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Ashes and Dust

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The house is too quiet.

Natasha's not sure the others know she left, took the jet and cloaked it for stealth as she exited Wakanda's air space. She always has an escape route planned in advance, knows that when things go south a window is just as good as a door for a way out. And things went so far south this time, farther than ever. The ones who are left are still back there, probably too dazed to realize she's disappeared again.

So many lost. Sam. Bucky. Wanda. Vision. Even T'Challa, leaving his nation without a king once again. Friends, even family, because the last time everything went bad she held tighter to the people who remained, and now that number has been halved yet again. Natasha doesn't know where to put how she feels, the loss of it. She's never dealt well with emotion, has always found fight or flight better than sitting down and talking things out. It's too huge somehow, a monolith.

The house is too quiet.

The front door is half-open, and when no federal agent hails her as she approached the porch, Natasha draws her weapon out of habit. She's the only one who remained in contact with Clint when he went under house arrest; Steve and Sam have always been friendly with him, but they don''t have the depth of history she does. Did. Does. He's her brother in everything but blood, and she has to be the one to check in on him now. Laura and Cooper and Lila, the other family she'd wandered into.

"Clint?"

The house is so quiet. No television running, no radio going, no chatter coming from the kitchen, not even the sound of the shower running. Natasha leaves the door open, and the silence gives the familiar furniture a strange cast, as if she's stepped onto the set of a play that hasn't begun. It's four in the afternoon, and sun is coming through the front window to splash across the living room carpet and the couch. It was an eighteen hour flight to get here, but Natasha has been running on adrenaline since Thanos and his Children finished what they'd started.

"Clint?"

A little louder now, as if he's simply in a room at the back of the house and can't hear her. But how could he not hear her? She's the only thing moving as far as she can tell, and preparedness or paranoia or whatever has conditioned her to watch her back even when she's facing forward. She's in the doorway between the family room and the kitchen now, gun still drawn.

"Laura? Kids?"

Nothing.

"Please."

That's a whisper, because Natasha knows better than to ask for things. Learned it young, the way she was young when the Red Room was all she knew. Clint saved her from that, and she's saved his life more than once in exchange. To pay the debt, and because his recognition of her soul - not that she believes in souls, but if she did - has bonded them in a way that runs deeper than genes, even deeper than love.

"Hawkeye!"

A body slams into her from behind, and Natasha curses herself as her weapon goes flying into the kitchen to clatter against the lower cabinet. But it's almost a relief, because even being attacked is better than the graveyard-quiet of a few seconds ago. She braces her feet against the doorjamb, uses it for leverage to shove backwards hard, and she and her assailant pitch to the floor. The sound of the thud echoes.

His eyes are blank, blasted-looking, but he's armed, and Natasha gets into a fighting stance. She's fought Clint before, mostly sparring sessions or when they're showing off for new recruits. For a second it occurs to her that he's being controlled again, but there's something worse under that, something uglier. Hopefully this time she won't have to crack his skull against the wall.

"Hey, Nat."

He sounds perfectly normal, and she hears Bruce say the same thing to her for the second time. As if he hadn't run away from her for two Goddamned years. Clint's looking at her as if he just barely recognizes her, and there's a cut above his left eye. A single drop of blood is stuck in his eyebrow. He's holding a cleaver, the one from the butcher's block in the kitchen, and she's alternating between looking at that and at his eyes, which are ripping her heart out even if she'd rather die than say so.

"You changed your hair."

Her gunless hand touches the still-unfamiliar blonde, and when she nods and says, 'Yeah, I did," her friend, the first real friend she's ever had, replies, "I don't like it. Red suits you better."

They stand there like that, watching each other in the deafening, howling silence, and finally Natasha makes herself speak. Clint looks like a scared animal and she knows why but he's the only one who was willing to stand for her whether she'd earned it or not. The living room, which she's been in a thousand times, might as well be an alien planet.

"Laura..."

"I saw."

He says it flatly, but his eyes are bright and depthless. The hand not holding the cleaver waves in the vague direction of the barn, and he adds, "I was outside. Working. The damn tractor..."

Clint's throat works as he swallows, and she's just looking at him and it's like ice water, rising slowly from her ankles to her calves before inching towards her thighs. He's her rock, and if he falls apart...

"She said, 'Honey, something's happened to the kids,' and then she just..."

Clint waves his fingers in the air, those bright green eyes fixing on her face, but he isn't looking at her and she knows it. She watched him fall in love, witnessed his joy at becoming a father, and now in the aftermath she's a sentinel to his disintegration. So many lost. So many. How many more?

He looks down at the object in his hand as if he'd forgotten it's there, and then he throws it in a vicious overhand toss at the wall. It makes a chunk! sound as it lodges in the wood, then stays there. He never misses. Natasha doesn't even flinch.

"I ran for the house, tried to...do something, I don't know, but I slipped on the porch and hit my head."

He points at the clotted cut above his eye. "Why?"

"I wish I knew." She's never meant anything more.

He takes a stumbling step towards her, all of his usual grace gone, and half of their friends are dead. His wife and the kids are dead. Clint's familiar arms go around her, and his tears are on her neck and her heart is shattering for his loss. And for her own, because they were hers too, and because out of all of the lost they were supposed to be safe.

It's as though her embrace gives Clint permission to cave in, and he does, his knees buckling until he's kneeling in front of her. He's still got his arms around her, and she's hanging onto his shoulders and fighting hard not to collapse right on top of him. He's screaming his grief into her scarred abdomen, and she's always surprised when she realizes she still knows how to weep.

After a while, they lie down on the floor together, half in and half out of the kitchen. Her gun is still out of reach, but it no longer matters. His arm is loose around her shoulders. Her hand's somewhere north of his stomach. She still hasn't told him all of it, but it can wait. The shadows change, lengthen and deepen as the day grows late. It's hot like relief and cold like shame, because he's still here and she's desperately glad for it. Even in the ashes, even in the dust, he's more family than she's ever had.

"Natasha?"

His voice is sandpaper-rough from all the bellowing, and she's exhausted from fighting and trying to get here. She turns her head without lifting it, looks at him in profile. Around them, the house is quiet.

"Thank you. For still being here."

She looks at the ceiling, and how does he do that? Doesn't matter. While she draws breath, she'll always look out for the people she calls hers. Even if she never says such a sentimental thing out loud. With so much lost, she's going to hold tighter than ever.

"Thank you."