Surveying the chaos that was her front porch, Laura's sleep-deprived brain decided it was all Tony Stark's fault. It was four o'clock in the morning; the kids were ricocheting off the walls in feverish anticipation, Nate right on the border of a classic, too-tired-to-settle meltdown; Clint was in full drill-sergeant mode, snapping out orders left and right as he finished loading the Suburban; Wanda had that deer-in-the-headlights, tight-lipped, Americans-are-ridiculous expression all but carved into her face; and Laura's own head was threatening to explode from the thought that they hadn't even started this ridiculous vacation yet.
The only thing that was keeping her from screaming was Natasha actually having accepted the invitation to join them in despite Laura knowing perfectly well that she thought it was some kind of a test, a hoop she had to jump through to be allowed back into the family again, as if a perfectly valid choice of sides in a moronic argument somehow canceled out taking on a demi-god for Clint, much less the decade of partnering with him.
- - -
("But she made the tapes from the Raft disappear--" Laura had started to say when Clint had finally admitted why Natasha hadn't been to the farm once since everything had more-or-less righted itself. Laura knew this taking long was more than a little on her, too: she'd been doing everything she could not to think about the months and months Clint had been gone, and pretending to accept Natasha's excuses for not visiting had been easier than pressing for more details.
"Yup," Clint had answered.
"And it's not as though it was her fault they existed in the first place," Laura had continued, managing somehow to not grind her teeth together at the thought of how easily certain people could blithely betray the trust placed in them, all because they were 'upset'. Clint had been watching her with steady, calm eyes, so she probably hadn't kept all of her annoyance (ok, fine, her seething fury, but she'd been working on it) off her face, but a deep breath and a quick kiss to remind herself that they'd gotten through it had worked wonders.
"Right there with you," Clint had answered.
"Did you *tell* her that?" Laura's exasperation at that point had felt much more familiar and welcome.
"*Yes*." Clint had sounded so aggrieved at actually having to communicate emotions that Laura had almost laughed, so there had been a little bit of apologetic cuddling that had taken place. Life had been such an emotional roller coaster at that point that they'd gotten used to just owning up to the wild mood swings and letting go of them.
Clint had shrugged. "Got a couple vague promises to try to come out, which..."
Laura had sighed, because yes, that hadn't happened.
"All that shit she carries from the Red Room," Clint had said after a bit, "it's like flashbacks only worse. Takes her a while to get through them sometimes."
"Fuck them," Laura had answered. Clint had snorted in agreement, and that had been that. Later, though, he hadn't let Natasha put him off over the trip, so Laura had been more than happy with him, at least for that part of the plan.)
- - -
"All right," Clint finally
barked called. "Load up."
It was probably good that Natasha was (as Cooper liked to call it) riding shotgun so she and Clint could trade off driving, as that meant Laura didn't have to sit next to a husband in Full-Metal-Jacket mode. She was all for anything that would prolong her marriage. Wanda got the second seat in the middle with Laura, while Cooper and Lila scrambled into the very back and, interpreting Laura's expression correctly, did not whine even once about having Nate's car seat between them. Nate struggled and fought, but Laura didn't have a decade's worth of experience in buckling up unhappy toddlers for nothing. The kid never had a fighting chance. She still wasn't fast enough for Agent Power-Mad in the front seat.
"Are we good?" Clint snapped. Laura let it slide, but only because Natasha forgot herself long enough to roll her eyes at Laura.
"Should I give the double-tap All Clear on the roof?" Laura asked. "Is that the correct, Strike-Team-Delta-approved signal?" She faux-smiled at Clint in the rearview mirror. From how quickly he jerked his eyes away from hers, she figured he saw how that was masking her gritted teeth.
Possibly, she hadn't let it slide. Also, possibly, she was channeling the worst of her mother, the part that had ended up a passive-aggressive shrew. She sighed, and leaned forward enough that she could poke her head between the front seats and tuck her hand into the crook of Clint's arm. He slanted a look down at her, one side of his mouth quirking up in a rueful smile that was as much of an apology as anything. Laura smiled back an acceptance. He flexed his biceps a bit, she dug her nails into the muscle a little harder than necessary, and they were good.
"Okay," Clint said in a much more normal voice. He turned the Suburban out of the long, winding driveway and onto the two-lane blacktop that ran into town and the interstate. "We're officially on the way. Next stop…"
"Disney World!!!!!" Cooper and Lila yelled from the back seat. Nate roused from where he'd almost zonked out to add his ear-splitting screech to the answer.
"Well, more like breakfast," Clint said. "But yeah, Disney World. Eventually." He was trying to be cool, but Laura knew how to read the sneaky undercurrent of excitement in his voice even before he winked at her in the rearview mirror.
- - -
("What the hell is all this?" Clint had asked as the pile of brochures and stickers and promotional DVDs spilled off the kitchen counter and scattered across the floor. He'd stooped down to get them up, reading them as he gathered the mess together. "'Orlando: Where Memories Are Made'? Seriously?"
"Stark Industries invites us to make use of their corporate accommodations for a family vacation," Laura had answered. "Repeatedly." She'd mostly managed to keep her voice neutral, as all the team, including Clint, had been working on getting to a point where past events weren't hamstringing them in action. She understood, and even more, had a vested interest in making sure her non-super-powered husband had full coverage in the field, but she also definitely had a lot further to go in letting go of her irritation (it was much more than that, but she was working on it) with Tony Stark. Clint didn't need to juggle her issues on top of his own, though, so she'd been keeping her mouth shut as much as she could.
"What the hell?" Clint had muttered again, forgetting about the coffee he'd been making and heading back to his half-office/half-shop. Since Laura didn't think a bunch of shiny brochures were woodworking inspiration, she'd assumed he was heading for the secure communications lines. She'd been folding towels twenty minutes later when he'd stomped back into the kitchen muttering about how Stark was ducking his calls.
"Natasha?" Laura had suggested. "She usually knows what's going on." She'd gotten a thoughtful grunt in return, and then, another twenty minutes after that, had ended up starting dinner while Clint had stalked around the kitchen, unexpectedly (to Laura's mind) offended as he relayed Natasha's opinion that the offer was Stark's attempt at an apology.
"Fucking blood money," Clint had been muttering, "because it's easier to throw that at me than face me." It was perhaps unfortunate that Tony had returned Clint's calls at that moment. Nobody had raised their voice that Laura could tell, but she'd rarely heard Clint's voice get as cold as it had when he'd ended the call with a snarled, "I can take my own damn family to Disney World, Stark."
"Right?" he'd asked Laura as he dropped the phone onto the counter with a clatter.
"Damn straight," Laura had answered.)
- - -
With Strike Team Delta at the wheel, the trip that all sane mapmakers pegged at 21 hours of actual driving time (not counting the suggested overnight breaks) took just over 18 even including the many stops that traveling with small kids demanded, and they were pulling into the hotel right at 11 p.m. Eastern time. Laura gathered up her folder of notes, printed-out reservation confirmations and daily attack plans, and headed into the lobby to check everyone in. They weren't quite staying on the level of the house that Stark Industries maintained (Laura had looked that development up and house prices started at well over a million dollars--and she still didn't regret Clint throwing the offer back in Stark's face) but she'd splurged on suites rather than just rooms, rationalizing that the separate bedroom would help get Nate down at night.
The kids had pored over the pictures of the hotel on the internet, getting at least as much satisfaction out of the artfully staged photos as they did out of wrapped presents under the Christmas tree. The suites Laura had booked only had one proper bed (anything bigger was ridiculously priced), but Cooper had already called dibs on the bed that pulled down out of the wall in the living area, and Lila had fortunately enough decided that the fold-out couch was fine, so there was no sulking going on. They came with a mini kitchens, which was, well, fine (saving money was good, harassing kids to do dishes on vacation was less so) and an extra full bathroom, which was just short of nirvana in Laura's eyes.
Wanda trailed in with Laura, looking around at the lobby with slightly alarmed eyes. Since the walls were covered with backlit plastic panels, each one a glowing, stylized sketch of a Disney character, Laura couldn't blame her. There were apparently some less character-driven Disney hotels to choose from, but Laura had made the executive decision that if they were going all this way, they were going all the way. While Laura waited her turn at the front desk--because there was a robust line even this late hour, which probably did not bode well for the fun things during the day--Lila came running in and towed Wanda off to look at all the sketches. Wanda went willingly, which, of course, sent Lila over the moon and she, in turn, coaxed a laugh or two out of Wanda. It was all very sweet, but Laura had made it abundantly clear right from the start that Wanda wasn't there to cater to the kids' whims. She supposed it wouldn't hurt to reiterate that rule before things really got crazy.
- - -
("I think you should ask Wanda if she wants to come along," Clint had said. "She won't ask for herself, but otherwise, she's going to be up at the compound and--"
"That's not good," Laura had finished for him. Things were still very delicate between the different factions and while they were working well together in the field, too much down-time together had the potential for re-cracking the fragile, stitched-together peace. "Is it something she's going to want to do, though? It's not looking like it's going to be a quiet retreat, you know."
"She has a good time out here with us." Clint had shrugged. "She's at least used to this kind of crazy."
The spare bedroom at the back of the house, with the view over the herb garden and the rolling hills beyond, was already known as 'Wanda's room', so Clint had a point there.
Laura had considered how best to do the asking, but in the end just went for a straightforward conversation while she was folding laundry and Wanda had been trying out yet another recipe found on the internet in the quest for something close to her family's poppy seed cookies.
"It would be too big of an intrusion," Wanda had said immediately.
"If that's you being polite and not wanting to tell me the whole thing sounds horrible, that's fine, but if you really are worried about intruding, please don't be. We wouldn't be inviting you if we thought that."
"It is your family time. You spent a long time apart, while Clint was…"
"While you *both* were illegally jailed and then on the run from charges that collapsed as soon as the international courts weighed in on those so-called 'accords'?" Laura had suggested.
"Yes?" Wanda's smile had been hesitant.
"It wasn't fun. For anyone, I'm sure," Laura had said, nodding as Wanda had relaxed a bit. "But he's on my side on this one. We both would like it if you come along. Natasha is coming, too, you know."
"If you are sure I wouldn't be a bother," Wanda had said.
"You mean, more of a bother than my actual husband and children?" Laura had rolled her eyes. "You're not even going to be close.")
- - -
The check-in actually went smoothly, handled with ease by a cheerful (but not perky--Laura wasn't sure how she managed that, but she wouldn't be surprised if it was something in the water) woman. Laura had done everything online, and they technically could have gone straight to their rooms, but she wanted to make sure her varied requirements had been met. One by one, they went through the special (Laura had so far managed not to use the word 'Magic Band' but she could see it was a doomed effort already) wristbands for each person, verifying room keys and charging and park tickets. They ran through an explanation of how to align the Mickey icon on the wristband to the matching icon on various locks, turnstiles and payment pads before wrapping up with more cheer--directions to the best place to park for their rooms, the suggestion to make a late-night run for gelato at the food court, and a small, castle-decorated, plastic bag (the first of many, Laura suspected) which proved to be full of First Time! pins, a ridiculous number of Mickey stickers, and a small, non-activated wristband for Nate.
"The little ones love having one of their own," came the explanation. "Be sure you wear your pins so everyone knows to give you extra pixie dust magic!" Laura didn't know how exactly to answer that (laughing in disbelief seemed rude), but the next group had already stepped up to the front desk and all that cheeriness was now directed at someone new.
Laura had to admit it was something of a relief.
She collected Wanda and Lila, made no mention of gelato availability, and, back out in the parking lot, handed the map with the room building marked to Clint because they'd learned over the years to just let him deal with directional issues. Their brains worked too differently; translating from one to the other didn't do anything but waste time and patience. Nate and Cooper came running in from the darkness as soon as Clint whistled, and everybody piled back into the SUV for the surprisingly long drive around to their rooms. Apparently, they were not in a cozy little hotel.
"We're in the Finding Nemo section," Laura announced, consulting her paperwork.
"Oooo," Clint snarked. "Exciting."
"This was your idea, Hawkeye," Laura reminded him. "Get with the program."
"Ma'am, yes, ma'am," Clint answered. "Finding Nemo it is, ma'am."
"That never gets old," Laura heard Natasha tell Wanda.
Laura was perfectly happy to own up to how she didn't even try to rein in the smirk at that. Clint saw, too, but just rolled his eyes and pulled the SUV into a parking space. Everyone spilled out, dragging duffel bags and backpacks with them, setting off for the building entrance with almost no whining.
The outer walls of the buildings were decorated with the same kind of sketches as in the lobby, just on a building-size scale, and the interior hallways were all painted blue, so it wasn't until Laura touched her wristband to the electronic lock ("Mickey to Mickey!" chirped a voice in her head) and Clint shouldered the door to their suite open that they got the full effect of Laura's executive decision to go for broke on the Disney 'magic.'
"Wow," Clint said, stopping not two steps into the room and staring. "You weren't kidding about the 'all in,' were you?"
"Oh," Laura said, getting a good look herself. "My," she finished weakly.
Clint was grinning as he shrugged the bags off his shoulders, but she was saved from any immediate commenting by Lila darting in around them, all but shrieking with glee as she danced her way into the room.
"It's the fish school, Mom," Laura managed to decipher, as Lila twirled in excitement at the sight. "It'll be like sleeping under water!" The pull-out couch in the living area was, in fact, situated under a 3D piece of art of the school of fish from Finding Nemo, while the small stools around it looked like some sort of sea mushroom. The chairs at the dining table had coral-shaped backs, the floor lamps looked like some kind of wavy seaweed creature, and every piece of furniture in both rooms was painted with scenes inspired by the movie.
In the same color palette.
Even the carpeting.
Nate was squirming to get down, so Laura set him on his feet and let him wander around. He studied the solid brace of the painted dining table, the scene right on his eye-level, and then looked up at her and grinned. "Kush," he said happily, patting where the turtle was swimming along. "Kush."
"Duuude," Clint and Cooper said in unison.
Nate giggled. "Dooooooo," he echoed, raising his hands for high fives. "Dooooooooo."
Cooper whooped and smacked his little brother's palms. Lila came running over, insisting not to be left out. Clint beamed at his offspring proudly. Laura sighed. In what was looking like a tactical error, she could tell she was in for a long week of Crush and Squirt quotes.
On the other hand, she did love watching her guys goof off together. Everyone said there would be tension once Cooper got to be a teenager, so she was storing up funny memories to keep the aggravation at bay.
"Alright, my dudes, of all genders," she called. "Teeth brushed and lights out so we can go see Mickey and his pals in the morning."
The lure of face-time with the mouse in charge proved strong enough that no one complained as she herded them to the bathroom off the living room, settling Nate on the counter so she could take care of the actual teeth cleaning before she put him back on the floor with a toothbrush to wave around and chew on.
"Clint," she said, finding him flat on his back on the floor in the bedroom, stretching out the kinks from driving all day and half the night. "Can you go check and make sure Natasha and Wanda got into their room?"
He gave her the look that said he knew she was dodging the issue, which, well…. She was. She was tired, though, and frankly, running out of ways to say that Natasha was welcome and that she, Laura, was not holding any kind of a grudge. It was exhausting and she was already tired, all of which Clint knew, because they'd had this discussion at least three times.
"I know," Laura said, answering the unspoken question. "I'll be back in fighting trim in the morning, Coach. Swear." Clint sighed, but rolled up to a sitting position and let Laura pull him to his feet. "Besides," Laura added, going up on her toes to kiss him lightly, "you know you're dying to see the Widow's reaction to these rooms."
