On a cold day in the middle of winter, Laura sits at the window, staring out at the chilly morning dawn.
She draws her legs to her chest and blows ripples into her lukewarm coffee, gripping the ceramic mug tighter as if she can siphon the last of its warmth into her palms. She’s always loved this time of year -- as a child, she loved the feeling of being cozy while sitting in her favorite chair with tea while reading a new book, her dad shoveling fluffy white off the porch, her mom singing along with songs on the radio. As a newlywed, she loved the feeling of being cozy while sitting in the big yet comfortable living room, Clint making hot chocolate with Bailey’s, snuggling with her into the musty afghan. As a mother, she loved the feeling of being cozy while sitting on her bed, surrounded by toys and clothes and other household messes, Cooper and Lila reading at her feet in a carefully constructed blanket fort.
Laura tears her gaze away from the window and turns to meet Lila’s round face, framed by long trails of morning-mussed brown hair.
“Monday means it’s Auntie Nat day!”
“Yes, it is,” she agrees, putting down her coffee and leaning over to pick up her daughter. “Where’s your brother, Lila?”
The response is what Laura should have expected -- a harsh twang that sounds like it’s come from an off-key guitar. Lila looks at her mom with a raised eyebrow inherent of Natasha.
“Let’s go get your cereal and then I’ll get your brother,” she says as another sound rings out from upstairs, this one shriller. “Both of your brothers.”
Lila slides off her mom’s lap and prances into the kitchen. Laura follows, reaching the edge of the room just as Lila drags a large wooden step stool to the front of one of the cabinets, climbing up slowly and pausing on the top step. Laura helps her open the highest cabinet, displaying an array of cereal boxes, and Lila dutifully picks out Honey Nut Cheerios before climbing down from the stool. Laura prepares her bowl while Lila sits down at the table.
“I’m gonna tell Auntie Nat all the things that I did in school,” Lila announces, swinging her legs back and forth. “And then I’m gonna get her to read my new book!” She pauses as Laura puts the bowl down in front of her and shoves her spoon into the milk, slurping loudly. “What are you gonna do, mommy?”
Laura shakes her head. “I don’t know,” she admits. “But it won’t be more fun than that.” She runs her fingers gently over Lila’s side causing her daughter to yelp in surprise, flinging her spoon backwards and sending soggy oats to the floor. Laura waits, knowing it will get taken care of in less time than she expects and sure enough, Lucky comes bounding into the kitchen from where he’s been sleeping in the living room. He immediately starts licking the remnants of cereal and Laura lets the dog happily attend to the mess, surveying the room quickly before heading upstairs.
She hits the upper landing, stepping over the baby gate (Nate is turning out to the worst offender of her three children when it comes to not being able to sit still and she can’t decide if she’s proud or annoyed), and heads to the joint room Lila shares with her younger brother. Nate is sitting in his recently acquired big boy bed, lying on his side peeking out of the safety rails, his thumb stuck in his mouth.
“Good morning, baby boy.” Laura walks forward and picks him up, snuggling him gently and kissing his head. She breathes in the remnants of his baby smell, which are slowly but surely on their way out now that he’s growing a little more.
“Ah Nat! Ah Nat!” he exclaims loudly as he headbutts into Laura’s arm. She swoops him towards the ground as he squeals and then brings him back up with a big smile, before settling him against her body.
“Everyone’s excited for Natasha,” Laura agrees, hoisting Nate higher on her hip. “I know.” She leaves the room and starts down the hall, peeking into Cooper’s room. He’s facing away from her, his back to the door and his head turned towards the window with its slate-grey landscape; the sharp twangs Laura had heard earlier have dovetailed into soft thrums as he picks at the strings of the old guitar.
“Hey kiddo.” Laura leans against the doorway, shifting Nate easily in her arms as he wiggles, because she hasn’t had three kids for nothing. “Come on. You’re going to be late for school.”
“It’s cold out,” Cooper responds scathingly, as if Laura has asked him to do the dumbest thing in the world.
Laura rolls her eyes at his back. “Yes, it is. It’s cold, because it’s winter. You don’t get to stay home unless those white flakes are falling from the sky, remember?”
Cooper doesn’t answer but Laura can see the way his shoulders hunch in tension, and she knows he’s probably slipping into some sort of cranky demeanor.
“I haven’t had enough coffee for this,” she mutters before raising her voice. “Coop. Please. Now.”
Cooper grumbles loudly but slides off the bed, leaving the guitar sitting at a lopsided angle. Laura watches him walk away and reaches over to move the guitar with her free hand, propping it against the dresser.
