kill Cooper, trying to kill me. But that doesn’t make you bad for being you, or for being able to save us. And that’s why we’re on this trip. So you can see you dad, and we can all be safe, somewhere the people chasing us don’t know to look.”
Finally, the line of tension in Lila’s shoulders eased a little, and she let out a breath, then another, her shoulders shaking accompanied by silent tears. “I was so scared,” she admitted.
“So was I, kiddo, so was I. I never wanted you to be in a situation like that, but I am so, so glad you saved me.”
“We flushed what we could, and Cooper stashed the remainder in the janitor’s closed on another floor,” Nat explained. “We might be able to get the Wakandans to retrieve it.”
Laura just nodded, taking in the tear tracks on Lila’s face, but her overall bubblier demeanor, and the encouraging smile from Nat, led her to believe that situation would keep at least until they were in Wakanda. Which brought her to the plan.
After far less discussion than Laura had expected, Nat had whipped out the phone and made a call.
“We need to be at the Consulate by 4 am. Someone will meet us and let us in. We’ll have a place to hide until the others get there.”
They took turns showering, changed, and tried to sleep, but Laura found herself lying awake deep into the wee hours of the morning. Finally, at 2:45 am she got up, stretched and sat, in a half-lotus staring at the door, just waiting. She was pretty sure no one else was sleeping. If this worked, this would be the last night they’d spend in the U.S., quite possibly ever. Laura expected to feel more sadness, loss, but strangely she felt okay with it. Home wasn’t here any more. And she was ready to go home.
Nat got up 10 minutes later, and roused the kids. There was two-minute stretch where Nathaniel sounded like he was going to start bawling, but after Laura danced around the room with him for a few minutes, bouncing him on her hip, he settled down, and went back to dozing.
By 3:15 a.m. they were out the door. Their hotel wasn’t that far from the Brazilian consulate, only one BART stop and a few extra blocks, but they were trying to make the trip unnoticed, which took time, especially with three half-sleeping kids.
The still-pitch-black sky and crescent moon provided some anonymity and ensured there weren’t that many people on the streets to observe them. But having kids out for a walk at 3 in the morning wasn’t exactly commonplace, and it made every observation all the more risky. They stuck to the shadows as much as possible, taking a circuitous route, winding through the streets around Union Square, up towards china town, over to Columbus, down Kearny, back tracking, hiding in the shadow of doorways, a couple of times crouching behind parked cars.
They passed two police officers, one a beat cop on foot, going the other way on the other side of the street, the other, a passing police cruiser. Laura had no idea if either spotted them or thought they were suspicious, recognized them and connected them to the BOLO and Amber alert, but the closer they got to the Consulate, the more she felt sure they must have been discovered. The prickly feeling was back. They were being watched.
They were still a block and a half from the consulate, when Nat said in Laura’s ear, “Run.” Not a shout, not a whisper, just a command. “I’ve got Lila, go now.”
Clutching Nathaniel to her chest and ignoring the thwacking of the diaper bag, she broke into a jog then a sprint, Cooper at her side. In the darkness, she couldn’t see Nat, who had been a step behind her, and she didn’t dare look around to spot their pursuers. She just kept her head down and ran toward the building, hoping and praying the contact would be at the door where they were supposed to meet.
She crossed the last street, the door to the Consulate looming before them, partway down the block. She could hear heavy breathing and the pounding of feet behind her. Not Natasha’s and much to close. She pushed, she ran with everything she had, one arm on Nate, the other pumping, swinging, as she pushed every ounce energy and fear and love and hope she had into moving her feet faster, faster.
“In here,” an accented voice said, as she passed the door before the Consulate proper.
Laura slowed and turned, realizing there was an employee entrance being held open by a slender, dark-skinned woman. She dove inside, shuddering with heaving breaths, as she turned to look back the way she came. Cooper threw himself through the door five seconds later, and then Nat appeared, carrying Lila, bow and all. No sooner had Nat stepped inside, than the woman slammed the door, turning a heavy deadbolt and key, even as the door bounced and reverberated with the impact of bodies.
“Let us in. Open this door! You’re harboring fugitives who have been judged to be an immediate threat to national security, failure to—”
But the woman spoke again, so Laura didn’t hear the rest of the tirade. “Come this way, please. You are not yet safe. It is important that the Brazilian diplomats and staff do not see you, so they cannot lead the authorities to you. They must not know where you hide.”