Clint did grin at that, but when he finally got back and flopped down next to where Laura was reading in bed, he grumbled, "We gave her too long to get her act together. All she said was she was sure the kids liked it." He stripped out of his t-shirt and jeans without even sitting up and squirmed his way under the sheet. (Laura didn't care how much the air conditioning was blasting, it was still close to 80 at midnight and Clint put out heat like a wood stove. She probably wouldn't even need the sheet, much less the comforter.)
"You can try again with the character breakfast in the morning," Laura consoled, closing her book and turning off the light. "They apparently come to the table and sign autographs. I bought princess autograph books for Nat and Wanda, too. I figure we'll get at least one good picture for the family blooper reel."
"Nice," Clint murmured as she settled against him. "Devious and thoughtful--I knew I popped the question for a reason."
Finding Nemo Suite at Art of Animation hotel (link to youtube)
Knowing that it was going to be a long drive (and knowing that there was no way Clint was letting his kids get on a plane that someone other than himself was flying so it really was going to be a drive), Laura hadn't scheduled anything early on their first day. She had a late breakfast reservation and then had reserved ride times during the afternoon. Nate had a stroller that laid flat and he could sleep through anything, so she was planning on staying through dinner and fireworks. She wasn't sure if she was wildly delusional that they could get through the whole day that way, but it was vacation, not rocket science. She was sure they'd adjust.
Clint got the backpack loaded up with sunscreen and diapers and ponchos in case it rained (and extra clothes for everyone in case it reallyrained) and the kids all got sunglasses and hats. Laura had the phone with all her plans screenshotted and stored so she wasn't trying to keep track of a ream of paper. Once Natasha and Wanda arrived and everyone held up their arm to show their
Magic-wristbands, Laura tapped Clint to get them to the bus stop.
He took them out by the pool--which was a Nemo-esque extravaganza that boggled Laura's mind even after having slept in a themed bed the night before.
"Yes," Laura said, before the Mom, wow, pleasePLEASE can we go swimming's could start, "Tomorrow afternoon is pool time."
They dodged through a food court ("We're on the way to breakfast," Laura said firmly, over the oh-I'm-so-hungry's. "With Pooh, who is not here. Keep moving.") and out a door by the lobby where they were met with a sweep of the driveway and an array of bus stops. (And lots of people, but that was going to happen everywhere, Laura imagined.)
"Magic Kingdom," Laura announced, leading the way down to the proper set of benches. Her little flock straggled out behind her, Clint and Natasha at the very end, making sure no one got sidetracked/lost. Natasha's eyes were hidden behind dark sunglasses (everyone's were, even Nate had a miniature pair of Clint's wrap-around style, because there was the slightest chance he wouldn't throw them into the crowd if they were like his father's), but Clint said something that made her smile and Laura could tell without even seeing her eyes that it was a real smile. She knew a split second of sheer annoyance before the bus pulled up and she had to put her mind to getting Nate out of the stroller and into Lila's safekeeping, digging out all the crap that had already taken up residence in the bottom basket, and getting the stroller folded up and handed off to Clint to wrangle up the steps and into the bus itself.
Once everyone was settled, though, with Clint standing up at the front and the kids across from Laura in a row, Nate proudly sitting between Lila and Cooper, holding tight to their hands, Laura had a little bit of time to think about things while the bus wound its way from their hotel to the actual park. What her annoyance came down to, Laura decided, was that somehow she was the Mean Mom around whom everyone was treading lightly.
Natasha and Clint hadn't really even needed to patch things up after the debacle in Berlin and the time Clint had spent on the Raft. Wanda had told Laura that she was taking things one day at a time with the members of the team who had sided with Tony during the mess, but that it hadn't been hard to move on with Natasha since she'd been on Steve's strike team, the one that had gotten everyone out of the Raft. They certainly seemed to be doing just fine with each other now, Laura thought, watching the two other women sitting next to each other farther back on the crowded bus.
The kids had no idea anything was wrong, though Lila had definitely noticed that Auntie Nat had not visited in a while. They had easily fallen back into their previous relationship in the day and a half that Natasha had been been with them, which was a good thing to see.
With Laura, though, it was a different story. Natasha was one-hundred-percent avoiding her, and when she couldn't, she was back behind a wall of tentative blandness, as though she was waiting for Laura to order her out of their lives.
It was really starting to piss Laura off.
The bus ride was almost over, though, so she didn't really have time to think more about it, but at least she'd laid out the problem. She was going to have to be satisfied with that first step for the moment, because Nate was already bouncing with excitement (who knew a bus could be so exciting?) and she didn't hold out much hope for the other two kids. (Or Clint, who she could tell was secretly almost as as wound up to be here as the kids. She refused to ruin that over feeling left out.)
They had a brief 'discussion' with Nate about getting back in the stroller, but before they'd even reached the end of the long row of bus stations, he turned around and climbed in on his own. Laura didn't blame him--the sheer number of people between the buses and where she could see the entrance gates was daunting even for her.
Other than the people, though, the view was rather nice, with a big lake off to the left (and a ferry boat disgorging more people, holy crap), the monorail whooshing silently by overhead, and an actual steam train chugging along toward a station at the front of the actual park. Nate was rendered speechless when Cooper pointed it out to him.
It was all very exciting, but the amount of effort it took to get everyone through security, all the bags inspected, and their
Magic wristbands scanned took the bloom off that first-visit thrill. They were a bit ragged as they walked under the train tracks and finally emerged into the park, but they were there and still in time for their breakfast reservation, so Laura was counting it good.
"Alright," Clint called. "First stop: waffles and all the bacon you can eat with Pooh," which just wasn't something Laura had ever expected to hear coming out of his mouth. She was awfully glad it had happened, though. His enthusiasm was infectious, so it was easy to get everyone moving behind him, walking down the center of the stylized Main Street, passing by balloon vendors and photographers and people with carts loaded down with all sorts of (highly overpriced) toys that spun and buzzed and lit up.
They skipped over to the sidewalk when a horse-drawn trolley came trundling back down from the circle in front of the castle, the kids waving to the costumed people riding along and wondering if they could pet the horse. Laura was happy to keep that line of conversation going as it kept her spendthrift daughter from seeing all the goodies in the windows of the shops they passed, but not even the fierce debate over the breed of the horse (only country kids, Laura thought) could keep them distracted from the smells pouring out of the bakery, not just the pastries but--
"Oh, god, caffeine," Wanda said, detouring with a hard right and dragging Natasha into what turned out to be a Starbucks. "We'll meet you there," she called. Laura waved, happy enough that Wanda wasn’t completely at Lila’s beck and call not to mind having to stop in her tracks and remind a pouting Lila of the little talk they’d had about that exact topic before they’d left.
Clint chanced a pleading look at Laura, but there was no way she was getting three kids and stroller to the restaurant by herself just so he could feed his caffeine addiction, which she managed to convey without a single word, so he just yelled, "Venti Americano with an extra shot. Full caf!"
Natasha waved as she disappeared into the storefront. Clint, apparently satisfied with that, kept the entourage moving, at least until they reached the end of the street and he was distracted by a photographer offering to take their picture with the castle as a backdrop. He glanced back over his shoulder at Laura, who checked the time and decided that since they were in sight of the restaurant (it was hard to miss seeing as how it was huge and all glass, like a greenhouse) they could probably spare a bit of time.
"Photo Protocol, activate," Laura said, rolling her eyes at Clint and picking Nate up out of the stroller.
- - -
(Clint had gotten used to finding Laura in bed at the end of the day, her laptop perched on her knees as she peered at various official, fan-based, and planning websites.
“It’s a project manager’s dream,” Laura had told him when he’d finally cracked and asked if all the time she was putting in was necessary. “Deadlines for restaurant reservations, deadlines for ride reservations, cost-benefit analyses for dining plans and ticket types and fireworks parties… The more I look, the crazier it gets.”
“It’s supposed to be fun,” Clint had said. “When I started this, I didn’t realize there was so much you needed to do.” He had that worried crease over the bridge of his nose that let Laura know it wasn’t just her he was worrying about. Even after nearly fifteen years of them being together, it was still sometimes hard for him to shake the ghosts of his own parents.
“Oh, I’m having fun,” Laura had assured him. “Deadlines! Cost-benefit analyses! What could be better?” She’d laughed at herself, but she wasn’t exaggerating much. “It’s like a puzzle… it’s fun to see the picture at the end, but putting the pieces together is fun on its own.”
She’d pushed her reading glasses up on top of her head and tilted sideways enough that Clint could kiss her. He’d taken his time but hadn’t pushed for more right then, and Laura had returned to her laptop with a pleasant anticipation of more to come. The first few weeks after he’d been able to come home, all the worry and fear they’d both been pushing down for months had boiled to the surface whenever they were alone together. Sex had taken on a frantic, desperate edge that made for crashing orgasms, as unsettling as they were intense. It had been nice to have things smooth out a little, to be able to let the night build slowly.
“So, what’s tonight’s dilemma?” Clint had asked, his voice lazy and rich enough that Laura had known he was right there with her in taking their time.
“Pictures,” Laura had answered. She’d settled a little closer to him on the bed and tipped the laptop so he could see her spreadsheet. “They have a ‘deal’”—air quotes might be old-fashioned, but they had been more than warranted in this case—“where you get all the pictures from the rides and the official photographers that doesn’t seem to be too much of a mark-up. They do cute ones with the characters, too...”
Her voice had trailed off then as she'd gotten a look at the expression on Clint's face.
“Yeah,” Clint had said. “About that…. Probably best not to put me in the same frame as the rest of you on somebody’s servers, even if it is just Disney World.” He’d said it evenly enough, and it had always been that way, the best way to keep the kids safe, but underneath the calm he’d sounded a little disappointed.
“It’s fine,” Laura had answered. “We’ll take our own pictures, and … I don’t know, figure out something for the ride photos.” She’d shoved the laptop aside and tossed her reading glasses on the nightstand before rolling on top of him and throwing the slow-build theory to the trash heap.
Two nights later, he’d asked her which rides had the cameras in them, and two nights after that, he’d shown her 4K ride-throughs he and Nat had downloaded from youtube, with the camera positions highlighted. (Apparently, there were people out there obsessive enough to buy thousands of dollars worth of video equipment just so they could share their recordings of amusement park rides, but Laura had supposed there were worse things to spend money and time on.)
"We can duck all of these,” Clint had told her.
“Even the launch on the car rollercoaster?”
“It’s a spy thing,” he’d assured her. “If we know where the cameras are, we can duck them. Even if we’re upside down.” Laura had been happy, but mostly because Clint was happy. “Oh,” he’d added, “While I was checking out the camera positions, I saw where the photographers’ll take shots with your own camera, too.” He'd shrugged. “So, yeah, the kids and all can get the pictures with the characters, and anything with me or Nat or Wanda can get taken on one of our phones.”
Laura had wanted to turn cartwheels at the easy way he'd been talking, but she'd known better than to even suggest something might have been wrong.
“Works for me,” she'd answered instead, and checked another item off the planning list.)
- - -
Clint handed the kid with the fancy camera his own phone while Laura got everyone assembled on the tape mark on the ground and generally smiling toward the photographer.
"Very domestic," Natasha told Clint as he and Laura stepped away and let the kids take one on the official camera. (Even after all her research, Laura was not sure if the photographers got paid by how many official pictures they took and didn't want to risk imposing. Clint had long since learned not to argue manners with her.)
Laura could tell Clint wanted to flip her off, but since she was handing him his giant, overcaffeinated morning nirvana, he let it go.
"Tea for you," Wanda told Laura, handing her her own giant paper cup. "No caffeine."
"Thank you," Laura said gratefully. She was already a little too wound up from being around so many people. She always forgot how quiet the farm really was until she got back out in the world and was forcibly reminded. But… it was the first morning. She was made of tougher stuff than that, and so rallied the troops back off to their first objective.
Clint had reverted to that ‘ooh, exciting’ expression, so to the reminder that Pooh and Tiggr were waiting, she added, “Plus there’s unlimited bacon.”
He smirked at her then, but got them all moving before she lost her grip on sanity and ran for the (relative) quiet of the hotel room. Amazingly enough, while the process wasn’t without hiccups, it took less time than Laura had actually imagined to get everyone inside and settled around a table, Nate’s stroller parked off to the side of the entrance and all three kids half-vibrating out of their seats at the first glimpse of the larger-than-life residents of the Hundred Acre Woods. (Even Cooper, who was just on the edge of that first flush of teenaged cynicism was grinning as he watched Nate wave excitedly.)
“Now, Mama?” Lila ‘whispered’, nodding toward her backpack.
“Now,” Laura agreed, hiding a smile. Of course Natasha had noticed the little exchange, but Laura honestly thought they’d succeeded in catching her off-guard when Lila produced the princess autograph books they had found in the Wal-Mart back home. Her eyes flicked quickly to Laura, who wasn’t even trying to hide her smirk. Of course she was sending Lila with the silly things, mostly because it was Lila’s idea in the first place, but also because she knew damn well Natasha wasn’t going to refuse something that Lila brought her. It was only a quick flicker of a look, though, because Lila was in full school-marm mode and expected everyone’s attention as she explained how the characters would sign their autographs for you and “then you have a personal souvenir of the trip!”
Amid the ‘very excitings’ and ‘how thoughtfuls’, Lila beamed at them both and then danced back to her chair and opened her own book to the first page. She looked pointedly at Auntie Nat and Wanda, who dutifully mimicked her and breakfast with Pooh was off and running.
- - -
(Laura had expected to be planning everything solo once they got past the initial, post-decision-to-go rush, but Clint had stayed relatively focused on it all. Even after he’d worked out the Photo Protocol (Laura always capitalized it in her thoughts) he’d willingly talked hotel options with her and debated the merits of various restaurants. (Laura loved her kids, but adventurous eaters they were not. Still, most places looked like they had standard kid menus, so the adults (Laura used the term advisedly) had decided to branch out a bit for the rest of the party.) They’d even managed to divide and conquer the ride reservation craziness, with both of them side-by-side in bed, coffee at the ready and the pre-dawn sky dark outside the windows as they logged into the system on separate laptops.
It had been fun, but entirely unexpected, and not something she’d thought either one of them had been ready to talk about. Even when Clint had ‘retired’ and had been at home for those months, Laura thought they’d both known him being around the house was going to end. Neither of them had expected the divisive intra-Avenger fight, much less the Raft, but she thought she’d known that retirement hadn’t really been permanent. Once the fall-out from the spectacular implosion of the Sokovian Accords had cleared up, things had felt different at home.
(For one, it had taken Laura a long time to not jump half out of her skin every time the phone rang.)
Clint’s renovations to the house and out-buildings had always felt like more like an attempt to make sure he’d left a part of himself there with them if anything happened, but then once it had and he’d still come home (though it had taken a while, time that Laura really didn’t like thinking about), he’d relaxed into it a little. He’d still taken on ridiculous projects, but they were more fun, somehow. The Disney planning had started to feel a little like that, too—a little ridiculous, but still entertaining in a way that they'd maybe lost over the years but were finding again.)
- - -
The Magic Kingdom mostly lived up to its name, exceeding Laura’s expectations on almost all fronts. The grounds were lovely; she unexpectedly loved flying over ‘London’ with Peter Pan and Wendy; Clint and the older kids almost had more fun in line for the runaway mine train ride than they did on the ride itself; and the picture from the last drop on the water flume ride was going in the Barton Blooper Hall of Fame (Lila was shrieking, Cooper and Clint were high-fiving, and Natasha and Wanda were studiously casual even with their faces not visible.)