“I wish your brother was still a baby,” she whispers to Nathaniel with a small sigh as he giggles. “Don’t tell him I said that, okay?”
The door to the bathroom opens and closes, and Laura figures that’s confirmation that her son is somewhat on his way to getting himself together. She puts Nate down on the bed, letting him crawl gleefully over the covers. Assuming he won’t hurt himself for five minutes, she walks to the window and pulls her arms tight against her chest, dipping her head until her nose comes up against the old SHIELD sweatshirt she’s wearing. It smells like stale coffee and baby food but there’s something familiar about it, the same way there’s something familiar about Nate’s babyness, a lingering sense of comfort that she lets herself bask in, alone and surrounded by spare quiet. She keeps her gaze trained on the window, on the wind pulling at the branches of the big tree in the yard, her left thumb rubbing against her wedding ring, fingers absently slipping over the thin band. She tries to ignore the ache that seems to lingers inside her gut, the one she’s suddenly not sure has come from not eating before coffee or from something else entirely.
“Mommy!” Lila’s voice rings out from downstairs, mingling with the bathroom door opening. “I’m gonna be late!”
Laura immediately snaps into parenting mode as if a switch has been flipped, years of packing lunches and herding children and answering questions fusing together into one fluid motion. She forces Cooper down the stairs, settles Nate in his highchair, wipes Lila’s face, cleans up the mess her breakfast has made, and grabs two pre-made lunches from their resting space on the top shelf of the fridge.
“Coop, what are you going to tell Auntie Nat?” Lila asks as Cooper grabs a banana from the fruit bowl.
“Dunno. Probably play and talk about stuff,” Cooper answers, peeling the banana and shoving half of it in his mouth. “Mom, where’s my bag?”
“By the stairs,” Laura answers automatically, following Lila and Cooper into the living room. Lila finishes putting on her boots and coats first, running over to her mom and declaring her intimacy. Cooper’s slower to come say goodbye but before Laura can really worry, he’s walking over for a hug while Laura manages to get in a quick kiss -- a victory if there ever was one.
“I’ll pick you up after school,” Laura says, opening the door. “Be safe. And Coop --”
“Yeah, I know,” Cooper says, grabbing Lila’s hand tightly. “We still gotta be careful and stuff.”
Laura smiles as her kids walk out the door. She waits until they get to the edge of the dirt road, and continues to watch from the window until the big yellow school bus pulls up, Cooper and Lila disappearing inside. It’s quiet again in the house, the only sounds coming from Nate and his random babbling. The silence mingles with the dishwasher starting to hum and the air whistling outside, gusts shaking the silver wind chimes with a fury usually reserved for big storms. Laura shivers internally; she doesn’t mind being home alone most days now that it’s been years and she’s used to the farm, but there are always times that it feels bigger and lonelier.
She walks back into the kitchen where her youngest son is playing with cheerios and smiling his big, semi-toothed grin that Laura can’t help but smile back at. She decides to take advantage of the quiet morning, grabbing her phone and connecting her bluetooth to the new speakers Clint had recently put in. In quick succession, Abba starts blasting into the room, and Nate claps his hands in joy.
Laura starts to feel a little calmer as she starts her morning routine. She cleans the dishes that her children have haphazardly shoved in the sink and brings the latest load of laundry into living room to fold after moving Nathaniel to a small play mat. Lowering the music on Abba, she grabs a remote and finds an in-progress episode of Paw Patrol which, upon raising the volume, has Nate reacting as if someone has fed him ice cream with a million sprinkles. Laura finds herself feeling thankful that she can still appreciate the small and genuine moments of innocent childhood after countless moments of trauma and worry, and satisfied that at least one part of her life is under control for the time being, she starts folding clothes until the cell phone that’s sitting on the side table -- the one she always keeps in close range when she’s around the house -- starts to ring. Laura picks it up, glancing at the clock.
“I know.” Natasha sounds out of breath and more tired than usual. “I’m sorry. I’m usually watching the clock like a hawk.”
“I hate when you use that term,” Laura says, making a face at the window. “What was it now? A bomb? An undercover raid?”
“A weapons heist,” Natasha says, entirely practical and casual as if she’s telling Laura she’s been held up because she got stuck in traffic. “But we got ‘em good, if I do say so myself. How are you?”