Laura, Cooper, and Nat, with Lila and Nathaniel still in arms, followed the woman without a sound. She led them through twists and turns, locked doors, hidden doors, up stairs and down, until they reached a small room with one window near ceiling height mahogany paneling and green carpet. It might have been a disused office or a really elaborate storage room, but right now, it was empty, save for them.
“Wait here.” The woman left, only to return within a minute carrying a bag full of bottled water and granola bars. “It is not much, but it will hold you until it is time to depart. I am a friend of Nakia’s, also of the Dora Milaje. I am relieved you have reached us. I was not certain your rescue would be successful. We have been concerned at the level of interest certain parties have taken in Miss Barton.” She smiled at Laura, her mouth devilish, dangerous, but her eyes warm and inviting. “I am impressed that one so young has caused so much commotion. We will welcome having you in Wakanda.”
“Thank—thank you,” Laura managed around panted breaths. “What happens now?”
“We wait. The others will not arrive for some time, and they must now be very careful, as your approach was detected. The Dora Milaje have detained the officers who were tracking you, but one of them sent a partial radio transmission, perhaps enough to attract unwanted attention. I will come get you when it is time to leave. There is a bathroom behind that door,” she added as she pointed to a nondescript door at the back left of the room.
Nat and Laura both said their thanks again, and then the door closed, lock engaging with a snick.
Laura collapsed against the wall, sliding to the floor in a heap. Cooper followed suit, Lila and Nat were already on the floor. Nathaniel thumped his fist against Laura’s chest, “down,” he demanded, so she let him down, where he proceeded to crawl over to his brother before demanding to be picked up into Cooper’s lap, where he finally settled.
“Shit,” Nat hissed, clutching her side.
Blood was seeping through her shirt.
“Did you get hit?” Laura asked. She hadn’t heard any gunfire, but someone could have used a knife…
“Popped my stitches, and this wound was not healed enough for that,” Nat admitted.
“What happened?” Laura asked.
“A cop ran out of one of the buildings, made a play for Lila, grabbed her arm hard enough to pull her down.”
Laura looked over at Lila, realized she had a split lip, a bruise on her left wrist, and her knees were bleeding. Laura opened her bag and dug out the first aid kit, or the parts of it that they’d kept, which was most of it, pulling out disinfectant, gauze, bandages, and antibiotics.
“I grabbed her picked her up before he could take her, but that kinda, owww… threw everything out of whack. I’ll be okay. That just scared the shit out of me.” Nat looked a little chagrined at her own language. “There was no indication. One minute two guys were behind us, the next a door opens and Lila’s on the ground.” She shuddered.
They fell into silence agfter that, cleening wounds, drinking water, snacking, sleeping fitfully.
It was silent until sometime around late morning when they heard footsteps in the hallway outside the door. No one approached, though.
Laura feel asleep again. When she woke, she had a crick in her neck and her watch told her it was after noon. She didn’t want to panic, but she was starting to feel a little desperate. They’d been there for over 8 hours. And so far, there had been no indication Cassie, Hope, or the others had arrived.
At 1 she got up and paced. At 2 she sat down again, rocking against the wall starting to panic.
Nat on the other hand, seemed comparatively relaxed, or at least less anxious. “Extractions are tricky. I’m treating this like any other safe house where we’re in hurry-up-and wait mode. We’ll be okay.”
“What’s the longest you ever had to wait? Cooper asked, his brother currently dozing, half lying on his lap.
“8 days,” Nat admitted. “With your dad, actually. We weren’t supposed to have an extraction, but… uh, Clint got shot, and I had a fractured ankle, so we had to sit tight, wait for them to come to us. It got really ripe at the end, because we ran out of clean clothes, there was no laundry, and we were getting short on food and water. But we made it.”
“I hope we’re not here for 8 days,” said Lila. “I’m already sick of granola bars. And I want a real bed, or at least a blanket.”
Laura silently agreed. They fell back into quiet waiting for another 40 minutes or so.
Laura was almost dozing again, when a sudden pounding of footsteps on marble hallway sounded outside the door, coming to a frantic stop. A key rattled and the lock turned, the door opening, before Laura had managed to get herself and the kids to a more defensible position.
“We must leave, now. Troops are approaching. They are restricting the airspace, and Ms. Van Dyne almost did not make it.”