Nate had a small meltdown in the hot, late afternoon sun, but once Clint scooped him up and took him for a little walk, he zonked out and slept hard through to dinner at the Beast’s castle, and then the Gray Stuff and the lights and the parade and the fireworks kept everyone entertained. The lines for the bus back to the hotel could have been a disaster, but Lila took some chalk from Laura’s backpack and taught Wanda the basics of hopscotch right there at the bus depot. They acquired a little gaggle of kids from assorted lines and Lila obligingly drew them all courts while Cooper kept Nate distracted and happy with a glowstick (brought from home and thus not at all overpriced.)
“You raise good kids,” Clint said as their bus drew up and Lila went running around to say good-bye to all the new friends she’d made.
“You had a little something to do with it, too,” Laura answered absently, most of her attention on getting all the crap out of the stroller.
“Not much more than that,” Clint said, which just irritated Laura to no end. She usually tried to keep an even keel, because she'd known going in to the whole parenting thing that they both had issues from their own childhoods, but she was really tired from all the fun they'd been having and she couldn't quite hold back the You-Have-Got-To-Be-Kidding-Me look. Still, it was the truth and Clint caught on quickly, (and they said husbands never learned, Laura thought sarcastically). He added, “Not as much as I’d have liked it to be.”
“Pretty sure that’s fixable,” Laura said, shepherding the kids onto the bus while Clint wrangled the stroller, "Even if it's subjective."
“It’s on the list,” Clint said as the bus pulled out.
Nate fell asleep about two minutes after the lights went out on the bus and didn’t so much as blink even when they got back to the hotel and Laura hauled him back down the aisle and steps and through the surprisingly busy food court on the way back to their room. Lila and Cooper were close to sleepwalking and even Clint was looking a little glassy-eyed as they made their way along the pool. Laura wasn’t sure she was going to make it herself, but they managed to drag themselves home and get their teeth brushed before they fell into bed. For the first time in possibly forever, Laura didn't hear so much as a single request for 'one more drink of water' from anyone.
“Day One—check,” Laura said, collapsing onto the bed, regardless of the fact that it was barely 10 o’clock (and felt like 9 to her Central Time-adjusted brain.) Clint was smirking at her from the doorway out to the living area for just that reason, but Laura couldn’t even be bothered to roll her eyes at him. “I’m not sure who won, us or the park, but we didn’t lose any kids and nobody threw up, so I’m going with 10 points to the farm team.”
“It's only the first day so I'm not getting too excited.” Clint moved around the suite doing a restrained version of his usual nightly security routine. The kids were so zonked they didn't even move as he walked around them. Cooper and Nate were both snoring, while Lila had a little exhale whistle going. Disney had definitely done a number on them. (And the adults, too, but who was counting.)
Laura gave herself a pep talk and got herself into the shower. She debated whether not having to wear a hat all the next day was worth having to deal with her hair at this point, but decided that if they were going to keep getting pictures taken, she might as well not hate how she looked in all of them, and went ahead with the whole shampoo and conditioner routine. Clint wandered in while she was on the final rinse, his phone out and texting with Natasha about the early morning plans.
"Epcot. On the bus by 7:30. Protein bars and bananas on the way," Laura told him, "We're going to be there before the park opens. Otherwise, we'll end up waiting hours for the Frozen ride and that's not going to make anyone happy, not even your princess of a daughter who assures me she will die if she doesn't see Anna and Elsa."
Clint snorted, but otherwise didn't argue, and the Natasha-Wanda contingent apparently had nothing more to add, as Clint didn't have any other questions. He was waiting with a towel when Laura finished up her shower, though, which was an unexpected pleasure.
"Not for right now, because I'm too tired to think," Clint said, wrapping the towel around her in a sarong, "but there are actually two doors that lock between us and the kids when we're in here." He brushed her hair over one shoulder and dropped a kiss right where her neck curved into her shoulder. Laura shivered a little--it still was one of her favorite places to be kissed--and felt Clint's mouth curve into a smile against her skin. "Just a thought..."
"Got it," Laura answered. She wrapped her hair up in another towel and then went and sat on the bed while Clint took his turn in the shower. He really must have been tired because he was in and out in less time than it took Laura to get her hair towel-dried and a comb through the tangles.
"Here," he said, settling on the bed behind her. "Let me."
Laura already had almost all the knots smoothed out, but she happily surrendered the comb and let him work through the few remaining ones. He didn't stop there, which Laura had been counting on, just kept drawing the comb through her hair, easy and rhythmic, each stroke helping it to dry and pulling another little bit of tension out of Laura at the same time.
"You still with me?"
"In theory," Laura sighed, opening her eyelids from where they'd been falling lower and lower, not quit all the way shut, but closer than she would have believed while still sitting upright. Her sleep shirt and pajama bottoms were still sitting on the dresser on the other side of the room; she did not groan at the thought of having to stand up and go get them, but it was a very near thing.
"Hang on," Clint said, reaching around her to the pile of clothes he'd left on the corner of the bed. "Try this." A t-shirt, one of his old, soft, faded ones from before he'd even been in Delta Force dropped down over her head. "It's clean, promise."
"My hero," Laura said, working her arms into the sleeves and letting Clint tug the damp towel off her so he could throw it in the general direction of the bathroom. (Hawkeye's aim did not extend to wet towels or dirty clothes, a fact which still mystified--but had never surprised--Laura.)
"My pleasure," he answered, and Laura found herself half-holding her breath for the self-deprecating addendum that usually got added, something about how her heroic standards were low or how Steve had deputized him for the night, but for a wonder, Clint just flipped the covers back so she could get herself settled while he got up and turned off the lights and made one last check of the suite before he crawled in next to her.
- - -
(When he'd gotten back home after the mess with the Accords and the Raft and the extra few months of playing hide-and-seek with mulitiple spy agencies and an extra bit of laying low in Wakanda, it had taken Clint almost three months to be able to trust himself enough to sleep in the same bed with her.
"Nightmares," he'd said at first. "You don't need me waking you up all the time."
Laura might have accepted that excuse if they hadn't been together for decades by that point, all of which had been while he'd served in Delta Force and SHIELD and the Avengers. She hadn't pressed, but a day later, he'd walked into the kitchen right as dawn was pushing back the dark country night and said, very quietly, "I wake up already fighting. Every time." He'd been standing at the sink, looking out at the first rays of the sun, and Laura had realized his knuckles were bruised and bleeding, the scabs that had been there the night before halfway torn off. "I don't know where I am half the time. You can't be--I can't--"
"I can't--" he repeated, and then stopped, his voice horribly hoarse and rasping, as if he'd been shouting. Laura had forced her hands to stay steady as she'd gotten some ice and wrapped it in an old towel. He hadn't moved as she'd laid it on his knuckles, or when she'd slipped her arm around his waist and held him for a few seconds.
"All right," she'd managed to say calmly, but later, after he'd gone off to town with a list of errands she'd hastily concocted, and the kids were out and about with chores, she'd gone out to the barn and buried herself in the hay and cried for an hour.)
Laura knew the boat ride themed to Frozen was a hike and a half from the front gate of Epcot, but she hadn't quite gauged the actual distance when she'd looked at the maps. The walking was fine, but she could have done without the snarky commentary delivered under Clint's breath as they moved very, very quickly to get in line as soon as the park was opened to guests. The only thing that saved them was his competitiveness--they were surrounded by other families who were clearly on the same mission and there was no way Strike Team Delta was going to end up standing behind a McMansion-dwelling, over-impressed-with-their-social-standing family from a no-doubt tacky suburb, the same kind of family that had looked the other way all during Clint's childhood.
It wasn't at all a surprise that they were among the first fifty people in line.
Laura didn't really see what all the fuss over the ride was about--well, beyond how everything associated with the movie was popular--but it was cute enough and Lila swore she loved every second of it, even before she went with Wanda and Natasha to get her picture taken with Anna and Elsa next door. Her Avenger aunties seemed to get a lot of satisfaction out of watching her, so Laura was just as happy not to go stand in another line. By some miracle, Cooper somehow didn't feel the need to tease his sister about liking something and Clint managed not to sing along with Queen Elsa. Laura wasn't sure which she was more thankful for. (She knew it was supposed to be her son for not hassling his little sister, but honestly, she was probably happier about Clint not singing/howling "Let It Go." She'd had a split second there when the song had started where she was sure everyone in the adjacent boats were going to be going home with her husband's voice on their video recordings of the ride.)
Nate was the one that caught them all off guard as they were loading up to leave. Instead of getting into the stroller, he collapsed down on the curb of the village street and burst into tears. It took Lila sitting down next to him and soothing him for a good five minutes before they figured out what was going on..
"Owaf," he sobbed. "Me see snowmans adain. "
The line for the ride was over an hour long by that point and as cute as the little robot-Olaf had been, Laura wasn't terribly excited about waiting just to do the ride again. She was positive Cooper would revolt and even Lila had been much more excited about meeting the princesses than she'd been about the ride itself. Laura was gathering herself for the battle moving on was going to entail when Clint crouched down on his heels next to Nate and said, "I'll tell you what: I'll wait with you, buddy, and your mom and LiLi and Coop can go ride the hang gliders." Laura held her breath as Nate stared up at Clint. "It's going to be a while before we can catch another boat to see Olaf, though. You gonna be good with that?"
Nate scrambled to his feet, nodding so hard Laura thought he might lose his head, his tears all but forgotten. "Me good," he said. "Me good."
"Okay," Clint said, picking Nate up and sitting him on his shoulders. "We're both good." Nate waved down at everyone and Laura remembered when it had been Cooper sitting there all proud and excited; it didn't seem possible that the little one in her memories was taller than she was already and gunning for Clint soon. She literally had no idea where the time had gone.
There were places to go, though, and rides to ride, and she was absolutely certain that Disney World did not wait for nostalgic mothers no matter how much they tried to pretend otherwise.
"Are you sure?" she asked Clint as they walked over to where the line snaked out of the ride building, through the 'village', past the restaurant, and back to the walkway along the lake. "We have a skip-the-line reservation for the next ride."
"Eh, it's hang gliding," he said as they finally found the Disney employee with the sign marking the end of the line. "Been there, done that."
"HAHO jumps don't count," Natasha told him. "You don't really get to take in the scenery, not even with your eyesight."
"As much as I hate to admit it, you might have a point," Clint said. "But the really important question is will I get to sing on on this hang glider?" Clint asked. "Me and Nate, we didn't get a chance to sing with Olaf and Elsa last time, did we, buddy? This time we're gonna be all over it."
"And that's our cue to run," Laura said, reaching up with a tissue to clean up Nate's face before she dropped a kiss on Clint's cheek and gathered the troops for the walk to the next ride.
Clint was going to be occupied for at least an hour, so Laura didn't rush. The flowers and plantings around the park were like catnip to her, and the older kids knew not to whine while she took her time. (She might admit to bribing them a bit with a detour for drinks and treats from one of the innumerable food booths that lined the walkways, but she preferred to think of it as presumptive encouragement. Plus, Lila brought her another cup of tea, which was never a bad thing.) Once they made their way to the right building and found the entrance to the ride (which really couldn’t have been more hidden away if they’d tried), they discovered that the non-reservation line was short enough that the worker suggested they take it first, and then come back and go through the reservation line.
“Gets you two rides for not that much time,” he said with an affable smile that was somehow very genuine. Laura was beginning to wonder how exactly it was that Disney did that thing where their people were truly all so happy to help. Given some of the Avenger-adjacent stories she'd heard over the years, robots and nerve gas wouldn't be all that far-fetched.
Laura caught Natasha’s eye and (for a wonder) when she didn't immediately look away, shrugged, saying, “I’m game if you are.”
“We go where you lead,” Wanda said, and let Laura take them down the regular line. Laura wasn't sure she'd call the line short, precisely, but it was shorter than some of the times she'd seen in researching and the ride itself was fun enough, swooping them over the Great Wall of China and around the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower. It turned out to be a big win for Cooper and Wanda, so turning right around and riding it again was definitely a success story.
“Maybe we could do it again,” Cooper said as they rode up the escalator to head out to meet Clint and Nate. “We’re coming back to this park again, right?” At Laura’s nod, he rushed on, “So, I was reading, on the internet, about how you can add a new Fastpass thingie to your account, or change another one. Maybe I could look for a time for this ride again and we could get Dad to go, too.”
“Have at it, kiddo,” Laura said. The ghost of her mother’s voice echoed through her mind with all the ways a pre-teen mucking around with their (expensive! Dear God, her mother would have fainted at just the ticket prices) vacation plans, but Laura had gotten better at letting it flit right back out again. Coop might end up erasing all the ride reservations, but they’d manage to have fun even if he did. He was a smart, conscientious kid—he was ready for the responsibility, such as it was. “I’ll bet your dad will have a lot of fun on it.”
Cooper grinned, and then sprinted off with Lila to where Laura could just make out Clint coming around the walkway from the direction of the Frozen ride, pushing Nate in the stroller. She and Wanda and Natasha took a more reasonable pace, which served the dual purpose of conserving energy (even on Day 2, Laura could tell that was never going to be bad idea in this place) and getting a good look at Clint as they walked up. He knew she was watching him (of course), but she didn't think he understood her relief to see how far he’d come from the tense, hyper-alert asset who’d finally been able to come home to them.
They swapped Nate off for the next ride, with Laura taking him in for a quick try at the bathroom while Clint and the older kids designed cars and rode through a mock testing ground with Natasha and Wanda. Laura got her turn with the older kids as soon as they'd walked out of the exit, and then they looped back around to ride inside the giant golf ball, as Clint insisted on calling it. Laura was fine with admitting to maybe 'resting her eyes' on the last part of the ride (it was dark, mostly quiet, and the cars they were in had shifted so that they were all leaning very far back) but since Clint was actually snoring right next to her, the topic really never came up.
It was, all in all, an excellent morning right up to the next ride, the rocket simulator to Mars, when Lila came stumbling outside to where Laura and Nate were running and playing as they waited, as white as a sheet and ready to cry.
"Motion sickness," Clint said, smoothing her hair back off her face. Laura handed Nate to Clint and ran for the closest public bathroom with Lila. They made it, but just barely (and seriously, Laura thought, whose bright idea was it to not have a bathroom in the building with the crazy spinning ride?)
"C'mon, sweetie," Laura said, wiping Lila's face with a wet paper towel. "You timed this all perfectly; we're done with rides for the morning and the only thing for the afternoon is laying around the pool."
Clint had a cold bottle of water waiting for them; after Lila drank a few sips and laid down on one of the benches, she felt a little better, enough that she was okay with Clint carrying her out to where they could catch the bus back to the hotel.
"Li-li sick?" Nate asked as he climbed back into his stroller.
“The ride made her feel funny,” Cooper explained. “It felt like you were blasting off in a rocket.”
Nate looked properly awed at that and insisted on sitting next to Lila so he could hold her hand on the bus back to the hotel. Laura’s plan had been to eat in the food court and then get Nate to nap in the bedroom while Clint and the kids got into bathing suits and spent some quality time at the pool. Between Lila (dramatically) shuddering at the thought of food and (even more dramatically) gagging at the first smells, and Nate fussing at not going with her, that plan was obviously OBE, but Laura hadn't thought through any alternatives and she knew as soon as she opened her mouth to ask Clint what he thought she'd get opinions from everyone. Clint cocked an eyebrow at her, evidently thinking the same thing, and she shrugged.
“Coop and I’ve got this,” Clint said, setting Lila down on her feet. Laura shot a sidelong glance at Cooper, but he seemed fine with it all. “Meet you at the pool.”