“Okay,” Laura says, looking at her son who has crawled to the edge of the television stand and planted himself in front of the screen. Suddenly, she’s too tired to be concerned about the fact that he’ll probably be the only kid in her household who will need glasses full-time, despite birthing two avid readers who spent most of their childhood sticking their noses in books under the covers with only the aid of flashlights. “Are you sure everything’s okay?”
“I called you, didn’t I?” Natasha asks lightly. Laura bites down on her lower lip.
“And you’ll be home later?”
“The usual monthly check-in,” Natasha confirms. “I don’t know how long I can stay, though.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Laura says, trying to keep the annoyance out of her voice. She stops and takes a breath, letting it out slowly. “I’m sorry. I know you’re trying...and I know it’s hard. I hate that I’m like this.”
“You think you have to apologize?” Natasha asks, a tinge of amusement coloring her voice.
Laura laughs against her will, hating how susceptible her emotions are after all these years. “No, I know I don’t. I just...I hate this. I hate how long it’s been. I hate that you can’t come home.”
Natasha remains quiet and Laura’s heart leaps into her throat, though she refuses to let it go any farther.
“You can’t come home, right?”
“Not yet,” Natasha says carefully, her voice guarded, as if there’s something she’s not saying. “There’s still some things I need to do. There’s still people out there that could hurt you. And us.”
Laura nods at the wall, watching Nate bang his hands against the television screen. “You do know we’ve been okay for the past six months, right?”
“And you do know that Ross checks in with Rhodey every week to see if he can find us, right?” Natasha counters. “This isn’t ideal, Laura. I know it’s not. But this is not how it’ll be forever.”
“Right.” Laura sits down and Lucky trots up to her, placing his wet nose on her lap. Laura brushes a hand against the dog’s head. “Remember when you used to come home and disappear and then you wouldn’t show up for months at a time?”
“This is worse?” Natasha asks, even though Laura knows she knows the answer.
“Definitely worse. Please stay safe.”
“I will,” Natasha promises. “See you soon.”
The call is too short but it’s nothing new; she’s used to short calls and she’d rather that Natasha found the time to check in than not check in at all. Still, despite knowing the drill, she finds herself feeling sad, a curiously morbid depression gripping at the corners of her heart.
“I see doggie!” Nate cries gleefully at the television. He flops back harmlessly onto his diapered bottom, oblivious to the stress and turmoil currently lending itself to Laura’s brain. She takes in the sight, letting herself take stock of the present as Lucky trots over and starts licking the side of his face.
“Let’s get you dressed for the day before I get even more stressed out,” Laura suggests as she bends over to pick him up, smoothing down his unruly light hair. She takes his laugh as agreeing with her words and walks back upstairs; changing his diaper and getting him dressed properly only takes less than a minute because a third child not only meant another round of diaper buying and baby proofing, it also meant that her and Clint were changing diapers one-handed while on the phone or talking to each other across the room.
“There are are,” Laura declares as she helps Nate stand on the dresser, his tiny legs wobbling under his plump body.
“Kind of disappointed that he doesn’t have my balance.”
Laura turns, smiling at Clint leaning against the door frame and only a little annoyed she hasn’t picked up on his footsteps. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Not long,” Clint says, pushing away from the wall and walking forward to drop a kiss on her head. “Got your bagels.”
“Thanks,” Laura says, turning to kiss him back. “But I’m beginning to think your nice gesture to get up early and leave me with three kids was just a ploy to not have to deal with Cooper’s attitude.”
Clint smirks. “It kinda was. But I did walk the dog for you.” He takes Nate from her arms, pretending to bite his son’s ear as the baby giggles. “Did Nat call?”
“Right on schedule,” Laura says, throwing the dirty diaper in the trash can. “Well, almost right on schedule. You know, I thought I’d be used to this now. It’s been two years, but --”
“But, it’s been two years,” Clint breaks in with a sigh. “I know.”
It’s not that they didn’t talk about it or think about it, because they did -- it had been a long, hard conversation, one that had come with fighting and aggravations and with the caveat of Natasha going off to join Steve meaning that she was more or less required to make frequent visits. Clint catches Laura playing with her ring and reaches out with one hand.
“Hey, you’re making dinner tonight, right? Spaghetti?”
Laura knows exactly what he’s doing and she’s actually grateful for it, because he could have easily called her out for moping or overthinking. She nods.
“Lila’s already counting the hours, by the way.”
“Like that’s surprising,” Clint mutters. “We’ve established that on a scale of one to ten, our daughter would rather follow Natasha into battle rather than her own father.”