“How?” Laura asked. She’d assumed Hope would slip out and fly in as the Wasp.
“An unpleasant individual threw a quantum disc at her that caused her to regain full size in the lobby. She had a bit of a crash, but recovered quickly. Come, there is no time.”
They rose and followed the Dora Milaje woman, as she sent them darting and pausing down another twist of hallways. Suddenly she yelled, “Run,” and pointed. At the end of the hall an elevator door was partially open. Nat, carrying Nate, and Cooper, were already halfway down the hall at a full sprint. Taking Lila’s hand, Laura ran after them, sliding into the elevator as the door closed. Once again, there was thumping and pounding outside as the elevator began to rise with a lurch. It was some sort of freight elevator, she realized, and they were not alone. Hope van Dyne, and three other people—two adults and a little girl who had to be Cassie Lang, were already there.”
“Hi,” Laura said a little awkwardly.
Cassie’s mom and stepdad’s expressions looked as overwhelmed as Laura felt.
The elevator rose, higher and higher, before finally rattling to a stop. The doors opened to show the roof. Already helicopters were circling, approaching, and they could hear the sound of sirens fast approaching.
Another woman, taller, than the first, identified herself, and told them to run to the far side of the roof, pointing as they moved.
It didn’t look like anything was there. There was just empty roof. If they kept running, they’d be pinned against the side and then they’d be sitting ducks. Her mind spun and raced, concocting ever-more horrible scenarios. Until suddenly the air before them shimmered and an airplane appeared.
At least she thought it was an airplane, because it looked a little like a quinjet in that it had thrusters and cloaking tech, but nothing like a quinjet. It was bigger, with a wider wing span, and the ramp was already descended, two more women, probably also Dora Milaje, waiting inside, beckoning them in.
Laura’s feet were still on the ramp when it started to rise, and she hadn’t even found where the seats were before she felt the plane lift off the roof.
“Hang on, we must evade,” was all the warning they got, before the plane was put through its paces, corkscrewing out of the way of first helicopters, and then what appeared to be fighter jets.”
“Can they see us?” Cooper asked.
“No, and that is part of the problem. They also cannot avoid us, but they want to find us,” one of their hosts described.
Minutes passed, with Laura and the others clinging to the floor, and trying to make it to the seats whenever the flight straightened out. Finally, the flight steadied off. “We have left U.S. airspace,” their hosts announced.
Laura buckled in, and soon found herself dozing in the surprisingly comfortable, fully reclining seat. Definitely something that didn’t come standard on a quinjet. After so many days on the run, so much time not sleeping, it was such a novelty to feel safe enough to actually relax.
She straightened up and looked around. Lila was playing with the little girl from the picture at Hope’s house, Cassie. They were talking about something and giggling, while looking at some sort of tablet, only it was unlike any tablet she’d ever seen before.
“This place has some ridiculously unbelievable futuristic stuff. I mean I’ve had part of my body replaced by a cells made on a 3-D printer, and that looks like a band-aid compared to the stuff they have.”
Laura was on her feet and whirled around within a heartbeat. Clint! It had only been a little over two weeks since they’d last seen each other, but so much had happened in that time, it could have easily been two years. His lips captured hers as she threw her arms around him and held on for dear life. Ever since Captain America had called, a big part of Laura had doubted she would ever get this again.
When they finally pulled apart for air, Clint ran his hand down the side of Laura’s face, stroking gently. “You’re actually here. This isn’t a dream,” he murmured.
“I’m here,” she repeated, taking in Clint’s appearance. He had fading bruises on his face and arms, and he looked a bit more tired and thinner than he’d been when he left, but all in all, he looked good, safe, healthy. So much better than she had feared.
“I’m sorry it took so long,” she said, voice catching in her throat.
“I’m sorry couldn’t stay,” he added, hugging her again. “But I’m so glad you’re here. You’re all here. I swear Nate grew two inches in the last two weeks.”
Laura giggled. “He might have. It was… a lot happened. I missed you. We all missed you so much,” she said.
“But now you’re home,” Clint replied.
And Laura realized she was. The really were home. Because home was family, not necessarily a place, but the people in it.
“Are you ready to go see it?”
“Yes,” she replied, letting Clint take her by the hand, and lead her out in to the fragrant, waiting jungle. The journey might have taken 10,000 miles, but at last, Laura Barton was home.