"Okay," Laura said, and left him to it. He’d gotten a lot better at dealing with the minutiae of daily life with three kids since he’d gotten home this time. They’d survive on whatever he came up with, Laura was sure. Lila managed to keep her dramatics to a minimum even though she was forced to walk on her own, for which Laura was grateful. The big pool wasn’t deserted by any stretch of the imagination, but it was clear that most people were off at the parks and it wasn’t nearly as difficult as Laura had feared to find a table with an umbrella in a corner of the patio. She dragged a lounge chair over and got the umbrella angled to throw enough shade on it that Lila could lie down and not roast in the sun. Nate must have been more tired than he was letting on because he was happy to stay in his stroller once Laura got him where he could hold Lila’s hand again. By the time she got her own chair settled, both of them were out like lights.
It took the guys longer to show up with food than Laura expected, but there was a half-full (and not too warm) bottle of water in the bottom of the stroller and their little section of the pool was quiet enough that Laura almost fell asleep herself before they arrived, their trays loaded down with paper plates and bowls, and cups of random food.
"We got Ly a smoothie," Cooper said in his best not-quite whisper. Laura didn't want to throw water on his thoughtfulness, but she was fairly sure he could have been screaming and not woken either of his younger siblings up. Then again, she wasn't in the mood to risk being wrong. "I'll put it in the cooler." Laura hoped the plastic top was tighter than it looked or the soft-sided cooler that had seen her through countless job sites was going to be permanently pink. There was no way anything was going to get that particularly lurid shade out of anything. "And I thought Nate would like a PB&J sandwich, but it came like this...?" Cooper held out a little sealed plastic package that held (according to the picture) peanut butter and grape jelly inside what looked like a bread hand pie.
"We'll tell him it's Mickey's favorite and he'll never know the difference," Laura assured Cooper. "Drop it in the cooler with the smoothie and come eat your own lunch before it gets cold."
Clint had a ridiculously oversized burger with bacon, cheese and a fried egg, plus a giant plate of chili cheese fries. Laura stole a few fries, just to remind him she was still there—and to distract him from how good it felt to watch him be able to enjoy his food again, because her having stressed about that would make him feel bad--but the plate of pasta with shrimp and broccoli and alfredo sauce that he’d gotten for her mostly kept her busy. Cooper had two pieces of pizza that were nearly the size of his head. Clearly, Disney World did not like for people to run the risk of going hungry. It somewhat made up for the price of it all, Laura decided.
After the excitement of the morning, lazing around the pool was a treat, even after they discovered the underwater speakers playing music to go along with the Finding Nemo theme.
“They're definitely not taking any chances that you might forget where you are,” Clint muttered to Laura at one point, but he was clearly having a good time regardless. Lila woke up in a good mood; Nate slept long and hard, and Natasha and Wanda stopped by to show off the mani-pedi Natasha had enabled Wanda into getting, with all the Avenger colors represented. They both promised Lila they could do it for her at home.
The plans for the evening included a Mexican dinner and the fireworks show at Epcot. Cooper went in to get dressed and came out holding Laura's phone. "I found two FastPasses for Soarin' tonight," he said, showing Laura the Disney app. "But only two." He bit his lip. "Is it okay if just Dad and I go on the ride?"
"It's fine with me," Laura said, hoping she didn't sound too over-the-top excited about a possible detente between the two of them, "but you should definitely check with your father."
"Yeah, he might have something he needs to do," Cooper said. "I just wanted to make sure you wouldn't feel bad if it was just us." He took a deep breath and started off to where Clint was rearranging things in the bottom of the stroller before Laura could say anything more.
- - -
Laura had taken a deep breath and surreptitiously crossed her fingers that she'd say the right thing. "You're taking your family on vacation. People do that all the time." She'd gone to stand next to him and could see where he'd been watching the kids. "Just because we haven't really had the chance to do that before now doesn't mean we're bribing the kids."
"Really?" Clint had asked. "Because I gotta say it kinda feels like that when it's the only thing Coop and I can manage to talk about without getting into it with each other." Cooper had been distant when Clint had first come home, and Clint had been equal parts hurt and guilty and unsure of how much to push back against that distance. Laura had been doing a lot of holding her breath and encouraging everyone to talk.
"It's a neutral topic," Laura had answered. "Something that we can all focus on, because some of the other stuff is a little hard to have a conversation about on a daily basis. I think it's doing a bang-up job of easing us into the new reality."
"Still feels a lot like throwing money at a mess and hoping it covers up all the bad shi--spots," Clint had said after a bit.
Laura had gone and busied her hands with making another pot of coffee. "I think," she'd said slowly, reaching for the right words, "it's not a bad thing to be talking about--but--she'd looked up at Clint "—not because I think that's what's going on. It just... doesn't hurt to talk about things."
"I know we've had this conversation." Clint had answered. "A lot. Sorry, you know how it takes me a while to get things through my head."
"It is a lot of money and you're right, we haven't done anything like this before. It doesn't mean that we can't do it, ever." Laura had shaken her head to rid it of the waspish voice of her own mother, the one that still never failed to materialize and pass judgement on her choices. "We can do whatever we decide is okay for us, right?"
Laura hadn't been able to decide if his answer was too prompt to be believable or if she'd had been still channeling her own demons. "Don't just say that," she'd finally said. "If you don't--"
"I'm good," Clint had answered. "Just checkin' on my crazy."
"Right there with you, Hawkeye."
Clint had kissed her and headed back up to the attic to find all the suitcases, so Laura had pretty much given herself a gold star and gone back to the refrigerator, so she could go dive into the laundry once she finished with the food situation.)
- - -
"That might get us 10 minutes without a lost-kid-panic-attack," she said dryly to Wanda, but the inside of the pavilion was decorated as a nighttime market square and the lighting was sufficiently dim that Nate was spooked enough that he wasn't letting go of anyone. It was humid enough outside that the air conditioning was welcome, but of course that plus came with the minus that the nighttime market square was actually a functioning market. Lila was practically vibrating with joy at the sight of all the trinkets and shiny bits and pieces.
"Remember that this is only the second day," Laura said. "I know you have your spending money, but we have a lot more to see."
Lila nodded seriously, but at the whimper of joy she emitted upon seeing 'real, actual tiaras, MOM,' (with real, actual price tags over a hundred dollars), Laura made the executive decision to take a break on the little boat ride.
"Feel free to skip the ride," Laura murmured to Wanda. "But please do not buy her one of those tiaras." She flicked her eyes to Natasha as well. "They're beautiful, but a child her age does not need anything like that."
Wanda only smiled, which Laura hoped did not mean that she was planning to ignore Laura's objection, but Nate's discovery that there was a BOAT at the end of this line and his subsequent dash toward the water (really, the kid was like an aquatic homing pigeon or something) distracted Laura before she could insist. They managed to get into the boat without losing Nate overboard and the ride itself was so short (and so uncrowded) that they stayed on for a second trip around.
Nate's joy knew no bounds (even if there was (sadly) no 'snowmans' on this boat ride. He was somewhat mollified by the robot Donald Duck at the end.)
Cooper and Clint were back as the second trip ended, so they disembarked and went to meet up. Laura was quietly thrilled at the easy body language between her oldest two guys, but she knew better than to comment publicly, so she just pointed them toward the hostess stand and got dinner underway.
"On the ride, when we were flying over the Great Wall, Dad said I should ask you about it," Cooper said to Natasha as they waited for their food. "And how you fell off it once...?"
"Did he, now," Natasha answered, sending an arched eyebrow in Clint's direction. "Did he also mention that it was entirely his fault that I found myself hanging by one hand off the edge?"
"No, he must have forgotten that part," Cooper said. He grinned as everyone turned to Clint.
"That's not exactly how I remember that incident," Clint said.
"Imagine that," Laura said, realizing halfway through that she and Natasha were speaking in unison.
"Hey, hey," Clint protested. "Who are you gonna believe here?"
"Auntie Nat," Cooper answered promptly.
"Nice," Clint grumbled, but no one actually believed he was upset about any of it. The story was long and involved and Natasha was clearly skimming over the more serious details, but it did, indeed, end with her hanging by one hand from the Great Wall of China and Clint did look to be at fault. It was the most fun Laura could remember having at dinner in more than a year.
Once they were finished, and had peeled Nate off the fence that separated the patio of the restaurant from the 'river' of the boat ride (he had spent the entire meal waving to the people in the boats that floated by, but had managed to eat a quesadilla at the same time so Laura was calling it a win), they had a relatively pleasant stroll around the lake looking for dessert options. To Laura's surprise, Natasha actually voiced an opinion. Since said opinion involved ice cream and macarons, no one objected and they found themselves in a small shop, watching as French teenagers created giant ice cream sandwiches inside pressed and warmed brioche.
Nate, of course, ended up with more of the ice cream on him than in him, but between the ziploc baggie of wet wipes (there had been a brief, shining week or two that Laura could seen the time coming when Cooper and Lila were getting old enough that she wouldn't have wet wipes in every purse and bag she owned, but then the Battle of New York had happened and she'd spent the next year in a very needy place, which she and Clint had solved with as much sex as they could manage, and it probably wasn't all that much of a surprise that they'd ended up with another kid on the way and the dream of not carrying wet wipes drifted back off over the horizon) and the time they spent staking out a place to watch the fireworks, he was relatively clean by the time Clint put him up on his shoulders to watch. This show had fewer fireworks, but much more literal fire, plus lasers and lights outlining the buildings around them. No characters, which was a little surprising, but Laura thought the flaming torches distracted everyone from the lack of Mickey and Minnie and friends.
They took their time on the long walk back out of the park and over to where the buses picked everyone up. Nate was snoring before they got even halfway there and everyone else was pretty glassy-eyed again.
"Late morning tomorrow," Laura said as Natasha and Wanda headed off toward their suite. "Nothing until lunch."
“Don’t tell anyone this,” Clint muttered as they steered their sleepwalking kids toward their own room, “but I am not entirely sure I could make it out of bed before ten no matter what you said right there.”
“Your secret is safe with me, Hawkeye,” Laura promised. “Especially since I’m not planning on moving before then either.”
After a brief internal debate, Laura found her farm-mom spine and ignored the little voice whispering that it wouldn’t hurt to let the kids skip their nightly tooth-brushing routine. “Ice cream, cookies, all kinds of junk,” she reminded herself. “Two hours to and from the dentist.”
Clint smirked at her muttering, but took Nate from the stroller and dealt with him while Laura shepherded the older kids in and out of the bathroom. She wasn’t at all sure they were making much headway against the sugar—especially Lila, whom Laura swore was literally asleep as she brushed—but they were at least making the effort. Sometimes, that was all you could ask for, Laura thought.
Clint didn’t skimp on his perimeter check, but Laura thought it was going to be a really long time before he could let go of that, so she just went and brushed her own teeth and crawled under the covers, not even bothering to look for the TV remote. The world hadn’t ended and she could check the weather in the morning.
“Day Two?” Clint said when he joined her a little while later. (Laura might have already been asleep, but only lightly. Plus, it was at least after ten o’clock, which wasn’t all that much earlier than a regular night.) “Success?”
“Nobody lost and all throwing up happened in an appropriate place,” Laura mumbled. “Success.”
They should have known she’d just jinxed them, but they were worn out enough to not even notice.
The Frozen Boat Ride - Frozen Ever After (youtube)
If you are at all prone to motion sickness, ride the Green side of the Mission: Space ride. It is a pleasant ride over Earth with no sneaky, hidden spinning like the Orange side (so, no G-force on 'blast off', but that beats having to throw up, yeah?)
Dinner in Mexico - San Angel Inn
Epcot fireworks - IllumiNations (youtube)
“Well… crap,” Laura sighed, spinning in a slow circle and looking in vain for Nate. The Star Wars parade, complete with rows and rows of armored Imperial troopers continued down the street toward the giant stage in front of the mock-Grauman's Chinese Theater. The afternoon was well underway at Hollywood Studios and people flowed past, intent on getting to whatever ride or show was next on their list, stepping around Nate’s empty stroller without more than a glance. “Where did that kid go?”
Clint was tense beside her, but when she looked at him, he shook his head and said, “It’s – okay.” He shrugged. “Nate wandered off, like he always does. I’m just… jumpy.”
“If you’re sure,” Laura said slowly. Clint was jumpy, but it wasn’t like he didn’t have a reason to be. Almost automatically, she turned and found Natasha’s eyes, looking to see if it was more than just the lingering effects from the Raft and the few months after. Natasha was calm, though, so Laura willed herself to stay in the the-kid-went-exploring-at-the-most-inconvenient-time mode rather than escalating to somebody-knew-who-Nate's-father-was-and-took-him mode. Clint squeezed her shoulder, shaking his head in that way that Nate always seemed to inspire, and started off to the left. Laura knew without looking that Natasha would be going to the right. She sighed and pushed the stroller over out of the flow of foot traffic and under a tree for a little relief from the sun. “Lila," she called, preparing to split the distance between Clint and Natasha and go down the middle, while Wanda held down the fort at the stroller, "You and Cooper keep a look-out, but stay close; I don’t need three lost kids.”
Before she could take so much as a step, though, a Disney employee (Bryan, his nametag read, from Orlando, because apparently even the people in dress shirts and ties wore nametags in this place) stopped, saying, “I’m sorry, did I hear you have a lost child?” At Laura’s nod—before she even opened her mouth—he was talking into a handheld radio, calling an alert. Laura showed him a picture of Nate taken that morning (because even when he wasn’t jumpy, Clint was all about having a security protocol so she took a picture of the kids every day when they traveled) and Bryan-from-Orlando relayed the description, too.
"We have an entire process," he assured Laura. "A lost child call goes out to every cast member in the park."
Laura thanked him politely even if she'd put her money on Clint or Natasha finding the kid first, no matter how many Disney eyes were watching. It never hurt to have a Plan B, after all. She turned slowly in a circle, looking for Nate-bait--little nooks and crannies between shrubs and trees were like catnip to the kid. The front part of this park was a city street, but where they'd stopped to watch the Star Wars parade had opened out into a wide plaza bordered by a thin strip of trees and a lake to one side. She worked her way around the trees, not having any luck even when she made sure to look up and see if the kid had gone climbing. It was frustrating, but before she reached panic-level, she caught sight of Clint on his way back from across the lake, a squirming Nate held firmly in his arms.
- - -
(During the time Clint had been with Delta Force, Laura had watched a lot of women manage their families while their husbands had spent months out of the country, away on operations that didn't allow for much, if any, communications. When Clint had joined SHIELD and got sent out on longer and longer operations, they'd always tried to make sure he was in a lot of pictures and videos so the kids could see him every day if they wanted. They'd kind of fallen out of that habit after he'd retired, and then when the fallout from the Accords had carried on for so long, she'd run through everything she had long before he'd gotten home. The older kids had watched a lot of the older stuff and had had fun seeing themselves as babies and toddlers, but Nate hadn't been much more than a year old when Clint had left and he'd been terrified at the strange man who suddenly was everywhere when Clint finally could come home.
Lila had flung herself at Clint almost before he'd gotten out of Fury's truck, clinging to him and crying for an hour, but Nate had refused to let go of Laura at all. Worse, he'd screamed every time she'd gotten close to Clint, so it hadn't been until he'd fallen asleep, exhausted and fretful, that Laura had been able to do more than brush her hand across Clint's. She'd thought she'd been dealing with the fear and anxiety as well as could be expected, but it had taken her a long time to stop shaking once she'd actually been able to hold him. It had felt like the first time he'd come back from a JSOC operation, not long after they'd been married, better because now she'd known she could handle the life, but worse at the same time, because now the kids had been old enough to start to understand.