“If it helps, you’re still the person she talked about at parent appreciation day,” Laura offers, reaching for the baby. Clint lets her take Nate with what Laura notices is reluctance, and she gives him a curious look. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Clint says wistfully. “Just...he’s getting so big.”
“Babies do that,” Laura says with a small smile. “Come on, I’ll get you some coffee and maybe you can figure out what you’re doing with the barn loft.”
“Does that mean I’m off school pick-up duty?” Clint asks hopefully.
Laura rolls her eyes. “Don’t push it, Hawkeye.”
The problem with everything happening so fast is that Natasha doesn’t really have a chance to comprehend it until she stops moving.
Surrounded by the remaining members of the Dora Milaje and a battlefield full of dead and injured Wakandans, she sits down on the trunk of a half-turned up tree, wincing as exhaustion and pain hit all the bones in her body. Natasha raises her head, blinking warily into the bright sunlight; Steve is still sitting alone by Vision’s broken body and Thor has wandered off in a daze and Bruce is attempting to extract himself from the Hulkbuster with seemingly futile results. Rhodey is simply staring at the ground, as if he’s trying to figure out where everyone has disappeared to.
Clint, her mind thinks in a panic, some part of her exhausted state shoving clarity into her brain. Clint, Laura, Lila, oh god, Laura --
Okoye stands before her using a voice that sounds tired and worn, cracks fissuring underneath the firmness of her words. Natasha looks up and instantly sees herself, so many years of trying to hold it together while everything is falling apart, and her heart aches for the suffering that she knows hasn’t even started to settle in for her.
Okoye smiles tightly. “If you do not mind, I would like to take a look at your injuries.”
“I think I’m okay.”
“Please,” Okoye says almost too desperately. Natasha opens her mouth to object again but decides against it and nods, shifting while Okoye bends down in front of her. Natasha pulls off her boots with a grunt, biting her tongue to hide her discomfort. It takes a few moments to unhook the buckles and snaps of her suit but eventually, she gets the outer vest open, revealing a thick unitard stained with dark splotches. Okoye leans forward, pressing two hands against it.
“You are hurt,” Okoye observes as she puts two fingers on Natasha’s ribs, when Natasha can’t help the gasp of pain that accompanies her touch.
“I’ll be fine,” she deflects automatically, ignoring Okoye’s look of worry. “It’s not the first time I’ve been knocked down. I heal quickly.”
Okoye frowns. “You are sure you do not want some medical attention? We can at least give you something for your injuries.”
Natasha swallows, looking around at the carnage spread before her. “I don’t suppose you have something in Wakanda that passes for alcohol while I get that medical attention, do you?”
Okoye gives her a small smile. “They say our wine is better than anything you could find in all American countries.”
Natasha smiles back. “In that case, I guess getting checked out wouldn’t be so bad.”
She leaves her uniform undone but puts her boots back on, allowing Okoye to help her up and hold her arm as they walk across the field. Natasha knows what the Dora Milaje is doing -- busying herself by fixing and helping, taking stock of what she can control in a moment where everything seems to be spiraling painfully out of whack -- and she feels achingly sympathetic. She wishes she could offer some measure of comfort or advice, but realizes she has no idea how to even address the situation at hand. How do you confront the idea that in a snap of a finger, people you cared about were simply gone?
The idea of wiping out half the universe had honestly seemed laughable. In one sense, it was the biggest threat they’d come up against in their entire history of avenging and yet even while they were fighting Thanos and valiantly (but hopelessly) losing, Natasha had felt like the stakes hadn’t been that much higher than anything she’d come up against in the past. Maybe it was the familial grounding instilled in her by Clint and Laura, but things that were otherworldly never seemed so intense to her as they did to her teammates -- not that she didn’t take things like aliens coming down from space seriously.
But now she has to figure out how to wrap her brain around the fact that people are gone -- just gone. People she had laughed with and shared memories with, people she had fought with and cared about. She had spent months and years with Sam on the run, learning all the small things about him that she would come to respect and even roll her eyes at -- and now he was gone, as if he’d never existed. Wanda had become as close to her as she knew she was to the Barton family and by default, she felt like she had gotten to know Vision as well. Natasha chokes up thinking of Vision; not a casualty of Thanos’ finger snap genocide but a casualty all the same, of Wanda, who she had spent the past two years watching in the absence of Clint being on the field, checking in and making sure she was handling everything okay, from relationships to food to safety -- Wanda was gone, nothing but a pile of ash and dust.