Clint had been sitting on the steps to the porch, looking out over the herb garden to the horizon. Laura had been pretty sure he wasn't seeing anything there in Iowa, but he'd shifted over in a clear invitation and had settled into her as she'd slipped her arm through his and rested her head on his shoulder. The long twilight of an Iowa summer's day had finally faded to night, the chorus of crickets and frogs occasionally punctuated by the screech of an owl.
"Sorry for the horrible welcome," Laura had finally whispered. Between Lila's tears, Nate's tantrums and Cooper's stiff silence, she'd only barely managed to get fish sticks and grilled cheese sandwiches on the table. It hadn't even been decent weeknight supper, much less a welcome home celebration.
Clint had taken a long, deep breath and tipped his head back to look up at the stars. After a few seconds, he'd said, "There's this other guy that was with us, Scott, and we got to talking. He has a little girl, Cassie; they took his pictures when they processed us, but he had them pretty much memorized anyway. They were from when he'd taken her to the zoo, and a birthday party. Holiday stuff, ice cream and one with a giant lollipop."
It had been the most Clint had said since he'd stepped out of the truck; Laura hadn't had any idea who he was talking about, but wasn't about to interrupt to ask.
"He didn't see her much--didn't have custody, I guess, so all he had were these sharp, perfect memories." Clint had turned then, and dropped a kiss on Laura's hair, the mess that she'd bundled up anywhich way to keep it out of her face. "He'd tell me all about her, and I just… I'd be thinking, 'oh, it's morning, I wonder how bad Lila burned the toast today and how mad Cooper is about it.' Or, I'd try to figure out all the places Nate could have gotten to since he'd been just about to walk when I left."
Laura had been crying by then, but she just let the tears fall down her face so as not to let go of Clint's arm.
"Just, normal stuff, you know?" Clint had sighed. "That's what I thought about, that's what kept me from going totally batshit."
"Well," Laura had said, swallowing down the tears, "we are full up on 'normal stuff.' You can take your pick in the morning--the gutters need cleaned and you could probably do a controlled burn out on the south edge of the property line, and if you're really up for it, the septic tank is starting to worry me."
"Okay," Clint had answered, his voice dropping down to low, satisfied rumble. "I can do that. Any of it. All of it.")
- - -
Laura waved until Clint saw her, and then went to let Bryan and the rest of Team Disney know the all-clear had been sounded. She could tell that Cooper and Lila were less than impressed with losing a half-hour or so to Nate's shenanigans, but they were keeping the whining to a minimum. Lila was explaining something to Wanda (who, bless her, was pretending total absorption) while Cooper was studying a map of the park.
"There was a lake," Clint said as he and Nate arrived at their little family encampment, his voice not quite getting to the easy exasperation it usually did when Nate was being Nate. "And a giant dinosaur."
There was indeed a large dinosaur on the edge of the lake, but Lila choosing that moment to pipe up, "There's an ice cream shop in it," was probably not the best timing in the world, especially when there was a distinct whiny undercurrent to her voice, as if she was sitting in the middle of the biggest playground Laura had ever seen and couldn't understand why she was so deprived. Clint didn't say anything, but the lines around his eyes deepened and Laura could tell he was still more than a little on edge from whatever nightmares had spun out of his brain while he'd been looking for Nate.
"Here," Laura said, holding out her arms, "give me the wayward kid and take a deep breath or two."
"Or twenty," Clint muttered, but he handed Nate over without anything more.
"Whatever it takes," Laura told him. She leveled her best Don't even try it, mister look at Nate, who had evidently caught on to how much trouble he was in and wisely chose not to make a stand at that point. (Or, given that he put his head on Laura's shoulder, was just worn out and needed a nap, but either way, he got himself quiet, for which Laura was thankful.) She reminded Lila that she could consider the dinosaur ice cream as an option for her daily treat, but not if she kept whining about it. Cooper, though, Coop threw her for a loop.
"Our FastPasses for the Tower of Terror are almost ready to expire," he said. "It's right down that street; can Ly and I just run down and get in line?" Laura looked where he was pointing and did see signs for the ride, but..
"Oh, honey," she started, turning to Clint. They'd planned that Laura would wait with Nate while everyone else rode,because Laura was not a fan of the thrill rides. It had been a good plan, but Clint did not look like he'd reached any kind of a place where he was going to let anyone out of his sight. Before they had to say that to Cooper, though, Natasha caught Clint's eye.
"I can stay with Laura," she said quietly. Clint hesitated and she added, "Go ride with the kids. We'll be good." Clint looked at Laura, who nodded as encouragingly as she could while holding back on the impulse to roll her eyes and mutter variations on finally. Clint had always maintained that Natasha would come out of her self-imposed exile at some point, which Laura had trusted (he knew Natasha best) but she was never going to be a fan of not confronting things head-on. Clint wasn't smiling, but his eyes crinkled in that familiar teasing pre-smile, so he probably knew what Laura was thinking anyway, but hey, they'd been together for a really long time and it was good to be known. Besides Laura really was happy that Natasha had finally gotten to the point that she was volunteering to be alone with her and she was pretty sure Clint knew that, too.
"I'm with you, buddy," Clint was saying. "How much time do we have left?" To Laura's ears, it didn't sound like they truly needed to make a run for it, but that seemed to be everybody's choice (it amped the excitement level, she supposed) so Clint and Wanda and the older kids took off down the street while she got Nate back in his stroller with only minor fussing, all of which settled down when Laura asked him if he'd rather go home for a nap. She thought he was going to throw down with a tantrum, but he must have seen how much that would have irritated her and just got into the stroller. (Or, more probably, he was just in the sweet spot of tired enough not to care, but not so tired as to not to know what to do with himself other than melt down. To be honest, Laura didn't care which one it was, only that it ended well.)
"That was fairly impressive," Natasha said as they started off down the street after Clint and the kids.
"I'd be totally flaunting my parenting credentials except I'm pretty sure he thought I was threatening to take him back to the farm rather than the hotel," Laura answered in the same studiedly casual tone as Natasha had used, as if it hadn't been nearly a year since the last time they'd actually spoken to each other.
Laura steered the stroller around groups who'd randomly stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to stare at maps or their phones or suddenly take pictures of random souvenirs, and finally decided to just walk down the middle of the street. It wasn't as if it was an actual street, after all. It was easier to maneuver around the characters putting on impromptu shows (all Hollywood-related here, from the starlet being interviewed by the press (complete with giant flashbulbs in their cameras) to the gossip columnist holding court from her convertible.) Laura's grandmother had always had a soft spot for trashy film star magazines; she'd have probably gotten a kick out of this place.The ride they were aiming for loomed at the end of the street, its facade artfully crumbling. Even from halfway down the street, Laura could hear the faint screams from its riders.
Natasha didn't say anything, but the silence was slightly less strained than it had been lately. The final bit of the walk was up a hill, to a small courtyard adjacent to the shop at the end of the ride. Laura was pretty happy that she was back in the kind of shape where she could push Nate and all the random stuff that accumulated in the stroller over the day up and to an unoccupied bench without slowing down or getting (too) breathless, but that didn't mean she wasn't grateful for the bottle of water Natasha had had the foresight to buy as they'd walked down the street.
Nate climbed out of the stroller and up into Laura's lap, curling up and reaching for a strand of her hair to play with. Laura settled herself as comfortably as she could on the stone bench and breathed steadily and slowly until Nate's eyes closed and he slumped into her.
"Success," Natasha murmured and Laura nodded slightly. Any and all naps were a victory here, which she was willing to acknowledge, but she definitely didn't want to wake the kid back up. Natasha inclined her head toward the little snack kiosk in the courtyard, and, once Laura nodded again, made a quick trip and returned with iced coffees for them both—iced, spiked coffees, which Laura discovered after the first, too-long drink. Fortunately, she managed to keep from choking and waking Nate up that way.
“Thank you,” she murmured, and then heard herself adding, “For everything."
This certainly wasn't how she'd intended on addressing the distance between them, but maybe it was better not to have tried to orchestrate a carefully casual conversation leading up to the thing Laura really wanted to say. Natasha certainly would have seen through anything staged and it would have turned into one more thing to have to address. This was spontaneous--and honest. Laura did want to thank Natasha, and really, all of Laura's own annoyance was petty in the face of the years they'd known each other.
Natasha hesitated for a few seconds, which, for her, Laura knew was a blinking signal of uncertainty, and her voice was very, very even when she finally replied, “You’re welcome, but I don’t know that I’ve done anything worth—“
“Yes, you have done something—many somethings—worth my gratitude,” Laura interrupted, internally congratulating herself on anticipating the deflection and on being able to keep all the hurt and stress out of her own voice. “I wish you hadn’t stayed away for so long so I could have told you that earlier, but I could have stopped taking ‘no’ for an answer a lot sooner, so I’ll take that as a wash.”
“Your family was put in danger,” Natasha said, her voice low and her eyes fixed on the open store and the people straggling out from the ride.
“Through no fault of your own,” Laura said. “Clint made the choice to go—a choice which I had a say in, and supported, by the way—but I understand your choice, too.” Natasha still wouldn’t look at her. “You weren’t even there when the story got blown.” Natasha shrugged at that. “Clint said you erased the recording system when he told you—was he just spinning the story for me, or….”
Laura was sure that wasn’t the case—she and Clint had walked very close to splitting up until they’d found their way to dealing with the risks of the job without lies and omissions, long before the Avengers were on the horizon—but she thought putting that possibility out there might let Natasha give herself a little credit. Given the quick flick of a glance Natasha threw at her, Laura wasn’t fooling her at all, but she did answer, which was really all Laura wanted.
“I killed the system,” Natasha admitted. “Plus the onboard back-up, and the satellite up-link for that day—“
“How very thorough of you,” Laura murmured. Natasha let one side of her mouth curl up in an exceedingly self-satisfied smile.
“It’s still not a guarantee,” Natasha pointed out, her smile fading.
“Nothing ever is,” Laura answered. “It never has been.” Nick and Clint had been all over the public records, laying false trails back to well before Laura had ever met Clint. If she ever got to the point where she thought she might get through a conversation with Tony Stark without slapping him, she thought she’d probably have to thank him for making his AI available for the job. “And again, not your fault.”
“I did not have my partner’s back,” Natasha said, bleak and precise. “That is on me.”
“Okay,” Laura said slowly. “I defer to Clint's opinion on things like that. You’ve been working together for months, though—if he had an issue with your decision about the Accords, which I don’t think he did, he’s clearly gotten over it.”
“Clint has much lower standards for his own safety than he does for you and the children. He can work just fine with me, but that doesn’t mean anything else is on the table.”
Laura forgot the sleeping kid in her arms and slewed around to stare at Natasha, her jaw dropping. “Did he actually say that to you?”
“Clint?” Natasha snorted. “Talking about anything actually important that’s not a specific mission parameter? Clint?”
“Yes, Clint,” Laura said firmly. Nate shifted in her lap but was Disney-exhausted enough to sleep on through. “He does manage it occasionally.”
“He didn’t have to.” Natasha shrugged. “It’s just the way things are.”
There were a lot of things Laura didn’t like about the whole mess that followed from the Sokovian Accords, but the flat, unemotional cast to Natasha’s voice was never going to be a favorite.
“All right.” Laura waited until Natasha met her eyes. “The way things are with me is that you are welcome. Period.” She wanted to say more, to ask if Natasha really thought Laura had forgotten that she’d gone up against literal gods and monsters to bring Clint back from the Chitauri, or if Laura could possibly have hand-waved the bullets Natasha had taken for Clint (it might have taken a decade, but the truth about Budapest had finally come out, at least on the farm.) She bit her tongue, though, because she couldn't think of a way to say all that calmly.
Natasha stayed quiet--not agreeing, but at least not arguing or (worse) dismissing Laura's words out of hand.
"You may not agree with my reasoning, but … I've been in this life long enough to know the dangers," Laura said quietly. "I'm not blind; I know Clint skims over the worst of it all, but I don't see you as that."
Before Natasha could answer--and Laura wasn't sure if that was a good or bad thing--the kids were darting out of the gift shop and running across the courtyard in a flurry of It's so awesome, Mom, really! and Not scary at all!
"Really?" Laura teased gently. "Awesome but not scary?" Cooper shot Lila a look, one that Laura was perfectly able to translate as a check to make sure she wasn't going to blow the story, but Lila was right there with him, nodding vigorously.
"So, who's riding it again with Auntie Nat?" Laura asked, pretending like she had no idea what was going on. Sneaky, her kids weren't. "We have two more FastPasses, right?"
"You should!" Lilah burst out, with Cooper chiming in, "Yeah, Mom, you!"
"Oh, I don't think so," Laura said, laughing. "I'm sure Auntie Nat doesn't want me clutching onto her and screaming in her ear."
"No, but I'll bet Clint might not object," Natasha said. For the second time in an hour, Laura slewed around, her jaw dropping. Natasha's smile was downright evil.
"Yeah, you should ride with Dad," Cooper said, trying (and failing) to keep a serious expression. "It's a very nice ride."
"Yes," Lila agreed, with an even worse try at the poker face. "So you can enjoy it together."
Clint had a much better no-expression expression than either of his kids, but he wasn't even trying to hide the grin in his eyes.
"I'm sure Cooper can find another FastPass or two for later," Natasha added, neatly removing Laura's argument that it wouldn't be fair to her to have to wait in line or miss a ride.
Laura looked at all the smiling eyes around her and decided that Disney was probably very invested in keeping her (and the rest of the thousands in the parks) alive, so she might as well give her family a good time.
"Well." Laura metaphorically threw in the towel. "I certainly wouldn't want to miss an enjoyable ride with my husband."
Wanda leaned down and took Nate out of Laura's arms, smiling at her and then Clint, and saying, "No one will even see us."
Clint took a deep breath, but nodded once and then held his arm out for Laura to take. The kids giggled and Laura shook her at him, but let him guide her around to where the rider switch line started. Right before they turned the corner out of the courtyard, she turned back and called, "This is it for me. There will be no guilting me onto anything that goes backward at high speed or turns upside down." The kids giggled even harder and she somehow doubted they'd gotten her message.
"I'm going to be screaming my head off on this one, aren't I," Laura muttered as she and Clint walked through artfully overgrown and purposefully creepy gardens. She especially liked the cracked, empty fountain, overgrown with grapevines gone wild, especially when the vines proved to be carved out of cement.
"I'll hold your hand all the way through," Clint promised.
"I don't care if you're joking, I am definitely holding you to that," Laura said, eyeing their surroundings. They'd reached the part of the line that curved inside, through the lobby of the hotel that was the story of the ride. There were impressive amounts of dust and cobwebs adorning the Art Deco room, and the people running the line were dressed as bellhops, complete with hats and gloomy faces.
Clint grinned but didn't object when Laura went right ahead and grabbed his hand as the creepy damn bellhops herded everyone into a small library. And of course Laura could tell he was trying hard not to laugh when Laura half-jumped out of her skin at the crash of thunder and the lights in the room going out, but he managed to suck it up and keep quiet. He'd even managed to wipe the smirk off his face by the time they got out of the library and into the last part of the line, where it snaked through a (surprise!) creepy boiler room.
"It would be bad to lie to my children and tell them I rode this stupid thing even if I chicken out," Laura said, watching with what was more than a tiny bit of envy as a mother and daughter were escorted through a door in the middle of the elevators. "Right?"
"They take pictures on this one," Clint said apologetically. "And video."
"I knew that," Laura sighed. Her brain was clearly not working much past pointing out all the ways she could really embarrass herself here. "And Cooper has my phone--he'll be able to see everything this evil, evil company posts before I can get it back from him.”
She frowned fiercely at the (still creepy) bellhop who was telling everyone where to sit in their haunted elevator car. He frowned back. Clint cracked up, but he didn’t let go of her hand except to fasten his seatbelt and make sure hers was good to go, too.
"Oh, god," Laura groaned as the doors closed and Rod Serling started talking to her about being in the Twilight Zone. A dozen memories of the show flickering on old TV set they'd had when she was growing up flashed through her brain. In most of them, she was watching with her hands over her eyes, peeking through her fingers. "Remind me why I had children with an adrenaline junkie again?"
Clint leaned in, sliding his free hand up Laura's leg and murmuring in his smuggest, most self-satisfied tone, "You really want me to answer that right here?" so that just as the elevator car started falling and the strobe lights for the camera flashed, Laura was rolling her eyes and laughing in exasperation at him.
Two seconds later, as the car went up and down again, she really was screaming her head off, but as far as the kids and the cameras knew, she was nothing but normal old Mom.
"Such is the power of you in aggravating mode," Laura said to Clint as they all straggled out of the courtyard and off to the next adventure.
"Not that we really needed much proof," Natasha added dryly.
"It's a gift," Clint agreed.
- - -
(As Laura had reminded herself over and over again, 'normal' was just a word.
She'd said it to herself every morning as she got up and every night before she laid herself down (she hadn't gotten much sleep while Clint had been gone but she'd gone to bed every night to help keep the kids on their routines.) It had become her mantra as the weeks had turned into months and then almost a year before Clint had come home, and she'd kept on saying it even after he'd been back.
Anything could be 'normal'; she'd seen her job as making the new world as okay as the old one had been, no matter the differences.
If the new normal had meant Clint sleeping whenever and wherever he could, then at least he'd been sleeping at home. If it meant Nate clinging and fussing every time she'd stepped out of sight, then she'd done her best to enjoy a little bit extra time with a baby to cuddle up to.
She'd kept everything so stuffed down under layers upon layers of 'coping' it hadn't been much of a surprise that the first time she and Clint had sex after he'd gotten home, all kinds of things came boiling up from the depths and she'd scratched his back nearly hard enough to draw blood. Or that the next time, when he'd grabbed her wrists to keep her from doing it again, she'd strained so hard against his hands that she'd ended up wearing long sleeves for a week.
The orgasms had been a surprise, though, sharp and furious and more alive than she'd been since it had all started.
Every time had been different, as though they'd been working through all the different parts of their lives--the bedroom, the kitchen, the barn, the shower--but every time Laura had thought they'd gotten the last bit of fear and anger out of their systems, something new found its way to the surface. They hadn't talked about it--they'd been talking about everything else, but this had stayed wordless and private, communication on a basic, primal level.)
- - -
Since they'd started off later in the day, Laura had canceled their lunch plans and they ended up walking along the canal outside of the park to eat on the boardwalk. For the first time in a long time, Laura thought about her mother with affection rather than irritation.
"My parents spent their honeymoon in Atlantic City," she explained to Natasha as they sat at an outdoor table waiting for their food. "They really never had the time or money to go back, but they had a photo album of that one trip." Laura looked at the lights swooping along the edge of the water in graceful swags and the small kiosks and carts filled with games and souvenirs. "She might have liked this part."
Clint had that look on his face that said he doubted that her mother might have liked anything, which was probably fair, but Laura remembered a time when she hadn't been bitter and angry with the world. Clint didn't say anything, though, which was good enough for Laura.
She couldn't decide if their meal was a late lunch or a really early dinner, and to be honest, it wasn't all that good anyway, but it was nice to sit out on the water. It was quieter around the hotels, too, which was a welcome break from the crowds in the park. They took the boat back (thrilling Nate, especially since it took almost a half hour) and dove into the Star Wars-related rides and activities. Cooper was too old for the Jedi training activity and Lila wasn't interested, but after watching a session of random kids in Jedi robes whacking evil characters, Cooper said, "When we come back, we should sign Nate up for that. He'd be great at it."
"Me!" Nate agreed from his perch on top of Clint's shoulders.
"Auntie Nat can give him pointers," Cooper continued. "He'll be the best."
"He will be," Lila agreed as she chased after Cooper to get in line for the Star Wars ride.
"You heard that, right?" Clint said as the rest of them followed along.
"'Next time'," Laura sighed. "As in, we're doing this again?"
"Sounds like," Clint answered, holding up while Laura made sure the rider swap happened at the actual ride part of the line, not out front. Nate squirmed to get down; Clint held him so he could flip on the way down.
"No characters in the room then." Laura was going to be dreaming of cartoon fish swimming through fluorescent seas for a while.
"Thank you," Natasha said, which Laura was going to count as an RSVP from the Black Widow side of things..
"Mom, they're building a Star Wars hotel," Cooper said, picking up on the direction of their conversation. He had ears like his father had eyes. "That would be cool."
"We'll see," Laura said, falling back on the time-honored dodge of mothers everywhere. Fortunately enough, she did not mind the Star Wars stories (though she did really prefer Harry Potter) because Clint had passed his love of the movies on to all of the kids. (Laura was fairly certain Cooper had taught himself to read so he could get to more of the books than Laura had patience for reading to him.) They had FastPasses for the ride, and another one to meet Chewbacca and whichever villain it was in the black.
Laura did object when Lila tried to trade Nate to the little, robed characters who were apparently scavengers; fortunately, they were more interested in shiny things than in small, energetic boys. Laura delegated the discussion of why we don't try to trade our little brothers to Clint, partially because it was too entertaining to watch him try to keep a straight face while he did it, but mostly because the whole obsession was his fault and he could just deal with it. Nate, it turned out, was sad not to get to go off with them, but then a pair of stormtrooper walked by, looking for 'Resistance scum', and he was distracted by that little bit of excitement. The fireworks at the end of the day were fine--again, Laura wasn't exactly a fan--but the rest of the crowd seemed to think they were the Best Thing Ever.
The ride back to the hotel was spent with Cooper trying to figure out if he had enough money to buy one of the very nice, but very expensive, lightsabers that people had been waving around at the end of the show. Laura kicked Clint to keep him from caving in and offering to buy one regardless.
"Right, right, independence," Clint muttered.
"Or an excellent idea for a birthday present," Laura hissed back, to which Clint looked thoughtful. That was fine; gift-giving was one of those things that always fell on her, so possibly it might be time for the other adult in the household to learn its mysteries.
"It's going to rain tomorrow," she said, ignoring Clint's snort. It was a blatant change of subject, but it was also the truth and she wasn't terribly excited about getting out of bed early if everyone was going to whine and complain about going out in the weather. "All day." This apparently was unusual in Florida, so yay for them for bucking the curve. Again.
"You mean nothing's open tomorrow?" Lila had more than an edge of whine to her voice, but it had been a long several days, so Laura didn't lose it.
"No, everything looks like it will be open," Laura answered. "We'll just have to wear our rain gear."
"Oh," Lila said, dismissively. "That's fine."
“Really,” Laura said, more than a little irritated at the attitude she was getting. “I can certainly hold you to that, young lady.”
“Mom,” Lila insisted. “We go out in the rain at home all the time.”
Laura couldn’t argue with that, but she still wasn’t fond of the tone. It had been an emotionally exhausting day, though, so it was probably better if she just tried to not let it bother her.
“All right,” Laura sighed, glancing at Clint, who shrugged. “We’ll go ahead and leave early.”
It was only water, she supposed
"Lila," Laura snapped. Lila glared back at her with a familiar stubbornness, not giving an inch. In ordinary circumstances, Laura would have been balancing out her aggravation with the knowledge that Lila had gotten her… strength of will (to couch it in positive language) from Laura herself and that it was probably going to serve her well in life. God knew she wasn't ever going to be a pushover. Given that this wasn't at all an ordinary circumstance and that they were standing in the rain in the middle of public walkway at an amusement park, Laura wasn't doing well with holding on to her own stubborn temper. "We talked about this before we left. Extensively."
"Stop right there," Laura said, her voice slipping right back into that sharp tone that she'd been trying to break free of for all of her life. Lila was usually the sweetest of girls, but she could whine with the best of them and nothing annoyed Laura more than whining. Clint's head swiveled around a little, and while Laura supposed she didn't blame him for looking to see what was wrong, Lila noticed, too, and Laura could tell she was gearing up for a Daddy's-Little-Princess fit and that was going to shred Laura's last nerve. She pushed her damp hair off of her face and looked as calmly as she could at her daughter. "You have your spending money--you have the extra money Daddy and I gave you as a treat. It is your choice how you want to spend it. I'm sorry that the tiara you want is very expensive, but whining for more money is the last thing you need to be doing."
She thought she’d managed to stave off the tantrum she could see behind Lila’s eyes, but she hadn’t gotten two steps away before it broke.
“It’s not fair,” Lila shouted. “You told Auntie Nat not to buy it for me. Cooper can have what he wants, and everybody knows Nate’s too little to care, so it’s just me that you’re being mean to—“
Laura actually saw red for a second, so absolutely furious with Lila for causing such a scene in the middle of a public park—over an overpriced bit of junk-- that she couldn’t even see straight.
"Whoa, whoa," Clint was saying, one hand on Laura's arm, which, since Laura hadn't noticed him walking over to where she was standing, meant that she really must have gone into the scary place. "Lila, stop right now and go over by the stroller. Quietly."
Lila didn't even try to argue, just turned and flounced over to the stroller. Clint had always been the laid-back parent, mostly because he'd been away so much on SHIELD business that Laura handled the day-to-day stuff, but when he used that low, quiet tone, everybody listened.
"You okay?" Clint shifted to his 'Lets-Keep-the-Civilians-Calm" voice, but Laura supposed it wasn't all that out of place.
"I am," Laura said, consciously relaxing her jaw and taking a deep breath, "furious."
"Yeah, kinda noticed."
"Then, why ask?" Laura snapped. Clint didn't say anything, and after a few seconds, Laura sighed. "Sorry." Clint slipped an arm around her waist and she let herself lean into him. She could see Lila sitting on the ground next to the stroller in a wet, dejected heap. Cooper had taken Nathaniel to the bathroom and they'd lost Natasha and Wanda at one of the small shops that sold jewelry and clothing, so Lila was alone in her misery. "I can't believe I just got into a screaming fit over a tacky, obscenely priced toy."
Clint snorted, and Laura stiffened. "What?"
"I can," he said. "Believe it."
"And what exactly is that supposed to mean?"
"You hate the princess crap." Clint shrugged. "All of it."
"You hate it; Lila loves it; you both dig your heels in over it." Laura stepped back; Clint let her go, but he didn't walk away. "It's been a fun week so far, but it's also been pretty crazy, so yeah, I can believe that the two of you got into it. It's not just a toy, not at this point."
"What I hate," Laura said through gritted teeth, "is that when Lila didn't get her own way, she went behind my back and tried to wheedle it out of Natasha. The fact that it was, as you said, 'princess crap', is just the icing on the willful scheming, and the fact that you don't want to deal with any of it is the goddamned cherry on top."
Laura had no idea why her subconscious felt that getting that last part out in the middle of a family vacation was a good idea, but here they were, standing on a rainy pathway a thousand miles from home, and it was too late to take it back now. Besides, Laura thought, with a shaky breath, she'd only want to take back the way she'd thrown it all out there, not so much the issue itself. They'd been tiptoeing around too many things for too long of a time.
"Okay," Clint said calmly, "I'm pretty sure it didn't happen that way, which is why I'm not seeing the need to deal with any really bad behavior." He waited a second, as if to make sure Laura wasn't going to jump down his throat again, and then added, "It might have gone like you said, but as far as I know, Nat's been nosing around for ideas to get some crazy, over-the-top gifts for the kids, all three of them, for having missed birthdays and Christmases and all. So, I'm guessing there was a conversation going on about stuff, not that Ly went running to her when you said 'no.'"
"I didn't say 'no,' I told her she was in charge of how to spend her money." It wasn't the issue, but Laura apparently was sick and tired of having to be the mean parent.
"Yeah, which is as good as saying 'no' when it's something as pricey as that."
"I told Cooper the exact same thing about the light saber," Laura pointed out. She didn't quite manage to relax her jaw enough that she wasn't gritting her teeth, but at least she wasn't yelling. The wet, poncho-covered strangers walking by didn't even glance twice at them.
"I'm pretty sure you weren't eyeing that tiara as a possible birthday present, like you were with the light saber." Clint was still calm, but Laura had been married to him for a lot of years and she could tell he was right on the edge. "And if I know that, the kids have probably picked up on it, too."
"Well, you're not wrong about that," Laura snapped, which, while true, was, she decided, a lot bitchier than he deserved. She took a deep breath, and then another. "Sorry," she said. "That was out of line."
She didn't exactly sound sincere--which was unfortunate, because she actually did mean it, but there was a lot of emotional crap suddenly boiling up to the surface and she wasn't dealing well--and that did it for Clint's calm.
"You know, that'd go over a lot better if it didn't sound like it was choking you to say the words." He kept his voice low, but there wasn't any mistaking how she'd managed to get under his skin. "I get that I haven't been around a lot, and the last year hasn't been the best, but either you want me in this or you don't. Pick one, okay?"
Laura bit back the nastier answers that came flooding to mind--it was amazing, and sad, how quickly she could fall back into ugly behaviors, ones that she always thought were really and truly gone but never seemed to be--and looked up at Clint. It took a couple of seconds for him to meet her eyes, but when he did, he was all there, which, she reminded herself, was a lot of why they'd been together for so long.
"Just because I don't agree with you doesn't mean I don't want you down in the trenches with me." Laura tried for an even tone, but everything came out very, very crisply. Still. She wasn't snapping or yelling, so that was progress.
"Great," Clint answered, biting off the word. He wasn't yelling either. Yay for both of them, Laura thought. "Good to know."
Laura set her jaw and refused to let the petty, mean part of her brain to say another word, and after another few long seconds, she could tell they both had let go of enough crap to maybe move on. She looked back at where Lila had been sulking and found her standing up next to the edge of the bridge, entranced with the monkeys that had come out of their shelter to play on the ropes. (Never mind that the shelter was built to look like an abandoned temple--Laura was almost to the point of just accepting whatever fanciful designs were surrounding them, even after only a few days.)
"I need to talk to her," Laura sighed. She could tell Clint was watching her even without looking at him. "Talk," she clarified. "Not lecture."
"Talking wouldn't be a bad idea," Clint said.
"There's a 'but' coming, isn't there," Laura said.
"I know you have reasons why you don't like the princess crap," Clint said, his voice so studiedly neutral that Laura's brain flew to those creepy android things Stark was rumored to be building.
"But you don't agree," Laura interjected.
"Nah," Clint said. "You're right about the whole commercial machinery and how it puts too much emphasis on looks and all that, but…" He shrugged, his eyes focused out on Lila standing and waving at the monkeys, her hair plastered to her head from the rain. "She likes what she likes, right? I mean, she'll spend ten minutes to get her hair ribbons exactly right and then go out and ride the bull, you know?" He looked back down at Laura. "If she wants to wear a crown while she's mucking out the barn, I'm not seeing that it's such a big thing."
"The one she wants is a hundred and twenty-five dollars, Clint. That's ridiculous."
"Coop's light saber is more than that," Clint answered. "You didn't freak out there."