“Come,” Okoye says, leading her up the field and into one of the buildings that hasn’t been ruined by the attacks. Natasha is about to ask how she’s going to get help here; the building itself looks fine but inside, it looks like a tornado has demolished most of the equipment. Natasha steps cautiously around broken glass as Okoye points to a part of the dust covered floor, and Natasha watches as she moves her hand over air. The space in front of her transforms into a shimmering blue and then two doors open, revealing a pristine underground laboratory.
“You did not think that we wouldn’t be prepared if anything happened to our country, did you?” Okoye asks slyly as she walks down recently materialized stairs. Natasha follows and sits down slowly on a vacant chair, finally removing her boots.
“Lie down,” Okoye instructs. For once in her life, Natasha doesn’t care to bite back about being ordered around despite respecting the Dora Milaje to an extent that her old teachers would probably laugh at. She stares up at a hologrammed ceiling that is definitely not the ruined floor of the lab that she had walked into, lying still while Okoye moves a wand over her body and then translates whatever she’s scanned of Natasha’s injuries to a screen that’s appeared in front of her. Natasha closes her eyes, trying to zone out while attempting to keep her brain from flying in ten different directions.
Clint had been home, that much she knew. In the five seconds that she had to understand what happened, she had never been so glad for house arrest. But how far-reaching did Thanos and his consequences go? He had spoken about balancing scales. He could have been bullshitting about the “half the universe” part of his threat, but if he wasn’t…
If he wasn’t...
And anyway, Clint was far away. He was nowhere near the battle where everyone had disappeared in front of them. Clint couldn’t be -- Laura couldn’t be --
No, she decides, taking another deep breath. He had to be okay. But if Thanos had affected everyone, it was random, all of it. And there was no reason why it was Bucky and not Steve, why it was Sam and not Rhodey. It could be Cooper, it could be Lila, it could be Nathaniel. It might not have been any of them, or it could have been all of them, or one of them...and if it was...Natasha knows there’s absolutely no way to know who in her life has been affected unless she leaves Wakanda, and she doesn’t think that’s much of an option at the moment.
“Do you remember the last time we talked, Miss Romanoff?”
Natasha opens her eyes and smiles grimly, because she has a feeling Okoye isn’t talking about half an hour ago on the battlefield. “Yes,” she admits after a beat. “After Lagos. You were kind enough to meet with me so we could talk about what happened.”
“I only went because I felt like it would be a disservice to my king and my country if I did not act cordial,” Okoye says levelly. “It is not in the realm of the Dora Milaje to brush off civility.”
“I appreciated it, you know.” She inclines her head, catching Okoye’s eye. Okoye doesn’t react but a part of her lip shifts upwards, a barely visible wrinkle in an otherwise stoic facade.
You are good for now,” Okoye says calmly, switching off the hologram and bright light. “We have taken some scans of the bones in your ribcage and it should not be too long until we can set them for you. If you will give us a few moments, Miss Romanoff.”
“Of course,” Natasha says, sitting up. “And thank you.” She puts a hand against her chest, taking deep breaths, and looks up as Okoye hands her a glass of dark red liquid.
“While you wait, and as promised.”
Natasha takes a sip of the wine and swallows, noting how easily it goes down while still keeping its potent taste. She takes in the room again, looking around at how intricately everything is designed. She remembers the last time she’d been in Wakanda -- after the Raft, after Clint had lost his hearing -- and how it had felt cold and uninviting and unfamiliar compared to the warmth of the farm. She had been a little lost then, too, but she could at least try to make herself feel better by thinking of Laura and Clint, and the life that she knew she could always return to. The difference was that this time, there might be no going back to what she knew, if everything really had changed the way Thanos promised.
Natasha glances towards the stairs as a Wakandan, one that Natasha hasn’t yet met, walks slowly towards them looking both worried and confused.
“W’Kabi.” Okoye straightens up.
“We have a situation at the border.”
Okoye frowns and opens her hand, allowing a hologram to emanate onto her palm from the beads she wears around her wrist. “Show me.”
As she speaks, the hologram changes and Natasha inhales a sharp breath at what she sees -- Clint, screaming hoarsely and looking like absolute shit, pounding against the border that has been put back up in the aftermath of the attack.
“He found our border and began demanding that we let him inside,” W’Kabi says as Natasha watches the scene play out in front of her. “After what has happened...I do not know what might be considered a threat and I thought I should come to you.”
Okoye looks at Natasha, her eyes sharp. “This man...he is not familiar to me. Do you know him?”
Natasha swallows. “Yeah,” she says softly, a fresh pain blossoming inside her chest and almost bringing her to her knees. “I know him.”