"Trust me," Laura said, "I'm trying very hard not to think about that price tag." She chewed thoughtfully on her bottom lip. "Okay, I'm willing to concede that whether or not the Princess Industrial Complex is evil, I'm not doing any good by losing my grip with my kid."
"Well, give yourself a little credit--the kid in question is pretty good at dialing up the drama." Clint's mouth curled up in that familiar half-smile. "What, you didn't think I'd noticed?"
"I was beginning to wonder," Laura admitted.
"Yeah, I know, I'm a soft touch," Clint said. "I just… I really hate it when they're not happy." He shrugged. "But that's not doing anyone any favors, so yeah, it's probably time I showed up for more than the good times."
"Starting now?" Laura asked, tipping her head toward Lila.
"Starting now," Clint sighed, putting his arm around Laura and following along as she went to go deal with everything.
- - -
Laura was absolutely not surprised that they had their talk with Lila right there in front of the monkeys. At one point Clint, being Clint, sat down on the (wet, wet, wet) ground and let Lila sit in his lap while they sorted through all the emotional minefields. Of course, this mean Laura was sitting on the ground, too, but she managed to get her poncho under her and kept from having wet shorts and underwear, which could only be a good thing.
Nate thought the sitting on the ground was the best thing ever when he came back with Cooper. He ran and threw himself at Laura, who managed to catch him before he landed square on her, but that was clearly not going to happen for very much longer. She thought they should probably stand up, but no one seemed to mind (the rain had definitely kept people away from the parks) so they stayed there on the ground and let the drizzle fall on them. It was actually a little peaceful.
Natasha, of course, swept her eyes over the whole bedraggled family as soon as she and Wanda arrived on the scene and clearly found them wanting. She got everyone to their feet and herded them off down the hill back toward where the safari ride left from, turning them off at the top of the street and into a little cafe area, open air, but under cover. And, because she was Natasha, there was a table big enough for all of them without even looking like she was looking for one.
"They make lovely cocktails at the bar. With and without alcohol," she said pointedly to Clint, who took the hint and started taking orders. Two minutes after that, a band arrived on the small stage a little ways up from them, inviting all the kids to come and dance with them. Lila thought Auntie Nat's suggestion to take Nate up to the stage area was an excellent one, especially once she saw the singers had beads for all the dancing kids.
“Laura,” Natasha said, waving the kids off and then turning a very charming smile on Laura, “may I please borrow your phone?”
Laura rolled her eyes, but obediently handed it over, only for Natasha to toss it to Cooper with the request, “FastPasses for something inside, please and thank you.”
“On it,” Cooper said, his fingers flying on the phone. Laura didn’t remember actually giving him her passwords, but since Clint and Wanda were back from the bar with double handfuls of drinks, she decided to just let it all slide. She had a seat, a drink, her kids were all constructively occupied, and Clint was settled in next to her, one arm back to being slung across her shoulders while he drank his beer and argued the merits of hops with Natasha. Laura could take a few minutes to decompress from the emotions run amuck that Lila so often carried in her wake. She was going to have to figure out a better way to deal or adolescence was going to kill her.
The band played one song right into the next and kids went running past to join the group with Lila and Nate at the front of the platform. Clint shifted around so he could keep them in sight, and Laura couldn’t help but notice that he and Natasha had taken seats on the outside edge of the table, with a clear path up the street. She wished she didn’t have to know their brains never took a minute off, but that wasn't how their world worked. She was mostly happy to be in it, warts and all, so she drank her juice and let it be.
The rain promised by the clouds that still hadn’t cleared held off for the moment and at least let Laura see the park around her. The morning had been a blur of rain and lots and lots of dripping vegetation along the sides of the pathways. The only thing that really stuck out had been the tigers on the second nature walk, out playing in the cool, wet morning, the cubs tumbling over each other and their mother. The giraffes on the safari ride had been beautiful, but the rain had been falling heavily at that point so no one had gotten good pictures of them. Now, she could see the details they’d worked into the buildings and even the ground. It wasn’t terribly crowded either, but the longer the rain held off, the more people would come back out and risk some time away from their dry hotel rooms. That meant they should probably go find a ride to ride, before it got crowded, but it was very pleasant to just sit and chill.
“Mom,” Cooper said quietly. He held out the phone and Laura reached automatically to take it. “I found some FastPasses for the Lion King show, but it’s probably not something we really need them for. That’s all I see, though.”
Laura agreed that they probably didn’t need the FastPasses for the show, but only said, “No, it’ll be fine. We’ll let Lila and Nate finish up with the band and then just walk right in.” She handed the phone back. “Go ahead and book them, and then we can see what else we can find for later.”
They cut it almost too close, but managed to slide in at the very last second before the doors to the theater were closed. There weren't enough seats all together, but they were in the same area at least and not sitting together turned out to be perfect as they had apparently ended up in the warthog section. At the very least, Laura, Natasha and Wanda were two rows behind Clint and the kids as they did their best hog snorting and grunting on cue.
"So charming," Natasha said to Laura as Clint held Nate steady on his lap and turned him around so they could appreciate how on-point his snorting was.
"There are days when I have no idea what possessed me to marry him," Laura said, shaking her head. Clint grinned and blew her a kiss and turned back around toward the performance area in the center of the room. "It's not like this is any kind of a surprise and nice arms only go so far."
Natasha laughed, an honestly delighted, full, rich laugh at Nate and Clint and their antics; Laura was helpless to resist joining in. Fortunately, the show started before her oldest and youngest could get into any more trouble. She'd been a little worried that Nate would be bored, but between the gymnasts dressed as monkeys and the performer who juggled with fire, he could barely look away from the show. Clint took him down to join in the parade at the finale and Laura managed to take a good twenty or so pictures of the two of them before the song ended.
She waved down to them, but hoped Clint knew she wasn't about to fight her way down to the floor until the rest of the audience had left. Cooper and Lila knew; they weren't moving out of their seats either. Cooper was waving her phone at her, actually; Laura took that to mean that he'd found another FastPass, which further solidified her intent to stay put until it wasn't a zoo.
Plus, this seemed like as good of a time as any to address the elephant in the pink tutu that was dancing along the edge of the family, Laura told herself.
"I'm sorry," she said to Natasha, tilting her head to include Wanda in the conversation as well. "I didn't mean for you to be dragged into this thing between Lila and me."
"She is your daughter," Wanda said immediately. "Of course you should set out what is acceptable."
"What she said," Natasha added, shrugging. "I'm going to go with her opinion on parenting, for reasons that are obvious."
"I want to make sure you don't think gifts are required," Laura said. "I--We, Clint and I--appreciate your being a part of the kids' lives more than I think you know." She watched Cooper and Lila playing with her phone for a few seconds, and then found Clint and Nate down on the floor chatting with one of the Disney cast members. "Neither of our blood families were ever going to be in the picture and even in the Army, people came and went too often to offer any stability. And then, with SHIELD…" Given the HYDRA-related disaster that turned out to be, she didn't really have to say anything else about that. "For the kids to have the two of you is really a big deal."
The performance area had mostly cleared out and maintenance workers were already sweeping through to get ready for the next show. Laura called to Cooper and Lila and started down to meet up with Clint.
"Well, it's a big deal for us, as well," Wanda said. "I did not think I would be a part of a larger family, even before… Sokovia." Laura could count the number of times she'd heard Wanda actually say Pietro's name on the fingers of one hand; even this oblique of a reference was rare. She reached out to take Wanda's hand, squeezing it gently.
Nate came trotting over before things could get too emotional, babbling excitedly about the Fire! and the Lions! Laura scooped him up and told him how exciting it was to have seen him in the parade. He beamed at everyone, but also put his head down on her shoulder, so she knew a nap probably should be in the near-term plans.
"Here," Wanda said, holding out her arms. "Let me take him."
Nate made the switch and settled into Wanda's arms without any fuss. She had spent a lot of time with them after everything had settled and Nate had taken to her surprisingly easily. Laura was glad--she thought Nate gave Wanda someone to hug and cuddle, and Wanda gave Nate a little bit of extra attention when life was complicated. It had all worked out so much better than Laura could have imagined after that awful, awful year.
Cooper didn't have any FastPasses for them, but he did have a plan to ride the safari again now that the rain had stopped, and Laura was happy enough to let him lead on. The line was a little longer than she would have liked, but Nate fell asleep on the walk over and a half of an hour or so would be a good amount of nap time to help keep him happy without keeping him up all night. Wanda insisted she was fine to hold him, but Laura gave Clint the look that meant he was on deck and to pay attention. He gave her one of his two-fingered salutes, the tiniest bit mocking, but she could tell he was keeping an eye on Wanda and would retrieve Nate once his weight got too much for her.
The line was moving in three-steps-forward-and-then-hold-for-a-few-minutes fashion, so even after Laura passed around bottles of water and offered some trail mix for a snack, they still had a good while to go. Lila was on her conspicuously best behavior and had wrangled Clint and Cooper into playing I'm going on a picnic. Natasha had declined politely, so Laura wasn't all that surprised when she let herself fade to the back of the group and turned to Laura.
"How much is too much?" she asked, one slim, perfectly groomed eyebrow arched.
"Really, Natasha," Laura said. "Presents aren't--"
"Required," Natasha finished for her. "Yes, that's why they're presents, not necessities." They walked a few more steps and stopped again. At least, Laura thought, this line was covered. The sun was back out and the ground was starting to steam from the moisture left from the day's rain. "We've had this talk."
Her eyes flicked to the arrow necklace Laura wore around her neck, the one that matched the one in the jewelry box back home, waiting for Lila to grow a little more--and the one Natasha wore more often than not. The boys all had the same charm on leather cords for their wrists. It was a Barton Thing.
"Yes, we have," Laura said. "But just because the kids--"
"Just because your children decided I should be included in the family and gave up the money they earned for months to buy one for me certainly does mean something to me."
It had been Lila's idea to start, but Cooper had (for a wonder) thought it was a cool thing to do as well, and had donated the money he'd earned from gathering eggs to sell at the farmers' market right alongside Lila. It had made for a spectacular Christmas the year after Natasha had brought Clint back to them, after Loki and the Chitauri.
"And just so I'm making myself perfectly clear, that doesn't begin to include you allowing them to do that," Natasha added.
"We've definitely had this talk," Laura said, looking ahead in the line to where Clint was juggling everyone's water bottles for some reason. "You brought him home. Nick as good as told me that he probably wouldn't be able to stop the shoot-to-kill order after what happened in New Mexico--Clint's told me that's what he expected." She stopped to take a long breath. She could actually talk about that horrific week now, even with a semblance of calm, but it took a lot out of her. Talking about it in public was just that much more of a challenge. "Tell me again how I'm supposed to resent that my kids wanted to be sure you didn't feel left out after that."
Laura thought Natasha was going to fall back onto the debt argument, which Laura would then counter with the kids not understanding--or caring--about mythical ledgers, but instead, Natasha allowed the briefest of smiles to curve her mouth and said, "I did research, you know--made sure gifts from an unrelated adult to a group of children are not seen immediately as something manipulative and unwelcome."
"Research?" Laura repeated, a little thrown even after all the years of watching odd things happen.
"SHIELD's cultural familiarization files and Stark's AIs primarily," Natasha answered. "Cross-referenced with personal interviews with subjects likely to have had actual experience with the topic."
Laura blinked twice, but then decided it was very Natasha to have so thoroughly researched something that she wasn't familiar with. She knew a moment of sadness that Natasha had felt she couldn't answer it based on personal experience, but then her curiosity got the better of her.
"I'm sorry, but I am dying to know who…?"
"Pepper," Natasha said dryly.
"With extra conversations with Hill, Dr. Foster, and her assistant."
"How... thorough," Laura managed to say.
"I didn't want to get it wrong," Natasha answered, her voice very, very neutral. Laura knew her well enough to know that was her fear of doing exactly that talking.
"You didn't," Laura told her. "You haven't, I promise." They had fallen behind the rest of the family, as the people behind them were (kindly and not) pointing out. As they walked to catch up, she added, "I don't want you to feel obligated--"
"I don't," Natasha answered. "It's… enjoyable.
"Well, the kids certainly enjoy it," Laura said before she considered how dismissive she was sounding. It just wasn't one of her finer days, not at all. "I'm sorry," she said. "I do know how much fun it can be to find the right thing for someone."
"It's not something I have much experience with," Natasha said. "And I don't want to overstep my boundaries with you."
"I honestly don't know how to answer that," Laura said slowly, trying to think honestly. "I push back against anything that's wildly extravagant because 'spoiling' your kids was not something that was done when I was growing up. I had an aunt who would bring me little trinkets, but no one got anything expensive. Ever."
"If it makes you feel any better, both Pepper and Maria said more-or-less the same thing," Natasha said. "Dr. Foster said her godmother put money in her college account--which is also happening, by the way--" Her eyes told Laura that she'd never find the money no matter what she said about it--"but admitted that she explicitly asked for that. Her assistant--Darcy--said that fairy godmothers were a long and glorious tradition and insisted on showing me the live-action Cinderella for reference."
Laura actually burst out laughing at the pained expression on Natasha's face at that. "Oh, god, if that's not actual love, I don't know what is. I speak from experience."
Clint looked back over his shoulder at her laugh, but took Laura's wordless we're fine at face value and left them to it.
"Well, my viewing probably had more alcohol and in-depth analysis of Robb Stark's thighs involved than yours would," Natasha said dryly. "And it was only the one time."
"If only," Laura sighed, thinking about the many, many, many viewings that had taken place over the past year. For whatever reason, Lila loved that movie above all the rest and watched it whenever she was upset. At some point, Lila would tire of it, but until then Laura hung on grimly and watched as often as Lila invited her company.
"I don't want to do this the wrong way," Natasha said quietly. "I like being Auntie Nat. It's not something I ever thought possible for my life; I want to do it right."
"You are doing it right," Laura said, equally as quiet. "Just being there is more than good enough--please don't feel that anything else is needed."
They had almost reached the final turn before being sorted into the lines that fed into the benches on the trucks that took them out to the animals. Nate was waking up and not too sure about all the people around him. Laura thought he might accidentally strangle Wanda with how hard he was clinging to her, but Clint leaned in and Nate transferred his grip to his father without any fuss.
They got lined up in the proper order--Cooper and Lila on the outside (so they could take pictures), Nate and Clint in the middle (so that when Nate got excited and tried to jump for a giraffe, he'd be far enough inside the truck that even in the unlikely event of Clint losing hold of him, he'd have to go across two or three people before he could fall out), Laura next to Clint and Nate (because sometimes it was nice to sit next to her husband), and Wanda and Natasha next to the older kids (apparently, so they could loan out their StarkPhones for the picture-taking activities.)
"Relax," Natasha said without even having to look at Laura to see the fatalistic horror that was no doubt written across her face. "They're spares, not the ones we use for everyday."
Laura said several small prayers that they got through the ride without anyone dropping anything regardless, and they were off to see the animals.
- - -
The late lunch/early dinner reservations Laura had booked because they came with guaranteed seats to this park's nighttime light and laser show turned out to be less of an expensive time-waster and more of a life-saver. To begin with, it was inside, and thus air-conditioned, which was probably the only reason Laura got through the afternoon in the post-rain humidity. Plus, it was a buffet, so it didn't matter that Lila only wanted two bites of everything or that Cooper was in the middle of a growing-boy-feeding-frenzy. There was a double plus for the characters who came around and posed for pictures with Nate, thus keeping him entertained while everyone else sat down and breathed a little.
Laura wasn't exactly sure how everyone managed to go ride the roller coaster that went backward in the dark after having spent nearly two hours stuffing themselves, but they all looked like they were having fun, so she smiled and waved and took a few pictures of the crazy people. The dinosaur ride was loud, and then they ended up spending a fair amount of time in the little carnival area. Nate loved the flying stegosaurus ride, so they took turns riding it with him; and then Natasha dared Clint to throw off-handed at the carnival games, to 'see how in-shape' he was. Clint smiled, sharp and wolfish, and they nearly lost the stroller to the stuffed animals he won.
"We really do need to have a talk about always taking the bait," Laura said to him as she cleared out random bags and bits and pieces in an effort to get everything in and leave room for when Nate needed to crash again.
"Yeah, about that," Clint muttered with a faintly guilty look. "You know it's probably too late for that, right?"
"You don't say," Laura answered, wedging the last stuffie into the underseat basket. She stood up and pressed a kiss to his mouth, one that ended up getting a little more involved than she intended, but really, that was nothing to complain about.
The afternoon continued on, turning slowly to evening. The rain held off long enough to walk the gorilla trail and have the cast members there answer the kids' million questions. Lila shrieked at the naked mole rats in their habitat, but honestly, Laura couldn't blame her. They were apparently very non-aggressive, but they made her skin crawl. It rained a little bit more while they were in the 3D movie about the bugs, but no one even bothered with ponchos when they got out, just wandered around finding as many animals carved into the giant tree as they could in the lowering twilight.
Laura kept an eye on the time and started herding her particular pride of cats toward the amphitheater on the river. The seats that had come with their lunch were for reserved seats for the first of the light shows scheduled for that night. They got themselves settled with a minimum of fuss, though Lila did ask Wanda to take her to get one of the frozen drinks with the light-up flowers in it and they only barely made it back before seating was closed off and the music started. Nate pointed and clapped at every new animal silhouette and projection, and enthusiastically ooo-ed and aaaahhh-ed at the fountains and floating light sculptures. He nearly pitched himself headfirst onto the stone stairs at the sight of the tiger float, but Clint's reaction time was fast enough that Laura barely had time to gasp before it was all over. Cooper and Lila weren't terribly impressed by the show itself--there were no fireworks so as not to traumatize the animals--but Laura thought it was nice to see the Avenger-associated adults not have to steel themselves for the explosions, too. It wasn't something the actual adults seemed to mind, but it seemed like a big deal to Laura.
Then again, it had been the second long, emotional day in a row, so it was possible she was just letting reality intrude on the Disney bubble, she thought as she stood up to stretch out the kinks from sitting on stone benches for the show (very picturesque, but not exactly comfortable.)
"Mom?" Cooper said, and oh, Laura knew that tone, the one that said the asker already knew the upcoming question was an iffy proposition at best.
"Yes?" she sighed.
"I still haven't been able to get passes for the Avatar ride, but the line is only a hundred and fifty minutes--which is less than it's been all day--so maybe we could just go get in it now?"
"Oh, honey," Laura said. "I am so tired I can barely see straight. I'm not even sure I can get Nate and me back to the hotel to let your dad stay with you."
"We could do it ourselves?" Cooper glanced at Lila who nodded vigorously. "We could take the bus back to the hotel when we're finished."
Despite her being happy that he wasn't throwing out a line of emotional blackmail to get Auntie Nat to stay with them, the kids-going-alone plan wasn't going to fly, not without how on edge Clint still was. It was getting better, but she didn't think he was going to actually leave the area if the kids were still there. Somewhere between her gearing up to break the bad news and actually opening her mouth to deliver it, though, Clint said, "Hang on a sec, buddy," and somehow they managed to work out that the kids would go wait in line while he and Laura (and Nate, who was dropping fast) would wait for them someplace close by.
"The restaurant on the river has a lounge," Natasha said innocently. "Right across from the ride, no reservations required."
"That work for you, babe?" Clint asked Laura, who managed to recover from her disbelief to nod. Clint turned back to Cooper and Lila. "Okay, you two take your mom's phone and stand in line--call in every 20 minutes, okay? Nat and Wanda can go do whatever it is that they want to do, and Mom and I will just chill for a while."
Laura handed over her phone--it had a GPS-locator in it, so Clint could monitor the kids even if they forgot to call--and checked in to make sure they understood just exactly how long 150 minutes really was.
"Barton, did you just arrange it so you could take your wife out on a date?" Natasha was asking. "Do I even want to know when the last time that happened was?"
Laura could tell Clint was having to physically restrain himself from replying with an obscene gesture--so did Natasha, to judge from the self-satisfied smirk on her face. It was all very entertaining, but she was on Team Clint (she did marry him after all), so she answered, "Well, if you count the last time he made dinner after the kids went to bed, maybe two weeks ago?" She smiled at Cooper's look of horror at hearing that his parents had dates. "But it's been a while longer for something outside of the house."
"That's very sweet," Wanda said with just the perfect amount of naivete in her eyes that Clint couldn't tell if she was teasing him or not. (She absolutely was, Laura thought, but Clint had no idea how to react. It was too funny.) "Especially since it's been so long since you have been together," Wanda added. "So often the romance dies."
Even Clint couldn't miss the teasing in the last part, but he only flashed a smile and said, "Clint Barton, professional romantic, at your service."
Cooper looked even more horrified, but Lila was dragging him off to get in line, so they were spared his not-quite-teenage-boy emotions. Natasha managed not to laugh, but said, "I'm going with them, by the way." She waved as she breezed past. "Not even I get to ride dragons often enough."
Laura didn't ask.
Wanda walked with them for a bit, but then broke off at one of the shops saying that she was going to do her best impression of an American tourist and go souvenir shopping.
"Get something really tacky and cheap for Stark," Clint called after her, but then it was just the two of them (and Nate snoring quietly) for the rest of the walk. It was late enough that there were a few tables open outside of the main lounge, and so they found themselves settled into a cushioned, wicker couch with Nate and the stroller parked next to them and a low table in front.
"This actually is romantic," Laura said, taking in the mosquito netting framing the river views of the porch and the candles in small hurricane lamps on each table. The floor and ceiling were teak planks, and the fabrics were all natural, faded linens. "It's like Out of Africa by way of Florida.
"Would Nat steer us wrong?" Clint asked, dropping his arm over Laura's shoulders as she curled up next to him. "I mean, me, she'd drop into a hellhole without a second thought, but we add you to the picture and here we are…"
It was surprisingly quiet given that there were thousands of people still roaming around outside of their little cocoon. The waiter promised to bring them the non-alcoholic cocktail special and the people at the next couch over left to go claim their table at the restaurant a few minutes later. The river moved just quickly enough that Laura could hear the current against the pilings of the bridge that was just out of sight around the bend of the porch.
"'S nice," Laura murmured after a bit, not really talking about the location. "We should do this more often."
"Not quite the view off the side porch at home," Clint answered. Their couch faced out over the river and into the fantasy land where the kids and Natasha were well into their two hour wait so the lighting was a little odd to watch, but it was still peaceful and calm.
"And nobody is bringing us good stuff to drink there either," Laura added, reaching blindly for the sweet and gingery drink the waiter had delivered. "We still should make a little more time for it all."
"We should," Clint agreed. Laura could feel him relaxing breath by breath. She could probably thank Natasha going with the kids for that, too, but she would take it any way she could get it. "I could probably have Friday find the drink recipe for us--she wouldn't even tell Stark if I asked nicely enough."
"We could be very fancy," Laura said, her words slow and sleepy.
"You gonna crash on me, babe?" Clint sounded amused. "It's not saying anything much good about my romantic follow-through."
"Mmmm, but if I nap now, then I'll be awake when we get back to the hotel and the two doors that lock between us and the kids," Laura said. "I'd hate to not take advantage of that feature."
"You're the boss." Clint really was laughing at her now, but it was his low, quiet laugh, the one that Laura had liked right from the start, the one she'd been afraid he'd lost over the last year, so she really didn't mind at all.
In an effort to keep it from feeling like a forced march, Laura had originally planned a few side trips for the drive back home, but everyone (kids and all) voted to just get through it as fast as possible so they could be home and done with it. Clint and Nat were all over that directive, which let Laura keep the kids focused on something other than how much longer they had to go. Nate was super-happy with movies, Cooper eventually got settled in with one of the spare tablets and some graphic novels that he hadn’t read, and Lila, to Laura’s surprise, had gotten into all the photos they’d taken (and had taken) and was busily making digital albums with Wanda.
Laura wasn’t going to argue with any of that and just set a timer so the maniacs at the wheel remembered that kids needed more stops than strike teams and dug out an actual novel to read until the current peace evaporated and she’d need to run interference and practice advanced negotiation tactics. It turned out that everyone was tired enough to take a few long naps (the adults included—Laura woke up a couple of times to see that only the driver was awake.) Clint had always had the knack of finding diners no matter where they were so their meal stops were low on healthy food but got high marks from everyone on taste. (Nate ate pancakes all three times, but at least got a few berries and peach slices into his mouth, too.)
“Mom,” Cooper said as they climbed back into the Suburban, “can we have spaghetti and meatball soup for dinner tomorrow?”
“Sure,” Laura said. She glanced over to Natasha. “This would be where I remind you that I don’t do gourmet, okay? It hasn’t gotten any better in the last year.”
“Ohhh, chicken and rice hotdish,” Lila called from the very back seat. “Please.”
“Meatloaf,” Clint added. “With enough for sandwiches the rest of the week.”
“I’m making a shopping list now,” Laura said. Not having to make the decision on what to cook was half the battle. She added chicken and dumplings for herself and tried to remember what was stashed in the freezer. It had only been a week, but she had no idea what was there—clearly, Disney was very good at yanking people out of reality.
“I volunteer for a pizza run,” Natasha said, which was as close as she was going to say that she’d accepted that she was welcome. Laura caught Clint’s eye in the rearview mirror and cheered silently with him. “We all know it’s best not to let me loose in the kitchen.” Clint snorted, but since he was driving, Natasha’s smack to his biceps didn’t break anything.
Wanda quietly offered to make some goulash if Laura thought people might like it, (“We’ll call it stew, it’ll be fine,” Laura told her), so they were probably good for the first week back.
The final three hours was an endurance test, but the thought of stopping so close to home didn’t appeal to anyone so they all just toughed it out. Lila and Cooper were right on the edge of whiny and sullen, respectively, and Nate was about two breaths away from a full-blown tantrum by the time Natasha turned them off the road and onto the gravel of their drive, but they made it without any blow-ups. Laura summoned the energy to high-five the kids as they all but fell out of the truck.
“Dump your suitcases by the laundry room,” Laura called. She wasn’t even going to try to sort dirty from clean; it could all get washed.
“Dad said we could have the dining room to put together the Legos Auntie Nat got for us,” Cooper said as he unearthed the bags (and bags and even more bags) from the Lego store they had spent half an evening in. “On account of how many parts they have.”
“Do I want to know the answer to that?” Laura said. She’d been outside watching Nate run around while the gift-purchasing had happened, and they’d had everything sent back to the hotel so this was the first time she’d really seen anything.
“The one we got for me and Dad to build has more than 7000 pieces,” Cooper said excitedly. “It’s the Millennium Falcon—one of the ships from Star Wars,” he added, just in case she'd missed out on that particular bit of pop culture. “Ly’s has 4000—it’s the castle.”
“There’s a Tinker Bell minifig!” Lila announced as she dragged her wheelie suitcase up the steps, letting it thud down on every one. “Dad said he’d help me, too.”
“You do not want to ask the cost,” Natasha said, breezing by with Nate on her shoulders. “Also, there’s a delivery coming for Mr. Nathaniel here.”
“Car!” Nate crowed. “Vrooooooom.”
“A Nate-sized, powered Lightning McQueen,” Clint said. “It was the only one that had one of those parent handles in the back so at least I can keep him from driving right into the P-O-N-D.” He manhandled the big cooler out of the back of the truck and slammed the door before jogging up the steps and dropping a kiss on Laura’s mouth. “You probably don’t want to ask how much that one cost either.”
“Fine,” Laura sighed, accepting that she’d lost this round while appreciating the lengths Natasha had gone to make it easier for Laura to cave (nothing that had been a bone of contention; everything creative or active and easy to involve Clint with.) “That woman is—“
“Scary, yep,” Clint said.
“Devious and amazing, but yes, a little scary,” Laura answered, and then turned to yell up at the kids to brush their teeth and get settled with their books because Mom was tired and the lights were going to be going out faster than they thought.
“All the lights?” Clint asked, catching Nate as he back-flipped off Natasha’s shoulders and heading up toward the bathroom all the kids shared. He didn’t actually waggle his eyebrows at her, but she could tell he wanted to by the way he laughed when she shooed him up the stairs.
Natasha helped her unpack the cooler and brushed off every thank you Laura tried to offer. That was fine; the kids could write her a few notes and maybe paint her a picture or two (Lila’s preferred method of communication) whether or not she wanted to hear about it or not. Wanda waved as she staggered into her bedroom and Laura admitted she wasn’t in much better shape.
“I’m done,” she told Natasha. “I can deal with this in the morning.” Natasha accepted a hug with surprising ease, and told Laura to tell Clint that she’d do rounds for the night.
Laura really did like how Clint had reworked the attic so that their room had an extra measure of privacy from being on its own floor, but the stairs were going to kill her one night. Not bothering with the overhead light, she flopped down on the bed and let herself sink into the quilt.
“You weren’t kidding about the lights-out,” Clint said as he came into the room an indeterminate amount of time later. Laura didn’t think she’d fallen asleep, but who really knew?
“There’s a full moon tonight,” she answered, waving vaguely at the windows. The blinds and curtains were open and the cool white light spilled in. “It’s fine.”
She thought he was going to have something smart to say, but he’d dropped down next to her and whatever it was was lost in a groan.
“Yep,” she agreed. “’s good to be home.”
“We survived Disney World,” Clint said, reaching out to drape an arm over her stomach. “Is there a medal for that?”
“Just the credit card bills,” Laura answered in the same light, half-joking tone, but she knew there was a lot going on under it. Even before the last, hideous year, family trips to amusement parks were not something that had ever really been a part of their lives, especially Clint’s family. She still really liked finding ways to kick back against that history, she found. That wasn’t something to talk about now, though, so she rolled over onto her side and traced her fingers over where the moonlight picked up the silver in the short hair in Clint’s temples. “You know what’s really nice, though?” He hummed an interrogative in response, low and lazy and still damn sexy even after fifteen years. Laura smiled. "There is not a single cartoon fish watching us right now."
Clint snickered, which was its own reward, but then he slid his hand up under her shirt. "I don't know, I feel like I handled that issue pretty well."
"I'm not going to argue," Laura said. She wasn't ordinarily a fan of shower sex--too much potential for disaster--but it had worked out very well during the week away. At the very least, the master bath in their suite didn't have anything cute on the walls staring down at them. "But," she tilted her head to take in the room Clint had built for them, the drapes and quilt Laura had pieced together, the heavy oak headboard and the king-sized mattress, "here we are now."
"I suppose it'll do," Clint said, unbuttoning her shirt from the inside out. "Yeah?"
"Damned straight," Laura agreed.
The Lego sets are real things, and no, you do not want to know the actual price. Laura is going to murder Nat when she does find out. (Also, the $100+ tiara is a real thing, too, but you can get a pretty nice one for about $15, so I'm thinking Lila caved and got one of those and is happily wearing it all over the farm, lalala, Infinity War, what? I can't heeeaaarrr you.)